Run toward the danger. That’s the prescription a brain specialist gave to Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress/screenwriter/director/mother of three daughters, after she’d spent three years struggling with the debilitating effects of a concussion. (A massive fire extinguisher fell onto her head while she was bent over a lost-and-found box at a Toronto community centre.) A damaged brain, the doctor assured her, will tell you to avoid pain, to not challenge yourself. To heal it, you have to do the opposite.
Polley, 43, has built her career on running toward dangerous subject matter: playing an incest survivor in the film The Sweet Hereafter; exploring the effects of abuse in the miniseries Alias Grace; directing a film, Stories We Tell, about the secret of her own birth. Now she’s doing it again in her first book, due March 1, a collection of deeply personal essays, titled after that doctor’s advice. Each examines an event that was difficult to live through, let alone relive, and two are particularly newsworthy: a violent sexual encounter she says she had with disgraced radio host Jian Ghomeshi, when she was 16 and he 28; and how the powers behind her series Road to Avonlea exploited her grief over her mother’s death when she was 11. Together the essays prove that there’s nothing more potentially dangerous, or more thrilling, than a woman who dares to seek and tell the truth.
I met Polley at the Toronto editing suite where she’s finishing her latest film, Women Talking, the first she’s directed in 10 years. Based on Miriam Toews’s acclaimed novel, it’s about eight Mennonite women who hold a life-threatening meeting to address systemic sexual abuse in their community, and stars Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy. (A single frame, of light slanting into a hayloft, was tantalizingly frozen on a monitor.) Polley wore a navy wool sweater, black pants and February-appropriate boots; at the base of one thumb she’d inked a cryptic message to herself: REFRAIN. She was, as ever, warm and whip-smart, her brain fully healed. Here are highlights from our conversation.
You wrote and rewrote these essays over many years, starting when you were 19. Did writing them, and now publishing them, feel dangerous to you?
It’s terrifying. But I realized I couldn’t wait until I stopped being afraid. I had to be afraid alongside the experience of putting it out there. The weight of certain past events was haunting my present, guiding my life down the wrong paths. I needed to reckon with them. We live in a culture that traditionally has not believed women when they come forward with stories of trauma. I know some responses will be brutal and horrible. I don’t think it will be easy. But I do feel ready.
Okay, tough question. In October, 2014, several women came forward both by name and anonymously to accuse Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault. He was charged, went to trial, and in March, 2016, was acquitted. Why didn’t you speak up then?
That essay is the one I rewrote the most, and it’s the most difficult one for me to talk about. The answer to that question is really the essay in its entirety. I hope it gives voice to all the women – and there are so many of us – who choose not to come forward. At the time, I consulted dozens of people who work as lawyers, judges, both for the Crown and defence. I literally walked the streets of this city with my eight-week-old baby in a carrier. They all said the same thing: “Your coming forward will not help, because your story is full of inconsistencies.” As is the case of everyone who’s gone through a trauma.
So why tell the story now?
I’m trying to shine a forensic light on our system. All the ways I would have been subjected to the same disparagement of my credibility. Only one lawyer, Chris Murphy, advised me to come forward. He said, “Say everything. The mistake is trying to hide the embarrassing parts, the ways in which you behaved confusingly.” So that’s what I do. I volunteer it all. Because confusing behaviour and having it be true are not at odds with each other.
You admit to some mortifying stuff: sending Ghomeshi “weirdly ingratiating emails” over the years. Going on his radio show numerous times, and being “bubbly, giggly,” laughing too loud, “happily diminishing myself,” trying to “make things normal.” Then there’s a beautiful paragraph where you list what you know, beginning with, “I know that he hurt me and I didn’t want him to. I know that I asked him not to.”
This case predated Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. Things are a little better now, we know a little more about how memory behaves after trauma. But our legal system has a long way to go before it becomes a safe place for women to come forward. This image has been helpful: When I’m being treated as the least credible voice in a room, I imagine an army of women behind me. I imagine my friends, who are on my side and believe me, and funnelling behind them, a whole bunch of other women who have felt not-heard.
