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 Mary Foley. I first met Mary just a few years after her fifteen-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was murdered at a house party in East London in 2005. The perpetrator was a young woman called Beatriz who later received a life sentence for this completely unprovoked attack.
I also know Mary because for several years she used to share her story in prisons for The Forgiveness Project’s Restore Programme. Her lived experience encouraged hope and responsibility in prisoners and helped them change the narrative of their lives.
Hello, Mary it is just wonderful to talk to you after what’s been quite a number of years now.
Mary: Hello, Marina.
Marina: You were working with The Forgiveness Project for some years. You were sharing your story about Charlotte and then you decided that telling the story publicly wasn’t serving you well anymore and you decided to stop doing it and I think that you do it very little now. The reason why I am impressed by that is because I think for some people the story becomes their identity and they almost become trapped in the story and it may even become their livelihood and that can become really difficult.
I thought maybe we could just start with why you started telling the story and why you stopped telling it.
Mary: The reason I started to tell it was because I felt that coming to a decision of forgiveness wasn’t just for me, but it was for the world. It was for everybody who may have been in a very hard situation where they found it so hard to forgive. So, I wanted them to know that there is a possibility that you can forgive and it is not always at a particular time you come to that point of forgiveness. It can take some people weeks, months and years, but I wanted the world to know it is possible to forgive.
And, the other thing was Charlotte’s memory as well, to keep her alive and to help me to remember Charlotte. And, if it weren’t for the terrible circumstances that had happened to her, I would have never have experienced the power of forgiveness and release. So that is why I decided to tell my story. Not to get empathy or even sympathy, to be quite honest, but I was astonished by me coming to a place of forgiveness and just to let everybody else know it is possible. It is not an impossibility.
The reason I did stop was because I felt I had gone as much as I wanted to go. That was enough for me and I needed to move on from that and start to look at life again, the community I live in, where I worked. If I had the opportunity to share my story on a one-to-one basis if, you know, people go through things in life and I could share my story, and it may impact that person or help that person. So I just felt it was time to move on in life and just see what happens.
Marina: Was it harming you in any way, do you think?
Mary: I wouldn’t say the word “harm”. What it had done to me, not in a bad way, I kept on reflecting and sometimes visualising her being stabbed and I didn’t like that constant thought of someone putting a knife into Charlotte. But, I wouldn’t say it harmed me. I just wanted to move on from that imagination. Retelling your story all the time and the situation of what happened to Charlotte you have to relive every moment within yourself.
Marina: I am going to ask, if you don’t mind, Mary, just to go back to that time for those that don’t know the story.
Mary: Charlotte was 15 years old. She was getting ready to sit her GCSE exams. She was the normal typical teenage girl really. She loved being with her friends. She loved going out. She had her challenges at school with teachers or other peers, which most teenagers do any way. She was normal. She would come home after school. She would go out with her friends and that was how she was.
She very rarely went to parties. I didn’t encourage her to go to parties. You have to let every teenager decide for themselves what they want to do but I wouldn’t encourage her to do so, because I had gone to parties and I know what I got up to and I didn’t want her to get up to half of the things I got up to! But, she decided to go to this party but I didn’t know anything about it.
She was very close to her dad. Me and her dad had separated a good few years and he just lived around three roads away from us and she often went there for the weekends. And, she had a good relationship with him because I have always encouraged my children. “Yes, I had a good relationship with your dad. What happened between me and him was me and him, but this is your dad. I expect you to respect him and visit him when you can”. She happened to ask her dad, without me knowing, to go to this party and that was that. So she left home on Friday me thinking she had gone to spend the weekend with her dad, which she did, but I had no idea she was going to go the party on the Saturday night.
On the back of this, the whole story was, that she met a young girl and she befriended her very quickly. She was only friends with her for three months. But, the friend had a more streetwise personality, didn’t really go to school. May have been suspended from school. So, she was that type of girl and Charlotte, she just befriended anybody. She would accept you for her you were no matter what she heard. Charlotte was like that. Some people say she was gullible. I was gullible as a teenager so I would accept people for who they are no matter what people say about that person. But, this young lady that Charlotte had befriended or she befriended Charlotte, she had an ongoing feud with another girl and little did I know that was all behind her going to the party.
