Tabula Rasa

Written by Harold McNeill on July 3rd, 2012. Posted in Police Notebook


March 22, 2017, Updated Story (1750)

Each week across Canada dozens of domestic violence cases are reported. While the definition of domestic violence varies, it often involves a pattern of behavior where someone desires to establish power and control over another family member through physical, psychological, emotional, verbal, sexual, and/or economic abuse. The cases often remain hidden as abuse usually occurs behind closed doors with victims reluctant or not capable (e.g. a child)) of coming forward.

Police officers, health-care and social service workers are often among the first to intervene. In follow-up investigations, it usually emerges that other family members and friends were aware of what was happening, but were hesitant to become involved. The challenge for everyone is finding the ways and means to effectively intervene to protect an adult or child from what might be ongoing abuse.

As for the background causes, fingers are often pointed at families struggling to make ends meet or at cultural or religious practices, they suggest, produce the abuse.  My experience suggests the socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are as varied as is the make-up of our society. In the context of the cases outlined below, a skilled professional manipulates the minds of his wife and child in a manner that satisfies his need for control.

Tabula Rasa (Merriam-Webster): 

English speakers have called that initial state of mental blankness tabula rasa (a term taken from a Latin phrase that translates as “smooth or erased tablet”) since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until British philosopher John Locke championed the concept in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 that the term gained widespread popularity in our language. In later years, a figurative sense of the term emerged, referring to something that exists in its original state and that has yet to be altered by outside forces.


While watching a 1999 rerun of a Law and Order1 episode by the above title2, it struck me how the theme, minus the murder, paralleled an Oak Bay case in which I became involved 40 years earlier.

In the TV episode, the husband, a psychiatrist, had taken his two young daughters and disappeared from his wife, the girl’s mother. The man assumed a new identity for himself and the girls, then remarried. His first (legal) wife spent years searching for her children.

Fifteen years later, with the girls now in their late teens, a University Professor, who knew the couple in the early days and maintained contact with the first wife, recognized the woman’s former husband at a subway stop.  On realizing the woman might well tell his first wife, the man pushed the woman in front of an oncoming train and she was killed.  The follow-up investigation led to the man, but one of his daughters maintained it was she who had murdered the woman.

As the story unfolded in the courtroom, it became chillingly clear that both daughters and the second wife were being held under the absolute control of the husband – they were not allowed to think for themselves, nor perform a single action without first having his approval.  While the Oak Bay case was not as extreme as the TV episode, the psychological principles were precisely the same.

The Oak Bay Case

While working day shift in the Detective Office, two University of Victoria students arrived with a story to tell. They believed a twenty-year-old female friend, a classmate at University, was being mentally, and possibly physically abused by her over-controlling father. During their time in class, they learned the father was a highly skilled professional practicing in the field of psychology or psychiatry.  According to the students, every movement the girl made (who she was allowed to visit, where she went, what time she had to be home, what she studied at University, etc.) were scripted by her father. The girl always acquiesced as she felt there was no option.  The friends also felt the man’s wife was similarly controlled.

While it was uncertain this would become a criminal matter, the fact we were living in a decade in which many ‘historical’ sexual and other forms of physical abuse were coming to the attention of the police, suggested a closer look was warranted. Given the information received, there were reasonable and probable grounds to at least visit the young woman to hear her story.

About seven that evening, while in plain clothes, I drove to an upper-middle class area of North Oak Bay. Another patrol member was asked to standby within viewing distance of the house “just in case’. While all homes and gardens in the area were beautiful, the one in which the girl was reported to live, stood out, not because it was more expensive, but because the entire scene was flawless. It was as if each blade of grass, every flower, and each tree was sculpted or painted into the scene.

Moments after ringing the bell, a distinguished-looking, immaculately dressed middle-aged woman answered the door. A quick glance at the foyer and living room suggested a home as well kept as the lawns and gardens. Not a single item appeared to be out of place.

After introducing myself and telling the woman I was there to speak with a young lady I believed may be her daughter, she stiffened and a depth of fear, far beyond normal, appeared in her eyes. As the woman began to explain her daughter was not available, a man came to the door in an aggressive manner demanding to know what business the police had with his daughter.

After dismissing his wife, the man maintained a confrontational stance while the purpose of the visit was explained. Although he assured me the girl was fine, it was explained she was an adult and would have to give those assurances in her own right. When it became clear the man was not about to budge, he was told further steps would be taken to force the issue if he continued to refuse. At that point, he relented and left to fetch his daughter. Meanwhile, the woman, believed to be the wife and mother, continued to pace in the living room.

A few moments later the father returned with the girl close beside and told me I could only speak to her in the living room while he and his wife were present. I explained that was not possible as the girl was an adult and that I needed to speak to her alone to determine if everything was OK.

