To hell and back: Revisiting

In an extract from his new book, John Marzillier meets people who have returned to the scene of their trauma.

On 27 August 1979, off the west coast of Ireland on a lovely sunny morning, a small boat, Shadow V, was blown to pieces by a 5lb gelignite bomb placed under the deck and activated by remote control by members of the IRA. Lord Mountbatten was at the helm. Also on board were his daughter and son-in-law, Patricia and John Brabourne, two of their children, 15-year-old twins Timothy and Nicholas, John’s mother Lady Brabourne, and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old Irish friend of the family. The bomb killed Lord Mountbatten, Lady Brabourne, Nicholas Knatchbull and Paul Maxwell, and seriously wounded Timothy and his parents. The IRA regarded it as a blow struck against English oppression in Ireland. To the bereaved families it was a devastating tragedy, the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of innocent people on a family outing to check on the lobster pots around the coast. This was no ordinary tragedy, if such a thing exists, for the Mountbattens were relatives of the Queen and the shock of the outrage reverberated around the world. Those of us who were living at that time can recall the event, even if, like mine, one’s recollection of it is hazy. I recalled that Lord Mountbatten had been killed but little else. I did not know anything about the personal consequences to the family, and had it not been for a meeting with Tim Knatchbull over thirty years later I doubt if I would ever have known anything more.

I first came across Tim at the 2010 Oxford Literary Festival when he talked with great candour about the trauma he had suffered. He had just published a book, From a Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, in which he gave a detailed account of the events leading up to the murders, as well as recounting his experience, decades later, of returning to the west coast of Ireland, a journey that was as much psychological as it was geographical. I bought the book and asked Tim if he would grant me an interview, which he kindly did. I was interested to talk to him about several aspects of the trauma he had been through, the huge change it had made to his life at a young and impressionable age, the loss of his identical twin, Nick, and the long process of mental and emotional recovery that he went through. But most of all I was interested in his conscious decision to return to Ireland, and what that had meant to him.

In this chapter I will consider what may be gained from revisiting the site of a trauma and what the risks may be. As far as I can discover, there is no psychological research specifically on revisiting; that is, there are no studies evaluating whether or not returning to the trauma site is either beneficial or detrimental. In truth, it is difficult to do such research. There are so many confounding variables. Much depends on the nature of the person, the type of traumatic experience, the stage the person has reached in his or her recovery from the trauma, whether or not he or she is undergoing treatment, whether or not support is provided, what expectations the person has with regard to revisiting, and what actually happens during any revisiting. However, what we know clinically about the psychological recovery from trauma suggests that revisiting a trauma site could be an important part of the process of moving on, a way of putting the original trauma to bed – of achieving ‘closure’, to use an American term.

During 2003–4 Tim Knatchbull carried out a carefully planned series of visits. These proved enormously helpful to him, as I will describe. However, returning to where the trauma took place is not always beneficial. There is a misconception that the traumatized person should quickly ‘get back on the horse’, to use an old saying. In my work with the police, I saw a young WPC who had been in road accident in which the driver of the police car she was travelling in lost control at speed, going over a hump-backed bridge. The WPC injured her back and suffered considerable pain and anxiety. She told me that, a few days after the accident, on the advice of her GP, she returned to the accident site. But this had not helped her. The advice may have been well intentioned but it was psychologically inept. Revisiting the site of a trauma is not something that should be undertaken without careful preparation. Even more important is finding the right time to do it, if it is to be done at all. A few days after the trauma is often the wrong time, as the person is usually still suffering physical and/or psychological effects. There is a risk of making matters worse.

Revisiting is one component of certain trauma therapies (sometimes called ‘exposure’ or ‘reliving’ therapies) in which the trauma sufferer is exposed to trauma memories in order to aid the processing of those memories. At some point in the treatment the therapist and client may return to the trauma site together, often with beneficial results. Some trauma sufferers return of their own accord. This can be part of a self-help programme, as it was with Tim, or it may simply be a matter of necessity. George, who was in the 2005 London bombings, told me that he went back on the underground just five days after the explosion. He did not want to lose his job, which required travelling to properties all over London. The underground was the best way of getting around and so he forced himself to go back, getting through the initial fear. For a long while he found travelling on the tube difficult. He remained apprehensive, alert to possible terrorists amongst the passengers, sometimes leaving a carriage if someone looked suspicious.

