Skip to main content

An open letter to UBC calling for fairness in its handling of the Steven Galloway case has sparked a toxic war of words affecting people far beyond those directly involved in the case.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Joseph Boyden penned the now-infamous open letter to the University of British Columbia this month seeking due process for his friend Steven Galloway – who was fired by UBC from his job as chair of the creative writing program – he knew there would be some kind of response. But he did not expect the firestorm that followed.

"I wasn't prepared, and I don't think any signatory was prepared, for quite how noisy the backlash would be," Boyden told The Globe and Mail on Thursday, the first time the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author has publicly addressed the matter at length since the issue blew up.

"A lot of people are talking shit about me on Twitter," Boyden wrote in an interview conducted via e-mail. "Tell one of my sisters or my mom that you think I'm a rape apologist."

It's been more than a year since UBC suspended Galloway over sexual assault allegations, but over the past couple of weeks, the battle lines have been drawn in a toxic war of words involving – and injuring – people far beyond those directly involved in the case. On one side, there was Boyden's open letter to UBC calling for fairness in its handling of the case, signed by a long list of authors and publishers – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Madeleine Thien among them. On the other side, there is a long list of people – many younger, female authors – calling out the signatories of that open letter on Twitter. So much time and energy has been spent over the past two weeks waging war via social media – with heated threads containing accusations of everything from misogyny (aimed at the former group) to McCarthyism (aimed at the latter).

"A lot of people seem to be given license to say to a person online what they'd never say to that person face to face. … This is in no way meant to belittle the real anger. I just believe a lot of it is misdirected," wrote Boyden.

The generational divide is undeniable: Many of the people who signed Boyden's letter are established, even powerful authors, while many who have signed a counter-petition (demanding that the authors remove their names) and who have been protesting on social media are emerging writers. There are exceptions, of course, but there is fallout on both sides. And the collateral damage has been pretty devastating: nastiness among colleagues and strangers, threatened friendships, sorrow.

"I have cried multiple times every day," said Elaine Corden, a student in the program who was a friend of Galloway's. After a difficult year dealing with the controversy from the inside, Corden – who suffered non-sexual abuse as a child – found the open letter triggering. "Multiple women are messaging me, telling me they can't get out of bed, they feel crushed – and they have nothing to do with Steven Galloway, they have nothing to do with that letter. They remember what happened when they spoke up – which was nothing."

Last June, UBC fired Galloway following an investigation into allegations against him. That allegation of sexual assault was not substantiated by the former B.C. Supreme Court judge brought in to conduct the investigation. She concluded that Galloway had had an affair with a student for about two years, as the bestselling novelist confirmed in a statement released this week through his lawyer – breaking his long silence on the matter.

The next day, the main complainant broke her own silence, releasing a statement through her lawyer in response to Galloway's. She said that her complaint was not about a consensual affair but about allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The open letter, posted almost two weeks ago, was intended to fix a process the authors believe was broken. But it instead poured fuel on the fire. Where was the concern for the complainants? The backlash has been intense.

"It is painful. We are all colleagues, and some of us are friends. We read and admire each other's books," observed Karen Connelly, author of several books, including Burmese Lessons.

"I fear one friendship with a younger writer is broken. I hope not," said author Susan Swan, best known for her novel The Wives of Bath. "The person just felt betrayed that I wouldn't withdraw my name from the letter."

Swan and Connelly are among the dozens of authors who signed the open letter. Many have taken a lot of heat for it. Boyden and Atwood, in particular, became instant targets.

"I was taken aback by immediately being called a rape-culture enabler," Atwood said.

"I think one of my problems is that I don't realize that I'm a big deal. So I think I can just sign a letter like anybody else and I'll just be one of these signatories," she said. "I didn't actually realize that all of the gazelles in the herd were going to turn and look at me. … So I was out there fighting on the front lines of Twitter, when it really wasn't my fight."

Not that she's fazed by it. "I don't think you should back down from bullies. That's what it is – it's just yelling and bullying."

When the online letter was published, Connelly – who publicly supported Galloway on Facebook in the summer, before others dared – said she received anonymous e-mails accusing her of being a rapist by proxy and warning her career would suffer. "I was baffled by that level of illogical, wacky invective. … If I believe someone – actually, many people – have been grievously harmed in an obfuscating, underhanded act of institutional aggression, that does not make me a rapist. Quite the opposite."

To many "on the other side," as some writers have put it, the letter felt silencing – like a brigade of CanLit stars lining up to protect one of their own.

"I felt the letter largely prioritized Steven Galloway's damaged reputation and well-being, while siloing the complainants into a mere side note. This gravely concerned me," wrote Amber Dawn in an e-mail. Dawn, a Vancouver poet and adjunct professor in the creative writing program, said her health began to decline when Galloway's suspension was made public last year and she is suffering again.

As a UBC student, Corden's schoolwork has suffered. She had hoped to submit her MFA thesis last April but was sidetracked by the suspension and what followed. Now, the open letter has dashed her hopes of handing in her thesis next April. She hasn't been able to write.

The controversy has been distracting, divisive and difficult at the program. "There are a few colleagues who I'd be afraid to be in a room alone with right now – colleagues who signed that letter," Dawn said.

And it's been divisive in the community. When a whole bunch of writers were in a room together Wednesday at the Writers' Trust gala in Toronto, the Galloway controversy was all the talk – although the winner of the $50,000 Writers' Trust Fellowship, Miriam Toews, did not address it in her acceptance speech. Toews is one of more than a dozen people who have removed their names from the open letter. (She declined to be interviewed about this.) Others include Sheila Heti, Camilla Gibb and Wayne Johnston.

"I've had heart-to-heart communications with friends regarding this, and those conversations aren't easy," Boyden wrote. "I don't begrudge anyone who might have signed this letter and who has then decided to remove his or her name. I can understand why they felt the need to. We are not dealing with pleasant territory."

He said he was concerned for everyone involved, including the signatories. "They are feeling the brunt of this, and that makes me concerned for them. No one signed this letter wanting to cause harm to anyone."

While some went silent with the backlash, Atwood did not. "I often find myself feeling I have to throw myself in front of the train because I don't have a job. And what can people do to me? I'm going to be dead soon anyway, so who cares? I have my reputation. … It gives you a kind of zany freedom."

Atwood did say she recognized how difficult it must have been for people to confront her on Twitter, especially young writers. "They don't understand that I'm fighting their end, because if anybody does that to them, I'll be there."

The controversy has brought Atwood and Corden together. Their exchanges were fairly prickly at first ("Am I the Wicked Witch?," Atwood wrote in one tweet) but progressed to a lengthy, productive phone conversation this week, during which they worked out a statement, now posted to the UBC Accountable website.

"I felt human and I felt like I was talking to another human and just remembering all the stuff that she's walked tall through before I ever started writing. She's kicked in some big doors for me so she has been my ally," Corden said.

"Everybody needs to reach out across the lines," Corden added. "What's working in bridging this war is not the best composed Twitter essay, it's compassion."