Marina: Welcome to The F Word – a podcast series which 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. I will be talking fortnightly 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.
So for this episode of The F Word Podcast I am talking to Paul Kohler who in 2014 was savagely attacked in his own home. At the time he was working as an academic lawyer living in South London with his wife, Samantha and their four daughters.
I wanted to talk to Paul because I had read about his story in the press and I was particularly interested in the fact that afterwards he got to meet one of the attackers through Restorative Justice. So I travelled to South London to the house where he was attacked and where he still lives to have this conversation.
I started out by thanking Paul for agreeing to talk to me.
Paul: I am pleased to be here. Thank you.
Marina: If you don’t mind I am just going to go straight in there because we are talking because of something that happened to you, something very brutal and to your family. It is not what anyone should have to endure or what anyone would expect. It was happening when you were having dinner I think one evening?
Paul: We’d had dinner and most of my daughters were out. My wife and I and my eldest daughter were still in the house, the eldest one upstairs with her boyfriend actually at the top of the house and my wife and I were playing a board game together and there was a knock at the door. I went to answer it and thought as I opened the door it was some of my other daughters coming in drunk with their friends as they piled through the door.
But as they passed the door it was in fact four men who started beating me in the hall, initially saying nothing, just attacking me and then as I retreated started shouting “where’s the money, where’s the money”. And so they attacked me.
I knew my wife happened just to have gone upstairs seconds before. So I knew my wife was up in our bedroom. I knew my eldest was at the top of the house with her boyfriend so I simply sort of protected the stairs but then they beat me, beat me, knocked me down and two of them then went upstairs and began to terrorise Sam.
The crucial part of the story I suppose is, they didn’t realise my daughter was at the top of the house. She heard the commotion. Her and her boyfriend had shut themselves in and rang 999 and the police came in 8 minutes and saved my life, I think.
Marina: Just then you called it the crucial part of the story. It sounds so deeply shocking. Can you just kind of explain what happens to someone when four very violent young men just break into the house? Did you go into overdrive, did you think you were in some kind of horrible film? I just can’t imagine what is going on in your brain.
Paul: You almost stand outside of it watching what is happening. It is a strange experience. It’s very, very odd and somewhat out of body. And so, I was knocked to the ground, two of them sat on me. At one point they tried to tape my mouth up. For some reason taking your voice away at that point is particularly disempowering and that gave you or gave me a new burst of strength so I pushed them off and got up and then was knocked down again.
And then it got even nastier, they started threatening me with bringing down a big heavy door on my head. One chap twice showed me what he was going to do as he stood above me and kept saying “where’s the money, where’s the money”. Of course there was no money so I couldn’t tell them and then he was about for a third time to actually make contact just as two police officers rushed through the door. One of them jumped on him.
Marina: And I remember the story because your face was photographed covered in bruises. You looked in a terrible state. It was across the London newspaper, wasn’t it? So it got a lot of press. You got a lot of attention. I just wondered what happened in those next few days and weeks as you were recovering and coming to terms with the trauma but also fending off a lot of media attention.
Paul: Well to the extent we used the media attention, two were caught on the night but two escaped. The other two were apprehended in the end. So we very much used the media attention. The media, you know they like a good photo.
Beyond the press people were incredibly kind actually. After coming out of hospital after a few days people would cross the road come and say how sorry they were. The Polish community were incredibly kind and…..
Marina: You say the Polish community, was that because the four men were Poles?
Paul: Polish nationals. So Polish people in this country felt it particularly, not they should, there was a sort of responsibility and wanted to apologise to me. I remember a Polish cleaner in the hospital coming in just to apologise. I remember a Polish woman coming up to me and asking for my forgiveness so I held her hand and said it wasn’t for her to apologise for her compatriots.
The Polish community in Poland sent me literally thousands of emails and the Polish government were also instrumental in catching one of them. The Polish government sent over two police officers to help apprehend the fourth one working with the community.
Marina: You said the media attention was very helpful at the beginning when catching a couple of the offenders but I think there was an element of the story that you didn’t wholly endorse the way that they portrayed what had happened. Perhaps you could just say a bit about that, Paul.
Paul: I wasn’t happy with some of their approaches. The press tried to turn it into an Englishman in his castle attack by immigrants and so it was used to pump up anti-immigrant, anti EU feeling so much so that it was actually used in a UKIP advertising campaign during the Leave campaign. So, yes, it was misused by the press for their own purposes or elements of the press, not all of it of course and I was turned into the English hero defending his home against foreign invaders. I clearly wasn’t happy with that.
Marina: Did you say something publicly about that?
Paul: I got The Daily Mail actually. I wrote a piece on police cuts informed by my attack. I got them to agree to be writing something about it there so it was actually in the pages of The Mail which had been one of the perpetrators of the anti-immigrant story. I was also given in the victim impact statement in court I was allowed to speak and at that point I again made the point that it had been misused by elements of the press. I didn’t want to be too scathing as the press had also been very helpful but I wanted to make the point that the story had been misused.