Here, I will present the stories of two exceptional people who, for different reasons and at different points in their lives, made a deliberate return to a place where they had undergone harrowing traumatic experiences. Their stories illuminate the human desire for making sense of difficult and painful experiences and to mould those experiences into something new.

From a clear blue sky: Tim’s story

When Tim and his family left Ireland shortly after the bombing, it seemed unlikely that any of them would return. The family would be too much at risk of another attack. But Tim thought otherwise. In the car leaving Classiebawn Castle, his late grandfather’s holiday home, he announced that they would be back. His siblings told him that this would be impossible, but he stubbornly held on to the belief that he would one day return. It is not hard to understand why Tim should want to return. He had lost his beloved twin brother and because of his own injuries and those of his parents, there had been no opportunity properly to say goodbye to Nick. The west coast of Ireland had been a magical place for the brothers; it must have been difficult to imagine that all of that was gone forever. The effect of the atrocity was felt most directly by the people immediately involved, by those who had been killed, those injured and their relatives and friends. But the bomb also exploded a childhood, a happy way of life and, in Tim’s stubborn determination to return, there very probably lay a wish to recover that.

Tim revisited Ireland at two different times in his life. The first time was in 1987 when he was twenty-two and had finished his degree at Cambridge. In his book he described how he was feeling at the time.

I decided to make 1987 a gap year in which I would travel and work. I also wanted to return to Ireland for the first time since the bomb; I did not know what I would do there but I felt drawn to half-developed thoughts lingering at the back of my mind. I had an uneasy feeling about the hole in my life left by Nick’s death. I was aware that I needed to sort out my incomplete and confused emotions but I did not know how to proceed or how to explain my feelings to others.

He took an Aer Lingus flight to Shannon and had the impression of ‘landing behind some form of invisible barrier, a sort of emotional Iron Curtain’. On his own he drove around, visiting once- familiar places. Throughout he felt a cold, raw numbness. He was aware that painful feelings were somewhere beneath the surface, but he could not get in touch with them. Having just received his pilot’s licence, he hired a Cessna and flew out to the island of Inishmurray and back over Classiebawn. Later, he drove to the castle where he had stayed as a boy and viewed it from a distance, all the while feeling numb. In my interview I asked Tim about this first visit.

I just couldn’t make sense of the place. I didn’t have the support, didn’t know how to do it, didn’t have the courage of my convictions, didn’t have the wherewithal. Apart from anything, my life wasn’t set up for me to be there for a week at a time and I knew that I wasn’t making the progress that I needed to. And in 1987 people were still shooting and blowing people up.

Tim knew, emotionally, that he needed to revisit Ireland, but his return in 1987 did not lead to any catharsis or other emotional change. It is possible to see, with hindsight, that this revisiting came too soon in his life, when his feelings were still uncertain and confused, and when he had not established himself in a career or long-term relationship. He returned on impulse and alone. Though the return did not achieve what he had hoped, he wrote that it had ‘started something difficult but necessary’. It reinforced in him the conviction that he needed to return for something important – though, at that time, he had no idea what that might be.

The next time Tim returned to Ireland was in August 2003, sixteen years after his first visit. This was the start of a series of many short trips over a year in which he revisited places and people, allowing memories to resurface, and discovering ‘pieces of the jigsaw’ that had been lost. This experience was very different from his first visit. One reason was that he was different, an older man, more emotionally mature, with a wife and family and a firm sense of himself. He was also ready, a term that is difficult to define precisely, in this context. He had spent some time in psychotherapy and the neutrality of that relationship had allowed him the space to begin exploring his feelings. Tim told me about the importance of this in our interview.

My relationship with the therapist was very much, well, she was quite old school. So I didn’t form a deep bond and attachment with her. But there was a certain degree of healthy environment in her consulting room for me to know that I could experiment with what I was saying and feeling and thinking, articulating without risk to myself or others. I think there were some things I said to her that I would not have said to anybody else other than to a professional . . . and I think that there were probably half a dozen ingredients that I needed to get into my life before I was able to go through the process I describe in my book, the final process of saying goodbye to Nick, the feeling of taking off my rucksack.

Tim used the phrase ‘taking off my rucksack’ to describe the process of at last getting rid of the burden of unresolved grief for his twin’s death. The significant difference from the earlier visit lay, he believed, within himself.

On my first trip back in the 1980s . . . I found that I didn’t have what I needed to have inside me; the tool kit inside me was woefully lacking to make sense. It was like an operation that I needed to do and I didn’t have the scalpels for it. It took me years to find the tools and put them together and go back.

