“There was never a moment when I believed Dad to be innocent.”
The true and terrible story of surviving a childhood with Fred and Rose West.
24 February 1994.
“To say that I was in shock doesn’t even begin to describe my state of mind. Despite a strange and deeply abusive upbringing, I’d known nothing of my dad’s and later, as I have come to accept, my mum’s murderous crimes.
Nothing can possibly prepare you for such an experience. I felt numb, as though it was all happening to someone else, and yet I knew it wasn’t. I knew this was my life and nothing would ever be the same again.”
25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. Rose and Fred West.
HM PRISON DURHAM “I want you to feel that you can talk to me about anything. You must feel awful sometimes and I know you feel very isolated at times. I know I miss you so much sometimes that I feel angry. It must be really rotten for you when you need a family member to talk to or you need mum to sound off to . . . I love you and I want to do anything I can do to help you get over things and to be as happy as possible!!! Love as always, Mum”
It was January 1996. I was nearly nine months’ pregnant. All I knew for sure, having been told at my twenty-week scan, was that I was having a girl. Everything else was uncertain. I expect most women get nervous as the birth of their first child approaches. I certainly was. All kinds of worries enter your mind. Will the baby arrive on its due date, or be early or late? How painful will it be? Will there be complications? What will I feel when I see my baby for the first time? Will I feel love straight away or does that take time? And, as the years pass, will I be a good mum? Will my child love me? I imagine it’s a time when many women turn to their mothers for advice and support. Perhaps sometimes even asking them to be there at the birth.
But I knew that for me that was not going to be possible, because my mother was Rose West.
Only two months earlier, in November 1995, she’d been convicted of the murder of nine young women and a little girl at one of the most notorious criminal trials in history. One of those young women was my sister, Heather. My mother had been sentenced to life imprisonment and told by the judge that she should never be released.
In the eyes of many, she was the most evil woman that had ever lived.
After my mother’s conviction I decided to make a clean break from Gloucester, the city where I had grown up and where, at 25 Cromwell Street, the crimes of both my mother and father, Fred West, had come to light. I needed to start a new life for my baby and myself in a new town, far away from my own terrifying childhood memories and where I hoped the Fred and Rose West legacy would not follow and haunt us. For many reasons, which I’ll come to later, there wasn’t much time to plan or think through how or where to do this. But I knew I had to try. I ended up renting a three bedroomed house twenty-five miles away with my haIf-sister Tara and her toddler son, Nathan. Tara was nineteen and I was twenty three. We didn’t know anyone and couldn’t risk anyone finding out who we were, so we kept our heads down.
Tara and I could only depend on each other. When she went out I felt very anxious, the unfamiliar creaks from the pipes or sudden sounds from next door would make my heart race, and I’d have one eye trained on our front door the whole time waiting for her to come back through it. On the rare occasions when we went out together, just to a café for a cup of tea, I’d do my best to sit where I couldn’t be seen and yet always make sure I knew where the door was so I could get out in a hurry if we were recognised. Tara and I were totally alone in that town but at least it meant we had a chance of escaping the media attention.
As my due date drew near, the baby stopped moving as much as she had been and I became very worried. I had no clue if this was normal or not. It was one of the many things I might have asked Mum’s advice about if she had been there; after all, she’d had eight children of her own. But of course I couldn’t, and, although Tara had a baby, she was only a young mum with little experience. So I rang the hospital Cheltenham General and they told me to come in so they could monitor me.
The hospital was a grim, depressing place with a grey stone facade and huge windows which made it look like an asylum, but at least it was clean and the best thing about it was that it wasn’t Gloucester. I didn’t want my baby to be born with Gloucester on her birth certificate.
After a day or so of being monitored, the doctors said everything was fine and before long I went into labour naturally. Tara came in to be with me; growing up, us kids had to stick together as best we could to survive Dad’s advances and Mum’s rage, so having her there was a familiar comfort. I had also been with her when she gave birth to Nathan, so it was nice to have her support in return. But I was still frightened. Mum had always made childbirth sound so easy. She used to speak about it in such a matter-of-fact way, as if it was like shelling peas. She never mentioned pain or complications.
I remember the midwife who gave me my initial examination did nothing to make me feel better. ‘We’II not be taking you to the labour ward yet,’ she said dismissively, as if I had been wasting her time.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘You’re only two centimetres dilated. You need to be at least five before we take you down.’
Her manner was cold and unsympathetic, or perhaps because I was so on edge and for so many reasons it came across that way to me. Thank goodness I at least had Tara for support. We waited together as my labour continued and eventually I got to five centimetres and the midwife agreed we could go down to the labour ward. The pain was unbearable, but then they gave me an epidural and after that I just lay there, in the tiny room, talking to Tara. Waiting. But after thirty hours of labour there was still no sign of the baby being born. I was so tired. I wondered how Mum could have done this eight times over. I worried I was doing something wrong. And when there were pauses in mine and Tara’s conversation, I found myself wishing Heather had been with me too.
Eventually the doctor and midwife said I was fully dilated and needed to start pushing. I did as I was told. I tried and tried until I thought I must be blue in the face and the blood vessels in my eyes were going to burst. Still there was no sign of my baby. Eventually they said I was going to have to have a Caesarean. I began to get really upset. I was fighting back tears. I told them I didn’t want that, I wanted to have a normal birth. I couldn’t tell them the reason that so much in my life had been abnormal, that I lacked confidence about becoming a mum and it felt so important that I could bring my baby into this world as most other babies arrive.
They didn’t seem to be paying attention in any case. A midwife gave me some tablets which she said I needed to take before having the Caesarean. But then a young doctor, seeing how upset I was, said they’d give it one more go using the Vento use, a kind of vacuum device that they put onto the head to help draw the baby out. I was given another top-up of the epidural and then they took part of the bed away. I could hear a machine start up and the doctor got to work, and then after all that pain and panic within seconds she was born.
Ruddy-faced, chubby-armed, beautiful and mine. They laid her on my stomach; she felt so small and yet so heavy at the same time.
I looked at her and thought, At last she’s here. My baby, to care for and love. Tara was crying. ‘She’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen,’ she said. I was utterly exhausted and there were so many monitors beeping and tubes coming out of my arm, but it was worth it. She was here. My daughter, Amy.
One of the midwives weighed her. She was 7lb 60z, ten fingers, ten toes, completely healthy and normal except for her cone-shaped head caused by the ventouse, which they said would go down in a few days. l was cleaned up and we were both moved to a ward with other mums and newborns. It was mid-afternoon and Tara seemed almost as exhausted as I was. She’d been a tower of strength for me throughout. I told her to go home and get some rest.
My legs were still numb from the epidural and at some point in the night I tried to get out of bed but fell on the floor and hurt my back. It was just like me thinking I could carry on as normal with things instead of resting. I sat on the cold lino floor and looked around me at the unfamiliar surroundings: at the bright strip lighting out in the corridor and at the other beds with the sleeping mums in; girls like me with newborn babies but who weren’t like me at all. I sat back on the bed and, with Tara gone, emotions which I’d managed to hold back suddenly began to well up inside me; my throat and chest felt tight and for a second I thought I was going to cry.
Then I looked into the clear plastic cot next to me, Amy was asleep. She looked so tiny and vulnerable. I lay back down and just stared at her, watching her tiny chest rise and fall, and, gradually, because she seemed so content and settled, became calmer myself. I kept thinking, She’s mine, someone in my life to give love to and get love back from. It was something magical to hold onto. But, despite everything, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, I wish Mum was here to see her. Eventually I fell asleep.
The following day was hard. All the other mums seemed to have lots of visitors with balloons, flowers and cards. I was so relieved when Tara came back to visit me. I felt really ill, sore and tired. I’d started to get fluid retention from the epidural, my legs had swollen and I couldn’t move very well, but I wanted to show the midwives that I could do whatever was necessary to look after Amy. Unlike now, when maternity wards discharge you as soon as they can, you weren’t allowed to leave before then. One of the things you had to be able to do was make up a bottle correctly.
‘Have you ever done this before?’ the midwife asked me.
‘Plenty of times,’ I told her.
‘But this is your first baby, isn’t it?’
‘I come from a big family. I had to do it for my younger brothers and sisters.’ I felt myself go red suddenly wondering if I’d given something away, if she’d start asking me questions about them.
But she didn’t notice. ‘Show me,’ she said.
She stood and watched as I made up a bottle of formula milk, before saying she was satisfied that I knew how to do it.
But because of the fluid retention they weren’t ready to discharge me, so I went back to the ward. Another midwife came to ask if I wanted a magazine to read while Amy was asleep. I was grateful and a few minutes later she returned with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine. I began to browse through it: post-Christmas diets, hair tips and then to my horror I turned the page to see an article about women who kill. One of the women featured was my mum. I tried to tear my eyes away but I couldn’t: as I scanned the article I found myself reading about all the crimes my mum had been convicted of, her life with my dad, the discovery of the bodies of nine young women who had been sexually assaulted, dismembered and buried at the so-called ‘House of Horrors’, 25 Cromwell Street, where I’d grown up and my dad’s suicide a year before.
