It has been exactly a year since the Steven Galloway case sent shockwaves through the hallowed halls of CanLit – and this week, the latest chapter in the saga erupted. Things got heated, with authors choosing sides, nasty exchanges on social media, and the metaphorical fractures that have invaded the literary world growing ever deeper.
For anyone who has not followed the plot: Last November, Galloway, the bestselling author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and three other novels, was suspended from his position as chair of the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program. The university cited “serious allegations” – never specified – and encouraged counselling for anyone who needed it.
Disbelief and speculation were immediate. Galloway was a key figure in Canada’s tight-knit literary community: successful and powerful, but also personable – funny, bright, charismatic. What could he have done?
A retired B.C. Supreme Court judge was hired to investigate. Months later, her report said it had substantiated only one of the complaints against him – and it was not the most serious one. Dean of arts Gage Averill, who had made the public statement about Galloway’s suspension, considered the report and issues beyond it and made his recommendation to then-president Martha Piper. Piper conducted her own interviews, according to the university, and made her recommendation to the board of governors.
Galloway was fired in June. (He has declined to be interviewed and has signed a confidentiality agreement.) The allegations were never publicly revealed. But The Globe and Mail has reported he was accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying and other inappropriate behaviour, including drinking with students. The main complainant in the case was a student with whom Galloway had extra-marital relations, sources say. Others came forward to UBC as witnesses to support the student’s allegations.
UBC’s handling of the case has been widely criticized. In the many conversations I have had about this, three things in particular rise to the top of the chart of egregiousness: the release of Galloway’s name in relation to “serious allegations,” a faculty meeting at a private home during which those allegations were revealed to his colleagues, and the decision to have a former student, a witness in the case, distribute a university memo to others she believed may have had complaints.
The timing, some have speculated, may have been a factor. When Galloway was suspended, Canada was having its Ghomeshi moment. The issue of rape culture was front and centre. UBC was about to be called out in an episode of The Fifth Estate for its handling of sex-related allegations in the history department – also in the faculty of arts.
Much has been made in the Galloway camp of a 911 call to police in Ohio, where Galloway was giving a talk. Just before his presentation, he received an e-mail from his employer alerting him that he was at the centre of a sexual assault investigation involving a student, according to the police report. Co-workers were calling from Canada to suggest he may be having suicidal thoughts as a result of this news, the report stated. That call led police to take Galloway to a hospital psych ward – an event so traumatizing it stopped him from seeking help when he really needed it, according to his friend, author Madeleine Thien.
Some Galloway supporters see malice in this phone call. But isn’t it possible his colleagues back home were truly concerned that he might be suicidal?
After he was fired, letters of protest from powerful figures – including Thien, this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award winner, and Bones creator Hart Hanson – were sent to UBC, calling for due process for Galloway and transparency.
But things really blew up this week with an open letter posted to a site called UBC Accountable calling for an investigation into the handling of the Galloway case. The initiative led by Joseph Boyden was supported by some major literary heavyweights, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and publisher Louise Dennys. Film director David Cronenberg added his name. But in the outrage that followed, at least two authors removed their names, including acclaimed novelist Wayne Johnston.
“I just deleted a tweet asking UBC to treat SG fairly,” he tweeted. “I should have said treat SG and the complainants fairly. Mea culpa.”
On Twitter, the knives were out and trenches deeply dug. Atwood engaged, trading barbs with others, including young, emerging writers. Atwood was being unfairly targeted, some said. Others pointed out how crushing it must have been for young writers to be called out publicly by Atwood – a literary and feminist icon.
“I was so hurt that an idol thought I hadn’t given thought to the consequences to what I’m doing, because I’ve done nothing but think about the consequences for the past year and that’s what I was trying to express to her,” said Sierra Skye Gemma, a complainant in the case who sent more than 70 tweets to Atwood on Thursday.
Also Thursday, Atwood released a statement. “My position is that the UBC process was flawed and failed both sides, and the rest of my position is that the model of the Salem Witchcraft Trials is not a good one,” read one sentence.
Literature should be a bastion of free speech and dangerous ideas, but all this nastiness has quieted people. The names of some strong Galloway supporters are conspicuously absent from that open letter. People are afraid for their jobs and reputations.
But these are people with jobs and reputations. If you want to talk about silencing, imagine what this has been like for emerging writers.
“There is a woman with no support and an entire community who does not believe her, and in this case, an entire group of ‘Can Lit Stars’ willing to disregard her in the name of holding a university accountable,” Zoe Whittall, a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe.
“I’m sure [Galloway’s] next book will be a bestseller and I’m sure the accuser will never write again.”
Those who had signed the open letter sought to clarify their intent. Award-winning author John Vaillant found himself wrestling with it all and began writing his own letter.
Atwood, Boyden and another signatory, author Susan Swan, prepared a second, brief letter to “set the record straight,” they wrote. “This inquiry should be interested in an outcome that provides fair treatment for Mr. Galloway and all those involved, including the women who registered complaints.”
Canada’s literary community punches above its weight. Its achievements are notable, but its numbers are relatively small. People tend to know one another – from school, teaching gigs, the writers’ festival circuit.
All of this has now ruptured. Some long, meaningful friendships have dissolved. The program Galloway once led has ugly scars and deep divisions. Some very good people have left, or are leaving.
When Galloway stopped by the Vancouver Writers Fest in October, some were delighted. Others were uncomfortable. There will be more discomfort at festivals, readings, awards ceremonies ahead – even if Galloway himself never shows up.
As a literary friend suggested to me this week, the term “Galloway” has come to stand for issues far beyond this individual case. Depending where you fall on this, “Galloway” now conjures a lack of due process and transparency – and/or a damaging, even traumatizing experience for an accuser. “Galloway” means a fall from grace. It represents the giant and complex grey zone around sexual assault accusations.
This is a debacle. So many people have been hurt: the main complainant (with whom I have not spoken), other complainants and witnesses, Galloway himself – and also his ex-wife and children, his new wife and her children. What a mess.
A smart Globe and Mail reader reacted to something I wrote earlier about the case by sending me the opening sentence of Galloway’s first novel, Finnie Walsh. “Finnie Walsh will forever remain in my daily thoughts, not only because of the shocking circumstances of his absurd demise, but because he managed to misunderstand what was truly important even though he was right about almost everything else.”Report Typo/Error