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.

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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Top Gear, Political Correctness and You

backlash, feminism and you
top gear, political correctness, you
Jeremy Clarkson

Top Gear, Political Correctness and You: Much is being made of the bullying behaviour of Jeremy Clarkson, a presenter on the BBC’s wildly successful Top Gear. Pundits are applauding the Beeb for firing him.

Canada’s Jian Ghomeshi scandal, soon to be reprised in court, is similar to Clarkson’s in that the emerging template is of an abusive and mercurial star, one surrounded by wounded and besieged underlings. A family systems analysis of this template would have it that Clarkson and Ghomeshi are scapegoats in a dysfunctional system, and that all players colluded in the maintenance of that system. That sounds a tad too forgiving and distributes guilt a little too evenly for my taste. Nevertheless, I do think there’s some truth to it, and also think higher ups at the BBC and CBC need to shoulder more of the blame for creating monsters. Clarkson and Ghomeshi did not become enfants terribles without their help.

That being said, under the avalanche of complaints about these men is another premise that’s equally troubling: it’s that we expect too much from others, especially those in the media spotlight. We expect them to be hardworking, creative and nice. That last adjective is troublesome because it carries emotional weight yet is mostly subjective. The fact is that the space between two or more employees can be filled with a variety of actions and emotions. Apart from insisting on mutual respect, trying to standardize those actions and emotions to their best and kindest versions is pointless. The mystique of relationships is that they are dynamic and composed of many variables.

Margaret Heffernan is a woman whose work I admire. Tweeting about the Clarkson scandal, she reminded us that men are not the only ones capable of bullying behaviour. She’s right. I had a very difficult working relationship with a woman back in the early 90s. What’s interesting is just how this woman managed to needle me.

Political Correctness: Let me set the stage

Intersectionality is a word I dislike for its grad school presumption, but I’ll grudgingly use it here. The resurrection of the stifling political correctness that defined the 90s is a trending topic among the intelligentsia and that’s a good thing. I like a definition provided by Jonathan Chiat, the writer whose recent article about political correctness (in The New York Times) caused considerable consternation. Referencing it in a later article, he says,

The story describes a set of social norms and protocols within communities of the left that make meaningful disagreement impossible on issues related to race and gender…Within these p.c. subcultures, outrage is pervasive, a charge of bias cannot be disputed without further confirming its truth, and there is a presumed right to be “safe” from opposing views, which can even justify the heavy-handed squelching of opposing views.

top gear, political correctness, you
The off-with-their-heads attitude toward male dentistry students at Dalhousie was not supported by everyone.

It’s these characteristics that intersect with the cunning of some truly wicked people. Here is what I mean: the colleague who tormented me did so by falsely claiming to be my victim. A small conflict over a phone call is what started it.

In short, I needed someone to fill in for me early on a Monday morning. I called and left messages with several people. The colleague in question actually picked up the phone and then berated me for calling on a Sunday. I was apologetic, but reminded her she had signed up to be a substitute and as such, should expect calls on her days off. This inflamed her further and after a minute or so of abuse, I cut the call short. When I reported for work the next day, I also reported the phone call. My words to the department head were: this woman seems to be unclear on the concept of substitution. Perhaps you should explain it to her.

Read: What Monica Lewinsky tells us about shame

On the colleague’s part, this triggered visits to the union to clarify her position and a campaign to warn younger colleagues about me. There were also privately uttered insults, usually pertaining to my age and weight (I was 35 and wore a size 10) and frequent references to dead wood that were made within earshot. I took the position that if I ignored her antics, she would move on to someone or something else. I was wrong.

When I refused to be baited, she started a more stealthy campaign. Through words and gestures, she gave colleagues the impression she was afraid of me. It took months, but slowly the temperature in my corridor dropped. By the time a year had passed, it was positively Antarctic. Colleagues I could once count on for camaraderie and support were consistently busy when I stuck my head in their offices to say hello. Department meetings, which I used to enjoy, became opportunities for this woman and her posse to disagree with almost everything I said. It got so bad that I met with an EAP psychologist and implemented every strategy she suggested. Nothing worked.

top gear, political correctness, you
Horatio Sanz of Saturday Night Live finds the love of his life: himself.

