Content note: Sexual assault and child abuse
In the wake of the verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi trial I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the “dishonesty” of the women who testified against him. And it’s led to me thinking about the biggest mistake I made in my own sexual assault trial: I lied on the stand.
I didn’t lie about being abused.
I didn’t lie about who abused me.
I lied about why I didn’t initially share a memory of an incident with the police.
It was a hot summer’s day. Too hot to even want to be outside. I was 12, or 14. I can’t remember now how old exactly. Memory is funny like that.
We were going to the video store to rent some movies for later, and I was hoping we could pick up a video game rental as well.
So I asked my stepfather if I could pick out a video game while we were at the store.
He responded by saying, “Stay still,” putting his hands up my shirt. Maybe he put them down it. Maybe it was only one hand. I don’t know. Memory is funny like that.
But I remember where touched me. And I remember how I stayed very still. Not because of the video game, but because I didn’t know what else to do.
Then it was over. We got in the van. I sat in the front seat, beside him. Maybe a good “complainant” would have sat in the back seat.
We drove to pick up my siblings. I don’t remember where we were picking them up from. Memory is funny like that.
But I remember that when we pulled into the driveway he put a hand on my leg and asked: “Would you let any man do that to you for a video game?”
I felt so gross. I remember that. I also remember saying, “It’s different. You’re my dad.”
I don’t remember what video game we rented that day. Memory is funny like that. But I remember feeling awful when I picked it out. I remember feeling dirty because he made me think I’d traded my body for a video game rental.
Years later, I was on the stand. And I was asked why I didn’t tell the police about this incident when I first reported the abuse.
You see, when you go to report repeated, regular, awful, abusive behaviour that has been ongoing for years, you’re supposed to report each discrete event as a discrete event. You’re supposed to be able to give a date it happened, like a robbery or a murder. Except you’re being robbed so often that each robbery blends into the other, you can’t even remember what was stolen, let alone when it happened.
However, I did remember this incident. And I didn’t report it at first.
I didn’t report it at first because I was ashamed. I didn’t report it at first because I felt like I had agreed to what happened.
That is what my stepfather wanted when he asked me that question – to make me feel like I consented.
And it worked.
This is what abusers do to people they abuse.
People kept telling me I shouldn’t feel ashamed, that I did nothing wrong, and those people made me feel ashamed for feeling ashamed.
So when the judge turned to me that day, and asked “why did you wait to report this incident?”
I didn’t say: “because I was ashamed.”
I didn’t say: “because it made me feel gross and dirty and like I had consented to being abused.”
I said: “because I repressed the memory.”
And that was a lie.
Not too long later, my stepfather was found “not guilty” of the two or three “counts” of sexual interference with a minor, or whatever they called the multiple incidents of abuse I experienced over the years.
When the judge gave his reasons, he took some time to explain how repressed memories are not a proven phenomenon, and he took great pains to emphasize that my saying that it was a repressed memory led him not to believe my testimony.
And the judge was right to not believe me when I said it was a repressed memory. That was a lie.
The judge was wrong to decide that because I lied about feeling dirty, feeling ashamed, and feeling awful, that I was lying about what made me feel dirty, ashamed and awful.
I haven’t read the judgement in the Ghomeshi case. I haven’t even read any of the news stories. I can’t right now, and I don’t need to.
I know what it’s like to be treated as a liar for telling the best truth you can about being sexually assaulted.