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Colonel Russell Williams (R), former Commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, is escorted from Belleville court October 19, 2010. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Colonel Russell Williams (R), former Commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, is escorted from Belleville court October 19, 2010. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

The Williams case: Why I didn't look away Add to ...

All week long it came at us - grisly court evidence, grotesque media pictures, heartbroken statements from grieving relatives and, finally, a riveting videotape of an astonishingly skillful police interrogation.

The Russell Williams sentencing hearing in Belleville has been one for our age, a multi-platform onslaught of deeply disturbing details as it chronicled a powerful man's escalating fetishistic crime spree - break-ins to steal lingerie (from girls as young as 12) and masturbate in it, sexual assaults and finally the brutal assault and murder of two women, all of which he meticulously photographed.

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Once the commander of Canada's largest air force base, the disgraced colonel has pled guilty and will now go away for at least 25 years, hopefully never to be paroled.

So where do we go from here? What can we take away from this shocking saga that speaks to our own lives, our own fears, our own safety?

Let's start with the question many of us asked ourselves right at the start: This is going to be bad, so why should I absorb this? How much can I take?

Some of my friends basically shut their eyes and ears. I don't blame them. I chose the full immersion route, assiduously following the live blogging, looking at all the pictures - so incongruous of a solemn man in women's underwear, they would have been laughable had we not known the hideous outcome. I listened to the talking expert heads.

Part occupational necessity, part avid curiosity - the whole world is a crime and punishment story, as anyone who's read Dostoevsky can tell you - I just couldn't turn away. For my pains, I grew more distraught, and one night, I woke and stayed miserably awake thinking of Jessica Lloyd and Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and their heartbreaking desire to be "good" enough to survive their assaults and stay alive.

In the midst of the coverage, a woman messaged CBC Radio to say that as a survivor of a sexual assault, she thought it was right for the media to cover this the way they did. Maybe other women would come forward with their stories.

So many of us have them - stories of how we were stalked and preyed upon. When I was 30 and living alone, a man wearing a stocking mask came through my bedroom window with the intent to rape me. That was the bad news. The good news was that he didn't know that my husband, then boyfriend, was in my apartment. He fought him off with a curtain rod, so technically I survived only an attempt. I should say that we survived it, because like many men, my partner not only shared my trauma but had some of his own.

My assailant not only got away but came back another night with more in his kit, including a long scarf. I was long gone by then, but he went for the young woman downstairs. She was lucky too. Neighbours who had been alerted called the police just as he was jimmying his way in.

We were both targeted because we were young and noticeably lived alone. Just as Jessica Lloyd, innocently exercising in her basement when Russell Williams drove by and first spotted her, and just like Cpl. Comeau, who met her murderer at work and never dreamed he was cold-bloodedly asking himself a key question: Does this woman live alone?

After my incident, I was paralyzed by fear for the first two years and then, for all the intervening decades, only hobbled by it. Bringing up a daughter, I have tried not to instill fear in her. Recently, when I vigorously questioned the safety of something she was doing, she said, firmly, "I will not live my life thinking I am going to be attacked every minute." So perhaps I succeeded.

And I will be damned if I tell my daughter not to live alone. But how do we protect women, not just from that evil one-in-a-million anomaly of Russell Williams, but the other stalkers and predators out there? Sexual assault, it can't be said enough, is not just about sex, but always about power. They do this because they can.

But in these liberated times, in which young women are as sexually and physically adventurous as men, it has become unfashionable to talk about men as predators and women as victims. Except that some males continue to be predators and most of their victims continue to be female.

I do have some simple suggestions: Buy your daughters window blinds if they can't afford good ones. Remind them that most assaults are crimes of opportunity. Living in a less accessible apartment would be good - not on the ground floor. And don't volunteer information to anyone you don't know about your living arrangements.

Still, you have to be spectacularly unlucky to meet a Russell Williams in your life. If someone wants that badly to harm you, he will find a way.

That is why I particularly liked the interrogation video excerpts. They showed Russell Williams stripped of all his power.

 

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