Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest for this episode of the F Word Podcast is Gill Hicks. Gill is an author, musician, artist and mother. She is currently living in Adelaide, Australia but in 2005 Gill was living and working in England when suicide bombers attacked the London transport system. 52 people died that day and many were severely injured, including Gill who lost both her legs in the explosion.
I first met Gill just a year or so after the attacks because we happened to share a mutual friend and because I had heard that whilst she didn’t forgive, she was keenly exploring peaceful solutions to violence to help her to come to terms with and heal from the trauma of what had happened.
So, Gill, it’s really so lovely to speak to again after quite a while. I know you are in Adelaide and it is at least two or three years since we last properly spoke and I think it is 16 years since the London bombings so brutally catapulted your life into a very different direction.
First I want to ask you, Gill, how you are living your life now since being back in Australia for a few years. How do you spend your days?
Gill: Well, first and foremost, I am a very proud mum to my beautiful daughter, Amelie, who is now 8 years old. I still can’t believe where the time evaporates. So, I am doing school runs and there is class representative and go out with all the mums and talk mum things. It is just really quite a very different life than what I was leading when I was in London for, I think it was 26 years that I lived in London.
So a very, very different life here but the one thing that I have actually really, I won’t say enjoyed, but I felt like a lifeline, if you like, to the tentacles out to my old life, is all the work, thank goodness, on computers so everyone that has now discovered Zoom during the pandemic. I just sort of feel very au fait with it all. Well that is how my life is. I spend my time looking at people on Facetime or Skyping or Zooming.
Marina: And I know you have recently won a prize for a really brilliant performance which I saw, live-streamed from the Adelaide Fringe called “Still Alive and Kicking” which is written and performed by you and tells your story, particularly focusing, I think, on the period of time you were in the pitch black, bombed out tube, deep underground in London.
And, it seems the resources you found in those moments, in the midst of that hell, somehow served you and allowed you to survive and create a new life. That was such a brilliant performance. I just was so moved and inspired by it and I just wondered why did you focus, it was so powerful, it really worked by the way, but why did you focus so much on those minutes. I forget how many minutes it was, 20 minutes, an hour, I can’t remember but…
Gill: It was an hour.
Marina: Perhaps you could talk through why you used that and also why that hour, Gill, was so pivotal to what happened next?
Gill: Thanks, Marina.
It has been something for the last sixteen years that I think one of my many quests, if you like, has been trying to understand and really tease apart why I am not filled with hatred or bitterness or seeking revenge. And, I say that from almost a sort of a third person’s view into my life, especially when being a double amputee, I still have many days, months of absolutely overtaken by pain, by being completely incapacitated. So, I have many trigger points that can catapult me back into a situation of feeling utter bitterness from my predicament, if you like, or the infliction.
And, I have just been really fascinated as to why haven’t I gone there. Why am I still filled with such awe of who we are? So I kept coming back to this hour that was literally the aftermath of the bombing. And, what I experienced in that hour and the subsequent hours afterwards, the immediate rescue, I believe really has shaped my second life, if you like. And, for all intents and purposes, I think that what I felt was a real deep sense of the power of human connection can literally move mountains, but I felt wrapped and shielded by almost like an extraordinary unconditional love.
And, it was so powerful and so strong that I have actually spent probably most of the last sixteen years, trying to find ways of describing it, of being the messenger of that experience. Because, for me, I want to be able to shout and scream and say “We are so much better than what we give ourselves credit for”.
And, then I feel that I am walking around on this earth with this great secret of I know how our capacity to love and to heal can transform lives. I have witnessed it and I have been the recipient of it. I have been the recipient of it by literally someone holding my hand and that first happened in the aftermath. So, when it was the survivors and those, who very sadly were coming to the end of their life, we were together.
We had nothing but ourselves and this vast darkness and I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t know a bomb had just gone off. There was no sound. There was nothing. It was just suddenly we were all in this surreal, new world. And, I remember clearly as if it was just yesterday, the instinct of survival was not only for one’s self but it was for us as a collective. That concern for the other was palpable. It was tangible. We were all reaching out for each other.
