Nearly five years after her teenage daughter was murdered, Mary Foley has forgiven her killer. The alternative, she says, was to let hatred and anger destroy her own life
By Melissa Benn, The Guardian, Saturday 30 January 2010
The first time I meet Mary Foley she is addressing a rapt group of 15- and 16-year-olds in a humanities class on forgiveness. Tall, handsome and quietly spoken, she begins the session by taking out a few photographs and pinning them to the whiteboard. "This is Charlotte, my daughter. She was no angel, she had her challenges, but she was loving and caring, and popular among her peers. And here's Charlotte, joking around with her friends."
After a moment's pause, Mary pins up the next picture – a girl with her hair scraped back who seems to stare defiantly out into the room. Mary turns towards the class, her voice softening with pity. "And this is Beatriz, who killed her."
It is an extraordinary beginning to an extraordinary story: the tale of a terrible murder and its aftermath – the kind of crime that usually gets sensational tabloid treatment but scant human understanding. Charlotte, Mary's eldest child, was stabbed to death at a 16th birthday party in April 2005. In February 2006, Beatriz Martins-Paes, the girl with the defiant stare, was jailed for life for the attack.
Two girls, two wasted lives, and two devastated families left in their wake: it is only too easy to see how such a senseless crime could lead to years of terrible sorrow, bitter resentment and a desire for revenge.
But the most extraordinary part of this story is that Mary Foley has not only chosen to forgive her daughter's killer, but also to have regular contact with her. They have written to each other several times, and Mary is currently waiting for clearance to visit Beatriz in Holloway prison. Through the Forgiveness Project, which encourages reconciliation and conflict resolution, Mary frequently visits prisons to talk to violent offenders.
But what does it take for a parent to forgive such a crime? In 2008, just a few days after the murder of her son Jimmy Mizen in a south London bakery, a clearly devastated Margaret Mizen said publicly, "I don't feel anger – I feel sorry for the parents. We've got such lovely memories of Jimmy and they will have such sorrow about their son. I feel for them, I really do." Last November, Anglican vicar Simon Boxall said he and his wife, Rachel, "refused to be shackled by bitterness" and forgave the killers of their daughter Rosimeiri, who jumped to her death to escape her tormentors.
For many parents, this is an unimaginable act of faith – an almost foolish exercise of tolerance. We don't doubt the sincerity of the sentiment; we can understand that sudden burst of generosity born out of extreme circumstances. But we secretly ask ourselves whether such forgiveness is a statement of moral intent rather than an authentic emotional reality. And can it endure through the long years of grief?
To meet Mary Foley, 46, is to be convinced that forgiveness is entirely possible. She speaks with tenderness and sorrow for the trials of Beatriz's life that turned her, in Mary's words, "into a ticking time bomb". At the same time, she condemns the crime itself; she was angry when Beatriz recently applied to get her sentence reduced.
This does not mean that forgiveness is easy, quick or without its ambiguities. Rather, Mary describes it as a long road travelled – one that begins and ends with heartbreaking loss: "I have lost my eldest daughter. She has lost her life and her future. She will never have children. I will never have grandchildren. She will never look after me in my old age."
Mary, who has a teenage son and a younger daughter, does not shy away from her sadness. Standing before that humanities class, she cried openly, remembering Charlotte. You could have heard a pin drop. But, as she later tells the assembled teenagers, in the months and years following Charlotte's death, and with the help of her strong religious faith, she actively chose forgiveness, in part to help free herself "from the self-imposed prison of bitterness".
Charlotte, from East London, died in ambiguous circumstances at a 16th birthday party. Beatriz had come to the party "tooled up" with not one but two knives, in order to have it out with another girl, who she says had been bullying her. This girl was a casual acquaintance of Charlotte's and Charlotte may simply have been, in Mary's words, "in the wrong place at the wrong time".
