Burying the stick

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Two very different types of peacemakers finally found what they were looking for this year. Those who attended Roger Fisher’s funeral praised his academic acumen, after 40 years on the Harvard faculty of law. For Winnie Johnson, the CV was much humbler; She was a mom. The body of Atlantic seawater that separated Fisher and Johnson geographically might as well have been an ocean of stars — so dissimilar was their model of conflict resolution. Yet, they were both doggedly determined, and knew nothing of the word quit. If they had ever met, it strikes me that they would have respected – even liked – each other very much.

Mrs. Johnson never set out to be a news maker (unlike Fisher). With 4 children in 12 years — and number 5 in her belly — 30-year-old Winnie had her eyes on a more a practical goal: to stop the baby machine just long enough to get a full night’s sleep. But even a childhood spent in the shadow of German bombers and English air-raid shelters could never have prepared her for the price that wish would cost.

Winnie’s eldest — Keith — was 2 days into his 12th year when he peddled his 2-wheeled birthday present out the front gate of the family’s Longsight, Manchester home and into one of the darker spots in British history. It was a Tuesday — June 16, 1964. But it would be another 21 years before his dear mother finally knew the details. That’s how long it took for Myra Hindley and Ian Brady — otherwise known as the Moor murderers — to finally confess to the rape and murder of young Keith. But noticeably absent from the mea culpa of Britain’s most notorious serial killers was a location for the boy’s body. That’s how Mrs. Winnie Johnson of Manchester, England became the haunted mum of Saddleworth Moor.

“For the next 2 decades she searched with all the strength she had.” So said her obituary in The Economist. Others helped on occasion — Keith’s younger brothers, and even the Greater Manchester police department. But mostly, Winnie dug alone. And when the shovel got too heavy for her to carry, she would take along toys and flowers for the makeshift shrine in the middle of nowhere.

Once she even swallowed her hatred and wrote to Hindley and Brady — so great was the need to bury her boy in peace. Never one for school, Winnie’s letter took 5 impossibly long weeks to compose. But Brady was a bastard right to the end; it goes that way sometimes. And so Winnie dug. She liked going up on the moors. It bought her the peace of doing something. After all, what else is there?

Roger Fisher knew the answer to that question intimately. As a WWII weather reconnaissance officer, he had flown many sorties over wartime Japan; innocent morning flights that would eventually acclimate the Japanese public to the unthinkable. The deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weighed heavy him — as did the loss of his roommate and many college friends. And it was that knowing of exactly how bad it can go when enemies stop talking to each other that led Fisher to become one of the premier conflict negotiators of our time.

Getting to Yes,” Fisher’s 1981 offering co-authored by William Ury opened my mind in a way usually reserved for a religious experience. It taught me to look at human problems through the lens of needs – rather than positions. After all, that’s how we came into the world. Whether it was mother’s milk, a clean butt, or shelter from the cold, life is an unending series of legitimate needs. Fisher understood that this didn’t change just because someone became a nuclear superpower, the head of an Apartheid state, or a terrorist. But it was his history changing success as part of President Carter’s 1978 Camp David negotiating team that proved Fisher’s theories really had salt. He spent the rest of his life preaching that the most enduring human relationship are crafted neither with carrots or sticks, but a keen human understanding that even our darkest human enemies are still just that – human.

You might say that Roger Fisher and Winnie Johnson died with half-empty cups. Mrs. Johnson never did find Keith’s body – though that had more to do with the baffling needs of a serial killer than anything else. And if there was one failure that caused Fisher more grief than any other, it is the unending puddle of plasma called the Middle East – Arab Spring notwithstanding. But while Winnie Johnson never found a place in her heart to forgive the two deeply disturbed humans that stole her boy’s life, for her that was never a need. All she wanted was to lay her head down every night knowing she had done what she could to fulfill the love of a mother. There are worse things to live for. And as for the master of the Harvard Mediation Project, our pity is the last thing he would accept. If anyone is going to talk their way back from the grave, it will be the guy who finished a 50-year cold war by putting Reagan and Gorbachev in front of a roaring fire with a bottle of cognac. Maybe when he gets back, he can help Canadians figure out what they really need – before they dig up the entire country.

1 comment

  1. Joan McEwenNo Gravatar

    First-rate article. Superbly written with such a deft touch. The writer has a a keen understanding of human nature and all its complications. The pieces keep getting better and better!

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