Story of family killing insisted on being told
Writers tend to be obsessive at the best of times. But Calgary author Betty Jane Hegerat’s fourth book was borne out of a particularly troubling obsession that haunted the 63-yearold mother-of-three for at least four years.
As with many Albertans her age, she remembered the broad outlines of the Cook family murders in 1959, where a 21-year-old small-time crook named Robert was believed to have bludgeoned his father, stepmother and their five children to death. It was a horrific crime that was, nevertheless, sensationally memorable for some of its more macabre novelties. Robert Raymond Cook maintained his innocence right up until to the end. But, at 23, he became the last man hanged in Alberta. Whether or not he was guilty is a question that apparently still haunts, and divides, Central Albertans.
But what is less clear to Hegerat is why the case would suddenly re-emerge in her consciousness more than half-a-century later as she set out to write a fictional tale about a school teacher who marries a man but finds conflict with his troubled 12-year-old son.
“I did not want to write this book,” says Hegerat, in an interview from her Calgary home. “I did not want to write about the Cook family. It kind of ambushed me in the middle of working on another story. I tried to set it aside, but frankly became quite obsessed with it. Not with Robert Raymond Cook and the fact that he was the last man hanged or the legalities of the case. But it stirred up all sorts of questions for me as to how something this horrible could happen in a family that seemed like an ordinary Alberta town family.”
So after a difficult birth, The Boy (Oolichan Books, 288 pages, $21.95) arrived looking somewhat freakish. Part true-crime story, part fiction and part conflicted inner dialogue between an author and one of her creations, it has been pegged as “creative non-fiction.” It still tends to be sold in the fiction section of bookstores, a move that prevents it from being lumped in the True Crime genre.
But Hegerat says she struggled for years with how to placate her obsession with the case through fiction. She had no interest in becoming a journalist. Conflicting advice from friends and fellow scribes didn’t help matters. Some didn’t think she should venture into the brave new world of non-fiction at all. But when she arrived at the University of British Columbia a few years back to do her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, an instructor told her this story could not hide behind a disclaimer of being a fictional- ized account of real events. That would be cheating.
Then, much to Hegerat’s horror, she was also told that to best serve this twoheaded literary hybrid she would have to insert herself into the tale, because her obsession with the case was as much a part of the story as anything else. So Betty Jane Hegerat appears as herself, a flummoxed narrator who has a prickly relationship with the character of Louise, the teacher whose fictional love story is interrupted by the author’s stubborn fixation on the Cook case.
“I don’t like writing about myself,” says Hegerat. “This is why I write fiction: It’s wonderful, you can lie and cheat and steal . . . But what I was most concerned with was staying true to the facts. I felt such a sense of responsibility to the Cook family. This was their story and they died terrible deaths. And even long dead, I thought this story needed to be told with respect.”
While The Boy is Hegerat’s first attempt to dabble in non-fiction, previous books have certainly drawn on her past life as a social worker dealing with troubled youth. But Hegerat said she believes it was her own children that led to the fascination with the Cook family, and Robert Raymond Cook in particular.
“I looked at my own boys, who were teenagers, and a lot of the boys who were trooping through my house during those years. I looked at those young people and I think it was being surrounded by young people that drew me into the story: trying to imagine what could happen in the lives of these people who were in my own life that could turn them into someone who could commit a crime of that magnitude.”
Which sounds like Hegerat has made up her mind about Cook’s guilt. That’s not really the case. She says she is not sure if he committed the crime. But if he did, she believes it was in some sort of disassociated state.
“What I know for sure is that he shouldn’t have been convicted on circumstantial evidence and what I know for absolutely sure is that he should never have hanged,” Hegerat says. “That goes beyond even my own abhorrence of the death penalty. But the community is really divided on this.”
Which may have made Hegerat’s reading in Stettler a few months back a somewhat daunting experience. Yes, the crime happened more than 50 years ago. But it still seems to be woven into the fabric of the community where it happened. She had her book launch before an audience of 55 people, most of whom were not the usual suspects of fellow writers, family and literati that tend to show up at such events.
The people in this audience knew the Cook family. Many remembered the crime, the manhunt and the horror first-hand.
“They sat there with their arms folded and they listened when I read,” Hegerat said. “And at the end, I sold out of books. Everybody bought books and it was just the warmest, most amazing welcome I could have. And I was nervous. Because they could very well think: ‘How dare this writer write our story and mess with it the way they have. Who does she think she is to take this family and rattle the bones?’ But when I talked to the librarian the next day, she said ‘It was as though you wrote the story for them and they came to thank you.’ ”