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Thursday Thinkpiece: Going Public–A Survivor’s Journey From Grief to Action

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Going Public: A Survivor’s Journey from Grief to Action

Dr. Julie Macfarlane is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at the University of Windsor. She is the author of Going Public: A Survivor’s Journey from Grief to Action (Between the Lines, 2020). She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2020. Macfarlane’s books include Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari’a Path in a Secular Society and The New Lawyer: How Clients are Transforming the Practice of Law. She has researched and written extensively on dispute resolution, self-represented litigants and access to justice, and the legal profession. 

ISBN: 9781771134750
Publisher: Between the Lines
Page Count: 228
Publication Date: September 2020
Regular Price: $27.95 (paperback) $13.99 (eBook)

Excerpt: p 65-72

Sexual assault awareness day

In January 2014, I was supervising three third-year Windsor law students who were working on a paper about how law schools dealt with complaints about sexual assault. One of these students, Brady Donohue, was also leading the organization of Windsor Law’s Sexual Assault Awareness Day, which first took place in 2013. Brady’s brainchild, the idea of Sexual Assault Awareness Day was to raise student awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape, both on campus and in the law school, and the extent to which this problem is suppressed and ignored. In 2013, before the #MeToo movement began to change public consciousness, this was an audacious and brave innovation in a climate that barely acknowledged, let only discussed, sexual violence. Brady had also started a blog, “Pantyhose and the Penal Code,”4 intended as a forum for frank discussion on the barriers faced by women in the legal profession, including the requirement that they wear pantyhose, but especially sexual assault and sexual harassment.

All three students were in my office one day discussing plans for Sexual Assault Awareness Day in 2014, including whom they might invite to speak and on what topic. The previous year, speakers had focused on legal issues, such as why it was so difficult to secure a sexual assault conviction, how to convince a jury, and so on. I knew that this was not what Brady really wanted this year. She wanted, instead, to encourage a more open and personal conversation that broke the silence about personal experiences of sexual assault.

Just do it, I told myself.

I was sitting at my desk. I moved my chair away from my desk and faced all three students squarely.

“I’m a sexual abuse survivor. I’ve also been raped—twice actually. If you would like, I would be willing to talk about those experiences on Sexual Assault Awareness Day.”

Time stood still. The three students stared at me. They looked stricken. I immediately regretted my choice of words. It sounded like it would be horrible, coming out that way. I babbled on.

“I would be talking about it in an empowering way, of course. . .”

Brady spoke first.

“Seriously? You would do that? Are you sure?” “Yes. I’m sure.”

I had done it. I was committed. Although it all still felt a little surreal and certainly scary, I knew I couldn’t back out now, and that actually felt good.

The date for that year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Day at Windsor Law was set for March 5, 2014. The students originally designed a poster for the day with the date and time of the session that simply said, “Featuring Professor Macfarlane.” When they showed it to me, I said that I thought the poster should be explicit about what I would be talking about. They looked fleetingly anxious, but agreed. We came up with “Professor Macfarlane will break the silence [the event theme] surrounding her personal experiences of sexual violence.”

As soon as we had finalized the poster and it began to go up around the law school, I realized that I needed to tell some of my close colleagues personally before they saw them. I didn’t want them reading this news off the poster and feeling upset. I made a mental list of everyone I felt I needed to check in with, and I did the rounds. This was hard, but important both for them and me. I forced myself to walk into their offices, a tight smile on my face. Their responses were sometimes awkward and stilted, often a little baffled, but always supportive. One more hurdle crossed. It was real now. I was going to do this. 

The hardest speech I ever gave

As the day of my speech crept closer, I could no longer delay writing it. By this time in my career I had delivered literally hundreds of speeches. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to audiences large and small, engaging them and trying to keep their attention. My long-established approach was to use notes with a list of bullet points or slides with the same shorthand structure. It was natural for me to find the words in the moment, to be relatively spontaneous, and to improvise around my structure. I no longer had any nerves or anxiety about speaking in public, having done it so often.

But this was different. Nerves would hardly describe how I felt when I anticipated looking out over the room where I would tell my personal story. For the first time ever, I felt that I needed to write out what I would say, word-for-word. I was afraid that if I did not, one or both of two things might happen; I would not make sense, and I would not get through the speech. This was an odd realization, to be tackling something so very familiar in an entirely new way. So, I drafted my speech, word-for-word, and then sent it to a few trusted friends as well as my husband and daughters for their input.