So on one Saturday afternoon, I meandered into a new bookstore in my neighbourhood. It turned out to be a store that specialized in new age books. Since I generally have no truck with new agers, I turned around to leave. However, on a bulletin board right by the entrance I saw photocopied pamphlets for something called the Inner Peace Society. Hoping no one would see me, I pulled one down and took it home.

The call went through to a woman in Ottawa, who kindly explained the group was hoping to start meetings in Montreal and the pamphlet was only there to attract members. She must have heard me sigh because her tone changed and she asked me what was wrong. I felt foolish, but told her how I was trying and failing to get along with this ringleader colleague.

I was fully expecting to hear about crystals and chakras, but instead got advice that was surprisingly practical. The woman said to imagine I was travelling through my workplace surrounded by a circle of safe space that extended to ten feet on all sides. Since my colleague had the cunning to behave in the presence of others, I was not to let her into that space unless there was a witness. When I asked what I should do if my colleague and I were heading toward one other in an empty corridor (a situation that happened regularly), I was to turn back and find an alternate route. Under no circumstances was she to get into my circle unless someone else was there.

When I said I would feel silly doing this—I was still feigning nonchalance—she assured me that the woman already knew she was distressing me. She laughed and said, That cat’s out of the bag, dear.

So imagine my surprise when the strategy worked. Why? The short version is that it put me ahead of my colleague in the victim stakes. It also helped that I had altered the strategy slightly when I decided that not only was there to be a witness, it had to be someone this colleague or myself was in conversation with. It meant that even when I saw this woman in a crowded space, I took obvious physical steps to avoid her. People noticed of course, but I doubt they fully understood my intentions. It didn’t matter. She understood and what I witnessed over the next few weeks was her rising panic.

And this is the problem with victimization games. This is where identity politics and political correctness naturally lead: problems are rarely solved and it’s not hard to out-victim the victims.

Top Gear and the Backlash

In his essay, Jonathan Chiat goes on to describe a phenomenon similar to the power seesaw I’ve just described.

The assumption that political correctness is perhaps too effective at fighting bias presumes that it is effective at all. But is it? An alternative possibility, which I find plausible but which can’t be proven, is that p.c. provokes a backlash that hinders the struggle against bias. 

top gear, political correctness, you
Louise Mensch, Sun columnist and former Tory MP

Chait says the backlash effect can’t be proven, but surely the evidence of our senses tells us it’s real? In a previous article I touched on the proliferation of feminist clickbait. What inspired me was an ongoing cascade of articles showing up on my Facebook page from sites like MIC, Bustle and Alternet. (I’m assuming they showed up because other, younger Facebook friends follow them.) The cohort these publications appeals to is the 18 to 45 leftist, feminist crowd.

How do I know? The stream of constant outrage, the majority of which is directed at men—mostly those in power, but also those who are not—is designed to evoke strong feelings because strong feelings sell. Who doesn’t get upset about gang rape? Who doesn’t think blatant discrimination should stop? The question all this outrage raises, however, is does this accurately reflect our reality in the west? I don’t think it does, but try saying that to indignant politicos, those whose very pulses depend upon a steady diet of misanthropy.

Yeah, I dare you.

Could our need for nice celebrities be more sinister than we think? Saturday Night Live, that bastion of hilarity and more often than not truth, ran a series of parody ads in the mid-aughts. Riffing on e-Harmony ads, they created faux Me-Harmony ads with comedians appearing as themselves in both genders. It struck a nerve because of course, much of what passes for gender politics is actually a demand that others be more like us.

It’s a path fraught with unforeseen hazards: ask survivors of communist-era countries and those über-smart people working at Google with other über-smart people. The fact is that when playing fields are too level, feeling unique is almost impossible. Experts may argue that uniqueness is an illusion, to which I would say yes, but that makes flashes of it no less necessary for good mental health. When it is impossible to stand out in any way, because everyone is (supposed to be) the same, we create circumstances that come with built-in hopelessness.

