It’s the day after International Women’s Day, and I’ve spent the day pottering around the house and clearing out my room, to make space for a desk and create a little office to study in. Whilst culling my books, using the strict and brutal rule of “if I’m not going to read it again, give it to charity”, I came across The Map of My Life – The Story of Emma Humphreys. From the blurb:
Convicted aged 17 of murder, Emma spent 10 years in prison before being released by the Court of Appeal in 1995. She was welcomed by hundreds of cheering supporters, her case having changed the law for battered women who kill. Emma’s tragic death, three years later, from an accidental overdose of prescribed medication, created shock waves for those saw her as the ultimate survivor.
I confess I’ve never read the whole book. I have often, as I did today, dipped in to it and read one or two of her poems, or some of the passages written about her, but I rarely manage more than a few pages before tears overtake me and I can’t go on. Emma’s death was truly tragic, but it surprises me that I still can’t think deeply about her without crying. I wonder whether it is because I was so young when I met her, so that I am unable to think about her life and death from the perspective of an adult; or perhaps it would affect me just as deeply if I had met her now.
My memories of Emma’s appeal and ultimate release from prison are some of the clearest of my childhood, and most of them are very fond. I remember my mum coming to my school to explain to my teacher, Barbara, that she wanted to take me and my friend Salli out of class for a couple of days to attend a protest outside the Court of Appeal (Barbara’s response was a very enthusiastic yes!). I remember those days, Salli and I happily taking the megaphone and shouting the chants that we’d been taught. I remember the sense of being a part of something important, but not fully comprehending what. I knew that there had been an injustice, that Emma had led a life of unbearable cruelty, that she had been convicted of murder for what surely amounted to self-defence. We shouted “change the law on provocation” but I don’t think I really knew what that meant. At the age of 11, I probably thought that most children got to be involved in campaigns that make legal precedent…
My mum had been closely involved in Emma’s case for some time (she counselled Emma in prison in the lead up to her appeal), and we just got to join in for the big finish. But clearly having two boisterous young girls at the front of the crowd appealed to the media, and so my involvement in those few days is well documented. Emma’s release was front-page news, including the entire of the front page of the Guardian on 8 July 1995. I don’t have the picture to hand (as it is pre-1999, it is in the Guardian’s digital archive and behind a paywall), but I can remember it. Her book describes “a half-page portrait photograph of a smiling, somewhat bewildered looking young woman”. I remember that expression. I remember Emma emerging through the huge doors into the archway at the Royal Courts of Justice with my mum and others. And I remember Salli and I being sent up to congratulate her, holding a balloon. Many of the photos that graced the papers show Emma with two small girls in huge red t-shirts. That’s us, and it was the first time we saw her in the flesh. I remember being startled by how frail she seemed. But I can’t comprehend how overwhelming it must have been for her, emerging into the media circus. The front cover of her book features a painting by Lucy Edkins of Emma in a truly iconic pose, holding the peace sign as she poses for photographs and crowds around her cheer. And again, two small girls and a balloon are by her side.
My memories of the years following her release, and her death, are less clear. Emma’s life after prison was chaotic, and perhaps there was an intentional decision to keep us at a distance.
Some years later, I was in my school library and flicking through the Guardian. In an article about a new case which must have been drawing on the provocation defence, there was another large photo of me and Salli. I made a copy and proudly took it home to my mum, who suggested that we write to the paper and ask for a print of the photo. They kindly sent me a full size colour image, which has been framed and is on my wall to this day.
I am incredibly proud, and grateful, to have been a small part of the campaign which saw Emma freed, and which has had lasting effect on the law. I wish I had the chance to get to know her better as a person, and not just as a case.
So, for International Women’s Day, I’d like to say thank you to Emma, to my mum, to Barbara, and to all the incredible women who were involved in Emma’s case. I am deeply privileged to have grown up surrounded by such strong women, who showed me from a very early age that we can go out and make things better. I only hope that I can fill those shoes.