It was a June afternoon in 1994 when Susan McDonald’s life changed in ways that most of us could never understand. She was at home checking her mail when she received a phone call from her grandmother’s friend. They were supposed to go to the symphony together that evening, she said, but Susan’s grandmother wasn’t answering her phone or door. She was worried.
Susan had a key to her grandmother’s home, so she hopped on her bike and headed over to check in. When she walked in the door, she called out and then hurried upstairs where she found her grandmother lying on her bed. She had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and had been sexually assaulted. She did not survive the attack. No arrests were ever made for the crime and it remains a cold case with the Toronto Police Service to this day.
“What happened to my grandmother shook me to the core,” she says. “We all lose loved ones whether it is by illness or old age - it’s expected to happen eventually - but losing my grandmother to murder and sexual assault didn’t fit into any category for me. I didn’t know how to incorporate it into my life or how to even process it.”
What followed that afternoon is a blur for Susan, who describes herself as being a “complete basket case” at the police station that night. In the days, weeks, months and years after finding her grandmother, she struggled emotionally – completely shutting down and throwing herself into law school and work. Though she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she made every effort to look like a high functioning member of society who had it all together. The truth was she was crumbling.
As time passed, Susan found ways to manage her grief, fear, and anger. She volunteered to help others who had lost their loved ones to homicide and she joined the board of Victim Services Toronto, an organization that helps victims and their families in the aftermath of crime or sudden unexpected tragedy. Doing this work helped Susan by giving her an outlet to talk about her own experience.
Seventeen years later, however, Susan needed more.
She read a report by a criminology professor at the University of Montreal about restorative justice. The report talked about a sexual assault program for survivors in Quebec where they used surrogate offenders to address the harm caused by sexual assault. That is, victims of sexual assault would meet with offenders of sexual assault (not their offenders but offenders who had committed similar crimes), to get what they needed to heal and move forward. Susan had never heard of this concept before, but it caught her attention.
“It was during this time that I had thrown myself into work and had kind of lost me in there,” she says. “So I decided that this was something I wanted to do. I wanted to look into doing a restorative opportunity with a surrogate offender.”
Susan reached out to the Restorative Opportunities Program at CSC to start the process. They took her information and told her that a mediator would be in touch shortly. They also informed her that given the nature of her case and the fact that it would be a surrogate offender and victim process, it could take up to a year to find a match. Susan was comfortable with that. A few days later, however, she received a call from Mark Yantzi.
“He said, ‘I think I have someone. Can you and I meet in the next couple of days?’” explains Susan. “But I just wasn’t ready. I was expecting it to take a year, not weeks! So I took some time to think about it and then I met with Mark a few weeks later.”
Her first impression of him? He was kind, warm, welcoming, and comforting says Susan. They talked for hours; not only about what she wanted to achieve by going through the process but about restorative justice in general, from a philosophical point of view. After meeting with Mark, says Susan, she knew she was in good hands.
“He asked me what I wanted out of the process,” says Susan, “but the key thing he did that was so brilliant was that he only told me that the offender he had in mind was a man who was serving life for sexually assaulting an elderly woman during a home robbery. He only told me his first name so that I couldn’t go look up his case. Little did I know how important that would be.”
Shortly after her first meeting with Mark, Susan sat down again with Mark and Stacey Alderwick, who was being mentored by Mark as a newly trained Restorative Opportunities mediator at the time, to firm up details. Together they clearly outlined exactly what Susan needed from the offender so that her expectations could be met. In her case, it was an answer to one question: Why would you sexually assault and murder an elderly woman?
After months of planning, the day of the meeting arrived. It was late October and Susan made the drive to Bath Institution to meet Mark and Stacey first thing in the morning. Mark guided her through the process, putting her at ease and calming her as she moved through security and into the institution. The three of them and the offender met in a meeting room with a table and chairs. Susan spoke first, telling her story.
“I cried for a solid two and a half hours. I asked him what would bring a human being to do that to anyone let alone an elderly woman. I told him I understood the robbing, whether it was to support an addiction or whatever, but I said I needed to know why the sexual assault.”
Though Susan didn’t register it at the time, the offender was emotional as she spoke. Later during their debrief, both Stacey and Mark talked about how they could tell the offender was feeling what Susan was going through and that it was affecting him deeply. Once Susan was finished speaking, it was his turn.
“As it turned out, he was sexually abused by his mother as a child. His father had left and he had three siblings, so he would steal to put food on the table for his mom and siblings. Robbing was just a part of his life, a part of his survival.
“The psychologist who testified in his case said that the issues with his mother is what led the offender to sexually assault his victim. He had a need not for revenge, but for control and it manifested itself in the attack that killed this innocent woman. This was his only sexual assault – he had never done it prior.”
For Susan, the offender’s story made sense to her.
“He wasn’t excusing what he did. He just wanted to explain what it was like for him growing up and why his crime happened. I certainly got answers and felt a huge amount of empathy for this individual. There was a lot of trust and openness between us two complete strangers, which is really amazing if you think about it. It was something really special.
“Just before we left he gave me his last name so that I could go and look up his case. He said to me, ‘How I’m described makes me seem like a monster, but I don’t think I am.’ That was actually really amazing to me because he trusted me to give me his name and to read everything about him and what he did to his victim.”
This is where Mark’s decision not to tell Susan all of the details about the offender comes in. For Susan, there is no doubt in her mind that had she known the horrible details going into the session, it would not have been the same experience for her. She would have brought all her biases against sex offenders into the room with her, closing her off from really listening. Mark’s decision not to tell her, says Susan, gave her the chance to have the experience she needed.
As Susan was driving home that afternoon, feeling completely drained and exhausted, she felt different. Though it wasn’t closure or resolution, simply because this was not the offender who had killed her grandmother, she says the experience changed her in a way she never could have expected – a way that has impacted her life ever since.
“I’m sitting there driving and listening to the radio and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve changed. I’ve had all my ideas about sex offenders challenged. I have more empathy and a better understanding. I don’t have hatred or disgust, just an opened mind, which is a good thing. I felt like I had a sign on my forehead that said ‘Better Person’. I felt like I had grown up.”