By Celyn Harding-Jones
The recent allegations that have come to the mainstream public and media about sexual abuse, harassment and abuses of power at Concordia University’s Creative Writing program have made my skin hurt. There are hundreds of women and men right now who are reeling, grieving, angry, shocked and deeply saddened. Some are gibberishcrying, some are shouting, many have retreated but many more have opened up. It’s in the solidarity of sharing, of saying #metoo, of banding together that has given me hope of change. We suffered in silence, vented through whispers, and it took everything we had just to get through. It’s got to change. This is my experience, and I’m hoping it will help others with acceptance.
The University Speaks: A close reading
Concordia released a statement in response to a radio interview that Heather O’Neill gave to CBC, and it stated “… We are proud of Heather O’Neill’s literary accomplishments following her studies at Concordia University. We sincerely regret her experience and that she or others felt uncomfortable disclosing their viewpoints at the time. We applaud women who facilitate these disclosures, albeit so many years later.”
It makes me so fucking angry that this is their official statement. Take a closer look: Concordia is taking credit for Heather O’Neill’s talent and success. It’s a way for them to brag about her success, tying it to Concordia–the very institution she states has traumatized her. As if they’re saying that she was successful despite the trauma, or that it must not have been that bad if she succeeded.
The statement goes on to suggest that victims of sexual abuse are just ‘uncomfortable’ coming forward. They do not recognize that these women have been traumatized. Trust me: it’s not just uncomfortable like being outside in the cold with wet socks in your boots. It can be paralyzing.
They label her experience as a ‘viewpoint’. That’s as good as saying it’s only one side of the story, a fictionalization, a perspective. They’re forgetting to validate her experience, her feelings, her trauma and her validity within the community. They’re forgetting to say “we will believe you and investigate”.
Then they’re rewarding her with bravery for coming forward–but only if it’s done within their system. She has already come forward, numerous times. A dozen women have come forward in the past few days on social media and in the press. Please forgive the woman if she doesn’t come forward within the system that has not only facilitated this to happen, but acts as an employer (meaning, they chose that professor, gave him tenure, reward him each year), actively markets their product (the amazing creative writing department that produces talent) to the world to make money, AND has clearly not made any adjustments or changes when sexism, misogyny, abuse and manipulation of power is allowed to fester.
The university’s response has unequivocally been “report, report, report”. They so far have been rigid in their approach to this. I received an email as an alumni stating that there would be discussions with current students, staff and faculty about the situation. I wrote back and suggested that it include alumni. Their personal response to me was to ask me to report my experiences. Again, this is such a rigid, inappropriate response. Alumni are the ones who are speaking. They are the only ones in the position to paint a picture without repercussions (and even that is debatable). The President, Alan Shepard focused on the fact that he didn’t know until now. Ugh. Whether it’s true or not, it’s such a toxic male response: covering his integrity, pushing his integrity over other voices and again, not listening to those who are screaming for help.
Asking why Heather O’Neill or anyone else for that matter ‘didn’t lodge a formal complaint’ at Concordia when they were enrolled is like asking a hurricane survivor why they didn’t call their insurance company while the hurricane was ripping their house apart. You can’t report the abuse when you’re too busy with the problem of surviving, with getting through and getting out in one piece. When someone is in a toxic, and sometimes traumatic situation they focus on surviving, and how to escape, not on how the system that is failing them could really be better at not fucking up so much. It’s like asking to re-cast your vote for a politician who promised to make a better road when the bridge you’re on is collapsing. This is the same kind of attitude we take towards victims (mostly women) of domestic abuse. Why didn’t she leave sooner? We’re putting the blame on the victim for not getting themselves out of an abuse situation. We should be asking “Why was that environment, (the department, the university, the writing community) so abusive? Why was it allowed to fester for decades? What policies or viewpoints perpetrated that violence?”
My experience: To add to the cacophony of voices
Disclaimer: I was not sexually assaulted at my time at Concordia. I am a survivor of sexual assault and harassment when I was a teenager. I reported one incident to the police. They literally told me that it would be me against ‘them’, (there were half a dozen boys and men in the room) and that no one would believe my story. They didn’t even open a report, even though the main abuser already had a ‘file’. There were repercussions within my school and social life. I learned how to lead my life dodging situations and normalizing behaviour in order to get through high school. If it wasn’t a big deal, if it was normal or at least happening to lots of people, I could cope, I could survive. I was 14. So this is why I’m writing now. For the first time in my life I feel right standing up. I feel right for speaking up. I am not playing into the BS. None of this is normal. None of this is right. And because we finally have a platform that brings us together, I have strength.
It’s not just about professors serially dating and abusing students (though that is egregious). It’s about the abuse of power in everyday exchanges between students and professors and an overall toxic climate. I spent just over 6 years at Concordia’s Creative Writing program, doing an undergrad then a graduate degree from 2004-2011. I think my story is heartbreakingly so common with both men and women. I felt that certain people were being published in journals or had their books published by small presses with ties to professors because they had played the game. I didn’t know for sure what the details of those transactions were, but I could not risk finding out. I felt like I had to constantly choose between being successful (ie. playing their game) and not playing (and maybe my talent would speak for itself?). I was constantly questioning feedback that I got from certain professors. Was it my talent or was it what I looked like? This questioning crushed me, obliterated myself esteem. The thing about creative writing (and the arts more widely) is that you open yourself up to vulnerability when you submit your work. And my writing was vulnerable. I have a thick skin, I’ve been through a lot of shit. I can take criticism and feedback. That’s not what crushed me. What crushed me was that entering into the submissive position of student was necessary to learn how to write in the program. You have to listen to your professor’s feedback, you have to listen to their experience. They are the only ones who can teach you how to get published. How to have a career. They are in that position of power because you can’t learn creative writing from a textbook (arguably). And many of my professors were sensitive to this position of power and enabled me to take what I learned and empower myself with it. But the problem is that many professors (male and female) took advantage of that power. They withheld advice, feedback and professional criticism from specific students to get what they wanted.
