October 3, 2010

Growing up in the small city of Corner Brook, we were safe. Of course, there was a different kind of danger humming beneath family structures, through the halls of our high schools. But we were free from any tangible, named fear. Doors were never locked, games were played outside well past dark and the woods were a place where you could be comfortably alone. Then in 1982, a 20-year old local woman went missing from her job at a gas station. She had been abducted, raped and murdered with a hammer and screwdriver. In the days that lay between the discovery of her remains, and the arrest of her killers, we Corner Brook girls learned a lifestyle of fear that we had never imagined. We had to come home from school right away. We had keys strung around our necks. We quickend our pace at the sound of a man’s footsteps on the street behind us. The devastating thing was that her younger sister was one of us – a student at our school. This brought the tragedy crashing through our imaginations in full color. This wasn’t other people. This was in the classroom, sitting next to us.
I’ve been remembering that time these days as I’ve been following the case of another murdered woman with roots near my hometown. I didn’t know Anne Marie Shirran whose remains were recently found after she went missing in July. There is something in her curls and clear eyes that I recognize, though, and her story has been haunting me. How does a woman slip through the normalcy of everyday life and become a news story? How many seconds does it take for a situation to turn black? At what point should we start to scream?

I’ve always been unfailingly polite. Growing up in Corner Brook, we learned to be friendly and to have manners. If you were rude to someone, they probably knew your parents, and so there were always consequences to not being on your best behaviour. Mostly this has been a helpful trait to have had ingrained in me. Still, there are moments, blacker moments, where I continue to be polite in the face of things starting to turn wrong. There are moments where I should be screaming, and instead I smile. The lessons in keeping my body and soul safe didn’t take. For after the 1984 convictions of the killers of Marilyn Newman, our community let out a collective exhale, and we went back to believing in the basic good of people’s hearts and the infrequency of horror.

In my early twenties, I spent a summer in London. I went on a student work abroad program and got a job in a nightclub. As a small-town girl in a big city, I made many mistakes. One mistake boiled my London experience down to a few critical moments when everything could have turned black. I usually took a taxi to my door when coming home from work at 3 or 4 am. This one night, I got out at a convenience store around the corner to pick up a snack. As I exited the store and began to walk, a young man asked me if I had a light for his cigarette. At this point, I should have screamed. I should have run back to the store. I knew that. Yet, I politely answered that I didn’t smoke, and kept walking towards my place. He walked next to me, engaging me in conversation – did I want to buy some drugs? Did I have any money he could borrow? Could he come to my place to light his cigarette on my stove? At this point I was terrified, yet I kept walking and talking, coming up with reasonable excuses why this man couldn’t come into where I lived. When I reached my street turnoff, I hesitated. Should I make a run for my door? Then he would know where I lived. Should I just keep walking in the hopes of him giving up? In those few seconds he grabbed me from behind. He stuck his hand in my pocket and took out the tips I had made that night. Then he ran. I should have been running the opposite way. Instead, I stood on the corner, shaking and doubled over. He didnt hurt me. He just wanted my money. Yet I had been pressed up against possiblilty of violence and I hadn’t fought it at all. I had been polite.

Anne Marie may have been murdered by her boyfriend. He has been charged. And I’ve been looking at her news photos trying to understand the nature of safety and violence of all kinds. I’m 40 now, and would never let a stranger do what was done that London night. No stranger would ever be allowed to get that close to me again without a fight. Still, though, there are times in my life when the bottom drops out of a moment, when someone behaves as they shouldn’t. Still, the good little Corner Brook girl in me accepts the moment with a smile. Perhaps it is the nature of a small-town heart or maybe just something that runs through the blood of all women.

Anne Marie is sitting close to me these days. There is one photo in particular that I like. In it, she has a mysterious look on her face, like she’s thinking of a secret only she knows. Her face is intelligent, reflective and soft. In that moment, she is safe. Had she known her fate, would she have loved less? Put fences around her heart?

I know that I don’t want my safety to cost me my smile. I want to understand, forgive and grant second chances. To board up my heart would betray the Newfoundlander I am and will always be. Anne Marie, though, has taught me a lesson I won’t forget again.


  1. Shelley,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. There’s such a fine line between trust and safety. While we make mistakes in life, you’re right, if they cost us our smile, the dark wins.

    Congratulations on launching your blog! I only learned of it today and promptly bookmarked it. I greedily look forward to future posts from you. All the best!

  2. Shelley, you’ve been holding out. Such great writing! Pace, content, flow, I love it!
    Now as for the topic, very thought provoking. I think I will have my daughters read it. And I remember the first one, I even foggily remember where they found her. It was a sad story.

  3. Shelley there is not much left to say after that. I knew Ann Marie growing up. I was and still am very close to her sister. Thank you for putting your thoughts wo beautifully into words and posting them. I feel the same way, and think a lot of us that grew up there think the same. Take care dear friend!

  4. I remember the incident as though it were yesterday. Her father was a business associate of mine. In one night of terror the historical safety of Corner Brook was changed forever. I went from allowing you to run the streets freely at an early age to worrying every time you were out of the house. In the words of your grandfather “despite adversity we must bury our dead and forge ahead”.

