Demolishing a house of horror is only symbolic, says Elaine Storkey
Despite a shortage of accommodation in the area, councillors in Tayport,
Fife, unanimously voted this month to knock down 67 Tay Street. The bungalow,
where a teenager, Karen Dewar, was viciously murdered 14 months ago by a young
man she befriended, is the latest house to face demolition because of what
happened within its walls. The same fate befell 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester,
the location of Fred and Rosemary West’s terrible slaughters, and 5 College
Close, Soham, where Ian Huntley killed his young victims.
I’m sure the decision is the right one. Few people would ever want to live
in a house where murders were planned and executed, and only a macabre minority
would want to keep it as a memorial. Demolition seems very appropriate. Erasing
every brick and lintel is as close as we come to a symbolic ritual of closure.
It’s an attempt to wipe out the memory of what happened there: to obliterate
the past, and eradicate the traces of wickedness.
The problem is, of course, that wickedness is not expunged so easily. Many
excavations could yield testimony to things that are gone but not obliterated,
including acts of brutality and inhumanity. And although physical sites can
eventually be wiped clean, we all know that mental and emotional traces are
more difficult to remove. The inability to prevent the death of someone deeply
loved can leave survivors feeling tortured. Even after therapy, people who have
experienced atrocities may suffer the memory for years, the pain often passing
down the generations. For some people, the past is never wiped out, and its
effects remain long after visible scars have gone and after those who inflicted
the wrong are dead.
So, as with all the previous houses of horror, the agony associated with 67
Tay Street will not be eradicated with its demolition, however symbolically
necessary that might be. Yet this is not only because of the tenacity of pain,
or the persistence of long-term memory. It is also because, although they are a
sickening reminder of terrible wrongs, the bricks and mortar were not to blame.
They were bystanders, unwitting onlookers of human destruction, screening off
the cruelty that took place within. As they cannot be held accountable, erasing
them is not enough. Human symbolic gesture takes us only so far. Wickedness is
a human problem without an ultimate human solution.
Although our society has become sophisticated at recognising the need for
counselling, symbols, and closure, it is less good at identifying these
spiritually, in relation to God. Yet, because evil is not just a product of
time or material conditions, this is exactly where they need to be sought. C.
S. Lewis concludes this when he reflects on the way we make light of things we
did in the past, as though, with changing circumstances and passing time, their
significance diminishes. He suggests: "Mere time does nothing either to the
fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time, but by
repentance and the blood of Christ."
The Christian faith needs to provide a constant witness to our culture that
only God’s goodness can overcome human wrong, and bring any lasting healing for
the past. It must testify that the most powerful symbol is not the demolition
of a place where evil reigned, significant though that is. It is the simple act
of broken people sharing bread and wine in the hope of resurrection, knowing
that evil does not have the last word, because it has been defeated through
Dr Elaine Storkey is president of Tearfund and Senior Research Fellow at
Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.