In the chapter Mad Genius, you describe some of the frightening things that happened to you at age nine, making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen with director Terry Gilliam. You describe a chaotic shoot, rife with dangerous explosions, one of which sent you to hospital. (The production was so infamous, Andrew Yule wrote an entire book about it, Losing the Light.) In your mid-20s, you heard Gilliam was casting another young Canadian actress in his film Tideland. You wrote him an email, telling him how frightened you’d been on his set, and asking him to take better care of this new actress. Yet you softened your request by calling him a genius, and you apologized for “babbling.” How do you feel now?
That’s not the letter I’d write now. I had been raised with and believed in the concept of genius being jagged and difficult for other people. That excuse is not good enough anymore. At the same time, I don’t think I’d be purely antagonistic. One, I wanted him to hear me. And two, I don’t think he’s a monster. He has some amazing qualities; he’s not a write-off as a human. But he hasn’t been held accountable enough. I hate his comments around the #MeToo movement and a lot of the things he’s said in the press in the past five years. But vilifying him doesn’t seem useful. I hope I’d be clearer and more straightforward now about what the harm was, and less apologetic for bringing it up.
You also tell harrowing stories about working on Road to Avonlea: children were berated. You had to work a week after your mother died. An adult male crewmember stalked you for two years and stayed employed. Later, producer Kevin Sullivan said, “You had a good time, Sarah.”
It funnels through a lot of these essays – what fear does to your behaviour. Fight or flight is the traditional male paradigm. But when you feel like prey, you will find a million circuitous ways of dealing with it. Because a confrontation is terrifying, and to run away, you have to admit what you’re running from.
In your particular case, telling the truth has had huge consequences: The world knows that your father is not your birth father. Your crippling anxiety ended the run of a play. You could have ended a television series.
My job requires me to inhabit someone else’s point of view. So I was always aware of the ways in which my pushing back would hurt people. That often took precedence over myself.
What would you say to Sullivan if you saw him now?
I’d want to ask him questions. How did he perceive what happened? I’m not sure what I’d get out of it, though. Because everyone creates their own story to make bad stuff seem okay. We often don’t tell the most important stories about ourselves. Because they’re messy, and we have shame and embarrassment around them. They’re integral to who we are, but in a way we’re not comfortable with.
Is this book a chance for you to tell a different story about yourself than you’ve done in the past?
I had a sense of myself as not strong in my body, low energy, anxious. That limited my experience of the world. The concussion treatment exploded that idea. Before, anxiety was a stop sign. Now it’s just a sign that I should ask myself if this is something I want to do. It’s difficult to find out that a story you’ve been told, or the story you tell about yourself, isn’t true. But that’s also what’s exciting about life. You need to interrogate yourself in order to evolve.
Now that you’ve figured out why you disliked acting, might you act again?
Yeah. I wouldn’t have said that at any other point in 14 years. I started taking this amazing class once a year with Lindy Davies, who’s worked with Julie Christie, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush. It made me think, I could go back in a different way. I had started to find my performances repetitive. I’d learned to do some things well. But I wasn’t taking risks. I wasn’t exploding myself the way I see great actors do. Making Women Talking, watching those great actors work, they could do the most extraordinary things 100 times. They could do a scene 50 different ways. They could absorb any direction, and mutate it into something more. I realized, I never even tried to get there. I was so bogged down by “I don’t want to be a child actor” that as an adult I never pushed myself hard.
Is there a project you’re considering?
Someone I know wrote a script for me. It may happen next year.
You like ambiguity. You don’t embrace tidy resolutions to stories. But has finishing this book changed you?
A weight is gone. These stories have been put where they belong, which is the past. They have no bearing on the present, other than what I choose to bring with me. I trust myself more than I did. It takes me some time to know what my point of view is, because I’m very interested in others’. That’s a weakness but it’s also a superpower, because seeing the world through another’s eyes is one of the most interesting things about being alive.
But progress is a constantly moving target. It’s jerky. The stops and starts are unpredictable. You have to go back over the same road again and again. So I meditate every day. I read a lot of Buddhist philosophy. And I also want, more than ever, to be the person who charges toward new situations. I want to be grounded and on fire at the same time.
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