Marina: So just to add some context here. The girl Charlotte had befriended was called Mauricia and Mauricia was having a feud with this other 17-year-old called Beatriz, who was Charlotte’s killer. As it happened, Mauricia didn’t make it to the party that night but Beatriz did, armed with two knives.
Mary: And, I was at home sleeping with my husband and my two children and then I get a call from a young girl, erratic on the phone, saying, “Are you Charlotte’s mum, Charlotte has been stabbed”. And I couldn’t believe what I heard. So, I sat up on the bed and woke my husband up and said, “Paul I have got this call” and before I finished the conversation with my husband, the police had rung and said your daughter has been in a serious incident and we are coming to collect you.
And, it just felt like you were in another world within that second. What happened before that call from the young girl to getting that call from the police, you were like catapulted to another atmosphere like it wasn’t real, but you are going through all these motions. So, I got into the police car. They were driving really fast so I knew that this was serious. I was asking them questions in the car and they wouldn’t answer me.
We got to the hospital and I saw these young people crying and hugging each other and a doctor came to me and asked me who I was. I explained who I was and he sat me down in a cubicle, like a little room and three doctors came in. When I looked at the three doctors I thought why three, why not one, why not two, why three? And, then within seconds one of them explained that we weren’t able to save her. Your daughter has passed away. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. My eldest was gone. I could not believe it.
Marina: Did you find out what had happened at that point?
Mary: Well no, not at that point because it was all confusing. I was trying to get it to sink in that my daughter had died. I was in shock because I didn’t expect that. No one expects it. So, I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t care what had happened. She was no longer with me. That were my thoughts at that time. She’s gone, you know. She was at home Friday. This is Saturday 1.30/2.00 o’clock in the morning and she is no longer here. My life will never be the same again. It’s going to be different. How different I wouldn’t know. I knew that I had to take one day at a time, one moment at a time, one minute at a time.
Marina: You have a strong faith, Mary. Did that kick in at that point?
Mary: It did. It had to because I read my Bible. You know, not that I am doing good work just for that and bad things wouldn’t happen. Obviously, bad things happen to everybody, whether you are a Christian, you are a Muslim or whatever faith or belief you have. Bad things happen to good and bad people but my faith was like, “Wow, God, she is dead. What happened?”
Marina: So, in the days that followed how did everything unravel and how did you find the resilience to sort of carry on, because you did?
Mary: I just started to talk to God and cried, broken. You can’t describe the feeling. It is like a load has been taken off your shoulders. It’s like the source, the pain, the hurt, they were gradually being taken. It didn’t change the circumstances but you didn’t feel so heavy and like you can’t go on.
Marina: It was a lifeline in a way, was it?
Mary: Yes. God is still my lifeline. He always will be.
Marina: Do you think, probably a stupid question. I was just wondering, without that faith, do you ever imagine how you would have ended up?
Mary: I sometimes do. I was smoking weed before I became a Christian. I was drinking alcohol. I was promiscuous. I was doing all sorts of stuff and I suppose if I didn’t have that faith in God that is the road I would have gone down. I would probably have drunk more, smoked more and done all these things that were ruining my body and my soul. So, I would have gone down that way because all my cousins, my family, that’s what they do. And I don’t judge them for that or anybody who turns to other substances, because that is how they cope.
Marina: Forgiveness and Christianity seem often inextricably linked, so much so that The Forgiveness Project is often mistaken for a Christian led organisation whereas, in fact, we are not. We simply share stories from all faiths, including Christianity.
But, as you know, forgiveness is a very important concept within Christianity with frequent examples presented in The New Testament and there is this notion that I think there is an imperative to forgive others in order to be forgiven by God. Did your faith call you to forgive and where did you find it?
Mary: I think how it rose up in me was because I had decided I wanted to make that move if I am going to be Christ like, not perfect, because I am not perfect. But, if I want to model him and I have read The New Testament and how he was on the cross and he forgave those who killed him. He gave up his life for the entire world. God gave his own son to die on the cross to forgive us of our sins.
