The Curious Case of Steven Galloway

On a frigid night a few years ago, a friend dragged me to an event at a popular Montreal bar. Students of a local graduate program in creative writing were giving a reading.

My friend and I sat close to them. I watched as pitchers of beer came and went and the students danced attendance on an older man, perhaps an instructor or organiser of the event. As the night went on and inhibitions were lowered, evidence of unruly feelings, of jealousies, slights and complications, became obvious. Most creative arts departments are proverbial hothouses as far as egos go and this group was no exception. They were living proof of that punk axiom: eventually, love would tear them apart. The emotions I saw guaranteed it.

Annabel Lyon. She's the colleague of Galloway's who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC's accusations became known.
Annabel Lyon. She’s the colleague of Galloway’s who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC’s accusations became known.

As a teacher and lover of literature, I’ve got an odd admission to make. I don’t like university creative writing programs: they may be prestigious and even profitable, but I suspect they are more about buying clout and less about incubating talent. The students that night read about love and sex from an autobiographical perspective—with some texts directed at other students in attendance—and yet none read anything exceptional or even interesting. Yes, they were young; yes, their work was embryonic and might improve. But that didn’t dispel my fear that they were being duped by a university experience that was misleading by its very existence. They believed they were members of a coveted cadre and destined for literary glory; a statistical improbability if there ever was one.

So it’s not surprising that the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, another hothouse, imploded last year over allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Foregrounded is the alleged bad behaviour of the former department chair, Steven Galloway, acclaimed Canadian novelist, and backgrounded is a program as rife with contradictions as the one I saw that cold February night. That conversations about Galloway are taking place without acknowledging the complexities of his milieu is bizarre, a bit like summarising Robinson Crusoe and failing to mention it takes place on an island. The context is important because here’s what I’ve seen over decades of teaching: even the most level-headed students can enter these creative communities and develop borderline personalities in an instant.

The scuttlebutt, where UBC is concerned, is that there was none, apart from an announcement that “serious allegations” had been made against Galloway and he’d been suspended for the “safety” of students, words cryptic enough to become irresistible as click bait. Of course allegations of sexual abuse—assault and harassment—did surface eventually and came from the department’s most disaffected students. However, they arose in an atmosphere primed for hysteria: a previous case of harassment, concerning a PhD history student, had been handled too slowly for some in the UBC community and investigative journalists, from the CBC’s Fifth Estate, took aim at the university’s administration. It’s likely their coverage, and the negligence it claimed, had more to do with Galloway’s treatment than any bad behaviour on his part. 


Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway.
Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway. She sent out a secret memo to other students, asking them to come forward with complaints. Judge Mary Ellen Boyd rejected much of her evidence.

What happened? As that previous case was being decided, a letter was circulated, criticising the university’s handling of sexual impropriety and assault. It’s unclear whether the letter was actually written by an ex-lover of Galloway’s, a woman in her 40s and a former student, or whether she simply circulated it with the intention of getting his attention. (Sources on this issue differ.) Whatever the case, it worked. Galloway saw the letter, recognised its intent and called the woman. He’d had a two-year affair with her that started in 2011 and did not end well. Both had been in other relationships and kept their affair quiet, a decision that made sense at the time, but was eventually Galloway’s undoing. The letter triggered a series of events that would lead to further accusations by other students. However, an independent investigation, led by Judge Mary Ellen Boyd, concluded that of the five accusations against Galloway, only one was credible–that he’d had an undisclosed sexual relationship with a student. Still, UBC concluded that Galloway’s actions irreparably damaged an atmosphere of trust and he was subsequently fired. While his union grieves on his behalf, Canadian authors, led by luminaries Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden, wrote an open letter to UBC. They want a more transparent explanation of the process that led to Galloway’s firing.

Cue the predictable outrage.

The problem is that Galloway’s ex-lover (MC for main complainant), did not go directly to university administrators whose job it is to help students in crisis. Instead, it appears she wrote a different letter to other faculty members in the creative writing program, a letter that suggested those faculty members consult other students to collect evidence of her claim. The upshot is that two other students, both of whom ended up being complainants themselves, did their own detective work. One distributed a secret memo to other students asking them to come forward if they had any complaints about Galloway; the other, who was also an employee of the university, used her position to dig into his use of department finances. Both students did this clandestine evidence-gathering under the direction of one of Galloway’s colleagues. That colleague was the same one who insisted that he be taken to a psych ward after he received an email about the accusations against him. He was in the U.S. at the time, giving a talk at another university.

Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway's use of financial resources.
Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway’s use of financial resources. Apparently this was not done with the university’s approval.

As the letter by Atwood and Boyden made clear, no criminal charges were ever laid against Galloway. Although there were complaints about bullying and favouritism, any professor heading a creative writing program is vulnerable to the same. For students, the headiness of belonging to a (self-perceived) group of up-and-coming writers is bound to be matched by high levels of exquisite sensitivity, levels that would render their criticisms dubious. However, sensitivity isn’t the only problem with this department. There’s another that can be summed up with that annoying buzzword from the 90s: Everyone was violating boundaries.