In his book Tim describes the various visits he undertook in 2003–4 and what he gained from them. He returned first of all to Classiebawn Castle, which had been leased to a local Irishman who made him welcome. Driving through the castle gates he noticed his grandparents’ initials and crest still on the gate pillars. As he walked into the castle, he saw the wooden-handled nets in which the family had caught prawns. ‘A rush of memories and emotions swept over me,’ he wrote. ‘I felt I had dived in at the deep end and I needed to go back outside to acclimatize.’ This was the start of rediscovering objects and places that immediately brought him back to his childhood. Walking around the castle he found many such evocations. ‘Each of these places – a room or a spot offering a familiar view – has something locked up in it, like a sweet fragrance. On opening it up for the first time, there is an evanescent and fragile sensation, soon scattered to the wind. From every corner the rooms whisper memories of sensations, noises and smells.’ This is one of the keys to revisiting, the sense of rediscovering the past through objects or places that were either long forgotten (from conscious memory at least) or were not remembered in any detail. Throughout his many visits, Tim found his memory jogged by these rediscoveries and that allowed the past back in – both the happy times and the painful ones.

A major purpose in revisiting a trauma site is to fill in the gaps in knowledge. Tim, like any other survivor of trauma, experienced the event only from his own perspective. He had been badly injured and so had lapsed in and out of consciousness. He had heard of certain events only later – the rescue of the wounded and the recovery of the dead, for example. And so he meticulously sought out people who had been there, so that he was finally able to piece together the sequence of events as described by witnesses. One benefit of doing this sort of reconstruction is to correct worrying misconceptions. For example, Tim had experienced flashback memories to when he was pulled out of the water by a couple in another boat. These included the vibration of the engine, the cold, the taste of saltwater and diesel, the smell of oil on his skin. But the flashbacks were never visual. He dreaded the moment that the visual memories might suddenly return. This anxiety was alleviated when his rescuers told him that he had been unable to see when he was pulled from the water, and that his sight returned only when they came ashore. There would be no visual flashbacks to that time.

Tim had never properly said goodbye to his brother, Nick. Because of his own injuries he had not been able to attend the funeral. He did not know in any detail what had happened other than that Nick’s body was eventually found in the water, several hours after the explosion. He talked to the people who had taken him from the water and heard exactly what they had done. He was shown a photograph taken at the time. ‘It was as terrible a photograph as I have ever seen,’ he wrote, ‘but it also gave me what I wanted: a sense of being there.’

The details were being filled in. In his book, Tim describes a highly charged moment when he is granted an interview with the pathologist who had examined Nick’s body. A ‘bulging red folder with “Mountbatten” written in large handwriting across its front’ is produced and together they go through it. I cannot do justice here to how Tim felt during this interview; it is beautifully and sensitively described in his book and I can only recommend that people read it. Revisiting the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death enabled him to say a proper and emotional goodbye, to lay aside the rucksack at last. Moreover, it released him from a feeling that he had scarcely been aware of. ‘I later realized that there had existed in my mind, even if subconsciously, a feeling that I had somehow abandoned Nick in this final duty. That trace of unreasoned and unreasonable emotion now disappeared.’ Tim encountered many places and many people on his frequent returns to Ireland. He kept a diary, which was to form the basis of his book. This project not only gave his visits a purpose beyond his personal need to revisit the site of the trauma, but it also allowed him to create something entirely new. In interviewing other trauma victims I have come across a few who have done something similar, making a film or setting up a website in memory of a loved one. Psychologically, I see this as an important part of the healing process. It enables people to take something positive from an awful loss and take control over events that, at the time, they had no control over. Tim described to me what it meant to him.

Some people find it unfathomable that I would want to talk about it and share it with others. But I have certainly come to the conclusion that it wasn’t just going back to the island; it was the ability to articulate it to myself and to be able to articulate it to others that were extra levels of healing. The ability to write it down, document it, share it with others is in itself a therapeutic thing to do.

A return to Colombia: Mark’s story

When  people  ask me what  it’s like to be kidnapped,  I always find it hard to put it into words, how to explain the not knowing, the sense of powerlessness, the very real proximity of death, the total lack of freedom and any sort of choice in the way your life progresses. It’s all these feelings but it’s all these feelings constantly. It never lets up. The shadow of your kidnap is always hanging over you. You go to bed with it, you wake up with it, and it’s only in those first few seconds of the morning that you forget where you are and for a few precious moments you are free.

