Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Barefoot Child ~ Retrospective

Little angel Heather
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.

We may never know exactly how many young women died at the hands of Frederick and Rosemary West. But we can afford the ones we do know of the due respect they deserve. It was important for me that these young women were not simply portrayed as "victims" of "violent crime". They were real people who were expecting to go on with their lives. They had hopes and aspirations. The most compassionate thing I could do for these young women was to give them their humanity back. I could not escape the way they died but at least something of who they had been in life could be remembered. And there was a lot of incidental detail. For this reason I am most beholden to Marion Partington whose sister Lucy died at 25 Cromwell Street. Her book If You Sit Very Still was invaluable to me. As were the recollections of Caroline Roberts who survived.

The research for The Barefoot Child was extensive. I read every book I could find about the Wests. I read articles. I listened to police tapes of a rambling Frederick West confessing and retracting his confessions. I watched hours of documentary. I looked at blogs. There was a wealth of information. And gradually I gathered the fragments of Heather's life together. The more I learned about Heather from those who had known her, the more I grew to love her. Professionalism dictates that you keep an emotional distance between yourself and the subject. But I confess that this was difficult with Heather West. So much of her short life was affecting.

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.

There were countless times I was confronted by the kind of extreme abuse that rocked me to the core and horrified me to the pit of my stomach. "How can parents treat their own children like that?" I asked myself often. There were so many times I felt desperation and helplessness in the face of the appalling details. There were so many times I just wanted to take the West children and hug them. To comfort them. To alleviate their suffering. And I desperately wanted to save Heather from her fate. But I could not and this utterly devastated me. The locomotive had already started and was hurtling towards a horrible end.

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. 
At times the subject matter was so extreme that I had to take a step back from it. But I couldn't shy away from it. I couldn't sanitise it. It was the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. And it was real. It really happened. And it happened in the county town of Gloucestershire in the South West region of England. Listening and reading Mae and Stephen West attempting to make sense of the nonsensical was at times heartbreaking. They were trying to understand the incomprehensible.The life they knew at Cromwell Street, however dysfunctional, was their reality. Frederick and Rosemary West were the only parents they had ever known. Most of the West children remained loyal to Frederick West simply because he was not as violent towards them as Rosemary West. Anne Marie had been sexually abused by father and her stepmother from the age of eight until she escaped at fifteen. Her recollections of the sordid life style at 25 Cromwell Street provided a window into the sexual deviancy and depravity that Frederick and Rosemary West indulged in. Only after Anne Marie had gone, did the degenerate couple turn their attentions to Heather. The raw, harrowing and at times deeply affecting reminiscences of Anne Marie were vital to The Barefoot Child.

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.

Life at 25 Cromwell Street was the only life that Heather, Mae and Stephen West had ever known. Mae and Heather were particularly close. They understood one another. They talked about escaping 25 Cromwell Street together.There is some comfort in knowing that the three West children had each other. As Heather grew into a teenager, the relentless abuse she suffered began to take its toll on her. At home she was quiet and withdrawn and at school she veered between being a model pupil and a rebellious teenager. And she recoiled from other men. All things considered, this bears all the hallmarks of an abused child. If anyone had actually cared enough to look closer.

Three weeks before she died, a tearful Heather finally broke her silence and told her best friend what was happening at home. Denise Harrison had already seen the bruises and weal marks on Heather's body and she believed her. But tragically her parents did not. Denise never saw Heather again. Heather had tried to cry for help but there was nobody there to listen. One can only imagine the terror and desperation that Heather must have felt in the final days of her life. Her life depended upon finding a job that would take her away from Cromwell Street. Had she been able to secure a job she would have lived. But it was not to be. Heather had been brave to the very end. She stood up to her parents and it had cost her her life.

The details of Heather's death posed me with a dilemma and the biggest challenge of all. What to keep and what to leave out. I had to treat Frederick West's own recollections of what happened to Heather with extreme caution. He would dangle the truth like a carrot and then embellish it with a tissue of lies.

