Life after Billy

by Brian Vallee,
352 pages,
ISBN: 0770426220

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Death of a Victim
by Ellen Roseman

WHEN JANE STAFFORD shot and killed her abusive husband, Billy, in 1982, a jury acquitted her of first-degree murder after a 19-day trial. The Crown appealed and won, and this time Jane pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She was sentenced to six months in prison and served two.

As he rushed through the gate of the Halifax Correctional Centre in April 1984, the Officer on duty said, "Good luck, Jane, be happy." Unfortunately, happiness was beyond her grasp. In February 1992, 10 years after Billy's death, Jane Stafford, now Jane Hurshman, was found dead in her car, with a gunshot wound to her chest.

Brian Vallee, a Toronto journalist, has written a sequel to Life with Billy, his account of the trial of a battered wife who almost got away with murder. The book was a smash hit, selling 200,000 copies worldwide, and was later made into a movie (shown on CBC-TV last fall). The story he tells in Life after Billy lacks the excitement and clear-cut resolution of the first book. It's downbeat yet moving in its portrayal of a damaged woman who could not make herself whole again.

Just 35 when she was released from prison, Jane had so much to live for. She wanted to get a job, reunite her family, and help other abused women. She did all this and even got married again, in 1991, to Joel Corkum, a mechanic eight years younger. She was in love, and wrote to her new husband on the anniversary of their first meeting: "I no longer take life for granted, and because of you, I have a very special appreciation of its beauty." Five months later, she was dead.

At first, Jane's death appeared to be homicide, since she had been receiving threatening calls and hate mail. Vallee wanted to believe this, as did many of her friends. But he reluctantly concludes that she killed herself and tried to make it look like murder, to avoid disappointing those she left behind.

Like many victims of abuse, Jane had low self-esteem and struggled with dark moods and irrational outbursts. There were episodes of shoplifting, starting when Billy was still alive and continuing after her release from prison. She had no control over her kleptomania and sought treatment unsuccessfully. She felt embarrassed and ashamed, even when she later understood why she was doing it "When I mess up -- as in shoplifting -- it is because I cannot believe that I deserve to he happy, or that I am worthy of good things or good people around me," she wrote to a Halifax newspaper.

Jane was facing a court hearing and hadn't told her family about it. Fears that the media would play up the story of her shoplifting, causing public humiliation, may have led to her suicide, Vallee believes. And she was about to address the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, a public appearance that would have forced her to relive Billy's slaying and the abuse that caused it.

The aftermath of her death is as sad as the events that went before. The last will she drew up was invalid, most of her insurance claims were rejected, and her sons received virtually nothing. Her husband Joel and her family don't speak to each other, and Joel eventually moved in with a friend of Jane's lie met at her funeral. Even in death, Jane couldn't get her way. Joel ignored her request to spread her ashes along the beach. A few months later, the house was broken into and vandalized, and the urn with her ashes was stolen.

Life after Billy while distressing, provides a window on a growing social problem. Vallee, who obviously had great affection for Jane after chronicling her life and death, is giving a portion of the hard-cover royalties to Jane's Fund, a non-profit organization set up to help battered women. He ends the book with a list of women's shelters across Canada and some useful suggestions for reforming the criminal justice system.


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