I was once a witness…
Before starting, I will mention a trigger warning of sexual assault and being a witness, so if that’s something you don’t want to read about right now, then don’t read on.
I have never been very open to anybody but family members and close friends about what I am about to share, but I think it important to talk about. It is a difficult thing to do though, so please be gracious.
After hearing the outcome of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, I’m sure many victims of sexual assault are brought back memories they might rather just leave buried in a dark corner of their cerebral cortex. It’s inevitable, though, if you’ve been through a court proceeding for sexual assault and to feel empathy for the women involved— whose sufferings were not avenged, or even recognized(!)— and burning anger at Ghomeshi, who merely suffered wasted time in the courts and maybe a smudged reputation. A couple of weeks ago I really wanted to write a story about sexual assault for school and to be published in my programs paper, the Pioneer, but it didn’t work out. Oftentimes personal accounts about an issue are so much more powerful though, so this is my tribute to the women involved in the Ghomeshi case, and anybody who has been put through sexual abuse.
I was once a witness. When I was in grade 9, and between studying hard to keep up my straight A grades and throwing javelins at track and field, I flew down to Calgary for a terrible, horrendous experience in the Calgary courts. If you wonder why victims of sexual assault rarely come forward to witness, simply look at what they are put through, and how they are treated.
I’m sure you’ve heard by now that sexual offenders are most often known by the victim; it’s not just strangers in the dark. Mine was my uncle, who I had only ever met when I was a baby, and then the time I met him when I was 10 and he sexually violated me. For a long time afterwards— I can’t remember if it was months or over a year— I would lie awake at night and wonder what had happened during that weekend in Calgary at my uncles house, and why I had allowed him to violate me. I was so scared, and ashamed. This is what those who haven’t been violated don’t understand, that it is a known psychological response for the victim to first feel deeply that it is their fault, and as a result to feel ashamed. So they don’t come forward. It’s not a simple thing of ‘oh, you were abused? So why the f*** don’t you just stop crying and do something about it?’. I don’t know what made me different and decide to come out of my bedroom late one night and hesitantly confess to my mom what I thought had happened to me the weekend in Calgary between her brother and I. I thought my mom would be angry at me. She was simply so sad, and held a deep well of anger at her brother inside. She was always such an amazing mother, and she didn’t let me see the anger, she just became what I needed in the moment, and held me and let me know it was ok. I don’t think she was really surprised, though; she had a difficult upbringing, and her brother especially. But my coming-forward started a chain of events that led to my uncle being put behind bars, to this day.
First my parents thought I should see a therapist, and during one session a couple of cops showed up. In a case of child abuse, therapists are required to report the case to authorities. It turns out there were already a number of cases against my uncle. He was some sort of children’s health worker (dentist?), and a few of his patients had come forward with allegations of abuse. The police said if I didn’t come forward as a witness in the case against my uncle, that he might walk away free, that none of the other witnesses testimonies looked like they would hold up. Nobody in my family pressured me to do anything, but I decided the right thing to do would be to witness in court, for myself and for the other children involved. Over the next three years, I gave my testimony on video taped at a children’s sexual assault centre in Edmonton— a few times—followed the case from a distance, and waited to see if I would have to do the terrifying thing: face a family member in court and talk in detail about how he violated me. At the time I was so shy, I never even said the word ‘bra’ to anyone but maybe close friends, so one can imagine how intimidating the thought of talking about my physical body— and specifically how it was violated— in a room full of strangers would be.
When I was 14 the time came for me to head to Calgary with my mom and testify about what had happened over the course of a weekend, four years ago. Even though it was such a hard experience, it is one of my best memories with my mother, because she tried so hard to make it fun for me, and almost like a vacation. We went shopping, ate at fancy restaurants, and she let me do whatever I wanted to. Regardless, it was far from a vacation. I was lucky as an under-aged person to not have to physically stand in the courtroom where the judge, lawyers, and my uncle were. I was led to a separate video-connected room by a friendly childcare worker, and testified from there. So I never actually had to face my uncle, except when we accidentally bumped into him in the corridor (exactly what I had nightmares of happening). That was a big oopsie on the part of the childcare person. In addition, although the case was followed in newspapers occasionally, my name was never mentioned (there’s one win for the law).
This is where the flaws in the justice system show. Like I already said, I had to recount exactly what happened four years ago as I could remember it, and one would think that it would be impossible for a child molester to get away with the things they did. But it is simple, really. Most victims don’t come forward until months, or years later. Do you think you could remember every detail of a weekend four years later with great precision? Especially if they are memories you would rather not revisit. Court proceedings drag out for years until the final hearing. By that time, memories are fuzzy, and the trick for a criminal lawyer to get their pedophile client free of any charges is a simple job. Just make the witnesses’ account of events show even minor discrepancies from their original testimony, and the witness is no longer credible. With no witness, no charges are laid. I may be wrong— it was quite a while ago now— but I believe my testimony was the only one that held up in court, even though the slime-ball lawyer tried hard to make it seem like I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about and am a perpetual liar. Some of the things he asked had no relation to the trial; he was just trying to make me appear badly to the judge. I stuck to my guns though, only said what I could remember, and if I didn’t remember something exactly right, I said so. It is extremely terrifying to be on the stand, though! It would honestly be so easy to frighten witnesses and get them to say things that contradict each other.
I feel deeply for the victims of Ghomeshi today. They are victims of sexual assault, and now of a justice system which calls them liars. Sure, they made contact with Ghomeshi after he assaulted them, and some even went on more dates with him. However, judges need to consult psychological professionals on the matter before they deem witnesses as incredible due to ongoing contact after the initial incidence of abuse. Just as it seems irrational for victims to generally feel shame and blame after being abused, it may seem irrational for them to contact their abuser after the fact. But then why is it so common? It is a NATURAL response. Victims of sexual assault should not feel the need to hide their initial reaction to being abused; it is part of a normal response, and part of the damage that has been done to them. Consider an abusive partnership, and how often times the abused party will return time and time again. This is the same thing, in different circumstances. Victims are struggling to sort through the boiling ocean of emotions and thoughts they are drowning in. While I never tried to reach out to my uncle (he actually tried to add me on Facebook, which I obviously denied), I do know how easy it is to look past emotional abuse and focus endearingly on the beautiful parts of someone you may love. Has anybody ever hurt you, and you knew you shouldn’t speak to them anymore, but for a reason you can’t explain you go right back, and maybe it happens again? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
So how about we stop calling victims liars, and instead consider ALL of the facts in the case, including the psychological ones. Stop victim shaming, and allowing those who hurts others to walk away scotch-free, and into communities where our children and loved ones are at risk.
Some people may be shocked that I am posting openly about this thing that has happened to me, but it is the silent way that we treat sexual assault that allows these incidents to happen unnoticed in the dark. Look around you; many, many more people have been affected by sexual/physical abuse than you may initially think. You might think it’s those other ‘sluts’ who are violated, and let’s face it, they deserve what’s coming to them, right? (that’s sarcasm, FYI) That is, until it’s your daughter, best friend, or partner. It’s only when open discussion about difficult topics such as this one becomes accepted, and people become comfortable discussing these issues, that change will happen. So here’s my survival story story. What’s yours?
Here’s to hoping that victims will be treated more seriously and with more compassion, respect, and dignity in the near future.