#798 Shipwrecks, orphans, pianos
Epistle to the Pope: Memoir and Survivor-Impact Statement from a Shipwrecked Orphan
by Dharel Verville
Victoria: FriesenPress Publishing, 2020
[price to follow] / 9781525554292
Reviewed by Constance Brissenden
Epistle to the Pope is the memoir of a seeker, a classical pianist, and a sometimes drug dealer and addict. Author Daryl Verville, known by his pen name Dharel Verville, is also an intergenerational descendant of a survivor of residential school. His father, Douglas Verville, was born in 1928 in Alberta. By the time Douglas was four years old, he and his two older brothers were abandoned by their parents at Youville Convent in St. Albert, Alberta, just outside Edmonton.
From the age of four himself, Daryl found himself physically abused by his father. His childhood was tortured by the man he describes as “demonic,” a foul-mouthed, alcoholic, raging child-beater and psychic abuser. It wasn’t until 2013, when Daryl was fifty-seven years old, that his mother shared his father’s secret torment. Douglas had spent a total of twelve years in Youville Convent, subjected to profound and repetitious physical and sexual abuse by priests and nuns. He had made his new wife promise that she would never tell.
Daryl’s mother, born Jeanne Hamel, was Métis, raised in Lac La Biche, Alberta. She was a staunch Roman Catholic her entire life. She was also a trained pianist, with a Royal Conservatory ARCT piano performance certificate and taught piano professionally. She taught her three sons, older brothers Dennis and Paul, as well as Daryl. Piano is vital to Daryl’s healing journey, a constant that continues in his life as a longtime resident of Nelson, British Columbia. Nowhere in the book does his mother’s Métis background play a role or appear to have any influence.
I presume that Douglas, Daryl’s father, was a Caucasian, although the author never expressly says this. As such, Douglas would not be eligible for financial reparation through the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement for his years at Youville school. The Verville boys would have been considered to be orphans, three more children to add to the roster that enabled the school to receive an annual payment from the Canadian government for their care. Although Douglas Verville and his brothers are clearly named in the school’s record, they were not Indians. Like the Métis children who attended during the day, the Vervilles were cut out of the settlement agreement.
My understanding of residential schools goes back more than twenty-seven years. My partner, Larry Loyie, was a residential school survivor. He became an award-winning writer, sharing his beloved traditional childhood and his six painful years in residential school in four award-winning children’s books as well as a national history, Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press/goodminds.com). Working with Larry, I heard hundreds of personal stories from the survivors of these harrowing days.
I began reading Dharel Verville’s memoir with a certain degree of trepidation. Larry Loyie died in 2016, and it has been emotionally difficult each time I re-enter the world of residential schools and their aftermath. I took up Epistle to the Pope thinking that it would a task to read it. On the contrary, I found it to be a page-turner.
Dharel Verville and I do not share any common beliefs, but we do share a burning anger at the perpetrators of the residential school system. As a believer in God, Jesus, and a follower of Eastern mystics and saints, Dharel repeatedly challenges and charges his “dear Pope” to acknowledge and apologise for the Roman Catholic Church’s sins against children. Instead, he finds a Pope who wilfully hides the truth, refusing to apologise for the sins of his clergy.
Unlike survivor Larry Loyie, who stepped away from Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church, Daryl appears bound in its theology. He puts his claims against the Roman Catholic Church and the Canadian government clearly on the table. He never flinches, and I admire him for his courage to speak. He is angry, and he will always be angry until the Pope finally has the courage to apologise for the Church’s crimes against humanity.
Daryl’s life moves at a breakneck speed, which is why I couldn’t put his memoir down. The author travels through life in a mind-bending swirl of beliefs, barely coming up for air. But when he does, it’s always a surprise, sometimes a shock, such as when he enters a life of drug dealing, crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction in his late twenties. What’s next, I asked myself, as I read on late into the night.
Along the way, Daryl finds mentors like Dr. Lejano, a well-known Alberta piano teacher, and the kindly Sister Beaudry who also taught piano. He follows his wild-child brother Dennis into both vegetarianism and crime. His passive brother Paul, also an exceptional pianist, steps into Daryl’s life as an anchor on several occasions. Daryl finds a Saint, an Eastern mystic, who gives him encouragement and a path to follow. And when the Saint dies, Daryl finds a replacement Saint who appears and reappears in his life.
On top of this, there are the six lost years in his late twenties, when he makes a lucrative and dangerous income as a drug mule and dealer, crossing between the source in British Columbia and the buyers in Alberta on a weekly basis. It is only after he overdoses and almost dies twice that he can pull himself together and back on a good road.
Somewhere in his mid-years, an old friend gives Daryl a book on Carl Jung and his theories of dreams and archetypes. He is immediately drawn to Jung’s theories, which help him to understand his tortured father as well as his own troubled inner life. As young as five years old, Daryl begins to have staggering dreams, full of threats and terrors, echoing the hell of his family’s life. As the book progresses, Daryl reveals his multiple personalities engendered first by his father’s physical abuse. Later, fearing prison for child abuse, his father resorts instead to daily, “diabolical” and psychically destructive verbal abuse, aimed at his entire family. After years of being told that he is “less than zero,” Daryl’s brainwashing is complete. His struggle to love himself and to believe in himself is a convoluted yet engrossing saga.
These days, Dharel lives and performs in the Nelson area. He lives in a communal setting with his two boys, two roommates, two cats, and a grand piano. He goes for long walks, loves to garden, and enjoys playing and refereeing soccer games. After reading his book, I’d like to reach out and talk to him, to see how he’s doing. I hope he is doing well. After such a life, he deserves peace and happiness. He is himself a survivor of intergenerational residential school abuse. Like other survivors, he has made it through to some semblance of inner peace through sheer determination and resilience.
Constance Brissenden is a longtime writer, editor and publication coordinator. She worked with her partner, award-winning Cree author Larry Loyie until his death at the age of 82 years in 2016. As a residential school survivor, Larry Loyie was determined to share the hidden history of residential schools. Constance was honoured to work with him as co-author and co-presenter of nine books, including the national history Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors. After 25 years in Vancouver, she now lives in Edmonton. Her recent books include Memories of a Metis Settlement (see review by Angie Tucker in The Ormsby Review (no. 483, Feb 11, 2019) and In Our Own Words, Hard Times and Good Times in Northern Alberta’s Big Lakes County. She is archiving Larry Loyie’s residential school research in collaboration with the University of British Columbia’s Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. For more, see www.firstnationswriter.com
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