Jian Ghome­shi

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jian Ghome­shi

Re­flec­tions from a Hash­tag

Not so long ago, I spoke to hun­dreds of thou­sands of lis­ten­ers across North Amer­ica ev­ery day on a pub­lic ra­dio show. These days, the clos­est I come to pub­lic per­for­mance is at a neigh­bor­hood karaoke bar in New York. Even that can have its per­ils. One night last year, I was wait­ing my turn to sing when a woman spot­ted my name on the list. “Jian!” she said to me. “Your name is Jian? Ha! Hey, you know who ru­ined that name for you?” “No. Who?” I said, brac­ing my­self. For the first time, she looked straight at me— and stopped smil­ing.

For her, it was like one of those ex­cru­ci­at­ing mo­ments when you ac­ci­den­tally in­clude the butt of a joke in a re­plyall e-mail. For me, it was just an­other day in the life of the no­to­ri­ous Jian. She apol­o­gized and said all the right things. And I said all the right things back. (“How could you have known?”) Mostly I felt bad be­cause she felt bad. But then we ral­lied and sang a duet to­gether. And then we be­came friends and are reg­u­larly in touch. Chalk up one more hu­man be­ing who no longer thinks I’m a creep.

Here’s the thing about be­ing an erst­while “celebrity” who is now an out­cast: You’re not just feel­ing sorry for your­self. You’re also feel­ing sorry for ev­ery­one around you—some­times even the strangers. You can see the anx­i­ety in their faces as they stam­mer out ba­nal­i­ties, stu­diously avoid­ing the sub­ject of ca­reer (or lack thereof), mak­ing vague ges­tures of en­cour­age­ment that trail off into si­lence.

In Oc­to­ber 2014, I was fired from my job at the Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion af­ter al­le­ga­tions cir­cu­lated on­line that I’d been abu­sive with an ex-girl­friend dur­ing sex. In the af­ter­math of my fir­ing, and amid a me­dia storm, sev­eral more peo­ple ac­cused me of sex­ual mis­con­duct. I faced crim­i­nal charges in­clud­ing hair-pulling, hit­ting dur­ing in­ti­macy in one in­stance, and— the most se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion—non­con­sen­sual chok­ing while mak­ing out with a woman on a date in 2002. I pleaded not guilty. Sev­eral months later, af­ter a very pub­lic trial, I was cleared on all counts. One of the charges was sep­a­rated and later with­drawn with a peace bond—a pledge to be on good be­hav­ior for a year. There was no crim­i­nal trial. My ac­quit­tal left my ac­cusers and many ob­servers pro­foundly un­happy. There was a sen­ti­ment among them that, re­gard­less of any le­gal ex­on­er­a­tion, I was al­most cer­tainly a world-class prick, prob­a­bly a sex­ual bully, and that I needed to be held to ac­count be­yond sim­ply los­ing my ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion. Since then, I’ve be­come a hash­tag. One of my fe­male friends quips that I should get some kind of pub­lic recog­ni­tion as a #MeToo pioneer. There are lots of guys more hated than me now. But I was the guy ev­ery­one hated first.

I have not spo­ken pub­licly about the ex­plo­sion in my world for four years. Given that my name, at least in Canada, turned into a metonym for ev­ery­thing from male priv­i­lege to the need for due process, I’ve been aware that weigh­ing in to re­claim it and in­ject nu­ance into my story is fraught, to say the least. In my si­lence peo­ple have tended to sug­gest what’s be­come of me. Like that I’m on a beach with mar­tini in hand, hav­ing a laugh at “get­ting away with it” (no). Or that I’m curled up in a dark room, weep­ing in shame (well, yes, that hap­pened). Or just for­ever cowed. There has in­deed been enough hu­mil­i­a­tion for a life­time. I can­not just move to an­other town and re­boot with a pseu­do­nym. I’m con­stantly com­pet­ing with a vil­lain­ous ver­sion of my­self on­line. This is the power of a con­tem­po­rary mass sham­ing. Even peo­ple who are sup­port­ive some­times have ex­pec­ta­tions of how I will act based on a sin­gu­lar, sex­u­al­ized iden­tity that was re­peated in me­dia sto­ries. But this pe­riod has also been a tremen­dous ed­u­ca­tion.

