“We’ll be watching it soon,” the professor replies. “But if you need to splash your face with cold water, go ahead.”
Following the professor’s introduction, Wilson steps to the head of the class. He remains standing as he tells his story, how he started doing restorative-justice work. He’s a casual speaker; he clutches his chest whenever he begins to talk about a survivor he’s worked with. As he talks, the students pay closer attention.
Wilson slips off his blue blazer and takes questions from the group. Has he ever worked with gangs? (No.) How come the victim doesn’t just rant and rave? “If they do, the offender will just shut down,” he explains. “It’s not that he doesn’t deserve it, but he can’t deal with it, so my job is to help the survivor deflect the anger.” Could he do that himself? “I have no idea,” he says. “I might still want to kill him. I might feel like I would go crazy in that room. It’s a beautiful process to watch, but I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing it.”
Wilson slips a DVD into the TV. It’s a clip from a news program detailing a VOD session, led by David Doerfler, between Paula Kurland, a Texas woman whose daughter was brutally murdered during a home invasion, and the daughter’s killer, Jonathan Nobles. The meeting had taken place just two weeks before the offender’s execution.
It’s hard to watch. The cameras track Kurland’s back-and-forth on whether she can meet with Nobles; her family’s reluctance to support her; and then the meeting itself. As the tape plays, some students wince; more than a few wipe away tears. When it concludes, Wilson steps back in front of the class, where the students sort out their emotions.
“Jonathan found peace ’cause he was gonna die in two weeks,” says the young woman in the pink sweatshirt. Another student agrees: “This may be the wrong thing to say, but it made me angry that he was forgiven.” The class debates the merits of what Wilson is doing; some fish for more details about how he works. It’s gritty talk, both analytical and philosophical. “If we can’t be heard,” Wilson reminds them, “we’re trapped in our own experience.”
Wilson’s energy picks up as the afternoon wanes. He loves that these students are talking about this stuff, even if some of them don’t agree with what he’s doing. “You’re great,” he tells the class. “I just love how open you are.”
Finally Wilson looks up at the clock. It’s time to go. He looks disappointed. “I could go on,” he says. “You really have to shut me up here.”
Wilson doesn’t know how long he can keep doing this kind of work. He does know there’s an end point–that there will come a time when the travel, and the emotional toll, will be too much. After that? He might write, maybe publish a book that tells the story of his work and “why it is I do what I do.” But for now he goes on, and can go on, because of Brooklin. This little town is his buffer. It’s where he decompresses; it’s where he can sift through the wrenching stories people tell him; can absorb them. It’s where he comes home.
“To listen to what a survivor lives with, I’m glad to be able to do it. I’m grateful to be able to do it,” he says. “But if I couldn’t get away from it, if I couldn’t come home …” He pauses. “Keep in mind where I live. I’m in Maine, overlooking the water, one of the most beautiful places on earth. There’s something really important about being able to come home.”
Home is where I found Wilson one morning this past August. As he pledges to do every year, he’d tried to make it a quiet month. He’d stayed off the road and, as best he could, kept to a promise he’d made to Sherry that he’d spend less time in the office and more time on the water. But it hadn’t been an entirely clean break. Earlier in the summer, he’d picked up the 19th case of his career, a complicated one involving a Louisiana family, one that centers on domestic and sexual assault. In July Wilson had flown to Baton Rouge for his first series of visits with the offender and victims. He was planning a second trip for September, and Wilson’s mind occasionally advanced to that next round of sessions.
“Once I’m on the boat, everything’s fine,” Wilson said. “But sometimes I have to be dragged down there.”
This morning, though, Wilson’s focus was on his 22-foot Chris-Craft Cutlass, a sleek 43-year-old powerboat that he’d bought two years ago and had had completely renovated by his friend Brion Rieff, a local boatbuilder. They’d refinished the teak trim, built a new fiberglass cabin, and installed a bigger engine. Yet, during its official launch the week before, Wilson had discovered some issues with the engine, and now he needed to get the boat, which was anchored a few hundred yards offshore, back to Rieff’s shop.
It was a blue-sky morning, the water taking on a dark shade of turquoise. After catching a ride out to the boat, Wilson climbed aboard. “Let’s take it out for just a second,” he said. He fired up the engine, letting its low rumble settle in over the harbor. “You hear that?” Wilson asked proudly. “She just wants to go. That sound is why I wanted this boat.”
Soon we were motoring slowly around the harbor, around the world he’d helped restore. This piece of water, which had been largely empty when he first came to Brooklin, was now a postcard scene of vintage sailboats. Onshore, the WoodenBoat campus was buzzing with action. Students, some of whom had come from as far away as Virginia and Ontario, were cranking along on saws and other power tools in the school’s old brick barn, while a troupe of tourists, in the middle of a weeklong sail around Penobscot Bay on a vintage windjammer, were making their way to The WoodenBoat Store for shirts, hats, and gifts. Not far from the water’s edge, a group of older watercolor students were working to capture the harbor in shades of greens and blues.