It’s a may evening in 1990, and I am eleven years old, heading to gymnastics class at the high school across the street from my home in Scarborough, a suburb east of Toronto. I’m tall for my age but a slight thing, in a tie-dyed T-shirt and jean cut-offs, white-blond hair clipped back in pink barrettes. I’m a late bloomer, eagerly waiting for my body to develop into something else. Something wanted.
I’m allowed to walk by myself in the early spring evenings when it’s still light outside. My mother watches from the window and waves, smiling (something she still does today, more than twenty years later, when I leave her house after a visit). At eleven, I don’t notice the concern on her face as I walk down the driveway past our beige Volvo, across the street, and through the school parking lot. She keeps an eye on me until I enter the building.
(Many years later, I ask her how she felt about me running ahead or going out alone, given the climate of the time. “I was terrified,” she says. “But I wanted you to be free.”)
Once inside, I pass the administrative offices, the auditorium, and the glassed-in library, and make my way through the fluorescent-lit hallways to the gymnasium. There are kids everywhere, their parents trying to wrangle them amid the chaos. The gym is arranged with all sorts of equipment, and I’m eager to walk the balance beam and jump the pommel horse.
What’s important in my memory of that night is the bulletin board at the entrance of the gym and the police sketch pinned to it. The image is of a man’s face, made with a computer when computers were still rare. His expression is impassive, betraying nothing. I haven’t seen his picture before, but it has just appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star.
When I ask my instructor who he is, she tells me that he is the man everyone has been looking for, the bad man who has been hurting women. Next to the photo, a statement reads: “[Male, white] 18–22 years, 5'10–6', med muscular build, clean shaven, tan complexion, light coloured eyes, possibly blue, blond hair parted on left side, hair feathered just over top of right ear. Clothing: baby blue nylon hip-length jacket, tan coloured knee-length walking shorts with pleated front, running shoes, no socks.”
I know little about sex beyond the schoolyard conjecture spread by girls with older siblings. We discuss what boys will do to our bodies, the pleasure that may come from that. We brag about the scrambled porn we’ve seen late at night on the television, while our parents sleep. We rub our bodies together with mocking, blushing glee. We wrap Ken’s and Barbie’s smooth limbs around each other’s plastic torsos. We are on the cusp of knowledge, misinformed yet sure of ourselves.
But we do know about rape. Every child in my neighbourhood knows about rape, because it is everywhere and has been for years. It lurks at bus stops and calls from headlines, whispers its way into half-understood playground conversations, screams from the six o’clock news as my parents usher me away from the TV set in the rec room. For three years, a man, known only as the Scarborough Rapist, has been stalking and assaulting young women. He has been following them from bus stops, attacking them brazenly in public spaces. The neighbourhood marinates in its own fear and paranoia, and hungrily consumes the media-driven suspicion and helplessness.
The mystery man looks like the idols in my pop music magazines, handsome and baby faced. When the image was released, there were written descriptions from the victims, media reports likening him to the boy next door, but somehow we still expected him to look like a menacing villain.
After my gymnastics class, I head toward the main entrance of the school and pass a dozen photographs of graduating classes, each year hung sequentially in a long row. The students wear identical black robes, and they stare at me, hundreds of hopeful teenagers saying goodbye. Among them is a far more accurate image of the Scarborough Rapist than the sketch on the bulletin board. A tiny portrait of Paul Bernardo. Class of 1982. Head cocked, beaming grin.
I was raised in Guildwood Village, a pretty, tree-lined community at the eastern end of Scarborough. A suburb within a suburb, it sits snugly between Greyabbey Trail in the east and the end of picturesque Sylvan Avenue in the west. People leave their doors unlocked, and kids play on lawns and in the streets well into the evening. Where the neighbourhood connects with busy six-lane Kingston Road, a strip of indistinguishable mini-malls, sports bars, and no-tell motels, it feels like those no man’s lands on ancient maps: “Beyond this place, there be dragons.”
At the southern edge of Guildwood lie the Scarborough Bluffs, a majestic escarpment alongside Lake Ontario that invites daytime joggers and dog walkers, nighttime lovers and “bluff parties”—local slang for teenage beer-and-bonfire mischief. Lining the bluffs is a forest, conveniently accessed from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute by a hole (now sealed) cut in the towering chain-link fence. Teenagers regularly snuck into the woods to smoke joints, drink, and make out.
Reported attacks by the Scarborough Rapist began in 1987. In May that year, a twenty-one-year-old woman was assaulted and beaten close to her parents’ house by a man who had followed her after they both got off the same bus. Fourteen incidents in Scarborough, the last one in 1990, were known by the police well before Bernardo’s ultimate conviction in 1995 for the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, teenage girls that he and his wife, Karla Homolka, abducted, raped, and murdered in their St. Catharines home in 1991 and 1992.
