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.

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. 

The CBC is wrong about Gregory Alan Elliott and the Twitter Trial

Gregory Alan Elliott
Gregory Alan Elliott

This is in written in response to the CBC’s assessment of the outcome of Elliott’s trial. As usual, they are supporting hysterical social justice warriors at the expense of one of our national treasures, our common sense.  Judge Brent Knazan has sent a clear message, but they insist that “there is no doubt that Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly were harassed by Gregory Alan Elliott.” It’s yet another example of our national broadcaster falling into wishful thinking and forgetting to report the news. 

Sighs of relief will be heard across Canada this week. Gregory Alan Elliott, the Toronto man accused of criminal harassment on Twitter, was exonerated by Judge Brent Knazan in a trial that had much of the world watching.

At issue was the crown’s assertion that two women, Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly, had a reasonable fear of Elliott, a man that in his lawyer’s words, engaged them in an ongoing and ‘ugly political debate.’ The case was important because it tested the limits of free speech. When it comes to the online world, when does heightened debate, and indeed hectoring, turn into an unlawful act?

As an Anglophone living in Montreal, the idea of a world within a world is one I experience daily. English-speaking households count for less than 10% of the population, making us a small town in a sea of French. That duality is nothing special: linguistic minorities exist everywhere. But how the experience is helpful is in understanding the differences between the online world and the real world. It’s as Elliott responded when asked about his social media ban: “It is so much healthier and nice to be out with real people…You can’t spend all your time online.”

The dangers of the Internet are well-known. For most of us, the problems we usually encounter are garden variety: dating sites with ‘enhanced profiles’, engineered comments threads, and advertisers who just won’t leave us alone. However, there’s also an area of the internet set aside for the depraved; the dark net is a place where pedophiles, terrorists and other unscrupulous sorts are free to roam.

Stephanie Guthrie
CI-GENDERGAMER10 Toronto feminist Stephanie Guthrie who spoke out against the ‘Beat up Anita Sarkeesian’ video as well as the creator behind it. Stephanie poses for a portrait while being photographed in Toronto on Tuesday July 10, 2012. Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star

All of the action in this particular case took place on Twitter. It’s where odd-bedfellows abound and peaceniks and thugs sit cheek by jowl, separated only by a hashtag. For those of us following the trial, it was obvious that the real problem was one of proximity and loathing. Most of us understood that Guthrie and Reilly’s claims–that they feared Elliott–were exaggerated and indeed as unreasonable as Knazan finally ruled.

That’s because as sensible people we understand our online insulation depends on a few variables. Don’t want to see Aunt Betty on Facebook? Not a problem. Friend her but keep her off your newsfeed. Don’t want an ex to know you’re clocking him on Linkedin? Use the site’s incognito setting and he’ll never know.

But express an unpopular opinion, especially on a political website, and all of a sudden the world as you know it feels like it’s under siege.

That feeling, as abstract as it sounds, can be very real—especially to neophytes. That’s why most commenters, especially those who hold contentious opinions, hide behind pseudonyms. It’s one way to state an opinion and stay safe, but it’s also responsible for most of the non-advertising garbage littering the internet. In this sense the online world is still the wild west and Knazan’s verdict will likely shape the laws governing it. To that end, it was admirable that he spent so much time studying Twitter; it made for a lengthy verdict, but was solid in the sense that every possibility for abuse was investigated.

But why did so many Canadians find Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly annoying? Our real life experiences probably have a lot to do with it.

Apart from teaching, I run a small business that depends on good reviews. Review sites form one bridge where the online and real worlds meet. They allow for an evaluation process that seems fair, but often isn’t. On a members-only forum–where small business owners congregate–a common complaint is that we must struggle to keep up, must struggle to maintain a pattern of positive feedback. Lately we’ve discussed creating our own site to critique customers, one similar to Airbnb’s where hosts can critique their guests.

It’s a plan borne of frustration. Spreading information helps consumers get better deals and better service, but the reality is that review sites are often abused. This means many business owners live in fear of bad publicity, some of which will certainly be unjustified. Given this has a discernible effect on real lives, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Steph Guthries and Heather Reillys of the world. However, I’m guessing they don’t understand this kind of suffering; I’m guessing they love their online lives a little too much and don’t mix with the hoi polloi.

