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Required Reading: A Witness in Words and Drawings to the Reena Virk Trials 1998-2000

by Heather Spears

On November 14, 1997, 14-year-old Reena Virk was beaten and eventually drowned in a picturesque Victoria community known as the Gorge. In the years following her death, several trials led to murder convictions for two of her schoolmates, both 15 at the time of the killing, as well as juvenile assault convictions for five other youths involved in the attack.

Veteran poet and courtroom sketch artist Heather Spears witnessed those trials and offers her own testimony about the events in Required Reading. Through her poems and courtroom sketches, Spears examines what she describes in her introduction as her particular obsession with “children in crisis, children as victims, and yes, this time children as perpetrators.” In many of the poems, Spears portrays the young defendants in striking contrast with the very adult court proceedings around them: “it’s all/so formal except for the child/whose posture they’re somehow/ managing to ignore.”

This need to draw attention to the age of the perpetrators is both the greatest asset and the greatest weakness of the book. By consistently referring to the 17-year-old defendants as “children,” Spears emphasizes their vulnerability and humanity. But there is something discordant in this naming, something that fails to recognize the children’s responsibility or culpability. It is this something that, ultimately, refuses to bridge the divide between Spears’ own nostalgic memory of childhood and the “children” she watches in the dock.

As a witnessing, Required Reading answers few questions about Virk’s murder or her murderers. In fact, the poems, as Spears writes in her introduction, “were written in haste … of a piece with the drawings themselves.” As such, they provide only a sketch, however rough and incomplete, of the real people involved in this trial – in all of their human vulnerability.