Mary says, "Charlotte and Beatriz exchanged words on the dance floor and then Charlotte left the dance floor with a friend and went upstairs into the bedroom of the girl whose party it was. When she went to the toilet, Beatriz was on the top landing and asked Charlotte, 'What did you say to me downstairs?' Charlotte said, 'What do you mean?' Then Beatriz stabbed her once in the chest. Charlotte fell back into the bedroom into the arms of another friend who was sitting on the bed.
"She was bleeding profusely. Beatriz had severed a major heart artery. Everyone was screaming. Beatriz ran out of the party, followed by a pack of teenage boys. Luckily for her, she was picked up by a police car, which just happened to be at the end of the road, otherwise who knows what would have happened to her? She's so petite."
Mary was woken by a phone call from a hysterical girl who screamed "Charlotte's been stabbed" and then hung up. Three minutes later, the police rang and came to fetch her. "Robotic. That's what I felt like. A robot. When we were driving to the hospital, I knew it was serious because we were driving so fast and because of the sirens. When we got to the hospital, three doctors came to see me in this little room. I just knew she was dead. They looked so forlorn. Suddenly it hit me, this heat from inside, like a furnace."
But the worst part came later, seeing her daughter laid out for burial. "She had had her eyebrows done for the party. She looked beautiful. There were no bruises. All that was missing was breath.
"When Charlotte was murdered, forgiveness did not enter my mind. For a long time, I wanted to know, who is this wicked girl that took my daughter? Who did this evil? My baby was gone. I was just coming to terms with the loss. I had to weigh things up, to really allow my emotions to take their course."
She found it difficult to look at Beatriz in court. "She sat there, very defiant, her hair done, makeup done, looking nice. Arms crossed. She was trendy and fashionable, and I kept staring over at her. I wanted her to look at me, to look at the pain she had caused me, for her to see that Charlotte had a mum who loved her. I wanted her to show me how sorry she was."
Beatriz's mother was also in court. "She looked so closed, so ashamed … she wanted, through an intermediary, to come and say how sorry she was. But I just said, 'I can't do this right now.' I wanted her to feel a bit of my pain at losing my daughter." Later on, Mary felt able to meet her.
But she was still not ready to forgive until a pastor at her church approached her. "He had contacted Beatriz and she had written back. She had said to him, 'Would Mary mind me writing to her?' And I said, 'Let her write.'"
"When the letter arrived, I looked at it, with its childish handwriting. I opened it and then took a deep breath. I read it three or four times, trying to see if it felt real. At the same time I was thinking, wow, it takes some courage to write, when you've murdered a member of someone's family."
In this and subsequent letters, Mary came to understand more of Beatriz's background. "I learned about all the bullying and intimidation she had received, about all the things that had happened to her at home and at school.
"So I wrote back to her and said, 'I forgive you, I believe you didn't mean to do it, although there is a price to pay for the choice you made.' And then she wrote back – 13, 14 pages – talking about herself, and her problems, asking me what Charlotte was like. And I wrote back telling her about my beautiful daughter.
"The funny thing is, from some of the insecurities she described, I think she and Charlotte would have got on well. They could have become good friends." Mary has made it very clear that she is now willing to meet her, although Beatriz has yet to complete the necessary formalities.
Now, Mary is a picture of serenity. "When you don't forgive, you allow that person to control your life. Your anger and resentment are controlling you. When you choose to forgive, you release yourself, to become yourself again." She says of other family members who have not forgiven Beatriz, "there's a lot of sadness and regret there – a lot of 'if onlys' in their lives."
Mary now frequently visits prisons to meet offenders through the Forgiveness Project's restorative justice programme. "They can't believe it when I come. They ask themselves, 'Is she real?'" Mary smiles. As for her view of offenders, it is that "we don't know the circumstances these men and women have faced in their lives, which is not an excuse for what they might have done."
As for the future, she can see herself "talking to Beatriz, yes, maybe meeting up with her, after she is released". Certainly she wishes her "an emotionally stable life, a good life. I hope she turns out to be a wonderful mother. I don't wish her any evil. I don't wish her to lose a child. I would not wish that on anyone."
Further information from theforgivenessproject.com