It is very difficult to read about the suffering of someone you admire and care about. And yet, when I finished Julie Macfarlane’s new book, “Going Public”, the story of her experiences of sexual abuse and violence, I felt enlightened and uplifted.
Why? I think it is because Julie is vulnerable about her experiences AND uses her professional wisdom, insight and experience to put her stories into a larger context.
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” Brené Brown
This book is important for many people and groups, including:
- Survivors, their families and those supporting them
- Professionals leading and working in the inter-connected systems (justice, policing, healthcare, mental health, education etc.)
- Those seeking ways to create systems that are people-centred
I can speak best from the perspective of the second and third groups. I have long admired Julie for her conflict management expertise, her dedication to researching and showcasing the voices of self-represented litigants and for advocating for systems that are user-centred. This book has only strengthened my admiration for her.
Going Public is a powerful (often difficult) read with a strong undercurrent of hope. Julie combines her experiences as a sexual violence survivor and as a legal scholar. She is able to place “some of my formative personal experiences inside the frame of legal analysis.” Julie tells stories to help others to see different perspectives, to develop empathy and compassion and to have the courage to question their own behaviours, assumptions and systems.
Powerful stories move us to seek meaning and purpose. When the storyteller can combine her own story with reflection and analysis it helps us to make sense of it, to experience empathy and to nudge us to action. This unique combination brings Julie’s stories to life and points to something bigger.
Julie’s ultimate goal in writing the book is as follows: “I believe that acknowledging experiences like mine that are shared by vast numbers of silent others is an important step toward a more compassionate, nuanced, and realistic public discourse over sexual violence.” [Note 1]
Julie tackles many myths, distortions, biases and barriers. As one example, she carefully analyzes why she did not disclose or report the abuses she suffered for many years. This common response often results in assumptions and suspicions about the survivor’s credibility.
“If I could compellingly challenge just one narrative about sexual violence with this book, it would be the pervasive and misguided belief that if someone experiences rape or sexual assault or harassment, “all” they need do is “just” report it to authorities. And that if they do not, or delay, then nothing really happened.” [Note 2]
She discusses a long list of personal and systemic barriers, including:
- Shame, self-blame and self-doubt
- Fear of not being believed
- The false reporting myth
- Consent mythology
- Risk of reprisal
- Institutional barriers and delays
- Deeply embedded culture of denial and protectionism
- Trauma, ongoing PTSD
- Feelings of isolation or rejection
The barriers are real and often overwhelming. [Note 3] Julie points out many ways in which the justice system exacerbates the pain of survivors and works to convince them not to claim. I admit that it helped me to surface and understand some of my own buried and inappropriate assumptions. Yes, a humbling but essential experience.
The bigger picture
Julie is clear that the book is not a call for every survivor to go public. But she does want to help everyone move “from grief to action” (the subtitle of the book).
Change should focus on the people the system is designed to serve. In her journey, Julie experienced overlapping systems including the civil justice system, the criminal justice system and the university governance system. Through Julie’s eyes, each system came up short in the way it received and dealt with her and her serious concerns.
Julie uses her privilege, experience and research to speak frankly about institutional and legal system barriers and lack of accountability.
The other thing that holds survivors back are the flaws in the legal system that I try to set out in this book as a result of my experience. The length of time this takes, the emotional investment, the traumatic nature of being faced with horrible consent arguments as a defence…and then feeling you are dealing with a monolithic institutional lack of empathy. [Note 4]
We need to listen carefully to those with lived experience, including those who are also “insiders” in the system. By chronicling both her own personal stories and linking them to the stories of others as well as empirical research, Julie gives us a clear glimpse into systems that are not working for those who have experienced sexual violence or harassment.
But Julie doesn’t stop at naming the barriers to change. Action can take many forms including advocacy or more direct steps to create change. Julie concludes her book with a list of recommended changes in civil and criminal law as well as institutional investigative processes. Many focus on the need for training in trauma-informed practice and the dynamics of sexual violence.
Julie walks the talk. She modelled action by negotiating a new claims protocol for the Anglican Church’s process for defending sex abuse claims (a claimant’s Bill of Rights) as part of the settlement of her civil claim against the Church.
Julie’s book is not a call to survivors to claim; rather, it is a call for transformational system change. It is a call to action and, it is a call to hope:
“I want this to be an affirming account of survival and recovery. I have had a wonderful life, a functional life and that is possible. And I think that this has to be very small steps for people.” [Note 5]
Note 1: Page x.
Note 2: Page 27.
Note 3: Julie’s comments are echoed and amplified in the recent report of Rise Women’s Legal Centre, January 2021: https://womenslegalcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Why-Cant-Everyone-Just-Get-Along-Rise-Womens-Legal-January2021.pdf
Note 4: Jumping Off the Ivory Tower podcast Nov 19 2020: https://representingyourselfcanada.com/going-public-special-episode/
Note 5: Ibid.