When Douglas College instructor Carys Cragg was 11 years old, the unimaginable happened. At 4 in the morning, a man broke into her Calgary home and, when confronted, killed her father. The tragedy altered the course of her life, sending shock waves through her entire existence. She spent the next two decades recovering.
By the time Cragg was 29, she was living in Vancouver, working as a youth outreach counsellor, and mostly thriving. One day she wound up talking with a colleague about her dad’s death. She had told people about the man who took her father’s life many times before, but this person’s response was different: “Do you know anything about him?”
It was a light-bulb moment. “There was just something missing,” Cragg tells the Straight over coffee. “I had quote-unquote successfully dealt with the loss of my dad, and now I wanted to deal with this part. This part was never talked about, never dealt with, probably because we were just so young.…But young people grow up, and ask questions, and I’m a question asker.”
Cragg knew the offender was 22 at the time of the crime, a drug addict with a long criminal record, looking to pay off drug debts. Suddenly, she wanted to know more.
What followed was a two-year foray into restorative justice, which she chronicles in her new book Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father. The memoir includes correspondence between her and the offender, whom she eventually visited in prison in Drumheller, Alberta.
“I didn’t go in full-force angry,” Cragg says of the experience, which proved transformational. “Most people wanted me to go in with full force and were surprised that I didn’t. But I just knew, that’s not how you connect with someone. That’s not how you get information you need. That’s not how you try and understand someone.
“When you are attempting to understand someone’s life,” she adds, “you have to become compassionate towards those circumstances.”
She learned that his family history was one of violence, alcoholism, and abuse, and that he was made a ward of the court at the age of 11. For years, she’d wondered what this man’s life had been like, and when he told her he’d grown up in foster care, it confirmed something for her. “His family wasn’t taken care of, and his family’s family wasn’t taken care of,” she says. “It’s that generational neglect and abuse. So I’m not surprised of his trajectory. It just happened to be that my dad got in his way.”
Cragg found that she felt a lot of empathy for the man, who responded to her letters with emotion and vulnerability. He expressed gratitude, and was anxious to put her at ease; he seemed profoundly touched by the connection she extended to him. “I found it moving,” she says. “And that is a complex piece of this.”
As their correspondence progressed, Cragg began hearing from Drumheller that the man’s behaviour was changing. “That’s so interesting,” she says. “That what I’m doing—even though it’s for me—was benefiting him.”
The turning point, she thinks, came with exchanges they had about her father. “I’ve always wanted to keep my dad alive in my life, in a really generative way,” Cragg says. “I got a sense really early on in the letters that he knew nothing about my dad, and then he confirmed that, past what they would say in newspapers. I was devastated that he knew nothing about him. I fundamentally thought, ‘You cannot rehabilitate yourself, or try to account for what you have done—or even communicate with me, and understand what I feel—without knowing who you took away.’ I know that when he learned about my dad, and that energy he had, and the things he did and accomplished and contributed, he seemed also devastated. He also confirmed that that was necessary to him improving, or getting better. I thought, ‘Wow, that was so essential to both of us. It was essential for me to tell you, and it was essential for you to move forward.’ ”
In September, after 25 years behind bars, the man was paroled. For Cragg, this is a profound relief. “It’s not so much that I cared about his growth, it was more like I cared that it wasn’t the opposite,” she says. “I cared that he wasn’t continuing to be destructive.…Because that stuff made me feel worse. It made me get stuck on it, it made me feel more tied to it. So him moving into full parole, and working and having good jobs and good connections, makes me feel better because I can move on.”
Still, this should not be mistaken for a straightforward story of forgiveness. “I also feel total anger towards him, and pity and disgust sometimes.…and total judgment,” Cragg says. “So I feel all of the feelings towards him—including empathy.
“My story is not simple,” she adds. “But no justice story is simple.”
Carys Cragg will speak about Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father at the Vancouver Public Library central branch on Monday (November 27).