August 4, 2020

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Finding forgiveness

Derksen's tragic story a heartbreaking path from grief to joy

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Wilma Derksen holds a picture of her daughter Candace, who was found murdered in 1984 near the family’s home.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Wilma Derksen holds a picture of her daughter Candace, who was found murdered in 1984 near the family’s home.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/4/2017 (1221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Most books in the self-help or personal growth categories make extravagant cover claims, and The Way of Letting Go is no exception. "Wilma (Derksen)’s wisdom," the invisible publicist writes, "will help you overcome your broken heart, and her advice will enable you to break free of pain to live a life of true joy."

Who among readers in this broken world could resist even the remotest possibility that this claim could be true? Is it possible to escape from the burden of pain, loss, rage, confusion and despair, and return to a place of safety, peace and hope? Can one ordinary woman do that for her readers in one slender book?

The experience of personal tragedy has taught Winnipeg writer and educator Derksen not to make promises. Nor does she claim to be wise; she acknowledges that all she can do is share the path she found out of the abyss in the aftermath of the murder of her daughter Candace. For many victims and survivors of intense emotional trauma, that will be enough.

It was certainly enough to bring acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell to Winnipeg. In his introduction to Derksen’s book, he explains that he needed to meet her after his interview with Mike Reynolds of Fresno, Calif.

Reynolds’ 18-year-old daughter was also murdered. His response was to lead a public drive to more ruthless criminal punishment; it resulted in California’s three-strikes law, a now-repealed bill conceded to have been an utter disaster that ruined countless lives and failed to deter crime in that state. Reynolds’ tragedy bred more tragedy.

Having come face to face with righteous vengeance, Gladwell wanted to investigate its opposite: forgiveness.

The Candace Derksen story is known in criminal justice systems and in victim support communities around the world, but is known especially to Winnipeggers who have followed the case as it has dragged along for three decades. In 1984, the 13-year-old Candace was abducted, missing for seven bitterly cold weeks before her frozen and bound body was found in an industrial shed not far from the family home. By the time the discovery was made her friendly, beaming, innocent face was familiar to everyone here. If a city can have a collective heart, Winnipeg’s was broken for Candace and her young parents.

Cliff and Wilma Derksen, Mennonite Christians, made an immediate and public commitment to forgive the unknown murderer of their daughter, as their faith instructed them to do. They appeared strong and composed.

In The Way of Letting Go, we learn the Derksens did not realize the murder and funeral were just the beginning of a lifetime of sorrow, violation and assault. In spite of abundant love and support in the community they would, as Wilma puts it, "wobble" precariously from one stage of grief and delayed justice to the next, ultimately looking not to systems such as the law or the church, but inward to recover any kind of happiness.

The twists and turns in the Derksen story go beyond the imagination of the most skilled crime writer imaginable. After 23 wretched years, dogged work on "Project Angel" by Winnipeg Police uncovered the perpetrator. But the trial brought more to forgive, including painful new details of sexual torture and a guilty verdict that was appealed.

The case lumbers on, unresolved, after 33 years of shameful legal manipulation, as Charles Dickens might have witnessed it in Victorian England.

In spite of that spectacle, the Derksens’ response to their misery has brought countless blessings to their community, especially in the protection of children, understanding the roots of crime and the reach of restorative, rather than traditional, justice. This painfully candid story of monsters confronted, illusions abandoned, of spiritual resilience reveals how the impact of suffering can indeed be transformed into a creative force.

The Derksens, having "scraped the bottom of life" in the aftermath of murder, have also been, in the words of C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy. The Way of Letting Go is Wilma Derksen’s map to that breathtaking experience. It’s a tough, intimate and invaluable read.

Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.

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