So, with that said, how can I not forgive? I know it was the most terrible thing that anyone can do is take somebody’s life for nothing. What did Charlotte do? She didn’t do anything but yet he decided to take her life.
Marina: So that’s an intention isn’t it but it doesn’t mean to say it can be translated into practice, into real true feelings in your heart.
Marina: How did you know it was genuine, heartfelt forgiveness?
Mary: I think going to court and seeing her. The court case lasted for three weeks so it was all through those days. I think as hard as it is to say and for people to understand, it’s looking at the perpetrator. It is looking at Beatriz because she is a human being. Yes, what she does I don’t condone it. Nobody would condone it. So, within myself there was empathy for Beatriz. Seeing Beatriz there. How petite she was. How small. How defenceless, really. Like someone in a cage. As I saw her as a human being, in my mind before I saw her she was this horrible, nasty person.
And, when I started to learn of the things that she had experienced from her background with her parents, her upbringing was terrible, it helped me to look at the human side of Beatriz and what really brought her to that place that she could actually do that.
Marina: Did you ever have a period of utter loathing and rage and murderous, vengeful instincts coming to the fore?
Mary: I wouldn’t take it that far, but yes, I did go through the motion for a while. When it happened, when she plunged that knife into Charlotte’s chest, I was so angry. It was horrible. It was horrible. But would I really want someone to stab her to kill her because of what she had done to Charlotte? No, I wouldn’t. In my heart of hearts I wouldn’t.
If there was any rage there it was being suppressed and praying kept it out of me, cause the more you suppress something eventually it will blow out. But now it has been many, many years and I haven’t blown out! So, it just happened bit by bit naturally. It was just happening and I realised in my thoughts I didn’t hate her. In my heart, I didn’t hate her. It was a process.
Marina. Well, how did that feel in your body?
Mary: It felt relieving. It felt good. It felt this is the right way. That is how it felt.
Marina: There is another Mary who I know, who is called Mary Johnson. She is an American and her only child was murdered. And, she is really interesting because like you she has a very strong faith and like you she felt called to forgive.
So, I went on to tell Mary about Mary Johnson. So this Mary is from Minnesota in America and her son was 20 when he was murdered by 16-year-old Oshea Israel. Mary Johnson also said she had forgiven Oshea soon after her son was killed.
What happened was that when Oshea’s mother gave her statement in court at the trial she asked the victim’s family to forgive her son. So, Mary believing it was her Christian duty to forgive, said she had and indeed, thought she had.
But years later she realised that this was in fact premature or pseudo forgiveness and I am quoting here what she told me. She said, “Actually, I hadn’t forgiven. The route of bitterness ran deep. Anger had set in and I hated everyone. I remained like this for years driving many people away”.
And, it was a very long time later when she met her son’s killer face to face at a Restorative Justice meeting in the prison where he was being held, that she understood what it meant to truly forgive.
And she described something that is perhaps more akin to Mary Foley’s experience in that as she got up to leave and she had even just hugged Oshea, she said, ”I felt something rising from the soles of my feet and leaving me. From that day on I haven’t felt any hatred, animosity, or anger. It was over”.
So, coming back to my conversation with Mary Foley, I put it to her that unlike Mary Johnson in America, her forgiveness had not been premature, pseudo or duty-bound.
But, that isn’t the case with you and I imagine, and tell me if I am wrong, that you could feel the physical effects of forgiving and you weren’t driving people away.
Mary: No. In the early days I wanted people to be around me because I didn’t want to be hard. I know how easy it is for our hearts to become very hard, very distrusting and more unforgiving. So, I wanted to feel the human touch, human love, human comfort around me to keep me human. And, it was people around me.
Marina: Did you talk about it to your husband?
Mary: I did.
Marina: Did you talk about it to Charlotte’s father?
Mary: Charlotte’s father, I didn’t talk to him about it because he was not in that place and unfortunately he is still not at that place.