And, what particularly got to me, given that it was London, is that as commuters on the underground, we were conditioned. We followed the etiquettes of you don’t talk to anyone. You don’t look at anyone. You don’t interact. That is how you commute. And, so to have that etiquette engrained and then something horrific has happened and our reaction is to reach out and help each other and hold on to each other. And, in that holding, it was like both a hope and a reassurance and also a serenity, if I can use that word, because of course there was nothing remotely serene about the horror of that scene. But, there was a serenity between us as people in the connection, in the holding on.
And, then all we could hear was each other’s voices, like a roll call, something that we did to help keep us awake, help keep us aware, help keep us together because essentially we were waiting for we didn’t know what. I didn’t know if anyone even knew we were down there. If anyone was alerted to the fact that something had happened. So, we were just calling out our first names, around and around and around. And, I remember how important it was to hear the name that was always before mine, to know that was my cue and I had to be awake and present because I was listening for my cue in order to say my name. And, that went on for an hour before rescue could reach us.
Marina: And once you were rescued you were taken to St Thomas’s Hospital and I know you have spoken about your time there and I think you even used the word “euphoric” about some of your experiences there, which might be quite hard to understand. “Yes, to be alive”. But, the reality of your injuries must have hit so deep and been such a shock. I would have thought that would have wiped out any euphoria.
Gill: Not at all. Isn’t that crazy! You know, I again remember waking up not knowing what had happened. I couldn’t speak for a long time and I had lost a lot of my hearing. The only mechanism I had to communicate was through my eyes. And, again how amazing we are as a species, that there were all these medical teams that knew exactly what I was trying to say through my eyes and they were responding back to me. They didn’t know if I could hear or not but there was this real sense of I was understood and I was safe.
And, I remember feeling for my arms and that sort of sense of relief that my arms were here. I was OK. I was still Gill in my mind and I did, I felt completely euphoric that I was still here and I knew that I had lost both my legs. And, somehow I just felt that being me and still being here and alive was everything. And, that euphoria stayed pretty high for a long time.
It was actually seven years until I first discovered my bout of PTSD. So, it was completely unexpected and that was triggered through, I had lost my eyesight through a detached optic nerve and that was enough, that was the trigger point for me to just say, “OK, bad things can still happen. I am not immune”. And, I went into a very shocked state of PTSD and quite heightened anxiety after that.
Marina: I would love you to say if you felt that was really important that you should go through that PTSD period after the seven years.
But, before that, I mean I just remember the first time we spoke, you mentioned that on that day, on that morning when you took the tube, you had just thrown on a scarf. You never normally wear scarfs, but for some reason you decided to wear a scarf that day and that scarf because you used it as a tourniquet had probably saved your life because it had prevented the blood flowing.
I just remember you seeing that as great, good fortune whereas a lot of people, and I am sure it would have been me, would have thought “what misfortune to have got on that carriage. Why did I leave the house at that time?” I just wondered if it is part of your personality that you went straight to the thing that was going to buoy you up and give you hope and make you see it as you were meant to live and that was a sign somehow.
Gill: It is so difficult to answer this because I am still very much in the mind of trying to explore exactly the question you asked of the “why”. And, I am still there in believing that it was through my experience of feeling this wrapping of absolute love and intention.
I can’t get past this very real situation where literally I was given an ID bracelet when I was taken to hospital that just said “one unknown – estimated female”. That was a real moment for me looking at this arm bracelet and realising that of course, they didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say my name. I was an unknown person. My skin was completely burned.
I looked at those words on that ID bracelet and thought, “what state must my body have been in” and all of that I think has really culminated in me feeling, even more deeply, around the exception and the exceptional love that I was shown and given and experienced during my rescue and during those early days in hospital, that really have been the turning point because I am then able to look at everything through a different lens of how fortunate am I.