Here’s a recap of the emotional boundaries that were compromised:

  1. Galloway had an affair with a student while he was married. He later married his second wife, who was also a graduate of the creative writing program.
  2. When his ex-lover sent her letter to his colleagues, they did not go to the administration. Instead, they met at a private home and strategized with two students.
  3. The first of those students is married in a relationship with another creative writing professor at UBC. After Judge Mary Ellen Boyd questioned her, Boyd decided that her credibility and eagerness to insert herself into the investigation were problematic.
  4. The second student was an employee of the university and used her position to investigate financial matters.
  5. MC was also in a long-term relationship when she had her affair with Galloway.
  6. The colleague who supervised the evidence gathering also called the police and insisted Galloway be taken to the local psych ward because he was suicidal. (Galloway denies this.)

I’m not a fan of extra-marital affairs, but I’m not sure it’s the worst thing on this list. The duplicity of Galloway’s colleague reflects the kind of gaslighting most of us consider abusive, although I’d like to believe she acted from a position of confused loyalties rather than malice. And MC’s claim that she was assaulted by Galloway? It’s suspect and here’s why: were we to do an epidemiological study of recent, high-profile assault accusations just like it–against celebrities like Jian Ghomeshi and porn actor James Deen–we would have to include some rather incongruous elements.

Here are some rape “risk factors” for women:

  1. A relationship ends.
  2. The former partner is a man of some renown.
  3. The woman has some difficulty processing rejection. She continues to insist her former partner is guilty, despite evidence to the contrary. She believes the legal system has made a mistake.
  4. The woman has a tendency toward exhibitionism combined with a need for public vindication. Other non-celebrity examples of this would include “Jackie” from the false rape story reported by Rolling Stone, the “Mattress Girl” at Columbia and Mandi Gray of York University.

If you’ll notice, many of the conventional risk factors for rape, like wearing a mini-skirt in the wrong part of town, or getting drunk at a party, aren’t making it onto the list. That’s because the focus in this version of sexual assault, notable precisely because of its contagion, is on a soured relationship and a need for vindication. With the proliferation of these accusations, it may be time to start flagging these risk factors and asking tougher questions.


Galloway's novel has sold over 700,000 copies and been translated into 21 different languages.
Galloway’s novel has sold over 700,000 copies.

About 20 years ago, I had an older colleague, an inveterate womaniser, who regaled me with stories about the wild, early days of Quebec’s CEGEP system. One was about a young woman who had escaped an eastern bloc country–before the Berlin Wall fell–and how he’d helped her win a large and prestigious scholarship. He’d approached four of her other professors and asked them to also write strong letters of reference, focusing on the young woman’s escape from an oppressive regime, her determination to make it in Canada and her quick adaptation to English education. So instead of just one letter, she had five, all praising her strength and courage. The colleague didn’t tell his other colleagues that he was also sleeping with the young woman, who was then in her early 20s.

That story always rankled despite its heroic aspects. It bothered me that another woman, arriving in Canada under similar circumstances, might also deserve the scholarship, but might try to win it honestly, without resorting to sleeping with a professor. The issue came up again a few years ago. The woman’s scholarship paid for a significant portion of medical school. While I was searching for a local specialist on Google, her name came up along with about 20 ratings. She had one star out of five and patients had written comments like, “How did this woman even become a doctor?”

I’m sharing that anecdote because I’m tired of being expected to be sympathetic to women like MC. It doesn’t sound as if she benefited from her relationship with Galloway, but if she did, I think we have the right to hear about that too and to demand that her degree, or at least some credits, be revoked. As a woman in her 40s, and one who also chose to cheat on a partner, MC is not a victim. Her life experiences should have prepared her for the consequences of a relationship with a man in Galloway’s position. That that did not happen is her tragedy, not ours.

If we really want to rid the academy of discrimination, we must acknowledge all forms of it. False allegations and crying foul over ordinary life experiences–like getting dumped–should not be career-ending occasions for anyone.


Camille Paglia discussing campus politics:

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Brexit: Why the Leavers Won

A train-wreck he may have been, but he was beloved by thousands despite his flaws.
A train-wreck he may have been, but he was beloved by thousands.

One of the worst things that ever happened to my family, happened in a Canadian hospital. My mom was deteriorating, but instead of being helped to survive, she got surreptitious “comfort care”—that euphemism for let’s help this person die. We weren’t aware because we were told a different story, one that led us to believe there was some hope.

It’s a story I expect would have been reversed once she passed away; we would solemnly be told, “We’re sorry, but she was going to die anyway.” I know this because after my mother survived, I spoke to numerous families who’d been told the same after a parent had died. It got me wondering. Had it been true each time?

After my mother left the hospital, badly maimed, I engaged in several bouts of letter-writing to various government agencies and institutions. I wanted an explanation for what had happened, but when not one responded, and my anger became unmanageable, I gave up. Given my mother’s age and the vagaries of Canadian law, no legal recourse was available for us either: the powerlessness we experienced was total.

So the class fight emerging in the wake of Brexit feels familiar to me. My mother is working-class and I suspect my absence at her admission, and for 48 hours afterwards, may have determined the course of her treatment. I am also certain that the less educated, like her, are frequently manipulated into more cheaply managed, premature deaths. It’s educated patients and their families–the kind that can intimidate doctors–that get the benefit of more life-saving procedures.

I’ve got no personal stake in Brexit, but what I do have is my ascension out of the working class and the education that helped me do it. Here are some of my thoughts:

Too many knowledge workers live in echo chambers: In Canada, the rise of Toronto mayor Rob Ford happened because working class Torontonians felt powerless. Much of it had to do with the high cost of housing and long commutes. Ford ran his campaign on two platforms: he wanted to bring subways to far-reaching neighbourhoods and he upheld his promise to make himself accessible: he returned calls to Torontonians personally, a fact many of his critics derided. What they didn’t appreciate was that Ford brought the power of city hall to people desperate to be heard. Mocking him may have been satisfying, but those doing so missed the point: members of the Ford Nation were not suffering from psychosis–as one of our pundits famously opined–they were experiencing connection.

