By Lauren Turner
Abuse within Canlit is not limited by any means to hierarchical relationships between powerful men and targeted women. The following essay is only written through a cisgender lens to align with my personal experiences as a white woman writer. We tell the narratives we know best, and I welcome your narratives in droves.
I told someone a story because I knew they would spread it. Stories were told to me with the same intent. Between women in Canlit, these circulated narratives are often about men in the community. Charming abusers. Tenured predators. Shitty men with track records of repeated shittiness.
Let’s be explicit: women don’t take joy from these stories, in being the orator or the audience.
For me, repeating the crux of the abuse is exhausting. An uninhabitable emotion, ranging from sadness to shame to anger to numbness, will surface and I often spend the day’s remainder in bed. When I told you a story about a Canlit man, it was never to entertain. Trust me.
As women in Canlit’s gated realm, we relive traumas through our words to keep others from experiencing the same. The information is meant to fall into the laps of those women who need it, when they need it. It’s a precarious equation of tell and deliver that rarely pays off.
Whisper networks form when a group craves safety against abuse. It’s a safety gained behind the backs of privileged individuals, who are abusing their role and their influence, who are blatant yet unopposed. We know that exploited power dynamics create the need for secret warning systems between women.
But whisper networks don’t work. We must admit to knowing this, too.
In Canada, the act of telling a story—whether or not it’s true—that is deemed slanderous to a man’s reputation incriminates the speaker, not the subject. Women are burdened with providing proof for every allegation. As a result, our country’s defamation laws stifle many abusers’ names from reaching the newspapers, social media, and even the ears of others, if the teller is aware of the dangers of telling.
Unlike the United States, we can’t cite an abuser’s various offenses and leave them to prove we’re being untruthful. Our sworn truths offer us no protection, despite the fact that abuse typically occurs without any witnesses, except the two people involved.
For a Canadian woman to prove abuse, she must demonstrate how each word holds water. If she can’t, she has fashioned herself into an easy target for legal retaliation from the accused. The services of a lawyer, lost lawsuits, and time away from work are financial burdens that most young Canadians can’t afford. Not to mention the emotional toll of re-testifying traumas and having personal lives publicly exhumed.
I assume Canada’s defamation laws are slanted this way to avoid fabricated abuse allegations. By following that logic, shouldn’t there be a high prevalence of false claims in the USA?
The data doesn’t support this notion. Instead the American statistics for unfounded assaults rest around 2% to 6%. This range also includes cases abandoned due to a “lack of corroborating evidence,” which doesn’t necessarily translate into “didn’t happen.”
Even if every claim were fictionalized, these percentages aren’t higher than other misreported felonies, like a staged burglary or an imagined theft.
Forget the law. Canadian society expects even more from its survivors. We expect women in pain to unequivocally behave like victims:
If you slept with the man who assaulted you after the assault.
If you didn’t immediately leave the man who derailed you with his cheating and his lies.
If you sent him a cute text. If you wrote him a love letter.
If you met him for coffee (where you ordered gin) and let him apologize for the umpteenth time.
If you did any of the above, were you really abused? We’ll need more proof, please.
I was assaulted behind Babylon Nightclub at 19. The man was a stranger whose first name and phone number I knew. The incident left my jeans wet with blood. I didn’t carefully fold the pants into a ziploc bag to parade my evidence down to the Ottawa Police Station. I threw them into the washer at 2 AM, half-drunk on Bud Light Lime, because I was ashamed, still bleeding, and in shock. Being a teenager, my most urgent thought was: Oh my god, Dad can’t see these.
I destroyed my own rape case. But almost a decade later, I feel no judgment toward myself. The driving urge for a clean slate is strong. It’s why I didn’t tell anyone for seven years that I was assaulted. It’s why I have deleted implicating texts, emails, and voicemails from that man and the later men who hurt me.
When trapped, the only wish is escape.
Since January, I have wrestled with this question: How do we remove abusers from Canlit when we can’t be vocal about what they did?
It’s a high order to dent the armour of men we deem talented. Men we protect with accolades, public glory, and a collective blind eye. Vague accusations don’t go very far. But the women who hold the details struggle to go public, unless they’ve conducted their life with an entourage of stenographers or a film crew.
To spread warnings, Canlit women are relegated to using whisper networks ad nauseam, and whispers are easy to dismiss. As slander, as backbiting. As a jilted ex with a bone to pick. More than one ex? They’re colluding. A girlfriend wouldn’t seek out the other woman for support, don’t be stupid. You know how women are.