Like you said that I happen to wear a scarf that day. I happened to have this presence of mind to even be able to tourniquet up the tops of my legs. I mean I have never done a first aid course. Anyone that knew me, Marina, would absolutely say, “No, no, no, Gill would not be able to cope being in a situation like that.”
And, I surprised myself. I surprised myself with how calm I was. I think we all did. As I said, I am coming back to that description of the serenity. It wasn’t the chaos that perhaps someone may think. We were very collected, very gathered and very focused on what we all had to do and that was to survive.
Marina: And, as you said, “Life 1 and life 2”. It seems you embraced this new identity with great vigour and enthusiasm, even.
Gill: Well, I felt it. I felt the privilege. I felt the honour. I remember being there in hospital and thinking “OK, what is my purpose. What am I doing because I’ve got this new chance to have a life that I could never have imagined now being disabled, losing both legs”.
I could never have anticipated such a change of path. But, I still felt what an honour it is to be alive and to feel. I can feel everything. I can feel the pain of my injuries. That is a signal that I am alive. I can feel the joy of being here. Of still having my mind. I had some horrific head injuries and once the extent of my injuries started to unfold, I just felt, you said it before, even more euphoria of how amazing it is, that I am actually here. Every day, truly became not only just a bonus but an opportunity of creation of how did I want to design this second life.
Marina: But, that was more of about your own survival, wasn’t it? You were clearly also, incredibly inspired and lifted by, basically, the kindness of strangers in the aftermath of the bomb. How was that for you?
Gill: For me, I was one unknown – estimated female.
I can’t get over the fact that these humble human beings that are the paramedics, that are British Transport Police, that are the Met Police, that are the tube workers, that they would choose to put the life and lives of one unknown’s above their own safety and rush towards a scene where they had no idea whether there would be a secondary device, whether the tunnel walls would collapse.
All that was important was preserving and saving human life and for me, that has been the greatest insight into who I know we are. It is just how do we live like that every day.
Marina: So, fast forward to seven years after the bombing. You said that PTSD kicked in at that point. Do you think that was an important experience to have? Had it sort of been buried and waiting to come out? Did you need to go into the rage and the anger and the despair and the depression?
Gill: So, when I was in hospital I had three visits by the psych team and I remember on the third visit thinking, “OK, they are really digging to try to find out why I am so happy”. And, I remember offering chocolates. I was just sitting there on my bed with bandages still around my stumps and saying “would you like a chocolate!” and thinking, “What are they looking for? Why are they so bothered by me being happy?” And I was trying to explain, look I am genuinely happy that I am alive and I am OK.
So, whether I had to go through something to really feel the depths of it, I don’t know. I would rather not have experienced PTSD. I still carry it to this day. The anxiety sometimes is overwhelming and completely debilitating and they’re things that I find are the only parts of my life I start to feel resentful of. So, I feel resentful of any days where they have been lost to me having an overload of anxiety and not being able to do the things that I want to do.
Marina: I would like to just talk about the 19-year-old suicide bomber from the North of England. I was just wondered how much time you have given to thinking about him. I suspect it is very difficult when the perpetrator kills himself because it means justice, whatever justice means in these circumstances, can never be served and there is no one to hear from. No-one to explain why it happened. No living person on whom to vent your anger. So, I just wondered about your thoughts about this young man.
Gill: We have had many conversations over the years around forgiveness and how I have struggled with the idea of what it is to forgive because, I see him now perhaps more as a representation of something that challenges us as a society, rather than him as a person.
So, therefore I have managed to navigate my feelings towards him, the person, and park any ideas of whether I forgive, whether I don’t forgive, what’s my relationship like with this. It has become this representation in my mind of someone that’s been so susceptible to follow an idea so strongly, that it’s formed a set of ideas that’s created an ideology that he was willing to die for and not only willing to die for, but willing to kill others for.
