It’s not my story, it’s my screwed up life

Victim meltdowns, and the need to stay together

I would like to offer up some thoughts on the completion of The Canadian Association for Victims Assistance (CAVA) inaugural conference last month in Richmond, British Columbia. As a board member of CAVA and co-planner of the event, I found the conference completely satisfying; the speakers enlightened me, the victims moved me, people listened and respected one another. As a victim, and thus, in many ways the subject matter of this meeting, I got more than I bargained for. For the first time in my life I was able to digest the full extend of the horrific, pathetic, cannibalistic process of my own victimization. After twenty-six years of suffering under the yoke of my sister’s murder, I would say it’s about time.

I think a flashpoint arrived when – upon the completion of the last workshop – a bunch of us got together to assess how we’d done, and what we could do next time to make it better. One of the victim service providers offered up the advice that in future she would like to be forewarned when a workshop is going to involve on oral presentation by victims because, in her words, “she didn’t like stories.” Having participated in one of these “hand-wringers” my gut reaction was, “Screw you… it’s not my story, it’s my fucking life.”

Then, in an instant, and for the first time in my life, I realized she was right. Victim testimonials are painful, haunting, gut-wrenching windows into the black-hole of human suffering. They are exhausting to tell, and, I imagine, even more exhausting to sit through if you are not personally acquainted with such loss and pain. As a representative from Justice Canada put it to me – a woman who is not a victim, and who had to endure one of these marathon sessions at a conference we both attended in Quebec – “it felt like the life was being sucked out of me.” That’s not being insensitive. It’s the truth. Not that we shouldn’t continue to have such workshops, but we should at least have the decency to warn people who come into the room that they are probably going to be exposed to trauma; the kind that will not allow them to construct any lessons or reasons to rationalize themselves out of box of what happens to people when they lose everything they’ve ever loved, and then continue to lose through random acts of thoughtlessness and alienation.

Why is this so important to me? Because for the past twenty-six years I’ve been a pretty angry guy. My anger manifests itself in a variety of ways, from nervous smiles to uncomfortable tics and twitches, to finally, full blown mean-spirited meltdowns. In the past I would have taken the comments of the victim service provider or the bureaucrat from the Federal government as excuses to lash-out with vindictive malice at the cruelty of their words; rationalizing that this was one more reason how “civilians” don’t understand how victims suffer. This would achieve the desired effect of emotional release, but I would quickly come round to feeling ashamed for my outburst, but unable to take back my words, thus further alienating myself. And the circle of my victimization would be complete, only to start up again with the next flash on the horizon that someone was treading a little too callously on my turf, and needed to be taught a lesson.

This Catherine-Wheel of suffering on my part must stop. In the past, I thought I was being clever without realizing that in the process of “speaking-out” I was not only chewing off my own foot, but in danger of swallowing myself whole.

Now on a cognitive level I’ve always known what was going on here. I got short-shafted. Some detestable moron who couldn’t control his passions took away my sister’s life. What followed after that event was a series of institutionalized traumas, political and bureaucratic game playing, cocktail faux-pas, mistakes, malaprops, black ironies – Indignities – stuff we wouldn’t even allow an animal to suffer, let alone human beings. Life screwed me, and I was going to screw it back. Homicide denies you control; I would take back that control through provocation. Fuck with me and I will give you the tongue lashing of your life; I control the destructive outcome, but in that process unwittingly continue to destroy myself.

So what’s wrong with that? Yes, it’s entirely shameful and regrettable, but I’m an adult, I’m only hurting myself, not society. Right? I don’t think so. Someone once told me after I had sent a series of blistering and cruel emails to an unwitting recipient “on the Hill” in Ottawa, that that recipient later “cried for John Allore”. My response was, “good, it’s about time”. But it’s not good. If the only thing I’ve learned from my experience is how to inflict hurt on others, then I’ve really learned nothing at all. If all I can create is a crash-sight of bombast and bile, I should pack it in and go home.

I don’t think I‘m a bad person. I’ve done good things for myself and other victims. I’ve done many excellent things in helping to bring victims together. But every once and a while I lapse back to patterned, destructive behavior that does not serve myself or others very well. I think for many of us, the nexus of such behavior begins, and can be remedied, at the point where the victim becomes the advocate.

