Why Don’t

OF all the questions directed at people who have experienced sexual assault, it seems the most common begin with, “why don’t.”

Why don’t you report / tell the police / speak up on social media / tell anyone / do anything / make it stop.

This is an easy thing to understand, for some of us. Difficult for others. So I thought, maybe it would be useful for some, if I were to invite you to walk with me, as I review each step of my own process of choosing to do nothing at all.

Before I begin, some disclaimers are in order. This post is only about the paths that branched out and then trailed off inside my mind. It is not intended as a guide. The choice I made drew on many things: the specifics of what happened, my basic personality make-up, who I am and who he was and where I’m at in life. None of those things are transferable. They all stay with me.

With that in mind, let’s begin.

For most of the month I spoke about Jian, an old story kept slithering up from the catacomb holes in my mind. The story is mine, and it’s strange to realize now that it is nothing more than that: just a story, one that I’ve told almost nobody. The story happens to be true, insofar as I lived it, but every day the finer points get a tiny bit hazier, the emotions a little bit more distant. More and more, I feel like I’m telling a story about a character who both was and is-not me, like a part on a stage I once played.

Nothing happened to the man who I must cast as the villain in the story. Nothing will happen. Hell, he’s almost a bit part.

This was where he makes his entrance: just over two years ago, someone did something really awful to me. This person is a member of the broad Winnipeg media world, and though caution suggests I clarify that they are not a colleague, I will not give his name. I will also say that nothing I have ever said or done will offer any hint as to who it was. I never changed my behaviour around this person, at least not in ways that would have been perceptible to anyone but me.

The details of what he did are not particularly important: I can say that what this person did, what they confessed to doing, would widely be considered a sexual assault or molestation, though it was not a rape. It occurred in a place where I had every reason to feel safe. I do not think he thinks he did anything wrong; and frankly, I doubt he even remembers it now.

Another thing: I am not particularly traumatized. Never was. I felt violated, angry, humiliated and filthy for a time. Some of those feelings remain, but not in a way that will leave any lingering scars. This is important to note, because it certainly shapes how I chose to respond. And also because I know a lot of you care about me, and truthfully? I’m fine.

For various reasons, my memories of the event are hazy and fractured. Some of that is absolutely alcohol, and it is very common for sexually predatory people to use alcohol to enable their actions. But some of it is just time. Two years out, what once burned in me now comes back in lazy and dim-lit flashes. It’s sort of like trying to peer in the windows of houses while your car zips down the street; but instead of rushed impressions of people in houses, the fleeting shapes I see are all me.

Sometimes I wonder if it even actually happened. One day, not too far off now, my grasp of it will be gone.

My God though, I hope he didn’t and won’t do it to anyone else. But I saw him laying the groundwork for it before and after what happened to me, saw the way he honed in and  pressed himself against the women in his vicinity, and just… my God, I hope he stopped.

Right. So this is where I pause. Retrace my steps. Go back to the crossroads from which split several paths, and review which one was the best.

The one I took: I said nothing. When I finally became aware of the gravity of what had happened, I turned on my heel, cheeks flaming. I got the hell outta Dodge. I didn’t tell anyone for several months. In the end, four people know about this: two close friends who I spilled my guts with, my now-partner (who I didn’t know at the time), and one colleague who, in a fit of pique, I recently told rather casually.

All of them believed me. That too is important to say, because I’m grateful as hell for their faith, and their care.

At the time, though, it briefly crossed my mind that I could go down the road of calling police. But work through that with me: I had literally no evidence. None. By the time I really understood what exactly had happened, enough time had elapsed that there would have been no chance of finding any reliable eyewitnesses. There would have almost certainly been no DNA; if they had managed to swab anything at all from the fabrics where it happened, that could hardly have proven anything.

All I had was a story, and even that was patchy and full of holes in my memory. Well, a story and what he himself had told me — but I couldn’t expect he’d tell the same thing if the cops came calling. So no, all I had was a story, and in my quick estimation that hardly seemed enough to carry us all the way to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Which is an imperfect standard but one I believe in, for the criminal court — I expoused on that more on Escape Velocity Radio last month.