What a challenge for us all in society to even attempt to unravel that to begin to understand why would somebody do this? Why would they feel so deeply about a supposed cause? I have got to be so careful because the one thing that I have taken myself of a lesson, that perhaps I believe he could have taught me, is to never presume anything about anyone you don’t know.
And, if ever I think about him I think about his presumption and how he was the only person in that carriage that morning that knew what was about to happen. And, at any given time when he caught any of our faces or even looked into any of our eyes, he could have had that moment of empathy, he could have had that moment of choice to say, “What am I doing. These people don’t deserve to die. I haven’t asked them whether they are on my side or whether they are my enemy. I presumed”.
I have always been so cautious since I have given him any deeper thought of his motivations and his actions and the one thing I have taken is to never presume anything about anyone you don’t know. So, I try desperately to never do that.
Marina: While forgiveness may not be on the table, Gill, what about not hating or feeling compassion or even empathy for someone who might have been drawn into violent extremism through having had their mind brain-washed, or just believing things that would seem quite crazy and dangerous?
Gill: I have spent probably twelve solid years working in the field of challenging destructive narratives and really trying to get under the skin of it all. And, for me, I would say whilst I have parked the idea of forgiveness, it’s not even a sense of compassion or empathy. For me, it’s the willingness to understand and I think that is where I would plant my flag. That I would say I am willing to sit at the table to understand.
I think that’s probably as far as I could go with it because to me there’s no anger. There’s no hatred. There’s no bitterness and I think they’re already a great leap towards, not just healing, but finding a way to eradicate destructive ideas turning into actions. I do believe that ideas are powerful but I think we need to have better ideas to challenge ideas. I think we need to be far more challenging with each other as communities, as societies, as humanity, rather than again coming back to this presumption of a black and white situation of I am right, you are wrong. So, for me I am always willing to offer a position of let me understand. And, equally, whilst I am listening to you, I also ask that you listen to me.
Marina: Yes, and I think understanding is absolutely critical and it’s really having a curious mind, isn’t it? There’s no doubt that people who commit heinous acts also are capable of doing great things, of loving, of being loved.
Gill: Well one of the great motivators of extremism is, of course, lined with this thread of righteousness. And, so it’s not actually seen or felt as a criminal action. It’s actually we are in the right by believing Islam and following and wanting to do these actions, rather than we are criminals. I think that when we look at sixteen years on to think that there is still this type of crime, then the pendulum that swings, that’s then the rise of the alt-right and this cancer of hatred and indifference and otherness, really is to the detriment of us evolving and growing I think as human beings.
Marina: I know for several years after the bombing you spoke publicly about the importance of countering violent extremism and about peacebuilding, understanding and building bridges between people of difference and you do less of that now. So, I am just wondering why. Did that take its toll on you? Was there an impact of talking too publicly about it?
Gill: It did several things. I felt that the messages of peace are often met with people feeling uncomfortable. It’s like when you mention the word “love” and I watch people thinking, “Oh she is not talking about love again, is she. Oh, I feel so uncomfortable about that”. And it is the same with “peace” you know. I mention the word “peace” and I would watch people immediately turn off.
And, I just thought that at least the people that you really want to impact, because those who already have a natural desire for a world that comes together, I don’t need to talk to them so much because they’re there and they are working towards it, they practise that. But, it’s the people that turned off that, of course, you want to reach.
I did a TED talk that was then picked up by the American platform of TED and they ended up having to turn off the comments section because it was just vile, absolutely vile comments. And, you know, it does hurt, and it did leave me in a sense of despair of what is it I have to do to get this message out because it is definitely a message that is timeless. It’s definitely one that needs to be heard if not today more than ever. So, for me I went deeply inside, back into my shell.
Marina: Because I used to, perhaps naively, think that someone who had suffered some great trauma and tragedy, however they chose to talk about it, however they chose to heal, the public would respect it and be interested in it and perhaps even inspired by it.
And, yet it seems it almost encourages people to be even more venomous when it is someone. Like yourself, the injured, traumatised victim, talking about it. Do you know why that is, exactly? I mean I am incredulous, really.