These are the words of film director Mark Henderson, who was one of eight tourists kidnapped and held by Colombian guerrillas in 2003, in Mark’s case for 101 days. It was a gruelling, exhausting and at times terrifying experience. At first, the hostages believed that they were being held for money. Later, it became clear that the kidnappers had a political motive. They were part of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (the ELN, or National Liberation Army), a Marxist guerrilla group that has been at war with the Colombian government for more than 40 years. Mark decided from the outset that the best strategy was to try and bond with the kidnappers.

Our captors didn’t actually beat us but they were cruel and would hold guns to our heads, threatening to shoot us. I’d do anything I could to ingratiate myself with them. You want them to like you – you don’t want to be the one who they shoot.

When two new guards arrived, Antonio and Camila, Mark found in Antonio someone he could more easily relate to. Unlike the other guards, these two were kind to the hostages. They were more educated and more politically aware.

Camila was the camp commander’s secretary and Antonio was effectively in charge of training new recruits, teaching them about the ELN’s Marxist doctrines. I got the impression that, out of all our guards, Antonio was the one who really believed in what he was fighting for.

Antonio and Mark talked about the situation in Colombia, the struggle of the poor and oppressed against a corrupt military regime. They shared the same taste in films and music. In this way, a bond was established which was to play a significant role in what happened to Mark when he was back in England. The hostages were eventually released following negotiations through a Catholic priest working for the Catholic Overseas Development Agency. Seven years later, Mark returned to Colombia for a reunion with Antonio, a journey which he made into a remarkable documentary film for Channel 4. I watched the film and decided to get in touch with him and ask him why he had returned to Colombia to make the film and what he had got out of it.

In April 2011 I met Mark in his flat near Clapham Common. We were surrounded by boxes and furniture as he and his partner were in the throes of moving. It was kind of him to spare me an hour at this busy time. As soon as the recording got underway, Mark settled easily into telling me the story of the making of the film. I was intrigued by the fact that he and Antonio had entered into an email exchange just under a year after Mark had been released, an exchange that went on for six years. The initial contact was brokered by the Catholic priest who had helped negotiate their release. When he was being held as a hostage, Mark had talked to Antonio about making a film about the ELN’s struggles. Mark told me how Antonio referred to that in his first email.

I think the words were, ‘I hear you are the star of the media over there now.’ And it was all quite weird wording because there was no apology, no specific reference to the kidnapping. He never used the word ‘kidnapping’, if you actually look at all the emails. He always talks about ‘your experience’, ‘your time in Colombia’, things like that.

In his second email, Antonio mentioned making the documentary about the ELN that they had talked about. Mark’s initial reaction was unequivocal; there was no way he would ever return to Colombia. Apart from anything else, it was not fair to his family to put himself at risk again. He had only been released just over a year ago. In 2010, when he eventually returned to make his film, the situation in Colombia was very different, and he too was different. This underlines the point I made when discussing Tim’s visits to Ireland, that timing is crucial. If a person is not ready (vague though this term is, it is important), the return might have adverse effects. From a psychological perspective, the key to revisiting is that it should be a success. But what does ‘success’ mean? What did Mark want from his return to Colombia? What did he actually gain? In our interview, I asked him how he had come to the decision to make the film after all.

I suddenly thought: ‘I want to go back and meet him. I want to find out what [actually happened].’ I spoke with everyone else about the kidnapping. It really is a cliché but you want to put all the pieces in place. I knew this bit and then my parents could give me this bit and the Met Police tell me this bit and the priest told me this bit and there was still a good quarter over here, which is their story. And because we had always been lied to during the whole process of the kidnapping, we could never actually tell when they were telling the truth. I wanted to sit down with him and say ‘Right, what was the truth?’

It helped that Mark was a television producer, familiar with the business of making documentaries.

I think once I got into the process – because making television is my profession – sometimes I would almost put on the director’s hat or my producer’s hat as opposed to the actual ex-hostage’s hat. [But] sometimes I had to step back from it and think about me, and this especially happened when I went back. When people say, ‘Why did you make the film?’ [I say] I just wanted to tell the story . . . I just wanted to have a testament of what happened to me. Now I understand why people write books. And actually having something physical I’ve realized means you can actually distance yourself from it. Even more, you can actually give it to someone and say, ‘That’s it’.