In his recent book, Justice Defined, law professor and sometime victims’ rights advocate, Alan Young speaks of an editorial he wrote in 1995 in response to public outcry over a murder committed by a paroled offender,

“I wrote this editorial deliberately to stir a public outcry, but not one letter, one comment or one statement was ever made… Justice spending is a critical issue, yet when an absolute gem was delivered to all the critics out there, everyone was asleep.

I know exactly how he feels. When I struggled for two years to prove to authorities that the police were wrong in concluding my sister Theresa had been on a path of self destruction that led to a drug overdose, but rather was murdered, and that act was society’s problem, not of her own making – and then when through a series of newspaper articles I publicly called attention to this problem – I rather naively assumed that my work would be over. Critics would take up my cause, and I would get back to my life.

Nothing happened. There was sympathy, a whole lot of people felt sorry for my family, but no one was so sorry as to be motivated to change anything. Victims allow themselves to be paraded out in front of the public through the media because they have a quaint idea that this act will invoke change. Typically, media exposure creates static inaction; the public is shocked and appalled, “there but for the grace of god go I”, but nothing happens – nothing but the further isolation, and victimization of the victim.

At this point the victim has two choices; get madder (more self-damage), or advocate. Advocacy for victims is the point of realization that no one out there is going to do the work for them, so they’d better do it themselves. It is a lonely place – I know, I’ve been there. But it can also be the source of tremendous power, if – and I think this is the key – victims do not advocate in isolation. There are too many of us out there taking up our grass root causes by ourselves. The system – and by this I mean anyone who is not a victim, but in some way works in the network that at some point touches or involves the victim – is too self absorbed to take up our causes. Some working in this network wish grass root initiatives to fail outright because they know if these initiatives succeed, the system will be forced to change. It is in the best interest of those who would want us to fail to marginalize us; by keeping us separate, and isolated, they can only hope that we will eventually become disillusioned, bitter, cynical, and ultimately burn ourselves out. For this reason it is imperative that victims begin to network and start to aid each other in their causes and advocacy.

Do not make the mistake of reading any militancy in my position; this is by no means a “we vs. them” mentality. As I’ve said, I’m going to set aside self-destructive behavior, I no longer wish to choose sides in a war, but I do wish to engage in a dialogue. If someone is motivated to act against me, let them concentrate on that, I will get down to the business at hand which is fundamentally networking. This may seem simple and obvious, but currently, no one is doing it.

I’ll show you how this works. At the conference in British Columbia was a woman named Judy Peterson. On August 2, 1993 Judy’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Lindsey went missing from Comox Valley, British Columbia. She vanished. In Judy’s words, “she literally disappeared from the planet.” Horrible. I cannot even imagine the level of that suffering. But Judy doesn’t want my sorrow, she wants me to do something about it. Judy is advocating for the creation of a national missing persons DNA data bank (yes, it’s hard to believe, though the technology is easy to do, such a thing does not exist in Canada). She wants people to write letters to the Federal minister of public safety and advocate for this change.

Here’s the bad news. Judy’s presentation takes place in the ballroom of the Richmond Marriot hotel. Though the room holds one hundred, only twenty people bothered to show up for her workshop. To make matters worse, she’s speaking on a panel of three presenters, all highlighting there individual projects, so possibly only ten people – at best – are interested in what she’s saying. Now, the good news. What Judy doesn’t know is one of the presenters is a man named Pierre Boisvenu. Pierre is from Quebec where he has rallied victims and created an organization to help families whose children are missing or murdered. Further, one of the members of Pierre’s group is Michel Surprenant. Michel’s daughter, Julie Surprenant has been missing from Terrebonne, Quebec since November 16th, 1999, presumed to have been murdered by an incarcerated sex offender named Richard Bouillon. Judy Peterson and Michel Surprenant have never heard of each other; the conference provides the conduit that will become their shared advocacy, one that will have more power because it has the combined muscle of British Columbia and Quebec, two provinces with political clout.

This form of networking is so basic, even children on a playground engage in it. Yet, strangely enough, up until the CAVA conference in British Columbia, it wasn’t happening. I have attended four victims’ conferences in Canada over the last thirteen months. At the Quebec conference in October sponsored by that province’s Plaidoyer de Victimes, I met ten victims. There may have been more – I am not francophone, so somewhat handicapped by a language barrier – but I met ten. The conference was mostly professional in nature; though I was grateful to have been invited, there was no real forum for the exchange of ideas between victims. There was a “story-telling” session from victims, but other than providing a narrative of suffering and some cathartic release, very little was achieved in that session and it soon broke down into veiled threats and finger-pointing.

