Rebecca Peyton: My grief made me dance, drink and cry
Within days of her sister's death, Rebecca Peyton was strangely exuberant. She tells Alice-Azania Jarvis how loss can manifest itself in mysterious ways
Tuesday 17 August 2010
"Actually, the first idea I had was something called 101 Uses For Your Murdered Sister," reflects Rebecca Peyton. "I sat on the bus and wrote down all the things that I'd had the chance to do because of the fact that Kate had been murdered."
We are sitting in a vaulted, panelled space – part attic, part theatre – above the dining room of west London's Frontline Club. Downstairs, in an artlessly arranged display case, a single black-and-white photograph of Rebecca's sister Kate is perched, surrounded by a clutter of unmarked mementos.
Kate Peyton, a successful journalist and senior producer at the BBC's Johannesburg bureau, was shot dead five years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia. A renowned voice of reason in the field, she had, it subsequently emerged, accepted the posting against her better judgement. Emails to her fiancé, with whom she was poised to embark on a quieter life away from the cut-and-thrust of foreign postings, betray a distressing distrust for the job at hand. "I am drowning," she wrote in one. Shortly before her deployment, she had been called into a meeting with the bureau chief, Milton Nkosi, who criticised her for her "lack of focus".
Within hours of the event, Kate's death was being reported around the world. Inevitably, friends and acquaintances who could not be warned in time learned of the killing via the impersonal medium of the television screen – something that was both a blessing and a curse for her family. "There is this very strange nature of it seeing it on the news and having people phone you," recalls Rebecca. "It gives it a kind of affirmation: this event is huge for me and it has an appropriate size. But then there was no chance to fulfil that desire for it not to be true. There was never any place for it not to be happening. And as a result, I still don't quite engage with the news media like I did."
What followed was a very public inquest. Why, it was asked, was Kate put at risk? Why was she feeling under pressure at the time? It's the sort of self-exorcism that the BBC does so well, though this one was without that characteristic knuckle-gnawing of the post-Sachsgate corporation. Instead, Kate's bosses remained defiant. The horror of it – of losing a sister to a murderous bullet, of having the news, sensational as it was, being reported on the television, on the radio, in the papers and then of having the whole thing dragged out in a courtroom – is almost impossible to imagine. How do you cope with something like that?
To their immense credit, Kate's family threw themselves into campaigning for more rigorous checks on journalistic risk – the sort of constructive activity that frequently follows such public grievance, but which cannot account for the entire emotional response. For her part, Rebecca, the youngest of three children, experienced a sudden and profound burst of creative exuberance. "I wanted to go out dancing every weekend. I drank a lot more than before. I wanted to talk about things that mattered. And within days I was thinking, 'There's something for me to do here.'"
There was, and the result is Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister, a one-woman play which Rebecca is currently staging at the Edinburgh Festival. Part memoir, part observational comedy, it reflects on the torrent of events unleashed on the Peyton family in the wake of Kate's death.
Our response to grief is a curious thing, so conditioned is it by social norms. Rebecca's reaction – the drinking, the dancing, the desire to express herself – is not really so very unusual. Still, it seems it wasn't quite what everyone around her was expecting.
"Some of my friends were great, and without them I wouldn't be here today. But there are others who don't speak to me any more. There are people who didn't appreciate me getting really upset. They see death as a topic for certain situations and not others. For a long time, all I was – all I could be – was Kate's murder."
It wasn't her first experience with the all-enveloping silence that follows such a loss. Rebecca's father died in a traffic accident when she was six. Even then, she was struck by the taboo that had sprung up overnight.
In Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister, Rebecca posits a "new etiquette" for loss, a rather appealing idea that would, were it widely followed, have eased both the difficulties she encountered in grieving, and that all-too-familiar discomfort that can envelop those around the bereaved.
It is all right to be upset, she argues, and it is alright to wear your grief on your sleeve, whether it means interrupting a friend's dinner with unprompted tears, or laughing at the wrong moment. People should be allowed to work through their emotions without concern for convention. "The English are very good at covering up and putting on a brave face," she explains. "Often, if you show you're unhappy, people's response is to apologise – but the thing is, you're not upset because of them. They are bearing witness, which is actually a wonderful thing to do."
She is unsure what to expect from the audience, whether the baring of her soul will be rewarded or rejected entirely. Early indications are good. Rebecca reports audience members flocking to share their experiences. One particular gut-wrenching tale involved a woman who told how her childhood friend had been stabbed while the pair stood queuing at a shop. It happened 30 years ago but, so concerned was she with the possibility of acting out of place, that she had spent the intervening years denying her urge to talk about it.
Even more trying, potentially at least, has been the prospect of Rebecca's family watching. Her elder brother, Charles, was at the forefront of the public campaign to find justice for Kate and has already offered a consulting eye, as have several close friends.
"I said to them, 'You don't have to have anything to do with the show.' It has been very difficult for some friends of mine. They have really seen me going through the wringer and now they are seeing me essentially having fun with that. But Charles liked it, which was an enormous relief."
The play is also a chance for Rebecca to say her part, something she did not always get to do during the combative experience of the inquest. Despite her family's insistence that their aim was not to apportion blame for Kate's death but to learn lessons from it, their campaign was, by some, seen as a straightforward bit of BBC-bashing.
"You don't have the control that you think you might like. Once, I met one of the best-known journalists in the UK. He was a hero of mine, so I introduced myself. He replied, 'So I understand you think Kate was forced to go to Somalia.' It was just so frustrating that people were putting words in our mouth," she says.
Of course, by writing a play about her experience, Rebecca runs the risk of reigniting such misunderstandings. Should the worst happen and her efforts be met with incomprehension, or audience rejection, she insists she will remain undaunted. Ultimately, the whole process, from writing the script with director Martin Bartelt to performing it before a crowd, has been an exercise in personal grieving.
"The thing is, I'm not trying to say this is what everyone should do – there is no right and wrong. The show is a way of reaching out, and I'm lucky I have something I want to do. Because death is not OK, and you deal with it the way you need to – whether that is to sing now or to cry later."
Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister runs until 30 August at the Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh
The new etiquette for loss
Don't feel you have to wait for the bereaved to get in touch. Reach out to them, whether by phone or in person. Invite them to social events as usual. If they don't feel up to it, they can make that decision better than you.
Unless you are a professional, it is never a good idea to force people to discuss what they don't want to. On the other hand, they may well want to talk about their loss and about what they are experiencing and feeling in the wake of it.
Different people express their grief in different ways. Laughing at a situation may well be a way of coping with it or processing it. A sudden burst of energy might be therapeutic. Likewise a period of depression, or the desire to spend time alone, may all be a quite natural response.
There is no set period for grieving. Much as you may miss your friend's "old way" of behaving, give them time to work through things. Their loss will never go away, but eventually they will learn to live with it. Give them time.
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