How does a community—one that is dispersed across a country, one that comprises diverse people and experiences—come together to express solidarity? What do solidarity and support look like when the galvanizing issues are so deeply rooted in personal experience as well as systemic injustice? And what can words do to support those people who need it, even or especially when they haven’t been able to ask for support?
This project came about through discussions with many people in the Canadian literary community, and it became increasingly urgent as the stories of abuses of mentorship and power broke into mainstream media this fall. We asked for anonymous stories deliberately: too often we were hearing refrains of “why didn’t she speak up?” “Why didn’t they come forward?” We were not hearing the explanations for anonymity. Though we have received some genuine and concerned critiques about the real ways in which silence can perpetuate cycles of systemic violence, this project isn’t about reifying silence.
Love, Anonymous is about providing space for people to bear witness to their own experiences even if they do not feel able to go on the record. Love, Anonymous is a CWILA project. CWILA is continually working both to provide data about gendered representation in Canada’s literary cultures and to foster spaces for strengthening a progressive and inclusive online community. Love, Anonymous is supported by the CWILA Board, who are incredible, thoughtful, and dedicated people.
The project call was sent to members directly, rather than circulated via social media outlets. In order to provide privacy for contributors all submissions were sent to me, and I am the only person who corresponded with contributors directly. Each submission had identifying details redacted; all submissions were returned to the contributors for their final permission to post. Alex Leslie, whom I had the privilege to collaborate with in the editorial and conceptual stages, proposed this project. Stacey May Fowles, Sina Queyras, Daniele Bobker, Erin Moure, and others were instrumental in helping me think through mentorship, systemic gender-based violence, and Canadian literary communities. Thank you to the members who took the time to write and express their concern with the project. Rather than silently dismiss it outright, or send aggressive emails, several people engaged in lengthy correspondences with me to discuss their reservations about the choice to publish anonymously. These correspondences took time, effort, and patience. They took care. I am so grateful to the people who respectfully disagreed with this.
And most importantly, this project is possible because of the contributors who were willing to share their stories. Thank you. I am humbled by your generosity. Your experiences redouble my belief in the necessity of building healthy and sustainable communities, where ‘health’ implies ethical responsibility, not blind optimism or lazy criticism, but care. Respect. Vigilance. Dedication. Courage.
–Erin Wunker, Chair of the Board.
CWILA—Canadian Women in the Literary Arts
I’m a senior Canadian writer and have experienced all the following: childhood abuse, date rape, overt harassment, sexist teachers, a sexist publicist, and a sexist publisher. I have not reported any of it, not even to friends. I’ve just got on with my life, though I’ve worked to support other women who wished to report, and to make my own classrooms as non-sexist as possible.
A classmate of mine back in the early 90s took a creative writing course with a prominent Canadian novelist (name redacted, but of course you can’t say that in print). She told me that she had submitted her short story for him to read and grade, and he had handed it back with a bad grade and this comment at the end (and no other comment anywhere on the paper):
“Put down your pen, pick up your spoon, and go back to the kitchen, where you belong.”
Wow. Harassment within literary and artistic communities in Canada. Where to begin.
I have edited/dramaturged many plays of an award-winning playwright and, without exception, he responds to each of my intellectual critiques by sexualizing me. I say “This character is underdeveloped and here’s how you fix that” and he says, “That’s a good point, thank you. By the way, your breasts look great in that T-shirt.” I have maintained the friendship nevertheless partly because of the art: his plays (which regularly draw huge audiences) are considerably less homophobic, racist, and misogynist than they would otherwise be.
I sat on a committee that hired the Artistic Director for a prominent theatre company in my city. A number of people — including women — who didn’t approve of our final choice, said “Well, what can you expect from a committee of women?” One of the candidates, when not chosen, said he wouldn’t have wanted the job anyways because nothing good could come from a hiring committee and board with so many women on it.
The Artistic Director of a small theatre company in my city came to my apartment under the guise of working together on a project and assaulted me. I physically held him off (yay self-defense classes). He said things like “You know, I could just force you now” and “Don’t you feel lucky to work with me?”
When I sat on a jury for a writer in residence and we hired an award-winning female novelist, a number of the writers not chosen contacted me later to say that the winner was chosen only because of her sex and white men were really the victims here.
When I was an undergrad, a professor promised me an A if I “performed certain favours.” I said I planned to get an A without performing any favours and he said “You can’t! You’re blonde.”
I gave a paper at a conference in a prairie city—and a prominent Canadian Lit professor/writer said to me afterwards that he hadn’t been able to pay attention to my paper because I was too beautiful.
