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Wayne Johnston was a young author with one published novel when the story of a lifetime landed in his lap. It was, in fact, the story of his life – his partner’s, anyway, and one that would become his as he joined the family. It was a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of story that would ultimately shatter him.
“One minute, you’re sitting at your desk as you do every day,” Johnston writes in his new novel, inspired by this true story. “You think you know who you are, where you are in your life and how you got there. You have a rough idea of what the future holds. And then the doorbell rings, and a man you barely know barges in and upends everything.”
It’s a story that involves sexual assault, incest, murder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Anne Frank. A fictionalized version of these horrific real-life events forms the basis of The Mystery of Right and Wrong, published this week.
“It’s a very intense book to read, let alone to write,” said Johnston, 63, in an interview last week. He’s holding his breath a bit, waiting to see how people react to the autobiographical elements and to his use of Anne Frank – he has taken some liberties with his use of the young Holocaust victim in this work of fiction, which can be fraught. “But I’m no stranger to controversy when it comes to books,” he says.
Johnston, who was born and raised in Goulds, NL, is the author of bestselling novels including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, published in 1998 and nominated for both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction. It was hotly debated for its fictionalization of the life of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier.
But this story – he didn’t know what to do with it. He kept it quiet for more than 35 years. This was his third attempt to write about what happened.
The Mystery of Right and Wrong is set in St. John’s, Cape Town and Amsterdam, and many of the characters and much of what happened are pulled directly from real life, as Johnston explains in a mind-blowing afterword.
“Fate came calling … with the mundane ringing of a doorbell,” he writes in the author’s note. Johnston was living with his girlfriend, Rose Langhout, in St. John’s. Rose was out when her new brother-in-law, who had recently married Rose’s sister Barbara, came to the door. He was crying. “Over the next couple of hours, he told me what Barbara said [their father] Jan had done to girls in Cape Town, was still doing to girls in St. John’s, and was still doing to her and those of her sisters he was able to find excuses to see alone,” Johnston recounts.
This is a story about a father sexually assaulting his own daughters.
When Johnston and Rose confronted her parents, they rented a St. John’s motel room so they could be on neutral ground.
At first the father denied the accusations. But as Johnston recalls in our interview, he then said, “Well, so what if I did do these things? They’re my daughters, and I can do anything I want with them. Because I own them. They’re mine.”
During that meeting, Rose’s father noticed Johnston had brought with him a biography of Albert Einstein. “You’re reading about that filthy Jew?” he said, according to the afterword.
Jan Langhout, vicious anti-Semite – as described by Johnston – had told his four daughters that as a young man, he was in the Dutch Resistance in Amsterdam during the Second World War. But later came a different version of what he’d done during the war: He claimed to be the person who told the Gestapo about Anne Frank and the other Jews living in the Secret Annex.
Sometimes in the same conversation, Jan would present both versions of his wartime life: that he was in the Resistance and saved Jews, and that he turned in the eight Jews living behind the swinging bookcase. (The mystery of how the Franks were discovered remains unsolved.)
In the novel, there is a disturbing scene involving Anne and her sister Margot that might be too much for some readers. The whole novel, in fact, gets more and more disturbing as it gets further away from the real-life story.
Much of the fiction is accomplished by an ongoing ballad, an autobiographical poem woven through the book, written by Hans van Hout, the character based on Jan Langhout. There are also sections that come from the journals kept by Rachel, the character based on Rose.
Rachel suffers from obsessive reading and writing – a disorder Johnston himself has suffered from since he was 13. Because of his severe hyperlexia, he might read something and then question what he had read, and go back to it repeatedly. Before you know it, he says, you’ve spent two or three days on one paragraph.
And his hypergraphia saw him write almost as many books by age 23 as he’d read. Some of the writing might be usable to begin with, but “eventually you get to the point where you can’t make a decision between one synonym and another synonym, and that can go on for a long time, to the exclusion of eating or drinking.” He was living in Ottawa with Rose in the 1980s when this led to what he describes as a complete breakdown. He was diagnosed with OCD.
In the novel, Rachel reads only one text – Het Achterhuis, Anne Frank’s diary – while Wade, Johnston’s fictional counterpart, is trying desperately to write a novel.
Hanging over the entire story is the question of what Jan Langhout, who is now dead, might have done to other young women and girls.
As Johnston reveals, his own mother, who worked with police, told Johnston in 1998 that a police officer had once told her Langhout had been a person of interest in an unsolved murder case in St. John’s.
“Another part of that particular thing was his way of gaining entry to houses where girls and young women lived. And nobody suspected a thing. Because he had no guilt and no sense of self-reflection. He had a kind of bland charisma about him, and it was hard to say no to him,” Johnston says from Toronto, where he now lives. “Once he came knocking, people didn’t suspect what the purpose of his visits really were. He was hunting; he was a predator.”
What do you do when you’re a 27-year-old fledgling novelist and a story like this is dumped on you? Johnston almost immediately tried to write about it. “I was just foaming with anger, with frustration, a feeling of helplessness, uncertainty about what the future would bring for Rose and myself,” he says.
He finished a draft. “But it read almost like I was trying to take revenge for the sisters,” he says. He put it away but found he couldn’t move on. So he put it in a box, walked down the street until he found a dumpster and threw it in there, then literally ran away to stop himself from climbing in and getting it back.
About a decade later, he tried again. By this time, he and Rose had become estranged from her family. Again, he threw the draft away.
“This time I realized what the problem had been – that the real-life story had yet to play itself out. What the ultimate implications for the sisters would be, what the parents might eventually do. Might they admit to what had happened? And might there be a reconciliation in the family? There were so many unanswered questions that the raw material I was basing the book on hadn’t all arrived yet.”
What happened to allow him to write it this time, he says, is that Rose began to reconcile with her sisters. One by one, they came back into the fold.
Then, in 2014, the senior Langhouts died in Cape Town, nine days apart. A couple of months later, Johnston started writing this novel.
“I think I was given or allowed myself freedom once the larger-than-life man [was gone],” Johnston says. “It was almost like the colour of the world changed a little bit. And I think that was the biggest thing that freed me up to write the book, psychically, psychologically.”
The book does not solve every mystery, including the mystery of why Johnston’s father-in-law was what he was. A man who assaulted his daughters, who called Anne Frank’s diary a hoax – even as he claimed to have turned her in. A man who, at the end of that motel-room confrontation, asked, in all seriousness, where they would then all go have dinner together.
“Are you born a psychopath or do you become one?” says Johnston. “Do you become one because you were treated by a psychopath the way you treat your daughters? Were you molested as a child? Did you see things during the war that completely warped your personality? I don’t answer that in the book because I don’t know the answer.”
Johnston has written The Mystery of Right and Wrong with the support of Rose and the knowledge of his sisters-in-law, who as of our conversation had not yet read it. On the night before we spoke, Johnston packaged up copies of the book to send out, each with a different inscription.
“Maybe I’m still as naive and green as I was and as Wade in the book is, but I have a feeling that ultimately more good than harm will come to all of us because of the book,” says Johnston. “That’s certainly my hope, anyway.”