Author Diana Walsh describes her book, Empty Cradle, as “a labour of love and a labour of hate.”
The Stoney Creek resident spent a year writing the true crime memoir, which details the abduction of her newborn baby 19 years ago.
“It brought everything to the forefront again, which was difficult, but then it’s a good accomplishment once it’s done and out there. The support that I’ve got from my family, from the community has been amazing and the feedback that I’ve got so far from people that have read it has been really great,” Walsh said. “I’ve done a lot of (book) signings at different stores and it’s been interesting because people are talking to me and sharing their experiences because they can really relate to the sense of loss. They’ve shared some really intimate stories and I’ve met some really interesting people.”
Walsh experienced every parent’s worst nightmare in December 1993.
A stranger – disguised as a nurse – stole her newborn baby daughter, Shelby, from Burlington’s Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital two days before Christmas.
The story made national and international headlines.
“(The experience was) pretty chaotic,” Walsh said. “I have a pretty large family and my husband has a pretty large family, so we really relied on them a lot for support to get through it. That was obviously a really awful time for all of us and extended family as well.”
Shelby was rescued from a Burlington motel room, where she had been hidden, on Christmas Eve 1993, 11 hours after her kidnapping. She was unharmed.
Walsh kept her feelings about those awful 11 hours locked inside for years.
She thought about writing a book about the experience. And after receiving words of encouragement from her sister, she set out on a cathartic journey.
“I toyed with the idea of writing a book, I just started writing and it was, really, like a compulsion and then I just didn’t stop until it was done,” she said. “It did really help me to get a little bit desensitized to it to actually talk about it, write it down and of course, it’s much easier to write about it, than it is to talk about it. It was sort of my vehicle to get the story out there.”
Walsh’s first draft took about three months.
“Because of the trauma of the event, I had forgotten a lot of it,” she said. “I kept a pen and paper beside my bed. When I remembered something, I would jot it down. I would just add it to what I had.”
Walsh used freedom of information legislation to obtain police reports and court documents to fill in some of the gaps in her memory.
She also spoke with police officers who worked the case, reviewed media articles and newscasts from the time and spoke with family members who lived the experience with her.
The result is Walsh’s personal recollection of the time leading up to and surrounding the abduction of Shelby.
Empty Cradle, which was published in September, is touted as a “true crime” story that tracks the lives of Walsh and the kidnapper until their paths cross.
“I did two timelines to show that you can come from similar backgrounds, but there’s that element of choice in terms of which direction you go from there. I think most people do go through trauma and go through hard times, but it’s really up to you how you want to proceed from there,” Walsh said, adding background information she obtained on the kidnapper helped paint a picture of how the kidnapper’s life had unfolded.
“Also, not to excuse the choices that people make, but it sort of helps you to understand that when people take a wrong turn, there’s usually some history there as to why they ended up the way that they did. Not to excuse her actions because we have one life to live and it’s really up to us in the end.”
The fake nurse who kidnapped Shelby was Karen Susan Hill, who pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to seven years in prison and then deported to the U.S. to face weapons and fraud charges.
Walsh said Shelby is doing “really well” today.
“I’m trying to keep her somewhat isolated from this process (interviews) because it is something that I don’t want her to have to go through unless she makes that choice. (Readers) will hear a little about what she’s doing in the book; she is going to school, she’s happy, she’s making a life for herself,” she said. “The only recollection she has is seeing how the rest of the family kind of coped with the trauma over the years, so I think she almost feels in a way that it’s not really her story because she was so young at the time.”
Walsh said she hopes readers will realize there are more than 350 children missing in Canada every year. She wants to bring a heightened awareness so people will stop and take a look at posters.
“They could make the difference between a missing and found child, some small detail, you just never know if you can help in some small way,” she said.
“Also, what I’m finding from people approaching me that have read the book is they can really relate to the idea of keeping secrets and how unhealthy it is for them and that when they’ve shared their story, they’ve found it’s healing.
“I hope that maybe this (book) will encourage other people to speak their truths as well – sometimes showing your own vulnerability can help other people kind of cope with theirs.”
Walsh will be signing her book Friday, Nov. 16 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Indigo Eaton Centre location in Toronto.
For more information on this local author and Empty Cradle, visit www.dianawalsh.ca.