And it is undoubtedly a desire to conserve uniqueness that results in intelligent women like Louise Mensch, a Sun columnist and former MP, tweeting that Jeremy Clarkson’s assault on his producer was fair, given it was a fair physical fight.

I’m not well-informed enough about the circumstances to comment, but what I see in Mensch’s words is a desire to let individuals be individuals, even if that means standing back and letting them duke it out. It may also be a subtle endorsement of violence, but it’s deeply life-affirming all the same.

top gear, political correctness, you
Independent of what?

In Canada, we recently witnessed a conflict where male Dalhousie dental students posted sexist comments on a Facebook page. The comments showed prejudice, to be sure, but no more so than the websites I listed above. The outrage was predictable and the university had a hard time containing the “Off with their heads” atmosphere that broke out among women students and their supporters.

These conflicts have the appearance of slam-dunk, no-brainer misogyny, but pulling back the lens to allow the bigger picture would be helpful. If we see these actions as part of a backlash against an over-correcting attitude, one that can be soul-destroying at times, they become understandable. Certainly I saw it that way and thought the university’s initial plan, to put all affected students into a supervised discussion, was sound. It didn’t happen, however, because outrage, fear-mongering and hysteria won the day.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hope I live long enough to see tactics of this sort identified for what they are: victim and identity politics gone horribly awry.


Related: Top Gear, Political Correctness and You and Margaret Heffernan and the Difficulty of Cooperation, Part 1 and Part 2

Photo on 2015-03-07 at 9.05 PMIf you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media. Feel free to comment anonymously. 

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Ghomeshi, Feminism and Clickbait

Real news or outrage clickbait?
Real news or outrage clickbait?


If you spend any time on the net, you will have encountered clickbait, those tempting photolinks directing you to slideshows like 16 Stars Who Live Modestly, Hollywood Stars Who Are Bi-sexual and Couples You Didn’t Know Were Couples. These sites load slowly and for a reason. Every page is crammed with ads and creators are paid per click.

Most of us understand the strategy behind clickbait. However, the use of it is expanding and infiltrating other spaces, becoming less obvious and more sophisticated. Much of it now assumes the mantle of political activism and is designed to hook us using powerful triggers. What this means is that our emotional life, for much of our online time, is being actively manipulated. Think of it as road rage with a mouse.

I’ve recently expressed concern about the accusations being made against radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I don’t doubt that unpleasant and unexpected things happened to his accusers; what I’m intrigued by is the gap between his and his accusers’ versions of events and our need to draw quick and nasty conclusions. That Ghomeshi is a troubled and immature man, with all the tics that pampering and celebrity create, is clear. What is less clear is how these tics, when mixed with drugs, alcohol and apparently willing partners, have been parlayed into a spectacle worthy of Sophocles. One man’s narcissism, methinks, should not garner this much attention.

Where does the problem originate?

Media outlets like MicBustle and their ilk are news sources for the hip. They form one strand of an information bundle, a strand that delivers news of interest to political progressives. Just like stealth advertising, however, these sites use strategic targeting. Names like Mic and Bustle may sound neutral, but their consistent coverage of sexist outrages is not: it’s safe to say their intended audience is women between 18 and 45, or those most likely to respond viscerally to stories about rape. Call me cynical, but what I’m seeing isn’t politics, it’s clever marketing. If you want to sell to that cohort, sparking their outrage is the way to go.

In sociological terms this process is called priming: an idea is cultivated to predispose individuals to think a certain way and to believe certain narratives, even when those narratives are distorted or false. When it comes to conventional feminism, which is the voice typically used on these sites, the target of the outrage is men and the intended audience women. Given the distribution of men and women on this planet, this ongoing provocation is problematic — it supports the lie that in sex wars and gender skirmishes, anger is a good solution. That’s a lie I rejected about 30 years ago, when I stopped taking courses in Women’s Studies.