Around the same time that the computer image was released, I recall our health teacher taking the female students aside for a series of mandatory sex education classes. While we sat uncomfortably at our desks, she showed us cryptic anatomical line drawings of male and female body parts on the overhead projector, stoically demonstrated how to unroll a condom over a five-inch wooden shaft, and encouraged us to write anonymous questions on tiny scraps of notebook paper, which she answered in a monotone from the front of the class. Then, after providing the mechanics, she warned us that our bodies held something valuable that was waiting to be ruined.
“Men and boys will try to take sex from you,” I remember her saying. “You have to fight them off as hard as you can.”
News of the Scarborough Rapist was ever present, and the spectre of violence consumed our daily lives. Our parents warned us not to go into the woods, but my friends and I did anyway. We jumped out from behind trees to scare each other, the sound of our screams and laughter echoing through the woods like a wolf call tempting the very devil we had been taught to avoid. We were like children in wartime; danger lurked everywhere, but we had no choice but to play. We had no choice but to learn how our bodies worked at the same moment as we were told to hide them away. We had no choice but to grow up.
In the summers of our early adolescence, we rode our bikes through the endless cul-de-sacs, filling the day to get to night. When it finally came, we would collect bottles of cider and cans of Molson Canadian; we would roll joints on coming-of-age novels and slot them carefully into packs of du Maurier cigarettes. We would make out with boys in the wet summer grass, always aware that the monster waited somewhere in the distance.
On a summer day in 2011, I sit on the curb across the street from Bernardo’s childhood home in Guildwood. It’s less than two kilometres from the house I grew up in, located on a handsome street—one on which Bernardo reportedly admitted to committing a sexual assault in March of 1986. Unlike the other homes on the block, there is no cheerful garden, no stately tree on the lawn, just a bland brick box on a plot of land, the drapes closed tight, the carport empty. Bernardo’s parents, Ken and Marilyn, still live there.
Twenty years after the reign of the Scarborough Rapist, I had returned to find out what happens when children grow up, as my friends and I did, in the murky depths of a community’s fear. I had known the basics of Bernardo’s crimes, but as a little girl I was shielded by my parents from the dark details, and as an adult I had chosen to avert my gaze. That summer, though, I had begun to delve into the record of his offences: hundreds of newspaper accounts, documentaries, and true crime books. The story had captured international attention for years. The public was fixated on the lurid crimes, his “Ken and Barbie” marriage to Homolka, their rape and murder of her younger sister Tammy, and the videotaped torture and murders of Mahaffy and French. The graphic, exhaustive media accounts were unsettling and controversial, and in 1993 a publication ban was imposed on Homolka’s preliminary inquiry, with the judge citing Bernardo’s right to a fair trial.
In 1995, the Star reported that calls to rape crisis centres and helplines increased by 30 percent in the period leading up to Bernardo’s conviction. Gail Robinson, director of the women’s mental health program at Toronto General Hospital, said she had treated a number of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, exacerbated by the relentless coverage. The high-profile case has followers even now. Internet forums such as Watching True Crime Stories and Darker in the Light post pictures of Bernardo in his prison cell and offer updates on Homolka’s life since her release in 2005. As recently as August 2013, Bernardo’s face appeared on the cover of the Toronto Sun, his application to be transferred to a medium-security prison becoming front page news.
When I found myself on the curb across from the Bernardo home, I already knew the details of his crimes and his disturbing upbringing. His father was a peeping Tom who molested Paul’s sister, and his verbally abusive mother lived almost exclusively in the basement. His father was physically abusive and called his wife a “bitch” and a “big fat cow.” Paul adopted these sorts of insults for her when he discovered, at the age of sixteen, that he was the biological child of a man she had had an affair with. He would later call his victims similar names during his attacks.
As the Scarborough Rapist, Bernardo committed unspeakably vicious assaults: he raped women orally, vaginally, and anally, often cutting and penetrating them with a knife. He choked them and punched them in the face. He would later brag about his crimes to Homolka, and then with her help he intensified his attacks to kidnapping and murder.
According to media reports, after Bernardo’s arrest a police officer assigned to prepare the official transcript of the footage of French’s and Mahaffy’s torture collapsed, weeping, and couldn’t continue. I had a similar reaction while reading it. The smallest details haunted me: during one prolonged assault, Bernardo took a break to rent a movie and grab a pizza, and another time Homolka cooked a chicken dinner for the couple and their victim.
The real terror was that it felt so ordinary and suburban, that the vilest acts occurred in the spaces we thought were safe. I was struck by the same sense of banality, looking at the home where Bernardo grew up.
Evil was not foreign to our idyllic community. It had been with us all along.
In february 1993, just after Bernardo’s arrest on a combination of charges relating to the Scarborough rapes and the two murders in St. Catharines, the Star ran multiple stories about the evolving case. Among the other details, the paper revealed that ten years earlier Bernardo had graduated from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute. Six months after his arrest, I started grade nine at the same school. Nicknamed “last-chance Laurier,” it used a semester system that enabled students failing at other schools to collect the credits necessary to graduate as soon as possible.
Some of the roughest teenagers from across Scarborough commuted in for the program. While I was at Laurier, I witnessed or heard accounts of the following: girls drinking vodka and orange juice in the bathroom, kids sharing joints in the smoking area, skinheads gathering around the flagpole on the front lawn. One student had his teeth bashed in with a combination lock; another was cut around his eye with a broken bottle, and still another got slashed with a machete. The beatings and fights were too numerous to count. At Laurier, survival depended on the ability to remain under the radar, to never attract attention. Barring the occasional torment from mean girls, I mostly succeeded.
In grade nine, I was a cheerleader for the Laurier Blue Devils, Bernardo’s former football team. The twelve-girl squad, in our white and navy uniforms, performed on the sidelines in the chill autumn rain, hoping the players on the field would notice us. That year, I developed a crush on a loud boy with a stocky build who was much older than me. I had never really been touched by a boy and had only been kissed a handful of times, yet I fantasized about his big, thick hands on me.
One day, he approached while I was sitting on the hall floor with my back against my locker. He stood above me, smiling. “I thought maybe we could go to the pond in Rouge Park,” I remember him saying, naming a quiet, secluded spot where teenagers liked to park. “It’s nice there at night.”
As the Scarborough Rapist’s confidence grew, the violence of his assaults escalated. He stole one victim’s ID, noted her home address, and threatened to kill her family. He broke another victim’s arm, and stabbed others. The police created a special task force, set up surveillance, and increased their patrols in the Guildwood area. Public forums on sexual assault were held at local high schools, where women were told to protect themselves, particularly when travelling by public transit at night. With the assistance of the FBI, the police constructed a profile of the assailant, and some sixty law enforcement agents from Canada and the United States worked on the case.
There remained a sense, however, that these efforts were inadequate. When a nineteen-year-old student was raped in April 1988 after exiting a bus, Lois Sweet wrote in the Star that the young woman “is now suffering from the physical and emotional aftermath of Monday night’s prolonged, vicious attack. But eventually she will also have to cope with the knowledge that her community allowed it to happen.” The woman had been attacked between two houses, below a bedroom window, and her screams for help were heard but ignored.
Sometimes, women themselves were blamed for the rapes. “Don’t expect people to watch out for you if you happen to come back at 1 a.m. in the morning off the bus,” Constable Vic Clarke told the press in June 1988, after several women who had been attacked came forward in Scarborough. “It would be nice to think that you can go anywhere you like nowadays, but don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position.” That same month, Alderman John Mackie proposed a curfew for women.
In response to the assaults, the Toronto Transit Commission instituted its Request Stop program. In the evening, women could ask bus drivers to drop them off between stops, closer to their destination. “I was truly freaked out,” a woman who lived in Scarborough back then told me. “I was waiting for a bus, and a man walking past said, ‘You should be careful. I could be the Scarborough Rapist.’ I waited until he was out of sight and speed-walked to the nearest restaurant. I called my parents for a ride.”
In October 1988, the media reported that a woman had managed to escape an attack, but not without receiving multiple stab wounds to the thighs and buttocks. Bernardo used his own knife, but women were subsequently warned not to carry a weapon for protection because the rapist might use it against them.
It was a victim in May 1990 who put a face to the Scarborough Rapist, and her description of Bernardo led to the sketch I saw on the gymnasium bulletin board. It ran in newspapers with the headline “Is this ‘boy-next-door’ the Scarborough rapist? ” and 16,000 tips were given to the police that summer. In all, they received 41,000 tips from the public.
After the image ran, a woman who worked with Bernardo brought it to the office and joked about the similarity. Another employee contacted the police about the likeness, but they didn’t pursue it. They did, however, follow up on a concerned call in September 1990 from the wife of an old neighbourhood friend of Bernardo’s. After interviewing Bernardo for a half-hour, they concluded that he was credible, well educated, well adjusted, and congenial. He voluntarily gave a DNA sample.
While women were warned not to be easy targets, Bernardo hid in plain sight. The police collected samples of the Scarborough Rapist’s DNA from victims, but it sat untested on a shelf for years, along with samples from 224 other rape suspects. Forensic scientists were busy with what the police considered more serious murder cases.
Bernardo’s DNA was not compared with the Scarborough Rapist sample for more than two years, after he had already escalated to murder.
On the same day that I sat outside Bernardo’s childhood home, I paid a visit to my old high school. It was the first time I had gone there in thirteen years, and it looked rundown, with paint peeling from the walls and overhead lights flickering. In the halls, I passed clusters of summer school students. The occasional harried teacher eyed me warily but said nothing. I wandered aimlessly, not entirely sure what I was looking for.
Eventually, I headed back to the foyer, searching for the line of graduating class portraits. For almost the entire time I was a student at Laurier—long after Bernardo had been arrested—his class picture had hung there. New students would often seek it out, lightly touching the glass while staring solemnly. At a school where I had witnessed violence and misbehaviour, this was one object to which we showed deference.
In my last year of high school, I heard that a girl younger than me, a petite punk with platinum blond hair and heavy black eyeliner, had pulled down the picture from the wall. The rumour was that she carried it out of the back of the building and into the parking lot, threw it in the trunk of a car, and brought it to a party where classmates sat around it, downing beers.
I like to think it was an act of defiance, an attempt to protect us from Bernardo, to do what the police and the community had failed to do for his victims. In the foyer, I see that the space where the photo once hung remains empty. No one has made an effort to fill it, or to move the remaining portraits to disguise the vacancy.
There is just a hole where his image once smiled out at the world.
When i was fourteen, I wrote the name of that older, stocky boy I had a crush on inside a big, looping heart in purple ink in my diary. When he asked me out to Rouge Park, I felt special and chosen. I wore a blue gingham bra with tiny pink flowers stitched on it, in the hope that he might see it.
No one was afraid of the boy, and no one warned me about him. He didn’t carry a knife. He didn’t steal my ID, or tell me he was going to murder my family if I told anyone about what happened. What he did to me that night never made the news.
I remember his erection in his white cotton boxer briefs. I remember how he ripped a button from my shirt when he forced it off. I remember the musky, rank smell of his thick body on top of me. I remember how cold I was, and that I wondered, strangely, where the geese go when it gets that cold.
I remember thinking that no one would believe me if I told them I hadn’t wanted what he did to me. I thought I had made myself vulnerable, despite everything I had been taught about keeping myself safe. And when the boy was done with me, I was grateful that he let me go, that he drove me home, that he told me I was pretty. It is a discomforting gratitude I have carried for two decades.
When you are a young woman and your body becomes a crime scene, a reminder of tragedy, how can you ever come to love it? For years, I didn’t tell anyone what happened to me. I never felt there was anyone to tell or anything to be done. I believed I had to endure it. I even felt lucky that it hadn’t been worse—the worse I had been cautioned about by police warnings and the evening news. I didn’t learn how to protect myself. Instead, I learned how to be afraid for my entire life.
Rape has a default narrative. It is the one I grew up with in Scarborough, and it has been buoyed by television crime shows, sensationalized media reports, and the myopic way we define victims and their attackers. In this narrative, a rapist jumps from the bushes, a woman is assaulted, she presses charges, there is a conviction. What we rarely acknowledge is that most victims, and their communities, never find justice or solace, at all.
Bernardo was ultimately convicted of the first-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, and in 1995 was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Despite DNA evidence linking him to earlier sexual assaults, he was never convicted of the Scarborough rapes. The Crown did not see the need to pursue the additional charges.
Six years later, in 2001, after I had moved away to attend university in Montreal, an Ontario court ordered that the videos Bernardo made of his crimes be destroyed. The parents of the two girls attended the event, along with several individuals who worked the case. Together they witnessed the destruction of the videos, the crime scene photos, and other evidence. For the families, their existence had long represented a violation, and their obliteration was a relief.
During the summer I spent immersed in research about Bernardo and his crimes, I thought a great deal about the question of closure and what it means for victims, for families, for communities, for me. In our search for closure, we often fail to accept that violence alters us permanently. I came across a story that ran in the Star, published soon after the trial concluded, which argued that Bernardo was not the monster we wanted to believe him to be, but rather “one of us,” a product of our culture, a man groomed with a pervasive, violent hatred of women. Marilou McPhedran, a women’s rights advocate, spoke of the insidious impact Bernardo had had on our community, that he had created an ambient trauma even for those who had not been directly victimized by him. It is a wound that will probably never heal.
“The Bernardo case has been played out as a titillating drama,” she said, “and we’ve failed to understand what it’s done to us.”
This appeared in the December 2013 issue.
Fabrice Strippoli just released Dark City, a visual record of fleeting and spontaneous moments in Toronto.