Existing in the Disaster’s Wake

Content warning: Assault and abuse.

Yesterday I saw my assailant on the subway, for the second time in as many months. Previous to that, it had been years since I’d shared a space with him. I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t believe in fate. Still, my mind is trying to make order out of the disorder that seeing him twice in so short a time has caused in my body.

Here is where I have landed:

He is real and he is out there, in my city and in my world. He goes home to what was my family. Every day they share a space with him, when, for me, those seconds were repugnant.

I think about this like a small, personal epicenter of a bigger reality: we, as a society, are okay with sexual assault. Our conviction rates are so low as to make the crime tacitly legal. Of the reported 460,000 Canadians assaulted every year, only around 7000 will see a conviction. When convictions do happen, people do more time for stealing a car than sexually assaulting a human. When someone is convicted, it’s often discovered that they had previous complaints that were dismissed by police. Most who speak to police report being unsatisfied with the process. The most common feeling selected by those surveyed? Devastated. It’s a word we use when a disaster destroys a city and leaves it rubble.

And after that devastation, comes the attempt to rebuild. In the case of a disaster, most can assume that the danger has passed. That the hurricane is over. That the wildfire has gone out. No one pities the disaster. No one brings the earthquake in to their home. We don’t fault the city for daring to exist in the disaster’s wake. My disaster walks around my city. He joins Ghomeshi and Cosby and Turner and all the other disasters that are given succor while we rebuild.

I wonder what it would mean if they turned the disaster away. I wonder what it would mean if I did not have to, in my casual daily travels, brace for the storm. I can’t know. I’ll never know. I can just rebuild again, stronger this time – like every time – and hope that what I’ve built survives.


On Family

IDevonianfishes_ntm_1905_smit_1929 miss them like a creature misses seas
After shedding gills
Sprouting legs
Pop pop
Scratching belly on sand
Inhaling nitrogen
Exploding like burst buds in my lungs
Pop pop
Alone on the beach
Cursing stars
Longing for cool water on my skin
Waiting for fur to grow
Pop pop
To keep me close
To keep me warm
Until the sun comes up

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

The Juxtaposition of Tears

TW: Assault, rape and other icky things.

Crying has a long human history. One of the oldest recorded stories of tears is the Goddess Anat crying at the loss of her brother Ba’al. It is said she drank the tears like wine. When I was a child, I related to the story of the woman who cried at Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. I had atypical internalized guilt for someone so young. Tears were penance for my sins.

Today in my Facebook feed, this video popped up more than once (warnings if you don’t want to watch a video related to some pretty brutal assaults):

In this video, convicted rapist and former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw weeps as he learns that he has been found guilty of half of the charges laid against him. He faces, potentially, 200+ years in prison.

I watch the video and I see something achingly familiar.

As a victim of sexual violence that went on for years, I see what happens as the body copes with the idea that its autonomy is not sacrosanct. I see the agony of learning that your plans for the form you were given will not be honoured.

I see the slow dismantling of hope as each verdict is read, much like the way hope erodes each night when that door opens again. I know what it is to cry in a way that threatens to turn you inside out.

I am inside out and backward, all the raw bits out so long that they’ve scarred over. I don’t cry much now, even when I want to cry, when I need to cry. I am self-contained like a strange human eco-system that poisons itself, but tries not to let it spread.

I understand his tears, just as I know he will never understand mine.

ACE: In The Whole

I am fortunate to have a circle of friends that is full of teachers, both in the literal sense (they work in schools) and in the less-than-literal sense (they are smarter than me and know things they can teach me.) One of the benefits of being surrounded by smart humans who understand how we learn and develop throughout childhood, is that I am often abreast of changes to how we look at learning and growth.

A few months ago, my dear friend Laurie posted an NPR article about the Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE.) Initially I skimmed it and found the whole thing intriguing. However I was working with a PTSD specialist, so I didn’t spend too long dwelling on new ideas.

When my work with my specialist went spectacularly south, I started to think on the ACE study again. I re-read the article. Finally, I took the quiz.

The quiz asks 10 questions, each relating to a childhood experience that has been demonstrably shown to increase chances of certain behaviours, illnesses and outcomes. The more of these questions to which you answer yes, the more likely you are to be suffering after-effects of your trauma. It should be noted that there are limitations to the questions. There are no questions that deal with witnessing acts of violence or war. There are no questions about peer bullying. There are no questions about peer rape. The focus is solely on family dynamic.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that my number was high. So high that half my score was the highest level they were noting. I wasn’t shocked. It was not news to me.

This graphic that accompanied it gave me pause:

ace_pyramid_wotext.127135420_std.gifThat’s a helluva pyramid.

Still, drastic graphics aside, the most useful moment of clarity  was not in the content. For once, it was in the comments.

Most people commenting fell into the lower numbers. A few, like my love, were zeros. A spattering were ones, twos, threes.

A very small number of commenters, like me, fell into the high numbers. Our stories, our tone, were different. There was a desperation, a falling down into ourselves, that seemed to mark us as just too far beyond what is well and normal. There was a lot of talk of addiction, job loss, prison time. We were the destroyed minority.

Still, I am a person with perpetual – I wouldn’t say hope – stubbornness? I haven’t been able to successfully stop trying. I don’t want to. I still believe I deserve to be happy.


