Margaret Mizen Interview: In the name of the son
Margaret Mizen talks to Stephen Tomkins about losing a son and changing the world
On Friday 9 May 2008, Jimmy Mizen celebrated his 16th birthday. The next morning, in a local Lewisham bakery with his brother, he was murdered, in an unprovoked attack.
It is hard to imagine the vicious anger that would make someone act like that towards an undeserving victim – or the hatred the murderer̕s family showed Jimmy’s family at the ensuing trial. But it’s no easier to imagine the grace with which Jimmy’s family responded to their loss. Eschewing anger and hate, his parents Margaret and Barry devoted themselves to promoting peace and forgiveness in Jimmy’s name. With an extraordinary empathy for perpetrators whose lives are blighted by their crimes, Margaret and Barry spend their time in schools and prisons around Britain, helping young people to find a better way to live.
Reform talked to Margaret Mizen at the office of the Jimmy Mizen Foundation in Hither Green, south east London. Her book Jimmy: A legacy of peace, co-written with Justin Butcher, was published by Lion Books last year.
Can you tell me a bit about Jimmy? What comes to mind when you think of him today?
He was just a beautiful boy. We always talk about him as a boy who sparkled. He was an easygoing, what-you-saw-was-what-you-got, all-round decent young man. I’m proud to be his mum.
10 May was the sixth anniversary of Jimmy’s death. Do you mark the day?
We do. The first two years we had memorial services, and the fifth we had a big service, but this year we decided to spend it as a family, pray around the grave and have a meal. It was much more painful this year, and we think it’s because it was the first Saturday – he was killed on a Saturday.
How does it feel to think that six years have passed since that day?
It’s gone too quick. I worry that I’m pulling further and further away from him, so I have to talk about him because I need that memory in my mind every minute.
The filmmaker who recorded the trial, Benjamin Kempf, said it was supposed to be a film about anger, but it turned out to be about love.
Maybe he was expecting to see us seething with anger – because we heard horrendous things. The defence tried to blame Jimmy, saying he was six foot four so that made him a bully, and there’s nothing you can do. But we didn’t go home ranting and raving. The only time there were tears, for me, was when we got the [guilty] verdict, and I came home and I cried like I had never cried before.
Why do you think that was?
Exhaustion, possibly. Or relief that we got the verdict. Maybe I was scared that that was it; everyone would forget Jimmy now.
You’ve made sure that a lot of good things have come out of Jimmy’s death – your work in schools and prisons. Was it a conscious decision to try to bring good out of bad?
Yes, it was, though it wasn’t a conscious decision to work in schools and prisons. When we spoke outside the church the day after Jimmy was killed, we knew that God was working in our lives, because we hadn’t planned to say anything, we’d never spoken to the press before, but these words came out, words that seemed to get the headlines.
People started coming to us. We went into a school – my knees were knocking together, and Barry’s – how can we speak to 200 young people? But we did it, and it felt right.
Then we got invited into prison, and we thought: “What are we going to see in there? Eighty boys who look like the boy who killed Jimmy?” We didn’t see that – any one of them could have been one of my sons under different circumstances. They came up to us, said they were sorry for our loss, cuddled us, some shared the fact that they’d committed murder themselves, cried on our shoulders. And so our prison work started.
Does that calling make your loss more bearable?
I have no idea. I loved being a mum and a housewife, and I felt when Jimmy was killed I became public property, my role was taken away. Now, for all the young people I meet, I want to be their mum, help them, guide them, give them the love many of them don’t get. Maybe that helps [me]. I don’t know.
How helpful can you be when there is so much need out there? Can you be a mum to so many young men?
Of course you can be helpful. You must never give up. I’ve been called “dizzily optimistic”, and I don’t care – I’m going to carry on. Young people in primary school absorb so much, and if you can get through to them, so they take that message on to secondary school, we’re a quarter of the way there.
What is that message?
“Help me work for peace.” They tell me you have to get all your keywords in or you can’t get funding: “leadership”, “change”. Forget all that. The right words for me are what God has given me: “Margaret, I want you to work for peace.” So that’s what I do.
I say to Year Sixes: “Will you help me? Will you work for peace? Will you do something in your school?” By that time they’re up for anything.
What kind of things will happen in the school as
In a lot of schools, we start a peace team and get them to come up with ideas. Assemblies. Artwork. A peace walk. They may have an issue with the local park, so they go there – obviously with support – get other schools involved, and see if they can make that park safer. They’re doing it little by little, and it gets etched in their minds.
Did you see in the local paper today an 18-year-old stabbed dead in Sydenham [four miles away]?
I did. Absolutely horrendous. When I hear of the death of another young person, it makes me more determined to keep my promise to Jimmy on the day he died, to keep his name alive and work for peace. But do you know what breaks my heart? A 13-year-old boy [among those arrested for the Sydenham stabbing], if convicted, has destroyed his own life. Though people do turn their lives around in prison, society will still want to crucify them. When Jake Fahri comes out, even if he turns his life around, he will always be known as the boy who killed Jimmy Mizen. And the journalist Erwin James, who committed murder, says people who take lives, night after night after night, see their faces. It doesn’t go away.
