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Trying...to find the words
This week I have interviewed three women on Woman's Hour, whose words have stopped people in their tracks and rightly so.
First came Merry Varney, the lawyer for the Russell family, helping them taking on the big tech giants after their beloved daughter Molly took her own life in 2017 aged 14. Last week at an inquest into what happened, a coroner ruled for the first time in this country that social media contributed to a child's death.
Merry retraced Molly's digital footsteps, on a journey which saw her served thousands of images and videos about depression and suicide. This highly experienced inquest lawyer found herself growing emotional during our interview as she revealed that for the first time in her career she had sought professional help as she navigated the content Molly had watched every day. "It's the first time that I've taken professional assistance. I'm an experienced inquest lawyer. I work a lot with bereaved families with some very difficult material but this was something else."
She went on to share quietly, but determinedly, the following about the material: "It keeps sucking you deeper, I could feel it happening to myself and I'm a resilient adult. The idea of a 14-year-old and other children having access to this material is at times overwhelmingly sad.”
Her upset was quiet but palpable with each word.
Then came the stripped back and raw conversation I had with the former Lioness footballer turned commentator Alex Scott. Hours before coming on air with me to talk about her new book and life, her father had publicly hit back at her account of her childhood denying that he was ever violent with her or her mother. He had taken the decision to talk to the Daily Mail saying while he was strict, he was never violent.
Alex decided she wanted to go ahead with her interview with me and what unfolded was one of the rawest conversations I’ve had in more than 10 years of live radio presenting. She talked of his actions lighting a fire in her, saying: I’ll do all I can to help women in this position so they don’t have the feelings that my mum has carried her whole life.”
She also described, through the tears, the helplessness she felt when faced with violence when growing up, lying in bed listening to it happen.
And finally, Merope Mills joined me for Thursday’s programme to talk about her 13 year old daughter Martha who died last year in hospital. She sustained a pancreatic trauma after falling off a bike on a family holiday and spent weeks in a specialist unit where she developed sepsis. An inquest concluded that her death was preventable and the hospital has apologised. Merope, fighting back tears, somehow found the words and strength to come on to talk about the arrogance of some doctors, how she regrets not standing up to them more and our unhealthy reverence for medical practitioners.
She also found a way to share that her daughter was warm, witty and determined - but above everything had so much joy in the world.
I wanted to flag these three interviews as they all took place with women who found the words to express difficult experiences and truths.
Since the author Hilary Mantel's death at the end of last month I have been thinking a lot about language and how we express ourselves. Or don’t.
And while it’s understandable that many in tough situations or trying to speak to those facing hardship say things like: “There are no words.”
But there are actually.
You just might have to dig a bit deeper to find them. Or think for a little longer.
Mantel, obviously famed for her novels, her Tudor Wolf Hall trilogy in particular, found the words nearly 20 years ago to describe a condition I know all too well, endometriosis, in her lesser known memoir, Giving up the Ghost.
This was when barely anyone was talking about a disease that doctors to this day mispronounce, struggle to spell - never mind diagnose in a short time frame. When Mantel was fighting for own diagnosis - many doctors thought it was all in her head.
When I was finally diagnosed aged 31, after two decades of abnormal levels of pain, it was to her words I first turned to. She unwittingly became for some of us our patron saint of pain. In fact, it was when I read that Mantel said everything she had achieved was in the “teeth” of the disease, the power of what I was up against hit me the hardest. Teeth is exactly it.
Just because something is hard to articulate, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Describing pain is notoriously difficult. But the words do exist. We just have to find them and keep saying them, as much or as little as we or someone else needs.
Too many people are rendered silent through shame, awkwardness or fear about the toughest life experiences but having watched three different women find the words this week, in some of the most memorable interviews I’ve had the privilege of conducting, I can assure you the words are there. It’s just the will that needs summoning and the confidence that people will listen. But they will.
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