Still Not Safe to Go Out: The unending loneliness of the victims of predators

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

The pandemic has changed how we think about most of our social interactions and our relationship to others. We have risen to the challenge of supporting one another and being “with” one another across social distance of 2 metres and much, much further (two of my kids live in other countries).

But one of the things that has not changed is how the world responds to and judges those who come forward to report sexual abuse, assault and harassment.

Going Public

A Survivor’s Journey from Grief to Action

By Julie Macfarlane

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Tara Reade and Joe Biden

Further down the news feed, far beneath the COVID headlines, we know there is an appalling epidemic of domestic violence behind closed doors as the lockdown continues.

And there is a new story that follows the now “classic” and so familiar pattern:

  • A survivor steps up to report (often long ago) sexual assault and harassment
  • As a result of #MeToo, there is initial tentative interest
  • Then (and especially when the person accused is a powerful man, in addition this time the de facto Democratic presidential nominee) everyone piles in on the “inconsistency”, “ulterior motives” and general alleged lack of credibility of the victim
  • Any interest is diverted after a couple of news cycles.

I haven’t read a single convincing reason to disbelieve Tara Reade’s accusations of Joe Biden (and let’s make sure we are not confusing this with shoulder rubs) — shoving his hand under her skirt, prying her legs apart and sticking his fingers into her vagina. And then him complaining when she didn’t like it. Sounds pretty familiar and convincing to me.

The fact that it was long ago and she didn’t tell this story at first but stayed in the “safer” territory of complaining about unwanted comments and touching tells me nothing about her credibility. In fact, this is the path of many, many survivors including myself. We say a little bit, take one step at a time, before eventually — if we can find the courage — letting off the “bomb” of sexual assault.

How would you feel about telling someone else that disgusting story about a powerful man? Yet once again the narrative of “she’s just in it for notoriety and attention” drowns out our common sense and empathy.

John Anthony Nabben and the students of Walkerville Collegiate

Both the dismissive tone and the intentional tearing-down of Tara Reade are a pattern when victims step forward to report. In this respect, this story resembles a case I have been involved in for a decade involving an abusive high school drama teacher. Again, the dynamics of power made it incredibly difficult for his victims — in this case drama students in an elite performing arts program — to step forward and tell the story of what their teacher was doing to them behind closed doors.

Last week, the Ontario College of Teachers finally revoked the teaching licence of John Anthony Nabben, who had taught for over a decade at the Walkerville Collegiate drama program, following allegations that over many years Nabben abused students “physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally and psychologically”.

Throughout those many years, the students (and a sole teacher) brave enough to speak out about him were gaslighted by the school board, and by their peers who formed a cult of acolytes around the influential teacher (a familiar element when a predator operates in a school or institutional setting). Their suffering at Nabben’s hands was terrible — he targeted anyone who resisted him — but they had to hear continuously that he was “just trying to help their careers”, that he was “an amazing teacher we are so lucky to have” etc. These students endured horrible self-doubt in their teenage years as they tried to reconcile their actual experiences with Nabben with what they were always being told by older people in authority about his genius and importance, and as they tried to persuade the authorities to take their detailed descriptions of his abusive behaviour seriously.

Sadly, now that there is vindication, this isolation and feeling of lack of understanding persists.

Several years ago, the Walkerville students created a private Facebook page for support and this weekend it is full of the anguished cries of young people who for years and years have been disbelieved and reviled by others.

“I just feel like I need to scream at Nabben directly, stand up for myself and my friends, tell him how much bullshit he put us all through and just stick it to him, without being laughed at, socially ostracized or ridiculed in the way we all were whenever we brought it up. I just feel like I never got that chance…Now that he’s been fired and I KNOW that I’m not crazy, none of us ever were, even though he did such a good job of making us believe WE were wrong and he was innocent….. I’m just so angry and I’ve never felt like this before and I don’t really know what to do. When I’m driving, when I’m eating, when I’m just sitting with my family etc, it’s on my mind. It’s kind of eating away at me….

For anyone who spent any length of time near Nabben: you are worthy. You are valid. You were right to be suspicious. You were right to feel something was wrong…No one believed us for years, and that pain isn’t going to go away overnight.” (Dane Fader, quoted with permission)

Safer? But still not safe

Why are we still letting this happen to people who report when we know — really, all of us know this — about the dynamics of power? That predators are adept at silencing younger, less powerful individuals, and these predators are then often backed up by their institution? Haven’t we seen this happen over and over again? What is wrong with us?

Another old story, described in previous blogs, returned this week to haunt us at the University of Windsor (I shall write more in a few weeks time, when the risks to anyone writing have abated or at least stabilized). I have been hearing from distraught students all week. They keep asking me, how can this happen? Why are we still disbelieved? How can we be being gaslighted again? Why do we feel scared and threatened for speaking the truth?

We can do better than this as a world. The pandemic shows us that we can understand and empathize with experiences that are different from our own. Please, please let’s think about not just how we make it safe to go out again after COVID-19 — but how we make it safe for survivors of sexual abuse and violence to speak up and be affirmed.

One anguished person wrote to me in frustration this week (all caps as in the original):

“SO MUCH WORK STILL HAS TO BE DONE FOR …SURVIVORS.” (anon., quoted with permission)

Dane Fader, the former Walkerville student quoted above, put it a little more positively:

“Walkerville is safer and the world is a little kinder today.”

Safer, yes, but still nowhere near safe enough for survivors to come out and stand up without fear of being disbelieved and attacked.

. . .

Originally published May 10, 2020 on Medium.

Going Public by Dr. Julie Macfarlane is available for preorder now.

Dr. Julie Macfarlane is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at the University of Windsor. She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2020. Macfarlane’s books include Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari’a Path in a Secular Society and The New Lawyer: How Clients are Transforming the Practice of Law. She has researched and written extensively on dispute resolution, self-represented litigants and access to justice, and the legal profession.