When a press release landed in my inbox for the "Consent Series," two plays premiering in Toronto this month – one about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, the other vaguely about the Steven Galloway affair – I enthusiastically pitched an article to my editor.
The idea was that I'd see Asking for It, a documentary-style play about Ghomeshi's trial, and let it help me frame a conversation about sexual assault and the criminal justice system. I was curious how a play might distill the contradiction between the presumption of innocence, so basic to our judicial system, and our ethical and emotional need to believe women. I doubt anyone needs to be reminded how complicated and politicized this contradiction became in the winter of 2016, in the weeks surrounding Ghomeshi's trial.
But then a few things happened. The first was Harvey Weinstein – whose belly-flop from grace continues to happen as I write, with allegations against the movie producer increasing and intensifying, and more and more celebrities speaking out about what they knew or might have known or didn't know at all. It's sparked a proliferation of confessional journalism from women writers with their own Weinstein-esque stories to share and galvanizing calls to stop complicity, end silence and speak up about what happens to women at full volume.
The second thing that happened was that I saw the opening of Asking for It on Saturday night and felt an overwhelming, knee-jerk desire to say absolutely nothing about it at all.
Created by 24-year-old actress Ellie Moon, the play consists of a series of interviews that Moon conducted as Ghomeshi-gate broke. She was fascinated by issues of consent and coercion that the allegations brought to light, and so she asked friends, partners, younger sisters, legal scholars – even strangers on the subway – to speak to her on the condition of anonymity. The conversations are recreated by a cast of four actors, with Moon playing herself, and most of the play takes place around a table with scripts in hand. The result is a collage about principles and desire – about what we tout publicly compared to what we do in private. Sometimes the paradox in this seems idiosyncratic and innocuous; other times it's unconscionable and violent.
The close female friend I brought with me to Crow's Theatre – a legal-aid lawyer who specializes in issues of violent offence – suggested we leave at intermission. (We didn't.) But we both found the play discomfiting to think about and exhausting to sit through. It hit close to home, but not in a way that felt productive or cathartic.
The grey-zone episodes of assault and coercion weren't new or thought-provoking; they echoed the most banal parts of our lives – parts that, despite being close friends for 15 years and knowing everything important about each other, we'd never bothered to speak about. On the drive home, we both suddenly felt compelled to air-out our closets, interrupting each other with dozens of upsetting stories from our late teens and early 20s. I think we were both surprised by how much we could remember and how much we had to say, because we'd written this stuff off as trivial. We'd worked hard to forget.
When I got home, I wrote my editor an e-mail that asked if I could kill the article. I explained that I was uncomfortable with bringing my own experience into the essay – I didn't want to sexualize myself with a piece of confessional journalism (though I understand and support women who do) – and it seemed impossible to discuss any of the content without doing exactly that. Before hitting send, I saw that two theatre critics whom I'd seen in the audience had already tweeted about the show. "Riveting," wrote one. "Fascinating," wrote the other. This perplexed me. Didn't the play recreate the depressing banality of all the bad things that happened to them as undergrads, too? (I hesitate to mention that they're both men.)
I didn't send the e-mail, because I realized how topical my desperation for silence was; it echoes the play's most interesting theme and all the Weinstein-related discussion about silence and complicity. Early on in the play, Moon recounts a recent experience with a partner that made her uncomfortable: Out of nowhere, he does something violent and frightening to her in bed. She decides to dismiss the incident as weird and unimportant, and she never discusses it with the guy – whom she stays friends with – because she thinks it will embarrass him needlessly.
In a much later scene, a female friend (played by Christine Horne) interrogates Moon about the incident. Did she ever think of what had happened as criminal? Moon insists that she didn't. Would she think of it as criminal if she found out that the guy had done the same violent act to several other women? Moon concedes that she would. Would she speak out in these women's defence, add her voice to a concert of accusations, if they were to report what had happened to the police? Moon thinks longer and harder about this question, then answers with a bracingly honest No.
Boy do I get this No. It's Moon's decision not to politicize her private life. It's the No of a young woman who is harassed by a powerful executive and decides that the best thing for her career, for her life, is to forget about it. It's the No of my friend at intermission who didn't want to relive and rethink episodes that she'd written off as unimportant. And it's my own No at wanting to avoid any public rendering of my own experience for fear that it might change the way I'm perceived as a writer.
Anyone surprised that powerful women such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and Angelina Jolie opted to stay silent is failing to recognize that the shame is often not about what happened but that it happened at all – the fear that disclosing that one man has sexualized us will also sexualize us in the public eye. How do you square that with the need to warn other women about a predator?
You don't. The onus to protect the powerless can't fall on those who are already grappling to protect the little power they have.
Asking for It runs through Oct. 21 at the Crow's Theatre in Toronto (crowstheatre.com).