What’s the lesson when a woman breaks her silence and comes forward to talk about her rape, sexual abuse and trauma, and nothing happens?
Call it the silence after the silence.
When E. Jean Carroll’s essay on hideous men, an excerpt from her new book What Do We Need Men For?, was released two weeks ago, I stumbled over it almost by accident. A cryptic tweet from New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum sent me in search of Carroll’s essay and there it was — embarrassing, funny, terrible, horrifying, sharp as the prick of a needle.
Readers of Carroll’s long-time advice column in Elle magazine instantly recognized her inimitable style. The pluckiness, self-deprecating wit and dollops of good sense were all there.
But so was something new — a bitter edge of exhaustion and underneath that, like gas fumes, despair.
Carroll’s catalogue of men — some old, some young, a few very famous and others not so much — who had all perpetrated acts of unwanted sexual attention functioned like a manifesto. The stories, beginning when she was a very young girl and ending with her rape in a department store dressing room by the current president of the United States, detailed a lifetime of fighting back, sometimes beating men off and occasionally running away. All of it assessed with cool intelligence and a profound self-awareness.
In addition to everything else, the damn thing was so well written.
Carroll’s experiences were all too familiar. And the essay brought a white-hot moment of recognition of the injustice, and then the terrible, crushing realization that probably nothing would change.
A similar sequence of emotions occurred while watching Baljit Sangra’s documentary Because We Are Girls. The film opened Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival earlier this year, and is starting an extended run at the Vancity Theatre on Friday.
Like Carroll’s essay, Sangra’s film documents a pattern of sexual abuse perpetrated by a man against very young girls.
Carroll was 12 when an older man groped her (No. 6 on her list of Hideous Men). A camp counsellor took her on a canoe trip and felt her breasts and vagina. The experience is the one she most regrets, mostly because she didn’t come forward.
In Sangra’s film we meet Jeeti Pooni, who was 11 when an older cousin in the family home raped her in Williams Lake. It took her 25 years to share her story, along with her sisters Kira and Salakshana, who also suffered abuse from the same man.
Like Carroll, the Pooni sisters’ decision to tell their story did not have a Hollywood happy ending.
Almost 12 years after Pooni shared her story, Manjit Singh Virk was found guilty of two counts of indecent assault, one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual intercourse without consent. But last month the B.C. Supreme Court stayed those convictions because the case had taken too long to move through the courts.
In an emotional plea posted on Facebook, Jeeti Pooni asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appeal the decision and to help make things better for victims of sexual violence and abuse.
“I don’t blame women who don’t come forward,” Pooni says in the video. She explains how she and her sisters were re-traumatized by the experience of pursuing their case, how they were made to feel unworthy, disrespected and dehumanized — “like we didn’t matter.”
It’s an experience that keeps many women silent, often for years. Yet when they do come forward, the immediate question is "What took so long?"
Carroll was 52 when Donald Trump raped her, she alleges. (Trump denies it happened — “she’s not my type,” he said.) It took 23 years for her to finally tell her story.
The details of her account land on your face and hair like stinging insects. The fact she was still laughing when the assault began, and hung onto her purse as it progressed. Or her description of her Donna Karan coat dress, never worn again after the assault, tucked underneath a raincoat at the back of her closet like a dead body.
Carroll is typically blunt and honest about her reasons for not speaking out until now. The consequences were clear, she wrote.
“Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten and attack them, never sounded like much fun. Also, I am a coward.”
The Pooni sisters’ experience showed the cost of pursuing a case of sexual assault.
In an interview with the CBC on June 13, Jeeti Pooni described her experience in coming forward about the abuse by her older cousin.
“Well, back in 2006, my sisters and I saw something that made us believe he was still active. So, it becomes one’s duty to do something about it,” she said. “And I have little girls, and I want to protect them. So, we decided to tell our parents. And then came a phone call from his sister to quash our voice. To tell my sisters to shut up and be quiet, and we didn’t, we took it further.”
The process dragged on with police reports, a preliminary hearing in 2013, a B.C. Supreme Court trial beginning in 2015 and a conviction in 2018.
Then Virk’s lawyer filed an appeal, arguing that excessive delays meant the accused could not have a fair trial, based on the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2016 “Jordan ruling.” The convictions were stayed and Singh went free.
It’s an all too familiar scenario. Carroll’s essay brought shrugs from some factions and demoralized sighs of exhaustion from women who are simply worn out.
The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote that it took a few days before she could muster the will even to read it.
“Carroll’s essay — exceptional, devastating, decades in the making — has made me consider how hard it is to understand right away that you’ve been exhausted into submission, especially when submission and endurance feel inextricable,” she wrote. “It’s reminded me of how high I’ve let my own hideosity bar get lately, and also of the fact that no one can lower it again but me.”
Even when women are believed, it often feels like nothing changes. Trump, despite being accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct, is still the president of the United States. Brett Kavanaugh is still a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Woody Allen is still making movies. Louis C.K. is still planning a comeback. And so on.
It’s a horrific struggle to tell these stories. Even worse, the process often subjects women to even more abuse and pain. In Because We Are Girls, each of the Pooni sisters describes the effect that childhood sexual abuse had on their lives and relationships. In one staggering scene, the women confront their aging parents, asking how much they really knew about what was going on.
The process of speaking out is an emotional marathon, one that also takes time, money and the will to endure. As Jeeti Pooni states at the outset of the film, she and her sisters are among the less than one per cent of women who manage to have their cases heard in court. And the justice system is simply the last bit of an extremely long road.
Silencing is embedded in our cultural DNA.
The stories of Carroll and the Pooni sisters show the training that women receive from family, media and the world at large that keeps them silent, and the current system in place.
For the Pooni sisters, it was Bollywood movies that most affected their understanding of sexuality. As Jeeti Pooni explains, she didn’t initially understand the message the movies conveyed when the female lead, weeping, dishevelled, her clothing torn, leaps off a bridge to wipe away the shame of being dishonoured. But later on it became clear — rape is worse than death. Talking about it also brings other repercussions, as one the sister notes, “bad girls get shipped back to India.”
Carroll explains that she’s a product of her time and culture, taught to pick herself up, dust herself off and keep going, no matter how great the injury.
“And many women my age just ‘get on with it’ too,” she writes. “It is how we handle things: Chin up! Stop griping! We do not cast ourselves as victims because we do not see ourselves as victims. While the strategy has worked for me, I wish I hadn’t waited so long to say something about two of my Hideous Men.”
The will to keep-on-keeping-on works for a time. The mind, in all its plasticity and ability to protect, walls off the original trauma, like an infection. But eventually the walls give way and poison floods into the rest of the body, and then the only thing to be done is to let it out.
Which is where we currently are, with the great truth-telling wave still rolling. I keep expecting it to hit the shore, a wall of water, taking out buildings, streets and the careers and livelihoods of powerful men. I’m still waiting.
Conventional narratives have taught us that when the truth is finally revealed, the brave are rewarded, the wicked are punished and justice is served. But that’s only in the movies. Reality is somewhat different.
But still, women persist.
Jeeti Pooni says breaking patterns is ultimately what she and her sisters are doing, not just for their own sake, but also for the women who come after, their daughters and granddaughters. Carroll also has kept on telling her story in interviews around the country.
Because the thing about waves is, they keep on coming, slow and sure, eventually turning massive boulders into sand.