Are reports of rape exaggerated?

Gabor Maté
Gabor Maté — Click on photo to read his article.

Jian Ghomeshi’s hubris has triggered a cascade of information about sexual assault, much of it slanted in favour of viewing women as victims. Even Gabor Maté, a physician whose observations on addiction have moved me deeply, has weighed in. Commenting on Ghomeshi in the Toronto Star, he writes:

We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.

I understand Maté is trying to be sympathetic: he opines about a world that creates men like Ghomeshi and allows them to flourish. However, what sinks my heart — and it truly does — is his assertion that women have poor odds in the happiness stakes. We will only cheer up at some point in the future, once men learn about feminism and stop making us miserable.

Apart from the fact that this belief does not reflect my reality, nor the reality of my friends, there’s an assumption at the heart of it that undermines my autonomy and my perception of my life as it unfolds. I don’t feel disadvantaged and I don’t think I’m in denial about it. I don’t feel that the faeces sitting in front of my fan, the one that gets switched on on a bad day, are any worse than the faeces sitting in front of the fans of my male peers. As a jolly friend of mine often reminds me: “The shit-fairy visits everyone.

However, because I am an academic, I know the next phase in this argument will be that the broader sociological foundations of my culture, as liberal as they may appear, are in fact tilted against me, and patriarchal brainwashing has fooled me into thinking I have power when I don’t. Those trinkets of a good job, home ownership and the freedom to do what I want (within legal limits) are just distractions that keep me from seeing the deeper truth about my misery. The problem for me is my pesky pragmatism. It and my gratitude for living in a free country keep getting in the way of that gloomy perspective and keep providing me, inexplicably, with opportunities to fulfill myself.

What does this have to do with Jian Ghomeshi?

Rene Denfeld. She and Christina Hoff Sommers have successfully challenged inflated statistics in feminist theory.
Rene Denfeld. She and Christina Hoff Sommers have successfully challenged inflated statistics in feminist theory.

A fear of not being believed is often put forth as an explanation for why women do not report sexual assault. It seems a genuine fear and one not helped by discrediting behaviour. And so it’s frustrating that many public intellectuals, feminists and other women who find themselves in the limelight hedge and fudge in ways that reflect badly on all of us. Rene Denfeld is one feminist critic (of many) who takes feminist/activist/professors to task for inflating statistics around sexual assault and domestic abuse. Denfeld examines this shoddy research in her book The New Victorians, and one data set is particularly revealing.

In the 1980s, a study was conducted by Ms. magazine. The focus was on the sexual experiences of young women on university campuses across the U.S. Respondents whose accounts corresponded to the study’s definition of rape reported perceptions of themselves that were unexpected: only 27% said they felt they “had been raped,” 49% said their assault was the result of “miscommunication,” and 11% said they did not feel “victimized.” These findings are important because what is perceived as under-reporting may actually be confusion about how to frame a difficult and unusual experience. This confusion may explain why an astonishing 42% of these women had sex with their assailants again.


Credibility is an issue in the case of Ghomeshi’s accusers too. It’s not because the women are at fault, but rather that date-rape is notoriously difficult to map and that is especially true here. It is misleading, for example, to use the language of forceable rape when describing Ghomeshi’s violence because of his participation in BDSM, a form of sexual play that may not be as controlled as its connoisseurs imagine. Despite the outrage, stories emerging from his accusers support his claims of innocence. He did announce his preference for rough sex, albeit not very effectively at times. He also stopped being rough when asked and showed an appropriate (written) response to the distress of one of his accusers. He was also clear with his boundaries. After a flirty meeting with Ghomeshi, one young woman had this experience with him:

One hour later, she received a text from Ghomeshi asking her to meet up for a “non-work related drink,” she said. He added a winky face — 😉 — to the message, she said.

“I didn’t want to date him, but then I thought this would maybe be a good opportunity to speak to him about the industry,” she said, responding by text and telling him a “friendly meet up” would be OK.

