the problem with the problem

On one of the early days of summer, on a rare foray into the Winnipeg Free Press office (sports, it turns out, doesn’t happen at the Mountain Avenue industrial park), I foraged a package from my mail slot. It was a book, wrapped in stiff packing paper. When I tore it open, I squealed.

“You remember this,” I said, turning to our office manager. “You remember when she came and talked to us?”

The book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers, is a thorough work by Vivian Smith, a longtime former Globe and Mail reporter and editor. It is also special to me because I’m in it, and dare I say? It’s neat to sometimes be on the other side of the page, to be the one whose story is being told.

A number of years ago — I want to say 2010 — Smith came to the Free Press newsroom, gathered a group of women, and sat us down for a round table discussion. Later, she drew me aside for a separate one-on-one interview. The thoughts that spilled out of me are laid out at length in the book. Sure, I winced a bit to see them printed: I was frank, and I was also younger, and so some of my 28-year-old statements were brasher than 33-year-old me finds supportable.

Still, I wholeheartedly stand by what I said, about the ways this industry can be difficult for women. I stand by what I said about the industry’s shameful track record of including women of colour. I stand by what I said about it being an intensely difficult industry in which to consider starting a family, or interact with sources, or navigate newsroom politics that can be very traditionally masculine.

Once I stopped laughing awkwardly over my own appearances in the book, I was grateful. Grateful to Smith, that she would collect the stories of so many women working in newspapers, including my colleague Mary Agnes Welch and National Post reporter Jen Gerson. Grateful that she would so thoughtfully draw out common and differing experiences, and weave them into a complex and nuanced portrait of the barriers that exist for women in the industry, and the ways in which we move through newsroom cultures.

Which brings us to Jesse Brown’s recent Canadaland report, sharply entitled Women Editors Are Fleeing The Globe and Mail. There is so much in this piece, and Brown’s advancement of it, that makes me so incredibly uncomfortable.

“Fleeing” is a heavy word. It holds heavy implications. It’s a word that aims to replicate the fear that grips the gut: we flee disasters. We flee violence. We flee things that are frightening, or that hurt. If women are indeed “fleeing” the Globe and Mail, the situation levied against them must be serious indeed — and the evidence to support that assertion must be similarly strong.

Well, it’s not. Brown opens by mentioning four editors who have left the Globe in the previous 10 days, and notes they would not speak to Canadaland; two have since said they were not contacted for comment. (Brown replied to Kathryn Hayward on Twitter saying that he “may have sent intvw request to incorrect email.” He has also added a correction to the bottom of the Canadaland piece.)

One of those editors, Christina Vardanis, confirmed on Twitter that she declined to speak to Brown, and said “I’m glad I did. Information presented in a vacuum is not journalism.” In a follow-up, she added, “Sorry but onus is on reporter to report all sides. Add context. Check facts. And don’t publish until you do.”

These words do not exactly suggest support of Brown’s summary of their departures. In fact, they suggest that Brown is shoehorning Vardanis’ experiences into a narrative about sexism at the Globe without direct knowledge of those experiences, or her consent. It doesn’t take a degree in women’s studies to see how that might be a problem.

Another one of the “fleeing” editors, former Toronto editor Sarah Lilleyman, left the Globe for the Winnipeg Free Press, where she was recently hired as the new associate editor of operations and engagement. (Here, she replaces in part the outgoing Julie Carl, who took a job as the Toronto Star’s deputy city editor.) If advancing your career constitutes “fleeing” your previous job, we should all be so lucky as to flee.

Further down the piece, Brown is curating a list of women who have left the Globe in the last three years (corrected from one year, my mistake). This list is devoid of contextual details, such as why they left. That is left to unattributed sources: “Like the editors who’ve just jumped ship,” Brown reports, “Many of them, CANADALAND has learned, had nowhere better to go- they just didn’t want to work at the Globe anymore.”

EDIT TO ADD: Former Globe journalist and current Twitter Canada employee Steve Ladurantaye has gone through the list of women who left the Globe, and updated it to add where they now work; it doesn’t on its face support Brown’s assertions that many had “nowhere better to go.” Again, this would have been a pretty basic piece of legwork for Brown to do, and consider when exploring why women are leaving the Globe and what that indicates about the paper, or the working conditions of the industry more broadly.