Marina: The media wanted to turn it into a very negative story about hate and division and insularity but what happened all these strangers contacting you and offering encouragement and support and that’s where you wanted the focus to be. That’s enormously reassuring and heart-warming in a way but the trauma must have sat with you and your family. Did you talk a lot about it? What about your daughters who weren’t here?
Paul: Bizarrely, because I was the one that was physically attacked I saw myself getting better as I recovered and as the wounds healed. It was far harder for my wife and particularly my daughter to recover because of metal trauma.
My wife was terrorised. In every attack she was made to lie down with her face under a hood. My daughter barricaded in her room which she had known for years as the place of safety. It was suddenly a place where she imagined hearing her parents being murdered is what she thought was happening. She did move out soon afterwards because she couldn’t reconcile the fear she felt when in her bedroom.
Marina: Paul then went on to explain that his daughter had actually moved back home a year later but only after she had a Restorative Justice meeting with one of the attackers in prison along with her parents. Restorative Justice is where a victim gets to ask all the questions from the offender. So like this she was able to re-humanise the perpetrator and no longer see him as this terrifying monster.
Restorative Justice by the way reframes justice. It sees crime as an injury rather than wrong doing and justice as healing rather than punishment. It is a really well researched process that has been shown to increase victim satisfaction and hold offenders accountable even to the extent that it has a real impact on re-offending rates.
Paul, tell us how that happened. Had you heard of Restorative Justice before and how was it introduced to you and how safe was the actual process when it came to it?
Paul: I am embarrassed to say as a lawyer I knew absolutely nothing of Restorative Justice. I was on the radio talking about the attack and saying how I would like to know why they attacked me and a representative of the Charity, Why Me?, heard me on the radio and contacted me and said would I like them to help facilitate a Restorative Justice meeting whereby it might be possible to meet one or more of the attackers? I said, ”Yes, I would” and so a process began that lasted, I think, more than a year to counsel us, to approach the attackers, approach the prison authorities and eventually arrange a meeting between me, my wife and my eldest daughter and one of the attackers.
Marina: Was only one of the attackers willing to take part?
Paul: This is why all of us must never see Restorative Justice as a right for victims because sometimes the perpetrator won’t be appropriate. One of them was thought not to be appropriate. Two others, there was some discussion but in the end it was only the fourth one who they decided to go ahead with.
Marina: I think, is that because when you said appropriate, it is because the attacker, the offender, has to be willing to show remorse and to acknowledge what they have done has been wrong because otherwise it can just re-traumatise victims?
Paul: I think that is right and so the psychological profile is clearly important and yes, you need the perpetrator to participate in the process in a constructive way.
Marina: Did all three of you want the same thing out of it, did you have the same questions you wanted to ask, similar expectations?
Paul: No we didn’t. We had very different approaches and questions. I went in wanting to know why they had attacked me. That is why the charity is called Why Me? that was facilitating it. So I went in wanting to know why they had done it and why they had chosen me.
My wife on the other hand wanted to go in and tell them how she felt. She wanted them to hear from her from her perspective how awful it was.
My daughter, we always thought naively, went in simply wanting to find out how they were going to change their lives and how he was going to mend his ways and we were rather patronising about that. We thought how young, how naïve, and how sweet.
In the end during the course of probably almost a two hour meeting with the perpetrator it emerged that only my daughter’s question was actually an important one because I was never going to find out why they had chosen me because given that it was some gangland attack. There had been reasons, I suspect they had got the wrong house and they weren’t going to divulge details because presumably there were others on the outside who were involved and so I heard nothing really about why it was me.
My wife did tell them, or tell him, how she felt and he said actually he knew already, he knew from her reaction during the attack he knew exactly how she felt.
And bizarrely, therefore, returning to my daughter’s question because he apologised, we then began to interrogate whether the apology was genuine or superficial and, therefore, what was he going to do with the rest of his life became crucially important to judging his bona fides to see whether or not he meant what he was saying. And so the conversation focused almost entirely on how he was going to change his ways.
Marina: And what did he say about changing his ways? What was he going to do?
Paul: He clearly had a tough life, clearly intelligent. He claimed he had fallen into bad ways with drugs and violence and crime and he made the point “I am not going to make superficial promises but this is what he was trying to do”. He had taken English lessons to improve his English for our meeting. He had a child in this country who he feared he wasn’t going to see again because his partner had broken off contact so he was learning how to write in English as well. He was taking classes at the prison. He was trying to mend his ways. Whether within our prison system there is enough to actually get him to where he needs to get I am not sure, but he was making an effort and the honesty of the fact, it wasn’t just a blank promise, gave some credence to what he was saying.
Marina: And how did the meeting with him affect the three of you? Was it very helpful in the way that it so often can be with the victim who feels empowered and more at peace with themselves?
Paul: The fact that my own daughter was hugely held by it. It demythologised the attacker and meant that she soon came back to live in the house and she was no longer afeared as she had been and it is typical to say one was traumatised but I never had a huge amount of trauma. Just the healing process had helped me.