Many nurses voted Leave.
Many nurses voted Leave. It’s surprising given the amount of support shown for Remain coming from various nursing administrations. The frequently voiced fear was that the NHS needed EU nurses to avoid a nursing catastrophe. That over 50% of British nurses would vote against this advice and take a chance on the unknown is significant.

More than 50% of healthcare workers voted to leave the E.U. Despite my disappointment with the Canadian healthcare system, I must concede that those at the bottom of its hierarchies often have staggering workloads. This is because staffing levels at many hospitals in Canada and in the U.K. have been critically low for decades. While supporters of the Brexit have been called racists and bigots, the realities of hospital life in the U.K., especially in economically depressed areas, make it clear that health care infrastructures have not kept pace with surges in population growth.

This is not to blame immigrants, but it is to blame a government, and a class largely untouched by shortages, that wants to accept newcomers without creating the requisite structures to handle them. It is also frightening to disadvantaged populations. They typically live in areas that immigrants are drawn to because of lower housing costs. This puts more stress on institutions that are already struggling. Writing in the Guardian, Nick Davies tells the story of one such hospital that turned to staffing agencies. He’s worth quoting at length:

An incident on the geriatric ward at Seacroft hospital in Leeds last year highlights the problem. The hospital contacted the agency for a nurse to work on the ward, which was short of staff. To begin with, the nurse tried to take a patient’s blood pressure, failed to get a reading but nevertheless recorded a figure on the patient’s chart. Then, as the sister in charge, Chris Smith, recorded in an official report: ‘She proceeded to spend the rest of the time preening herself in front of the mirror.’

The situation remained calm until the agency nurse announced that she needed to go to the toilet, whereupon she sat down on a patient’s bed and urinated on the bedclothes. Sister Smith recorded: ‘The patient noticed this and questioned the nurse, who ignored her.’ The nurse was seen later wandering around the ward in her petticoat while her soiled uniform dried on a radiator. 

The Guardian has established that the BNA continued to use this nurse and sent her out to nursing homes, where the complaints about her were not known.

When hospitals are forced to choose between unfilled shifts and mentally disturbed nurses, scandals like the one in Mid-Staffordshire, where hundreds of patients died prematurely, are bound to happen. That many nurses voted for the unknown is significant. It points to their desperation.

The rise of finely parsed identity politics reflects a repositioning of identity, not an eradication of it. The whole idea behind globalization is to create borderless countries and frictionless commerce. While those freedoms were evolving in the E.U.–tyrannical market standards notwithstanding–globalization, in a broader sense, supports the diminishment of national identities. The deficit left by this diminishment may be one reason for the surge in virulent identity politics, those found primarily on university campuses in the west.

How does this relate to the Leave side? A quieter consequence of identity politics can be seen in the rise of charter schools in the U.S. and free schools in the U.K.

A pro-remain rally is scheduled for July 9th. What if all London transit workers decided to call in sick that day?
A pro-remain rally is scheduled for July 9th. What if all London transit workers decided to call in sick that day?

Social critics view these new institutions–which receive government funding–with suspicion, especially since one implicit goal of their incorporation is to create more competition among schools and drive up the quality of education. Wary critics are probably right when they say these schools are fragmenting and divisive, especially in catchment areas that have a mix of income brackets. Despite being governed by the same rules, it’s clear that many are geared toward serving middle class families; they also operate with less oversight, allowing administrators to devise ways to exclude poorer or poorer performing students. So less advantaged students, who go to their local grammar schools, can end up sitting in classrooms where a majority of students do not speak English. It only follows that native speakers, when outnumbered, will not get the most out of their classes.

These formations are not racist so much as they are classist: some ethnic and religious groups, with firmer roots in the U.K., have started their own free schools as a reaction to the same problem.

The conflation of nationalism with jingoism is wrong and only serves to prevent meaningful conversations about problems in frontline institutions like schools and hospitals. Here’s an example from my own life. A college I once taught at wanted to improve the experience of its English second-language students. One stated goal was to determine which had received ESL instruction either from a local high school (if they’d been in Canada for some time) or from schools in their home countries (if they were newly arrived). In a brain-storming session, I suggested we could add some questions to their post-admission placement essay, an essay that was only used for streaming purposes. I said that either multiple choice or short answer questions, asking them to correctly identify terms like “present tense” and “past-perfect,” could be added to determine which students had or had not had ESL instruction.

The room went quiet and that evening I got a call from the senior teacher overseeing the project. She wondered if I wanted to create a cabal of teachers with racist leanings and then suggested that she would “hate to not have any work for you next semester.” I took the hint and toed the ridiculously impractical line she took to tackle the problem. The irony, of course, is that I am the daughter of immigrants myself and English was not my first language.

Bob Geldof, yelling at Nigel Farage, yes, but also struggling fishermen.
Bob Geldof, yelling at Nigel Farage, yes, but also struggling fishermen.

