Letters to my father’s killer helped heal my soul
‘DO you know anything about the offender?” a friend asked me after I told her how my father died. I tell her what I tell all new friends: that in 1992, when I was 11 years old, a young man, high on drugs and looking to steal something, broke into my family’s home in the middle of the night and picked up a kitchen carving knife on his way upstairs. As my father awoke, a struggle broke out. This man stabbed my father and ran away, found by the police soon after. My father died hours later in the emergency room, while I sat in the corner of my neighbor’s bathroom, knees tucked up to my chest, shivering and wondering: What just happened to my world?
At the time, my father was training to become an orthopedic surgeon, following more than a decade of a successful family medical practice. My parents, siblings and I moved cities and built a life in our new community in Calgary, Canada. As he studied and worked at the university and hospital, we were embraced by our neighborhood. We walked to and from school, made new friends, attended sports and music practice, ate meals together and played outside, just as so many families do.
We spent summers sailing and winters skiing. My father built flying foxes, dollhouses, violins and even a cabin on a lake, all because he was curious to learn how. We watched him, learned from him and wanted to be like him, wanted to embody the joy he carried around.
My life shattered into pieces when this young man entered our home and destroyed our world. Nothing was the same.
NINETEEN years later, in 2011, I sat across from a new friend as she asked about the offender. There, I became aware I had a window of time left on his 25-to-life, second-degree-murder prison sentence where I could contact him with the guidance of a program I’d heard about over the years: the restorative-justice victim-offender dialogue model. It was here, I soon learned, I could ask my unanswered questions. Why did he come to my house? What was his life like before the crime? Why did he lie about who killed my father for so long? Did he understand what he took away from my family?
I knew a few things from reading the newspaper clippings my mother gave me, a few years after the crime. “Intruder stabs doctor to death.” “Accused killer fingers best friend for the crime.” “Doctor’s murderer sentenced to life term.” This information and the handful of times my family spoke of the offender was all I knew. In that silence, he hadn’t become a monster. Rather, he became a ghost, and I realized I could form my own opinions as to how I wanted to respond to the crime.
Through the program’ s restorative-justice workers, I wrote my first letter to the incarcerated offender.
This was the first of 15 letters exchanged over the course of two years, from 2011 to 2013, from the Pacific coast of British Columbia to the prairies in Alberta.
his first letter began. He wrote that he was “surprised and apprehensive.” He didn’t “want to deal with any kind of confrontational retribution or witch hunt.” I quickly realized I would need to clarify my intentions. He wrote:
I have many things I’d like to say, ask, clarify, and understand — but for the purposes of this letter, I guess what I’d like to do is introduce myself ... My name is Carys and I am the eldest daughter of Geoffrey Cragg, the person whose death you are responsible for. I was 11 years old when you came to my house and when you shattered my world into pieces.
Our lives did come crashing together. Not by choice mind you, but by the selfish greed and drug-dependent common criminal that broke into your house that night, and murdered your father. The details of this will come out in time.
He was right. Details unfolded and expanded over time, where he took more and more responsibility for his actions. In these letters we wrote about ourselves, our work and childhoods.
From what I can remember about my childhood there was not enough food in the cupboards, but seemed that there was always enough money for drinking. We wrote about future plans and misunderstandings. He said:
It’s amazing that the things I fear the most are out there, and if I’m correct the person you fear the most is here. I would like to change that; I can stare down three men willing to tear into me with reckless abandonment. But I cannot look you in the eye if I ever saw you face to face. To which I responded:
I promise you, what I fear the most in life is not you, but rather it is losing people I love . . . If we ever meet face to face, I hope that fear is not an emotion that is in the room.
THESE exchanges continued and with each letter we dove deeper. My father. The crime. The aftermath.
There is nothing I can do to change what happened that night. Hopefully I can honor his life by making the most of mine. I replied:
You say that you can honor my dad’s life . . . but I don’t believe you can do this until you know my father. I feel it’s a good time to explain a little of who he was and who he continues to be.
I was devastated to learn, like so many offenders, that he knew nothing about my father. How could he be held accountable for his crime when he didn’t know whom he’d taken away?
Eventually, I felt safe and comfortable enough for us to meet. When I arrived at the prison, my only hope for myself was to feel what I needed to feel. Angry. Upset. Confused. Satisfied. Peace. It was all there.
That day, he shared the escalating offenses he’d been committing before that night. He also shared that 12 years after the crime, he asked to go to a psychiatric remand center, where a support worker, who offered him a safe and respectful space, challenged him on his continued lies.
After that meeting, the letters continued. Accountability. Truth. Empathy. Forgiveness. I wrote:
Even you considering coming into my home was an unjust act. Knowing it was a family neighborhood. Knowing people, children, were in there. I even wrote to him what I was sorry for.
I’m sorry that you never had the opportunity to experience a father like mine.
I knew that if he’d been brought up with people who cared deeply for him, he never would have broken into my house, trying to survive the next few days.
YEARS later, I attended a number of parole hearings, where his applications for unescorted absences and day parole were first denied and eventually approved. He was released on full parole this past fall, after 25 years of incarceration, showing improved insight and a good plan to integrate into the community.
“Do you think he understands?” friends ask as I return from hearings.
“I think he understands the best that he can,” I say. “And that is not good enough.”
Despite complicated feelings, I am satisfied with the outcome. As I reflect on his full parole, I am reminded of what I learned in the letters: In order for me to be well, I needed him to tell me what he had done, and in order for him to be well, he needed to hear how what he’d done impacted me. That was the irony of it all: Our wellness became dependent on each other.
When my father died, I sat shivering in the corner of my neighbor’s bathroom, wondering what just happened to my family.
I felt an unease enter my body. It whispered: I wasn’t safe, I couldn’t trust anything and I didn’t deserve to be happy or cared for.
After two years of correspondence, I realized I had pushed him as far as he could go; I was looking for compassion, just as I had offered to him. When I didn’t get that, I wrote it to him:
Maybe I should just show myself some empathy, realize that I have no control or responsibility in this case. It is what it is.
As I finished the last letter I would ever send to him, I felt the unease I had been carrying around leave my body. And I have never felt it again.
‘SHATTERED’: Dr. Geoffrey Cragg holds his daughter, Carys, in 1983, nine years before he was killed by an intruder in their Calgary home.