At a June conference sponsored by British Columbia’s Police Victim Services in Vancouver – one where I was invited to present “my story” – I met no victims. Again my oral presentation produced the expected response of shock and awe. Did it change anything? No. Then, of course, there was last year’s National victims conference held in Ottawa, sponsored by Justice Canada’s Policy Center for Victims Issues. In Ottawa, there were some victims, but most were in the employ or under the influence of government agencies; I would categorize the opinions and motivations of some of these victims as “compromised”. The most influential victim I met in Ottawa was Pierre Boisvenu, but the conference did not “broker” this relationship. Like me, Pierre came in protest; we communicated in advance of the conference and decided to attend to voice our complaint that not enough victims had been notified of this national affair whose title and theme was after all, Lessons Learned from Victims of Crime.

Why do associations, when they come together, choose to exclude those that form the foundation of their work? I don’t know; but it’s not unique to this issue. A conference on criminology would never dare invite criminals. Dentists don’t invite patients. Last month, a world-wide conference on education was being held in Vancouver with 3,500 participants – do you think any of them were students? I’m not blaming anyone, I do it myself. In my professional life I am basically a bureaucrat. I work in municipal government finance. Twice a year we hold a conference to discuss how to best manage the investment of public funds. Do you think we invite the public? Hell no! We don’t want citizens telling us how to do our jobs!. Besides, if they came we might actually have to reverse the status quo.

This is absurd, and true. Is it any wonder I come away from these meetings having discovered how to do things easier, or faster, but rarely learning how to make things better? Conferences may lead to the exchange of information, but I question whether they spark innovation. For innovation to occur you have to have participants that want change.

Connecting Judy Peterson to Michel Surprenant can spark change. Any citizen of Canada can write a letter in support of the national missing persons DNA data bank, but a victim is more likely to do it because they have something invested in the issue. Michel Surprenant is more likely to support Judy Peterson because he has “skin in the game”. They are not separated by issues of territorialism, governmental procedures, or culture. They don’t speak the same language, they don’t even know each other, but Judy Peterson and Michel Surprenant will help each other because they both have the same thing at stake – finding their lost daughters.

This kind of connecting – a networking I had never observed before – was precisely what I saw unfold on a continual and energetic basis at the Canadian Association for Victim Assistance conference. For the first time in my experience victims met, talked, exchanged ideas, were motivated by their common causes, and in some cases, agreed to advance those causes further when the conference had ended. In all there were 20 victims – I’m sure there were more, but I didn’t meet them; still not enough, but a start. I remember every one of them, where they were from, and the losses they have suffered:

Ernie Kray and Maggie de Vries and a woman named Val lost siblings in Port Coquitlam. The Petersons whose daughter, Lindsey is missing, and Keith Kemp who lost a son and who spoke of the burnout. Celine Lee who lost her mother and sister, and Jean Cusworth and her husband whose daughter was murdered. All from Vancouver. The Kings whose daughter was murdered in Edmonton, and Hazel Magnussen who lost her brother, Doug in Alberta. There was Arthur Lepp and Shelley Marshall who lost sons in Manitoba; and Holly Desimone who was raped, also from the west. Priscilla de Villiers daughter, Nina was murdered in Toronto. Catherine Bergeron lost a sister on December 6th, 1989. Pierre and Diane Boisvenu whose daughter, Julie was murdered in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

What I observed transpire over those two days gave me real encouragement for the future of victims in Canada. I saw people meeting, laughing, bonding, agreeing to stay in touch and help each other. I saw a guy from Sherbrooke look at the minister of justice from Manitoba and say, “we need a guy like that in Quebec”. I saw folks from Alberta and B.C. exchanging ideas on how to solve cold cases.

Look, I know this won’t always work. There will be causes we can take on and others we will prefer to stay away from. But we can agree to support each other. Can’t victims from across Canada, at the very least, agree to support the interests of the victims from Port Coquitlam in the coming months? Can’t we say, as victims, “we are watching the situation in B.C., and if you don’t protect and help those people, we will know, and we will act as one.”? This is simple.

The question I believe I need to ask myself – and I think all victims need to ask this of themselves, when they are ready and on a very clear and selfless plane – is, OK, I’ve suffered, maybe I’m still suffering… now what do I want to do with this suffering? For me, I will continue to network with victims and try to help them further their advocacy interests. If victims continue to communicate and help each other, if we help ourselves and are not beholden to the assistance of others, we will be powerful and our needs will be met.

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