I felt sick. The realisation that I would never be able to truly escape what had happened began to close in on me, making me feel crushed and helpless. Then I started to wonder if the midwife had deliberately given me the magazine. Perhaps she’d realised who I was? It seemed perfectly plausible to me because although my maternity notes were in my new name, the staff might have access to my old GP’s records and have worked out that I was the daughter of Fred and Rosemary West. Had they given me the magazine as some kind of cruel joke?
I knew deep down that that was so unlikely, but I couldn’t completely shake off the suspicion. I kept trying to tell myself it was sheer coincidence, but I felt as if the staff were watching me. One of the midwives had told me to keep Amy lying flat because there was mucus on her chest. But when Tara came to visit that evening she wanted to have a quick cuddle with Amy. She picked Amy up out of the cot, but the midwife saw her and came over.
‘I told you to keep her lying down,’ she snapped, and snatched Amy from Tara.
‘I only wanted to hold her for a minute!’ said Tara, upset.
‘She’s my sister, please let her,’ I said.
The midwife was having none of it. ‘I don’t care who she is. You’re the mother, you should be doing what’s best for the baby!’
That midwife couldn’t have known how much saying a thing like that would affect me, but it was horrible and humiliating and threatened to destroy what little confidence I had in myself to be a good mum to Amy. The hospital had felt cold to me from the start but now it seemed as if everyone was against me. All I wanted to do was pick Amy up and run away out of there.
Eventually, on the Sunday, I was discharged. I wasn’t in a relationship with Amy’s dad by that point, but he drove all the way down from Essex to see her and brought a new baby seat for her so we could take her home.
So there I was, finally, in my new home with my new baby, hoping against hope I could make a new life for us, but afraid too that my old life would always keep following me, that I would never escape the stigma of being the daughter of Fred and Rose West. Even if I could escape it, even if I could succeed in blocking out the memory of Dad and keeping Mum out of sight, I knew there would always be something missing; a feeling that something was gone, an absence where Heather should have been.
And deep inside me was the echo of a question I will never be able to answer: why had I survived, why had I been the one lucky enough to have a beautiful child of my own when she hadn’t?
Into the Nightmare
It’s Wednesday and another letter from Mum has arrived. She wants to make things easier for us both, and has asked me to write to her with the things I need answers to most. I don’t know where to start. How much did you know? How much did you do? I want the truth but I don’t know where to begin, or even if I can trust that’s what she’ll give me. I feel completely alone, and she knows that . . .
HM PRISON DURHAM There must be a thousand things all rattling around inside your head so please remember my beautiful daughter. I’m HERE FOR YOU!!! Love, as always, Mum xxx
From the moment police officers arrived, on 24 February 1994, with a warrant to search our home for the body of my sister Heather, it was as if I’d walked into a nightmare. As my father Fred West was arrested, our house dismantled, our garden excavated and the remains of the victims began to be unearthed, my mum and I (and, to begin with, my brother Steve too) were placed in a series of ‘safe houses’ by the police.
To say that I was in shock doesn’t even begin to describe my state of mind. Despite a strange and deeply abusive upbringing, I’d known nothing of my dad’s and later, as I have come to accept, my mum’s murderous crimes. Nothing can possibly prepare you for such an experience. I felt numb, as though it was all happening to someone else, and yet I knew it wasn’t. I knew this was my life and nothing would ever be the same again.
We’d always been a very private family. “What happens in this house is our business and nobody else’s!’ Mum would say. We’d hardly ever have anyone but family round and it was up to Mum and Dad who came over the threshold. And yet suddenly our home was at the centre of the entire country’s attention. It was literally being taken apart, every shelf, cupboard and wardrobe searched and dismantled, every floorboard lifted, all our memories now evidence. And all the while I was trying desperately to cling onto some sense of reality, to get my head round at least some of what was happening.
In the following days, as the body of my sister Heather and those of the other young women were discovered, I had little trouble accepting that Dad was responsible for what had happened to them. It’s hard to get across the two sides of Dad’s character; he wasn’t violent like Mum was, he’d even defend us sometimes when she was going at us hell for leather. But he was a strange man, who we knew had dark and horrible interests, and all of us kids eventually became suspicious about what he might be capable of.