Everyone was so supportive and encouraging. I obsessed, of course, about how to frame what I would say in a way that would be most clear, most empowering (emphasizing survival and moving on) and least toxic for others to hear. I was painfully aware that there would be other women in the room listening who were survivors of sexual violence. Just as Karyn Freedman reflected on her first public reading of her story, “How many women in this room . . . are holding their breath right now? How many are feeling unhinged?”5

I knew I had to focus on some but not all of my experiences— this was just a thirtyor forty-minute speech—and I thought hard about which of my experiences would be most meaningful and relatable for my audience of students and some faculty. I knew I wouldn’t make all the right calls, but thought hard about some details, for example, whether to mention that my university date rape had resulted in a pregnancy and an abortion (I left that out for fear of making it harder for someone opposed to abortion to hear what I was really saying), or how much detail to give about the assaults by the minister.

I refined the speech in a few places with the input I received, but basically it was the way I wanted it right out of the gate. It was like I had been waiting to do this for decades (well, I had). Next, I started to practice delivering it out loud. I wanted to detoxify it, so that I could feel okay about the words as they came out of my mouth. I knew that this would help me not to break down and to be able to get through it. So I practised out loud many times, with the help of my so-patient husband.

I was ready. The hour before the speech, Brady came to check on me in my office, her face clouded with anxiety. “I’m fine, I’m good,” I reassured her. I really was. A calm had settled on me. Bernie and my youngest daughter were also there with me and two dear friends, Perry and Gillian, who had driven in from our small town to Windsor to listen and support me.

I delivered my speech on the evening of March 5, 2014, to a packed room of students and faculty in the law school. I felt literally held up by the arms of everyone in that room. Here is how my speech began:

It’s been more than fifteen years since I first started thinking about talking publicly—somewhere, somehow—about my prior history of sexual assault and rape.

I’ve been too afraid.

The reasons are obvious—it’s hard to talk about traumatic experiences. It’s embarrassing to talk about sexual assault and rape.

I worry about upsetting people.

I worry about the reaction to me—will people look at me differently? What conclusions and judgments will they draw about me?

Nonetheless, for many, many years I have kept returning to a deep conviction that it was important for me to come out and be public about my experiences.

I believe that it is important for at least some of the survivors of sexual violence to identify themselves.

Part of the reason is to demonstrate that these things happen to many, many people—and not necessarily the people that you expect.

Part of the reason is to shake the stereotype often attached to those we call the “victims” of sexual assault—that perhaps they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps they were preyed upon because they were seen as vulnerable, or fragile, or helpless—and present instead a real person, who has a real life: In this case, me.

[And part of the reason is] because there are many, many women like me—we are strong, and we now have successful lives, healthy relationships and we are one hundred per cent credible.

I want you to understand today as I tell you some of my difficult stories that I have really, truly survived.

But I have stayed silent, and afraid, for a long, long time.6

Aside from my voice, the room was absolutely silent. No fidgeting. The eyes of everyone in the room were trained on me. I was conscious of my husband and my youngest daughter sitting about halfway back to my left. My long-time colleague Myra Tawfik sat in the front row, right in front of my podium. Myra was so still, she almost seemed not to be breathing.

In the next part of my speech, I tried to explain what I hoped to achieve by coming out.

I hope to set an example to everyone who is here, as well as beyond this room, of the difference it makes to break our suffocating, paralyzing silence about sexual violence that keeps us as a society, and us as a law school community, stuck in a place of avoidance, minimization, and denial.7

I talked about being raped at university, and about being sexually assaulted by the Anglican minister as a teenager. I did provide details—the details I had spent time worrying over in my preparation. Details were important, I concluded, not because I wanted to be graphic or upsetting but because I felt that if we do not talk concretely about what has happened in an assault or a rape, we reinforce our larger difficulty with talking openly about sexual violence.

I tried to honestly and realistically describe my confusion, fear, and isolation when these assaults took place. I reminded my audience that it had taken me decades to reach the point that I could, today, speak up about these experiences. It might take any one of them who has had experiences of abuse a long time too. But I added:

You do not have to wait as long as I did. There are people who will support and stand up for you, who will believe you, and, most important of all, protect you.8

The very last part of my speech was the part that I had had the most trouble getting through when I practised. It always made me cry because it spoke my deepest truth about these experiences and how they had changed me. That night, my eyes were filled with tears but I marched through that final section:

I have told each of my three daughters when they were, in my view, old enough, something about my experiences in order that they might be able to recognize and name sexual assault, rape, sexual predatory behaviors, and physical and sexual violence. I have done this so that they can always know that they can come to me if anything like this ever happens—or feels like it is about to happen—to them, or to any of their friends.

Today you are all my daughters—and sons. Whatever your own experiences, what you have heard me talk about today will change you. Women and men, we are all part of breaking the silence and changing the culture.9

The room embraced me.

