Now you are free
Dance barefoot forever
In the place you long to be.
Little angel Heather
The dark night has gone.
A new day has come.
Now you are free.
~ Heather by Alex Karas
Remembering Heather West ~ A Life Interrupted
My journey began the moment I saw a photo of Heather Ann West.
Heather was a pretty dark haired teenager with elfin looks so reminiscent of the American singer Jane Weidlin. I glimpsed the terror behind her eyes. There was an instant connection. And I made a promise that I would tell her story. And so the long journey began.
I knew the journey would be fraught and distressing but I also knew that I was compelled do it. And I felt strongly from the very beginning that somehow Heather wanted me to tell her story. So I was determined to tell it as honestly as possible without editing anything out. The more research I did, the more convinced I became that Heather's story had to be told.
Frederick and Rosemary West loomed large in Heather's life. And their story ran parallel to hers. Frederick and Rosemary West were profoundly abnormal. They were the perfect storm. Frederick was the charming dullard who incurred extensive brain damage from three serious accidents. Rosemary was the volatile and unstable prostitute who almost certainly incurred brain damage from the electric shock treatment her mother received while she was still in the womb. Both had been sexually abused at an early age and would perpetuate the cycle of abuse in their adult lives. This is not written to excuse Frederick and Rosemary West but to get a handle on what they were. The Wests lived in an alternative universe where the normal rules did not apply. Horrifying and grotesque though it may be. And countless young women including Heather would be sacrificed to it along the way.
I am indebted to the many writers who covered the West case and the authors of invaluable books such as the late Gordon Burn, Howard Sounes, Geoffrey Wansell and Jane Carter Woodrow. These books helped form the back bone of my study and informed my work. I would have been lost without them.
All the people who featured in Heather's life came to life fully formed on the page. By the time I had finished my research and was undertaking the writing of The Barefoot Child - I felt as if I knew them all well. I can only express immense sympathy for all the West children. And I can only express my heartfelt condolences to the families of the young women who died at 25 Cromwell Street.
Many tears were shed in the telling of Heather's story.There were so many poignant moments in Heather's brief life that were utterly heartbreaking. Such as the night before she died. Heather had been hoping to work at a holiday camp in south Devon as a chalet cleaner but the job was cancelled at the last minute. Heather was distraught and went to bed sobbing and wept all through the night so loudly that she kept her siblings awake. Her sister Mae had never seen her like this before. There were other things too. Heather was just a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. But in many ways she was also special. Heather wasn't like her other siblings and longed to be outdoors away from other people.Heather's ambition in life was to live in the Forest of Dean. This urchin quality really affected me. She loved the feeling of freedom and of being outdoors - it was very fierce in her. This spoke most to me about Heather. And she never wore shoes. She went everywhere barefoot. In the last known photo of Heather before she died, she can be seen in her half-sister Anne Marie's garden with Frederick West and her sister Mae. She is barefoot. It really touched me that Heather developed an intense crush on a male teacher at Hucclecote Comprehensive School. It really moved me that Heather and Mae understood each other and looked out for each other. They didn't need to say anything - they just knew.
|Family photo. Frederick West is in the middle. Heather is on the far right.|
Frustrating details began to emerge about negligent social services, hospital staff and police officers during my research, It is difficult to comprehend how the West children could slip beneath the radar on so many occasions. It is hard to understand how no connections were made. One of Rosemary West's clients even contacted social services to inform them that he believed Heather was being sexually abused. But nothing was done about it. Caroline Roberts later blamed the police for scaring her off after she reported her twelve hour ordeal at the hands of Frederick and Rosemary West. She had the misfortune to be interviewed by a particularly officious police officer who frightened her. Roberts was too afraid to press charges and Frederick and Rosemary West escaped with nothing more than a £100 fine. It is likely that had Frederick and Rosemary West been stopped at this stage, numerous lives including Heather's would have been saved. Enter DC Hazel Savage twenty years later. If she had not persisted in her search for Heather, it is likely that Frederick and Rosemary West would have continued to murder young women in the cellar of 25 Cromwell Street. It was surely her insistence that Heather be found that finally bought the horror train to an end.
Heather was almost certainly killed for fear of what she might say once she was out of 25 Cromwell Street. She had had the courage to defy her parents and would almost certainly have exposed the sleazy underworld of 25 Cromwell Street had she lived. And in many ways she did. There is some satisfaction in knowing that it was Heather reaching from beyond the grave who eventually bought down Frederick and Rosemary West.