And there are other ironies. One was watching Bob Geldof, he of the saccharine charity Bandaid, blasting music to silence the fishermen who arrived as a flotilla on the Thames to express their desire to leave the E.U. His yelling at them, and flipping them the bird, captures, beautifully, the deep-seated hatred that the monied classes in England have for those who serve them. Then witness the largely unchallenged antics of Bahar Mustafa, the University of London diversity officer who started the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen. That Mustafa comes from a relatively privileged family was a fact she conveniently kept to herself.

It’s true that the politics of nationalism can turn ugly and it’s true that racism exists. But other problems exist too. Dividing voters of the Brexit according to age and class, and characterizing the Leave side as racist and stupid, does not solve the problem of poorly resourced communities, especially those in economically depressed areas. For example, the question of whether a person has lived in the U.K. their entire life or just arrived yesterday is entirely moot when a ruptured appendix happens and the local A and E can’t cope. As the daughter of immigrants, I don’t look at the Leave side and see xenophobia, but I do see struggle, indifference and abandonment. It’s easy to be complacent when your doctors work on Harley Street and there are always enough nurses to go around.

The ruling and chattering classes love the idea of diversity, but generally speaking, don’t get close enough to communities experiencing it to see the gaps in resources and the chaos they cause. Mentally, they keep immigrants at arm’s length and hope for the best, expecting the immigrants’ gratitude and their receiving communities’ acquiescence will make things work. The Leave vote was a repudiation of both those expectations.

It was also a cri de coeur, and a loud and compelling one at that.


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Sex, Lies and Suicide: The Scandal at the Toronto Star

Above: Jane Davenport of the Toronto Star. Did she lie to protect her lover, Jon Filson, when another Star journalist, Stephanie Cesca, made a complaint about him? Why was Cesca fired? 

Note: This article is about Raveena Aulakh, the Toronto Star journalist who took her life last month. To read about Rosie DiManno’s assault charges, click here.

Raveen Aulakh
Raveena Aulakh

With the events unfolding at the Toronto Star, it’s hard to resist a bit of Schadenfreude. After all, in recent years—those overseen by managing editor Jane Davenport–members of its vaunted newsroom pursued Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi with a zeal bordering on the depraved.

For all the Star’s thou-shall-notting, both men were suffering from mental illnesses: Ford was an active addict and Ghomeshi a celebrity suffering acute anxiety, likely because he was thoroughly hated by his own institution, the CBC. As per the Star’s do-gooder agenda, the trespasses made against these two men were minimized while those they committed maximized. In short, the Star was making TMZ look good.

Enter Jane Davenport, Jon Filson and Raveena Aulakh, managing editor and two career journalists, respectively. Aulakh committed suicide after discovering that her married ex-boyfriend, Filson, had begun an affair with her boss, Davenport. When it comes to triangles and trespasses, these three ended up in O-la-la territory.

By all accounts Aulakh was a gifted journalist. Already a success in her native India, she came to Canada in 2007 to do graduate work at the University of Western Ontario. From London, she went to Toronto and began a second phase of her career, working the environment beat. Apparently, she was a much beloved colleague as the Star’s public editor, Kathy English, wrote: “I have worked in newsrooms for 40 years and have never seen anything like the level of grief and anger exploding here.” It’s not surprising; suicide is especially unsettling because of all the unknowns. It forces us to ask ourselves: Why didn’t I see this? What else am I missing?

Stephanie Cesca complained to Davenport, her boss and Filson's lover, that Filson was abusive. She was fired shortly afterwards. Davenport's handling of Cesca's complaints might shed more light on this tragedy.
Stephanie Cesca complained to Davenport, her boss and Filson’s lover, that Filson was abusive. She was fired shortly afterwards. Davenport’s handling of Cesca’s complaints might shed more light on this tragedy.

I came from an ethnic community that saw more than its fair share of suicides. (Slovenia, the country of my father’s birth, has an abnormally high suicide rate, prompting researchers there to look into genetic causes.) While in high school, several mothers in my enclave committed suicide and, by the time I’d hit my mid-twenties, about a half-dozen acquaintances, of mixed ethnic backgrounds, had done the same.

I’ve obviously cultivated some theories about suicide over the years.

I’ll start by saying that Aulakh’s wish to protect her privacy should be honoured. If I felt the Toronto Star’s investigative reporter, Kevin Donovan, was wrong to pay (or otherwise entice) informants in Ford’s rehab, then I must concede that Aulakh, as another sufferer of mental illness, deserves privacy too. For example, it’s unlikely that the end of her relationship with Filson was the sole cause of her decision, so it must be that other issues were preying on her mind. We don’t have a right to know what those issues were; that her sadness became unbearable is enough.

That said, it’s clear she was up against a dyad she felt betrayed by and that dyad existed in her working life. That leads us to a very sticky conversation about on-the-job fraternization.

Plenty of people meet their spouses at work, so enforcing a rule against it, in most places, isn’t practical. However, there are times when fraternization becomes toxic and it’s that toxicity that may be worth defining.

Rob Ford was an addict suffering what is considered a mental illness.
Rob Ford was suffering with an addiction, a mental illness.

Apparently Aulakh was one of two reporters who complained about Jon Filson. Stephanie Cesca, the Star’s national editor, felt Filson was a bully and unwittingly took her complaints to Davenport. She was fired shortly afterwards, but lawyered her way to a financial settlement (that likely includes a non-disclosure agreement). Weeks later, when Aulakh found graphic messages from Davenport to Filson on Filson’s phone, she took her complaint to foreign editor Lynn McAuley. McAuley warned her against speaking out, saying it could lose Davenport her job.

