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book report

Greg Gilhooly.Greg Smith/Handout

Greg Gilhooly was a rising star in Winnipeg hockey until, at the age of 14, he met coach Graham James, who soon began sexually assaulting him. Although James was later convicted of assaulting Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, among others, legal machinations denied Gilhooly his chance at judicial closure. I Am Nobody is Gilhooly's account of childhood sexual abuse's long-standing effects and his recovery. Writing as both a victim and lawyer, Gilhooly also proposes changes to how Canada's legal system handles sexual assault.

Why did you write this book?

I've been looking for closure on this ever since it happened. At one time I thought I could get closure from external validation, be it through outwardly becoming a "success," from a court decision, maybe even with an apology from Graham. In the end, I learned that the only closure I would ever get had to come from within. I wanted to stop running from my past. I needed to take a hard look at everything in my past, no matter how ugly and accept all that is a part of who I am. Writing a book forced a discipline on me to see that process through to completion. Plus, I thought it might be helpful for others to see what it's like to go through something like this.

Former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's recent conviction must bring up a lot of emotions.

It does. It's all so familiar, so sad. Hearing the stories of how he was held in such high esteem, how young children were supposedly lucky to be treated by him, how nobody suspected he could do any wrong even when they were given reason to pause. Then, seeing the all-too-familiar responses of people in power lawyering up, looking first to self-interest and only second to protecting or caring for the victims. What is different is that – unlike here in Canada, where our legal system just doesn't get it – his crimes are recognized for their true severity and he goes to jail for the rest of his life.

This book begins at a rink with you as the coach. What do you hope fellow coaches take from your story?

Abusers are outliers and the vast majority of adults involved in youth sports are there for the right reason. However, because abusers are out there, all adults involved in youth sports must accept, without question, safety audits, a second set of eyes on their behaviour and checks on their authority. Especially in instances where people might say, "Don't worry about so-and-so, he would never …" because that cover is exactly what abusers seek.

You have a unique perspective on the Canadian legal system. How do you define "justice," regarding sexual assault?

There is no such thing as a "justice system," just a "legal results" system. What happens in court is a game played by lawyers to determine whether an accused goes to jail and, if so, for how long. The alleged victim has no formal place in that game and is simply a witness for the prosecution. The witness tells a story and then exits, leaving the lawyers to go back and forth while the judge referees. The game isn't exactly fair, because only one side has to submit a story and be subjected to cross-examination. The defence has the right to remain silent and hide behind his lawyer.

We want to protect due process. At the same time, you write about the ways the legal system fails sexual-assault victims. Where do we start fixing this?

Fundamentally, it all starts with education: an understanding of why things need to change. In Canada, there has been harsher sentencing for robbing a bank than for serially sexually abusing children. That is simply insane. We need a broader understanding of the impact and severity of sexual assault and child sexual assault. Those crimes need to be seen for what they are – nothing short of the murder, or attempted murder, of a soul – and they should be treated accordingly. We also must better understand how and why we victims respond as we do, so our actions will be seen in that context. Absolutely nobody should go to jail without due process and a presumption of innocence, but that doesn't mean we can't improve our system and better respect the victim through the process.

How does hockey fit in your life now?

I have a love/hate relationship with hockey. It was once the thing I loved most, something I excelled at and defined, in good part, who I was. After Graham, I hated it. I have come a long way in making peace with the game. I started to love it again after coaching minor hockey and seeing the game through the kids' eyes, the way I once saw it. Hockey, without Graham, was and is something magical. I miss it and wish I were more a part of it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.