Readers disturbed by Alice Munro’s haunting short story “Dimensions”—in which a father kills his three children—can’t take comfort in the fact that it’s fiction. There are eerie similarities between the story and a criminal trial under way in British Columbia involving Allan Schoenborn, who is charged with the first-degree murders in April 2008 of his daughter and two sons.
The parallels are stunning: the manic disposition of the fathers; the way the children died and the reasons why; the mothers’ devastating discoveries; and a wretched claim by both men that the deceased appeared to them. The resemblance is startling to journalist Bill Richardson, who hosted an International Festival of Authors event in Toronto with Munro. She admitted that “Dimensions” is the only story in her recently published book, Too Much Happiness, that she can’t reread, though it’s unclear why. Munro acknowledged the similarities, Richardson told Maclean’s in an email, but noted that violence against children is not so unusual.
There are other examples of life imitating art. The 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic was foretold in the novella Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, in which a luxury ocean liner called Titan smashes into an iceberg and capsizes in the North Atlantic. A 2004 Hubble space telescope image of dust and gas swirling around stars in the dark has the distinct look of Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night. As for Munro’s short story, it ran in The New Yorker in 2006.
At the centre of “Dimensions” and the B.C. murders is the father. Both are blue-collar (the fictional father, Lloyd, works at an ice cream factory, Schoenborn was a roofer), and seemingly threatened by the possibility of their wives leaving them. Insanity figures prominently. Schoenborn has testified about hearing voices, and that he’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia and paranoia. After the murders, Lloyd writes to his wife, Doree: “I could say that I was crazy then but what does that mean? Crazy. Sane. I am I.”
Doree, like Schoenborn’s common-law wife, Darcie Clarke, is not home when the children are killed. She has fled to a friend’s house after Lloyd accuses her of trying to poison him and the kids by buying a dented can of spaghetti. Clarke, who had just told Schoenborn their marriage was over, was at her mother’s. The couple no longer lived together, but Schoenborn stayed with the children when Clarke wasn’t around. Both women hear from the men by phone before or after the killings.
That night, Lloyd suffocates Sasha, Barbara Ann and Dimitri with a pillow. The eldest has bruises around his neck from trying to resist his father’s attack. Schoenborn’s eldest, Kaitlynne, fought back when he stabbed her in the neck, so he suffocated her. He did the same to Max and Cordon, one with a plastic bag, the other with his hand.
In both cases it is the mothers who discover the dead children. The shock and pain are feral: “Doree kept stuffing whatever she could grab in her mouth. After the dirt and grass it was sheets or towels or her own clothing. As if she were trying to stifle not just the howls that rose up but the scene in her head,” writes Munro. Clarke reportedly was catatonic except for shrieking, “My babies, my babies!”
Schoenborn allegedly confessed to the killings, but he has pleaded not guilty. The defence argues he should not be found criminally responsible because of mental illness. Schoenborn says he murdered the children to save them from humiliation, and out of fear they were being poisoned and molested, although there is no evidence of that. The Crown says he did it to get revenge on Clarke. Lloyd admits to killing his kids too. He says Darcie brought their deaths on herself, that he saved them from the misery of their mother walking out on them. He is deemed insane, and there is no trial.
Doree and Clarke are the only people to visit the men in jail, and each man claims to have had visions. Lloyd tells Doree he saw the children in another “dimension,” heaven maybe, and they were “really happy” and didn’t “seem to have any memory of anything bad.” Schoenborn has said in the prison courtyard he saw sparkles on water and Kaitlynne forgave him, so the boys must have too.
As troubling as the parallels between Munro’s work and the real life murders are, Richardson believes “Dimensions” allows readers to “explore the innards” of a tragedy. “The fiction and the news illuminate each other,” he says. Even when the story is dark.