Journey for justice
By Melissa Nilan, Marketing and Communications
Carys Cragg’s father was murdered by a home intruder when she was 11 years old. Last month, her emotional memoir was published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father recounts the night of the crime and Carys’s journey to heal and find closure by communicating with the offender. In doing so, she found understanding and compassion for him, and he in turn learned about the man he killed and the people affected by his crime.
We connected with Carys to ask her more about her book, her experience and how it relates to her work at Douglas.
What prompted you to reach out to the offender?
It didn’t occur to me to contact him until 19 years after the crime, when a new friend asked about my father’s death. Unlike the questions I normally receive, she respectfully asked, “Do you know anything about the offender?” Since the crime, he was never spoken about outside of criminal justice proceedings. But I wanted information, I wanted his story, I wanted to know why this happened to my family. I wanted him to know what he’d done to my family. It occurred to me that I had a short window left, while he was still serving his prison sentence, to contact him the way I wanted to, to acknowledge the man who was never spoken about, yet had entirely changed the trajectory of my life.
What is your involvement and interest in restorative justice?
Restorative justice takes many forms: I chose to write letters as a way of entering into dialogue with the offender because I could control the pace of what was asked and shared, and it felt safe. This may sound strange, but I would not necessarily call myself an advocate of the restorative justice system. Rather, I’m an advocate for young people and their families receiving the connections, opportunities, care, services and programs they need to thrive, including restorative justice.
How does your experience – the crime, your journey to heal, communicating with the offender – inform your work in child and youth care?
I knew that a young man, high on drugs, who would break into someone’s home to steal in order to survive the next few days, could not be someone who was deeply cared for or who had a good upbringing – and I was right. While this does not excuse his actions, it is an explanation, and provides rationale for my belief that we need to care for our most vulnerable members of society. This is where my sense of social justice comes from – that families are strong when given the opportunity to be strong, that young people are trying their best in the circumstances they find themselves in, and that we are all dependent upon on another to be well. These ideas – strength, relationships, social justice – are central to my understanding of my work in child and youth care and my teaching of it.
Why did you choose to write about your experience?
In part to answer questions from people who knew I’d reached out to the offender – questions that were too complicated to answer over dinner or during a walk in the park – and for the creative challenge it offered. Ultimately, I sought publication because I wanted to contribute a complicated story of transformative justice to the wider discussion of justice that’s happening in our lives right now. As restorative justice becomes more mainstream, it risks becoming simplified. I see restorative justice as something complimentary to the traditional criminal justice system, and am concerned that simplification will portray it as an alternative method of justice. I wanted to contribute a story of healing from a victim’s perspective, one that is complicated and difficult and does not have a perfect ending.
What wisdom have you gained from your experience that you would most want to impart to your students?
Embrace change. Change can be uncomfortable, but we know instinctually that it must happen. That is what this journey was for me: one of necessary change. When contacting the person who’d destroyed my world, I had no idea what the outcome would be, but there was a driving force that told me I needed to take that difficult journey and trust I was doing the right thing. So, what I’d tell my students is to follow that instinct for change. You know yourself best, and you know what you need, but you have to listen very closely. Try to quiet the other voices around you – even the socio-cultural messages that plague us – and take the journey that you know in your heart is right. And then go tell that story, because we all need to hear more stories of how people faced the thing that hurt them the most and came through it a more complicated and wiser person.
Carys’s book has been featured by The Globe and Mail, CBC and The Georgia Straight, and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction.
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