Shannon Moroney wrote a letter to the wife of convicted rapist and murderer Russell Williams. If anyone could understand the singular hell she was going through, Moroney believed she could. For she too had been blindsided by a spouse who committed a horrific crime. She’d been married only a month when, in November 2005, her 36-year-old husband, Jason Staples, abducted two women and raped them in their Peterborough, Ont., house while she was away at a convention in Toronto. In 2008, Staples was deemed a dangerous offender and imprisoned indefinitely.
But Moroney’s story, as told in her thought-provoking memoir Through the Glass, differs from Williams’s wife in a significant detail: the high school guidance counsellor married Staples knowing violent crime was part of his past. But, madly in love and believing in redemption—and the evidence his crime was a one-time event—she forgave him.
Staples was convicted of second-degree murder in 1988 when he was 18; he served 10 years in prison. When he met the 27-year-old Moroney in 2003, at a subsidized restaurant for low-income patrons in Kingston, Ont., where he worked, he’d been on parole for five years. Moroney, a compassionate woman, was volunteering with her students. She was drawn to Staples’s good looks and intelligence, she writes; minutes after meeting him she noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and wondered if he had a girlfriend. Staples disclosed his past on their first date, explaining he’d killed a female roommate in a sudden fit of rage after she rejected his sexual advances, and would understand if Moroney bolted. She didn’t. Though shaken, she was curious; his candour and remorse impressed her. “I was surprised to find my heart going out to this man, even as I was repulsed by what he had done,” she writes.
She agonized over becoming involved, while admitting she’d “fallen in love.” She spoke with Staples’s psychologist, who said he wasn’t at risk of reoffending. His parole officer called him a model prisoner, “our best guy.” Moroney’s friends and family liked him immediately. The couple moved in together quickly, four months after meeting, and married two years later. Moroney depicts the relationship as blissfully harmonious as they fixed up their house and planned a family.
With the shattering news of Staples’s crimes, Moroney learned she was more than a collateral victim: he had photographed her—and others—in their bathroom with a hidden camera. Yet neither she or her family turned away. The memoir charts how Moroney supported Staples through the justice system while despising his crime and the damage he’d caused. She faced stigma herself: some friends shunned her and she lost her job. The situation became a test of sorts, she writes. “I could tell fairly early on what someone’s character was made of by how they reacted to my story.” The couple divorced in 2009 but remain friends. Staples supported her decision to write the book, and even edited the first few drafts.
The experience inspired new purpose and a career change: Moroney is now a paid speaker and advocate within the field of restorative justice, which focuses on victims, offenders and the community. After fearing she’d never trust and love again, she remarried last year after an eight-month courtship.
Through the Glass is a compelling documentation of a flawed penal system, a nuanced look at the humanity of a violent criminal, and a snapshot of the cognitive dissonance required by romantic love. Most of all, it’s a meditation on forgiveness, which Moroney shorthands brilliantly. “Forgiveness is a process; it’s not a single act,” she writes.
The book raises a myriad of questions, some unanswerable. Sitting in her publisher’s office, a poised and articulate Moroney fields them candidly. She likens Staples’s reoffending to “someone having cancer years ago and you’re told it went away and is never coming back and then it’s stage four,” which reflects her wilful optimism. She also addresses the “How could the wife not know?” speculation. At trial, a repentant Staples admitted he was “wired wrong, specifically sexually.” But their sex life was normal, Moroney insists, although looking back there were signs. Staples suffered from delayed ejaculation, she writes, which he blamed on being institutionalized. He also took long showers. “It’s not like I was naive—little tiny things I picked up became very important later,” she says.
Moroney never heard back from Russell Williams’s wife, which didn’t surprise her. She herself had been deluged with ugly mail after her address was made public. The cases are different, she agrees. Staples reoffended, which subjected her to harsher judgment. “People assume I’m a woman who sought out a violent offender but that’s something I don’t relate to.” She bristles at an “I married a murderer” headline about her memoir that appeared in a magazine. That may be how it appears to the world, but the man she married, she believed, had paid his dues.
There was a lot of anger and confusion to work through. “I’d visit him with a list of questions: ‘Were you ever with prostitutes?’, ‘Did you ever hurt anybody else?’ ” He said no. Many would not have trusted Staples’s reliability by then; she did. Seeing him in a dissociative state in court helped her understand how he could have snapped, she writes.
Why he snapped remains a mystery. Later he revealed that while in prison for murder, he developed a porn addiction and had been gang-raped; he said he’d been sexually abused as a child by his mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder.