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Let’s be clear about this much: women leaving a workplace itself is not necessarily a blaring red sign of sexism or, as Brown bluntly puts it, a “problem with women.” If women leave to advance their career, that is normal and even healthy. There is also an inevitable attrition rate in newspapers, especially at this point in history: people, generally, are leaving newspapers. Without comparative statistics, a list of women who leave is not in itself definitive.

Where the deeper questions lie is whether women leave at a higher rate than men (which to my knowledge is widely true); whether women leave the Globe at a higher rate than other newspapers (which would answer whether it’s really the Globe’s “problem with women,” or the industry more broadly); whether those women who have left reflect a net loss of women overall (are women being hired at similar rates to replace them?); and how the complex realities of newsroom culture affect women differentially.

If Brown had made any attempt to collect those numbers — to ferret out whether women leave the Globe at higher rates than men, and whether that rate is higher at the Globe than other daily newspapers — this would have been a stronger piece. Comprehensive statistics go a long way to shoring up a hard lede.

Which brings us to the heart of my discomfort with Brown’s piece. It’s not that I think that barriers to women in newspapers shouldn’t be discussed — as my participation in Smith’s book shows, I am downright hungry to hold those discussions. I have worked in newspapers my entire adult life; I know how this industry can be, for us.

For instance, it doesn’t surprise me whatsoever that the Globe can be a challenging environment for women who choose to have children — that’s one of the main barriers for women that Smith explores in Outsiders Still. (In fact, family played a pivotal role in why Smith decided to leave newspaper work, as she eloquently describes.) Brown’s report raises this issue too, again citing unnamed sources.

Confronting those things is important. But my core problem with Canadaland’s efforts to do so — and I recall having this issue with Brown’s work before — is that he went for a hard angle (“Women Editors are Fleeing the Globe and Mail”), without the appropriate evidence to support how he framed that hard angle. Meanwhile, the issues that he barrels into as the Globe’s “problem with women” are complex and nuanced, and require a far more thoughtful touch to properly explore — preferably by someone who has actually experienced them.

For me, that approach undermines the value of confronting wider issues about women’s experiences in newspapers. And that work of confronting and discussing women’s experiences in newspapers has been done for many years, by women. It would have been far stronger to do the same here: we know how to tell our own stories. We have been doing just that, in books and on social media and in newspapers and at conferences, for a very long time.

And that, maybe, is the main disconnect here: with this piece, Brown elbowed his way into the discussion about women in the media with a red-hot lede, but with little attendant recognition of the women who have led this discussion. After Hazlitt’s Scaachi Koul (who is amazing) Tweeted the equivalent of an immense sigh about the piece, Brown responded “we’re the 1st to even talk about this, and that’s your hot take? Come on.”

That is frustrating. Brown is not the first one to talk about the challenges faced by women in journalism. He is not even the first one to talk about challenges faced by women at the Globe and Mail. His is a quick punch of a piece that barely scrapes the surface of what women have been discussing, very publicly, for years. But he angles it as a more urgent crisis at the Globe, and uses the experiences of women editors who have left to support that angle, without hard evidence, their involvement or consent.

It’s tough. I echo the thoughts of many others when I say — I think Canada needs someone like Jesse Brown. He’s done a lot of work that I think is incredibly valuable, and that will in the long run make Canada’s media (and by extension, the nation itself) better. But he also has a tendency to hold the loudspeaker, when he should be cranking up the amplification for someone better positioned to speak. He’s done that here, I think.

#fuelogy

 

There is no easy way to say your final goodbye to a beloved friend.

However, it is a hell of a lot easier when you have a magician, a bagpiper and a mime.

Today, about 30 people gathered at Winnipeg’s Crescent Drive Park to say goodbye to Fuel Montagu the Metallicat, the beloved life companion of my best friend Josh. We felt Fuel’s love shining down on us in the form of a clear and hot summer day. Also, in the giant posters of him by the altar.

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Fuel’s ashes were actually in my purse. This urn was used for a later gag.

We opened the service with my speech. Josh is not only my best friend, but my longtime former roommate. He acquired Fuel shortly after we moved into our first apartment when we were 18 years old. So it felt right to be able to pay my respects. (My full remarks are copied at the bottom of the post.)

So now, we gather here today to begin a new journey, one in which Fuel lives in our memory, and we can take comfort in the legacy he’s left. As the great poet James Hetfield once said, “oooh, on I burn, Fuel is pumping engines, burning hard, loose and clean.” Now, we can find peace in the belief that Fuel is pumping engines, loose and clean somewhere in the heavens.