My path to pub­lic tox­i­c­ity was a cu­ri­ous one. As a stu­dent, I was a doc­tri­naire ac­tivist who was tear-gassed at protests—I once made the evening news for or­ga­niz­ing a demon­stra­tion about tu­ition fees at which wet mac­a­roni was thrown at Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney. For years af­ter that, I wrote pro­gres­sive songs and toured in a some­times-po­lit­i­cal folk-rock band, Moxy Früvous. I wore T-shirts scream­ing slo­gans of equal­ity and lib­er­a­tion, and I be­lieved it all.

At the CBC, I had a Cana­dian-style re­serve when Amer­i­can stars would get ob­sti­nate on the air. The nec­es­sary im­age of a lib­eral pub­lic broad­caster can be te­diously cor­rect. I wore the right rib­bons, used the right hash­tags, hosted the right guests. I did in­ter­views with ev­ery­one from Toni Mor­ri­son to Glo­ria Steinem, Drake, and Maya An­gelou. I at­tended demon­stra­tions and spoke at pro­gres­sive fund-rais­ers. It didn’t oc­cur to me that I could ever be one of the bad men.

I loved Q, the cul­ture show I cocre­ated and hosted for eight years, and I was con­sumed with find­ing as wide an au­di­ence for it as pos­si­ble. But I was also con­sumed by anx­i­ety in my pur­suit of suc­cess. By 2014, I was telling close friends that I felt I was in a cage of my own mak­ing. It didn’t help that my pay in­creased as my Twit­ter fol­low­ing sky­rock­eted, or that agents and pub­li­cists touted my ap­pear­ance on “in­flu­en­tial peo­ple” lists. I had be­come a man who de­rived all of his self-es­teem from ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion. In tan­dem, ev­ery­thing around me seemed to con­done the bullish way a suc­cess­ful sin­gle guy might act. This is not an ex­cuse; it’s a somber re­al­iza­tion.

With each ca­reer step, I would leave a trail of dis­ap­pointed friends or co­work­ers. I learned to be pushy when I didn’t get my way. And at some point, when it came to women, I be­gan to use my lib­eral gen­der stud­ies ed­u­ca­tion as a cover

for my own be­hav­ior. I was os­ten­si­bly so schooled in how sex­ism works that I would ar­ro­gantly give my­self a free pass. I was out­spo­ken in pub­lic life but tone-deaf in my pri­vate af­fairs.

Be­fore 2014, it was unimag­in­able to me that I would be­come a poster boy for men who are ass­holes. I had not been a net­work boss or an ex­ec­u­tive with in­sti­tu­tional power; there had been no for­mal com­plaints at work that I was aware of over the years; there were no hush-money deals or nondis­clo­sure agree­ments. As things came crash­ing down, I be­came ob­sessed with the in­ac­cu­rate sto­ries and the pat­tern of sala­cious de­tails taken as truth in the echo cham­bers of so­cial me­dia out­rage. That fore­closed any fo­cus on my own ac­count­abil­ity.

Since then, I have spent al­most four years re­flect­ing on my re­la­tions with women I dated. For some, noth­ing I say here will be enough or be put the right way. Even as I feel deep re­morse about how I treated some peo­ple in my life, I can­not con­fess to the ac­cu­sa­tions that are in­ac­cu­rate. What I do con­fess is that I was emo­tion­ally thought­less in the way I treated those I dated and tried to date. As well, I lever­aged my in­flu­ence and sta­tus to try to en­tice women and lead them on when they were in­ter­ested. There are all sorts of old-fash­ioned words to de­scribe men like this: player, creep, cad, Lothario. But it went deeper than that. I was de­mand­ing on dates and in per­sonal af­fairs. I would keep lob­by­ing for what I wanted. I was crit­i­cal and dis­mis­sive. Some women I cared about went along with things I wanted to avoid my dis­ap­point­ment or moods. I ought to have been more re­spect­ful and re­spon­sive with the women in my life. To them I say, you de­served much bet­ter from me. I craved the in­ter­est of women. Dat­ing and hav­ing sex be­came an­other mea­sure of sta­tus. When a well-known fel­low broad­caster saw me with a twenty-some­thing date at a film fes­ti­val event in Toronto around 2006 (I was then thirty-nine), he left a voice­mail say­ing, “Dude, you are the king!” That mem­ory is mor­ti­fy­ing now, but at the time I basked in his praise and wanted more. He’d never called me be­fore and never men­tioned my work; the real mes­sage was that the women I was with were the true gauge of suc­cess.