Not that it wasn‘t still the most terrible shock, serial murder, on that scale, carried out in that way, was beyond anything we could have imagined. Yet, as the details of the murders began to emerge, the sexual abuse of those young women before they’d died, the dismembering of their bodies, their burial inside and behind the house we’d played and grown up in, there was never a moment when I believed Dad to be innocent of them. Looking back, that was one thing at least which helped me to keep some sort of grip on my sanity.
With Mum it was different. Though the police treated her as a suspect from the beginning, it was some time before she was formally arrested and questioned. When that did eventually happen and even when she later stood trial there was no direct forensic or witness evidence against her. Mum’s guilt or innocence has always been more a matter of opinion and judgement of her character of what she was considered capable of doing rather than about concrete proof. From the very beginning she denied all knowledge of the murders and blamed everything on Dad, something she still does to this day.
‘That fucking man, Mae, the trouble he’s caused me over the years! And now this! Can you believe it?’
She’d always had a sharp tongue and she was relentless in her anger towards him. She never for a moment seemed to doubt that I believed her. She had this powerful emotional grip on me and she knew it. When I was young she often flew off the handle and would hit me and my brothers and sisters or take out her anger on whatever was around her. Yet as I grew older, reaching my later teens and twenties, she used to confide in me more and more: about her troubled childhood, her difficult family and her turbulent relationship with Dad. She seemed glad of my support and, looking back now, all these years later, I can see that she used that sense of obligation I felt towards her. She knew exactly how to make me feel sorry for her, and because of that she could always rely on me to take her side. So, when the murders came to light and she denied all knowledge of them, I believed her. Despite the turmoil I was in, it was something positive I could hold onto: that I was supporting my mother.
‘Thank God I’ve got you, Mae,’ she kept telling me in the safe house. ‘I don’t know how I’d be getting through any of this without you!’
I truly couldn’t imagine she was capable of such crimes. Especially the murder of Heather, her first baby, who I knew that, more than twenty years earlier, Mum’s parents had tried to force her to abort. She’d refused, absolutely determined to bring that baby into the world. Heather’s birth, she’d often told me, had given her such joy and fulfilment. So my loyalty to her never wavered, not even when the police finally came to arrest her on suspicion of murder. It didn‘t occur to me to doubt her. I never questioned that standing by her was the right thing to do. Steve had moved out of the safe house to live with his girlfriend by then so it was just Mum and me when they arrived to take her away. She was absolutely livid as they led her to the car, pushing, shoving and yelling at them: ‘You’ve no fucking right whatsoever to treat me like this! Fuck you, fuck the lot of you!’
I wished she hadn’t been so abusive towards them. I knew it wouldn’t help matters. But I also knew that it was her nature: she hated the police, hated everyone in authority in fact, and had done so since her childhood. Things had happened to her in her early life that gave her very good reason not to trust anyone in a position of power.
As the police bundled Mum into a car an officer told me I‘d have to leave the safe house. My heart thumped in my chest. ‘Leave? When?’
The officer looked around the only four walls I was safe within, ‘We can give you till the end of the day but that’s all.’
For a second I had no words. Then I managed to stutter, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’
‘Not back to Cromwell Street, that’s for sure. We’ve pretty well taken it to pieces. Besides it’s a crime scene.’
‘So what am I supposed to do?’
‘Sorry, love, can’t help you with that. I’m afraid you’re no longer our responsibility.’
I was stunned. I didn’t understand what they thought had changed that day for me to no longer need protection from the press. Afterwards, when they admitted to us that the house had been bugged, I realised it was because they had what they needed: I’d been interviewing Mum for them and now my job was over, I wasn’t needed any longer.
The police officer I spoke to walked out to the police car and I watched them drive Mum away. It’s strange now to think that was the last time I ever saw her in the ‘real’ world and not within a jail or a prison. But at that point in time, all I could focus on was that I had nowhere to go. The panic began to rise through me until I felt sick with it. I technically had a house in Gloucester, but I had rented it out a couple of years earlier when I moved back home after my younger siblings had been taken into care again to support Mum. Besides, I’d been told the press were now camped outside there, trying to find me.
Where else was there? I didn’t have friends or relatives that I thought would stand by me through something like this; it already felt as if I’d been tainted by what my parents had done. So I asked the police to make contact with Steve for me. He was staying with his girlfriend at her mother’s house and asked if she would put me up too. She agreed that I could stay that night, sleeping on the sofa, but it was made clear she didn’t want me there longer than that.