The film would be a tangible record of the kidnapping. Like Tim’s book, there would be something to show, something that others could see. Moreover, it would give Mark back the control he had lost when held hostage. Shortly after he was released, Mark began writing a book about his experiences. He had kept a diary from about day 8 or 9 of his kidnapping, but wanted to recapture what had happened, during the first few days in particular. He wrote about 80,000 words, a huge amount, but found the process of reliving the experience through writing made him feel anxious and weak. It affected his sleep so that he woke up screaming, or was jolted awake by disturbing dreams. He saw a psychologist, who advised him that these were symptoms of PTSD, and although he did not fit the complete diagnosis, the nature of his experience was essentially the same. That helped, Mark told me. It helped because Mark now knew he was not going mad and that he could get better. Writing the book almost certainly came too early in Mark’s recovery, and the very length of it suggests it had become a bit of an obsession. He abandoned the book and decided he needed to go back to the normality of work. Later, when he was stronger and had obtained some distance from the trauma of the kidnapping, he could revisit it in a form that he was more familiar with – film.

When Mark and another of the hostages, a German woman named Reini, finally met Antonio, they had prepared a series of questions to ask him. For security reasons Antonio was filmed in silhouette. In the film we see a short extract of this encounter, just a few minutes. But Mark told me that the meeting went on for seven hours, as Antonio was determined to answer all their questions.

‘[There were] four of us and one of him. And it really did feel like the tables had turned, like we were the ones in control. And then by him saying “No, I want to answer all your questions”, he was suppliant, what’s the word?’

‘Submissive?’

‘Submissive. He was almost being submissive. It really felt like a shift of power. He’d always been this kidnapper and now he wanted to give us whatever he could . . . and it wasn’t so much necessarily what he said, but it was the fact that he did it. That meant more to us.’

I asked Mark what he thought Antonio’s motive was in meeting them. Was he seeking to apologise, to make reparation?

I think so. I always wanted to believe in the humanity of all of our guards and yet with some of them I could never see it. With him I could. And that is why I never understood how he could do what he did and then live with himself . . . I think he met up with us because actually we did connect as people. He almost wanted to say ‘Look, I am not the person you think I am. I am a human being. I do care.’

In the film we see Antonio making an apology. At first he rationalizes the kidnapping in terms of the political struggle for human rights of oppressed people. But when Mark makes the point that he had violated their human rights, he admits the truth of this. He says what he did was wrong and asks for their forgiveness. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission enabled former enemies to meet and make atonement even for some of the most horrific crimes. The Forgiveness Project is a website that explicitly encourages and empowers people to explore the nature of forgiveness and alternatives to revenge by telling their stories. It is possible that, for Antonio, the act of meeting Mark and Reini began a process of making atonement for his part in the kidnapping. For Mark it was a very important part of regaining control through ‘filling in the pieces’ of the events, essentially providing different and better memories of that traumatic time. Mark put it very well in our interview.

By making the film and by being together we were almost overriding any memories we had of that place. And when we all came out, and even now when we speak to each other, we don’t talk about the kidnapping. We talk about when we made the film. It’s almost like we’ve replaced it.

Conclusion

Tim and Mark’s experiences show, in their respective ways, how it is possible to gain a great deal from going back to revisit the site of a trauma. Not all traumas lend themselves to this, of course; in some cases it is simply not possible to return. Both individuals had the same motive, to fill in the missing pieces of information that came from being physically back in the place where the trauma had happened, and interviewing people who had been there at the time. Mark told me that when he first met up with three of his fellow hostages again, the four of them were able to explain in detail what had happened or what they did at particular times. We know that memory is reconstructive and one consequence of the revisiting process is the realization that our memories do not always match the reality of the event itself. This is very much part of what happens in reliving therapy, when the client and therapist together return to the site and actively disconfirm irrational fantasies or beliefs. As Mark put it, new memories can now replace the old ones. These are more positive and, moreover, are in the control of the person: it is what they have deliberately set out to achieve. Another important feature of returning to the site of the trauma is emotional. Tim wanted to remember his brother Nick’s last moments, and in doing so say goodbye to him. Mark wanted to talk directly to Antonio and tell him how he felt. This is not just a matter of emotional catharsis, but something more active. Tim could finally lay down his rucksack and grieve for his lost brother. Mark could now see his Colombian experience in a different light. Finally, both achieved something memorable and creative, one a book, the other a film.

An extract from ‘To Hell and Back' by John Marzillier.
© Robinson. Used with permission of the publisher. 
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