“If you could help me get a job that would be cool, too,” she added.

Ghomeshi texted back saying he wasn’t interested in a personal friendship and didn’t want to be used as “conduit to a job,” she said. The text messages stopped shortly after, she said.

Click on the image to read "Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship," from The Chronicle of Higher Education
Click on the image to read “Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship,” by Sommers, as it appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education

If this anecdote is accurate, it supports Ghomeshi’s claim that he communicated his wishes to his accusers. The problem is the entire narrative being spun about him: journalists are magnifying and minimizing facts at will. The encounter above was intended, ostensibly, to show Ghomeshi’s inappropriate behaviour. That’s curious since it actually illustrates his willingness to be clear about his intentions. So it seems unfair that his violence has been magnified while the more pedestrian matter of his negotiating and arrangement-making has been minimized and used to suggest his cunning.

Given Ghomeshi’s openness about his struggles with anxiety, the last accusation is easily eclipsed by the more pungent whiff of pathos. It also begs the questions: Is it possible? Could Ghomeshi and his accusers be shallower than we think?

Read: Ouch! When Sex Goes Terribly Wrong

Read: A Feminist Disses Ghomeshigate

Read: l’affaire Ghomeshi

Read: Jian Ghomeshi Gets Spanked 

Read: Ghomeshi, Feminism and Clickbait

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l’affaire Ghomeshi

jian ghomeshi
Jian Ghomeshi

New revelations about Jian Ghomeshi’s penchant for violence have changed the direction of the case against him. That case is not being fought in court, but is being fought in the media. I understand why Canadians are upset about the stories they’re hearing. The troubling aspects of them go deeper, however — beyond what most of us dare to say.

Many years ago, I lived and worked in a foreign, oil rich country. The expat community there was mostly made up of British and Irish citizens, with a few Americans and Canadians thrown in. I worked for an airline that hired young women as flight attendants. Most of us stayed for a few years and then returned home.

Although I never fully grasped the politics of the country, I did know there were a lot of rich and powerful men around, some of whom were Arab and some of whom were western. In the expat community, promiscuity was common among married and single folk alike, and for me, a young woman born and raised in rural Ontario, exposure to that level of sexual freedom was both fascinating and confusing.

I took up the role of observer because becoming directly involved presented too many risks, emotionally and physically. However, many of my peers felt less constrained and, with all the wealth floating around, were nicely compensated for spending time with rich men. Were their unions a genteel form of prostitution? I would say yes, but would never have said it to the women themselves. Instead, the word mistress got used a lot, and any misgivings these women had were countered by Gucci handbags and Cartier jewellery. Glittering prizes were enough to distract and mollify them.

So it’s with interest that I’m observing the controversy around Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi is a 47 year-old bon vivant with a taste for violent sex, a man whose fascination with BSDM is now getting him into some serious trouble. The Toronto Star recently published an eight part article, wherein eight women mistreated by Ghomeshi tell the same tale over and over again: these women spent time with Ghomeshi, got kicked or punched or choked, and were horrified by his actions. The conventional framework for these stories – the quavering voice-over provided by journalists Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown – is lifted straight from Women Studies 101. The requisite response, it’s understood, must be collective horror. Anything less makes you a misogynist, a victim-blamer and all-round bad person.

So it’s with the sure knowledge that I am walking straight into villainy that I venture a different interpretation of events. My literary background has been a great help while looking at Donovan and Brown’s article; that is, I don’t see dead people, but I do see weasel words, and under threat of having to move to another country, I am going to address them directly. (See my analysis at the end of this article.) I’m of the opinion that defining a problem is necessary before one can resolve it and it’s almost always misleading, methinks, to have complex social encounters described as 100% abuse.

What is abuse?