Staples didn’t receive any treatment in prison, only assessment, which included monitoring his response to violent porn. She learned that the parole board dealing with his case had no record of his mother’s mental illness. “I knew more about the kids whose timetables I changed,” she says, referring to her job as a guidance counsellor. She wrote the book in part, she says, for victims’ families: “Corrections Canada says one of the most important things for prisoner rehabilitation is family contact. But they make it so difficult to get to the door of a prison—inconvenient hours, they’re located so far away. And when you’re visiting, you’re treated like a criminal yourself.”
Moroney doesn’t see getting involved with Staples as an error in judgment: “Jason wasn’t the wrong choice knowing what I knew, the beautiful life we shared. What happened had nothing to do with my choice. It only had to do with Jason’s choices.” (Her current husband volunteered his financial and legal status when they started dating.)
“People would say, ‘You forgave him once. You’re going to forgive him again?’ as if there should be a maximum. I want people to understand forgiveness is more for the victim. It’s more for me. I didn’t want to make a lifelong commitment to anger and resentment. It’s too much energy.” It’s “practical,” she says. “I could see a long road ahead and asked myself: ‘How am I going to get to a place where I’m capable of being loving, happy, trusting?’ ” That she has reached that point is her payback, she says without smugness. “What better revenge on the person and the system that hurt me so?” ANNE KINGSTON
***EXCERPT FROM THROUGH THE GLASS BY SHANNON MORONEY***
My heart was pounding. I had learned that Jason and I would have a “closed” visit, sealed from each other and from other visitors and inmates, but I still didn’t know what to expect. When I reached the door it clicked open and I entered a tiny room divided in half by a thick sheet of glass extending up from a steel counter. There was a small metal stool bolted to the floor in front of the counter.
I was still getting my bearings when Jason came through the door on the other side of the room—face down, drawn and grim. He was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. Was this my husband I was seeing through the glass? Jason looked up, our eyes met, and we both began crying uncontrollably. I put my hands up to the glass.
“Jason . . . ”
But he couldn’t hear me. He pointed to a phone receiver on the wall beside me. He picked up an identical receiver on his side. I cried into the phone, “Jason, what happened? What happened?”
“I don’t know . . . ” He was sobbing, almost unable to speak.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
We stood there for several moments, each of us holding a phone receiver in one hand, the other hand pressed against the glass, our palms together but unable to touch. It was hard to stop crying, but I had a million questions.
First, I asked my mum’s question: “Jason, didn’t you know how much I loved you? How much we all loved you?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry, I didn’t really know.”
As I looked into Jason’s eyes, I recalled a school picture taken when he was six years old, the year his dad died. In it, his face was solemn and his eyes were dark with sorrow and profound loneliness. They were the exact same eyes I was looking into now, 30 years later.
“Jason,” I said, “the police told me you said that you never wanted to see me again—why did you say that?”
The expression on his face changed from sorrow to confusion, and after a moment he said softly, “No, Shanny, I said, ‘My wife never has to see me again.’ ”
I felt a pulse of relief. It was something to hold onto amidst the confusion.
Jason went on to confess that he had been gorging himself on pornography over the weekend while I was away, and that he had gone to see a very violent movie at the theatre. I despise pornography, and I had no idea that Jason even looked at it, let alone the extent to which it was part of his life. He said he’d stuffed himself with junk food that day until he was in pain—something he now admitted he had started doing frequently a few months before, during the night while I slept. I winced as I recalled teasing him about eating too much junk food while I was away.
“How long have these things been going on?” I asked. He said he’d become addicted to pornography while he was in prison the first time. It was something he was ashamed of, and that’s why he’d never discussed it with me before. The issues with food had come and gone to greater or lesser extents throughout his life, beginning in his early teens. The voyeurism was new in the last few months. He explained that he had always known something was wrong with him, but that he convinced himself that he was in control of whatever it was, experiencing long periods of time when he was “unplugged” from his demons, times when there was no “interference with the wires in his brain.” Recently, the addictive behaviours had been building again, though he couldn’t explain exactly why. In agony, I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry. I was so afraid. I wanted to keep you out of it; to protect you from it. I thought it would go away.” This choice was one of the biggest mistakes of his life, and he knew it. He shook his head. “I see now how wrong I was, and it’s too late.” “You could have told me anything, Jason. I would have done anything to help you. We could have prevented this, if only you had the courage to tell me—or anyone—what was going on inside.”
“I know. I know that now.” He looked strained and without hope. We cried for several minutes, unable to speak. It pained me to find out that Jason had let himself fall into the spiral of this degradation. Learning about his hidden habits repulsed me completely. Jason had fooled himself into thinking his addiction would go away on its own, and in so doing, he had victimized me and others. He had denied the seriousness of his compulsions and let shame and fear prevent him from getting help. Then he exploded, wreaking havoc on the lives of the two women and countless other people who were now affected. I felt helpless, and completely betrayed.