And some harassment from women too: I have won some teaching, writing, and scholarly awards — and after each one, a female colleague went out of her way to tell me that I had obviously seduced someone to wrest the award from the more deserving, or that I was nothing more than a cheerleader, or some other such equally gendered comment. Eventually, that colleague moved to another university.
Before becoming a writer I practiced as an engineer. Early on in my engineering degree, two male students befriended me, both in their late twenties. I was 22, so I appreciated their maturity. They’d been in the trades. They made good study and lab partners, but I had the better math skills. Occasionally though, they’d fire a nasty barb my way. “You don’t have the balls to be an engineer,” one told me. The other would make snide comments about my nipples, or announce that they planned to take my shoes away. I kept my mouth shut because I wanted to get along. They were older. They were married. They should have known better.
One time a news crew came to interview my math professor. He’d been given a spot as a torchbearer in the winter Olympics, and the news channel wanted to show him teaching us. Later that evening, I tuned to the news channel hoping to see my math professor at the front of our class. For most of the news clip, the cameraman’s lens was trained on me. I had on a modest tank top that day, a leopard printed top that in this context suddenly looked very different. I felt angry and defiled. I was studious and ambitious in my studies. I wanted to excel as an engineer. And here was this cameraman turning me into the sex object.
It didn’t matter how hard I worked, these things eroded my self-confidence. During the annual Lady Godiva ride, the engineering society would hire a stripper to parade topless on horseback through the University grounds. I recall watching this public display only once. It was an out of body experience. What could I do? Pretend this had nothing to do with me? I’d come for an education, but I hadn’t come for this.
Peter Pan has a Platform.
Stories as passwords. And words as fists. The poetry community, like the CanLit community at large, has long been rife with male critics and poets whose reviews and criticism are largely sublimated misogyny. It’s schoolyard stuff, bullying, and it’s sanctioned by editors of the newspapers and journals publishing them. It’s easy to identify this kind of work: hand-rubbing glee in zinger wordplay, wacky and provocative tweets and blurts, smarm and smartassedness, disdainful and aggressive responses when the writer is called out, failure to see the writer’s behavior as over the line.
I see these as the Peter Pans of CanLit, Jung’s puer aeternus.
Here’s what such eternal boys use as rationale. “We’re all about standards; we’re about rigorous critique.” And: “If you can’t stand the heat…” Or: “What do you mean that’s offensive? I’m a feminist myself.” And: “Someone has to set the bar higher around here.”
We know these manboys: one appropriates the story of a woman he abused and stalked, one writes largely negative reviews of women’s work, and praises the work of his male cronies. One publishes a poem as a direct sexual threat. Another critiques the critic, condemning misogyny in CanLit, failing to acknowledge (or perhaps even to realize) his own record of sexual abuse. Clever, but not that clever.
Manboys: it’s time to grow up.
Guys, I’m probably close to twice your age – when I started publishing poetry late in life, I knew I had little time. It wasn’t a career move, and I had no plans to elbow my way to the top of some spurious ladder. Poetry became the only way I could make sense of the world. I have been blessed with mentors (most of whom are respected men, by the way – also targeted) who are my generation and older. They’re astute editors, thoughtful readers, consummate listeners, with a lack of pretension and no desire to don a gladiator outfit and ride into a mythical arena.
(Hang on: I’m not under any delusion this older generation isn’t rife with misogyny, by the way – I managed, because of age and luck, to avoid predators).
I’ve raised two sons, I’ve taught hundreds of young males. I know what the world teaches you about how to be men. I know some of you can’t see how your actions might affect others – or perhaps you do, but you’re motivated by toxic and limited beliefs about how the world works.
So you shove your way to the front of the CanLit schoolyard, gathering a gaggle of wannabes who love the boldness, the wit, the bullyboy tactics. You’re smart, articulate, well-read, and ambitious. You find a bigger platform where your fans can invest their own sublimated hate, envy, and fear of women. From this vantage point you can do any number of things: trash others’ work, gaslight women, cultivate them as sexual objects, manage or sabotage careers, use or abuse women in any way. The platform is booster juice for your career.
Because, let’s face it. It was never really about the poetry, was it?
Sweethearts, let me inject yet another metaphor: you’re backing the wrong horse. Careers rise and fall. Popularity and fandom is sketchy and fickle. The kind of power you aspire to is addictive, and it benefits you in the short run. But it’s not the long game, and not the mark of maturity or self-awareness. It’s too self-serving and narcissistic to engender respect.
A friend of mine has been working hard to promote the idea of literary citizenship. She advocates supporting other writers’ work, creating spaces for new voices, consideration of the impact of our actions on others, in other words, working collectively to advance the importance of literature and of writers in the cultural landscape – for all writers, of any gender. Does being a good literary citizen mean writing no unfavourable reviews? Of course it doesn’t. Every writer I know wants sincere critique to help them strengthen their work. Every writer hopes for a reader who engages thoughtfully with the work at hand, not a reader whose platform is used as a munitions site. And those obviously Oedipal efforts to take down a legendary writer in your field? Oh, please. Part of the same syndrome. You cleaned your own window with that one.