In April of 1995, two university students in Winnipeg raped and killed an aboriginal woman, Pamela George. They were given relatively light sentences – six and a half years — and the fact that George occasionally worked as a prostitute was entered into the official record as a factor in their sentencing. However, the two young men tricked George into an unsafe transaction: one of them hid in the trunk of a car, leading George to believe she was only dealing with one client. After driving her to a remote area and forcing her to perform oral sex, the two beat her to death. They were later described by family friends as young men who “did some darned stupid things.”

If you are feeling outraged right now, you should be: that is precisely the right response to a despicable event that was handled badly. That George is part of a larger contingent of aboriginal women who go missing every year makes this outcome even worse.

And so with those words, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s my familiarity with Pamela George’s fate and my exposure to genteel prostitution that informs my interpretation of l’affaire Ghomeshi.

Bear with me while I toss in another paradigm

Andrea Zanin, a BDSM educator
Andrea Zanin, a BDSM educator

While I was that young woman living overseas, I grew friendly with another Canadian who was taking part in the “dating economy”. In short, this woman knew the amount of cash involved meant she could return to Canada with enough to finance a home. So she occasionally went on dates – I never asked for details – and started stockpiling funds. It was clear she was not bothered by what she was doing and, quite honestly, neither was I. She was a lovely woman, a good friend, and I didn’t begrudge her her desire for financial security. The only thing I ever said was “Be careful”.

However, shortly before I returned to Canada, her luck changed. She was invited to a dinner on a rich man’s yacht. She left and came back the next morning. Back in the 80s, we had a saying – green around the gills – to describe either a wicked hangover or exposure to a sickening sight. That described my friend’s condition that morning. She was also subdued and withdrawn for weeks. I tried to talk to her about what happened, but she refused to say a word. What she did do was show me, with shaking hands, a diamond studded Cartier watch she had been given that night. When she returned to Canada a year after I did, she bought a home in a tony neighbourhood of a big city.

The problem? That encounter, that gamble, changed her profoundly. A once lively and funny woman became permanently sad. I’ve kept in touch with her for over thirty years and can honestly say she has never regained her sense of humour. I suspect that she is like many PTSD sufferers: she no longer finds much joy in life.

The difference between these two bad experiences is what is causing me to look askance at the way Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown are describing Ghomeshi’s behaviour. By putting the blame squarely and solely on Ghomeshi, they are doing Canadian women no favours.

And this is the point at which I part ways with almost every other feminist I know.

Does class play a role?

The bottom line is that the women who allege Ghomeshi attacked them are more like my friend than they are like Pamela George: they are middle-class and educated. George, like all aboriginals in Canada, is a member of a minority that has suffered generations of abuse and displacement, much of it committed “for their own good.” My graduate-degreed friend, on the other hand, dabbled in some dangerous activities to pay for the luxury of being a homeowner.

If you read closely between the lines of the Toronto Star article, you will see that same element of risk, with the same class of woman, being minimized. How so? It’s difficult to discern, but almost all the women described by Donovan and Brown wanted one of two things: career help from Ghomeshi or a relationship with him. In both cases they willingly accompanied him to his hotel room (or home) soon after meeting him. Some went after being told he was into kinky sex.

The issue of self-responsibility is what concerns me here. For example, being acquainted with my overseas friend has provided me some longitudinal insight into the scale of the risk she took. It was big, certainly much bigger than she anticipated. The price she’s paid for owning a home in an upscale neighbourhood has not been worth the grief it’s caused her.

How do we evaluate risk?

Kevin Donovan
Kevin Donovan

So if we as feminists are honest, we must concede that for some women, engaging in risky behaviour is, well, risky. It’s not good enough to say that men should behave better, especially when the women exposing themselves to that risk, like my friend, have better options, options like saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you well enough to go to your room.”

It’s also true that men should not be violent — of course it is — but we must stop pretending to be selectively informed; we must acknowledge that men also behave violently toward other men, just as women behave violently toward other women, and that it’s imperative for all of us to take charge of our safety and wellbeing. Demanding that the world be an unconditionally safe place for women is to push toward a lofty ideal, but it’s far from realistic. As a matter of fact, it’s downright stupid in light of all the lessons history has to teach us.