Gill: What comforts me is the majority of people, of course, are absolutely writing to me saying, Gill, “Thank you. Your words have changed my life” or “Your actions have changed my life. Thank you so much”. And, if I didn’t have that type of encouragement and acknowledgement, I think it would be very difficult to keep going.
But, I have been puzzled by the negativity. I remember one comment stuck out to me. Someone said, “Virtue signalling much” and I had to go away and google what does “virtue signalling” actually mean. And, when I saw the meaning I thought, “Oh, that’s terrible as if I am preaching from the parapet of this is how you need to live and everyone needs to be these great humans”. And I thought, that’s not what I do at all. I am actually very conscious to not do that. To not say to people you must be great and you must love each other. Not at all.
I think my message very clearly for me, has continuously been everything we need, we already have. And, however you want to interpret that is up to you. Maybe, that is hard for people to imagine if they had had such horrific injuries, they would want to lash out and why haven’t I lashed out. Maybe, it is that. Anger and hate is on the rise, so when you have a message that cuts through that perhaps it is very difficult for people to hear it and to believe it. But, as I said, if it wasn’t for the encouragement of the majority, I think I would find it very, very difficult to continue.
Marina: You were saying before that because of all the negativity and because of the difficulty of this “peace” word, that you went back into your shell to think about how to get the message out. So, I am just wondering, what did you come up with and how are you living your life now.
Gill: Wonderfully, now. I am living in such a picturesque nature spot in Adelaide, in South Australia and my “go to” is the ocean and I just love to sit and stare at the ocean and somehow, I get the answer to the questions I am asking by just staring at this body of water. And, for me, the answer came back of explore how you are talking. Explore how you are communicating. Maybe you need to change the frequency meaning the dial, the tone, the medium.
So, I went back to painting and my painting, which is something I did in life Number One, my painting was completely different. Suddenly, everything, the whole emphasis of every piece, was about communicating the importance of us as a species together as of one humanity and to see each other not as the other but as a collective.
Marina: I noticed with certainly some of your early paintings and the scarves that there was a bit of a black and white theme going on?
Marina: And I wondered if that was intentional?
Gill: Absolutely intentional. That was literally taken from me thinking about the bombers, very black and white mind-set and how really a lot of us do live in that way of us and them. And, I was just so eager to try and find a way of where is the grey, where is that in-between, where is that moment.
I just couldn’t do enough of this painting and I thought I know, I need to make scarves, again coming back to this life-saving scarf that I had on the morning of the bombing. For me, it was just a natural progression of I need the art to be on a scarf because I need people to wear these things to start conversation and that way they can talk to the other by having art as almost the enabler to start the conversation.
And that just progressed and then I wonderfully found music again, again reaching back to the tentacles of Life One, when I was a musician and an artist and I thought I need to go back to move forward in how I communicate. Hence, I have sort of parked the Not for Profit that I had, which was “Mad for Peace”. I still loved the acronym of “MAD” and I thought was it MAD for me now? And, it was so clear. It’s Music, its Art and its Discussion.
Marina: Is there a sort of restorative healing element going into your imagination and living in the present?
Gill: Oh, I can’t even begin to explain it. It was like coming home in the most exceptional way, just that first moment of being back with a canvas. I am lost in it and it was just this moment that I can step away from feeling pain, from feeling that I am having to balance on these prosthetic legs. There was none of it. It was just me, paint brush and the canvas. And, it was just flowing and it was the same with coming back to music
Marina: Everything that I have seen you produce, whether it is your art, your music, your book, your public speaking, it has a tremendous effect and people come away, I think, often having had a fixed thinking changed and have their minds opened.
So, Gill, I think we have covered a lot of ground. Thank you so much to talking to me today on the F Word Podcast. It has just been such a joy to hear your voice all the way over there in Adelaide.
Gill: Ah, Thank you. Thank you, Marina, and wonderful to talk to you as always.
Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.