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Sister's book recalls life of renowned wildlife artist, victim of sexual abuse

When Heather Gordon-Young set out to write her book Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World, she wanted to document the spiritual journey sparked largely by the untimely death of her brother, who took his own life 24 years ago.
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Heather Gordon-Young

When Heather Gordon-Young set out to write her book Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World, she wanted to document the spiritual journey sparked largely by the untimely death of her brother, who took his own life 24 years ago.

Remembered as an accomplished wildlife artist, Jim Young was also a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of one of his elementary school teachers in Prince George. Wendell Diakiw was sentenced in 1988 to five years in prison for his crimes - he was found guilty of molesting a number of other youngsters as well - but the fallout for Young was much greater than for the perpetrator.

Gordon-Young is certain the experience played a key role in her brother's fateful decision.

"I think the consequence of that early childhood trauma led to all kinds of things in his life," Gordon-Young said. "Mental health issues, alcoholism and eventually suicide."

Although it had long been suspected, it was only shortly before his death at age 26 that Young confirmed he was one of Diakiw's victims. That frustration with knowing, yet not knowing, and trying to help, but not being able to, is a theme in Gordon-Young's book.

"The story that Fireflies tells, really, is a story of a family and a community that doesn't understand what's going wrong for this young man and relies on all kinds of ways that failed, to try to support and help him," Gordon-Young said.

The contradiction that was Diakiw is also brought to life. Among the grownups, Diakiw was regarded as "this crazy, dynamic, outgoing character that everyone just made lots of allowances for because he was just a character," Gordon-Young said.

But in her book she recounted signs of a darker side - like the martini glasses covering his kitchen counter Gordon-Young noticed but pretended not to when she went over to his house down the block to take Saturday morning piano lessons.

This Saturday will be the 24th anniversary of her brother's death and to commemorate, Gordon-Young will be in Prince George where she will give a reading at Books and Company from noon to 1:30 p.m.

There will also be two survivors of Diakiw's crimes who will talk about how the trauma of being among his victims has affected their lives. Other victims of sexual abuse are welcome to attend but so are members of the public at large.

Admirers of wildlife art - Jim Young put out some impressive work during his brief life - and appreciators of good writing - Gordon-Young, who holds a masters of fine arts can ably craft a sentence - might also want to attend.

And those simply searching for answers on a broader scale may also be interested. While her's brother's death was a launching point, Gordon-Young says Fireflies is about a young girl's quest.

"Looking for answers but encountering in the world, a lack of compassion and the complexities of life," Gordon-Young said. "And it's a spiritual journey as well, wondering where is God in all of this or where is the church?

"There's pretty strong critical thinking applied to the church but at the time the church, at that point in my life, was the only place I that understood to be a source of help for the kinds of things that were going on for Jim.

"There's a lot of wrestling with the function of the church and the failing of the church to address some of the more important social needs that we so often face and struggle to get right."

It's also about reclaiming her brother's name.

"One of the main goals is to give my brother his dignity back because he died with the assumptions that he was an alcoholic who had blown it and killed himself without really understanding the layering and the coming undone that happens to human beings when we are traumatized and have mental health issues that aren't supported and treated," Gordon-Young said.