No writer I know wants snide, personal attacks dressed up as thoughtful analysis. No writer I know wants to return to a schoolyard where the snot-nosed pugilist with the mean eyes hurls insults to make himself feel brave. Every writer I know worth her or his salt sees through this. And when you cry misandry or hypocrisy? Yes, we’ll have seen that coming too.
Join us when you’re ready. That green tunic is kind of goofy. Put long pants on.
I was recently out of school and not yet well connected when my first book was published. I was thrilled when a well known, award-winning older male writer responded to my cold-call for a blurb with a really strong endorsement. My publisher was thrilled too, and seemed to take me more seriously. My work had never been so strongly praised by anyone.
About a year later, I applied for a residency. The residency required multiple reference letters speaking to the quality of my writing (they were explicitly not supposed to be personal, character, or work references). My blurber (whom I had still not met) seemed an obvious person to ask.
He agreed enthusiastically, but the letter he eventually emailed to me, the evening before the deadline, was less than enthusiastic. He characterized me as a student writer and openly questioned my qualifications for the position. The note that accompanied the letter was short, and stated simply that if we met in person he thought it likely that he could become inspired to amp up the praise.
It’s impossible to know what he meant to communicate. Perhaps he had misunderstood the type of reference, though I had taken care to explain it. The thought I’ve never been able to unthink is that he wanted to trade sex for a better reference.
The possibility, however far-fetched, that the only person who had publicly praised my book in such strong terms was just in it for the sexual blackmail was of course deeply upsetting. I also knew that the doubt I was experiencing, the worry about whether my “crazy” interpretation was correct, was something my male peers (one of whom had recently held the residency) never had to contend with.
I wrote back several days later, politely thanking him for his letter, which, given the timing, I had no choice but to submit. I was shortlisted for the residency, but did not get it.
I particularly respected two men in the literary field. They were both authors, good ones, but it is in their capacity as editors that they particularly excel. I was an out-dyke writing in the 90s when I first encountered each of them. One edited me in poetic form and the other in novel. I admired both of them very much. What I found in these two men, beyond great intelligence and skill, was great sensitivity. I more than trusted them with my work.
Since I had last published with them, editor number one’s press had become a beanstalk to poetic success, and my book didn’t make it through the last of their now-rigorous cuts. I’m not sure what my reaction to this might have been after having placed two previous books with them, because I was busy reacting to the editor writing that he was thinking of my breasts while he wrote me the letter.
It barely matters, but I’ll say this: He and I had never had a relationship that involved sex or flirtation. He lived on one side of the country and I on the other; he was straight, I was gay. Of course I had seen him at readings, and met his wife, and of course, as in the usual editorial processes, he had edited my books, full of material often graphically sexual, exceedingly closely. One summer, he and his wife came to stay a couple days at my house, but here again, though we sat on the porch editing my new collection, our visit was merely cordial.
When I got his letter, I tried to figure out why he might mention my breasts. He knows I’m a feminist; he himself is contemporary and no dinosaur. From where had he drawn the context? I thought back to the bedroom where he and his wife stayed. There I’d hung two photographs of me nude—one nursing my eldest daughter and one a silhouette of me pregnant with my younger child. Had he sexualized my fertility? Thinking of that made this breach even creepier.
Then I wondered whether he’d ever judged my work on merit, or whether, in fact, I’d been published because he was hot for me. I scanned back for evidence yay or nay, but thankfully was able to confirm he’d loved my poetry before he had seen images of my breasts.
I wondered, though, if he understood, even on some foggy level, how betrayed I felt.
I declined at the time to take the matter public, to tell the rest of his press, or the writing community, what he’d done, but I wrote him to let him know of my dismay and anger. He didn’t respond and we haven’t spoken since. I imagine he talked to the rest of the press, saying what I don’t know, for relations there chilled. To think that the press supported this behaviour, however he presented it, is sad. To think that his letter is now in my archives, a permanent record deposited at a Canadian university which may be commented on in student theses, is sadder still.
Editor number two didn’t do anything at all with me in mind, but on his well known website, he published a list of many dozens of books important to writers; I happened across his feed on FB and was flabbergasted to see just four or five books authored by women. I took him to task—saying that since women had written many important books, this selection had had to be idiosyncratic. Readers jumped to his defense. He wrote me privately to say, in essence, ouch, and I wrote back to say that I had been fighting these kinds of numbers for 30 years, and that I was stumped as to why he was participating in making an on-going gender imbalance worse. Perhaps if I had paid greater mind to his website, I would have seen other examples as egregious, I don’t know, though I still like to imagine not. In any case, that was the end of what had been a lovely and supportive friendship; his request that I become his site’s LGBT editor died on the table. When he came to town to read and I asked him to go for coffee, he didn’t even reply.
