That Lonely Section of Hell

By Lori Shensher

Memoir is not the most honest form of writing. It’s most significant revelations are often unconscious. Biography is bad enough in this regard – especially if it’s the life of a contemporary figure and the biographer is compromised by their relationship with their subject – but no one ever lays their own heart bare. Memoir always involves some degree of what in politics is called “spin”: a way of presenting a story in a flattering or exculpatory way.

Lori Shensher’s That Lonely Section of Hell is nothing exceptional in this regard. On the face of it, it’s a personal account of Shensher’s time spent as a detective in the Vancouver Police Department investigating reports of missing women in the late 1990s. As we know now, a serial killer, the pig farmer Robert Pickton, was responsible for killing nearly fifty women.

Despite early clues that pointed toward Pickton as a suspect, Shensher’s investigation was not successful and Pickton was only later caught as the result of a search of his property on an unrelated matter.

This part of the book is quite good, as Shensher is a decent writer and provides a fascinating look behind-the-scenes of a real-life police procedural. Unfortunately, because Pickton was not caught right away, and later was apprehended almost by accident, a blame game followed in the media, leading up to a Commission of Inquiry into the system’s failings. And whenever there’s blame to be passed around, people quite naturally run for cover.

This is unfortunate because Shensher has little to be defensive about. The thing is, Pickton was a tough killer to catch for several reasons unrelated to anything the police did or failed to do.

In the first place Pickton’s victims were often prostitutes whose lives were hard to closely track. Had they really gone missing, or just moved somewhere else? Who would know?

In the second place, Pickton was a social recluse with a small circle of close friends who were willing to enable him in various ways. And finally he had a nearly foolproof method for disposing of lots of bodies, a problem that has been the downfall of many a serial killer.

All of which means it wasn’t that surprising that the VPD failed to catch him. Nevertheless, once the police did get their man – nicely captured here as “the personification of brown – a drab, dusty brown, a mixture of dirt and hopelessness and misery” – fingers started pointing.

Shensher, who was in a position of some responsibility, does not want any fingers pointing at her.

The first step in avoiding blame is now so ingrained in the culture as to have become instinctual: the claiming of victim status. Ironically, it’s a tactic Pickton himself would reflexively adopt under interrogation, complaining of how he was being “crucified.”

Shensher’s victimhood takes the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which expressed itself through debilitating depression and anxiety attacks. Despite her symptoms, a diagnosis of PTSD took some ten years to find acceptance (her claims for compensation were apparently denied from 2002 to 2012 by people who didn’t “get it”).

The reason for the confusion is that the source of the trauma was not a physical injury but mental suffering brought on by the failure of the system: Shensher claims she knew Pickton was guilty but inadequate resources, RCMP inaction, and the incompetence of some of her fellow officers let her down.

This part of the book is very unconvincing as well as unnecessary. It is not helped by Shensher’s admitting to the unseemliness of what she is in fact doing, that she “felt ashamed seeking out benefits for this tragedy when I wasn’t a victim,” that she is “sick of the ass-covering, including my own.” Also disturbing is the way Shensher quite irresponsibly and unfairly airs what she back-handedly admits are “irrational” paranoid fantasies about a couple of her fellow officers, who may have been incompetent but whose impact on the case seems exaggerated.

In the event, her story ends happily with the acceptance on appeal of Shensher’s claim for workers compensation for PTSD brought on by her participation in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. This validates her victim status, if not her charges against those she holds responsible for what was “done to” her. She is on medical leave from the Vancouver Police and according to the book’s back flap now works as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

Review first published online December 7, 2015. For more on the Pickton case see my review of Stevie Cameron’s On the Farm.

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