I have experienced sexual violence nearly all my life. The first time I was six and in my own home. I have experienced this violence as a pre-teen, a teenager, an adult; in my schools, in my workplaces, in my relationships, in the cities I have tried to make home. I come from two families with extremely high levels of intra-family violence and abuse, and everyone I am related to is marked by inter-generational trauma. My own parents tried hard to leave these legacies behind. I am grateful for their efforts. It spared me from more violence. Unfortunately, the mainstream colonial culture of Canada is itself violent and I went on growing and experiencing sexual violence, a little more each day.
I grew up reading. I spent my childhood reading. When my house felt unsafe I would hide in corners and read books I found on my parents’ bookshelves. My parents loved literature and stories and fairy tales and myths. My parents loved Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart and so many other Canadian authors. When we were all too sad and lonely to talk about our feelings we talked about books. Books saved me. Reading saved me. In every moment of near-suicide I remembered the books I had not yet read. This kept me alive when nothing else did.
When I was four years old I learned what universities were and my new dream was to live in a university forever. I believed it would be a fortress of books full of people talking about words and stories. My broken, violated heart leaped at the idea that when I was grown up I could run away and protect myself. I could be safe.
I spent many of my early adult years in unsafe situations. I had to leave home very early because my childhood home was not safe. Family trauma doesn’t disappear because you want it to. The ghosts of pain and suffering follow you into your children. I started university at age seventeen, thinking I had left the suffering of my childhood behind. I dreamed of being a university professor so I too could have an office lined with books to keep out the ghosts.
I did well in school and so I stayed there. I spent most of my time drinking and skipping class because I was in so much pain and I had no other way to stay alive. My parents’ ghosts haunted me. My own ghosts haunted me. I read books every day. I read on the bus, in the bars, in class. I read drunk and sober. I read smoking and walking and eating and not eating.
I started my master’s degree when I was twenty-two. I was so full of hope. I lived alone in a house full of books – nearly two thousand. I was in a graduate program studying stories and myths and literary theory. I started going to class. I kept drinking. I kept reading.
Within a month I knew that the university life wasn’t for me. At that point I didn’t think there was anything wrong with academia. I thought what was wrong was wrong with me. I wasn’t good enough. I was too haunted. I was too easy to violate.
Eventually I went to the dean to report sexual harassment from an older doctoral student. I was told if I went forward with a complaint I would never be allowed to speak of it again. I would not be able to warn other students. I agreed. Everyone in power said it was best. He would learn what he did wrong and get a chance to change. I don’t remember thinking at the time that I wasn’t getting anything. That didn’t occur to me until this week.
I went on drinking and writing my thesis and warning other students in the ways I could. He went on harassing those other students. After I defended my thesis I left academia forever. The department hired him to teach undergraduate students. This is what university processes around sexual violence look like. This is due process. He lost nothing except his belief that I wouldn’t speak out against him. I lost a great deal. I’m still learning the depths of what I lost.
I haven’t read Atwood or Urquhart or Hay for a long, long time. I’ve been too busy reading Tracey Lindberg and Thomson Highway and Thomas King. But still somewhere inside of me is a scared, lonely, violated and broken-hearted child who believed so fervently that those books she read would save her life. That universities would save her life.
I keep telling her that she saved her own life, that I saved my own life, that I will keep on saving her and my life for as long as I can.
So I will read to her, to myself. I will read authors who didn’t sign that letter, or who took down their names. Some of them I have already read, and some of them I know. I will read these stories to myself because there is a whole world outside of university process and famous authors supporting more of the same violence we have already lived for so long. Here is a list I started in case you too need some new stories. Add more. Share it. Read to your lonely broken-hearted child self. Read to your resilient and resourceful adult self. Write your own stories. Tell your stories. I’ll listen.