Besides, I didn’t want to spend the next months of my life hashing it all out. I just wanted to scrub myself clean. So that path is out.

A second path: I could call his boss. I stop here, and this little voice in my head is nattering at me — “and say what?” It would be a coin flip at best, between “I’m sorry this happened” and “none of my business,” but either way it would mean giving someone else the power to disappoint or judge me. There’s a good chance that rumours would spread quickly, and as much as it would hurt to find them frolicking in the open, they’d be twice as deadly being dealt behind my back. So nope, the boss path is out.

Another path, this one jagged and running through brambles: I name him, shame him, call him out on social media.

At this crossroads, I pause. I could do this, and there may even be some satisfaction from it, but the cost would be high. There would be a split between “his” people and mine. Our city is not a particularly big community, and I would forever be remembered for starting that mess. I would have to live with the stain of it forever, like a scarlet A on my head. Work and social settings would become fractured, as people juggled how to respond, and how to behave. It would all rotate around me — the girl usually happiest in the corner, who just wants to work.

And what could people really even do, if they did want to take my side?

Compared to many people who have borne similar harms, I am lucky: I have a platform. There are many people who follow me, and truthfully? I think that most of them would believe. I have faith in the community I’ve chosen for myself, and I have faith in the connections I’ve made. Yeah, if I went public — there would be a whole lot of public anger, at him. It’s very possible that he’d get fired — though ultimately, we would all know it would be because the PR was bad for the company, and not because they were taking a strong stance on the act itself.

This is where the path ends: that wouldn’t look like accountability, to me. It would not look like justice.

Under that scenario, sure, there would be some measure of punishment. But it would not be honestly served. I cannot see how dropping that kind of bomb would connect the dots in his head, to make him understand that what he did to me was wrong. He might apologize, but it would be only an apology extracted under duress. It would not be true contrition, which is freely given and fully meant; any apology he offered would primarily be informed by the pain levied against him.

I do not choose to damage, for damage’s sake. I prefer restoration.

But in the months and years that would follow, he would still quietly smear me as jealous and hollow; he would see himself as the victim of me being vindictive, and many people would believe him. He would be sorry he got mixed up with me in the first place. He would not, however, understand that his actions set the whole thing into motion.

No, no, I will not give his name. I will not call him out.

And I start to wonder, what would accountability look like, to me? What would restoration look like?

In my head, it looks less like punishment, and more like a lightbulb blowing up behind his eyes. It looks like him understanding how a night that fled by for him smeared me with shame that still lingers to this day. It looks like him realizing how he had violated me at every turn, how he had manipulated me to get around my barriers and abused my trust. It looks like him seeing that he had pushed at my weak spots, it looks like him realizing in horror how he’d refused to take “no” for an answer. How he’d lurked around the edges until he could take what he wanted.

I want him to feel that. I want him to know that. And I want him to look me in the eye, human to human, and fucking apologize.

There it is, that’s it, the final alternate path: I could call him out privately. I could ask to meet him somewhere, just the two of us, and I could lay it on him. I could unleash everything, all the anger that’s still clinging to life in me. But I would say: “I am not here to punish. I am here to make you understand, and if you understand, then I am here for your ‘sorry.'”

Then I think of what it would be like to look him in the eye, after these years. To vomit up this dusty old story. And I think of him shrugging his shoulders, and glancing around for the exits, and saying… “I don’t think it happened that way. I don’t remember this at all, what you’re saying. No idea what you’re talking about. You sound sort of crazy.”

…well shit.

That is the one thing in all of this I could not stand, to be made to feel crazy.

Realizing this makes it easy. There is only one path forward now, one that’s well-trodden and well-lit. There aren’t any sharp turns in it, no bumpy stretches or hidden pits. It goes quite simply like this: I will never say what happened, exactly. I will never tell his name. And no, there will be no justice for what happened, and he might do it again unless he chooses to change.

