Two cheerful wedding photos of the author serve as bookends to this disturbing, lavishly written account of a murderer and rapist who insisted he had been rehabilitated and fooled everyone.
The first picture, on the cover, shows her marrying Jason Staples, an ostensibly reformed killer who resembled a poster boy for the National Parole Board.
The second shot, taken 5½ years later, shows a divorced Moroney at her next wedding, smiling again. Connecting the two dates, in a blend of good intentions, self-pity and perhaps naiveté, is the narrative of her star-crossed union with Staples, and how she was able to forgive him all his sins, and still does.
Four weeks after the first wedding, in November, 2005, Toronto police knocked at her hotel door to tell her Staples had just been charged with sexual assault. He’d kidnapped two women, tied them up and hauled them to the house he shared with Moroney in Peterborough and attacked them for hours, injuring one so badly she needed stitches. Then he had called 911 and waited to be arrested.
Other nightmarish shocks were in store. Her new husband had run up a big Internet pornography bill and was fond of extreme-violence websites. He’d installed a keyhole camera in the bathroom of their home, and collected videos of occupants, including her mother.
When Moroney married Staples, she was fully aware of his distant past because on their first date he’d told her all about it: At age 18, in a rage, he’d beaten to death a female roommate who’d spurned his sexual advances. But it was a one-off, never to be repeated, he explained, and 15 years had elapsed. Convicted of second-degree murder and now on full parole, he was remorseful and eager to turn the page. The psychologists, parole officers and corrections officials who had dealings with Staples all concurred; his prospects seemed excellent.
He was clever, witty, kind and artistic, and Moroney was smitten. Her family was similarly impressed and, after a 2½-year courtship, the couple married.
So, at 30, she was deeply in love, a successful high-school counsellor and anxious to start a family. She thought she was all set.
Then came the door knock.
From the moment of his arrest, Staples wanted to plead guilty, and later he took the highly unusual step of agreeing to be classified as a dangerous offender, which spells an indefinite penitentiary term. He told the sentencing judge he thought he had always been a monster, beyond redemption. He also spoke of a kind of a “darkness” that enveloped his good side.
And it is the good side Moroney still chooses to emphasize. She does not minimize the impact of Staples’s crimes; she has great empathy for his victims and agrees that he may have to stay locked up forever. But in a perspective likely to anger many readers, she also sees someone who is more than a killer and a sex predator.
“Forgiveness neither erased nor diminished the magnitude of Jason’s violence,” she writes. What it also did, however, “was remind me that there was a human being behind the violence, and that his heinous acts did not represent the sum of who he was.”
Maybe not. Countless other killers have been shown to be otherwise nice guys, and a veteran sex-crimes detective who handled this case said it was the most perplexing one he had ever encountered. And that’s perhaps because Staples was not just sadistic and narcissistic, but also someone “who takes pride in fooling others,” according to a psychiatric assessment cited at sentencing.
So what’s hard to digest is Moroney’s insistence that, as with the wife of Russell Williams (an ill-advised comparison), she had no idea what wickedness lurked within her husband. She too is a victim, she says, because there were just no clues. In the end, she doesn’t know what made him commit the sex attacks.
Well, there was one big clue: Her beloved husband had once killed a woman by smashing her head on the floor because she refused to have sex with him.
Two other themes are woven through this compelling story: the lack of resources available to the spouses (as opposed to the victims) of offenders, and Moroney’s incontestable argument that incarcerating serious criminals and then eventually setting them free untreated (as happened with Staples) is a recipe for disaster.
The book could have used a hefty edit to pare it of some of its flowery prose, and its “me, me,” celebrity flavour. The author’s strong rebuke of the justice system is also undermined by a vagueness about the different players she encountered, most of whom are not identified by name, presumably for legal reasons.
Moroney nonetheless emerges as a credible advocate of what is termed “restorative justice,” which stresses healing and reconciliation between offender and victim rather than just punishment. And in general, she makes a good case for forgiveness.
Yet it was that same worthy impulse that led her to marry a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The best predictor of human behaviour, it’s often said, is not what a person says, but rather what they have done before.
And when she fell for Jason Staples, Moroney seems to have overlooked that.
Timothy Appleby is a Globe and Mail reporter and author of A New Kind of Monster: The Secret Life and Chilling Crimes of Colonel Russell Williams.