Marina: Then Paul told me something he did which I found really fascinating and he said this was totally instinctive on his part. He came back home after the attack, after about four or five days in hospital, and one of the first things he did was to lay down in each of the positions where he had been attacked so that he could recapture the vista from a place of safety. A vista which didn’t have one or more of the attackers looming over him and that he said was an important part of reclaiming his space and recapturing his home.
Paul: After the attack I walked in and suddenly realised I wanted to do it. Had anyone been watching they must have thought it was bizarre as all of it was very clear and graphic in my mind, so I knew exactly where I had been and it helped hugely.
Marina: What about your feelings towards the attackers? Were you full of anger and fury? Was there any hate?
Paul: I don’t think hate. I am not sure that it was hate. There was obviously anger but more anger on behalf of my family. I think most parents would recognise it’s the thought of your family being subjected to this or the fear or the violation. So it was anger almost on behalf of my family. Obviously there was a degree of anger about the fact that I had been attacked
I didn’t say one thing which I should say about my wife. We must be accurate about this. My wife did not like the process so I don’t want people to think that Restorative Justice always works for everyone. My wife felt annoyed with herself after the process because she felt she had been too forgiving of him and she didn’t want to be and it took her a long while to reconcile the fact that she had ended up being nicer than she wanted to be to him.
Marina: This really reminded me of something a couple of academics in America told me a few years ago, Dr Mark Umbreit and Dr Marilyn Armour, who had both done research into Restorative Justice and they were talking about a paradox of forgiveness in Restorative Justice. Mainly, because it appears the more you talk about forgiveness in a Restorative Justice setting, the less safe people will feel. On the other hand the more you create the right climate and conditions, the more likely it is that forgiveness will happen.
My take away from this is that forgiveness should never be an objective of Restorative Justice but it may well be an outcome. All decent organisations working in this field, like Why Me?, the charity that approached Paul, will make this abundantly clear.
Paul: The charity stressed all the way through you don’t have to forgive, that’s not part of the process. Clearly the fact that me and my daughter had taken that approach might have influenced Sam, but I think it’s more I think, it’s probably Sam’s character in that social setting. She felt the need to be polite to him and she felt in retrospect she shouldn’t have been.
Marina: And with yourself do you find it difficult to say the word forgiveness and what does it mean to you and was it actually forgiveness?
Paul: My wife always tells me I am too forgiving of people. I am not sure I am always calm but my anger soon dissipates, so I am not someone who bears a grudge but we are all different. That’s just my character. Clearly that informs your approach to life. It is not something you can really control.
Marina: It is now several years since the attack. Do you think about it still? Does the family still talk about it? Has it affected the family dynamics in any way?
Paul: We don’t talk about it often. I suppose on the anniversary we always mention it and have a drink and think about it for a moment. Yes, it has changed my life dramatically. This is where, whilst we should regret bad things, we shouldn’t assume bad things therefore have no good consequences so it politicized me.
It made me fight to save Wimbledon Police Station. It got me into politics. So, it changed my life dramatically. I am now a Councillor. I stood for Parliament. None of that would have happened had it not have been for the attack. So, yes it was an awful moment but in fact a huge amount of good came from it. I have a political friend who has been a politician for 30 years. He turned to me ironically and said my god it’s a gift that keeps on giving by which he meant it has suddenly given me a platform that I didn’t have before. It is important to learn.
Marina: I am interested because I talk to you and many victims of trauma, and crime and violence, because I am looking for healing narratives you might say or redemptive narratives, that is a common thing finding the gift in the wound and meaning making. That is a just a common thing with every single story. I found it really fascinating.
Paul: Lots of religious people came up to me and said to me a number of times how religious they thought I was that I had forgiven. I always bristled at that. I am sort of religious but not strongly religious.
But, there was a brilliant article shown me later in The Christian Monitor where a prelate writing about my incident made the point forgiveness is not a Christian value or a religious value. He made the point it was a human value. It is very much of the human condition to forgive rather than something imposed by religious structures and I thought that was very interesting and very true.
Marina: So if I was to ask you your definition because it is interesting that it is a word that no-one really agrees on and everyone has their own thoughts about it. It does cut public opinion down the middle really. There are those who are very affronted by the very notion of it but if I was to ask you what is your definition of forgiveness, would you be able to give me one?
Paul: Forgiveness is all about you reconciling yourself with what has happened. Forgiving the perpetrator is really dealing with your internal issues and ensuring you are no longer embittered by it. So, forgiveness bizarrely, paradoxically, almost comes out of a selfish act whereby you reconcile yourself with the trauma. The consequence of that of course is you forgive them but it is a need internally.
Marina: I think that’s right. I don’t know if you have heard of Eva Kor who was a survivor of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. She always said I forgive not because they, the Nazis, deserve it but because I deserve it. She actually used to call it a magic medicine because it really saved her life.
Paul: That was exactly the point I was trying to make.
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 and finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.
So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.
Next time I’ll be talking to Kia Scherr, a quite remarkable woman, who somehow is able to talk about forgiveness in the context of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that claimed 164 lives including those of her husband, Alan and their 13 year old daughter, Naomi.