Voices: ‘It was like losing her to a cult’: My daughter was estranged, I know the Marten family’s pain

Voices: ‘It was like losing her to a cult’: My daughter was estranged, I know the Marten family’s pain

Napier Marten’s public appeal to his missing daughter Constance, with her few-days-old baby, imploring her to make herself known to the authorities for the safety and welfare of both, could hardly fail to move you.

“Darling Constance... I beseech you... you are much, much loved... we are deeply concerned for your and your baby’s welfare... Please, Constance...” he said. Even more poignantly, he added: “You and your wee one.” This stood out. He doesn’t know his new grandchild’s name – or even its sex.

“The past eight years have been beyond painful...” Marten went on, “as they must have been for you.”

Listening to Marten’s appeal, I was immediately taken back to a friend’s Christmas party. Seven or eight years ago, perhaps – pleasant company, lovely food and drink, carols. I was enjoying myself as best I could. Until, that is, our kind hostess asked for news of our daughter and I erupted into such racking, wild and keening sobs I had to leave the room.

I howled and heaved. Even long after calming down enough to return and apologise, on my way home I fell off my bicycle into the middle of the road. I barely cared if I’d hurt myself or if traffic came.

I spent that Christmas and the month or two either side with no idea whether our daughter was alive or dead. On hearing this, sometime later, my husband said: “But of course she was alive. We’d have heard, otherwise.”

How? Was she rough sleeping? Did she have ID? We had lived in an inner-city working vicarage for 14 years and knew that sleeping out in midwinter can easily claim anonymous lives.

For some years, contact with our much-loved daughter was at best on and off. For much of the time, we knew she was living with someone making her very ill indeed, though it was years before we discovered the true extent of it. Terrifying though that was, it was infinitely worse when we didn’t know. And there is absolutely nothing you can do.

I rang her therapist many times, begging for advice and help. I was told that she was technically a “competent adult”. The law must protect autonomy – I can see that. “But she is a vulnerable adult,” I would protest. She had been desperately ill for years. Several times she was a target for abuse.

Hearing Marten’s impassioned plea brings back more and more cruel memories. I remember her shortly after her graduation – stunning as a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding... and then she disappeared for months. My father, in his mid-nineties, began to ail. “We’ve got to contact her,” our son insisted.

He rang her “friend” – someone who was nearly twice her age and her self-appointed “carer”. We learnt she had been taken to hospital some weeks earlier with ligatures around her neck and admitted as an inpatient. He had known her life had been in danger and thought it appropriate not to tell us. It was already obvious to me he was fostering a rift between her and us, to make her ever more reliant.

But even he couldn’t stop the police contacting us some weeks later when she had left him a desperate note and disappeared into the night. Her 10-year-old sister, newly at boarding school, was pulled from her dormitory at 3am for the police to see if there were messages on her telephone. Later that night, she dreamt she was the one to find her sister’s body.

By morning, we were at the hospital where she’d turned up – but her “friend” had got there before us and already positioned himself as if he were next of kin. The hospital staff said she should come home with us, her family. We had been up all night, sick with worry; an hour earlier I had cancelled a work flight to the States. But he was an expert manipulator. Muddled, sleep-deprived and grief-maddened as we were, he outmanoeuvred us.

It was like losing her to a cult.

Before long, I witnessed how he did this to her. Shortly after that terrible incident – now living together and beyond our reach – the two of them turned up at our 10-year-old’s school and took her out for the weekend. We knew nothing about it until later. Appalled, we told the school it must never happen again and they put strict safeguards in place: our poor girl was the only pupil whose telephone calls were monitored.

Six months later, our daughter wanted to visit her younger sister again. Having not seen or heard from her for half a year, we said we would need to see her to be sure she was well enough. Yet he turned up too and tried to come in. “You want to go in alone…?” he said to her – as if we were dangerous and coercive people who could do her untold damage. No wonder she was growing ever more distant.

I can’t call him her “partner”, though they lived as such to the casual observer. (He was besotted with her, sure, and asked her to marry him many times. But she never loved him and lived with him only because she was so ill and vulnerable and he promised to care for her better than her family.)

Several times I rang the police, demanding a more and more senior officer, until I was talking to the chief constable. Yes, they’d been called out numerous times. Yes, there were frequent incidents. I told him how vulnerable she was; the damage it was doing to her; that she had a loving family at home who longed to care for her. Please rescue her, I begged. I waited week after week... and, eventually, long, silent months.

An ex-cop offered to help. He had set up as a private investigator and would trace her for us. The moment we had the address, my husband and son jumped in the car and turned up on the doorstep – only to find they had moved just that morning, evicted because of the disturbances.

There came a time when I implored God, from a heart that could take no more, no longer simply to bring her home – I’d already begged that until His ears were deaf. I asked God to let me stop loving her, please. Let me forget I had a daughter. Even let my love turn to hate, for all her illness is doing to her siblings. We can’t survive much more. But my prayer was thrown back in my face – I loved her all the more.

By now, dozens of us were praying that we could get her away from him. And then, one miraculous morning at 1am, she rang and apologised for the hour: would I come and pick her up? I threw myself out of bed.

It wasn’t the end. She often went back. Each time we saw her she was worse. Sometimes she suddenly appeared frozen, like a grotesque statue in rigor mortis, hands as claws, legs buckled and locked, unable to move for hours. Once, she was mute half the night until we dropped with exhaustion, shaking and shaking as she tried to form words and could only make animal noises. More than once she went blind with the trauma.

As it turned out, it was the police who rescued her, somewhat bizarrely: they had a row, he tried to leave the house, she asked him not to and put a restraining hand on his arm. He claimed assault and she was arrested. We didn’t care: anything to get her from him. (Though the injustice of this strategy did her considerable long-term harm.)

The damage was deep and terrible. It has taken many years of caring, hurting, fighting and campaigning to get her proper help. As of just over two weeks ago, she is in appropriate, long-term trauma treatment, paid for by an NHS that has often neglected her and sometimes done far worse. We and (far more to the point) she are finally full of hope and expectation.

As a Christian, I can’t fail to think of the parallel with God himself, at calvary. There is no pain – in the universe or beyond – like the pain of a parent. The pain of losing a child.

I pray that Constance will realise where she is most dearly – and, yes, painfully – loved, and take her baby home.

Anne Atkins is a novelist, writer and broadcaster