But if the opin­ion of oth­ers is how you de­fine your­self, what hap­pens when all of the out­side props of sta­tus—the rat­ings, the fol­low­ers, the so­cial me­dia likes—are torn away overnight? Who are you?

I equiv­o­cated about writ­ing this es­say for many months. I have never re­sponded to me­dia re­quests. For a while, the si­lence was a nec­es­sary con­se­quence of the le­gal case I was fac­ing. Since then, it’s been about gain­ing some cer­tainty about what I would want to say. I also un­der­stand that this piece is fo­cused on my ex­pe­ri­ence, which may be seen as not help­ful in ren­der­ing women’s ex­pe­ri­ences more vis­i­ble. I have spent these years try­ing to lis­ten, read, and re­flect. I did a great deal of talk­ing be­fore my life ex­ploded. While I was a keen lis­tener dur­ing in­ter­views I con­ducted on the air, I didn’t ap­ply that aware­ness in my per­sonal life. Self-in­volve­ment will make you deaf to im­por­tant things you should be hear­ing. Hu­mil­ity comes with per­spec­tive—and lis­ten­ing is a big part of it. But there is no fast track to the reck­on­ing. Com­ing to terms with a seis­mic life in­ter­rup­tion and be­gin­ning a true process of re­flec­tion takes time.

When a man is pub­licly ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct in this era, al­most in­vari­ably the first thing he does is apol­o­gize. How­ever heart­felt the re­morse, my own ex­pe­ri­ence makes me dis­trust it. In a mael­strom of con­fu­sion, hu­mil­i­a­tion, re­sis­tance, and con­flict­ing feed­back from those around you, how much can any­one re­ally in­habit “I’m sorry”?

You want the feel­ing of gen­uine con­tri­tion to stir within you—be­cause peo­ple are telling you it’s the first step to re­demp­tion. And you let your­self imag­ine that some grand mea culpa might ac­tu­ally turn your fate around— re­gard­less of the ve­rac­ity of any al­le­ga­tions. But what you truly feel in the first days af­ter be­ing pub­licly ac­cused is fear and anger, in that order.

The fear is easy to ex­plain: your whole fu­ture hangs in the bal­ance. But you’re fu­ri­ous, too, at be­ing made fear­ful by ev­ery­one who’s try­ing to bring you down. You’re con­founded at how tales of your al­leged be­hav­ior from years past are now used as a sledge­ham­mer to de­stroy the ca­reer you’ve built and de­ter­mine the way you will for­ever

be seen. Even if your lips are speak­ing words of con­tri­tion, your mind is a fer­ment of petty, self­ish fury.

Adding to your shame is the fact that you’re sud­denly help­less. Lawyers tell you what you can say (noth­ing) and to whom you can say it (al­most no one). You don’t leave the house be­cause there are cam­eras out­side. You stop look­ing at the In­ter­net be­cause it’s mostly peo­ple telling you to curl up and die. You sa­vor the few mes­sages of sup­port from friends—pa­thet­i­cally so. In your darker mo­ments, you make lists of the ones you haven’t heard from. And that’s pa­thetic, too.

You re­al­ize al­most im­me­di­ately that this is a fi­nan­cial calamity as well: not only have you lost your in­come, but you’re also hem­or­rhag­ing your sav­ings to le­gal fees. The ac­cu­sa­tions you face get con­flated in so­cial me­dia with hor­ri­ble things other men have done that are to­tally un­con­nected. The de­tails of the al­le­ga­tions seem to be­come ir­rel­e­vant, as does any le­gal de­ci­sion. The stain of bad ac­tions be­comes in­deli­ble; a pre­sump­tion pre­vails that the worst of what is tweeted is to be be­lieved. You won­der how you can ex­hibit any con­tri­tion about ways you may have be­haved badly in the past with­out val­i­dat­ing ev­ery crazy thing that is be­ing said about you by peo­ple you’ve never met.

Less than a month be­fore my life ex­ploded, I watched my fa­ther die. Then I lost al­most ev­ery­thing else I thought was im­por­tant. All the pil­lars of pro­fes­sional and per­sonal sup­port I had be­lieved to be solid were gone al­most overnight. The pro­fes­sional team that I had hired as ex­perts to guide me through the ex­plo­sion bolted, too—but not be­fore they had cheered on some ill-ad­vised so­cial me­dia postings and threat­ened law­suits.

