There’s a question people keep asking about the Ghomeshi trial, and I was up most of last night trying to think of how to answer it. I finally shut my brain off by picturing, in as much detail as possible, a solid wall of packed dirt in the dark above me. I spent the rest of the night mentally attacking my invisible wall. When I finally went to sleep it was what I dreamed about.
Between pretend punches, the words crept in.
If they were telling the truth about the assaults, why did they lie about other things? Why didn’t they just tell the truth?
I’d like to try to answer that question for you because I’m in an oddly perfect position to do so.
As the verdict of the Ghomeshi case came out, I was compiling what I’ve titled “My One Hundred and Forty Page Document of Shame”. It is a collection of every scrap of electronic contact I ever exchanged with or about the man who assaulted me. The police want it all. Every flirtation, every invitation, every sexual innuendo. Every email. Every instant message. Every text. Given that hindsight is 20/20 and my everyday vision is far from perfect, there is not a sentence of this document does not make me cringe.
As I waded through this yesterday, the whiff of shame I’d been sensing about what happened started to cling to more specific facts. This is what I’m smelling. This, and this, and this. Here it is, in incontrovertible black and white. I said these things. I did these things. And look what happened.
As I went through this uncomfortable and unpleasant self-examination, the question started popping up on social media.
Why would these women lie?
I have an answer for you, but we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
First I’m going to tell you something I’d like to lie about.
What happened to me can be separated into two distinct events. Both of them are awful, both fall fully under the Sexual Assault heading, but the second was exponentially worse and it did not have to happen. I had ample opportunity, ample opportunity to end it all after the first incident. He’d already hurt me. He’d already ignored about a dozen ‘no’s. He’d already said things that gave me no doubt about the kind of man he was. I should have run screaming. Instead, I got into his car. I let him drive us to my house. I let him come in. By the time I stopped letting things happen I had lost all control over the situation, and it was far too late to run.
If you care about me, you’re probably making excuses. He must have slipped me a drug.
He must have coerced or threatened me into coming with him.
Even if he didn’t say something overtly, I must have been afraid he’d hurt me if I tried to get away?
I’m sorry, but no.
I’d like you to look at this head-on, even though it’s uncomfortable:
I am an intelligent, rational woman, and of my own free will I got into a car with a man who’d said he wanted to rape me, who had already violated my consent.
I did that.
I really did. Don’t make excuses for me. I am deeply ashamed of my stupidity. I would love to go back and change things. I would love to bury my shame under a mountain of denial and pretend that it didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. That smart, liberated women do not make such dangerously self-destructive decisions.
The trouble is, everybody else wants to pretend that too. It would be a hell of a lot easier to support me if I hadn’t been such a monumental fool, wouldn’t it? This complicates things.
Is part of you wondering: Why would a woman who had just been assaulted really willingly go off alone with the man who hurt her? Is part of you thinking guiltily: isn’t it more likely that the first incident was consensual, and Mary just regretted it later?
Why did those women lie?
The popular narrative of sexual assault – strange monstrous man in an alleyway attacks innocent woman who fights and screams and reports it immediately – doesn’t allow for stupidity on the part of the victim. And that’s a problem, because responses like mine? They’re more common than you think.
One of the woman who’s spoken to me about her assault says that she’s changed the details of her story – not about what happened to her, but about how she reacted to it – so many times she can’t keep track of who knows which version. She says it scares her, but she can’t stop. She doesn’t know how to tell the truth without being blamed for what happened.
I cannot come up with a good reason for what I did. There is no universe in which it was reasonable.
Why do women lie?
Because let’s be honest with ourselves: if we weren’t asking why did they lie we would be asking if he assaulted her, why did they stay friends? Why did she have sex with him again? Why did Mary get in the car? And those questions are impossible.
Women finally out of abusive relationships get asked, why did you stay so long? The implication is: it can’t have been that bad. (In 2014 Twitter briefly focused on that particular Unanswerable, and I suggest you check out some of the older tweets.)
We cannot assume that people who have been traumatized will behave rationally. This is insane.
As it stands, we have a strict criteria for how victims must behave to be believed, but that criteria has no relation to how victims actually behave.
So here’s the choice I have, as I compile my emails: I can admit that my behavior falls outside that criteria and accept your disbelief and criticism. Or I can try to make my story fit your criteria – I can lie – and accept your disbelief and criticism when I am inevitably caught.
It’s a catch 22 of shamed-if-I-do, shamed-if-I-don’t.
Why did those women lie?
I think they lied because the truth was awful. Because the truth was shameful. Because the truth made so little sense that they hardly believed it themselves.
Why did we do those other things? The irrational, after-the-fact things?
Sometimes there was coercion. Sometimes we were too afraid to do anything but cooperate, afraid that if we didn’t smile and kiss him goodbye, he’d lose his temper and hurt us more. But it isn’t always like that. Sometimes we let bad things continue because we want to make them less bad. Because if it ends with a kiss and a smile, because if we talk again, laugh again, fuck again, maybe it will erase the horrible thing that happened.
It isn’t smart. It isn’t safe. It isn’t even particularly sane. But we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t happen.
If we persist in believing that women can’t possibly behave the way I did, that Lucy DeCoutere couldn’t be assaulted by a man and still write him love letters, or that another woman couldn’t have consensual sex with him after a similar ordeal, if we don’t believe that these things happen, we give victims of sexual assault no reason to tell the truth.
We have to give them a reason. Even if the truth is ugly. Even if it’s stupid. Even if it’s uncomfortable.