Of the two complaints, only Cesca’s is legitimate. Although Aulakh was clearly upset by what she found, it’s fair to assume she had no business going through Filson’s phone and the messages were private. No human resources department could have done much to help her, other than to suggest counselling. Her suicide is another matter, which I’ll return to shortly.

It’s the collusion and out-numbering aspect of fraternization that becomes a problem in the workplace. So revealing Stephanie Cesca’s complaints about Filson, and Davenport’s treatment of them, might be more interesting than revealing Aulakh’s suicide note. Moreover, if Davenport used her position to protect Filson–and it seems she may have–then she should be following him out the door. It’s not like Davenport hasn’t had previous experiences with selective truth-telling. When her husband, Jack Romanelli, was managing editor of the Montreal Gazette, he apparently tried to broker a (pre-marriage) promotion for her without disclosing their romance.

However, let me stop for a moment to clarify my position on workplace privacy: I find it unpleasant to tear into people’s personal lives, but there are times when self-preservation demands it.

Journalist Robyn Doolittle: to read my critique of Crazy Town, click here.
Journalist Robyn Doolittle: to read my critique of Crazy Town, click here.

Here’s why I think so: when my 77 year-old mother spent a month in an Ontario hospital, the surgeon whose care she was under seemed reluctant to help her. I suspect it was because he thought she would be better off not surviving her illness. That’s a choice some families might have made, but my mother wanted to survive and it was my job to advocate for her.

The day that I came up against a toxic dyad started like this: I came to the hospital in the morning and found my mother unresponsive. When I raised the alarm, I was told the culprit was her pain medication. I accepted the nurses’ explanation at first, but when she didn’t improve, I started making a nuisance of myself. Hours went by and my mother’s nurses looked worried, but did nothing. When I went home that night, I was probably as anguished and vexed as I’ve ever been in my life.

The next morning, I was told she’d suffered a severe stroke–her MRI showed a sizeable black spot in her brain–and that the window of opportunity, when the stroke could have been mitigated, had passed. When I asked why the nurses hadn’t done anything the previous day, I was stonewalled. It was only months later that the head of a healthcare workers’ union gave me an explanation. My mother’s surgeon was having an affair with a charge nurse who had the power to change nurses’ shifts, cancel holidays and generally make their lives miserable. The nurses on duty that day didn’t act because they knew if they went against the surgeon’s wishes they would be punished by his mistress.

So life and death hung in the balance for my family as well. However, the difference between our experience and Aulakh’s is this: Aulakh wasn’t a victim. She made the decision to become involved with a married man as did Davenport, who was married herself. Playing musical beds when partners are married can be thrilling, but it’s not a game for sensitive souls. I suspect at least some of the grief and anger in the Star’s newsroom is in recognition of Aulakh’s underlying, and perhaps surprising, fragility.

Jian Ghomeshi routinely gave talks about his anxiety. He did this to help young people.
Jian Ghomeshi openly talked about his anxiety. He did this to help others.

However, it’s also surprising that some otherwise intelligent people aren’t making other connections here. It’s no secret that the thrill of adultery isn’t so different from the thrill of gambling, extreme sports or online porn. Our brain’s pleasure centres are stimulated by risk–especially sexual risk–and so instead of throwing die, taking drugs or drinking alcohol (like, let’s say, Rob Ford), participants dose themselves with their body’s own chemicals.

Or, instead of playing bondage games (like, let’s say, Jian Ghomeshi), the secret knowledge that is the pleasure of betrayal can rev up our brain’s neurotransmitters, making it especially seductive. What’s important here is that the players in this drama aren’t so different from the crackheads and sex fiends they root out and demonize on a regular basis.

I’m not surprised–haloes can get heavy sometimes–but let’s hope this tragedy does at least one thing: gets the Star’s journalists to stop the cheap paparazzi-ism and heavy-handed moralizing.

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Ghomeshi, Assange, and Self-Generated Drama

Lucy Decoutere told the Guardian, "After everything I've been through, Jian is free." Well, yes, lying in court might be why...
Lucy Decoutere told the Guardian, “After everything I’ve been through, Jian is free.” Well, yes, lying in court might be why.

A Montreal journalist started an I-can’t-believe-Ghomeshi-got-off thread on Facebook. It triggered a lengthy debate, one he kept punctuating with comments about how our legal system is biased against women when it comes to sexual assault. Although I disagreed with much of what he said, I suspect it was the father in him speaking: he argued passionately and his despair seemed very real.

There are many responses to this: that the legal system is equally unfair to male victims, that sexual assault isn’t the only crime that’s difficult to prove, that our desire for privacy, when balanced against the need for safety, can make convictions difficult to secure. Altering the way we prosecute is often what is called for in the aftermath of cases like Ghomeshi’s, but these cries for justice, coming from those unfamiliar with the law, obscure much simpler solutions.

There are temporal points at which sexual abuse or assault can be minimized or even halted, but what this requires is a willingness, on the part of those who are able, to be more proactive on their own behalf. Prevention of any sort is rarely on the feminist radar, however. It’s become tainted by its close association with victim-blaming, an association we would be wise to undo.

There is also the misconception that older women like myself have it out for younger women caught up in the fight for better legal protection. Several journalists, and Christie Blatchford in particular, have been incorrectly labelled anti-feminist. I think they are just anti-suffering, as I am, and are using their voices (and in Blatchford’s case, her wildly pithy observations) to illustrate that much of the drama around Jian Ghomeshi is needlessly self-generated.

