BY WENDY ELLIOTT
Kings County Advertiser/Register
“Life is not fair, if you accept that you find freedom,” says Anne Marie Hagan.
That is one truth this Newfoundland woman with the lilting accent has learned in 50 years on this planet.
The other is the importance of forgiveness.
Hagen’s father, Thomas, was 56-years-old when he was brutally murdered in his own kitchen. He was felled by 16 axe cuts one sunny Sunday afternoon, as Anne Marie watched in horror.
The 30-year-old murderer, who had borrowed the axe to cut firewood, was a next-door neighbour in Kingman’s Cove. Ron Ryan was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia and believed he heard the voice of his dead mother telling him to kill Thomas Hagan.
The date was August 12, 1979. Anne Marie was a 19-year-old nursing student home on summer holidays when she saw her Dad murdered.
She recalls there were 21 families in Kingman’s Cove and, before that day, her biggest personal challenge was a fight with her boyfriend. Before the attack, they got two channels on TV, ate fish on Fridays and she’d had no experience of death or violence. The murderer was somewhat strange, but “safe to us. We didn’t fear him because he was an insider.”
His behaviour had alerted the RCMP, but officers were unable to convince a GP to admit the man to hospital. Anne Marie remembers seeing a great, big officer crying because he’d been powerless to stop the attack.
“I really appreciate the police. They’re the ones who have to knock on the door.”
She contends, even today, support for the mentally ill is insufficient.
“If you get a heart attack, there’s no blame. Our society blames the mentally ill.”
The loss of her fisherman father filled Anne Marie with negativity for 17 years. She was consumed with anger, bitterness, vengeance and self-pity.
“I was absolutely determined that this man would never, ever regain his freedom. The longer he was locked away, the greater the value of my father’s life.”
In 1996, Anne Marie was starting to organize a campaign to stop the murderer’s release when her remaining family sat around a table and got to listen to Ron Ryan. He took responsibility for the attack, starting to cry as he remembered Tom Hagen hadn’t been afraid to die.
Anne Marie responded by rushing around the table and hugging him, offering forgiveness: her torment was over, too.
Her father's killer was released after he promised to stay on his medication. Today, he holds a job and Anne Marie says she admires him for having the strength and the courage to rebuild his life.
She says forgiving Ron Ryan helped her deal with things in her own life she didn’t see coming - like divorce and cancer. Pain has a reward and confidence comes from brokenness, in her experience.
In 2002, she became a motivational speaker. Anne Marie even goes to prisons. She told me she sees inmates as little boys who never decided to go prison. They cry, she says, on hearing her story.
Anne Marie has been in Wolfville lately writing a book about her journey. She spoke at Aldershot school last week about how revenge used to be the filter through which she saw the world.
“I have learned to let go. I have learned how blessed I am.”
Anne Marie was part of the 2005 NFB film Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time, which focuses on four individuals who lived through events so horrific they are unimaginable to most of us. She is also involved with The Forgiveness Project, a UK-based international organization that explores reconciliation through real-life human experience.