Dear UBC Accountable,
It’s been one year since you released your open letter to UBC, and Canada, and the world. I don’t want to wish you a happy birthday, because it’s not happy. Not for me, and probably not for you. This is the day a crack in the literary community revealed itself and tore wider with each passing week. It has yet to be bridged.
I don’t want to be writing this letter. It hurts me to remember the past year, when I saw so many I admired do something I couldn’t understand. It hurts me to think of what the complainants must have felt when they saw that website, when they saw that title (“Steven Galloway’s Right to Due Process”), when they read those careless words. It hurts me to think of all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by people they looked up to, by professors and mentors. To think of how their talents and brilliance have been crushed, demeaned, tarnished. How they’ve been told their ambitions can only be realized if they cooperate with a vicious cycle of violation and silence. How they saw in your letter their worst fears realized: that there was no justice for them. If they came forward they’d be scorned by their heroes, disbelieved by their friends. It seems like no one worries about “due process” for victims – or what comes after “due process,” when their life is all nuclear fallout. That hurts. That hurts a lot.
At this point I’m just tired. Am I allowed to admit that? I’m tired. I’ve watched in disbelief as powerful white men have fallen, the consequences of their predatory actions finally catching up with them. Every day there’s another, it seems. This man kissed a woman without consent. This man made crude sexual comments. This man did something much, much worse. These sorts of allegations probably don’t surprise many women, trans, two-spirit or non-binary people. We’ve had to deal with hands and fists and eyes and slurs and come ons, looking around desperately for someone to step in and yell, “STOP!” only to find dead-eyed complicity. This is how we learn to accept abuse, even though we shouldn’t. This is, maybe, how you’ve learned to accept abuse, too.
It’s strange to think of how America is handling this, versus how Canada handled this last year. If everything with Steven Galloway came up now, would you still have signed that letter? Would you still have tweeted angrily at hurt, confused people who tweeted angrily at you? Would you have pulled rank around one another, never daring to admit that, perhaps, this wasn’t the best way to defend your friend, colleague, acquaintance? That perhaps the best way to deal with lack of “due process” at UBC was to take your concerns to the committee that was right then devising UBC’s new sexual assault policy, their new “due process”? That perhaps the complainants had insight into failed “due process,” as well?
There are so many stories that we’re lead to believe. As writers we know this intimately. We all write stories we hope our readers will believe. But weaving tales for others, and unpacking and investigating tales others have woven for us, are not the same. They require different skill sets, and have different stakes. If a friend is accused of something awful, but tells you he didn’t do it, how do you handle that story? How do you support him? By unconditionally believing his innocence? Or is there another, more nuanced way that doesn’t alienate the person accusing him?
And what about a friend who did do something wrong? What does that mean for your friendship? Can you love someone who did bad things? This is something Sarah Silverman recently spoke about on her Hulu show “I Love You, America.” She was specifically referring to her good friend, Louis C.K., and how he admitted to masturbating in front of a number of women without consent, including her sister. She said she didn’t know how to deal with that the right way. I don’t, either. There are people I love who have hurt people I love. Sometimes it seems like I have to mentally divide them in two in order to allow myself to love them. Because what does that mean about me – if I love someone who is abusive? Does that make me abusive? Does that make me complicit?
I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I don’t know that anyone does. But I know that this moment – a moment when sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual misconduct are suddenly being treated with the seriousness they deserve – should not be wasted. Can we use it to come together, and admit that sexual violence is a much more complex subject than we often give it credit for? To admit that there is no existing form of “due process” that treats everyone with the respect and care that they deserve? To admit that criminal justice rarely looks like justice for anyone? To admit that we are all deeply hurt?
Can we start to lessen the gap between us? Bridge our deep divides?
I would like to talk, and I know many others would, too. But first I must ask that you first take down the UBC Accountable website. I’m usually not much for symbolism, but that symbolic act would certainly mean a lot to me, and I’m sure so, so many others. It would be a sign that you’re listening, and want to help put our community back together, too.
Your CanLit News
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Please consider it. Please.
With endless hope,
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and daughter. Her literary writing has been published by The Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The New Quarterly, and her current events editorials have been published by CBC, Globe and Mail, Maclean's and Maisonneuve. She's currently Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. Most recently, her essay, "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground" won a National Magazine Award.