To remove an abuser from the community, we require the legal freedom to make concrete allegations. Even a journalist in Canada doesn’t always have that ability.
When a name becomes public in a news report, friends, supporters, and diehard fans often dismiss the claims as sparse or nebulous. Despite many being writers, they don’t pause to question the wording or remember that we can only print what we can prove.
Besides, it’s not in their best interest to believe us.
To preserve a positive relationship with the accused—for the sake of his work, his good favour, his bolstering of careers—other writers let his transgressions slide. Or worse, they smear the women who speak out, exclude them from public spaces, and upkeep the silence that permits this man’s cyclical abuse.
Whether active or passive, their actions keep mouths covered.
While sexual assault in Canlit is recognized as unforgivable, less agreement exists on how to categorize other abusive behaviours.
How do we deal with creative writing profs who prowl the undergrad haunts to bed students? An editor who bars his exes from submitting manuscripts to the press, citing a “conflict of interest,” yet publishes all his friends? A writer-in-residence who turns one-on-one workshops into dates, and then harasses any woman with the audacity to reject him?
These questions aren’t a matter of policing bedrooms.
Between consenting adults, the private/public divide collapses in the presence of power inequality, specifically a disparity that’s being mined for its gold. I’m not implying that women are incapable of making rational, well-measured decisions in the face of powerful men. However, in these types of scenarios, saying “no” comes with an additional layer of complexity. By failing to acknowledge this, we will continue failing women in Canlit.
No one signs up for harassment, stalking, threats, emotional manipulation, or sexual coercion when they decide to become a writer. We have to stop acting like this behaviour is a job hazard, instead of completely deplorable.
Plain and simple, if you’re using your status in Canlit to meet and mistreat other writers, you don’t belong here.
By allowing these men to retain their prestige, we’re asking the women they abuse to forgo so many opportunities. Our arts community is a small one. Often an esteemed writer will wear many hats. They sit on panels for grants, contests, awards, publishing houses, and MFA programs, they teach courses and workshops, and they read at festivals across the country. The roots are endlessly intertwined.
Having to avoid one bad man isn’t an inconvenience. It’s a life sentence to a promising career. You can still succeed in spite of him. But only if you’re willing to hop out of his path, indefinitely, and keep your head down.
Abuse is rarely an isolated incident.
And most chronic abusers are beyond rehabilitation. They accept little or no personal responsibility. Their intent is not to listen, to consider, to atone.
They prefer to blame, to gaslight, to play the victim.
Before long, the cycle of abuse begins again with someone else. Someone they meet in a new city, new university, or new party. Someone the chain of whispers hasn’t reached.
The stories about these men overlap with eerily similar details, which repeat and repeat, and their patterns can’t be ignored.
I’m tired of you ignoring our stories, Canlit.
Going public with a man’s name is gesture of last resort. Preluding this decision, the woman will typically instigate a private conversation. This conversation may become one of several.
She states her case for her own clarity, his understanding, and often in hope of an explanation. If these makeshift summits are unsuccessful, or she learns his behaviour is part of a larger pattern, the last resort may be taken.
If you’re seeing a name revealed, things have gone much, much too far.
I don’t mean the accuser has overstepped her bounds by accusing. Rather that we in Canlit have failed her by failing to create a climate of accountability. We have allowed abuse, intimidation, threats, and violence to thrive.
Perhaps, there are only a handful of abusers in Canlit, but there’s a legion of writers permitting them to abuse. Are we seriously still relying on the abused to bring about change?
Pain, outrage, and the inescapable burden of they can’t do this to someone else will smoke out a lot of survivors, and they step into the light with their stories. They risk getting smeared, discredited, or even sued just by telling you a fraction of what happened.
If you’re involved in this community, you’re implicated, whether you want to be or not. Stop asking us, as survivors, to craft our agony into a skillfully vague #metoo. Stop asking us to rely on whispers to keep each other safe. Stop asking us to pretend that you’re not fucking up our careers, health, and sanity by protecting these powerful men.
As things stand, I don’t trust you with my story, Canlit.
Lauren Turner is an Ottawa-born writer in Montréal. Her poetry chapbook, We’re Not Going to Do Better Next Time, was published by Knife Fork Book in March 2018. Other work has appeared in Arc Magazine, Poetry is Dead, Canthius, Minola Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Lemon Hound, The Puritan, BAD NUDES, and elsewhere. She won the 2012 Diana Brebner Prize and was a finalist for carte blanche’s 2017 3Macs Prize.