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Observations placeholder

Whitton, Dr Joel - Case history Gary Pennington 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Life between Life – Dr Joel Whitton and Joe Fisher

The Other Woman 'In love, there is but litel reste.' Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, IV

Gary Pennington was perfectly content with married life. In a world where relationships seemed prone to breakdown and collapse, he marvelled at his own good fortune. His relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, had started in their teenage years when they were both attending the same Anglican church. Marriage followed as they pursued their respective university studies - he in psychology, she in English literature - and they soon settled into a relationship that was both mutually supportive and unusually resilient.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth gave birth to a boy and then a girl, who were raised in a happy, relaxed household. Home was the ideal refuge for Gary, who, having earned his doctoral degree, was working for the legal system as a forensic psychologist assessing disturbed people charged with violent crimes. Gary lived for his wife and kids. In fact, the family's touching interdependence made them the envy of their friends, many of whose marital alliances had degenerated into separation and divorce.

After sixteen years of matrimony, Gary's passion for Elizabeth was undiminished, time having only enhanced her good looks and sensuality. Being well- suited to a staple emotional diet of hearth and home, Gary felt no hankering for an escape from family responsibilities. He hadn't even been seriously tempted by the occasional opportunity for sexual adventure.

Yet when he very nearly collided with Caroline McVittie, at a pre-Christmas cocktail party in 1982, their exchange of glances left him feeling like a hot-blooded adolescent. Disturbed and yet strangely elated by this fleeting encounter, Gary wandered distractedly among the black ties and elegant dresses until he reached a line of bay windows hung with baskets of tropical plants. Turning to face the crowded room, he knew that he must speak to the dark-haired woman who had thoroughly unsettled him. He scanned the guests until she appeared on the far side of the crush between the bar and the buffet table. She was looking his way as she chatted with an older woman in a green dress. Nervously Gary strode into the crowd weaving past elbows, wine glasses and trays of hors d'oeuvres until he was by her side. Although arrogant and self-confident by nature, he felt somewhat awkward as he introduced himself. But as they began to chat, his nervousness retreated in the face of instant affinity.

 'It was like being welcomed home,' Gary would say later.

Barely aware of the swirl of guests around them, they talked earnestly for the entire evening. And when the party was over, they both felt a compulsion to meet again . . . The swiftness and intensity of the affair that developed between Gary and Caroline made heavy demands on their spare time. Yet Gary never attempted to conceal from his wife the reasons why he was spending less and less time at home. He told Elizabeth about the affair almost as soon as it began in expectation that she would be able to understand and tolerate his liaison with Caroline.

Deeply hurt, Elizabeth couldn't and didn't want to understand, but for nearly three months she patiently withstood Gary's absences and did her best to cope with their growing estrangement. Elizabeth was miserable and she was angry. But most of all she was fearful. Inexplicably she had always been afraid that someday Gary would leave her. His affair only compounded these fears, turning them into tangible agents of terror.

One frosty Friday evening in March 1983, Elizabeth's quiet desperation broke cover. Gary returned home just after midnight to find her sprawled across their bed. At first he thought she had simply fallen asleep, but he changed his mind on walking into the bathroom to find a near-empty bottle of sleeping pills beside the basin. This discovery sent him rushing back into the bedroom where he attempted to rouse his wife by slapping her face and hands. Initially he was only partly successful, eliciting slight restlessness and a few muffled sighs. All the while, Gary's head thrummed with anxiety and self-torment as he was confronted with the obvious cause of Elizabeth’s despair - himself.

Shouldn't he call an ambulance? Of course, he answered himself, were it not for the complications that must surely follow. Through his work, Gary was known to just about every ambulance driver in the city. Elizabeth was bound to be embarrassed by the questioning of junior interns at the hospital, and his affair with its tragic coda would be the gossip of the medical-legal community.

Notwithstanding the vexation of this dilemma Gary believed he would be able to prevent Elizabeth from falling into a coma. Every once in a while he shook her and rubbed her arms, but mainly he kept her talking until the first light of dawn stole through the bedroom blinds. Slowly she managed to regain full consciousness.

By then Gary had long made up his mind about Caroline, the other woman. The affair was well and truly over. Caroline was devastated by Gary's hasty decision to break off their relationship. She reacted, shortly afterwards, by moving in with James Hughes, a wealthy bachelor in his early fifties with whom she lived for about three months. Then, apparently upset at his inability to commit himself to her, Caroline made a serious attempt at taking her own life. She rigged up a noose in the bathroom in imitation of a suicide sequence she had seen in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.

When Hughes returned home minutes later, he found her dangling from a rope knotted around the shower fixture. After cutting her down, he rushed her to a Toronto hospital, where she remained for almost two months.

While Caroline's suicide bid appeared to be a direct consequence of Hughes' lack of romantic commitment, close friends - and even Hughes himself – maintained that the self-destructive urge sprang from deep but condemned passion for Gary. Hughes later contributed towards Caroline's recovery in a spectacular way. For more than a year, he paid for her to take weekly flights to New York for therapeutic sessions with an analyst.

Why New York? Hughes didn't trust Toronto therapists because many of them were personally acquainted with Gary.

The source of the experience

Whitton, Dr Joel

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps