A passenger asks her cabbie about "the one that got away" – the ex-girlfriend who's still on his mind – and he names her instantly: Ellie. The sixtysomething driver remembers Ellie's smile and friendship, and their painful breakup: "I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep." And then his green eyes grow cold: "I'd call and call and call …" the man says, drumming the steering wheel with a thick hand.
The cabbie features in a provocative new Valentine's Day advertisement from Interval House, a Toronto women's shelter, that turns the romantic trope of "the one that got away" on its head. The startling video shows three actors remembering the women who left them: one guy stands in a gym, explaining how he'd buy his ex oysters after a bad fight; another guy, in a suit at work, complains about his "dramatic" ex, promising he won't give up on their relationship. While you empathize at first, the script quickly turns dark: these men are not lovelorn, but abusers who have been stalking their exes.
"The only thing worse than feeling sorry for them is having to go back to them," reads the tag line for Interval House, which describes its mandate here as "40 years of helping women be the one that got away."
It's dark fare for a day normally devoted to saccharine tokens of love, but it's relevant. For women with violent partners, holidays such as Valentine's Day and Christmas are a powder keg, putting stress on relationships that already have their own profound pressure points.
The ad, a collaboration with Union, a Toronto-based advertising agency that has worked with Interval House for four years, powerfully shifts the focus from the victim to the offender – unique in the dialogue about domestic abuse. Free of roses and hearts, the message here is thought-provoking for those who have experienced intimate partner violence, and for those who mercifully haven't.
The Globe spoke with Rachel Ramkaran, resource development and communications associate at Interval House, which provides support and shelter for women and children fleeing violence.
When we talk about domestic violence, the focus is often the female victim. We gawk at Amber Heard's bruises and we wonder how Janay Rice could have married the fiancé who knocked her unconscious in an elevator on Valentine's Day, three years ago. Why was it important to focus on perpetrators this time around?
There is a caricature in people's minds of an abuser as the bumbling, drunk, non-functional man who's taking out all the woes of the world on the person that he loves. That's not really what it usually looks like. Abusers are very good at making themselves look good to people outside of the relationship. The worst of it is always what happens behind closed doors.
A question that survivors are often asked is why they stayed. It is hard to leave, and that's because abusers often have a very suave side. Their partners believe that this side is the true man – that this side can come out if only she can get it out of him.
The men portrayed in your ad are all charming and high functioning – not at all monstrous. Then things get darker, jarringly fast. It's a sharp turn for the audience.
The video is a flip of the script. You kind of fall for the guys at first. You think they're really sweet. But as the video goes on you realize there is manipulation, possessiveness, harassing phone calls. You start to pick up on the subtle things that just aren't right – that it wasn't the healthiest relationship. We wanted to show that this is not always in your face and obvious. It can be anybody. Anybody is capable of this.
Is that sharp turn, from charming to abusive, one of the reasons it takes women five or more attempts, on average, to leave such men?
The whole campaign was designed to get at the "why" of that statistic. Ultimately in these relationships – unhealthy as they may be – there is love. A relationship doesn't start out abusive. There is a hope that maybe once you get through this rough patch it will be back to the honeymoon phase. A statement that's applicable to abusive relationships is, "Don't hang onto a mistake just because you spent a long time making it." We put a lot of time, effort, energy, love, care and even resources and money into a relationship. It can be hard to let it slip away. It can take quite a few times before women realize it's not going to get better. That's why they go back until there are no chances left to give.
The ad also turns a syrupy sentiment – "the one that got away" – on its head. When it comes to identifying abuse, is our language of romance part of the problem?
Looking at comments on social media, the use of this line in our video has become contentious. But we are not suggesting that everybody's "one that got away" actually got out of an abusive relationship. Most of us have a past relationship that we think on fondly. We wonder what would have happened if circumstances had changed. You can have a lost love, something that was healthy, amicable and respectful.
That's not what this video is showing. We know that sometimes, the one that got away was safer for it.
What do you say to critics who feel this unfairly paints smitten, nostalgic men with the same brush as it does abusive stalkers?
People should think about it more critically. And if this video is ringing a bell with some people, maybe it's time to consider if there's been harassing behaviour, or whether their breakup was the healthy breakup they thought it was.
Is this a bit of a downer on Valentine's Day?
There are certainly people who would rather see pictures of candy, flowers and kittens. There will be loads of that for them today. We needed to put this out there, too. People have love and relationships on the mind today. It's an opportunity to have a wider reach. We want to reach the women who need our support in order to leave a bad situation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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