In November of 2014, a Toronto mother of two walked into a police station to tell officers that Jian Ghomeshi had assaulted her. She did so after learning two things: 1) She wasn’t the only woman the former CBC radio host allegedly hurt, and 2) There was no statute of limitations on her claim that he had yanked her hair without warning in December 2002 and again in January 2003 before delivering two blows to the side of her head. She sat down with detectives and nervously blurted out her story.
“I just went on and on,” says the woman, one of three complainants in the criminal trial against Ghomeshi, whose name is protected under publication ban. “When I later saw the excerpts of that interview in court, I was horrified,” she says now. “I didn’t recognize myself.”
That police interview was the beginning of a massive learning curve about testifying in a high-profile sexual assault trial, one that concluded today with Ghomeshi being acquitted of all charges. She didn’t know her rambling police interview would be her official statement and later used in court. She didn’t know her subsequent exchanges with detectives about whether or not she was wearing hair extensions during the first assault would be used by Ghomeshi’s defence attorney, Marie Henein, to make her look less credible. She didn’t know her fuzzy recollection of details, such as the colour and make of Ghomeshi’s “Disney car,” would be so incisively scrutinized. And she didn’t know a photo she’d emailed to Ghomeshi of herself in a red string bikini would leave her testimony in tatters.
Still, she insists speaking out “was the right thing to do.” Now, with the launch of the website comingforward.ca, she wants to help other women navigate the system if they decide to report a sexual assault. Chatelaine asked Witness 1, as she was referred to during the trial, what she wishes she had known before embarking on one of the toughest experiences of her life.
1. I wish I’d sought legal guidance before reporting the assaults.
Were I ever to make another statement in the future, I wouldn’t walk into the police station and just do it. I would consult a lawyer, because this is going to be the statement relied upon in trial. We feel the police are on our side to help us, but their job is to focus on the charges against the accused. They should have informed me that every word I said could be disclosed to the defence should there be a charge. When I went to the police, I felt like I was venting; there wasn’t much direction. The police won’t tell you to take your time, be descriptive, use words and not gestures. It would have been helpful if they had stressed that I check through emails to see if I had any communications with Jian.* Jian was read his rights and told anything he says could be used against him in a court of law. It turns out anything a witness says can be used against them, too.
2. I wish I’d known how nerve-wracking the whole process would be.
I was overcome with fear at the thought of coming forward, but I couldn’t ignore this with a clear conscience. When I walked into the courtroom, I kept reminding myself “I’m just here to tell a story.” But I felt like a sacrificial lamb. Everyone was staring at me. I brought a little crystal stone to squeeze when things got rough. I had an unquenchable thirst throughout the testimony — it was actually scary how thirsty I was. The second day, before my cross examination continued, I was losing energy. I didn’t know if I could do it. I wanted to just run out and say, “I’m sorry, you suck, you hurt me.” It was like being on a game show in front of the whole country, and if you answered one question wrong you’d get a poison arrow in the head.
3. I wish I’d known that my memory, above all, would be on trial.
People think you just go on the stand and tell the truth. It’s not like that. Marie Henein never once challenged my allegations. She did, however, challenge my memory with the collateral details, despite my repeating that my memories became clearer as I sat with them. I wish I’d known how important that was; I would have prepared more to defend my memory. If one were to retell a movie they saw only once 13 years ago, chances are they would remember and re-tell the main events before recalling the smaller details. I did see a yellow car, but that was brushed over because the model was wrong. I had two out of three facts correct.
4. I wish I’d known how harshly I’d be treated on the stand.
Before heading into cross-examination, the victim witness support worker told me it was going to get rough. That wasn’t helpful. I can’t say Henein scared me — she annoyed me to no end. She yelled and sneered and talked down to me. I was thinking, “Why is this allowed? Why am I sitting here while everyone looks on as she’s mocking me?” So many times I wanted to laugh because I was thinking, “Is this real? It’s 2016 and this is what they do?” I felt it was abusive. I was told that she wouldn’t be, and that the judge would stop her if she ever got that way. But it felt like she was attacking the hell out of me.** It’s not fair that someone gets assaulted, and has to go to court and get assaulted again. Why can’t it be adults in a room, fact-finding and looking for truth?
5. I wish I’d known how my behaviour after the assault would be scrutinized.
I knew there was a photo, but I wasn’t sure I’d sent it. I didn’t even remember what I wrote, but I remembered why I was doing it. I wanted to speak to him. I wanted to know why he did what he did. I wasn’t embarrassed about the picture. There was nothing salacious about it. I chose it. But I wasn’t happy about the big drum-roll build-up to its presentation and the insinuation that I had been “found out.” I think it’s normal for people who have a history of abuse as I do to keep it going. In my experience dating back to childhood, abuse has been cloaked in kindness. This was true for my interactions with Jian, the way he switched into this dark rage and then back to a really nice guy. People can judge me based on what they think I should or shouldn’t have done but there is no one way of reacting to abuse.
6. I wish there was a place I could’ve turned to for all the information.
Just before the trial, I felt so alone. It’s not like you can call your mother and talk about it. I’ve created a website, comingforward.ca, where I hope survivors of sexual assault can find some guidance before going to police and taking the stand. It will cover what to consider when you’re preparing to testify or report, what it’s like before a trial and what it’s like to go through a trial. Right now, there’s nowhere to look all of that up, and no one to talk to. It’s not very clear for a complainant what your role is, what the rules are, what your rights are and who you can and can’t talk to and in what time frame. I wish I’d known all of that from the minute I walked into the police station. But I still think — as horrible as the system is — more people have to come forward. If everyone stays quiet, it’s never going to change.
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