The following day, I sat on a patch of grass outside the house with Steve, trying to work out what to do. I’d had to quit my job immediately after Dad’s arrest earlier that month because of moving into the safe house away from the world’s press, so I also had no income or money saved. I couldn’t think of a place that would let me hide from them and live my life at the same time. Then Steve told me that the people at the News of the World who, much to Mum’s anger, he’d signed a contract with to tell our story wanted the two of us to do a book. I was adamantly against it, but he said they couldn’t do it without me, that it was a chance for us to put our side of the story across and would protect us from other press attention; that I’d never be able to get a job now and this was the only way I was going to get any money to live. I was twenty-one and naive, so I said yes.
It was all beyond surreal. I moved into a place on my own, I was visiting Mum, giving her moral support, even doing her laundry, and still having regular visits from the police who must have believed I might give them accidentally or otherwise evidence which would help to convict her. For months on end I just lived from day to day.
Then, out of the blue, as the long wait for my parents’ trial continued, came the news that my dad had committed suicide while on remand. I can’t say I felt sorrow, but he was still my dad, he’d been such a huge part of my life. I was in total shock. Things seemed to be spinning more and more out of control and it seemed that life could not get any worse. I found myself literally praying that I would wake up and find it really all had been a dream. I felt totally paralysed.
For a time I felt that I would be stuck in that state of mind, unable to make sense of any of it, forever. The idea of ever having any kind of future, let alone one worth living, was unimaginable. But time passed and events moved on and I had to get through them as best I could, and hope eventually to make some kind of life for myself.
Over twenty years have now passed, and this book is an attempt to tell the story I couldn’t have told then, because of the emotional turmoil I was in and because there was so much I could not possibly understand, not least how what had happened would affect my entire future life.
At the heart of it all is my changing relationship with my mother. The hardest part for me and something that has taken me years to be able to admit to myself, let alone to anyone else has not been coming to terms with the reality that she didn’t love and protect any of us as children, especially when we were young and at our most vulnerable. I think | always knew that part deep down, even though I find myself clinging to the hope that I’m wrong even now. No. The hardest part of all has been accepting that, despite her countless denials, she did play a part in the crimes she was accused of.
People may wonder how it’s possible to understand any of what happened. The crimes my parents committed are almost beyond comprehension, and among the most terrible and infamous in history. Only the crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and separately Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ and Harold Shipman, have been comparable. Journalists have filled countless column inches about them, writers have written books, criminologists and psychologists have studied them. The wider public understandably has remained both repelled and fascinated by them, struggling to make sense of them even with the advantage of looking at the story from the perspective of outsiders. Both myself and my brothers and sisters have had to wait a long time for a sense of perspective to arrive. From the day we were born, we were unknowingly caught up inside the story.
But my feeling is that only by looking at the story from the inside can any of it properly be understood. For us, Fred and Rose West were real people; 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, was our home, a real home not, as it has since become in the minds of many, a ‘House of Horrors’ as it was dubbed by the press. Although we all directly experienced terrible things at my parents’ hands from physical to emotional and sexual abuse none of us knew the worst they were capable of until the rest of the world found out.
What may be very hard for people to get their heads round is that, although nothing in our household was ever what other people might regard as ‘normal’, in many ways throughout my childhood we got on with our lives in the same way that other families do. We did ordinary things. We ate meals and watched TV together, celebrated birthdays and Christmas, and went on family holidays. Yes, there was abuse, misery, violence and distress, but it wasn’t constant and it certainly wasn’t the whole picture.
There was also laughter, tenderness and affection in the house. People may find that extraordinary, but it’s true. I don’t mean between my parents, although they did sometimes laugh and joke with one another and there were occasional flashes of what seemed like real affection towards us, their children. But the bonds between myself and my brothers and sisters were strong. We played and laughed, fell out and made up as siblings do in any normal family. Astonishing as it may seem, our family mattered deeply to us, as much as it does to any child and the focal point of our lives was our home.
Later on, after the remains of the victims were found and our house became the ‘House of Horrors’, it was obviously impossible for us to see the place in the same way. Yet even now for me, though 25 Cromwell Street was long ago demolished and I can’t detach it from the dreadful things that happened there, it remains, in my mind, a home. One with terrible memories and associations, but a home nonetheless. Being able to think and accept both those things at the same time is something that doesn’t seem logical, but that’s the honest truth.
Love As always, Mum
by Mae West
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