In Wilson’s office at WoodenBoat Publications, items like a marine radio, telescope, and boat prints share space with black filing cabinets stuffed with case material, a desk stacked with piles of notes on offenders and victims, and bookshelves with titles such as Alabama Department of Corrections and Violent Crime Behavior. This amalgamation of the different pieces of his life has created a space that few understand. His presence at WoodenBoat, in fact, is a curious one. When he’s home in Maine, he’s at his office nearly every day. But he’s largely removed from the running of the company, and as one employee put it, “I’m not sure a lot of people really understand what it is Jon does.”
It can be tough to explain. The context for it, though, goes like this. In 1996, two years after Wilson stepped away from the company’s day-to-day operations, he launched a magazine called Hope, which profiled people and movements making a positive difference in communities across the country. Wilson had been researching an article on restorative justice when he stumbled across the story of a Minnesota couple, Don and Mary Streufert, who had met with the two men who had raped and killed their 18-year-old daughter. He was flabbergasted by the decision, and a phone call to the parents soon led him to a Texas minister, David Doerfler, who’d launched victim-offender dialogues in his home state, as well as training sessions so that others like him could lead those dialogues.
Wilson wrote about Doerfler, and then did a second piece about his facilitator training. To report on the story, Wilson agreed to take part in the training and to then lead and prepare one of the hundreds of Texas cases that were awaiting facilitators. “Sherry and others who knew me said, ‘Whoo boy, your life is about to change,’” he says. “I thought, Yeah, my life is going to change. I’m going to learn some things I’ve never known. But I didn’t see it changing the way they did.”
“He definitely gets immersed in whatever he’s doing, but it’s different with the dialogues,” says Streeter, his wife of 23 years. “It’s more whole. It’s more him. He doesn’t stress. With WoodenBoat he’d stress about advertising, about employees, about other things. He’s calmer now, more even.”
Wilson doesn’t recruit the VOD work; it’s strictly a victim-led initiation process that comes through a state’s victim-services agency. He’s made a name for himself in states such as Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky, as well as around New England, through both his work and his availability. And because of WoodenBoat‘s continued success, Wilson doesn’t charge for his expenses or his time, which can be considerable. Cases may take up to a year to complete, requiring multiple one-on-one sessions between Wilson and the survivor, and Wilson and the offender, before survivor and offender are ready to meet each other in person.
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.