Two brilliant men, downed by sexism, and the waste infuriates me.
I attended a respected MFA program in Canada. Like most MFA programs the students were almost all female. Every week many students would go to a local drinking hole to a drinking marathon informally hosted by a couple male profs and their local writing buddies, all published established authors. The common wisdom was that if you went you would benefit through agent connections, publishing opportunities, etc. If you didn’t go, it was strongly implied that you were “missing out.” After I graduated and I started to publish, I started to hear stories about these get togethers. A female writer I knew who went regularly (people often continued to go after they graduated) told me that while volunteering at the campus rape relief centre she once got a call from a student who was groped by one of the profs. The prof had a file with rape relief but no charges had ever been pressed, students just made calls or accessed counseling. My friend told me that another prof in the program, that prof’s friend, knew that this happened and that his attitude was cavalier, very “boys will be boys.” I’ve often been invited to these nights over the years and always decline, and there is a social silence around who goes and who doesn’t. Last year I told one ambitious young female writer (yet to release her first book) about what I knew and she told me that she was playing the game—she knew that these men were making unwanted advances, but she was being strategic about getting an agent and therefore a big press someday. The message was that you should be smart and keep quiet and reap the rewards.
In the autumn of 1997, I attended the details redacted (about 3 weeks long at that time) for the first time. The mentor/ facilitator was name redacted whom I didn’t know. I also didn’t know his work and never had any interest in him at any time. He started out trying to speak Mandarin phrases to me in the dining hall and hallway of the monastery; although I told him several times I didn’t speak Mandarin. After my first poetry reading to the group, I was upset and crying about my inability to read well due to nerves. He took me to the staff lounge ostensibly to comfort me, but proceeded to tell me he was the best poet in Canada and kiss me. He continued to turn up at places where he thought I’d be, and even took me out to dinner without the other participants (all women), which I thought was very strange–I thought it was to discuss my being upset at my reading and my being upset about another poet’s anti-immigrant sentiments expressed in a poem–but I was wrong. He thought it was a “date”. I wrote him a respectful and clear note asking him to stop. I had a senior writer friend there try to intervene. To no avail. There was a trip to place redacted at the end of the redacted, where I had to try to hide from him as I didn’t want to dance with him as I didn’t want him to touch me, but he kept looking for me. When I got home, I tried to talk to an established writer and mentor about it, and he asked me why I didn’t report it or make a bigger fuss. He didn’t understand. I’ve avoided any event where name redacted might turn up since that time.
I think there should be a code of professional conduct for all writing teachers/mentors, male and female, at all writing workshops that mentors must sign under oath that makes it clear that there should be no romantic overtures between mentors/teachers and mentees/students, and that mentors will suffer clear consequences (firing) if they breach that code.
Years ago I was doing a Creative Writing M.A. at a major Canadian university. I had a hunch in applying to the program that I should suppress any lesbian content in my work and I did. My first full-year creative writing course was with the program director himself. It was a studio course where each student’s work was to be critiqued by the professor and co-students. From day one I had the feeling that the professor was flirting with some of the women in the class. I didn’t like it but dropping the class would have been disadvantageous to my entire program schedule so I stuck it out for a while.
We all submitted work which the professor then assigned to be discussed in the coming weeks. I dared now submit work that included lesbian themes. We were perhaps 14 students. The professor gave out a schedule of who would present on what day. Every student’s work appeared for the coming weeks—except mine. When I addressed this I was told, of course my work would come after all the others; the omission was not intentional. After three weeks of classes, at the last possible moment without penalty, I quit the class. The sexist behavior of the professor had become intolerable. I managed to go through the entire M.A. without having this professor again although it was seen as a mark against me that I had not taken a course with the program director.
Partly because of the lost course that first year, it took me an extra year to finish my M.A. When I did, this same professor ended up on my thesis defense committee. His written report on my work was amazing. It used every cliché one can imagine that has been used to put women down: “narcissistic” and “immature” are two I remember. The mark itself was fine. Clearly he wanted me out of the program and not contesting the mark. He did not show up himself at the defense, gave no excuse, and the entire defense committee was astounded by his no-show.
Eventually his secretary provided an excuse for his absence–and the following is true. He said he had been suffering from his monthly cycle and therefore could not attend!