Dur­ing the first two weeks, I was sui­ci­dal. I con­tem­plated the meth­ods by which I could kill my­self. I was ter­ri­fied of be­ing awake and ter­ri­fied of fall­ing asleep. Evenings were filled with night­mares that in­evitably in­volved my fa­ther on his deathbed. It was as though the end of my life as I knew it was some­how con­joined with the ac­tual end of his.

In a cri­sis like this, you are painfully aware that it is hap­pen­ing not just to you, but also to those clos­est to you who stick around. I be­came fran­ti­cally and help­lessly wor­ried about my mother. While I was fum­ing about me­dia de­pic­tions, I ques­tioned my own mem­o­ries in the face of a bar­rage of spec­u­la­tion. Peo­ple on TV ex­pressed “shock” about the al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct and my “se­cret life,” as it was sen­sa­tion­ally termed. I was shocked too. For weeks I was used as click­bait and a meal ticket for cer­tain re­porters who pumped out what­ever sto­ries they could with my name in the head­line. One writer ques­tioned my up­bring­ing, us­ing a com­par­i­son to the con­victed mur­derer Paul Bernardo. There were few lim­its to how far some would go. When the scan­dal broke, dozens of fe­male friends, some of whom I’d pre­vi­ously dated, reached out in sup­port to say they would speak on be­half of my char­ac­ter. As the storm grew, many backed away, too scared or con­flicted or shocked at the head­lines to take a pub­lic stand. Sev­eral friendly artists and celebri­ties wrote to say they would need to stay silent be­cause it might af­fect their ca­reers. I was grate­ful for their can­dor. Many oth­ers, even those I thought to be close friends, sim­ply have not spo­ken to me since.

The storm also trans­formed me from be­ing a proud Cana­dian to be­ing “Ira­nian-Cana­dian.” My in­box and so­cial me­dia ac­counts filled up with nox­ious al­lu­sions to my Mid­dle Eastern back­ground and racist ref­er­ences to Ira­ni­ans. On my first court ap­pear­ance, in No­vem­ber 2014, amid the me­dia mêlée out­side as I emerged with my lawyers, one man re­peat­edly shouted, “Go back to Iran!” I was not born in Iran and have never lived there. It would be more ac­cu­rate to say, “Go back to Thorn­hill!”—the pleas­ant Toronto sub­urb where I grew up. It was not that I was ashamed of my her­itage. On the con­trary, I ab­horred the racist im­pli­ca­tion that bad be­hav­ior would be seen as cor­re­lated with my eth­nic back­ground—just an­other Ira­nian guy chan­nel­ing some an­ces­tral Mid­dle Eastern brand of Asi­atic misog­yny; and I was deeply em­bar­rassed that the Ira­nian-Cana­dian com­mu­nity, which had been so sup­port­ive, now had to en­dure an as­so­ci­a­tion with me—on top of all the other stereo­types out there.

The CBC du­ti­fully passed along all of my hate mail. One anony­mous let­ter was typed in all-caps: “YOUR FA­THER HATE FUCKED YOUR MOTHER AND PRO­DUCED A BROWN BABOON... YOU ARE LUCKY TO BE (VIS­IT­ING) CANADA . . . IN I-RAN THE AYATUALLA [sic] WOULD HAVE FUCKED YOU...WATCH YOUR BACK AND YOUR HOUSE.” But even these spe­cific racist re­sponses were not as per­son­ally damn­ing as be­ing broadly cast as an out­sider be­cause of my her­itage—a nar­ra­tive that spoke to my deep­est in­se­cu­ri­ties. In truth, I had al­ways seen my­self as a scrawny brown kid who didn’t fit in—not as the cocky, en­ti­tled im­mi­grant my at­tack­ers saw. Both im­ages were wrong. But my mis­per­cep­tion ob­scured an aware­ness of my sta­tus. I didn’t ac­cept my own power.

Since the scan­dal, the re­ac­tion of men has per­haps been most strik­ing. Aside from some, in­clud­ing for­mer me­dia col­leagues and friends who re­ported on my down­fall with a zeal that was trans­par­ent in its ef­forts to dis­play their own virtue, there was a dis­tinct pat­tern to the men whom I would en­counter in the first year, amid all the head­lines and sham­ing. Many of them—strangers, ac­quain­tances, friends, or peo­ple reach­ing out in so­cial me­dia—would at some point furtively say, “What hap­pened to you could have been me.” That is, in the safety of con­ver­sa­tions they were cer­tain would not be­come pub­lic, men would tell me there were things that they, too, could have been ac­cused of at points in their lives.

