For Wilson, those preparatory meetings are a chance for him to help each person “find the words” for his or her emotions. But it’s rocky territory, putting Wilson in the trenches of a relived crime, a drawn-out court drama, a broken life.
“As a facilitator, you’re going straight to the source of the pain,” says Doerfler. “Healing is about the chance to grieve. To do this work, you’ve got to have a strong sense of who you are. And Jon has that. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. His greatest gift is his ability to listen. That allows people to do their own work.”
Jon Wilson has always been a good listener. His ability to navigate the complicated terrain that defined his home life in Kingston, Rhode Island, depended upon it. His parents, Virginia and Lee, fought often before finally divorcing when Wilson, the youngest of three children, was 5 years old. His father, an English professor at the University of Rhode Island, battled with alcohol and died six years later. Wilson’s mother kept the household going through a series of secretarial jobs, while struggling with schizophrenia. Her illness sometimes brought on long stays in the hospital, forcing her children to find shelter with different family members.
“It was a complicated time,” Wilson says. “One thing I learned was that to stay safe, to keep from being yelled at or hit, I had to really pay attention. I had to anticipate the mood and make sure I didn’t step on a mine that my brother or sister had just stepped on. … I felt different from other kids. Our family was the only one that was divorced in town, and my father was the only one I knew of who was an alcoholic, so I felt enough of an outsider that it instilled in me a kind of sensitivity to outsiders, and that’s critical to who I am and how I work.”
Where everything changed for Wilson and his mother was the water. Summers found Virginia setting up a home base at an old family camp in the middle of Connecticut’s Thimble Islands. Here, the Wilson kids, and especially their mother, seemed soothed by the waters, where familiar tensions and battles calmly dissipated.
“At that camp, everything was okay,” Wilson says. “And I loved just being on the water: the ease, the motion. I felt at home on it.”
He soon wanted to build a life around it. In 1966, Wilson landed work at Dutch Wharf Boat Yard, a shop in Branford, Connecticut, that specialized in high-end wooden yachts. In an age when fiberglass technology and poor craftsmanship were killing the industry, Wilson fell in love with not only the yard’s appreciation for wooden boats but also the culture and characters around it. “I saw right away that it wasn’t enough to build a wooden boat,” he says. “We had to make them endure. I saw the power and potential [of these boats]. These guys I worked with did beautiful work, but they saw themselves just as tradesmen. It’s just lucky that I ended up there. If I hadn’t, WoodenBoat, as I know it, wouldn’t have existed.”
Eventually Wilson and his first wife, Susie Garfield, landed in Maine. After trying to make a go of it as an independent boatbuilder, Wilson gambled that the industry might support its own publication. He saw a chance not only to honor the culture and craftsmanship he’d discovered at Dutch Wharf but also to showcase newer technologies that might make wooden boats viable again.
With $11,000 he’d made selling a boat that he’d fixed up, plus another $3,500 borrowed from friends, Wilson put out his first issue of WoodenBoat magazine in 1974 from his cabin in North Brooksville. “I knew there were people out there who were interested in this subject, and I knew there were people trying to make a living building boats,” he says. “And I wanted to make sure what was worth preserving could be preserved.”
WoodenBoat grew almost from the beginning. At the end of its first year, the magazine reached some 9,000 subscribers. Ten years later, Wilson’s operation was grossing $2.5 million annually, and the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers. All this from a company that was the anti-Time Inc.–a place where editors doubled as landscapers, and every staffer, including the boss, drew the same $113.50 weekly paycheck. “It was young and chaotic and a pretty joyful place to work,” says John Hanson, the magazine’s former ad director. “It was a place [where] you got to be creative and weird.”
But for Wilson, success brought contemplation and complex feelings about making money and “amounting to something in a contributing way.” In the late 1970s a “spiritual crisis” around this very issue drove him to consider giving the company away so that he and Susie and their two young boys could go live in an intentional community in Scotland. He stepped away for a few issues, then returned, more at peace with himself and his success. But after founding a thriving boatbuilding school in 1981 and launching a second successful magazine (Professional BoatBuilder) in 1989, Wilson was feeling the pangs to do something different with his life. “I feel like I’m taking up space on the planet,” he says. “For me, it’s How do I make myself worthy enough? It’s kind of a flaw, but it drives my work, and has always driven my work. I could never quite do well enough, so I kept trying to do it better.”
Wilson’s first foray into the world of victim-offender dialogues came in 2000. The case revolved around a 1978 robbery-turned-murder of a 30-year-old single mother in the parking lot outside a Houston restaurant. The killer, whom we’ll call David, was a 17-year-old with a vicious drug habit. He was apprehended a few days after the crime and eventually sentenced to life in prison with a possibility of parole. David had been strident in court and had maintained his assertion of innocence right up until one hot summer day, when Jon Wilson made an unannounced visit to the Houston prison where he was being held. Wilson told him that his victim’s daughter, now a 27-year-old Minnesota woman and mother of three, whom we’ll call Katherine, wanted to see him.
“I get there and I’m thinking, This is crazy; he’s not going to want to talk,” recalls Wilson. “But I introduced myself and told him, ‘The daughter of the victim wants to meet with you,’ and he just started to cry. He put his head down and sobbed. It was amazing.”
One of Wilson’s most prized possessions is a batch of VHS tapes and DVDs related to his work–documentaries, news stories, and so on. And of those, his most cherished recording is the one of David and Katherine’s dialogue session in 2001. The meeting takes place in a white-paneled visiting room at the Houston prison. There’s a small table around which Wilson and Katherine are sitting; when David walks in, Katherine stands up, shakes his hand, and then sits back down, directly across from him.
“I don’t think I ever thought you’d do this, the way you acted in court,” Katherine tells David. “Thank you.”