Toronto Star

Nov. 13, 02:00 EDT

Probing human failure

Jim Coyle
Toronto Star

IN SOME WAYS, the coroner's inquest that resumes today into the murder-suicide of Gillian and Ralph Hadley is a waste of time and money. The cause of their deaths two Junes ago in Pickering is already known. And, thanks to an inquest two years earlier into deaths of similar circumstance, so were the measures that might have helped prevent them.

Moreover, the inquest is of uncertain utility as a catalyst for action, in that the Hadley story is as much about the failure of human beings as it is the system. Its particular circumstances, its cast of unlikeable characters, their selfishness and immaturity, their casual deceit and malevolence, their delusion about those they thought they knew, their disregard for the consequences of their actions, are unlikely ever to be duplicated in quite such a wholesale way.

None of which means the inquest is not essential.

It's essential precisely because the May-Iles lessons were ignored. It's essential because it deals with savagery hardly confined to the dreary suburban landscape of bottled blondes and basement apartments. It happens everywhere. And it happens still.

In truth, the most useful ground for inquiry might be the place the inquest cannot go, back upstream from the gunfire of June 20, 2000, to what it is in families, society or genes that shapes the likes of Ralph and Gillian Hadley — what it is that contributed to his distorted views about women, what lack it was that drove her to a lifetime of dubious choices.

It is terrain probably less suited to investigation by a roomful of lawyers than it is psychologists, family therapists and novelists — explorers of the dark parts of the human heart, peerers into the nooks and crannies of twisted minds, mappers of human relationships in all their often tragic complexity.

There was nothing terribly exceptional about the lives of Ralph and Gillian Hadley — save for their endings. Theirs was a world of modest education and limited prospects; of menial jobs; of adults returning, even with children of their own, to live with parents; of hanging out, even into middle age, at bars called Excuses.

There is no way around the fact that, in her too short life, Gillian Hadley was a liar, a cheat and a thief. And not a very bright one. In the early 1990s, she was caught very quickly upon scamming the bank she worked at. Within two years of her marriage to Hadley, she was involved with another man, deceiving her lover about her marital status.

There's also no way around the fact that she seems to have used Ralph Hadley. Their marriage, she told a co-worker, was — after her first marriage broke down, leaving her alone with two children — "a convenient thing."

Did she talk herself into thinking she loved him? Was she callous enough to see him merely as a pocketbook? Was she terrified of being alone? Did she feel herself nobody unless reflected in some man's eyes?

The writer Joan Barfoot, a shrewd student of human relations, has a book out this fall in which the point is recurringly made that all our acts have consequences, that while no one can predict the fallout of their folly, and no one deserves to die for it, few escape unscathed.

"These things are decisions, no matter how swiftly or incoherently taken," Barfoot says in her new novel Critical Injuries. "Decisions are responsibilities, ... not solely whims."

For his part, Ralph Hadley seems to have applied himself to little in life and succeeded at next to nothing. As telling as any thought he ever uttered was probably the one in his final taped message, made just before he set out on his murderous mission.

"I know something is going to go wrong," he said. "It always does."

What snapped in Hadley when his failed marriage became the latest in a lifetime of failure? Had he married Gillian because he loved her? Or because for the first time in his life he had a chance to win something he wanted? And how did he come to conclude, when it ended, that the remedy to pain and loss is murder? Or that children are best protected by the violent deaths of their parents?

The inquest has heard that Hadley's family seemed to contain some of the aspects typical to the shaping of misogyny.

By the accounts of at least two witnesses, his father Gerald, in his rage at Gillian's betrayal, prescribed a series of horrors that should be visited on her. It would be unusual that a man owning such views — the belief that violence was the way to control unruly women — would not have transmitted them over the years in ways subtle or overt.

Also, there were friends who described Hadley as a mama's boy, a man controlled by his doting mother.

Whatever the causes, there's no denying the result. Even among his co-workers in the post-office locker room — hardly a bastion of sensitivity — Ralph Hadley was told by co-workers to keep his poisonous spewings about women to himself.

In some respects, the story of the Hadleys is like a car crash. We want to look away but can't, because we suspect deep down that no one is immune. All of us, being human, are capable of being sideswiped, of acts never intended, of decisions that ruin our own lives and those of others.

They were a man and woman damaged and flawed, but entirely recognizable. The one willing, in meeting her own needs, to use another. The second obsessed with the first and determined that his will prevail.

Their like is the reason Cheryl Carter, the Durham Region police officer who testified last week, knows the shelter she's helping establish will probably never want for business.

Their outcome was much as Joan Barfoot's fictional protagonist knew it often turns out in such circumstances to be.

"Nobody wins. Everything is destroyed."

Jim Coyle's column usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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