When I entered the program I quickly learned that there were specific professors’ classes that I would never sign up for. I decided early on that I wouldn’t even have a conversation with them. Even when a professor approached me after a reading telling me he loved my poem and wanted to publish it. I ignored his advance. (Now I’m so thankful I did). Whether it was the power of female gossip or my gut feeling or the fact that male and female students gushed and hovered around them at the end of class or the way they behaved at the back of the bar, as if they were some kind of local god. I knew poetry and especially Montreal’s literary scene was like this. It seeped down the generations from sexist, egotistical and misogynist writers like Cohen, Layton, Richler, etc. My whole life my mum warned me away from this type of man.
I thought I could succeed by not playing the game, keeping myself away from dangerous situations and just working really hard. I was relying on my talent to get me published. Which, like, should be the right approach? (!!). One year I even dyed my hair from blonde to brown to attract less attention. I would volunteer to organize readings, I would participate in student-run journals, I would support my peers, I would participate and volunteer in literary events, I TAed and RAed. I would ask questions to the teacher in class, in front of other students, avoiding office hours as much as possible. I dreaded closed office doors. I would go to the bar to network, and having learned my lesson from my first year, didn’t drink too much. Or I would bring my boyfriend. Sometimes I even brought my mum to readings. Thank god she likes poetry.
This is not to say at all that anyone who did fall prey to sexual abuse within the department did not do everything they believed was in their power not to get abused or manipulated. This is not to say they were fools or silly or naive. This is to say that people do whatever they can to survive. Those who participated and perpetrated the behavior quite often were victims themselves. You either abuse or get abused. Often victims of abuse continue the cycle. This is just to say that even when I knew what was happening, I never spoke up. I didn’t even admit to myself that it was wrong. It took someone who participated admitting it was wrong for my hard shell to shatter. And shatter I have.
I volunteered at a local literary festival tied to the department. I booked hundreds of paying students and a dozen high-profile writers into hotels for free. I did all kinds of shit and put up with disorganized male stress. I was used to it. But looking back what shocks me is that I was tasked with greeting a much older male visiting poet at his B&B at 11pm at night, alone. I was to hand him the key, make sure everything was OK in the room and to give him some papers. ALL of that could have been done beforehand or remotely. Was I a pretty face to greet this wary poet traveler and reward him for participating in the program? I was also asked to escort another male writer for an afternoon around Montreal. I assumed this would be a great opportunity for me to pick his brain or to get advice about my writing. But putting me in this position of meeting an older man at a hotel and charming him for a day was not right. I was lucky that in both experiences I only got berated about the papers being bound (the poet prefers staples) and that the male writer I spent the day with seemed embarrassed by having to be entertained for an afternoon. He knew it was not right.
I chose a female supervisor for my graduate thesis. I could not risk it, no matter who the professor was. She was tough on my work and I appreciated it. But by the end of the two years, she invited me to a personal event she was hosting at her house. I was flattered that she regarded me as an equal. Then she said “You’d look cute serving wine”. I brushed it off but she continued to email me about my availability to serve wine until I found an excuse why I couldn’t go. Two years after I graduated, a book of her poetry was published. As soon as I saw the title, my heart sank. She had taken a theme for how to approach a specific subject matter in poetry that I had created in a series of poems in her class for a year (which she had critiqued several times, which I had read in public, and was still working on as a full manuscript to be published) and used that approach and idea in her entire book. Some of my peers noticed it and pointed it out to me. I did nothing. She was in that position of power to be reading my work and completely abused that position. She could have helped me to get my work published. She should not have used it in her own work. I did nothing because she played the game, even though appearing to be outside of it.
Even after I graduated, one of the professors who was a reader/critiquer of my thesis messaged me nine separate times over two years on Facebook Messenger. He wanted to know if I was still in Montreal, if I wanted to go for coffee, could I meet him for a drink at the salon du livres? I ignored half of them, but sometimes my responses tried to create some kind of professional or poetry-related material. “Going to send my manuscript out” or “How many classes are you teaching?” and avoided answering his requests for an in-person, off-campus meeting. I believe this is the same professor who Mike Spry’s article references as renting a hotel room to entertain young women.
How was I supposed to report any of the above to the university? They were mostly he-said-she said private exchanges. Words that alluded something more, but allusions can be twisted, tied up and unwound. Writers are good with words.
Then there’s this. I tried to kill myself in 2006 when I was 21 years old, two years into the program. I was suffering from PMDD and severe depression. Looking back, it’s as if the picture is now complete. I used to think that it was the chemicals in my brain that did this to me. But it was a combination of a chemical and hormonal imbalance PLUS a suffocatingly toxic atmosphere and a crumbling self esteem. Poetry was supposed to be my saviour. It was the thing I was good at and felt compelled to do and it was the only thing keeping me together. And despite my passion, talent and hard work, I was being crushed. Of course I was completely hopeless. I now bring strength from that experience, and from my experiences (good and bad) from the program.
My experiences may have been mild compared to countless other female (and male) traumas. I am adding my voice because it is another brushstroke to paint the overall climate. I stopped writing after I left the program. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t submit my work to publishers. My thesis novella is publishable. I have a manuscript of poems that needs to get out. I believed the cop-out that I write only for myself (it was safer that way). Then this story broke and I heard dozens of accounts about how people had stopped writing after their time at Concordia. I know that sometimes that happens naturally. But I mourn all of the talent that the program destroyed. And now I’m going to write.