Consequences

The stone I cast into the calm of my law school’s silence on sexual violence created a lot of ripples.

The speech achieved a lot of what I had hoped. Looking back, I think the most important consequence of what I did that night was that it began to normalize the widespread experience of sexual violence. My speech is now part of our law school story. Students who were not in the law school at the time know about it. They talk to me about it. My disclosures have bonded me to other women with similar experiences, whether or not they choose to be public themselves. Students now often write papers for me about their own experiences of sexual violence, using some of the ideas I talk about in the classroom, including process design, confidentiality, safety, and participation, whether using legal or institutional processes. I am glad that I can offer a safe place for them to describe their experiences and explore how they—and the system they will work in as lawyers—might deal so much better with sexual violence. This has made a different kind of conversation in my classroom imaginable and possible.

Many of my fears about the repercussions of coming out did not materialize. Any sense of personal embarrassment faded away quickly. I just got used to it. I think I resigned myself quickly to the fact that both friends and strangers now knew a lot more about me than I (or they!) had ever expected they would. I was briefly miffed when the London Times described me in an article written about my abuse by the minister as “sex claim woman,10 but my sense of humour soon took care of that. My greatest fear was that my students and colleagues would never look at me the same way again, but in practice I do not find myself discomfited by it. It would be a little like feeling embarrassed because the existence of my biological daughters makes it obvious I have had sexual intercourse. That would obviously be silly. Now that my story is known, the secret part of me is now also the public part of me, and that feels right.

Making the speech brought me a deep and lasting feeling of affirmation and relief. I was no longer hiding an essential part of myself. It remains astonishing to me how long it took to take this step, which was so positive and important for me. It had been more than thirty years since I stepped back into the light in 1983 and left my violent domestic partner, ending my chronicle of sexual abuse. Many women attest to the same feelings of personal affirmation and emotional relief when they speak publicly and to family and friends about the abuse they have experienced.11 Public speaking is not for everyone, of course, but survivors consistently describe a feeling of catharsis from speaking up, even if to just a small, close circle.

The speech prompted a number of female law students to come forward and disclose that they had been assaulted or harassed by other students. For a few weeks, the law school roiled in the turbulence of these disclosures. The students who had organized Sexual Assault Awareness Day and to whom many of these disclosures were being made began to feel overwhelmed. For a few weeks, we turned the giant whiteboard in my office into a map of all the complaints that had been brought forward and the interconnections (for example, one law student, named by several different women, appeared to be a serial rapist).

Unfortunately, as is often the case with a new activist strategy, we did not have a clear idea about our next steps. We had not thought enough in advance about the limits of what we could offer those who came forward with disclosures of assault. In 2014, my law school had no internal processes for dealing with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and the central university processes were unwelcoming, bureaucratic, and inadequate. The students and I asked the law school administration to speak with the women who had come forward and that they message the student body at large about the availability of counselling and support services. “This is out of control,” I was told angrily by one senior administrator, as the consequences settled in. My speech had broken the silence— but silence was the status quo, and changing the status quo throws everything off balance. After some tense discussions, a supportive and acknowledging message was sent to students by the dean. My 2014 speech and its aftermath serves as an example of how it is relatively easy to embrace a single event or individual coming forward and far more difficult to recognize and respond to the endemic and systemic nature of the problem.

I was now ready to become an activist on other cases. I was beginning to hear from other women, some high school students and some university students. I had not anticipated that this would happen; in 2014, before #MeToo, stories of personal disclosure were still uncommon. In this way my coming out speech not only brought me personal relief and affirmation, it also marked the beginning of my public activism on sexual violence.

___________________

[4] Brady Donohue, “On Pantyhose,” Pantyhose & The Penal Code, January 26, 2014, pantyhoseandthepenalcode.wordpress.com.
[5] Freedman, One Hour in Paris, 182. We had counsellors in the room.
[6] Julie Macfarlane, “Featuring Professor Macfarlane,” Speech presented at Windsor Law’s Sexual Assault Awareness Day, March 5, 2014 (Speech on file with the author).
[7] Julie Macfarlane, “Featuring Professor Macfarlane.”
[8] Julie Macfarlane, “Featuring Professor Macfarlane.”
[9] Julie Macfarlane, “Featuring Professor Macfarlane.”
[10] Sean O’Neill, “Sex Claim Woman ‘Ripped to Shreds’ by Church Lawyers,” The Times.
[11] Others attest to the liberation of going public on other issues that we might otherwise hide and feel shame about. See for example Beth Beattie, “Shaking off Mental Health Stigma,” Jumping Off the Ivory Tower, podcast audio, March 26, 2019, representingyourselfcanada.com/shaking-off-the-mental-health-stigma/.

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