John Duncan Maxwell is a Toronto writer, musician and translator.
We’re driving into a bank of black clouds, my sister and brother-in-law and I. April weather. The traffic on Highway 400 to Penetanguishene, Ont., slows down to accommodate the coming rain. The mood in the car is sombre so, as is my unbreakable habit, I make a bad joke. Nervous, neurotic humour.
“On the plus side, it’s Friday the 13th, but we already know the worst thing that’s going to happen to us today.”
Understandably, nobody laughs. I don’t expect them to. After all, we’re on our way to the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, where we’ll spend much of the day sitting in a room with the serial killer who raped and murdered our aunt.
In the early to mid-1970s, police in Western Ontario investigated a series of horrifying sexual homicides. It took several years, however, before it became apparent that they were all committed by a single serial killer. The Bedroom Strangler, as he became known, would break into the homes of women he knew to be alone at the time, even climbing 13 storeys up the façade of an apartment building on one occasion. In August of 1974, he forced his way silently into a small flat in Guelph, Ont., where my aunt, Doris Brown, became his fourth known victim.
In 1978, Russell Maurice Johnson, an auto worker from St. Thomas, Ont., confessed to seven sadistic rape-murders and 11 sexual assaults. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and ever since has been a patient at Waypoint.
I was 13 years old when my aunt died. Dodie, as she was always called, was my favourite of my mother’s many siblings. My memories of her, perhaps unconsciously picked and filtered due to the horrific manner of her death, are all about her humour, warmth and liveliness. For a while after she died, I had a series of recurring dreams about her – invariably, she was dressed glamorously in 1940s styles, smilingly greeting me from the afterlife. Both the memories and the dreams were comforting, and probably pretty common with those who have lost loved ones in sudden and tragic ways.
Once a year, Russell Johnson, the Bedroom Strangler, exercises his right to a hearing in which he asks for more lenient conditions – escorted community visits or incarceration in a lower-security facility, whatever is on this season’s wish list. Each time, his request has been denied. Every year, members of my family, and the families of his other victims, make the solemn pilgrimage to Penetanguishene to oppose that request, convinced as we are that such a man will never stop being a danger to the community. It’s become a family tradition. Not the fun kind.
This is a first for me, though. Year after year and hearing after hearing, I’ve made my apologies to my cousins and sister and aunts and uncles and somehow contrived not to be there. No one has ever blamed or scolded me. They go because they choose to; I‘ve always found some or other reason not to.
But this year is different. And the reason it’s different is time, aging, mortality. Simply put, it’s my turn. My aunts and uncles, Dodie’s siblings, have mostly died or are too elderly and infirm to make the trip. The ones who are still young enough to attend have been doing so faithfully, some for a very long time, and deserve some support and solidarity. And the benefit of my bad jokes, of course.
In the visitor’s waiting room at Waypoint, I ask a very polite woman from the Ontario Review Board how many of these proceedings there have been for Russell Johnson since that verdict in 1978.
“North of 30” is her estimate.
One of my cousins has been faithfully attending for years.
“I think 10,” she replies when I ask how many hearings she has been to. She kindly says nothing about the fact that it’s my first time.
I don’t know what I was expecting from the hearing itself – I tried not to think too much in advance about sitting in the gymnasium of a psych hospital with a serial killer. Will there be emotional scenes, legal manoeuvres, chilling eye contact? So when it turns out to be a boring administrative exercise, I’ve never been so pleased and grateful to be bored. There are lawyers, of course, psychiatrists, and 18 grim and weary members of victims’ families. Russell Johnson himself – a big man, but ordinary-looking, too far across the room for me to see him very well. Six hours of verbal submissions, a request for more visiting privileges.
It’s a sad story, sure enough. But in the end, a story that, for me, isn’t really about its ostensible villain.
For me, it turns out to be about loyalty, and about keeping faith with those who can no longer speak for themselves.
When it finally wraps up, mid-afternoon on that grey Friday the 13th, we head for the parking lot and wave goodbye to the other families. Some of them have become familiar to my sister and cousins over the years. Some are friendly, others keep to themselves. Nobody says, “See you next year.” I’m told that fewer and fewer of us have been showing up, and the ones who do look much older. As I get in the car and drive away, I wonder who will attend when we no longer can.
My cousin and I agree to get together soon for some happier event. I’m looking forward to it.