Jian Ghomeshi, Reading SECRET LIFE, and Why Sex Assault Non-Fiction Matters

Two years ago this month, Canadian arts and culture was rocked by an announcement from the CBC: our public broadcaster and Jian Ghomeshi, by far its most popular host, would be parting company. Shortly after, Ghomeshi posted a lengthy Facebook status explaining that he had been fired over his personal sexual peccadillos. And suddenly, it was game on. People were defending Ghomeshi against the public broadcaster with an intense fury — how dare they! — but for most observers, as the evidence mounted the defences trickled to a dull roar perpetrated primarily by anonymous Twitter trolls.

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From Canada’s boyfriend to Canada’s bad date.

Because the thing is, everything happened so quickly: before we knew it, there were dozens of women and a handful of men sharing stories of inappropriate violent conduct, abusive sexual relationships, and workplace sexual harassment and assault at the hands of this widely, wildly beloved personality. Some people used their names; some didn’t. Some allegations were investigated by the police; some weren’t. And, in the end, a handful of accusations proceeded to trial, where the complainants were treated as criminals and the defendant never took the stand. All the while, this case spurred social media phenomena like #BeenRapedNeverReported, as survivors rallied in support of the complainants. In the end, Ghomeshi was found not guilty in three cases; he apologized in the fourth case to prevent it going to trial.

And then it was done.

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Ghomeshi at trial, in the centre of a media circus.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Not really. Tweet with the hashtag #Ghomeshi and even two years after the story broke you’ll still be assaulted by anonymous MRA activists, buoyed by the case’s result to say ever more horrific things about survivors of sexual assault. There are still think pieces and reflections floating around, my own among them. Many of us wonder when the Jian Ghomeshi apology tour will begin. And, as part of that, the inevitable first book emerges: Kevin Donovan’s Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation, published by Canadian small press Goose Lane Editions,which I spent my weekend reading.

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Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation by Kevin Donovan

This was one of the strangest reading experiences of my life. I already had all kinds of complicated emotions about the case, due to the conflict of my own (now destroyed) fannish feeling for Jian Ghomeshi and my passionate feminism and support of survivors. In addition to all my own baggage, to get a copy of this book I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (it was under embargo until today) and it arrived at my office wrapped in brown paper, looking intensely illicit. Everything about diving into this book felt naughty, dirty, and wrong.

The Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan, alongside Jesse Brown from the media criticism podcast Canadaland, had led the news investigation into the allegations against Ghomeshi. As such, Donovan is an insider on the case — a person in a position to flesh out all the stories that didn’t make it to trial and help us to understand Ghomeshi’s actions in the context of a pattern of behaviour dating back to at least 1991. He elucidates much in this book about how a case like this is investigated by the media and the conversations around credibility that happen in the newsroom.

But Donovan is not, therefore, an uninvested third party. There are moments where he is defensive of his own choices (especially when one of the complainants questions his coverage) and uncharitable to those who see things differently to him (like his criticism of Jesse Brown’s unflinching support of the complainants who disclosed to him). And because of his position as a journalist, this book does not offer a nuanced critique of how the media handles sexual assault.

What I hoped for, when I sat down with this book, was something like John Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Because Krakauer was an outsider to that story, he was able to see and explore the problems faced by those survivors with every institution they interacted with. This, to me, is the power of non-fiction books in dealing with issues around sexual assault: they can strip away the assumptions and past practices that dog our institutions and force us to see the inherent biases against victims entrenched in the system. Donovan does not offer that here, and though he makes some passing comment in the introduction about the lack of discussion of consent in the trials — something deeply frustrating to many observers, who didn’t understand how the complainants’ behaviour after came to stand in for any discussion of consent before — there is no critique of the justice system.

I’m glad this book exists. I was worried the first chronicle of the Ghomeshi saga would be sympathetic to him, and this isn’t, or worse still, penned by him as some kind of revolting apology tour. You cannot read this book and think the claims made by all these complainants are not credible. But Donovan tends to blame the complainants for their own lack of credibility, rather than a system that treated them as criminals and not victims. The book, then, falls short of imagining a better outcome for survivors of sexual assault in Canada, and falls short of really addressing the issue of the court’s disinterest in consent. Those two omissions are tragedies, and they leave me clamouring for the second book on the Ghomeshi saga.

I hope when it comes, and I’m sure it’s coming, it’s written by someone who survived one of Ghomeshi’s “bad dates.” At least that might be some poetic justice, since there seems to be no criminal justice to be found.

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