The dis­con­nect was con­fus­ing. Just as my name was trend­ing as the ul­ti­mate avatar of bad male be­hav­ior, men were con­fid­ing in me that, in var­i­ous ways, they were not much dif­fer­ent. I have had count­less men con­tact me in the last four years to tell me their sto­ries or some­how com­mis­er­ate. It is bizarre to be­come an un­wit­ting re­pos­i­tory for men who are be­wil­dered about gen­der re­la­tions or sex­ual be­hav­iors. I be­gan to see my own ac­tions as part of a sys­temic cul­ture of un­healthy mas­culin­ity. At the other end of the spec­trum, I get mes­sages from women who tell me that they “en­joy the same life­style” and want to meet up for sex. I don’t re­spond, but I sus­pect that I would dis­ap­point them with the news that I don’t have a “life­style” that might fa­cil­i­tate what they’re look­ing for.

Last year, when I posted a cre­ative project on YouTube, a Toronto weekly de­clared that I had “slith­ered out from un­der­neath my rock.” An­other ob­server pre­dicted that I would emerge from self-im­posed ex­ile as ra­bidly right-wing. The truth is more ba­nal. I am not sud­denly an an­tifem­i­nist ac­tivist, stage-div­ing at a Bre­it­bart road show. Nei­ther am I plan­ning to seek pub­lic ab­so­lu­tion through the em­brace of a no­tion that all men are evil. What I am is some­one who has had a crash course in em­pa­thy. I have a new un­wa­ver­ing an­tipa­thy to­ward schaden­freude. Many of those who helped me sur­vive the ex­plo­sion are peo­ple who have been through great dif­fi­cul­ties in their lives: ad­dic­tion, bank­ruptcy, the loss of dear friends or fam­ily, or big mis­takes and pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion. I now have a dif­fer­ent way of see­ing any­one who is be­ing at­tacked in the pub­lic sphere, even those with whom I may pro­foundly dis­agree.

And with all of this, I am mov­ing to­ward what might be seen as a trite point: we learn from our mis­takes. A cou­ple of years ago, on a trip to Europe, eman­ci­pated by the anonymity of be­ing abroad, I was on a train from Lon­don to Paris and found my­self sit­ting next to a sin­gle woman in her late thir­ties. We had both come onto the train wear­ing ear­phones and fell into a con­ver­sa­tion about mu­sic. We learned that we shared the same tastes in New Wave. She was cap­ti­vat­ing and smart. As soon as our con­ver­sa­tion be­gan, I felt gal­va­nized by an au­to­matic re­flex from my days as a Some­body. Tell her about your show. Tell her about your band. Sell your book. It oc­curred to me that I had been cam­paign­ing my whole adult life for the pro­mo­tion of Jian. The same in­stinct be­gan trac­ing out a line of events. She would give me her num­ber. Af­ter get­ting to Paris, I would text her. We’d meet at a bar. I would tell her more about me. Per­haps we would be­come in­ti­mate. I would feel wanted. There were pos­i­tive sparks. She men­tioned that she had an open sched­ule in Paris. I lis­tened and smiled. Again, I felt the old urge to use this to my ad­van­tage.

But this in­ter­est­ing woman was speak­ing to me with­out know­ing or car­ing if I was Some­body. As if maybe I had the abil­ity to be wor­thy with­out recit­ing my ré­sumé. She did the talk­ing for most of the trip, and I lis­tened. I poked some fun and en­joyed mak­ing her laugh. There were mo­ments when she would ref­er­ence events or places or peo­ple (“I adore Leonard Cohen”) that would once have been my cue to talk about my­self (“you know, I did one of the last in­ter­views with Leonard Cohen, and...”). In­stead, I found my­self ask­ing her ques­tions.

When the train ar­rived in Paris, we got up and grabbed our stuff. She smiled at me. We paused. I ex­tended my hand and wished her a good af­ter­noon. “It was re­ally great talk­ing with you,” I said. The words lin­gered for a mo­ment. Then she shook my hand and ut­tered some­thing sim­i­lar. Then we both went off to find our re­spec­tive ride-shares. Only once I emerged onto the street did I re­al­ize that I’d never even told her my name.

Ed­vard Munch: Evening, Melan­choly I, 1896

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.