From the Sunday Telegraph, 31 January 2010 (Words by Jeremy Vine)
Panorama presenter Jeremy Vine recalls his emotional meetings with Kay Gilderdale before and after she was cleared of attempting to murder her ill daughter, Lynn.
It is one of those stories. The sort that, when you hear about it, make you puzzle over the moral almost immediately. As the editor of Panorama sketched the component parts out to me in our brightly-lit office in west London – a mother, a dead child, an arrest, a possible court case – I wasn’t sure what I would find in the shadows. There were only the basic facts: Kay Gilderdale had been present when her daughter died. Now she was in trouble with the police. She had cared for Lynn for years. And she was willing to speak to us.
Sometimes the facts don’t tell you everything. Sometimes they tell you less than nothing. I took the train to Sussex with no clue as to what kind of person Kay would be. All I knew was that she had lost her daughter. But then, if she had helped the young woman to die or even killed her, what kind of loss are you offering your sympathies for?
The former auxiliary nurse saved me the trouble of wrestling with that, greeting me at the front door of her home with natural charm and a warm, if slightly nervous, smile. She lives in a cul-de-sac in Stonegate, Sussex, and gestured to sandwiches generously made for my camera crew and producer as she boiled the kettle. At this point, last summer, she had been charged with assisting a suicide and attempted murder. But I freely admit that, as I heard the story directly from her, I could not believe the case would come to anything.
We sat on the sofa overlooking the tidy pocket of grass at the front of the bungalow and she described her daughter, choosing her words deliberately, often pausing to collect herself as if her outward composure was only ever a memory away from disintegration.
“Oh, Lynn was very popular,” she said. “She’d come home from school bursting to tell you everything that was going on. She loved sailing, she loved swimming. She loved music and dancing. She was interested in everything really.”
I watched her carefully as she spoke, this slender, attractive woman of 55, immersed in grief but still able to draw comfort from distant happiness. Journalists are trained sceptics, of course, but I never found myself doubting the love in her voice. “I have very strong pictures of her. I see her running, because Lynn was a great runner as well, and striding out. I just catch all the things in my head of when she was able to do all that, just be out and do the normal things.”
But, in the middle of what seems to have been a childhood made extraordinary only by an excess of fun and parental dedication, Lynn suddenly became ill. The circumstances were bizarre. Kay says that, very soon after being given the BCG jab at school, her daughter’s body inexplicably began to weaken. Two days later, she was too ill to return to school. She never entered a classroom again.
“First she got the flu, then bronchitis, tonsillitis, glandular fever, chest infections, and you’re beginning to realise there’s something wrong, that it’s not just an ordinary illness.”
I swept a glance across the framed pictures on the mantelpiece and walls. Half were of a happy young girl – a smiling child, a bouncing teenager, often suntanned from time on the beach. One showed her windsurfing with her brother Stephen, both roaring with laughter. One showed her in ballet gear, holding a trophy. The other half were photographs of head and shoulders only. The wan face, the bed linen, the feeding tube told a different story.
A few months later, Lynn was in a wheelchair. The top half of her body had become floppy. Her voice had declined to a whisper. She was having difficulty swallowing and could not remember people or places. By the age of 15, Lynn was bedridden. Paralysed from the waist down and being fed by tube, she needed full-time care. The eventual diagnosis was ME.
The carer was her mother. If anyone needed it, proof of Kay’s love was the 17 years of selfless dedication she gave her daughter. After the end of her marriage, she was the only person on hand day and night as Lynn virtually wasted away in a bedroom across the hall from the living room where we were speaking.
We entered Lynn’s bedroom together, and fell silent.
I looked around. The bed took up the centre of the floorspace. On Lynn’s left, as she lay there (for years, remember), she would have seen a lit tank full of tropical fish. I reflected ruefully that they had outlived their owner. “I can’t bear to get rid of them,” said Kay.
A computer in the room was used only intermittently because Lynn rarely had the strength to look at it. But a heart-rending note typed painstakingly into a hand-held keyboard had eventually been transferred online and became vital evidence in court, with these telling lines: “I really, really, really want to die and have had enough of being so sick and in so much pain every second of every day and, basically, one serious health crisis after another.
“I am so very, very tired and I just don’t think I can keep hanging on for that elusive illness-free existence, that ever-diminishing hope that one day I will be well again.
