The Stranger Inside
Simon & Schuster,
IT began with a knock at the door. Standing outside was what no one wants to see, a policeman, but instead of reporting a family member hurt in an accident, he had other bad news: Shannon Moroney's husband had been arrested for sexual assault.
Moroney was on the verge of celebrating the one-month anniversary of her wedding with Jason Staples, and she was stunned, yet the full account would be worse: while she was away at a teachers' conference, Staples had violently raped two women who entered the shop where he worked, placing them in plastic bags and renting a van in which he drove them to the house he shared with his wife.
He carried the women to the basement and threatened to kill himself. The women bravely engaged him in conversation and persuaded him not to do so. Instead, he then called the police.
It's a horrific tale, with a peculiar added detail. While Staples was in his basement with the women, his wife had telephoned from the conference for their assigned nightly chat. At first he didn't pick up, but when he finally did, she excitedly revealed that she thought she might be pregnant; the next day, when she learned what he had done, she immediately had a miscarriage.
The Stranger Inside is an unusual account of how criminals' actions may affect their families. It's a story rarely told, but one that must happen all the time. Whenever someone commits a terrible crime, a wife or mother, father, husband or child is left to deal with the fallout.
In the small Canadian city where the couple lived, the repercussions for Moroney were far-reaching. She lost her job as a school guidance counsellor, the principal telling her simply: "You represent something terrible." Across the town, friends took sides and made judgments – in part, because Moroney chose to visit Staples in prison (more on that later).
You could argue that she should have known. Staples already had a criminal record when Moroney met him, and was working at a restaurant staffed by parolees on day release from prison. The attraction between the two of them was immediate – "There was something special about him," she writes – but on their first date, he revealed that, as an 18-year-old, he had killed a 38-year-old woman with whom he was involved and had been convicted of second-degree murder. "I never want to hurt anyone again," he told Moroney over a cup of tea. "I know what I did and I wish I could change the past. But I can't."
This regret, coupled with years of good behaviour, had convinced his minders he was safe; Staples's psychiatrist explicitly told Moroney that he was not dangerous in any way. It convinced her, too. Within four months, they had moved in together and three years later, just after her 30th birthday, they married. Despite misgivings, her parents came to love him.
Just before he committed his second crime, Staples's life had been on a roll. He had sent his artwork to Canada's biggest children's book publisher, and received a letter inviting him to make an appointment with the art director. "It was his big break, too late," Moroney says.
What nobody knew was the detail of Staples's history. His father had died when he was six, and he was brought up by a mother, who had abused him sexually and physically. Then, as a young inmate of an adult prison, at the age of 18 he had been raped by a number of men.
These experiences had scarred him so deeply that he disclosed them to Moroney only after his second offence; they were probably what led him to become a sexual sadist (his formal diagnosis). Although on the outside he seemed well balanced during their relationship, he was secretly watching extreme pornography and bingeing on junk food until it hurt.
A trained counsellor with a Master's degree in child welfare, Moroney takes an approach that is part memoir, part social commentary. She critiques the inadequacies of the criminal justice system, and suggests that if Staples had received the right care early on – had he not been sexually assaulted as a young man in prison, for instance – he might not have gone on to reoffend. She laments the lack of rehabilitative treatments for prisoners and the fact that, once in jail, Staples would wait years before he would be eligible for therapy of any kind.
For months, Moroney lived with a film-reel image in her mind of what had happened in the basement of her house. Yet she decided to forgive her husband and admits that during the process, their bond grew stronger. (Ultimately the couple divorced.) Astonishingly, she never pauses to wonder if she herself had been in danger.
The story follows a standard self-help pattern of grief, recovery and redemption. Moroney meets a new man and remarries. But that this was possible testifies to her real courage: in her desire to come to terms with Staples's actions, she got involved in restorative justice, and began to give talks and to meet others who had gone through similar troubles. This allowed her to travel around the world. "I was honoured and humbled to meet some of the leaders of the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Rwanda," she writes. "The positive synergy was infectious."
For some readers there may be something a little too neat in book's optimistic conclusion. Plenty of loose ends remain. We learn little of the victims' experience (mainly, one assumes, for reasons of privacy); and the prison systems partly responsible for brutalising Staples and people like him chug along, with variations, in many parts of the world. But Moroney has given a powerful insight into the complexity of wrongdoing, showing that, however appalling a crime may be, the full story is never just black and white.