BROOKLIN, Maine — Even on a rainy autumn afternoon, the view from Jon Wilson’s office window is sublime: Green spruce trees, gray rocks and the calm waters of Blue Hill Bay add up to the perfect postcard picture of the Maine coast.
But Wilson, the founder of the WoodenBoat School and magazine, doesn’t spend a lot of time gazing at the idyllic natural scene in front of him. Instead, he has turned his attention to the worst part of humanity, including rape, child sexual abuse and murder, as he works to help the survivors of serious crimes give voice to their pain and anger. He has been a facilitator in dialogues between the victims and the offenders of such crimes for nearly 16 years, flying around the country to do so, and it’s clear that this work feels critically important to him.
“I’m a facilitator. I’m not a mediator. I’m not trying to get them to common ground. There is no common ground,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking when you really get into this.”
But because Wilson has dug into the work, he has helped to make positive change for survivors. He’s founded the non-profit organization JUST Alternatives to support survivors and to promote victim-centered practices in justice and corrections. He’s also been a facilitator in states including Maine, Massachusetts and Texas, and has helped conduct many victim offender dialogue facilitator trainings.
“I believe he’s served an important role in the facilitation of victim offender dialogue,” said Tessa Mosher, the director of victims services at the Maine Department of Corrections. “He would be considered in my mind a national leader in victim offender dialogue.”
About two years ago Sarah, a crime survivor from Massachusetts, decided she wanted to have a conversation with the young Maine man who changed her life when he held her 16-year-old son and his friends up at gunpoint one winter night when they had come north to go snowmobiling. The man brutally beat the teens, she said, leaving one of them for dead. And although her son did not want to have a conversation with his attacker, she did.
“The one big reason is that I was not present,” said Sarah, who did not want to use her last name for fear of reprisals. “When I imagined these horrific things happening to these boys and I heard the events of the whole evening … I couldn’t understand why he would do this. There were so many questions as to why it happened. And I wanted to see his face.”
She and the offender, who initially did not want to participate in the dialogue but ended up changing his mind, met individually with Wilson over the course of many months to prepare for the conversation. Finally they met, and although she was nervous at first, she ultimately found the dialogue very helpful.
“It’s hard to put words to it. I felt like it was cleansed for me,” she said, referring to the night of the assaults. “I now knew him as a human being. And although it doesn’t negate what happened, the offender was no longer a monster in my mind.”
Wilson said that he first became aware of the nascent movement to help crime victims have a dialogue with the offender back in 1999, when he was the publisher of Hope magazine. The magazine’s editor wanted to do an issue devoted to the ways that people make peace with themselves and others.
“That sounded great to me,” he said.
While researching the issue, Wilson saw an article that he had a hard time understanding. It was about a Minnesota couple whose daughter had been abducted, raped and murdered by two young men. Two years after the crime, the parents met and talked with one of their daughter’s killers.
“I read about this, and thought if somebody had killed my child, and I got into a room with him, I’d want to strangle him,” Wilson said. “If my wife was hurt in that way, or killed, where would I find a spirit of generosity? How does anybody do it, and why does anybody do it? It was completely counter-intuitive to me.”
But he wanted to learn more, so he called up the Minnesota father. He learned that the grieving man could not summon the will to continue in his profession as a psychotherapist after the violent loss of his daughter. The father wondered how a person could take a life so callously, and thought perhaps if he had some answers, it would help.
“I’m pretty sure he said that forgiveness was an ongoing journey,” Wilson said.
The father encouraged Wilson to go to talk to people doing the facilitation work in Texas, the first state in the country to have a victim-initiated program allowing for dialogues between victims and offenders. Wilson was able to speak with Thomas Ann Hines in Dallas, a single mother whose only son had been murdered for his car. Thirteen years after the murder, Hines — her loss still fresh and raw — got to speak with Robert Charles White, who killed her son, Paul Hines. She told Wilson about it.
“I had never thought about what crime victims go through. I’d never had to,” Wilson said. “She was my first teacher. She’s basically blowing me away with the power of her story.”
He wrote about Thomas Ann Hines for Hope Magazine, but still did not feel he was done with the story. Wilson was invited to come to a two-week facilitator training in Texas.
“I went as a writer,” he recalled. “The first morning of the first day, we were an hour or so into it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to do this.”
Wilson said that preparations for the dialogues generally last 10 to 12 months. During that time, he meets with the survivors and talks to them about what they want from the conversation. They might want to forgive the offender, or ask him why they did what they did, or tell them what their actions have done. It’s up to the survivors completely, Wilson said.
“The problem for survivors is that most people don’t know their stories,” Wilson said. “I don’t think they trust that they’ll be heard and acknowledged. They want to say, ‘This is what happened to me.’”
He also goes to prisons and meets privately with the offenders, who may not ever have had to own up to their actions before — even though they are serving lengthy prison terms for them.
He said his listening skills are his most important tool as he does the facilitation work.
“The one thing I know I can do is listen,” Wilson said. “When I’m working with some offenders, I feel like a beast whisperer. If we’re going to change anything, you’ve got to make it safe for people to say this stuff out loud. You have to make it possible to tell the truth. That’s not easy to do. Some of their truth is ugly.”
Then, when both parties are finally ready to meet, Wilson is there with them the whole time. The conversations can last for hours — as long as it takes for the survivors to speak their truth to the offenders.
Afterward, the offender stays in prison and the survivor goes home — hopefully leaving something behind as they do.
“For the survivor, you end up helping them carry very heavy, outrageous, profoundly grief-burdened loss and devastation,” Wilson said. “For the offender, you’re putting words to the experiences they’ve never dared to put words to.”
He is grateful to WoodenBoat, the success of which allows him to spend most of his time doing facilitation work. Though his two worlds can seem very far apart, Wilson said there are some deep similarities.
“As an editor, I wanted people’s stories to be heard. As a writer, I wanted to tell stories,” he said. “And as a facilitator, I only want people to be heard.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the program in Texas as “volunteer-initiated.” It is a victim-initiated program.