  5. Marilyn Newman. They took her from the gas station by the Plaza. Beautiful writing.

  6. i just sold my condo in florida because i was not safe there. pit bulls, murder, gangs, drugs, child abuse, noise, noise, noise. at night, in my bed, i felt like a prisoner. i could hear the violent night just outside my door and i tried to will myself not to hear. but crime and violence are so compelling. they suck you in. i got involved time after time calling the police, the social workers, the hopeless management company. it seems violence is a rooted thing in the states – it’s just there. and one more time, in a litany of one more times, i ran from it.

    one of the nicest things about life in outport newfoundland is the relative absence of violent crime. a st. john’s criminologist who studies violence in north america credits newfoundlanders’ civility and politeness as the major in pediment to violent crime here. and yet, there is civility and politeness in the states. i’ve lived in a few civil towns there, but violence just seems to find you or find me anyway. and as you say, once you’re complacent in your safety, it happens. someone is hurt. someone dies. every one is changed. life is questioned. values are thrown upon the ash heap.

    the smiles are wiped off our faces. “get that smile off your face. get serious, young man. violence is coming down. quit smiling…get ready.”

    what a terror life becomes.

    thank you, shelley. it is getting dreadful to hear the “crime beat” in contemporary newfoundland. a young boy in the outports beat a pet dog to death this summer. what makes savage action?

    john in cow head nl

  7. funny. i thought about your column all last night. outport newfoundland is relatively so safe. i wonder if it is the isolation of the place. i wonder if good roads, television and now the net have eroded the isolating factors and are letting the things in that lead to evil and violence.

    i just don’t know, but why was this woman killed? why are there nighly stabbings and robberies in st. john’s. why did the boy kill the neighbors dog? why the violence?

    is it grown or nourished by drugs and alcohol and greed and pornography and all the other modern bad influences?

    is it natural…something inside waiting to hatch out?

    was the little boy made into a dog killer, or is he just a bad boy?

    the gates of this garden are now open. everything is getting in. is innocence better than experience? i used to think not. now that i am older, i’m just not so sure anymore.

    john in cow head trying to not think about this so much………

  8. Thanks so much for your thoughts everyone. Cindy, you have my sympathy for Anne Marie’s loss. I received an email from someone who had been Marilyn’s friend and who had been on Cuff’s “hit list”. The deaths of both these women affected me even though I didn’t know them. I can only imagine how much deeper those who were close to them suffered.

    John – thank you for continuing the conversation. I follow the news in Newfoundland and also am so sad to see that it’s changing. I was heartbroken to read about the several violent animal attacks that happened there this past year. I wish I knew what was causing it. My only thought is a cliched one – that the youth being unindated with images and information from tv and the internet need more and more sensation to feel – having had senses and identity dulled. There’s a sense of distance between them and the world when 80% of it is experience through a screen.

    Seoul is a safe city for it’s size. That is, if you don’t count the North Korean arsenal pointed at it.
    The Confucian ideals, while oppressive to women and the poor, have done the job of maintaining safety and order. This too, though, is breaking down and there are more and more cases of people dropping out of the structure and committing crimes. Still, though, I feel safe walking home alone at 11:00 at night. I’m not sure I would feel the same in St. John’s.

    • shelley,

      the boy, i’m referring to is i believe 10 years old. he’s from a small town out near the twillingate area. he killed the neighbor dog with a barbeque fork…ghastly. but it makes me want to know why. is he mistreated or neglected at home? has he been overstimulated by tv or the net? or is it something else? are there evil people who are just that way? are there twin studies which focus on violence?

      i love st. john’s. just a few years ago, i’d prowl around until the wee hours during the music festivals there. it was the only city i’d ever been in where i truly felt safe. somehow there was a feeling that if you ran into trouble, there was no shortage of folks to help you out of it. what a great thing: cultural advantages of a city with small town caring. but now, it seems oil money and the accompanying excesses are making st. john’s into something different – something more violent.

      i realize that totalitarian solutions (like Confucianism and most heavy handed religious and governmental styles) keep crime in check, and i wonder about this, ie: keeping individual freedoms on a short leash to achieve greater safety and happiness. and i’m on the fence. at my core, i despise and resist most attempts at control, but what about the greater good for the greater number? i realize that self control is the ultimate answer, but we live the human experience: each of us has a differing degree of self control, and even this changes in response to what is testing or tempting that control.

      still, selflessness seems to be a key. politeness, civility – the hallmarks of the stereotypical newfoundland attributes, are manifestations of selflessness.

      perhaps the question is: how do we cultivate selflessness in such a material and gratification driven world?

      i don’t want to be another old guy railing against the advances of the modern world, but i fear that our devices which provide us with detached and instant gratification must be changing us into self interested beings, much less able to tolerate the needs of others and the randomness of existence.

      i long to create a ranch with little huts all over it, and to invite the non-aggressors whom i know to live there, to be safe from the predators – a space where one can be simple and happy, free from the schemes and traps of the big bad world and its predators. this is probably foolishness, but i do wish for it. perhaps i’m trying to “get back to the garden”.

      windy john in windy cow head

  9. Shelly
    Congratulations on your writings I started reading them today . Keep up the good work . Ask Dad about the SS Minnow .Now thats a story and the launching is next June in Rocky Harbour
    all the best

    • Mike,
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I have been getting SS Minnow updates for a while now.
      The boat looks great and my husband is extremely jealous. 🙂

  10. […] Safety October 201011 comments 3 […]

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