That’s on him, though. I was not responsible for his actions then, and I am not now. I am nobody’s caddy, and I refuse to dutifully carry his blame.

No, there’s nothing I can do, not that won’t do far more damage than it would help. There will be no justice — but at least, if nothing else, I can have peace. And I do have peace.

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do you know about jian

For at least half as long as I have been been alive, a string of five short words, or something very like them, slipped through the back-channels of certain social scenes. The question was whispered around wine glasses from Toronto to Vancouver, they were tapped out in texts and Twitter direct messages between old friends, or between kindred spirits newly met. In time, the answer that most followed became just as familiar as the question that preceded: a nodded affirmative, a mouth twisted in a rictus of disgust.

“Do you know about Jian?”

Oh, let’s make sure we understand this question clear. It was not to ask if you knew Jian Ghomeshi, who I have never met. It was not to ask if you knew about Jian, who Canadians first discovered back in the early 1990s, when he played in that old band of his. It was not even to ask if you knew much about what he’s really like when the microphones weren’t on, about what his personality or predilections were, about what made him laugh or made him frown.

The question was, in other words: “do you know about Jian?”

For almost a decade now, when that question was posed to me I said — yes, yes I’ve known. I’ve known for a very long time.

This is the moment when I first learned. I was 24 years old perhaps — I’m counting back, trying to remember what was then, and when was that — and, after about six years slogging it out in freelance music writing, finally ghosting around the edges of my first fancy industry party. And there was a man gliding towards the bar, wearing the liquid smile that rides the faces of most self-satisfied stars. King of the scene in dark-wash denim jeans.

I turned to an old friend of mine, a man who had logged many years in the music biz.  “Isn’t that Jian Ghomeshi?”

He sipped his beer and nodded, but what he said next I had not expected. “Be careful,” he said, with the dark and searching eyes of someone who is holding a story that isn’t theirs to tell.

“Why?”

“Just be careful,” he repeated, darkly. “He’s weird, with women.”

Warned by this, I kept my distance and just watched. I saw the way he moved towards women, introduced himself, and pushed his way into their space. There was something about the way his hands slid over tense and hunched-up shoulders, found their way to the small of a half-turned back, a waist, a hip. Nothing you’d call a crime, not quite. Nothing you could name. Just a sense, all the little things that added up to say — this isn’t safe. This person is not safe.

Boundary issues, call ‘em, and they were persistent. I saw it on other occasions after that, though only a few — other parties, where I’d lean my head against another woman’s so that we could exchange our warnings in the night. Through these other women I started to hear stories, filtering through in little bites: it felt like everyone had a friend with a story. A friend who was was hurt or leered at. A friend who had been uncomfortable, cornered or afraid.

But how could you say that, in a way that would ever be believed? How would you describe that for the world, in a way that the world would ever believe?

So instead, you start to turn to the women around you, and you say: “do you know about Jian?”

And you watch them nod, and pass it on.

Evidence. Everyone wants evidence, and this is all I can give: I knew about Jian, and everyone I ever talked to about him did too.

For this reason alone, I believe the women who have come forward to the Toronto Star and the CBC, if anonymous, and said that he hurt them. That he abused them. That he did horrible things to them without their consent. “So why no police charges?” Green Party leader Elizabeth May said, though she apologized and took it back soon after. She wasn’t the only one asking that, though. It was one of the most common questions of the day.

Yeah, well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I was harassed, assaulted, if I was flat-out raped, I would not go to the police. Not unless I wore clear scars from it, not unless I was bloodied or scraped. Even then, only if it was a stranger. Only if it was someone who slipped out of the darkness and had no other power over me. Someone who, if and when my name filtered out, couldn’t take my work and friends away from me.

God, we ask so much of victims. On one side, we tell them that the price of our belief it to spend a lifetime chained publicly to an incident they usually want desperately to escape; we tell them that the price of our belief is that they make their name public, or take it to police. If they pay that price, we don’t believe them anyway. Instead, we simply charge them with trying to make hay.

No, I wouldn’t make my name public, and I wouldn’t go to police. I would never want to watch those prying eyes turn on me, inventing for themselves a fiction of the “jilted,” vindictive woman that Jian Ghomeshi pre-emptively declared at least three of his ex-partners to be.

People bought that, you know. Hook, line and sinker.

Here’s something. I’ve said that “we” knew about Jian, but I couldn’t tell you exactly who all that means. For years, the “we” was so amorphous, a shifting chorus of voices that whispered or shouted and slipped away. To be clear: what I heard and what I knew was not special. It was not secret knowledge. It was open and clear as day, a smear of bright-red warning paint slashed across entire loose-tied social scenes.

Among the people I know for certain knew about Jian there are a staggering number of women from entirely different cities, some of whom know each other and many of whom do not, most who are somehow connected to music and some who are not. There are also male journalists, authors, artists and music talent buyers.

When Carla Ciccone wrote in XOJane about her unsettling run-in with a radio host with evident boundary issues, everyone who Knew About Jian knew that that, too, was about Jian. Even without the most transparent clues — the black and red car, to match his show — we knew. And between ourselves, we whispered that some day it would be worse. We didn’t know when, or why, or what the circumstances would be. But we knew a day would come that Canada would Know About Jian.

This past weekend, that day finally came.

On most of my Twitter timeline, and in my text messages, we all knew even before Ghomeshi released his Facebook statement that it would be something to do about women. Some people hinted publicly, about as loudly as they could, in an attempt to try and cut through the outcry, the political conspiracy theories, the outright victim-blaming tropes and lies.

On Twitter, Slate music critic and author Carl Wilson:  “Won’t say more till the facts are out, but reflecting gravely on my own spots on Q – a form of complicity, given what I knew even then?”

Musician Jann Arden took the indirect approach.  “A person’s true character can only dodge and hide for so long….then mistakes are made and the truth is known,” she Tweeted. Someone asked if she’d seen his Facebook post. “Honestly,” she replied, “I have known for years…”

Steve Murray, cartoonist at the National Post: “Every time a Jian profile is about to come out I’m like ‘FINALLY’ and then it’s a puff piece and I get so goddamned angry.”

In his stunning open letter on Facebook, musician Owen Pallett acknowledged that he too Knew About Jian. “I too have heard endless rumours that he’s been a bad date, and have heard stories of shadiness and strange behaviour,” he wrote. “I have heard about his ridiculous pick-up lines and have (to my shame) tittered about them with my friends. But I have never heard, until today, that Jian Ghomeshi beats women.”

Yeah, that’s more than fair. Whatever I had heard about Jian, whatever I felt I knew, fists were never part of it.

Still, the follow-up question, then, the one I keep seeing asked: if so many people knew, why didn’t anyone stick their neck out to stop it?

My question is: would you?

Would you, if you had nothing besides stories that weren’t yours, little things you’d seen, a million tiny red flags that quietly added up to make you feel unsafe? Would you, if sticking your neck out meant publicly taking on one of the most influential people in the Canadian media landscape, someone with more money than you, more lawyers, more protection from his fame? Would you, if you knew that with a few carefully maneuvered cocktail meetings, a few woe-is-me turns of phrase, this person could quietly ensure that you didn’t work in that big town again?

Oh, please. “You see, officer, there was just something about the way he pressed himself against her back, about the way her body tensed and she tried to step away from that… and then my friend asked if I knew about Jian…”

No, no you wouldn’t stick your neck out there. Besides, there was nobody really to listen, nobody to tell it to.

That sentiment was perfectly summarized on Wednesday, by a woman who came forward to CBC to talk about how Jian hit her too. His abuse has haunted her for over a decade, she said, to the point where she had to turn off the TV when she heard his voice. “When this came to light a few days ago, it almost, it gave me permission to speak,” she said. “I thought, maybe someone will listen to me now. Because I don’t think if I had said anything back then, that anyone would care.”

Look, I get it. It’s so easy not to believe, when you didn’t Know About Jian. When you didn’t move in the same very broad circles, the same media world, the same wide but only ankle-deep musical pond. And I don’t expect you to grapple with the knowledge easily. I expect that confronting it is hard. I expect you have questions, that you are wondering how to bridge the gap between evidence and belief.