Some years later I was speaking to a woman from my university. She had been stalked by this same professor. In fact, she told me, he had been brought up on two stalking-of-students charges during his time at the university. I realized at that point that the treatment I had received was only the icing on the cake.
My M.A. thesis included this line of thanks:
“I would like to thank those members of my department who provided me with ongoing resistance. It fed my work as only gasoline could a flame.”
Possibly because I am not pretty enough, or young enough, my harassment has not been of a sexual nature, but it HAS been of a literary nature.
In date redacted I was at name redacted on a writers retreat led by name redacted. At that point I had begun to have some national recognition for my appointment as Canada’s first details redacted. I went to place redacted with details redacted and have since had a tremendously successful career including being given one of our country’s biggest commissions, a fully funded PhD in the UK, have been broadcast to 11 million worldwide on the BBC World Svc. three times, widely published, my work has been broadcast nationally numerous times on radio, t.v., in the media and journals etc. etc..
Name redacted was clearly intimidated by me and my work. He made it a point in a one-on-one session to tell me that what I wrote “wasn’t poetry”, then got up very close to me and yelled at me, “What the fuck are you doing writing about those fucking guys’ stories… they’re on the fucking front page of the newspaper every day” with reference to my work as a details redacted embedded with the details redacted. It was humiliating and daunting. Then, as I left the room he said, “How did you get that gig anyway?” So an element of hostility and jealousy that I, a NOBODY, could be given such an opportunity.
I have worked very, very hard at what I do. I risked my life for my work not because of fame or fortune, but because I have felt called to it.
What I see is systemic abuse of women. Many years ago I was at college, when the creative writing prof, name redacted was teaching at name redacted as it was then known. As I said at the outset, I wasn’t pretty so I was never pestered. It was a well-known that name redacted made his way through the pretty girls in his classes. It was revolting. Of course I can’t substantiate it, but it was generally understood that all of the English faculty availed themselves of the young and pretty girls.
In 2009, I broke up with a man I’d been seeing for about a year. We’d both been involved in the music community in Guelph, Ontario, and had started master’s degrees on opposite coasts. The distance gave me perspective on the relationship and some of the unhealthy dynamics that had cropped up, so I ended it. A few months later, both of us were back in Guelph at Christmas time. I was staying at a friend’s house, on the couch in her living room. I’d seen my ex at a show, but mostly avoided his exhortations to go drinking with him and catch up. After midnight one night – I was already asleep – he knocked on the front door at my friend’s house. He’d been out drinking, and he said he got separated from his friends and had no place to stay. He started crying and asked for a hug (a hug that went on way too long). He asked if he could stay over at my friend’s, with me. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea, but as it was December in Ontario, and he was crying on the porch, and I felt guilty for dumping him, I finally just let him in. I took half the pillows off the couch and gave him some of my blankets and made him a bed as far away from my couch-bed as possible. Then I went back to sleep.
A few hours later, I woke up and he was on top of me. His hands were down my pyjama pants, and he was kissing me so hard I couldn’t breathe. I threw him off. I don’t remember if I said anything; I just remember using my whole body, arms and legs, to pitch him off of me. He went back to his bed on the floor and I waited until he was asleep, and I stayed awake, listening and making sure he wasn’t going to come back.
In the morning, he acted like nothing had happened and it was so great to catch up with me. I didn’t want to cause a scene in front of my friend and her boyfriend, and I figured I’d never have to see him again if I didn’t want to. So I said goodbye and got him gone as quickly as I could. And over the next few weeks, I rationalized things any number of ways. I told myself that I should feel bolstered – I’d been able to fight him off, I was strong enough. But the incident worked itself under my skin. I couldn’t sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, breathless like I was being smothered with a pillow. I took refuge in ever-bigger sweatshirts. I wore one almost daily for two semesters at school – a giant green sweatshirt, hopelessly holey, for which my fellow MFAs teased me.
Even before the sweatshirt-wearing really dug its heels in, I confronted my ex about what had happened. He went through the same bullshit every manipulative asshole does: Are you sure that’s what you remember? Aren’t you just remembering our too-long hug? I would never hurt you! If it happened, I am so sorry. Are you sure you’re not just making it up so that you don’t have to talk to me anymore?
It all came to a head again in Guelph, when, even after I’d told him I didn’t ever want to see his stupid face again, he showed up at a show I was guest-MCing, taking a spot right in front of the stage as I was introducing a band. Later, he claimed he didn’t know I’d be there – that he’d accidentally booked his trip to Guelph for the same exact time I’d booked mine; that, even though my name was on the event posters, he didn’t know I’d be there. After I got off the stage, I told some friends playing pool in the back that he’d sexually assaulted me, and in front of them I agreed that I’d meet him in person one more time.