With my husband, Paul, I spoke to him about it and he understood because we are both of the same faith but he hadn’t come to that place either, of the wicked act. He hadn’t come to that place yet.
Marina: And your other two children?
Mary: Priscilla doesn’t really remember Charlotte. We went to the cemetery in April on the anniversary of her death and yes, she looks at the gravestone but she doesn’t remember a lot about Charlotte. She was very young. Dion, the eldest, he doesn’t really talk about it so I don’t know where he is at, at the moment.
Marina: He has never stood in your way or said I don’t agree with this?
Mary: No. Maybe he doesn’t understand. My family didn’t understand. People don’t understand. Even at my workplace they didn’t understand when I got the opportunity to share with them. Everybody knows at my workplace but conversations happen.
Marina: You said right at the beginning you wanted to share this story of forgiveness to show others that there was a different path to hatred, bitterness, despair, whatever you call the opposite of forgiveness. What did that give to you because I know you came with The Forgiveness Project to talk in prisons and share your story with prisoners, some of whom were incredulous, again like other people that you met, but also inspired and often changed by the story they heard. Why was it important speaking to prisoners?
Mary: I think, yes, they are prisoners but yet they are human beings that made bad choices. And, when I looked at Beatriz and her lifestyle and what she had been brought up in, volatile home, got chucked out of school, bullied at school. All of these things can sometimes make a person into the monster that they eventually become or it can break a person. They cannot take much more of this life anymore.
So, when I looked at Beatriz like that I looked at everybody like that. What made you do the wrong things that you are not supposed to do? You end up in prison whether it was murder, whether it was rape. Don’t get me wrong it’s not excuses for the act because people do have to make choices, but what got you to that place to do these evil things?
And, that is why I wanted to go into prisons to give people hope and say you are still human. Humanity is still there in you even though you may have made all these wrong choices.
Marina: Yes, it really worked and what was so powerful was that you would often bring in some letters that you had received from Beatriz. So, I wondered how those letters actually started. How did that come about and how long did they last? You wrote a couple. She wrote a couple.
Mary: Yes, that was my pastor who wrote to her and he asked for my permission back then if she could write to me and I said yes. So, I received a first letter and it was very apologetic. She was so sorry what she did and then I wrote back to her to let her know that I had forgiven her. And, then she wrote back to me asking me what Charlotte was like, which I found really surprising. I then wrote back to her letting her know what Charlotte was like and then she wrote back to me and surprisingly, in her letter, on that reply she said, “Charlotte is like me. She was like me.” Maybe not the violent side of Beatriz but her personality, her shyness. I had let her know that Charlotte was a bit shy and some of her struggles. So, she sort of looked at Charlotte like she was like Charlotte and if it were not for Mauricia, maybe they may have become friends.
Marina: That was really the target that night?
Mary: Oh yes, Mauricia was the target. It wasn’t Charlotte but I believe, as I reflect over the years, that Beatriz must have on one occasion seen Charlotte with Mauricia and may have felt threatened and thought maybe Charlotte would have done something but Charlotte didn’t do anything that night.
Marina: When she said I am just like Charlotte how did you respond to that?
Marina: There is a big difference as well, isn’t there?
Mary: A massive difference. How you are brought up and how Charlotte was brought up. I couldn’t see the similarity, I just couldn’t see it. But I thought hey, if you could just take some good out of Charlotte’s personality and see a bit of that good in you well, so be it.
Marina: What was Charlotte’s personality like?
Mary: She was bubbly. She was very loving. She was very caring. She loved people and she would accept you for her you are.
Marina: Did she guide you then in a way towards your loving response.
Mary: I think she did because of who she was. She was kind. She was generous, not perfect, she had her challenges, even with me at home, but her personality and the love she had for people.
Marina: So, there came a time when I got a call from someone who had worked with Beatriz in prison and Beatriz has reached out to say would you meet her. I remember you had always entertained that possibility and even desired it at one point, but it was really interesting to me and maybe to you, that actually when the opportunity came, you decided, no, you didn’t want to do that.
You felt like a very strong and the right decision somehow but we never talked about that, actually. I would really love to know what was going on for you then. You faced the reality of the possibility and the answer came back, no, this isn’t right for me.