Christie Blatchford
Christie Blatchford

In her analysis of the court case, Christie Blatchford said both Elliott and Guthrie seemed ‘intense’ and ‘evangelical’ when it came to Twitter. Blatchford is right that the word ‘evangelical’ applies to those on both sides; however, its transcendent meaning is especially accurate when it comes to Guthrie. Not only was she operating in a technical sphere removed from real life, she also appeared to be living in a reality of her own making, one far removed from the rest of us.

The tell was her egocentric world view, a view that allowed her to use her 8,500 Twitter followers to ‘sic the internet’ on a 24-year old young man she didn’t like, advising prospective employers not to hire him. That Guthrie could do this, and then call the authorities when her own security felt breached, tells us she is hopelessly insipid or has a limited capacity for understanding the suffering of others. Either way, her elitism is real, and when Elliott pointed to it, as he defended that 24-year old, he was right.

Her supporters will cry, “But he revealed her location!” This is in reference to the most contentious tweet Elliott made, one that said, ‘A whole lot of ugly at the Cadillac Lounge tonight,’ a location where Guthrie and her friends had planned to meet. My response is to again point to rating sites. not only has the power to damage hard-earned careers, it also tells the disgruntled where individual professors can be found. Given the prevalence of school shootings, surely the security threat to them is more pressing?

Twitter’s comparison to a public square is apt: anyone can turn up and read your tweets. Then they can shout you down, call you a jerk or mock you without mercy. How you respond is up to you. I tend to favour Jimmy Kimmel’s approach, the one where he has celebrities read insulting tweets aloud. If you were ever in doubt about the level of crazy that Twitter can reach, watching one of his videos will help you understand.

The fact is that Twitter is more amusing than dangerous, but that’s only obvious to those of us who approach it with a sense of humour. Anything else is just too exhausting.




James Deen: Porn, Rape and Consent

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 13: Actor James Deen arrives at the GQ Men of the Year Party at Chateau Marmont on November 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images For GQ)
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 13: Actor James Deen arrives at the GQ Men of the Year Party at Chateau Marmont on November 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images For GQ)

There’s been a lot of hysteria on Twitter lately, especially when it comes to celebrities and their alleged sex crimes. Mobs that pursued Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi a year ago are pursuing James Deen, the American porn actor, now.

For both, events unfolded predictably. Reports of rape, made by ex-girlfriends, produced headlines and a procession of angry and tearful accusers. The mainstream media responded in kind: the alleged assaults are being positioned as hidden horrors of our time, proof that evil is always with us, just below the surface of civilized society.

It’s a common narrative, one that has utterly saturated the news and entertainment media, as evidenced by the popularity of crime documentaries and dramas. Its dominance is important because as westerners we think of ourselves as individualists who are not suggestible. But with social media has come some awkward insights: the deep collective animus we occasionally see on Twitter, of the sort directed at Ghomeshi and Deen, raises the question of how we define evil. Some of us observing these eruptions are wondering: ‘Just who are the real victims?’

Deen is accused of sexually assaulting several fellow porn actors. Perhaps because he’s had the advantage of observing cases like Ghomeshi’s, his response has been terse. Most of the accusations against him, he says, can be disproven with video evidence. He also surmises that his ex-girlfriend, Stoya, who posted the first accusatory tweet, may be reacting to their break-up or trying to drive traffic to her site. Whatever her motive, the accusations against Deen are particularly important because of the granular way they parse the issue of consent. It’s hard to imagine more intimate sites of violation than orifices, especially when those in question are routinely penetrated, filmed and put in front of the public eye.

This is especially true since producers of porn have recently jumped on the consent bandwagon. Female actors are routinely interviewed at the beginning and end of videos to express their willing participation. Actors often flash identification cards at the camera to prove they are of age, and along with consent disclaimers in the credits, on or off-screen narrators will occasionally describe the details of how consent was reached between or among the actors being filmed. True to the nature of their industry, they’ve learned to cover all angles.

Stoya, Deen's former girlfriend and a fellow porn actor
Stoya, Deen’s former girlfriend and fellow porn actor

However, the problem with all these codified rules is that it’s a bit like having the long arm of the law reaching into our orifices too. That’s because porn producers, along with supporters of consent classes, are forgetting something. Their rules serve a specific purpose on porn sets and in hook-up culture, but do not augur with everyone’s idea of seduction. A lot of us know our partners well enough, or if we don’t, we may do the quaint thing and delay sex until we do. In those instances, trust is established and instructions on how to negotiate consent aren’t necessary. In fact, many of us feel that the push to normalize consent rules–coming from either the porn industry or prescriptive feminism–infringes on our privacy. It means regulating matters that should remain uncharted and private, lest we rob them of their mystery. After all, porn actors and prescriptive feminists can hardly be accused of being mysterious, so why pretend their worlds are just like ours?