Face to face the next day, he finally admitted that he’d assaulted me the way I laid it out. He claimed he was a sexsomniac, and said he was sorry.
Years later, he is working at two different arts organizations in Guelph. The last time I was there, with my dad and my soon-to-be spouse, I convinced myself it was a big enough city that I could avoid him. But it was not. We ran into him, flanked by two women, as we left the breakfast joint we’d stopped at for coffee. Now, I wholly avoid the entire city. I’ve ceded it to him. He’s retained our mutual friends, and I’ve stayed mostly silent. Wondering if I should have come forward, should have asked my community for support instead of slipping away and never returning. Wondering how many other women would come forward with their stories, if I came forward with mine.
I am lucky.
The man who repeatedly threatened to rape me did not get his chance. When I told friends what he’d said to me, they supported me. Without my friends, I might still be carrying the shame I picked up that night, like a heavy, shabby suitcase you can’t put down.
The police officer I talked to believed me.
A worker from Victim’s Services prepped me for the trial. She told me what to expect from the defense. Don’t guess at answers, she told me. Tell the truth, even if you’re embarrassed or worried about how it makes you look. You can cry on the stand, but don’t be angry or sarcastic. Crying victims are viewed as acceptable and normal, but judges see angry victims as less credible.
The rural courthouse I testified in doubled as the Legion Hall. Yet it was relatively well set-up. I didn’t have to sit near the accused while testifying, unlike some other rural courthouses.
The defense asked me how much I’d had to drink. He asked me how many people were in the bar that night. Tried to make me lie or guess at things, to erode my credibility.
Defense accused me of lying to my husband because I didn’t tell him what happened immediately. I said I was ashamed at the time. Defense moved on.
Threatening to rape someone is just a crude pick-up line, Defense said. I said I’d heard my share of crude pick-up lines, and rape threats were much worse.
The judge believed me. He said my testimony had the ring of truth, that I was fair-minded.
But it’s possible this man may get off on a technicality related to how the charge was filed. I have no control over the outcome now. This is hard for me.
I had to do this for my own safety. And I had to try to hold him to account. I know he raped another woman. I did this for her, so that she would know she’s not alone. That it wasn’t her fault.
I was lucky.
Just yesterday I heard on the news a report of a man who was arrested for breaking into homes and sexually assaulting women who were sleeping alone. The police officer in charge of the case said that to commit a sexual assault while the victim was sleeping is one of the most heinous of crimes. And I said aloud to no one but the radio, “Thank-you. It has taken 47 years for me to hear someone say that.” I was eleven, sleeping over at a playmate’s house. The assailant was her father. I awoke during the assault to see his face over mine. In the morning I saw that I was bleeding, and was terrified. I had no idea what had happened to me, no words to describe it, but knew it was terrible and that I would be blamed. I left my playmate’s house as soon as I had dressed and when I arrived home, the first thing I did was to take my blood-stained panties and slip them into the garbage can behind the house. Even now, after 47 years I still have trouble sleeping.
In my final year of high school, I finally gained approval of my peers when I made a split-second decision to begin abusing alcohol. I gave my first blow job during a blackout, woke up in a jail cell with bloodied underwear and suffered an anal rupture due to forceful sex all before I was eighteen years old. I did not consider any of these instances rape or assault, because I instinctively understood that my consumption of alcohol was all the consent necessary. The pattern continued into my first year of university.
Home for Christmas break, I had been abandoned by friends outside the bar I legally could not enter and was unsure how to find my way back to my friend’s apartment. A large man in a pick-up truck stopped beside me and offered to give me a ride. I accepted. He drove me not in the direction of the local campus but, first, to a parking lot where he insisted I drink from a flask of hard alcohol, and, second, to the house he shared with four other men. He did not close the door while he undressed me, unzipped his jeans and forced himself on me. His roommates’ laughter rang loud through his open bedroom door. When he had finished, he took me back to his truck and dropped me off where he had found me.
I knocked on the first door I could find and another man answered. He laughed when I told him I thought I had been raped. He allowed me to use his phone. My friend gave me directions to her apartment and I went back into the cold. Two weeks later, I went back to university, where the pattern continued for three more years. I can still hear so many men laughing.
All I can say is that I didn’t want to ruin his career. In hindsight, that was unnecessarily considerate of me. It makes me feel weak, pathetic.
In any case, because I was mindful of his academic aspirations, I kept my mouth shut after it happened. But I didn’t keep it shut when he pinned me down that evening, after-hours, on campus. I said no. I said no when he took off a piece of my clothing. I said no when he grabbed me and would not let go. I was trying to be polite. I never screamed or drew attention to what was happening, though with offices just a few doors down, I’m sure I could have. But I didn’t want to ruin his career. Besides, I thought he was trustworthy. He did do feminist theory, after all. And he didn’t actually rape me. Maybe it wasn’t worth making a fuss about?
