Tori Stafford’s story: a Canadian tragedy fit for Chekhov

The tale is as tragic as any in literature—and even more tragically, true

A Canadian tragedy fit for Chekhov

Dave Chidley/CP

Victoria “Tori” Stafford was murdered in 2009. Terri-Lynne McClintic, the young woman in the Honda Civic driven by her boyfriend, confessed to the murder. Now the sometime boyfriend Michael Rafferty is on trial. The details of Terri-Lynne’s confession, sealed for over two years in order to avoid prejudicing Rafferty’s court proceedings, are now in the public domain.

As the story comes out in court, wretched detail upon detail, the dead girl seems like a butterfly on a dung heap. Her innocence shimmers but she came from the seamy side of town.

Tori Stafford was eight years old when her life was ended with kicks and hammer blows wielded by a girl who was only 18 years old herself. Both Tori and her murderer, Terri-Lynne McClintic, have mothers who have been druggies: the murderer’s mother uses and sells and the victim’s mother bought from her. So much of this is like a stagnant pool of water, the filmy surface hiding giardia multiplying in filth at the bottom.

No live-in fathers here: both mothers have boyfriends. The sound of cash registers and quickie books fills the air. Tori’s father is unemployed, distraught, and given to talking regularly to the press. The mother of the confessed murderer says she will tell the real story. Tori’s mother, suffering hell over the loss of her daughter in so grim a circumstance as this, testifies about her past OxyContin addiction, though what this has to do with the last moments of Tori’s life can only be understood in a world of defective people hitching their excuses to this tragedy.

Journalists are publishing blow-by-blow accounts of the testimony complete with health warnings like those on cigarette packages: this report may disturb some readers. Coverage is laced with accounts of the reporters’ own revulsion at what they are hearing and explanations as to why they are burdening readers with the trial details.

By now, we are here. Terri-Lynne, by her own account, after witnessing the naked legs of her boyfriend sticking out of the car and having seen the blood in the snow when in the middle of this special hell the little girl has a break to urinate, returned the child to Rafferty for another round of rape. Then, with a hammer bought after abducting the child, she smashed the butterfly to death. Why? Only a Chekhov or Theodore Dreiser could explain this Canadian Tragedy.

All the material for such a writer is here, all the pathos one could ever want. The butterfly and the hammer, each as inevitably tragic as the 13-year-old servant girl Varka in Chekhov’s story Sleepy, who strangles the baby she rocks in the cradle, and then “laughs with delight that she can sleep, and in a minute is sleeping as sound as the dead.” Chekhov reveals the logic of this merciless tale. Great writers transmute clay into gold when their talent contains an uncanny insight into human nature and sympathy for its wrong turns. As Terri-Lynne gropes to explain her relationship with Michael Rafferty, her words paint an outline of such a pathetic life that it would require Émile Zola to fill it in with a novel to match his portrait of deadbeats in his great L’Assommoir.

“Mike,” explains Terri-Lynne, was so much better than her. He was polite and said nice things. After all the other dreadful experiences with men, now she could “finally have a good man in my life.” What if this was actually true? Not for a nanosecond does this justify the barbarity of it all, but look at what it says. What parade of twisted humans could this woman have been with in her 18 years? Handed from her biological mother, a stripper, to her new adoptive mother, an exotic dancer who becomes a “bagman,” bringing her into a land of “ox” and “abandominiums” and the thousand slang terms of the druggies.

And just when the brain is trying to absorb this, because the facts coming out in the courtroom in London, Ont., are naked, unadorned, not helped by the context of the necessary thousand and one details, there is mention in the court of Terri-Lynne’s “godmother” who visits her at the jail. The term belongs to another world, a place where children are baptized and confirmed. And this godmother is the chosen recipient of the new confession that Terri-Lynne, when a child—as if she had ever been adult—had barbecued a little dog in the microwave. Perhaps she did. Her jail letters sound as if she were in a 19th-century Parisian gutter, high on laudanum and absinthe, in the grip of hallucinations.

Thrifty nature uses the same organs for waste as for procreation. The throat takes in air, fluids and food with only a little flap to protect our lungs. When the flap fails, we choke and apologize that “it went down the wrong way.” The brain is thrifty too, sharing pathways for different emotions.

“I couldn’t be there for that,” Terri-Lynne said after she glimpsed the alleged rape. But then she “snapped.” What if it was jealousy? Just when she found a good man, she thinks, this snip came between them. She had to, as she says, “do something.” What if love and hate went down the wrong way and the innocent little girl in her mother’s butterfly earrings had to die? Twisted, but very human and rock-bottom pathetic. Nothing can ever make this right, but in the hands of a master we might at least begin to understand.

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