A topless demonstrator outside the Toronto courthouse after the verdict was read.
A topless demonstrator outside the Toronto courthouse after the verdict was read.

An anecdote might be helpful here. I once shared an apartment with a woman who was a few years my junior. She and I were both single, but our dating patterns were very different. She seemed drawn to pain while I tended, for the most part, to avoid it. When men did things I didn’t like, I made use of that lovely 50s concept, mad money. My escapades in dating made for a lot of laughs among my friends, but my intent was serious. I was determined to be an active player in my own happiness.

So it was frustrating when my roommate started dating a man I’ll call Pierre. I looked on as she fell into a painful and prolonged bout of self-destructive behaviour.

Pierre travelled a lot. He had a job that took him to Asia for three months at a time. When he returned to Montreal, he was typically off for three months, but even so, he only made time for my roommate once every couple of weeks. A pattern emerged: she would see him in this intermittent way while he was in town, and once he left, she would spent the next few weeks slamming cupboard doors and treating me with contempt. After a couple of cycles, I figured out how to gauge her mood and braced myself accordingly. By the fourth or fifth cycle, I asked her to move out.

But not before I tried talking to her. I was gentle in the beginning, but by the time a couple of years had passed, and she went out of her way to spoil a dinner party I was hosting, I lost patience and confronted her. I made the connection between her behaviour and her relationship and dared her, none too kindly, to let Pierre’s phone calls go to voice-mail the next time he was in town, just to see if he would make any real effort to see her. I told her that continuing to see a man who wasn’t committed to her was a choice she was making, that she needed to take responsibility for it and stop taking her frustrations out on others.

Marie Henein. Click here to read the verdict handed down by Judge William B. Horkins
Marie Henein. Click here to read the verdict handed down by Judge William B. Horkins

The point of the anecdote is this: watching people choose suffering can be difficult. Putting up with their unhappiness is tough too. It gets even tougher when the solution to their problems is clear: that they need to leave a bad relationship. But just as drug addicts need their drugs, these women need the drama of what is going to happen next? They are usually not willing to listen; the idea that they may be responsible for their own happiness is anathema to them.

What they do think is that women who try to talk sense to them are either jealous or prudish or both. And once they do let go of a relationship, they often swamp friends and family with their neediness.

These are also women who, like Lucy DeCoutere, arrogantly announce a “paradigm shift” by starting a hashtag like #Ibelievesurvivors, when slacktivism of that sort achieves nothing except to garner them more attention.

The fact is that seriously misguided people are not easy to be around. It’s hard enough being around people who are mourning the death of meaningful relationship or the death of a real person. Most of us have limited capacities for sympathy and extend ourselves to those whose problems feel worthy.

And that’s why some of us are taking a tough love approach to Ghomeshi’s accusers: we’re having a hard time whipping up sympathy because their problems don’t feel worthy. Yes, being hit is unpleasant and of course physical abuse is never okay. But the fact is these appear to be isolated incidents in these women’s lives and on the larger scale of grim experiences to be had in this world, they are certainly not the worst.

In short, these are bad dates, not bad lives. They didn’t marry their abuser. They weren’t forced to marry their abuser. Apparently their abuser warned them he liked rough sex.  Given these facts, a lot of us are watching the Ghomeshi carnival unfold and asking, “What gives?”

If we’re going to have a paradigm shift here, what about this? Why don’t we teach young people that the best defence against abuse is self-awareness? That the moment a sexual partner makes them uncomfortable, is the moment they have a chance to do something about it. That going along with sexual momentum is safer when you’re with a partner you trust and trust isn’t something that develops overnight. That calling a friend, or some sort of help line, to talk about discomfort is one way to determine where your boundaries are.

What isn’t okay, and what is frustrating to a lot of us, is the expectation that our police and our legal system should protect those who don’t seem interested in protecting themselves. That may be fine for children–they lack the maturity and emotional resources to do it–but it’s hardly fine for women who expect to be taken seriously as adults.


Below is an excerpt of a text describing Julian Assange’s experience with Sweden’s sexual assault laws (also taken from The Guardian). Although the article was meant to defend the women accusing Assange of assault, its tone, and account of the facts points to a legal response we in Canada should be wary of. I’m not sure I want our nation’s police officers fielding “torn condom” complaints. 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media after appearing at Belmarsh Magistrates court in Woolwich on January 11, 2011. Assange was appearing court today to fight against his extradition to Sweden where he is sought for questioning over alleged sex crimes. UPI/Hugo Philpott
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media after appearing at Belmarsh Magistrates court in Woolwich on January 11, 2011. Assange was appearing court today to fight against his extradition to Sweden where he is sought for questioning over alleged sex crimes. UPI/Hugo Philpott

[One accuser’s] account to police, which Assange disputes, stated that he began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.

According to the statement, Miss A then realised he was trying to have unprotected sex with her. She told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.

When he was later interviewed by police in Stockholm, Assange agreed that he had had sex with Miss A but said he did not tear the condom, and that he was not aware that it had been torn. He told police that he had continued to sleep in Miss A’s bed for the following week and she had never mentioned a torn condom.

On the following morning, Saturday 14 August, Assange spoke at a seminar organised by Miss A. A second woman, Miss W, had contacted Miss A to ask if she could attend. Both women joined Assange, the co-ordinator of the Swedish WikiLeaks group, whom we will call “Harold”, and a few others for lunch.

