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.
“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.