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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The first of those students is
marriedin 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.
- The second student was an employee of the university and used her position to investigate financial matters.
- MC was also in a long-term relationship when she had her affair with Galloway.
- 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:
- A relationship ends.
- The former partner is a man of some renown.
- 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.
- 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.
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: