04/27/2013 07:50 EDT | Updated 06/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Not Evil, Just Ill: A Woman Makes Peace With the Man Who Almost Killed Her

John Kastner

One day in October 2011, Andy Bouvier, whose daughter was stabbed repeatedly by Sean Clifton, the mentally ill man who is the subject of my current documentary, NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (premiering at Hot Docs this Sunday), is standing in my apartment in Brockville and he is angry.

He is angry at Clifton, angry at the system for letting Clifton out into the community (albeit under supervision), angry at a law he considers asinine that permits patients like Clifton to eventually obtain an absolute discharge free of any kind of controls, including any requirement to take their medications.

"I want to see the law changed to force patients like Sean to take their meds for the rest of their lives," he fumes. "If he goes off his meds, he could do it again." He doesn't accept Clifton's mental illness entirely as an excuse, blaming him in large part for what happened. It is a familiar howl of outrage, pain, and, often, vengefulness - heard these days from many victims of acts of horrific violence by the mentally ill.

Flash forward to March of this year. I am about to screen the finished film for Bouvier, his wife, Noella, and the victim, their daughter Julie. By now they have worked to understand mental illness. Still, I know there is stuff in the film they will find very hard to watch. Not only will they be re-living the horrible events but Clifton has a surprise in store for them: He remembers much of what happened that night.They will be learning for the first time what was going through the mind of a madman in the midst of that murderous psychotic break, i.e. what he was thinking as he tried to stab Julie to death. And his forensic shrink Dr A.G. Ahmed will be there on the screen offering psychiatric explanations, step by terrifying step.

The screening begins. Suddenly they are seeing a Sean they never knew, learning how terribly sick he was ("one of the illest patients of my career," says Dr. Ahmed) with two major mental illnesses: paranoid schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

They see a change in him so dramatic it is hard to believe, thanks to a remarkable treatment process the public virtually never gets to see. Not so long ago, patients like Sean were considered so hopelessly deranged and dangerous, they were often locked up for life. Today anti-psychotic drugs and other forms of therapy are so improved, review boards are releasing most patients back into the community - even those who have committed horrible crimes like Clifton.

It's incredible to watch the process. Patients arrive at the hospital in a floridly psychotic state, often spouting gibberish, and within two or three months literally return to their senses, able to speak and function with some degree of normalcy. For a layman, to witness this Jeykll and Hyde transformation is stunning, magical.

The film reveals a hurting man beneath the so-called monster: gentle, highly intelligent, extremely articulate, and slowly "clawing [his] way back to mental health," as Clifton puts it. A far cry from the brute they had been picturing for the past 12 years, since the offence in 1999.

The screening ends. After a pause Andy blurts out: "Well, you gotta have empathy for the guy. I can't believe I'm saying this. But I do have empathy for him." Noella and Julie nod in agreement.

A few weeks later they encounter Clifton at his Ontario Review Board hearing. They have an emotional but friendly chat with him and even shake his hand -- the one that held the knife that almost murdered their daughter.

There are victims and there are victims, and then there are the remarkable Bouviers. Andy still lobbies for his mandatory meds but the family is also actively trying to help Clifton, giving media interviews, speaking at screenings of the film, partly on his behalf. They want the public to understand, as they finally do, that the man who committed that horrific act of violence that night was not evil, just ill.

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