That’s your journey to take, not mine. I know exactly who I believe.

As you work through that process, all I want you to know is this: the “pattern of behaviour” Ghomeshi accused his accusers of trying to create, it existed long before their allegations did. That pattern existed when those women were still teenage kids. The way it was shared between women was never malicious. We never wanted to destroy Jian, never had any reason to, we wanted only to keep ourselves and our friends safe. But the pattern isn’t new, and it was never secret. It was neon-bright and blinking, so garish it may as well have been visible from space.

And on the weekend, a woman I know and trust Tweeted carefully about waiting for facts to come out, I sneaked into her Twitter DMs to say…

“You knew about Jian though, right?”

Yeah, she replied. She Knew About Jian.

Update: about two hours after I posted this, the Toronto Star published a huge update on the story. They have now spoken to eight women, including actress and Air Force captain Lucy DeCoutere, about the abuse they say they suffered at Jian Ghomeshi’s hands, dating back as far as 2003. Needless to say, I support these women. And the new Star story is far worse, and far darker, than I ever imagined. I am grateful to everyone who has spoken up.

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First Impressions of the CMHR

There is a ramp that wanders up through the galleries of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a zig-zag path framed by plates of Spanish alabaster lit from the inside. Nice ramp, I thought, but I was wrong. “It’s a ribbon of light leading us to a better understanding of human rights,” our tour guide said, in a sunny sort of way.

That’s the thing about the CMHR: its cleverness gets in its own way.

Or so it felt to me on the afternoon of opening day, trudging a carefully planned route through the building so beautiful and strange. Every detail is intended to be meaningful, every angle and architectural feature born of messaging and metaphor. In a museum dedicated to raising the most pressing questions of our existence, the building makes the loudest statement. The building swallowed us whole.

Maybe things will be different when the rest of the galleries are finished in November.

As of now, though, the whole place feels off balance. It’s the way the building careens around you, so dramatic and self-conscious. Light, it’s all about the play of light, starting with the way the sunlight can barely penetrate the steel and concrete of the ground-floor entrance hall. “So if you feel darkness and heaviness, then you’re getting it,” the tour guide explained, but added a helpful disclaimer. “If you don’t, that’s okay too.”

You rise up into light, into the galleries. The ones that are open feel unfinished, or else deliberately spare: some dramatic projections, some interactive stations, some artifacts under glass whispering their significance but (for now) presented without any written explanation. Who made that turtle carving? Are those the chains once worn by slaves? You want to honour these things, but again, the building gets in the way.

Notice all the terraces. (“We’ve already had a wedding!”) Notice the glass cloud that wraps around the building, no two of its 1,335 panes are the same shape. (“Just like human experiences are all different, and none can stand without the other!”) A great circular theatre in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery is made from sleek wooden slats, “representing the multitude of Canadian Aboriginal traditions.” The ramp. The Tower of Hope. The floors shine, the walls leer, the bubbling brook in the Garden of Contemplation hints of change and tears, columns of volanic rock in a nod to change-fire.

I remember these things, the scale of the place, the way the metaphors pressed down around the head. But I don’t remember almost any of the exhibits they were designed to contain. There was a quote from Taiaiake Alfred, there was a spectacular clay sculpture from a local artist whose name, I regret, I didn’t write down. There was a ballot box used in the South African election that carried Nelson Mandela to the presidency. There were projection panels. There were words. “It really is all about the building,” my dad said, and we weren’t even on the architecture tour.

These are first impressions only, formed on a partial basis against the unseen swaths of unfinished galleries. But know this: I cam to CMHR on opening day ready to fall in love. Truth be told, I always believed in the concept, I knew and admired their inspirations. And they meant well, mean well, everything in the structure means so very well. But it’s hard to fall in love with a place that is already so deeply enamored with itself, and so proudly self-involved.

Human rights were never won by looking to the self that way. And that’s what felt off-balance to me, on this opening day.

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