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Anesthesia is one of humanity's oldest needs. Alcohol is the first known sedative; the Sumerians, an ancient civilization in modern-day Iraq, inscribed recipes for beer on clay tablets. They also cultivated the opium poppy for its anesthetic and recreational properties—the plant spread through their kingdom, then eastwards to Persia and westwards to Egypt. Human beings have taken narcotics to deaden pain and enhance joy for thousands of years: It is one of our most basic, primal impulses.
Anne-Marie Cockburn learned this in the aftermath of her daughter’s death. After Martha Fernback swallowed half a gram of unusually pure MDMA on a sunny day in an Oxford park, Cockburn arrived at hospital to find doctors working on her 15-year-old daughter's lifeless body. When Fernback died three hours later of a cardiac arrest, Cockburn literally begged doctors for medication to numb the grief. She was prescribed Valium.
Cockburn tells me all this casually, thumbing through a trunk of Fernback’s possessions that sits on a shelf in the living room of her quiet north Oxford cottage. After Fernback's death, Cockburn became an author and drugs policy campaigner, advocating for the complete legalization and regulation of drugs.
I’m nervous in the days leading up to our interview. How do you question someone about the worst thing in the world—losing their child?
Cockburn, however, wears her grief lightly—it doesn't crowd the room. A slim and fashionably dressed woman, the 46 year old has a soft Scottish accent and twists her rings while speaking, as if to measure out her thoughts. She drops words like "decrim" as easily as a university lecturer and excuses herself to reapply lipstick before we photograph her. Preternaturally self-assured, Cockburn is nothing like the hollow-eyed specters that we tend to associate with grieving parents in the popular imagination.
Fernback’s death in July of 2013 attracted a huge amount of media interest, in part because of her youth, appearance, and race. Images of the teenager with dark curls and huge eyes made the front pages of newspapers around the world. “People would be texting me saying, 'I’m in Schiphol airport [in Amsterdam] and Martha’s on the newsstand,'” Cockburn remembers. “It’s a crazy thing to see your child all over the world.”
The media rushed to cover her death, because beautiful young girls sell newspapers—especially if they’re dead. There is historical precedent for this: In 1995, English schoolgirl Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy and drinking seven liters of water in 90 minutes. It is thought that she was trying to follow the commonly dispensed advice about avoiding dehydration while on the drug.
Everyone who went to school in the UK during the 90s, myself included, knew about Betts. A photograph of her in a coma was plastered across newspapers and used to frighten teenagers into drug abstinence—despite the fact that Betts wasn’t killed by ecstasy, but by her brain swelling as a result of excessive water consumption.
Cockburn winces when I mention Betts. “Martha looked like her in the hospital,” she says. “Just like her.” Almost two decades on, it’s easy to draw parallels between Fernback and Betts, but Cockburn resists the comparisons. Both Betts and Fernback's deaths were preventable—if they had been taught how to take molly responsibly, they could still be alive today. Cockburn is on a mission to change how we educate young people about drugs.
Being Fernback’s mother, Cockburn freely admits, is difficult. Her presence makes other people, specifically parents—uneasy. “I can see it in people’s eyes, when I meet them,” she says softly, “they’re terrified of becoming me.”
Cockburn is candid about the weird kind of celebrity that comes with her status as a grieving mother. She travels and lectures extensively on the need for drug legalization, and is used to the crass and insensitive feedback she sometimes gets. “You hear people say, 'If that happened to me, I’d kill myself,’” Cockburn says levelly. “But I’ve never clung to life in such a determined way as I do now.”
She describes her life before Fernback's death as akin to being on level one of a computer game. Cockburn is now on level two of the game: Colours are huge and bright and saturated, and emotions feel very fresh but ancient at the same time. “It’s more vibrant now,” she muses. “The pain feels like the love I have for her.”
Cockburn has a writerly, almost elegiac way of speaking about her daughter. Asked to describe her, she demurs: “It’s like asking me to describe the taste of water. She’s that familiar to me.” Once, she remembers, she asked her to clean the bathroom. Fernback washed the ceiling instead. "She said it was dirty," Cockburn smiles. "She was very creative."
Shortly before her death, Fernback told Cockburn she had tried drugs. Appalled, Cockburn shut the conversation down. “I just shouted at her because I was terrified,” she says. “I made her promise not to do it again. Within a few weeks she was dead. It’s a conversation I’ve always regretted. I can’t blame myself, but I wish I’d known then what I know now.”
Cockburn has since taken a more compassionate, humane view of drug use. She found out that Fernback had been searching for information on how to take drugs safely, and she’d gone to the effort of sourcing extra-pure MDMA, falsely believing it was safer. The molly crystals that Fernback ingested were from a batch that was 91 percent pure, making it much easier to overdose on. At the time, the average street-level purity was only 58 percent. “Martha didn’t realize that level of purity put her in danger,” says Cockburn. “The difference between poison and medicine is just dosage.”
Four years on from Fernback’s death, she doesn’t need to self-anesthetise with Valium—the real world feels clean and fresh again. “Sometimes to be in my life is absolutely fine and I feel peaceful in these moments, and I know this new bit is okay,” she muses.
She now spends most of her time campaigning for drug reform and giving speeches about Fernback’s death and life at conferences, schools, and prisons, the latter as part of a restorative justice initiative. She digs out a pair of Fernback’s battered Converse sneakers, and sets them on a table. “There’s something about a pair of shoes that just makes the prisoners lose it.“
"I put the trainers down and men start crying." She pauses. "It’s very peculiar.”
Cockburn believes her activism, as part of the Anyone’s Child campaign, is yielding results. A recent British parliamentary debate on drugs policy was well attended by MPs, and Martha’s name was mentioned 25 times. The arc of history is long, but Cockburn believes it will eventually bend to her will.
As we prepare to leave, Cockburn packs away Fernback’s things. I recognize a floral headdress from an image commonly used in media articles about her death. In the photo, Fernback pairs it with turquoise face-paint and half-smiles in front of a tree. She looks serene.
Cockburn tells me that she rescued it after Fernback’s friends left the headdress in Hinksey Park, the scene of her fatal overdose. It had been unearthed by gardeners after flowers were planted nearby.
“We buried it under the tree where Martha died,” says Cockburn, stroking the still-vibrant paper flowers. “And then when we went back to visit it, there had been planting. It had come back up.”