Out in the Open

'I'd lost my humanity': How this woman forgave her father's killer

Fuelled by loyalty to her murdered father, Anne Marie Hagan held on to her anger and self-pity for 17 years.

Anne Marie Hagan had held on to her anger and self-pity for 17 years

Anne Marie Hagan forgave her former neighbour for murdering her father with an axe. (Courtesy of Anne Marie Hagan)

Anne Marie Hagan spent years feeling bitter about what happened to her and her family when she was 19 years old. 

On a Sunday during the summer of 1979, Hagan's father was killed by a man with an axe right in front of her. 

It happened in the little fishing village of Kingman's Cove, Nfld. Hagan's family was getting ready to go to a garden party, and the back door to their home was open.

Ron Ryan lived next door. He had schizophrenia. "We didn't know much about mental illness at the time," said Hagan.

"All of a sudden he bursts in through the open door and sticks an axe in my father's back." 

Hagan said she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

"He concentrated on daddy. He just kept chopping him. And I went down from the archway to try and get him away from daddy, and he just turned and stuck the axe in my right upper arm."

Ryan then returned to attacking her father. 

Seventeen years of anger

Ryan was charged with the murder of Hagan's father, and was found not criminally responsible. That infuriated Hagan, who thought that a psychiatric hospital was too comfortable for what Ryan deserved. 

"I wanted him in the basement of a prison in a dark, dungy place that had limited food and limited oxygen," she said.

Hagan became consumed by anger, vengeance and self-pity. Out of loyalty to her father, she was eager to ensure Ryan would never regain his freedom. 

"If you didn't fight and be determined to keep him in, then what was that saying? That you didn't love your father very much, or that his life didn't matter or didn't have much value?"

Hagan was upset at her mother's sympathy for Ryan. She saw her willingness to forgive as weakness. 

"I thought she was too stupid and too weak to hate."

Meeting face-to-face

Then, in 1996, during a campaign Hagan had organized to stop Ryan's release, she talked with him in person.

"I came with the autopsy report and I was going to walk him through every cut and humiliate him. I figured he didn't remember," she said.

When Ryan came out to meet Hagan, her mother and her sisters, he looked vulnerable and young, said Hagan. 

"And my mother jumps up, puts her hand out across the table … 'Hi Ronnie, how are you?' I was furious! I was thinking, 'Traitor!'"

Ryan told them that he was four years old when his mother died. He remembered her laid out on a table. Ryan and his little brother tickled her feet trying to wake her up, Hagan said.

Hagan thought about her four-year-old niece, with whom she was very close.

"[I thought], if my sister dies, I could see Emily tickling her feet to try and wake her up. What if Emily kills someone? I would never turn my back on Emily." 

Hagan says she realized that, as a victim, she had received all the love and support and encouragement, but that Ryan had gotten all the ridicule, shame and blame. 

"And I knew … my life hasn't been easy. But it's easier than his," she said. 

"Then he started crying, saying 'I'm to blame, I'm to blame!' Well I couldn't take it any longer. I rushed around the table and I hugged him," she said.

Hagan told him that if he took his medications and kept up with his doctor visits, she would never interfere with him again.  

For Hagan, this was a release.

"I'd lost my humanity. I had no empathy. I lost people out of my life because all I've ever talked about was the murder … When you're so bitter and angry, that becomes the lens through which you see the world."

'Grief is a passage … it's not a place to stay'

Over the years that followed, Hagan went through a divorce and a brain tumour scare. But said she's learned how to look at things in a more positive light. 

"In your life, no matter how old you are, you will compare all other experiences to your worst one."

Once Hagan let go of her worst experience, the empathy returned and her inclination to blame faded. 

"I don't believe anymore that people start out to screw up … We do the best sometimes with what we have and we fall horribly short. But give people a chance to change."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Split Loyalty."