But I’m done comparing my successes and challenges to the ones and twos. Of course I’m not where they are. I didn’t start where they did. Maybe my executive functioning is poor, but I keep going. I make lists and set reminders and plan days in advance and often fall apart at the last minute, but I keep doing it. I keep making lists. I keep making plans. I keep trying.

But I’m not a two. I’m not a zero. I’m me. I’m the kind of person that the non-existent fates decided should get pummelled with most of the hammers.

With that in mind, I think I’m doing pretty damn good, just being here.

In Answer To Your Question

*trigger warning for sexual assault and general unpleasantness*

There is an article in the Toronto Star newspaper about a radio host. It alleges that he has assaulted or harassed quite a few women. Since there hasn’t been a trial or even a full vetting of all the information, I can’t say whether this is true. However, one of the questions asked, even by fair-minded people, is why these women haven’t gone to the police with their allegations.

There is a good chance that they have chosen not to because, at some time in their lives, they’ve met someone like me. In getting to know me, they may have heard about my experiences (I am not alone, but these are mine) with reporting sexual assault to the police.

I went to the police when I was still a teenager. Since I was an avid diarist, I even know the exact day I went to the police station to make my report. It was January 19th, 1995.

Before making the report, I took a three hour bath. I remember refilling with hot water more than once, but there are things that cannot be cleaned away. Even though I was living in Malton at the time, I was required to return to Rexdale to make my report. To make the report, I needed to go to the police station closest to where the crime occurred. I needed to get on a bus and return to a place I had literally fled in fear.

To make matters almost comically worse, the person I was making the report about got on the same bus as me. He didn’t see me. I hid behind other people and almost passed out. It was like having the whole electric system in my body go haywire. It was like I had been shocked. The fear and panic, it consumed me.

At 23 Division in Rexdale, I got off the bus. I wrote in my diary that I was glad he didn’t see me. “It freaked me out,” teenaged me wrote, in shaky script.

Back on his home turf, fresh from seeing him, I was escorted by a large and intimidating male officer back to a small room, where I was sat across from an officer I will call J. J was 23 Division’s youth crimes officer. In my diary, I noted that he was very tall. I wrote down what he wore. I did not make note of the fact that an officer who deals with young offenders may be the worst person to talk to a teenaged victim, as they see young people as innately suspect. I did not note that putting a young victim alone in a closed off room with a strange and intimidating man, one who possesses a great deal of societal power, would not lend itself to feelings of safety or understanding. I did not have that perspective at the time.

On his wall was a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s If. I read it over while I waited for him to speak. I wondered if he chose it because the police station was on Kipling Avenue. And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! I did not suppose the message was for me.

Officer J unceremoniously dropped a tape recorder on the desk between us and asked me to tell him, in as much detail as possible, what had happened.

I opened my mouth and could not speak. I was afraid to cry and be dismissed. I was afraid I would scream. I was a little afraid that the man who did it to me had seen me on the bus and would come to my home that night and kill me dead.

For whatever reason, there were no words, except a whispered, “Can I write it out?”

J was not pleased with my request. He sighed and brought me paper.

I detailed it as best I could. It took more than an hour. The whole time I was writing, every threat my assailant had made echoed, telling me to stop. I felt trapped and wanted to undo it all. I wanted to tear up the paper and run. I wanted to melt into the chair, into nothing.

“What will you do?” I managed, after I was done writing.

“It’s up to you. You’ll have to press charges.”

Press charges? What did that mean? Did it mean that I, a high school student living in one room, would have to hire a lawyer? Did it mean I would have to see him? Face him? Did it mean he would be served papers or arrested? Would he be in jail or free to come after me? I was incapable of asking these questions, and Officer J offered no guidance or information.

“I…I can’t do that.”

He looked at me like I’d wasted his time. Perhaps I had. My high school guidance counsellor had set up the meeting for me. I had been too afraid to call. Too afraid to initiate. Now I was too afraid to actively pursue it.

“Listen. Just go home. Try to be a good girl. Call me if you change your mind.”

And it was done.

I went home that night to my room. I noted in my diary that it was freezing and that the woman who owned the building was singing hymns all night. She turned off the heat to save money and sang hymns to save my soul.

That night I had a nightmare that I was sitting on my bed with a friend when a man in a uniform came in and shot them 8 times. Their body landed on me, trapping me to the bed while they twitched and eventually died on top of me.

No charges were ever pressed.

Now ask me again why women don’t go to the police.


School should not be a place of fear.

School should not be a place of fear.

Two more dead humans, one just 15 years old. Two human lives that do not exist anymore. Let’s count their value. Will they get one day of news coverage? Two? Will we remember them once some distraction comes along? Will this be the impetus for change? Will we rush to place after-school programs and counseling and job help and better access to education and health care in Rexdale? Will we look at these children and say, “Sorry for the neglect. It was me, it wasn’t you. I will do better…”?


I’ve written to all three Mayoral candidates to see what they have to say about Rexdale and the recent violence. I will post their responses as I get them.


In the meantime, I have been investigating charities that help in this neighbourhood so you can do good without leaving your computer. See how easy I’m making this? But seriously. We need to be angry. We need people to be so tired of watching kids die that we interrupt pretty society and force them to see the reality.


My inspiration, from St. Louis: