This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.
Emma Humphreys’s memorial was held on October 31st this year. A number of people spoke movingly about the ways in which Emma had touched their lives. Here we print edited versions of three such tributes, from Harriet Wistrich and Julie Bindel of Justice for Women and Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters.
When Emma died in July this year, a number of people asked me, ‘What happened?’. For those of you here who didn’t know Emma except, perhaps, through having supported her campaign for justice at the Court of Appeal three years ago or seen the media coverage, Emma’s tragic death at such a young age may have come as a great shock to you. Sadly, for those of us who knew Emma well, whilst her death was terribly shocking and certainly not inevitable, it was a possibility we sometimes dreaded.
Whilst there can be no simple explanation for Emma’s death, I want to describe a little about the pain she lived with and her constant struggle to get through each day. In my mind there is no doubt that she wanted to continue living, but she may not have fully appreciated how close to the edge she lived her life.
I first met Emma in January 1993, seven years after she was imprisoned for life, and I had what turned out to be the honour of recording her life story and working directly with her in preparing for the appeal. During that time, we often came into conflict with the prison system and sometimes I wondered whether we were doing the best thing for Emma. But she was always determined that the only way she was coming out of prison was after she cleared her name and proved she was not a murderer. However, even after the great victory at the Court of Appeal, Emma continued to be wracked with guilt for having taken someone else’s life. However much she accepted on a rational level that she had acted under extreme provocation, she was never really able to forgive herself and she always felt her case was much less deserving than those of all the other women who we campaigned for.
It was that guilt, together with all the other damage that had been done to Emma which made living such a constant struggle. She had witnessed and experienced horrific violence at home at the hands of her stepfather. She ran away and as a teenager lived between children’s homes and on the street being abused as a prostitute. By the time she was sixteen and living with Trevor Armitage, she was already seriously damaged. Had she not been facing a criminal justice system that was unresponsive to issues of violence against women, perhaps she would have received help in coming to terms with the events leading to her murder conviction. Instead she was incarcerated for life in prisons that dealt with her internal pain by sedating her with medication.
By the time of Emma’s release ten years on, she was addicted to a horrific cocktail of medication. Because she came out of prison through the appeal process, the prison system took no responsibility for providing for the difficult transition to freedom. Instead, Justice for Women (and Linda Regan in particular) were left to set up the links with social services and sought to ensure that Emma was not suddenly without the medication that she had come to rely on. Emma stayed with Julie, Sarah and me in the first few weeks following her release until a place became available at a residential therapeutic community.
During the first week of Emma’s freedom, we all came to the realisation that the life outside prison which Emma had yearned for was also terrifying to her. Within five days of her release, Emma was in the Whittington hospital having overdosed on chloral hydrate. During the first eighteen months of her freedom, Emma ran wild. She drank and took all manner of drugs to excess; she continued to self-harm by cutting up, through serious anorexia and by getting into dangerous situations with the sort of men who prey on vulnerable women. She was thrown out of the therapeutic community she was living in, having broken every rule; she was likewise thrown out of a mental health hostel and a number of other forms of accommodation found for her.
Things began to change after she was seriously assaulted by a stranger. Perhaps she felt she was no longer invincible and she started to reduce the risks she had been taking with men. Also at this time, social services agreed to find her her own flat; this was always what Emma wanted most after years of living in institutions.
In the last fifteen months, Emma lived less than a mile from our home in Crouch End. We were able to maintain very regular contact with her and she formed a special bond with our friend Rosie. Most Sundays, Emma would come round for the day and we spent Christmases and birthdays together. Life, however, continued to be a struggle for Emma. She coped by obliterating painful thoughts and memories with drink and her medication.
Three weeks before Emma died, Julie, Rosie, Cheryl and I took Emma on holiday to Italy. I shall never forget the look of ecstasy on Emma’s face as she looked out of the aeroplane window, over the clouds. During that week in Italy, I was confronted with the serious danger she was in as a result of the amount of medication she was using. For three days she could barely get out of bed. But we had a lovely time together none the less. On our return, Cheryl and Jane began to make arrangements to help Emma to reduce the amount of medication she was taking.
Tragically, on Friday July 10th, Emma died from an accidental overdose.
The last time I saw Emma, it was her 30th birthday. Rosie had given her a kitten, and said to her that the kitten was something to live for, to care for and to take responsibility for. The idea was that if Emma had something else to care for, she would take good care of herself. Emma loved the kitten instantly and did take good care of it. Perhaps the kitten is one symbol of Emma’s determination to recover from the trauma of her past, which had made her ill and over-dependent on drugs. In the end, however, her desire to live was sadly overtaken by a fragile body, resulting in her tragic and sudden death.
For those of us working with women experiencing violence and abuse, Emma’s whole life is also a symbol of the love and courage women have in their struggle to survive and their struggle for freedom from abuse. In recent years, Emma was one of the women who propelled the issue of domestic violence onto the national agenda. Along with women such as Sara Thornton and Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Emma’s conviction and imprisonment represented the failings not only of the criminal justice system and the homicide laws, but also of the state and society’s inability to help and support women experiencing domestic violence.
Emma’s death has been heart-breaking for those who knew her personally, but grief and a sense of loss reverberate across the women’s movement and beyond. Whilst we hold her memory dear in our hearts, Emma’s death is not in vain. Her case is currently highlighting the failings of a prison system which makes women over-dependent on drugs and the miscarriages of justice as exemplified by the cases of Zoora Shah and Diana Butler. As an individual Emma fought for justice and freedom, not only in her personal life but also as a campaigner for other women. As a movement, we will not mourn her death in vain, but continue to fight with greater strength, courage and determination.
I want to tell you all a little bit about Emma’s life with those of us she defined as ‘family’, that is primarily Rosie and Harriet and me. In the last fifteen months of her life she had her own flat, which made it more possible for us to visit her and therefore for Emma to have a far more settled life.
We would all look forward to Sundays, when Emma and Rosie would come to our house and spend the day with us. I’d cook lunch, which Emma always ate; Emma and Rosie would listen to music and chat, I always seemed to be telling Emma off about something or other, either her overuse of medication, or her losing weight, or inviting some creep back to her flat when she didn’t really want to. But we’d have nice chats as well, and it became obvious in the last year of her life that, mainly as a result of her friendship with Rosie, she had learned to empathise. She would ask me about my life, and I’d sometimes tell her things I hadn’t told any one else. Emma had been, in the beginning, someone I had helped, taken care of, worried about, but one day I realised she had become my friend.
I would speak to Emma on the phone nearly every day, and she would tell me what she and Rosie had been doing, how Tiger the cat was — little things we take for granted, but that for Emma were the things that kept her alive. Emma was changing from the wild, uncontrollable, self-destructive person she was when she left prison, to someone who could see the future, make friends, care about herself and others. Her sense of humour was also coming into full flow. In a way she became more childlike, because it was safe to do so, surrounded by love from her friends and family. She could be stroppy, stubborn and cheeky, and she would take liberties with us on a regular basis. She began to recognise her own worth, and believed us when we told her we loved her, and that she was special.
Emma was indeed very special. She helped me realise the true and total cost of male violence, in a way I had not fully grasped in eighteen years of feminism. She helped me face realities about women and children’s lives that I had previously seen more abstractly. I remember one day feeling disillusioned about the work I was doing, and then I thought about Emma, and what she had achieved, and I vowed never to give up, because if Emma can challenge the law, men’s behaviour and so many other things, then so could I. Many of us here today know that the reasons why we become involved in the struggle against male violence are the very same reasons why it can be hard for us to do so, but Emma was an inspiration to us all. Her spirit never gave up even at the worst of times, and I know that, had she lived, she would have gone on to achieve even more.
Emma worked with me in the fight against the prostitution of women and children. It is entirely down to Emma that I started to look at the devastation caused to women and children who are bought and sold for sex. And it is also partly down to Emma that I began to be able to face working around the issue of child sexual abuse — a topic I had previously been reluctant to deal with.
Emma was unique for all those reasons. But another legacy of Emma is the knowledge we now have that there are girls and women like her all over the world, in families, in children’s homes, in prisons, in hospitals. It is not that the damage is irreparable, or that they are too far gone to live decent lives. We must never think like that. The tragedy is that they are being ignored. The realities of some women’s lives are too painful for many of us to face. But we must face it, we have to confront the worst, the most horrific things that are happening to women and children before we can begin to make a difference. What Emma showed me was that there is always hope even for the most damaged women if they are not ignored and left to die. Most of us here do at least something in our lives to challenge violence against women and children. We must bear in mind that it probably isn’t enough, and allow Emma to be our inspiration when we feel like giving up, or not facing the worst.
The world is a different and better place for having Emma in it, albeit for a tragically short time. I have far more to thank Emma for than she does me, and I’m glad I told her that only weeks before she died. Her life was one of the best things that happened to me, and her death undoubtedly one of the worst. She did not have to die, it was not inevitable. She is not, as someone who meant well told me, ‘better off now she’s gone’. She had much work to do, and it’s now up to all of us to do it in her name, and to remember Emma as the extraordinary person that she was.