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.

In light of all these details, I decided to place both the reconstruction of Heather's death by Howard Sounes and the allegations by Barry West as both viable interpretations of Heather's final moments. Even though West's account is not corroborated by what has been established about Heather's last day. All we need to know is that Heather died at the hands of her parents in June 1987 and that she had been been brave to the very last. I can only pray that Heather's end came quickly.

It was important to me that I accord due respect to the principle people in Heather's story. The recollections of Mae, Stephen and Anne Marie were vital. The pattern of abuse established with Anne Marie would be perpetuated with Heather, I am indebted to Anne Marie for her recollections and her bravery. Another person who deserved attention was Charmaine West. She was just eight-years-old when she died. And like Heather, she had been defiant to the end. I found Marion Partington's book If You Sit Very Still to be an essential part of the journey. The book is profoundly moving and incredibly beautiful. Marion's sister Lucy died at 25 Cromwell Street and this book is her journey of healing. But the book is all about Lucy and the legacy of her life interrupted.

The extensive research took just over six months. Piecing it all together required great patience and finesse. Choosing what to keep and what to discard was challenging. Thankfully, Heather had a strong character and this made the human story so much more accessible. I included everything I could find about Heather. I let the recollections of Mae, Stephen and Anne Marie speak for themselves. Their words feature throughout The Barefoot Child and they give an invaluable insight into life at 25 Cromwell Street and a first hand account of Heather's last few years. Factual information was essential in giving an account of what occurred but the personal reminiscences of the West children were fundamental in giving the work a beating heart. It was also because of the bravery of Anne Marie and Caroline Roberts that Rosemary West was eventually incarcerated. Their voices contributed greatly to this story. And above all Heather who showed such courage in the face of relentless abuse and terror. Her voice rings true.

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 
During the course of writing The Barefoot Child, I had two powerful experiences. I had a "vision" in which I saw Heather standing on a beach. It was sunset. Heather was dressed in white. She had her back to me. She was looking out to sea. It was a vibrant yet incredibly peaceful scene. The sky was a deep purple. The sea was silver and glistening. I was concerned that Heather was alone. But she was content. I looked closer and saw that she was smiling. Heather wasn't alone at all. There was a huge presence pervading everything. Heather was at peace. And she was free. Free of them all.

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.

I am sincerely grateful to everyone who has joined me to remember Heather's brief but shining life. I am indebted to the West children: Mae, Stephen and Anne Marie. Without them there would have been no project. Marion Partington and all the writer's whose work so richly informed my own.

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.




  1. You have wrote this really well and I can honestly say I have enjoyed reading it. I feel the pain of yourself and Heather and I feel that some sort of capital punishment should be brought back when they know people have actually comitted these awful crimes. Carry on writing alex. This is really good,

  2. Thank you so much for your comments Linda. It means a lot. I feel strongly that Heather's story should be told and we should remember her not just as a "victim" of her parents but as the Barefoot Child.

  3. This is really good, you should right know, I knew her, (but right now I'm using a fake name) I feel her fear, anger and pain when I look at pictures when she's sad...but I've been in a similar situation myself...and I remember the Wests. Fred, I think, was lonely, and when the girls thrived to leave, he got angry...he had a metal plate in his head, so it was hard for him to handle anger and emotion, although it does not excuse him for what he did...