Assange left the lunch with Miss W. She told the police she and Assange had visited the place where she worked and had then gone to a cinema where they had moved to the back row. He had kissed her and put his hands inside her clothing, she said.

That evening, Miss A held a party at her flat. One of her friends, “Monica”, later told police that during the party Miss A had told her about the ripped condom and unprotected sex. Another friend told police that during the evening Miss A told her she had had “the worst sex ever” with Assange: “Not only had it been the world’s worst screw, it had also been violent.”

Assange’s supporters point out that, despite her complaints against him, Miss A held a party for him on that evening and continued to allow him to stay in her flat.

On Sunday 15 August, Monica told police, Miss A told her that she thought Assange had torn the condom on purpose. According to Monica, Miss A said Assange was still staying in her flat but they were not having sex because he had “exceeded the limits of what she felt she could accept” and she did not feel safe.

The following day, Miss W phoned Assange and arranged to meet him late in the evening, according to her statement. The pair went back to her flat in Enkoping, near Stockholm. Miss W told police that though they started to have sex, Assange had not wanted to wear a condom, and she had moved away because she had not wanted unprotected sex. Assange had then lost interest, she said, and fallen asleep. However, during the night, they had both woken up and had sex at least once when “he agreed unwillingly to use a condom”.



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Maria Konnikova’s Confidence Game

Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova

New Yorker columnist Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game is a quick and enjoyable read about con-artistry. She’s following in the footsteps of Malcolm Gladwell, exploring a human-interest issue by combining colourful narratives with expert analysis.

Although the book will not make it on to the bibliographies of serious scholars, the fantastical aspect of the tales within are worth the read alone. How could a family of French aristocrats give up almost everything, believing they were ‘being hunted by Freemasons… and other “sinister” forces’? How could a respected New York City art dealer, working for a well-established gallery, be fooled for years by an amateur from the suburbs?

To read more click here. 

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Competing for Jian Ghomeshi, and Other Dumb Things Women Do

jealous_friend_xlargeIt’s hard to avoid stories of emotional survivors these days, especially when it comes to domestic violence and sexual abuse. These narratives are familiar: they’re about hardship endured, transformation achieved and virtue rewarded.

They’re tales as old as Cinderella.

However, while seeing virtue rewarded is satisfying, in real life these stories may conceal an unpleasant fact: some survivors have indeed suffered, but their love of melodrama is the real culprit. Stories of women who overcome difficulties, but do so privately and without much fanfare, aren’t fascinating enough for some women. From their perspective, those female dullards who suffer and grow up anyway, without any fireworks, are to be pitied.

The arrogance of this perspective shouldn’t surprise us. For all their cries of sisterhood, self-proclaimed survivors, like Jian Ghomeshi’s accusers, often feel superior to other women. That’s not news to those of us with more rational ideas about sisterhood; some of us see a wide swath of female competitiveness running through the stories we’re hearing lately, one that suggests another paradigm for interpretation. What many feminists see as the results of “social conditioning” and “low self-esteem” may just be signs of what used to be known as poor character.

A recent experience with 40-ish friends I’ll call Jane and Jeff is illustrative. It started when Jane responded to Jeff’s profile on a dating site. Like a lot of men these days, Jeff was playing it safe and winnowing down his pool of potentials by pre-emptively announcing his belief in open relationships. Jane was more conventional but infatuated with him nonetheless, so she relegated that detail to the fine print. In the following months, she breathlessly and, yes, annoyingly, talked about him to the exclusion of everything else that had previously made her interesting.

The problems started when Jane’s friends, myself included, received an overwrought message announcing that Jeff had “cheated” on her. I was surprised at her wording since Jeff had made his preferences known and she had apparently accepted them. When she messaged everyone again, a week later, she announced she and Jeff had reconciled and were planning on starting a family. When she mentioned babies, I dispensed with my usual tact and suggested she would be stuck with a cheater for a long time if she went ahead with her plans.

What I wasn’t saying, of course, was that he would be stuck with her too, a woman determined to form a bond on her terms, terms which clearly didn’t augur with his right to be himself. The next time I saw her, she airily waved away my concern as so much nonsense. There was fury beneath that airiness, however. Jane’s competitiveness emerged and she began treating me, a single woman, with not-so-subtle attitudes of arrogance and contempt.

My history with women like Jane goes back a long way, starting with my mother. Both my parents, in the last 20 years of their 40-year marriage, drank and fought a lot. Although those last two decades were the worst, the first two, or at least what I saw of them, weren’t always stable either. So knowing I wanted a better life, I worked and student-loaned my way through university. When I was in my 30s, I experienced an important turning point in my relationship with them.

It happened in Florida over one Christmas break. When the drinking and fighting culminated in my mother throwing a present at me, at 4:00 AM while I slept, I knew I’d had enough. It was Christmas day and when I got up, I called the airport and arranged for a flight back to Montreal. As I packed, I read both my parents the riot act: I told them they were equally childish and deserved each other. As I walked to the taxi, I threatened to change my name and disappear if they ever behaved badly in my presence again. It sounds dramatic now, but I was serious then.