My colleagues spend time in that room. They heat up meals, make coffee, and talk to each other between teaching duties and before meetings. They enjoy the sanctuary of that space before returning to the endless grind of academic demands. I still spend time there, too, but I try not to think about it too much. I think that I’ve reclaimed that space, although nobody would ever know that I have had to.
What happened feels like an invisible line on my C.V., one that I suspect many academics also have. There are micro-aggressions, there’s sexual harassment, sexual assault. At what cost a graduate degree or a tenured position? Measure it in courses taught, meetings attended, papers published, and talks given, but for many, part of the cost of academia is a price we should have never had to pay.
In my current workplace, when I hand over electronic materials for scrubbing before they’re passed on to different owners, the IT contact never fails to ask me whether I want him to watch my “private videos” before he deletes them. When I crawl under desks to rewire or deal with plugs, he inevitably asks me whether I will proceed to get on top of the desk and do a dance. When I cut my hair, he asked what the men in my life thought about it. I retorted that the male gaze was not actually my top priority in selecting a hairstyle, and he asked why not. He tells me that I’m a competent and enjoyable colleague but “a bit too serious.”
In my first workplace, there was pornography on the walls of a vice-president’s office. Whenever I so much as averted my eyes, he groaned and told me “don’t worry, they’re all really cool, I’ve met, like, all of them, and I got to touch their butts.”
In that same workplace, during a hiring meeting, a manager said that his recruitment activities needed an extended timeline, because “so far only women have applied and I don’t want to interview, hire, and train one, only to have them get pregnant and leave.” When I explained that this was a human rights violation, he shrugged and said “whatever, it’s true that that happens sometimes.”
In that same workplace, while considering who to interview for a feature about women in the trades, one woman’s name was suggested. A manager in another department shot down the idea, stating that “she’s always complaining that [another employee] raped her two Christmases ago and I don’t want that brought up again because we only just got her to shut up about it.”
This man shared with me a depression so deep we thought we could be friends.
I had forgiven him for calling my friend a whore.
I had forgiven him for calling a professor (an Indigenous woman) an ableist slur.
Though who am I, a settler, to endow that forgiveness?
Had I forgotten that he had sat on me in front of all those people? That the excuse he gave was a genre, not a reason?
Had I forgotten that nobody saw that as assault? That I was labelled creep?
“Is he your boyfriend?”
I wish more people stood by me.
When a man of colour, a refugee, someone who couldn’t argue as eloquently, assaulted me, almost everybody stood by me.
I will never forget the way white violence fades into the backlight. The way good arguments slither through our veins, anaesthetizing what we already accept as post-colonial.
For me, so many feminist words cannot heal the past. If I continue writing within my margins, his face will still show up at conferences.
On Saturday mornings I would stand happily at the sink in our tiny kitchen, full of eggs and coffee and the promise of a day off, and do the breakfast dishes. It was always blindingly bright, terribly warm. We received so much morning sun that it bleached our books and faded our cushions, the spines unreadable, the fabrics ruined.
We’d listen to Wild Nothing, the French Kicks—the melancholy atmospheres you liked best. You’d come up and squeeze my waist or grab my hips. I’d jump. I’d try to hide it by turning quick to kiss you, my hands full of soap. Don’t flinch, you’d say. Chill the fuck out. I didn’t mean to, I’d reply. I feel bad, you’d say. You shouldn’t jump when I touch you. You felt bad often. I startled easily then. Today, Margo tells me about how the body senses danger far ahead of the brain. You’ll feel it here, she says, hand on her heart, where your needs are, long before you’ll feel it up in your head. I nod. There’s so much still to learn. PTSD seems like too strong a word, I tell her. From where I’m sitting it’s not, she replies. I write her another cheque, this one with a memo labeled “counseling 27.”
You could taste the cocaine in the back of your throat as soon as we arrived on East Hastings. You could feel it in your veins. Then one day, you didn’t, and marveled at the privilege of going out for breakfast at the city’s trendiest new diners without aching for a fix, without needing to make up a lie to leave, weeping. He was so gentle, people told me after you died, so kind. That was true. What’s also true is when I closed the door for the last time, the one sound I heard was so much glass breaking.
For a restaurant Host at a prominent establishment in downtown Toronto, image is everything. Which is why, when my senior male manager ordered me to wear more makeup, I was not surprised. When he said to me, “Because you don’t always have ‘good days’,” I nodded.