You’ve said God gave you empathy instead of anger and hatred. Some people struggle to overcome those feelings. Are they things that just don’t come naturally to you?
I think they must be, with God’s good grace. I’ve met a lot of parents in my situation – part of what we do here is peer support – and many have so much anger, and it’s destroying them. They say the perpetrators are “scum”, “Lock them up for life.” I find those difficult words. People need to reform in prison, some people do need to be locked up for longer, but we are too quick to condemn.
What does forgiveness mean to you?
Two days after Jimmy was killed the papers said: “Margaret and Barry forgive the boy who killed their son.” We thought: “We don’t forgive him!” But we realised forgiveness doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter; for me, it means not wanting to do to him what he did to Jimmy, not letting anger consume you like a poison. I hope he’s in prison turning his life around, and when he comes out again he’ll be a fairly decent human being.
In schools, I say: “I bet you’ve said: ‘I’ll never forgive you.̕ Well, next time you say it think of me. Everything is forgivable. When you don’t forgive it’s like a huge weight that pushes you down; when you forgive it’s like letting yourself free. You can look at the trees and flowers and think they’re beautiful; when you’re consumed with hate, everything is bleak.”
Are the rest of your family like you?
My husband is. My boys – I believe that if Barry and I had been angry, they’d have become more angry. There was anger, particularly from my older son, Danny: he was on a rugby tour so we had to phone him up and say his precious brother had been killed. He talked in the film about this huge anger and what he’d like to do to Jake – scare him the way he scared his little brother. Danny is six foot five, but he’s the gentlest of people, and he felt he wasn’t there to protect his brother. But I believe, not being angry, we’ve helped each other, so I thank God for that.
The way that Jake Fahri’s family behaved towards you at the trial was quite staggering.
I tried not to think about it at the time. The most distressing thing was the sister and girlfriend skipping in front of us. I do think about that occasionally. They love their son, and I don’t knock that. For a long time I’d drive past their house – they live down the road from me – and I’d try to make sense of how a person who lived there could be so violent. I mean it’s their own house, mum and dad both worked, he had his own business, I tried to understand why this family would do this. But now I don’t think about the family at all.
I don’t suppose I have time. My nights are spent thinking about our work. Sometimes my mind’s in turmoil about whether we’re doing it right. Sometimes I wake up thinking: “I’ve not been asleep yet!”
You don’t sleep well?
Not since Jimmy. The idea was I’d put all my thoughts into the book and get some rest, but it hasn’t really worked out.
Have you changed over the last six years?
I can do all these things I never did before, but I try to keep my feet firmly on the ground. The day we saw Prince Charles, we had an issue with one of our children; it was a bad day, and I remember saying to Barry: “We’ll go in and have a cup of tea, but then we’ve got to get back home.”
What about the pain that you carry? Has that changed?
In the early days, you’re thinking about it every minute of every day. You could cry at any second. I thought: “This can’t be true, I can’t possibly have lost one of my children.” But now I know I have lost one of my children. I suppose it’s easier to cope with.
My husband would say then his stomach was like a vice; pain just shot through him. He doesn’t have that so much now, but sometimes he longs to, because it’s a remembering and you’re scared of losing it.
Many couples seem to find it hard to stay together when they’ve suffered such a loss, but you seem to have managed.
Oh, we’ve had our moments! But, again, it was a conscious decision, because you’re right, we’ve met so many families who get split up by what’s happened. Barry is my very best friend. We share a faith and we pray together.
You clearly have a very strong faith. Where was God when an innocent 16-year-old was killed for no reason?
It’s the old blame game, isn’t it? The government should be doing more, the police should be doing more, it’s God’s fault. I never saw it like that. From the moment that Jimmy was killed, God was working in my life, guiding me, comforting me, giving me the strength to go on.
Two days after Jimmy died a radio presenter rang me and said: “How can you believe in a good God?” and I said: “Because he is a good God.” I remembered one day falling on my knees and saying: “I can’t go on,” and God lifting me up and saying: “Yes you can.” So let’s get away from the blame game.
You talk in the book about Jimmy’s death being part of God’s purpose.
Even the work I’m doing now I feel is God’s plan. Before Jimmy was killed there was no way at all I’d have gone into a school with 200 children, but in 2010 we spoke to 80,000 people in Hyde Park.
And because I believe in the saints and the angels, I believe that Jimmy was called to intercede for all the young people of this world, and it gives me a great deal of comfort.
You talk in the book about praying to Jimmy and him having that role. That seems a great gift of a Catholic faith.
After Jimmy was killed, Barry and I would pray every day. We thought of the words: “Our Father who art in heaven,” – well, my Jimmy’s in heaven. And we pray to Our Lady and to the saints, so praying to Jimmy was a simple thing. We asked a wise, old priest if we’re doing the right thing, and he said: “Absolutely.” We don’t pray to Jimmy, we pray that Jimmy will intercede for young people. Lives have been changed, and I believe that’s Jimmy’s doing. I’d rather have him in my arms than not, but I can’t, so I’ll do everything I can for the rest of our young people until I die.
This article was published in the July/August issue of Reform.