With the young woman partially screened by her father, I asked her directly if she would accompany me to the police car for a short conversation. With her father glaring at her, she immediately agreed and moved around him and out the door. I was not sure at that moment if the man would actually attempt to physically restrain her. If he had, his move would have been treated as an assault and appropriate steps taken to help the woman leave.

As we moved towards the sidewalk and safety of the police car, I looked back to see the man glaring and wondered if he might take his anger on his wife. As he continued to watch as we drove to a point where we were out of sight of the house. I immediately asked the girl felt it OK leaving her mother alone with her father. She assured me he wouldn’t physically hurt her mom, but her response was not reassuring.

Upon further explaining the nature of my visit, the young woman broke into tears and stated she knew her friends were probably going to call the police and, further, that she never wanted to go back home. She related that for as long as long as she could remember her father controlled every aspect of the lives of she and her mother. Since entering University two years earlier, and as she began to spend more around other adults, she came to understand how fully her father control almost every aspect of her life.  He planned all her school courses and set a strict schedule for study, a pattern she was expected to follow without question or comment.

All aspects of her life at home, including who might be allowed to phone or come to the house and who could be a friend to either her mother or herself was controlled by her father.  She was never allowed to stay overnight away from home and was seldom allowed to attend any event outside the confines of the University unless her parents were present. I asked her to accompany me to the Police Office to further discuss the matter as we had not yet touched on the subject of any form of physical abuse.

At the office, the young woman told me she wanted to leave home to live with friends, but her father forbade her from doing so.  At one point, her mother tried to intervene, but the father had simply ordered the mother to stay out of the discussion. The daughter loved her mother but knew she was also hopelessly controlled.  We touched on the subject of physical abuse against either herself or her mother, but the daughter stated the abuse was entirely mental.

It was not long before the irate father phoned the police office and demanded to speak with the officer who had taken his daughter.  On the phone, he was abusive and stated he was contacting his lawyer and that he wanted his daughter brought home immediately. He was told the choice of where she might decide to go would be entirely her decision as she was an adult. The conversation ended when he hung up.

On asking the young woman what she wanted to do next, she stated she would prefer to have her friends pick her up. They arrived within a half hour, and all were soon on their way.  The young woman was asked if she felt intervention on behalf of her mother was needed, but she stated she it would be OK. She stated she would phone her in the morning after her father left for his office.

After the girl had left the office, and to make one further check on the wife, I drove back to the house and advised the parents of their daughter’s decision.  The man slammed the door stating our office would be hearing from his lawyer.  During our short conversation, the wife was sitting within hearing distance in the living room.  There did not appear to be sufficient grounds to intervene on her behalf given what the daughter had told me.

The next morning, while on dayshift, I drove by the house and the front lawn was covered with clothes and other personal belongings, all apparently belonging to the daughter. It was a tragic sight within this quiet residential neighbourhood where the residents could well afford the best that life had to offer.

Back at the office, I phoned the daughter and learned the mother was OK, but her father would need some time to settle down.  The girls stated that after her father left for his office, she and her friends would stop by the house to pick up her belongings and speak to her mom.

Over the next few weeks, periodic contact was maintained with the young woman. She had moved in with her friends and was learning to build a life on her terms which included dropping out of University and getting a job.  She regularly called her mother, and periodically they had lunch, but she never spoke to her father who had told his wife he wanted nothing further to do with the girl.

While it was a tragic case of an over-controlling man, it was indeed fortunate the daughter had become strong enough to break the bonds of fear which encased the family.

If she had not, and the father had prevailed in coercing her back into the home, what would have been the police options? Very few and it again demonstrated the considerable difficulty the police, courts, and social service agencies face when dealing with situations involving abuse and/or suspected mental illness3.

In this particular case, the mother did not possess the strength to break free from her oppressive, controlling husband and unless she were willing to take that first step, the police, social workers, courts, and others would have few, if any, grounds to intercede.

If you know of someone who is being controlled in an abusive relationship, it is incumbent upon you to work to the very best of your ability to help that person break free just as the young people in this case file helped their fellow student.


1Law and OrderLink here to a summary of the TV episode. The theme of Tabula Rasa has been used in several other TV shows.

2Tabula Rasa: Definition placed in the introduction to the story.

3Oak Bay Cases:  While over the years of my service, we were often called to intervene in family situations, it was only during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, that police began to vigorously investigate complaints of domestic violence as well as reports of ‘historical’ sexual assault with a view to laying charges.  Prior to that change in focus, what happened within a family was largely left to be sorted out within the family except in cases of the most egregious forms of violence (e.g. murder).  To this day, some twenty-five years after retiring from the force, I still maintain periodic contact with children who were abused.


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    For those who followed the earlier post about the cost of ICBC Auto insurance coverage in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (linked in comments) here is another follow-up article.

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  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold