The day that I was physically assaulted started out as a celebration. That morning, a profile on me was published by a magazine. The magazine had put together a series on Torontonians who collect weird and wonderful things: a man with an impressive collection of blades, another whose walls were adorned with taxidermied animals, and then there was me, the writer who collects old love letters mostly from European flea markets. The magazine had come to my house, photographed me with my collection of letters dating back to as early as the First World War, and interviewed me about my predilection for the obscure, forgotten odes to undying affection. It was written with care, and many readers genuinely seemed to connect with it. I felt appreciated and acknowledged.
To celebrate, I decided to go for a bike ride. Cycling is my favourite thing to do on a clear, sunny day. It’s the quickest way to feel like an eight-year-old again, especially for a writer who is normally stuck behind her laptop.
It was late November, so there was a bitter chill in the air, but as I zoomed and zigzagged through the city streets, I could feel a warm glow return to my cheeks.
Then, at a red light, I was assaulted.
In broad daylight, at a fairly busy intersection, a man in his car nearly hit me. In some provinces, including Ontario, drivers have to give cyclists a minimum of a metre of space when passing. This guy, who I assume didn’t check his blind spot, came so close, I could feel the whoosh from his side mirror grazing my skin. I caught up with him at a red light, knocked on his window, and told him he had almost killed me. He got out of his car and physically assaulted me, first trying to push me to the ground.
A good Samaritan very kindly intervened on my behalf, putting himself between me and the man and then photographing the licence plate of the car before it sped off. He then called the police. I was in no condition to do so myself. The police arrived quickly and were very kind to me as they took my statement in detail. The warmth from my bike ride quickly dissipated, as did the cheerful celebratory mood from the morning. No longer able to feel my toes, I asked if I could warm up inside the back of the police cruiser. I sat there and cried.
As a woman, I am no stranger to violence. It was in my home growing up, and it was in all of my elementary and high schools. As an adult, I have experienced a wide variety of gendered violence: strange men fondling me on the streetcar, gross men grabbing at me on the sidewalk, dude bros at nightclubs pushing me off of my feet when I have rejected them, and drunk men at street carnivals accosting me—all of these men and more thought they had a right to my body. Experiencing such regular violence in my life often normalized it. It was just a normal part of my day. It was nothing new.
My first instinct after the Samaritan helped me was to go home. It actually didn’t dawn on me to phone the police. When he asked me if I was okay, my actual, stupid reply was, “I’m sorry you had to get involved.” I stood there, looking at him and feeling guilty for causing a scene, for interrupting his day, for making a fuss. I don’t need the police, I need a Greek chorus, ferchrissakes. This really wasn’t a big deal, surely.
When I did finally get home, I said nothing. I texted the man I was casually seeing about it. A few days later, I told only a select few in my inner circle. A few friends. And for six months, I never said a word about it again. I didn’t tell my roommates. I didn’t tell my employers. I didn’t tell my larger social circle. I didn’t even tell my family.
I just didn’t want to talk about it. Not out of a sense of shame, although for many women that does play a factor. In my case, I couldn’t stand the reactions. If I were to bring it up, I often felt like I was regarded as ruining a light and fun conversation; here was some heavy shit no one could deal with—and, indeed, people often quickly changed the conversation. Or I felt like I was being handled with charity and pity, and I hated the idea of being seen as a victim. I am not a victim, and I’m particularly not a man’s victim.
I still don’t want to talk about it. But my journey through the police system was about to begin, whether I liked it or not.
Sexual violence and physical violence can often intersect and overlap, with both falling under the wider umbrella of gender-based violence. In fact, many Canadian women experience some kind of violence in their lives, and physical assault is one of the most prevalent types. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, approximately one woman in this country dies every six days as a result of intimate-partner violence. A Statistics Canada 2014 report further shows that self-reported rates of violence—i.e., instances that are disclosed during a survey study, for example, but not necessarily to the police—are higher among women than among men. For both women and men, physical assault accounts for the greatest number of police-reported violent victimization incidents.
Many incidents also go unreported. When it comes to sexual violence, a woman’s most common reasons for not reporting include perceiving the crime as minor and not worth taking the time to report and also believing that the police would not do anything to help. In addition, approximately nine out of ten sexual assaults by a nonspousal perpetrator are never reported to the police. Throughout the year following my statement to the police, I would come to understand why so many women stay silent.
After the day I was attacked, I didn’t hear from the investigating officer for five months. I kept calling the division to ask for her. I wanted to know if my assailant had been arrested, and I wanted to know the progress of my case or, perhaps, if I was needed for anything. I just wanted any kind of information. I wasn’t just requesting; I was begging. But I always seemed to miss her. Sometimes, I was told her shift did not start until late that night, when I was asleep; other times, I was told nobody knew when her shift started. I left message after message but never received a call back. Once, I called at a specified time only to be told she wasn’t there after all. While I can’t know whether it was deliberate or if she was just busy—or if it was just bad luck—the effect was the same: I felt I was intentionally being given the runaround. (When I later reviewed the police records, they suggested I had not been in contact at all.)
Finally, I learned my assailant hadn’t been arrested or charged yet because two names were registered to the provided licence plate. The officer needed an age range from me, which I quickly provided, and later that week, she phoned to tell me a man had been charged with assault. I took that phone call as I was about to leave the house for a bike ride to my favourite flea market. When I hung up, I dropped my purse and sat at the top of the stairs for a long time.
“I ruined his life,” I thought. I did not think, “He ruined his own life.” I thought maybe I was to blame for his actions, like I should have known better than to confront a driver who’d been aggressively burning rubber next to me. The assault only lasted a few seconds, and the pain had subsided. Was it worth pursuing this for an act so short in duration? Later on, I thought of something Germaine Greer sardonically wrote: “You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.”
At the same time, my case kept moving through the system at a seemingly slow pace. Five weeks after I’d received the initial call informing me a man had been charged with my assault, I still knew surprisingly little about my case. The more people I called for information, the more I was bounced around the system. I’d consulted with free legal counsel, who had told me I could call the Crown to go over my case details and to relay my thoughts, wishes, and concerns. But it was very difficult to reach the Crown counsel assigned to my case.
When I did finally reach their office, they told me they didn’t know why I was advised to call them. I was transferred to city hall without explanation. City hall told me they didn’t understand why I was told to speak to them, and without explanation, I was transferred to the Victim/Witness Assistance Program at Toronto’s old city hall. I would later learn that, in a case like mine, once charges have been laid, a person would be referred to the Victim/Witness Assistance Program and from there would be assigned a worker, who would be a liason to Crown counsel and would be there to answer any questions about the court proceedings.
But, at the time of the phone call, I knew none of this, and that lack of knowledge was frustrating. All I wanted was some information about my case, or, at the very least, some clear detail about how the system worked—what I could expect and what I had a right to expect. But no answers were forthcoming. A week later, I was given a worker. My caseworker was someone who knew her position inside and out. She knew rules, regulations, procedures, and the limits of her office’s capabilities. And yet, despite all this, I often felt like my wishes and feelings were treated with a cavalier disdain. For the next few months, every time I called to ask for updates and information on the court proceedings, I never felt supported. I felt like a burden.
I was reminded the accused has rights in this process; I don’t begrudge him his rights. I never even mentioned his rights. But I often asked about my rights. Because, by this point, I had no idea at all what I was entitled to in this process. For women who report an act of violence, it’s often difficult to tell whether the system is working for us or broken beyond repair—that’s because there is little clarity at all for us on how it’s supposed to work. And good luck easily finding clear, consistent, accessible information.
I had assumed I had a right to speak with the Crown attorney about my case and to ask questions (I did have the right, but I later learned the process is more involved than I thought). I had assumed I would be kept informed about every court appearance my attacker made (there is, in fact, a process for this, should my attacker have made it to court) and that I would also be informed when my presence was required (which, I later learned, would only have been if my case went to trial). I had assumed I would be asked to give a victim-impact statement (which, I would find out, only happens in the case of a conviction).
But I knew none of this at the time. Months would go by with no news. The only shreds of information I managed to procure were obtained at my own initiative by calling various offices over and over, leaving so many messages on voicemails that were seemingly never received.
It was exhausting.
In the long lulls of no news, I took comfort in my trove of old love letters. In contrast to today’s text messages, which can be terse and full of acronyms, the language employed in these old letters was vibrant and fresh. The letter writers had carefully crafted every sentence—something I particularly noticed in the letters sent during times of war, when it could take months for letters to be received. Their bittersweet words and sentiments soothed my world-weary soul. One passage from a First World War letter written by a Belgian refugee forced out of Ypres and stranded in Saumur was particularly meaningful to me because of the hope it offered. I have translated it here from the original French:
How victory will be beautiful; Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, England, and France will enjoy peace and will mark Germany for annihilation. And that this day arrives quickly, we pray with fervour. The Good Lord cannot remain insensible.
It was a message I’d remember when, approximately eleven months after the assault, I received a phone call from the investigating officer, asking whether I would be willing to drop the charges in exchange for my assailant taking a road-rage course. I replied that this wasn’t about road rage. This is about him getting out of his car and physically assaulting me in broad daylight.
To her credit, the officer seemed to agree with me; she said she would pass on my concerns. I started to worry that I would be required to accept this deal to get any kind of result. A part of me felt like I had to comply. My case seemed to have been treated with such disdain from the beginning; I actually felt guilty for saying no. I wasn’t sure what would come by declining, but by this point, I wanted my day in court. I wanted a trial. After being silent, I wanted the opportunity to share my story.
I didn’t need for him to go to jail. I didn’t even need for him to pay a fine. But I definitely needed him to have a criminal conviction. For the rest of his life, I wanted everyone to know that he assaulted a woman. That assaulting a woman was his response to conflict. I wanted them to know that I survived him.
But that never happened. About a week later, I received a phone call from my caseworker at the Victim/Witness Assistance Program to let me know the Crown had withdrawn the charges against the accused. I asked why, and in response, I was told that she didn’t have that information. I remember screaming, “Then what are you for?!” Later on, I would discover that the caseworker can’t provide evidence about the testimony or specifics of the case. The Victim/Witness Assistance Program can only answer procedural questions, like what my role is in court, and what to expect from court proceedings. I wish I had know that at the time—I wish I had known a lot of things.
I also learned that in cases like mine, the reasons for the dropping of charges can involve the accused having no prior criminal record and/or having agreed to a peace bond. I asked her what the Crown specifically said in court when the case was dropped. Was it indeed that he had no prior convictions? Was it because the Crown felt this case was unwinnable? Had my witnesses even been deposed? But, true to form, she told me she couldn’t provide me with that information.
According to Stats Canada, 25 percent of physical-assault court cases do not go forward, and those percentages are even bleaker when it comes to sexual-assault cases. I felt like I’d been rendered completely powerless, especially when I was informed later on that I could pay a transcriber a per-page fee (up to $8 a page) to find out what had been said in court. I began to cry—less out of sadness and more out of complete frustration. I’ve always been a very happy, jovial person, but my experience throughout the entire process made only seemed to teach me of my own, colossal insignificance.
Historically, when women who have spoken out about their assault, our voices have fallen on uninterested ears. But both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements—which have seen a lot of powerful women (and some men) publicly acknowledging their assault, harassment, rape, intimidation, and silencing—have put a burning spotlight on experiences women have been sharing for what feels like forever. In some cases, women have come forward years after the incidents occurred. There has been a very vocal chorus of angry, skeptical high-profile figures, such as Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, and Donna Karan, who have asked variations of the same questions: Why didn’t they go to the police at the time? Why the witch hunt? Why didn’t they come forward sooner? The unspoken message is often that the people coming forward are exaggerators, liars.
Well, I did everything these angry people said I should be doing. I reported everything the minute it happened, even when I didn’t want to because my gut instinct told me to just go home. But I felt like I was treated like a nuisance, bogging down a busy system that’s not designed to support victims. Too often, we are treated to infantilizing, circular language in a system where the needs of the victim seem to be an afterthought. Women are falling through the cracks, women are being abused, and women are dying, all because of red tape. As the Globe and Mail reported in its award-winning Unfounded series, often, police simply don’t believe a large number of sexual-assault complainants, “which reinforces damaging myths that women lie about sexual victimization, and could act as a deterrent to already low reporting.” The Globe uncovered that, in two cases, complainants were charged with public mischief for filing allegedly false reports; charges which were later dropped. Two others the Globe spoke with were threatened with public-mischief charges.
So tell me again, please, why going through the system is such a good idea. After my experience, I often wonder why are we putting ourselves through this. How can I look any woman in the eye and say that they should report their abuse? Maybe those aren’t the right questions. Maybe the question is: How could we, as a society, let this happen? And, better yet, when will survivors of any violence be allowed to look at our scars without hating ourselves?
Nothing substantial came of my experience. Inside, there is trauma, anger, powerlessness, and a large sense of abandonment by a system that I thought would guarantee our safety. They are the strange bedfellows that keep me up at night. Where would I be emotionally if I had stayed silent? I’ll never know, because that’s not my reality. Today, I can only feel that staying silent would have yielded the exact same results as that of going through the system. And, looking back on that year, I think I would have preferred the former.