The Map of My Life: The Story of Emma Humphreys, edited by Julie Bindel and Harriet Wistrich

Next up in commemoration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, and in contrast to yesterday’s collection of relatively sedate biographies of over-achieving Victorian ladies, the story of a 20th century prostitute whose acquittal of her partner’s murder transformed the British legal system. It’s a roller coaster journey at Brontë’s Page Turners, this reading lark

Emma Humphreys was jailed in 1985 at the age of 17 for the murder of her abusive partner Trevor Armitage. Following a successful campaign by Justice for Women, a feminist law-reform group set up to challenge the murder convictions of women who kill violent men, the murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of long-term provocation and Emma was released in 1995. She died from an accidental overdose just three years later at the age of 30.

Emma had always wanted to write her life story. Therefore supporters from Justice for Women compiled this ‘autobiography’ by combining the life story Emma wrote whilst in Durham Prison (covering her abusive childhood, work as a prostitute in Nottingham, and relationship with Trevor Armitage) with diary extracts (begun as a teenager in youth detention: ‘…am I going to live my whole life in institutions…or will I some day find someone who really cares about me…Should I really keep living, what am I going to find?’), psychiatric reports, letters, friends’ accounts of her post-prison life, and, most powerfully, her own poetry. These sources are not easy reading but together they provide an insight into members of society whose story often remains untold: abused children, prostitutes, and prisoners.

The book also includes a fascinating account of the legal fight for Emma’s release, including an analysis – shocking to read given that this application of law existed in living memory –  of how the defence of provocation was used frequently to justify male violence against women but not female retaliation to male violence, until Emma’s case increased the courts’ willingness to consider long-term provocation (‘battered wives’ syndrome’) as a defence.

Of course, however well-intentioned her supporters are, we cannot be sure that this is Emma’s story as she would have told it: it is the story presented by her (mostly educated and middle-class) supporters’ selection of the source material. Despite this, Emma’s voice can be identified, in particular through her poetry. One wonders what creative life she may have led had she been given the opportunity.

Moreover, Emma’s supporters do not shy away from portraying the more difficult parts of her personality, and, by therefore replacing our simple understanding of ‘The Victim’ with a more nuanced picture of an interesting but imperfect individual, we are reminded of the individuals that exist behind the appalling statistics of domestic violence – those two women who are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. In telling Emma’s story, her supporters give voice to the battered women who do not make the headlines, whilst reminding us how it is only recently that we have begun to win the battle to make the law stand up for these women.

The Borderline

To slip over the edge

Would be like

To carelessly write

Over the edges of this paper.

If you want to know

Where my sanity lies,

Just feel the edges

Of this paper you are holding.

That’s where it lies,

My dividing line –

The absolute borderline

Between my sanity and insanity.

Within these four corners

And sharp pointed edges

I shall contain my composure

Using available ink.

This safe place I’ve found

Is as precious as my soul;

I can write down my mind

In simple As, Bs and Cs.

I can be totally me

And totally selfish.

I can place dried-up tears

And recreate wiped-out smiles.

And now that I’ve found

Just where my borderline lies.

I shall search for nothing more

Than the freedom to feel and write.

Emma (centre) on her release from prison (thank you to The Guardian for this picture)


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