Sunday, 11 October 2009

Why Ben?

Those of us unfortunate enough to have suffered a shockingly unexpected bereavement know that it’s like being knocked down by a juggernaut. You’re paralysed by shock and disbelief, torn apart by grief, anger and sheer horror, alienated from other people who have not had your experience.

It takes at least a year to even begin to put yourself together - longer if the loss is exacerbated by further stress. Brooke Kinsella admits that when her brother Ben was stabbed to death in June 2008 she was wrecked by the experience, almost to the point of suicide. But this young woman found the incredible strength to learn and campaign in the public eye, and she has now written a powerful and thoughtful book Why Ben? about Ben’s death and the issues arising from it.

I’ve written before on this blog about the killing of Ben Kinsella, aged just 16, randomly killed after a night out with friends in Islington, and the dignified response of his parents who called for longer minimum tariffs for knife killings.

Why Ben? is packaged as misery lit – white cover, hand-written title – and the raw honest emotion of Brooke’s account had tears dripping down my face as I read about how the family had to say goodbye to their beautiful boy in the hospital, how they watched a CCTV film of him walking away bravely after the attack, when I read Brooke’s loving letters to her lost little brother, and his own school assignments which eerily imagined his own death and arriving in heaven.

But Brooke Kinsella’s book is far more than misery. She examines the competing claims of revenge and rehabilitation. She researches different approaches to tackling knife crime - from boot camp style punishment to programmes in schools. She talks to prisoners, bereaved families, politicians and policemen.

Brooke was unwilling to be pushed into a public role after Ben’s death. She knew that as a former actress on EastEnders she was a very minor celebrity and she understood that some other bereaved families would resent the focus on Ben. She’s very honest that part of the reason she got involved in campaigning against knife crime was to keep herself busy, to distract herself from her pain. ‘I didn’t want people thinking it was just so I could get more work as an actress and presenter or just so I could look like some sort of saint or hero. I was only doing it so I could get my questions answered and get the right people to admit blame for what had happened to our streets.’

Ben’s killers – the three young men who stabbed him for no reason at all, and showed no remorse – were tried earlier this year. Many young witnesses came forward to give evidence against them. ‘The way they were treated was despicable,’ writes Brooke. ‘Many of these witnesses were young kids - sixteen or seventeen-year-olds who’d been brave enough to stand up for Ben, yet they faced being ripped apart in court, The lawyers made them feel bad for being out at a bar when they were underage, brought up silly misdemeanours such as previous fights or minor drug possessions, to try and discredit them and basically twisted their words until they almost gave up. Some of them cried, some of them, inevitably, got angry. It was really unfair seeing these trained intelligent lawyers from privileged backgrounds pit their wits against young kids.’

Many of the witnesses were allowed to give evidence from behind a screen and were promised anonymity. Yet the defence lawyers gave out their full names – ‘kids were crying in fear and threatening not to give evidence at all’ The lawyers apologised, but the damage had been done. Brooke claims her family were threatened by the defendants’ friends and family, and another witness was explicitly threatened.  Imagine being a witness in that case. Imagine hearing your full name read out when you'd been promised anonymity. I'd like to know if the lawyers responsible suffered any penalty for their mistakes.

Ben Kinsella was a bright, talented 16-year-old from a loving family, a boy who dreamed of becoming a designer and travelling the world. Mr and Mrs Kinsella are ordinary working class Londoners who obviously know how to bring up wonderful children. Their loss could happen to any of us. There are many, many things that can be done to prevent this happening to other families, but it would be a start if Why Ben? was made a compulsory part of the National Curriculum, and a copy was sent to every politician and lawyer in the UK.  In the meantime you can buy it here.


  1. How sad that Ben had to lose his life due to senseless violence. This sounds like a powerful novel, one I very much want to read now.

  2. Hi Shalonda. As far as I can see it's only available as an e-book in the US. I think you'd find it interesting, if only as a contrast between London and America.

  3. This sounds a very important book to read and I am glad you have flagged up the fact it is not just another misery book. I am particularly angry at the breach of the promise for anonymity.

  4. In all probabilty, the naming of the witnesses, was no mistake - shameless lack of morality. So sad, the sudden, shocking removal of a life. Awful.

  5. I imagine she's had to word things quite carefully, for libel reasons. But she does say: 'At times it seemed to me they knew they were rattling the witnesses, making them angry, making them want to go home and give up...'
    One lawyer said to a witness 'I assure you your safety will not be compromised.' What an empty promise!