    1. Thank you Heather Anne. Your words are very important to me and they do mean a lot so if you ever want to share some more, I have added my email address. I feel very connected to Heather and feel very strongly that she should never be forgotten. My heart goes out to you for those similar experiences. Right now, more than ever, there should be support systems in place for children. If one person is touched by the story of Heather and spurred to do something positive for the protection of children then that will be amazing. But even if one person can love Heather and think of her as a bright Gloucester teen who longed to live in the Forest of Dean and was brave to the her last moments on earth then I will have done my job. I am hoping to write a book some day and Heather will have a special place in it. My biggest regret is that I never knew Heather but now I feel I have Email -

  4. Replies
    1. No worries! I rewrote my own reply a couple of times! Your words and insight are much appreciated. Much love to you

  5. I just recently became aware of the crimes of these two people (her parents).
    And by reading your page, I became a little more informed about Heather's ordeal.
    I want to wish you luck on you book. Also and to add a little of my own memorial for this
    young girl; who suffered so much at the hands of her own parents. Life is such a violent happenstance; and it knows no bounds, nor, knows innocence, nor pity...Sadly, we, as a race, are left to deal with such horrendous results...(I hope I can make myself understood on my outpouring of feelings about this...)
    Heather West, in a way; personally reminds me of the innocence portrayed very much by American actress Winona Ryder in the "Girl Interrupted" film. At first I thought that the movie was based on the life of Heather West's life, but It turned out to be a film based on Susanna Kaysen's own personal psychological experiences.
    A feeling of helplessness, is all that is left on most these situations.The not being able to do something to help, because these facts appear sometimes so long after they took place...and even if they are happening as we speak, the not knowing, is what makes this crimes the most disheartening...Thanks for allowing me to share my feelings about Heather in this page.

    1. Hello Juan,
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings. It is wonderful to read your comments because I am always touched to know how Heather's life and story has affected readers. And I am deeply moved to know she has struck such a chord with readers all around the world - so many people. I feel very connected to Heather. My biggest regret in life will always be that I never knew Heather here because I would have loved to, and to have been her friend. But I really feel I am now... I can certainly relate to the helplessness of which you write and the awful inevitability of it all. There were so many times I wished I could have written another ending for Heather - that she escaped 25 Cromwell Street with her sister Mae and that she went on to do good things with her life. But sadly I couldn't do that. My greatest consolation is in the "experiences" I have had while telling her story. Heather is my angel. And I hope people will come to love her as much as I do.
      Heather was such a brave girl and this is how we should remember her. Her last moments on Earth were spent in her standing up to her parents. Frederick and Rosemary West - the most prolific serial killing couple in history, and Heather stood up to them to the very end. This is how we must remember her - a pretty Gloucester teen, so bright and spirited and who was so brave to the last moments of her life.
      "Girl Interrupted" is a powerful movie and Winona is marvelous in it. And I think Brittany Murphy makes a particular impression in it too (gone so young).
      My journey with Heather West is really only just beginning and I just want to say thank you for joining me on it. There is much more to come ...
      All Love to you, Juan.

  6. Damn you Karas you made me fall in love with her. But seriously there is a powerful spiritual aura surrounding this one, it started just with a casual look into serial killer documentaries, then I saw her eyes and she got me, I had to find out more and you got me. I am someone who feels connected with nature and the old Germanic culture and the ways of the forest so I could also relate to her desires of freedom.

    Here is a folk song which reminds me of her:

    1. As I writer, I couldn't ask for more wonderful comments. Thank you Jan and thank you for this powerful song because it bought tears to my eyes. Your connection to nature also resonates with me and of course angel Heather. In my heart I know her spirit is free now, but her story must be told and she must never be forgotten. Thank you Jan because your words mean a lot.

  7. "When you stand at the gates of Hel
    and when you have to tear free
    I will follow you
    Past the bridge of Gjöll with my song

    You become free from the bonds that bind you!
    You are free from the bonds that bound you! "

  8. Ive always felt that Fred and Rose killed many more - as they said, 'buried under the paving slabs of Gloucester'. Elizabeth Swan was no doubt killed by them yet receives no media attention. When Fred was arrested, a number of Jamaican men from Gloucester were arrested and later charged with child abuse connected to girls Fred also abused...I feel these men could give more answers.

    1. Thank you RJ Smith for your comment. I'm sure you are right. There is also reason to believe that Fred West began his murderous career in Scotland when he lived there with his first wife Rena. He was almost certainly linked to a paedophile ring there.