CanLit’s continuum of abuse


In a way, Canada’s literary community could use a Jian Ghomeshi.

I know that sounds weird. What I mean is that there are certainly some people in CanLit whose behaviour toward women is not unlike what Ghomeshi has been accused of (and I see no reason to doubt the women who have been brave enough to come forward with their stories, anonymously and otherwise).

CanLit has a Ghomeshi – several in fact. But they are protected, hidden, permitted to continue their abusive behaviour because our literary world is not exempt from the silence and complicity that pervade every sphere of our culture.

I had not thought about this enough until two female colleagues of mine – poet and novelist Emma Healey, writing for the literary blog the Hairpin, and novelist Stacey May Fowles, writing for the Globe and Mail – shed light on how prevalent varying degrees of sexual, physical and psychological abuse are in the relatively insular world of CanLit.

Much of what I want to talk about is not on the scale of what Ghomeshi is accused of. But there’s a continuum of abuse – from harassment to physical assault – which is why harassing a woman is not just annoying for her, but threatening. I wish that didn’t require an explanation.

In the Hairpin, Healey detailed her sexual relationship as an undergrad with her professor. When she finally told her story to other female colleagues, nearly all had similarly been, if not assaulted, then coerced in some way by powerful men of literary reputation.

Shortly after Healey’s piece, Fowles wrote in the Globe, “These conversations are not new. It’s just that we’re finally having them out in the open. While some of these predators have been operating for years without public acknowledgment or punishment, there has long been a shared back channel amongst women in Canadian literature – coded warnings relayed privately, chatter about who can be trusted and who is safe to be around.”

Since Healey and Fowles started this important dialogue, a couple of my female colleagues have shared some troubling stories with me about male colleagues who I would not consider my friends, but whom I’ve known for years.

These women gave me permission to reference their stories without using any identifying information.

One of them told me that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a male colleague. He asked her out on dates after she had already declined and tricked her by inviting her to what seemed like staff events where she’d find herself alone with him. He routinely commented on her appearance and when finally feeling rebuffed, sent her emails criticizing her job performance. Eventually she quit.

Another female colleague befriended a well-established male writer. He offered to meet to discuss her work, which turned out to be an invitation to go home with him. She declined, and he then spent the next several weeks texting her with pleas and insults. He ridiculed her in front of his colleagues at literary events and spread rumours about her.

She told me, “This all happened at the beginning of my writing career and put a huge wrench in my efforts. I lost all confidence [and] felt ashamed.” She left the city she was living in to start over.

These kinds of situations – in which the law isn’t broken, but women are either coerced into sexual activity or punished for not “putting out” – are common.

Acknowledging this and having the conversation that Healey and Fowles started, is obviously necessary.

In the artistic community, these issues clouded by the fact that, unlike in a university or office environment, there are no official codes of conduct. I am not sure if our literary festivals and reading series ought to implement these, as Comic-Con does. But in an artistic community, where the professional and social so easily merge, this conversation is necessary.

It involves telling and hearing abuse stories. Learning that men I’ve read on the same stage with and chatted with at readings have acted in abusive ways toward women is difficult to hear, but as Healey wrote, “Without exception, every single one of these men is still working – writing, publishing, editing, teaching – today.”

How can a woman in this community feel safe when her abuser is often a celebrated figure?

Fowles advised in her Globe piece: “…when a woman tells you a man you know is an abuser, trust her. It doesn’t matter if he’s ‘always been nice’ to you – don’t give him the benefit of your doubt. Don’t protect his ‘literary genius.’ Don’t publish or review his work, don’t sign him up for your reading series or festival, don’t buy his books, and don’t continue to support his ability to victimize the voiceless. Don’t value politeness, or avoiding conflict, or your career over the safety of the traumatized.”

A lot of people in CanLit are glad this subject has been brought to light, but a lot are upset with Fowles because she makes unprovable allegations and repeats anonymous stories. It feels like gossip to some.

Many of these incidents happen in private, and in the end come down to “he said, she said.” But why do we always begin with the assumption that the victims are lying?

That these conversations require, for the sake of the safety of the victims, a certain amount anonymity, privacy and non-identifying information demonstrates a fault in the culture, not with the people speaking out.

In an email exchange with Fowles, I related these recent stories I’ve been told, about these men I have been cordial with all these years.

I said, “I am Facebook friends with these men. I chat with them if I see them at a reading or other lit event.”

She asked me, “Why would you even want to be associated with them?”

I don’t have a good answer because there isn’t one. Dissociating myself from them could be awkward, even confrontational. Maybe it could hurt my career. In short, I’m a coward. A lot of us are. Which is why ending my complicity and doing what I can to keep this conversation going is the least I can do.

Jacob Scheier is a Governor General’s Award winning poet. | @nowtoronto



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