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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food / love / safety

I.

Saliva etches itself into memory, a poem in invisible ink.

In my life it has penned a salty calligraphy, a script slathered with grease and good intentions. After the divorce (I was five) there were fast-food burgers (six to ten) and sandwiches smothered with processed cheese food and the pale flabby pinkness of deli-sliced ham. There were pizzas drowning in mozza and discus slices of sausage. There were cheap steaks at the diner, and everything bacon.

It made me happy, when little else did.

As people do, I grew up and moved out and chased after happy. Mostly, I found it in paper bags stamped with logos and heavy with cheap meat and industrialized cheese. Most days, I parked my car under trees and cranked up the heat, and savoured the Eat. It felt safe. It felt like someone (who?) was taking care of me. Always McSame. Always going to never McLeave.

No, I was never very happy, but at least I had meat.

II.

He is a small and slender man. He is a slender, pale and gentle man, creeping towards thirty but the uncultivated whiskers that sprout from his cheek read more like twenty-three. When he tells me his real age, I exhale lightly. He’s just this guy. I think he likes me.

Ooh, a guy hey?

“Yeah, doubt it goes anywhere though. He’s so quiet.”

An inventory of him: he takes pictures. He gleefully Tweets jabs at the Prime Minister. He has a tattoo of crossbone carrots slashing one narrow aspen arm, but there is a lump of broccoli where a skull would be. He has a way of opening his mouth as if to speak, then tripping on his tongue when he looks at me.

So yeah, he seems sweet.

We are in the dying throes of another backlit Canadian winter. We are in IKEA and I am shopping for a dresser. We are somewhere between the Ektorps and the Klippans when I press him about the ethos behind his vegan Jolly Roger.

“What’s your take on honey?”

These words slip out of my lips and I taste the bitter bile of their obnoxiousness, I am hunting for a reason to strike him off my list. “Too reactionary,” I’d say maybe, or too much a purist to handle life with the awkward angles and multitude hypocrisies of me —

But he is not — he is — oh, he shrugs. “I get why people disagree on that,” he says. “I just think, what gives us the right?”

This is not quite the answer I am expecting, having known men already, men who gripped my thigh too tightly as they spoke about animals and purity. And so, in those five short words he exposed me.

Who has the right / where do we stand

My rights end where yours begin

I do not know it yet, but this is the moment I fall in love with him.

III.

My feminism is a conversation.

I speak it in a language indigenous to my place and this time, and yet it spans generations. My feminism is a discussion about how — not what — to think about power and gender, power and race, power and sexuality. How to think about economic policy and health, about violence and safety. How to think about bodies.

Yes, yes, our bodies.

The conversation spills from the center of our bodies, outlining, defending, defining. Bodies as products and bodies as objects, bodies as commodities. Always fighting the ways that those who declare themselves strong, declare their entitlement to the bodies of those they declare weak.

Oh, there it is —

Whispering between the silhouettes of silenced bodies, I hear how the language of my feminism speaks across species. Our species has sorted us into hierarchies: some bodies as tools, some bodies as trash. Some bodies pressed into service in ways living bodies can’t stand, so they’re shot full of drugs and crammed into shapes that balance sheets find pleasing.

This is not lost on advertisers, who have long used women’s flesh and animals’ flesh interchangeably, understanding that both can be painted as something to be devoured, dominated and consumed.

And women —

We’ve been forced to use the language of oppression to outline the boundaries of our humanity: “what you do to the animals,” we cry, “do not do to me.”

This is just survival.

“I felt like a piece of meat,” a rape survivor says, and entwined in that tapestry of sadness is the fact that every morsel of meat lived and died the same way. (And yet, even some purported pro-animal organizations regularly revisit this violence, putting women on a plate.)

Whether or not animals have a soul, I couldn’t say, it’s not something a person can prove. Believe it or not, as is best understood by you, but there’s no question they are imbued with an arrangement of neurons that allows them an experience of this world that we share. An experience lit by the sun, cooled by the breeze, and defined between birth and death by the desire to live free.

And so, they cling to survival, until their blood paints the slaughterhouse floor. They howl and they squawk and they roar, their tongues crying out a terror that only ever ends one way. Their only witnesses are slaughterhouse workers, often drawn from the poor, often men and women of colour pressed into work stained by exploitation and abuse.

I do not know whether a vegan society would be a more just one. I do know this: the same lie that asserts men are entitled to the bodies of women, that the wealthy are entitled to the bodies and labour of the poor, that white bodies can dominate bodies of colour — that is the same lie that allows industrialized meat and dairy production to exist.

What gives us the right, he said –

My rights end where yours begin.

IV.

On a crisp night in August, we corralled my two cats into laundry baskets and left the cold and lonely condo that had been for seven years my house, if never really a home. I followed him to an apartment on a raggedy street about a kilometer away or so.

He is the safest place I have ever known.

“Thing is,” he says cautiously, sipping cocktails on a patio the night I stuff my shoes into his closet, “I can’t have a fridge full of dairy.”

I know this, and so never buy any.

Instead, he takes charge of our eating, all of it plant-based and full and amazing. He transforms food into feasts and we eat joyfully: oh, so many things on the menu. Chickpea curry and potatoes roasted with parsnips and garlic. Rib-sticking stews and macaroni rolling in rich sauces. In the mornings, he toasts savoury pizza bagels. At night, we sip wine and devour a gooey apple crumble.

We laugh a lot, when we’re eating.

He is clever, I ache for nothing, there is never a moment where I wish there was animal flesh or secretions on anything. He broils eggplant slices with soy sauce and liquid smoke and it sizzles like bacon. He has a way of frying up tofu to be as fluffy as a perfectly scrambled egg, even though it never saw any side of a chicken.

We talk about books while we eat, about books and ideas and politics, and he never talks over me. He never speaks louder than me.

At night, we fall into bed with glowing bellies and curl up tight like fiddleheads before their full flowering. Our lips wrap around life and our tongues write new memories. The war machines hum demolition ditties just outside our doorstep, but in here there is no cruelty.

In here, there is no —

My God, I am a raw and hurting thing. I am a ragged, raw and mewling thing,  but his arms hold open space for me to breathe. He slips out no hidden sighs, seeks no dominion over me.

Love, life and safety —

In here, there is no cruelty.

V.

I will never be a model of purity.

Food is not a destination but a journey, and the veil lifts for me in pieces as my world tilts and shifts. Sometimes I go a week without consuming anything that once belonged to an animal, sometimes a month. Then sometimes, I still slip back into those old memories, into the lonely habit of eating whatever dead and meaty thing is put in front of me.

Those days come less often, lately. Less often with each passing week. Threads are being severed; old habits, unlearned.

We are creatures of privilege. We have a kitchen to cook in and implements to cook with, and the time and energy to put them to use at least a few nights a week. We have access to a wide range of grocery options, and the Fresh Box delivery we get once a week thrills us, fills us with the excitement of what it could be. We are lucky people, to have choices.

So there is that.

Understand: this is a call for choices. The choice depends on affordability, on accessibility, on ensuring that food deserts are watered with healthy produce. And the choice depends on punching up, not punching down: on challenging industrialized Euro-settler animal agriculture, not abusing Inuit women who post pictures of seal skins on Twitter.

And for me —

Cauliflower korma is bubbling on the stove. My love is tending it while I wrestle with these words that I wrote. I press “post,” and retreat to another night where my eyes wince with no cruelty.

Food / love / and safety.

Recommended resources:

Earthlings

The Sexual Politics of Meat

 Dylan Powell: Veganism In The Occupied Territories

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