“This is something I have thought long and hard about. I’m sure it’s what I want. I have discussed and continued to discuss it with my parents at great length.”
The bedroom gives way on to the garden. But Lynn was never able to look outside because, Kay said, “the light hurt her eyes too much”. So they kept the curtains closed. She was so weak she could not even be carried vertically. The French windows allowed her to remain prostrate if she had to be lifted out of the house to go to hospital.
The one thing that Kay did not talk to me about in that first encounter was the way in which her daughter had died. Lynn had expressed a wish to die, she said. And, on the night of her death, she had initiated her own suicide while her mother – she told me – begged her not to because “the time isn’t right”. On the advice of her lawyers, Kay was unable to say anything more precise about what had happened. I found myself wondering what she had left out.
But, when I left her home, I assumed we would not be making the Panorama. The prosecuting authorities would surely pay closer attention to Kay’s account and judge that, by any standard, whatever she had done was only ever in line with the wishes of her daughter. She accepted she was guilty of assisting a suicide. But even that case seemed to founder when, two and a half months after I saw Kay, the Director of Public Prosecutions offered a set of circumstances in which someone might help a person commit suicide and not face charges – if, say, their actions were
wholly motivated by compassion, not gain, and the deceased had freely expressed a clear and informed wish to be helped to their death. All of that seemed to be the case with Lynn and Kay. So where was our programme?
One afternoon the producer rang and said: “There is news. They are pressing ahead with the attempted murder charge.” I fell off my chair. Again and again I kept going back to that afternoon in Kay’s home and thinking I must have missed something. Why attempted murder?
The full details blew across the papers last week. At last we had the story as told in court. Lynn had been knocked unconscious by the three syringes of morphine she injected into herself, but then seemed to be having trouble breathing. By now convinced she should not try to stop her daughter dying and worried that she was in pain, Kay crushed up some pills and put them into Lynn’s feeding tube. According to the prosecution (this is a source of some dispute), Kay also injected her with air. More morphine, too. The prosecution gave the impression that she spent hours surfing the net looking at suicide websites. By the morning, 30 hours after she first called her mum into the room, Lynn was dead.
To me, the intention of the CPS was clear – to send a message that, if someone tries to commit suicide and fails, it does not give another person the right to step in and finish the job. Maybe the sequence of events in that bedroom suggest Lynn could have lived if Kay had dialled 999 instead. But adding together the bald facts does not get you to the truth in this story: in the end, this case was about a mother’s love. The jury cleared her at breakneck speed, and the judge threw the book at the prosecutors.
I returned to Stonegate last week. Catching a cab from the station, I offered the spare seat to another commuter who was stranded. “What you doing here?” he asked, and I pointed at Kay’s picture on the front pages of the mound of newspapers laid across my lap.
“Interviewing this lady,” I said.
“Well,” replied my fellow passenger without a hint of condemnation, “she’s certainly famous now.”
At her home, we did the interview that was not possible on the first occasion – Kay’s step-by-step description of those final 30 hours. She never wanted to be a test case for anything, much less to be famous for what happened on the longest night of her life. She never expected to be arrested and for the state to use her honest, mortified account of what had happened to convict her of attempted murder.
She told me how, when Lynn had first injected herself with the morphine and fallen unconscious, she simply lay across her frail body and cried for hours.
And this is what Kay told me about Lynn’s last conscious moments: “She took the last two syringes that I gave her, and she wouldn’t let me go near them. She obviously knew that she had to do it. And she pressed the plungers. And as she did, the lights went out in the house. One of the electrical circuits in the house had blown. I said, ‘Wait’, because my heart was wanting her to stay. And she said, ‘No’, and continued to push the plunger.”
What were her last words? “That she’s frightened. And I thought she meant she was frightened of the unknown. And I said, why are you frightened? And she said, ‘I’m frightened for you, and frightened that it won’t work.’”
In dying, Lynn had imparted a terrible truth to her mother. A young woman whose life had ebbed away on a sickbed was less frightened of death than of what the state would do to the person who loved her most.
There is a ray of sunshine here, which is that the British justice system showed its strengths as well as weaknesses: a case that arguably should never have been brought simply evaporated in the hard air of a British court. Another ray? Lynn is no longer in pain.
And her mother has been allowed to grieve for her daughter outside a prison cell.
* ‘Panorama: I Helped My Daughter Die’is on BBC One, Monday 31 January, at 8.30p