Hurt by the stab to my self-esteem, and shocked at his cold delivery, I nevertheless acquiesced, thereby validating a sexist and rude statement. My job was on the line. I didn’t argue or reveal how offended I felt. I agreed to wear mascara, convincing myself that it was part and parcel of the hospitality industry. I knew that everything was scrutinized. How I look, act, talk, dress, accessorize. How high my heels, how short my remarks. How quiet my laugh, how loud my presence. How big my smiles, how small my nose.
How small I am. How small I can make myself.
Some days, I began work at 6:00 AM. As you can imagine, the hour precluded any substantial effort in the morning for appearance. I was always neat, but certainly not glamorous. Guests would awaken from their slumber, and before I had a chance to finish gulping down a coffee, calls would promptly flood in: Mr. Swan in Room 5113 needs a table for 8 in 10 minutes – Ms. Grossman requires assistance to the washroom today, do attend to her – Ms. Greco would like to know if there are blueberry pancakes this morning.
I enjoyed my job immensely. I loved the noise of grinding coffee beans, the smell of hot toast and warm butter, the diversity of guests and personalities, their funny routines and idiosyncrasies, how profusely they thanked me for everything.
But it wasn’t that hard to leave. The day I walked out was my best day of all.
On the bus, ground his groin against me did he.
On the bus, 7am, crushed my hand and laughed cruelly to his friend, “She is going to tell the driver!”, did he.
In the cab, drove to the highway underpass, raped me did they.
Called me a slut did they.
“Hey, baby” said he and he and he.
Grabbed my breast, in the exam room, did he, the doctor.
Followed me down the street and threw glass beer bottles just past my head did they.
Built a ladder of old lumber and peeked into my bedroom window did he. Police didn’t find anyone did they.
Raped me did he.
Followed me off the bus did he (until I ran like the wind).
At the bus station, eyed me up and suggested that I could work for him did he.
At the party, took me downstairs and shed all his clothes in an instant, laughed when I ran out the back door did he.
Stole a harsh kiss did he.
Threatened me did he did he did he.
A few years ago I was walking down the southbound platform in one of my city’s busier subway stations. It was a transfer station between two lines with a busy bus terminal above; being Sunday it was quieter than normal but still fairly traveled. Exactly the kind of station you would feel relatively safe in thanks to the presence of many witnesses. A few minutes prior, I had dismounted a shuttle bus running to accommodate a “sexual assault investigation” that had closed a few stations.
As I walked down the platform with two other women whom I knew, I felt the presence of someone walking very close behind me. The platform wasn’t crowded so I found this odd and was just about to glance behind me when I felt a firm hand on my behind. I quickly turned to see the face of a rather tall man who was just retracting his hand.
I rushed to the emergency assistance button on the platform and waited for an answer. My hands and body were trembling—partly with fear but mostly with anger. I remembered the announcements about the assault investigation taking place just up the line.
After reporting the incident to the attendant who answered my call, I boarded the next train; my “friendly” platform mate entered a different car and I lost track of him.
When I arrived at my destination, another main station on the line, I followed-up on my report with transit security and was put in contact with a city police officer who was investigating the other assault as well.
In the hours and days that followed I was informed that the suspect had “assaulted” a number of women on the subway that day. As I spoke with a series of officers over the phone, I found myself exasperated by having to provide the details of my “assault” over and over. At one point I was asked to describe my wardrobe from the color and cut of my dress down to the brand and height of my pumps. I bristled at these requests as I recalled accounts of women being unfairly blamed for dressing provocatively and somehow asking for the unwanted attention they received.
In truth, my interviewers had no such intentions. Rather they explained their attempts to draw a common thread between myself and the other assaulted women. While the police saw this thread as their suspect’s vice or type, I saw it as the fiber of a community that I was now a part of; while I didn’t know any of the other women or the details of their experiences, I felt connected to them by what I expected was a common reaction of fear, anger, and maybe even shame or insecurity (in my case about reporting a “small assault”).
As I came to recognize the community I realized that the suspicions and concerns I carried around being further victimized by the legal system and wasting time with such a minor offence were unproductive. Once I dropped this baggage, I found it easier to express myself to my final interviewer. I wasn’t physically harmed, I explained; I was angry that this could happen and wanted to use my voice to make a difference.
Indeed I did. As I marched myself to that emergency button on the platform my mind was filled with the reminder of the assault being investigated up the line. What if that woman had endured far worse than me? What if the two incidents were connected? I needed to do something.
So, I chose to report my “small” assault for the greater good. I chose not to be a victim but an active voice. And I promise to always make that choice in the future.
I understand the draw to remain silent, especially on “small” assaults, but silence is the prey of the predator. Know that your voice, though it may echo alone for now, will soon be met by a perhaps nearly inaudible whisper of another dying echo; sooner or later those echoes and whispers will be bound together by community to make one loud voice against assault and victimization.