Mary: At that time I had forgiven Beatriz but I don’t think I was ready to meet her, but today, I would be ready to meet her having moved on in my life and done so many different things, I could meet her now.
But at that time, also my family as well, it wasn’t just about me meeting her. Paul, my husband. Priscila, Dion, my cousins. They are not the prominent reason why I didn’t meet her but I took a lot of things into consideration.
Marina: Yes, I think that is really important because it impacts on everybody that decision and actually even forgiving can be something very isolating.
Mary: Oh, it was. It definitely was. I think my cousins and people were very angry with me because I had chosen to forgive.
Marina: That must have been tough.
Mary: It was. It was tough but they were not in my shoes.
Marina: Do they understand now?
Mary: I think they do because I am a Christian and because I have chosen to forgive. Yes, they knew my life style so yes, they have now but at that moment even Charlotte’s dad didn’t understand. They may have had a bit of resentment against me.
Marina: As I said earlier, we share stories from people of all faiths and none in order to explore processes of forgiveness. I have always been keen to frame forgiveness in a way that doesn’t come across as only faith-driven and worried perhaps that it would become exclusive and that people who hear about others forgiving will think, “ Oh well I can’t do that, that’s not for me that’s impossible you have to have a faith and I don’t have one”.
Obviously, at the same time, I don’t want to deny the reality of experiences of people like yourself, Mary, but do you think your forgiveness is different from someone’s forgiveness who does not believe in God? Is there a difference?
Mary: I don’t think there is. I have known many people who don’t have a faith in God or in any thing and they have had bad things happen to them as children and they choose to forgive and move on in their life. But, that pain is still there, the trauma is still there, but they have moved on in life. They don’t have a faith. They have got children. They are married.
But, as I said the pain and the trauma is still there but with me but It doesn’t make me any better than anybody else because I have got a faith. But, that pain and that trauma that I experienced with Charlotte is not there. It’s been taken away.
Marina: Do you think it can be taken away if you don’t have a faith?
Mary: I think some people do suppress it, ignore it, don’t want to deal with it and move on. Some people struggle. Some people do do that.
Marina: But you were given a helping hand in a way you feel.
Mary: I was, because I don’t go back and have regrets. I haven’t got that pain. I haven’t got that trauma and reliving it constantly. Not that I ignored what has happened to Charlotte, but there is a possibility some people can do that. How they do it, I don’t know.
Marina: I have reflected a lot on what Mary said about her trauma having been completely wiped away and I wonder if it is linked to her feeling no sense of shame for what happened, as so often it is the shame associated with unresolved trauma that prevents trauma from being wiped away. I know this may not make logical sense because if a deep hurt is inflicted on you, why should you be the one feeling shame. But the thing is victims do. Those who have been burgled blame themselves just as those who have lost children to murder so often are weighed down by guilt not having been able to save them.
So, there is something that is deeply resolved about Mary’s experience. She has found peace through sharing her story with others, through finding meaning in compassion and understanding and through trusting in prayer. And, this also reminds me of what the British Prison psychiatrist, Dr Bob Johnson, said. He says, “The antidote to trauma is trust”.
So, coming back to the Podcast, I finally ended up just asking Mary what she meant when she talked about forgiveness.
So, if you were to describe or define forgiveness, how do you do it? You\ve mentioned empathy that I think is an important ingredient, but it is more than that isn’t it?
Mary: Letting go. Letting go of that bitterness and anger and resentment for yourself. That person has to live with the atrocious acts they may have done to other people and made them bitter and angry and unforgiving but why should you put yourself in that place.
So, I describe forgiveness as letting go, having life for yourself, for your family, your loved ones, your friends. Being free. Freedom. Freedom of your mind. Freedom of your soul, your emotions, your heart. Yes, freedom.
Marina: Well I think that is a lovely way to end, actually, Mary, because freedom actually is quite a big theme throughout these Podcasts.
So, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s just been such a great pleasure and honour to hear your story again, Mary.
Mary: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s been lovely.
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.