When it has come to my own safety, I have always erred on the side of realism. That hasn’t always kept me safe, but at least I don’t willingly put myself at risk. I know if I go to a man’s hotel room, especially late at night, the chances are good he’s going to expect sex. That sex may be kind and gentle, or it may be rough and challenging. I won’t know until it happens and given that lack of information, I’d like to play it safe thank you very much.

Unfortunately, playing it safe is a concept that will not be mentioned in future discussions of Ghomeshi’s behaviour. It won’t because the hysteria around the feminist demand for a utopian world — where all men play nice all the time — prevents us from saying it.


Here’s my more detailed analysis:

The phrases in quotations below are from the Star. My analysis is immediately afterwards, in italics.

1.”Ghomeshi allegedly took her to his hotel room, threw her against the wall and was very “forceful” with her.”

So did he “take” her to his hotel room, or did she walk there herself?

2. “They went back to his house in Riverdale. DeCoutere said they began making out and then she alleges he pushed her against the wall.”

So she had consented to sex and didn’t like how things went. She says that Ghomeshi stopped as soon as she asked him.

3. “Though she regrets it now, she returned to a taping of the show two weeks later. He asked her to his home in Riverdale. Once there, she alleges that without consent he grabbed her hair…”

This woman had already had her hair pulled by Ghomeshi, so she had some inkling of what he was like. Still, she went back to the taping of his show…”though she regrets it now.”

4. “I feel like a big moron now,” said the woman, who is no longer with the CBC. “I should have seen it coming.”

This woman wanted to work for Ghomeshi, but agreed to go with him to his hotel room when he asked. Going to the hotel room of a man you hardly know is not wise, in my opinion, especially if you are already getting the idea he has sex on his mind. 

5. “The two corresponded online, and Ghomeshi allegedly introduced violent sexualized language into their conversation, assuring her it was all fantasy and encouraging her to participate through email, which she did.”

Don’t engage in this kind of language and emailing if you’re uncomfortable with it.

6. “After engaging in sexual emailing, the woman: Ghomeshi invited her to visit him in Toronto at his house in Cabbagetown, she says, and she did.”

After months of “sexual emailing,” she complained because he wanted rough sex. So there weren’t any clues?

7. She alleges he put his full body weight on her…to the extent that she couldn’t breathe, and felt she would vomit. A subsequent encounter, she alleges, left her with deep bruising on her body.

Okay, on a “subsequent” encounter. So she went back?


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Rob Ford vs. Kevin Donovan: Who Snitched?

Dear readers: I expected some negative fallout from this post and of course I’m getting it. I’d like to make one thing clear: when it comes to rehab, addicts and alcoholics are free to talk about their own recovery. What I object to is the tattling nature of what the Toronto Star has done by speaking to others in Ford’s rehab facility. Every patient needs privacy, not just the mayor, and this sort of reporting puts everyone at risk. 

Kevin Donovan, an investigative journalist with the Toronto Star, has angered many of us who monitor healthcare in Canada. At issue is the privacy of Rob Ford’s stay at GreeneStone, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility based in the Muskokas. Here’s how Donovan’s article begins:

Kevin Donovan, master sleuth?
Kevin Donovan, master sleuth or bumbling naif?

Mayor Rob Ford pushed and scuffled with fellow rehab residents and was so verbally abusive that he was kicked out of his group therapy program, according to people who have knowledge of his two month stay at GreeneStone. These accounts of what one person referred to as “destructive behaviour” stands in stark contrast to Ford’s recent public statements that he…takes his recovery seriously. “Ford broke things, got into fights with other residents…[he] stopped people from sharing their stories, which is key to a successful rehab experience,” said another source. “Other residents felt intimidated. They felt he was a bully. He was always saying he did not belong there.”

Donovan goes on to describe his sources:

For this story, the Star has obtained accounts of Ford’s time in rehab from three people with knowledge of his time there, including a fellow patient, and from others, including a staffer, who provided accounts through an intermediary. Due to concerns over publicly breaching the confidentiality of the treatment facility, the sources asked that their names not be published.