Thankfully I had the reconstruction by writer Howard Sounes in his book Fred and Rose. The reconstruction is based upon expert opinion and the evidence. We know from her remains that she was not gagged like the other young women who died at the hands of Frederick and Rosemary West. A chord was found in her grave which suggests that her hands may have been tied and orange and green fibres embedded in the chord suggest that she was held down. But the exact details of her death are unknown. There is no evidence of sexual torture. All we know for certain is that Heather died in the hallway of 25 Cromwell Street in June 1987. The date - 19 June - is corroborated by Anne Marie West who made a note of it in her diary and Mae and Stephen who remember seeing Heather before they left for school. It was two days after the third birthday party of Anne Marie's daughter Michele in which the West family turned up in force. Anne Marie had been struck by the behaviour of Frederick and Rosemary West. Heather was not herself and that there was obvious friction between her and her parents.
I also had the "eye witness" account from Barry West who was apparently only seven at the time. He allegedly witnessed Heather's death from a partially open door and gives graphic details of what happened to her.The account would only emerge two decades later in a down market newspaper supplement. According to Barry's recollection, it was Heather's last act of defiance that cost her her life. She would not submit to her father's relentless sexual attentions. Rosemary West would show little restraint with her children. The savage and brutal way in which Heather was dispatched therefore rings true. But there are problems with this account. According to Barry West, Heather had been out and had returned home at 3 am when her parents turned on her. This does not tally with what has already been established about Heather's final day. This confusion over dates and details does not automatically rule out Barry West's account but it does beg a question mark. Whatever happened to Heather, it was at the hands of Frederick and Rosemary West. We can easily discount his insistence that his wife was not involved in Heather's death. It is most improbable. Even if Rosemary West was not involved or even present at the time Heather died, she knew enough to play along with it when "Heather" began ringing the house some time after her disappearance.
Following your gut instinct is of paramount importance because this is what fuels your writing. There are the cold hard facts but within that is the beating heart of your work. The spirit of what you are writing. I believed strongly in my vision of Heather and of telling her story. But I soon discovered that her life had to be seen within the context of a larger story. I could not omit the looming presence of Frederick and Rosemary West, their chronically dysfunctional upbringing and ultimately their murderous career. The incest that was taken as de rigueur in the upbringing of Frederick and Rosemary West would be perpetuated in their adult life and would ultimately impact Heather's life with tragic consequences.
In the end, I was loathe to let go of Heather. I had felt so connected to her. And I felt that I had been on an intense journey with her which was at times very dark. I felt genuinely grieved at her death and I often wrote in tears. My biggest regret is that I never knew Heather. I am only a year younger than her. I would love to have been Heather's friend.
|The Forest of Dean|
The second experience occurred towards the end of my writing. I looked up at a picture on the wall to see Heather reflected in it. She quietly entered the room. Heather was dressed in white again. Her head was slightly bowed. Heather did not speak. I felt a strong emotion being conveyed. A mixture of longing and loneliness. Heather's spirit had reached out to me. This was the connection I had longed for. Then Heather disappeared.
My sincere wish is that you will come to love Heather as much as I do.
Every single day, countless children are being abused within families in unremarkable homes on unexceptional streets all around the world. And nobody knows anything about it. Dark deeds committed in darkness.And these children have to live with the secrets and lies. They have to deal with the psychological and emotional damage in the aftermath. Relentless sexual abuse conducted in darkness must be exposed to the light. It must be shouted from the rooftops. Heather had the courage and strength of character to stand up to her evil parents and her story should be told. She should be remembered as a bright young girl whose young life was interrupted. And in remembering Heather we will shine a light for all the children taken from us so young and for all the children who are being abused.
Heather West has left us a legacy. Not as the teenage victim of Frederick and Rosemary West buried beneath the patio. But as the Barefoot Child.
This has been a dark night of the soul for me. I hope that Heather will be remembered as more than just a "victim" of Frederick and Rosemary West. The girl beneath the patio. I hope that people will remember her as the girl who yearned to live in the Forest of Dean and who never wore shoes. The pretty elfin teenager with a whole life ahead of her. A life interrupted before it had really begun. I will never forget Heather. And one day she will have a special place in my book.
Heather is at peace.
IN MEMORY OF HEATHER ANN WEST