It’s that pretence–that all sex is the same–that Deen addresses in a response to his accusers. ‘I’m in porn, and when you take porn activity into polite society it sounds really twisted.’ Critics may take issue with the word ‘twisted’ but Deen’s meaning is clear. Porn is marginal, not mainstream, and so the sex in it needs to be kept in context: it’s entertainment and taking lessons from it would be like taking lessons in astronomy from Star Trek. But the push to popularize pornographic and hook-up sex, and to uphold them as a generalized reality, is getting support from another quarter, one reliant on victimization and identity politics.

The porn actors accusing Deen say that reporting him is futile since the police won’t take their complaints seriously. Their sentiments align with those expressed by some female undergrads. These are young women who assert their right to casual sex, but may not be fit to handle it, if the rising number of campus rape accusations is anything to go by. However, conflating sex with a stranger with sex with a lover–a goal that slogans like “no means no” attempts–suggests that both are equally risky. This is an assertion that for many of us does not pass the reality test.

Linda Lovelace

Moreover, most of us are sensitive to the pain of women who have been assaulted. When a porn actor says she has been raped, my tendency is to believe her. The deeper problem is identifying with her choices, a problem that those promoting a politically correct attitude would like to outlaw, despite the reality that responding with different levels of empathy to different situations is natural. I’m far likelier to feel empathy for a victim of a bank fraud, for example, than a person who loses all their money at a casino. The victim of fraud has fallen further, so to speak, from her expectation of safety, a fact my greater level of empathy reflects. This is not a moral failure on my part, nor is it a sign of narrow-mindedness. My response springs from my reason and emotional history, resources that all of us have and call on to make judgements.

Deen also addresses the issue of regret, suggesting that it may be an underlying motive for some of the accusations against him: ‘I have heard many stories from many different performers who have engaged in all sorts of various acts and then after either [sic] retiring, taking a break, or slowing down in the adult industry, change their desires and perceptions about things that have happened in the past.’ Linda Lovelace and Traci Lords are two well-known porn actors who repudiated their association with the industry. Lovelace joined the anti-pornography movement in 1980, gaining the support of feminists like Andrea Dworkin. In 1986, Lords admitted she had been underage for almost the entirety of her porn career, an admission that saw her entire (pre-internet) oeuvre pulled from distribution, effectively destroying any evidence of her involvement.

These stories raise the twin spectres of shame and regret, feelings experienced by women like Lovelace and Lords, who come to believe they’ve betrayed themselves. Although Deen could simply be capitalizing on his knowledge of this phenomenon, rather than observing a genuine truth about his accusers, his words resonate with anyone who’s done the walk of shame. These spectres also preside over accusations of date rape and make determining the intentions of both parties difficult, a fact that points to the advantages of caution, but is rarely heeded when desire or intoxicants gain the upper hand.

Traci Lords
Traci Lords

Stoya’s apparent victory has at least one feminist pundit claiming that ‘with multiple women having come forward to accuse Deen, it’s seen as more than enough proof of his guilt…ergo due process doesn’t really matter.’ In response, Cathy Young has written about multiple accusers and the bandwagon effect, a distinct possibility in this case, and Deen himself has admitted, among other things, to being arrogant. Of all the possibilities, I suspect it’s Deen’s admission that’s behind the drive to ruin his career. By all accounts the American porn community is a close-knit one. With such a clear focus on consent, how is it that Deen could abuse so many actors without being confronted in person first?

Despite the #SolidaritywithStoya sentiments, Stoya is an ex-girlfriend and apparently an angry one at that. Her relationship with Deen may have been abusive, but as it is with all of us, she too had a choice: she was always free to go.



Lou Reed and His Demons

Apparently Lou Reed was an asshole. That’s according to his latest biographer, Howard Sounes. In Notes from the Velvet Underground, Sounes collates the impressions of Reed’s peers, lovers and acolytes, most of whom reported suffering emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse at Reed’s hands. It’s an exhaustive account and well supported by documentation. It seems there are very few people Sounes didn’t approach.

Read more…

Credit: Timothy Greenfield
Credit: Timothy Greenfield