Mayor Ford has been an ongoing target of a Toronto media unhappy with his conservative politics. However, as the entire English-speaking world now knows, Torontonians have other reasons for concern: his downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse is well-documented thanks to his carelessness, the ubiquity of smartphones and a media willing to pay for scandalous videos. That Ford has been his own worst enemy is not in dispute. Neither is the fact that the Toronto Star, as evidenced above, has pushed past acceptable boundaries and violated his and his family’s privacy.

My mother was turned down at a local eldercare clinic because of a privacy violation we experienced.
My disabled and stroke-afflicted mother was dropped by a local eldercare clinic because of a privacy violation made by an Ontario surgeon. These incidents are far more common than most Canadians realize.

When it comes to health records, violations like it can be deadly. In my family’s case, my stroke-afflicted mother was put at risk by the words of the surgeon who had amputated her leg. In her discharge summary — the document that summarizes a patient’s stay in hospital — I, like Ford, was described as abusive. This was in reference to words I exchanged with the surgeon when I discovered he’d falsified a report. Of course that context was not described in the summary, so when subsequent doctors read about our disagreement, my mother was turned away from their offices with vague excuses. Our difficulties became particularly acute when a dedicated eldercare clinic, which provides transport for the disabled, precipitously dropped my mother as a patient. When our rattled social worker tried to investigate, she was stonewalled. Abuse, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.

To read more about my family’s experience, click here.

Rob Ford may very well have behaved badly at GreeneStone. The missing piece of the puzzle, however, is the context. Having volunteered at a rehab, I know patients are often volatile and staff are trained to deal with them accordingly. It’s quite likely that Ford wasn’t alone in behaving badly, if indeed he behaved badly at all. Taking the word of other patients is a risky affair and Donovan’s doing so is a sign of his naivete when it comes to the world of addiction and recovery.

Moreover, he implies that one GreeneStone owner, Shawn Leon, has a questionable background. Although Leon says he does not have a history of addiction, many rehab workers are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, some of whom do have criminal pasts. However, when we consider that the majority of prison inmates in Canada are there for crimes committed because of drugs or alcohol, these troubled pasts make sense. Some of the most dedicated counsellors I’ve met through my volunteer work have spent time in jail. Take away the substances and what you’re left with, most of the time, are damaged but eminently decent human beings who have learned hard lessons. Donovan’s colouration of facts is misleading and nothing he reports counts as news for those of us familiar with addiction.

So I wrote to GreeneStone to ask them who spoke to the media. Here is our correspondence:

I’m wondering if the person who shared private information about
Mayor Rob Ford is going to remain on your payroll? The Toronto Star’s coverage, by
Kevin Donovan, is very troubling. I’d like to know if anything will be done
about the people who broke his anonymity.

Their response:

Thank you for your email. GreeneStone takes patient care and
confidentiality very seriously. As an organization we take great strides to
protect patient confidentiality and have never spoken to the media about any
of our patients.

I believe the staff at GreeneStone when they say they take confidentiality seriously. They wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t. So who snitched? And why do Donovan and the Toronto Star believe that other patients are more reliable than Ford? Isn’t it possible that the patient Donovan spoke to simply dislikes Ford and is seizing the opportunity to do something about it? And what about the future? This breach of privacy makes the possibility of any subsequent rehabs, which the mayor may need, exceedingly difficult: what institution will go up against the Toronto Star and their willingness to pay and plant informants? How many high risk patients, who fear exposure, will leave and not get the help they need?

Donovan’s errors in judgement are a genuine tragedy for the Fords and their children. When it comes to rehab, it’s a time honoured tradition that the famous are granted space and time to deal with their addictions. Denying them their privacy  — which the Toronto Star has done here — sets dangerous precedents for us all.


The Twelve Steps of Rob Ford: Will he make it? To read more click here. 

Our healthcare system is already unfair to some people. To read more click here.

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