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Rights + Justice

‘Everything Is Fine’: A Tale of How Rape Can Shape a Life

At Vancouver’s Fringe fest, Jennifer Martin brings a long-secret story to the stage.

By Shannon Rupp 8 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com. 

When the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke, I would have been hard-pressed to find any upside to the growing list of sexual assault allegations. Well, not beyond CBC deciding to jettison the inexplicably popular radio host.

But as that seemingly endless story unfolded, and led to a criminal trial in which Ghomeshi was ultimately found not guilty, it was clear the matter — and the chatter — was changing how Canadians think and talk about sexual assault. Suddenly the crime that has always come with more shame for the victim than the perpetrator was under examination.

At the time, a retired Canadian journalist, Antonia Zerbesias, kicked off Twitter’s #beenrapedneverreported with Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery and the hashtag went viral, underlining how common sexual assault is. And how little it is reported.

For much of the audience, it was disturbing if not downright depressing to hear daily revelations about the twisted radio host and see the online battles. But for playwright and actor Jennifer Martin, there was also a feeling of admiration for the women who came forward.

“They were so brave,” says Martin. “But listening to the constant analysis of the trial was an assault of its own. I kept thinking that it was unfair that those poor women, who had shown so much courage by talking about it in public, were going to be perceived as false.”

But it also made her think that it was time to turn her own secret assault into theatre. In Everything Is Fine, which opens Sept. 8 at the Fringe Festival on Granville Island and runs for 10 shows until Sept. 18, Martin recalls how the impact of her own hidden encounter with a sexual predator, at 16, shook her life for the next 30 years.

She was a reckless teenager who had a fight with her parents and, on impulse, decided to run away from her home, which was in Port Credit, Ont. It was a cold winter day and she fled wearing nothing but a light jacket and a short skirt to catch a train to Montreal. From there, she set out to hitchhike to New York.

“I don’t think I even had gloves,” she admits. “It wasn’t a very organized attempt to run away from home.”

So when a truck driver offered her a ride, she was too cold to consider whether taking it was smart. The man, in his 30s, had a southern twang and a plausible manner. When he drove her to a truck stop and persuaded her to get into the back of his rig and stay hidden, because he wasn’t supposed to be seen carrying passengers, the child didn’t hesitate.

“So I went in the back, and seconds later he was all over me,” Martin recalls.

What happened next is the stuff of nightmares and TV crime shows, which is ultimately how Martin came to understand it.

“I didn’t tell anyone what happened for years because I was so ashamed. I felt guilty that I hadn’t fought back — I just sort of spaced out while it was happening,” she said. “I knew from movies and TV that you were supposed to fight back. That’s what the detectives in the crime shows always say, with admiration: she fought back; we found some evidence under her fingernails.”

File that idea — Hollywood’s salute to plucky corpses — under what turned out to be a long list of irrational things that sexual assault victims tell themselves. Martin didn’t reveal her secret to anyone until she was in university, where a friend encouraged her to get counselling. But by then the damage was done. It shaped her emotional life and played havoc with her relationships.

“It had a ripple effect on my life, for years,” she recalls. “That secret.”

She relived what happened over and over again in her memories. And she was haunted by the callousness of the people at that truck stop cafe. She was frozen on the floor of the truck for some time, in shock, before pulling herself together enough to go into the diner.

“As I walked in the door, I remember hearing a man say: ‘What you done to that girl I wouldn’t let my own son do,’” Martin says. “But no one reached out to help me.”

Then again, she allows that may not be quite accurate – that could just be her distress talking. A man offered her a lift to New York and then turned her into officials at the border. They left her to find her own way home. She hitchhiked to family friends in Ottawa.

“Now, I think that was probably his way of helping,” Martin says.

As she sketches out the barebones of her experience, it’s hard not to wonder where all the grown-ups were as this was happening. And why didn’t anyone call the cops on a man who assaulted an underage girl? But that, of course, is part of why assaults that go unreported mess with memories – victims ruminate, and question their own actions as well as everyone else’s.

So when Martin witnessed Ghomeshi’s accusers being pilloried in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion — social media erupted into vicious attacks — she found herself wondering about the impact it would have on the many other people keeping secrets. She wanted to tell them that, despite the public uproar, it was still better to tell someone.

“What I wanted to say to women who were keeping their own secrets is that this happened to me too, and I’m still standing. Still here. And I have a good life,” she says.

While Everything Is Fine is a dark story, the show’s director Deborah Porter Taylor says she finds the monologue both hopeful and humorous.

“There’s an arc to it — theatre isn’t like reality TV where they just show you some Kardashian’s paternity test and leave it there — it’s crafted to be entertaining. We’re sensitive to the needs of the audience who will have to sit in those seats for 42 minutes,” Porter Taylor says.

She describes the show this way: “There’s mourning and then there’s morning.”

She also thinks storytelling lends itself well to such an intimate tale. The 33-seat Arts Umbrella theatre is so small that the show plays like listening to a friend share a confidence, which is how rape stories are most often told.

“We get a glimpse inside the experience,” Porter Taylor says. And while she recognizes that may not be for everyone, she expects it will resonate with a lot of people.

Which is what Martin’s goal was when she first thought about turning her story into performance that might encourage others to reveal what happened to them. Although the story wasn’t easy to write, she found working it into a performance robbed it of some of the power secrets have.

She says that when she’s on stage, it’s no longer about her personal trauma. “I’m an actor; this is a script. And when we’re talking about it in rehearsal, we talk about what happened to ‘The Narrator,’ not what happened to me.”

But what really made doing the show possible was, in an odd way, Ghomeshi’s scandal. Martin remembers the hardest part in the process came one evening while she was listening to CBC radio coverage of the trial.

“It just shook me to core,” she says, recalling how the complainants were attacked for doing what many assault victims do — they were just pretending everything is fine.

“As I listened, I asked myself: do I want that to be the defining moment of my life?” Martin says. And she realized that she didn’t want it to be the defining moment of any assault victim’s life.

“But it took me a long time to get there,” she says.

You can catch Martin’s journey to making sure everything really is fine at Arts Umbrella on Granville Island, from Sept. 8 to 18, at different times. (Listing here.) It’s one of the 110 shows running at this year’s Fringe Festival.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.  [Tyee]

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