After a short group sharing session, where we were collectively called to honour Fuel’s wonderful abundance of derp, Josh delivered his deeply personal #fuelogy.

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That’s when the mime made his first appearance.

Then, after a few moments of contemplative silence, the bagpiper began leading our march to the river to release Fuel’s ashes. I do not know why these videos are so blurry. I may have gotten sunscreen on my iPhone lens.

Unfortunately, the spot on the river we aimed to release Fuel’s ashes was already occupied by some bros drinking beer, who were not expecting to be suddenly interrupted by a bagpiper and a crowd of people.

It’s okay: the bros ended up coming back to the memorial site with us to watch the magic show afterwards. But first, we had to release Fuel’s ashes into the wild.

Wait, not that urn…

Not that one either, I guess. Third time’s the charm?

Goodbye, dear friend Fuel. I am pleased that some small piece of you will remain with us, until Josh throws his shirt in the wash.

With that, we marched back to the main memorial site, and enjoyed a fabulous magic show from The Great Gregoire. Book him for your next birthday party or corporate event!

Thus ended the #fuelogy, the greatest funeral cat has ever known. Journey well, old friend. Journey well.

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Addendum #1: Full Text of My Eulogy

Good afternoon.

A few months ago, Josh asked me if I would speak here, today, as we remember our friend Fuel. We didn’t know then that the day we laid him to rest would be so beautiful, the sun so gracious, the air so gentle to our spirits. When I look around today, I do not see Fuel. But I feel him in the breeze.

When Josh asked me, I immediately knew that it was important for me to speak. I was Fuel’s first step-mother, the first female role model in his life. But our story is not only one of familial affections. It is also a story of transgression, and forgiveness. I come here today to bear witness.

As some of you may know, I was 19 years old when Fuel tried to take my life. The moment in which it happened is seared into my mind. Josh and I were living in our first apartment, at the time, and I was spending an evening quietly reading a book in our living-room chair. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting across my throat. I wheeled around, and saw our young kitten crouched behind the chair. He had leaped up from behind, and attacked me in stealth.

Time heals all wounds, and it healed mine too, although not before I’d entertained several confused questions from coworkers about how I obtained the three-inch cut across my neck. But the scars it left on my relationship with Fuel took longer to heal. For the first time, when we sat alone together in our house, I was afraid.

It is a testament to Fuel’s true potential, maturation and grace that we were able to put this behind us. One day, while Josh was at work, he came to me and announced he wished to make amends. He entered a treatment program for compulsive claw offenders, and as anyone who saw his two-hour special episode of A&E’s hit television series Intervention can attest, this treatment was a success. Soon, we learned to live, love and laugh again.

So Fuel and I had our challenges. But the strength of our connection was forged of stronger stuff. He was not necessarily the kitten I wanted, when Josh first plucked him from a indiscriminate mass of writhing fluff inside a cardboard box, but he was the one I loved. I loved him for his curiosity, and his insatiable desire to know.

Fuel spent his later years working as a private detective. What some of you may not know is that his aptitude for this work showed very early in his life. He was about six months old when he opened one of his earliest investigations, into the nature of fire. Unfortunately, this case proved dangerous. He grew too close to his subject, a candle in our living-room window, and suddenly there was a quick sizzle and the smell of burning hair. He fled down the hallway, leaving small puffs of smoke behind him, just like in cartoons.

But adulthood brought a greater sense of calm to Fuel, which was a blessing for Josh’s sleep patterns. The last time I saw him, he was lounging lazily in Josh’s spare bedroom, purring deeply while I scratched his face. We sat there for some time, contemplating the nature of the connections we make in life. Though I never saw my old friend again, I am grateful we were able to end our journey together that way.

So now, we gather here today to begin a new journey, one in which Fuel lives in our memory, and we can take comfort in the legacy he’s left. As the great poet James Hetfield once said, “oooh, on I burn, Fuel is pumping engines, burning hard, loose and clean.” Now, we can find peace in the belief that Fuel is pumping engines, loose and clean somewhere in the heavens.

Above all else, I am grateful to him for being a loving and loyal companion to Josh, and a source of comfort to him when my fendship could not be enough. Fuel was a magnificent old friend, and I know that I will miss him, very much.

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.