The threat worked and what it taught me is this: when it’s in their best interest, most people will stop behaving badly. It also taught me something else: after years of observing my parents and reading up on domestic abuse, I knew the dominant narrative we have of it in Canada is hopelessly skewed. Most of it is not misogynistic; most of it involves substance abuse and is mutual in some way. The story of a vulnerable, abused woman, regularly beaten by her husband, is a distortion of another story, a story that for many children comes with a cultural dictum that forbids them from admitting–even to themselves–that their mother may be just as bad.*

Needless to say, this isn’t a popular perspective. But acknowledging its existence is necessary to counteract the pervasive belief that only women can be victims of domestic violence. Given all my research and experience, I find it curious that the male-on-female variation dominates in our culture to the extent that it does, overshadowing even parent-on-child violence, which is far more damaging. For example, when we do hear about child abuse, the default position is that the perpetrator is male and sex is involved. But by now we know women–mothers included–can be abusive and neglectful too. So why can’t we just say it?

The omission raises other important questions. With these cultural biases built into our social services, what are the children of those women supposed to think? That daddy is the bad guy, despite the fact that it’s mom who gets drunk first and starts fighting? That mom is right to keep the fridge stocked with beer because—nudge, nudge, wink, wink–controlling a drunk man who passes out every night is easier than controlling a sober one who doesn’t? What goes through children’s minds when they arrive at a shelter where the guiding narrative is ‘We have to hide from daddy because he’s bad,’ when what they’ve seen tells them mom isn’t much better? What does that distortion do to children?

The Ghomeshi trial is giving us an opportunity to talk about female patterns of abuse too. We can start with the denial that underlies much of it and end with the abuse that happens–to children, loved ones and the legal system–when the facts stop fitting a woman’s fantasy. Ghomeshi’s trouble started when an ex-girlfriend went through his phone looking for the numbers of other women he was seeing. As Jeff did with Jane, Ghomeshi clarified the extent of his commitment to this woman. The relationship was decidedly casual, so casual in fact that she came to regret it later.

It also appears she was hoping to round up other hurt women so they could collectively punish a man they believed had been dismissive with them. In terms of their anger, women like Ghomeshi’s accusers and Jane have a lot in common: their denial causes problems, yet when they seek support they usually, and quite arrogantly, dispute any advice that points to their own responsibility. My conversation with Jane is one I could have had with Ghomeshi’s ex months before she decided to go through his phone; however, she probably wouldn’t have listened either.

Turning to the question of Ghomeshi’s abusiveness, we must admit that it is just that, a question. His flirtatious texts indicate that instead of being deceptive with women, he was actually straightforward, lending credence to his assertion that he negotiated consent. For example, when some women indicated they just wanted to be friends, he gave them a polite version of “I’m not looking for friendship, thanks.” When some mentioned getting help with their careers, he made it clear he’d contacted them for “personal and not professional” reasons. These are strategies I’ve seen used by plenty of women over the years. If I can admire them for being bold and decisive, I have to concede Ghomeshi likely was too: his texts indicate that he announced his intentions. The question, of course, is did his accusers choose to believe him?

As those of us who have lived with others know, purposeful filtering is not always about low self-esteem–sometimes it’s about control. I plucked the following line from a comment thread because it is representative of much of the thinking out there: “Women who feel inferior often choose men who have lots of power and/or money. I would say this happened with Ghomeshi and his women.” But did these women suffer from low self-esteem or were they just being competitive? Didn’t they also fall for the allure of dating a celebrity, recognizing the admiration and power it would naturally confer on them?

Men like Ghomeshi may be in the habit of discarding women, but they never seem to want for female company. That’s because their power is an aphrodisiac and not only do women offer themselves freely, they freely do the dirty work too. I think of a university professor who was surrounded by an admiring circle of female students. Unbeknownst to some of us, these students engaged other students in conversations about him at his behest. His purpose? He reveled in intimidation. He read a casually uttered set of complaints I’d made about him back to me, verbatim, after calling me into his office to have a chat. Thanks to one of his loyal admirers, I felt forced to drop his course.

I think of a surgeon who operated on a family member. Without telling us, he’d deemed her life futile, so when she suffered a serious setback, in the midst of a recovery, the nurses on duty did everything except take meaningful steps to revive her. When I tried to investigate afterwards, I was stonewalled on one level, but enlightened, discreetly, on another. Several staff members told me that a surgical charge nurse, who was having an affair with the surgeon, had the power to change nurses’ schedules and revoke holidays. Apparently it was a power she wielded freely with those who contradicted the surgeon’s wishes. The nurses on duty that day failed to act because they feared her retribution, not his. I’ve since learned that the intimidating behaviour of women like her–mistresses with toxic loyalty, in other words–is common in Canadian hospitals.

This is what competitive behaviour among women looks like and it’s time we stopped minimizing its damage. The behaviour of Ghomeshi’s accusers deserves close scrutiny too: the idea that these women weren’t cognizant of their own motives may explain their poor choices, but it doesn’t excuse their poor behaviour, or the grief it’s caused others. These women are experiencing unpleasant consequences, not tragedies. That distinction needs to be more widely acknowledged and accepted, if only to protect the truly vulnerable: children and adults who legitimately lack the agency to protect themselves.


*From the Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A National Survey of Canadians’ Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs: Focus on Gender

With regard to domestic harm arising from alcohol use, summary found on page 55: Among men, the rate of reported harm is similar to that of women, with having been insulted or humiliated the most common (22.3%), followed by having experienced verbal abuse (17.2%), serious arguments and quarrels (14.8%) and having been pushed or shoved (13.3%). In comparison to women, men reported fewer family or marriage problems resulting from others’ drinking (7.7%). However, men reported significantly higher rates of aggressive harms, including being pushed or shoved, verbally abused or being hit or physically assaulted.

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