Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Ghomeshi Chronicles

This month's Toronto Life cover story leaves me feeling a bit icky. Jian Ghomeshi's face, in that classic grainy black-and-white mugshot aesthetic, is grinning out at me. The cover line promises to delve into "who is standing by him, and why he's sure he'll walk," which immediately made me wonder what kind of article this would be.

As it turns out, the article is more of a conflicted MASH note to Ghomeshi than a solid rebuke. Just what we needed

The article, clocking in at over 4,000 words, was written by Leah McLaren. She refers to Ghomeshi as Jian throughout the piece, as if she's writing about a friend. And, indeed, she is. McLaren first met Ghomeshi over 16 years ago; in the article, there's a photo of them together at her wedding.  He is her friend, and she has the job of investigating how he lives after being exposed as a man whose penchant for sexual violence cost him his work and his reputation.

Over and over again, McLaren shows us moments of Ghomeshi overstepping boundaries, and then backs away from making a solid judgement about them. To wit: after their first meeting, when he was 32 and she was 23, he invites her—the journalist who had just interviewed him—to an orgy. In their last exchange, an email Ghomeshi sent McLaren after the death of his father and before his exposure, he mentions a long-ago crush on her, and that he had imagined marrying McLaren. When McLaren shows the email to her husband, he just rolls his eyes and dismisses it as "creepy," but McLaren thinks it's a nice summation of her relationship with Ghomeshi:

It was quintessential Jian. Grieving the loss of his father but still a consummate flirt, reminding me of our shared (non-romantic) history, complete with a self-deprecating reference to his anxiety issues and winky-face emoticon.
But here's the thing that McLaren misses, either deliberately or accidentally: when a man knows a woman is married and says that he would have liked to marry her, it crosses a line. When a musician invites a young woman doing her job into group sex, it crosses a line. The consequence for crossing a line doesn't have to be severe, but it should exist. There's no indication that McLaren has ever felt that Ghomeshi's comments and invitations are out of line. For whatever reason, she shows us these moments, but steadfastly plays them off as jokes, as Jian being Jian, as a usual moment in her friendship with an unusual man. When she mention a moment at Q, when "just seconds before going on air, he said he liked it when his girlfriend wore a certain baggy wool sweater because he knew it was obscuring the bruises on her breasts," she doesn't condemn him—which she could, on multiple levels: as a sadist, as an abuser, as an inappropriate member of his workplace—but just tells us about the moment. I don't know how she feels, but I know how I do: gross, dude.

The fact that McLaren does come out halfway through the article and say that "though none of the allegations against Jian have been proven in court, I now believe he behaved violently and without consent on what appears to be a habitual basis over the past 20-odd years" is a mild count in her favour, made even milder by the fact that she forgets to say, "and it's a problem!"

Maybe this is how people in Canadian journalism really feel about Ghomeshi—he was powerful, and he was well-liked (as long as you could tolerate the occasional bruised breast). I wish McLaren hadn't been so quick to discuss those warm gatherings over at Ghomeshi's house in the Beaches, and his ability to hang onto friends despite the allegations against him.

This is a sympathetic portrait of a man in trouble, of a man who created his own trouble by abusing his power and the women around him. Jian Ghomeshi is not an accident. He made this problem for himself. I am not sure why Leah McLaren and Toronto Life feel it's necessary to play this as a great downfall, a tragedy of the misunderstood. I'm not sure why we're supposed to be inspired by his confidence; unless this story was published as meta-demonstration of the type of ambivalence Ghomeshi produces, even now, I can't imagine the point of defending this person.

I know we like a good anti-hero. I know we like a good, messy, complicated story. And the story here seems to be that McLaren, even having been exposed to Ghomeshi's boundary-bruising firsthand, still wavers. It is difficult to hear that your friend is a lousy person. But it's not as if Ghomeshi operated in secret; from the very first time she met him, alarms bells should have been ringing.

But they didn't.

I will tell a story of my own life. Back in high school, there was a boy named Neil. Neil was charming—funny, self-effacing, good looking—but suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem. He dated girls who were smart and beautiful, and he cheated on them, a lot. To him, sex and sexuality were a salve for his feelings of inadequacy, and so he weaponized that. He would say things like, "The only reason you don't want to have sex with me is because I'm fat and ugly," and the girls, both girlfriend and extracurrical, would be in the position of having to soothe him even as he ignored what they wanted.

One by one, the girls wised up; the boy became a man. When I last saw Neil, I was dating my husband, and Neil and I met for a drink. At the bar, he put his hand on my thigh, and I told him to take it off. Neil pouted, called me a tease, said "The only reason you don't want to have sex with me is because I'm fat and ugly," and when I refused to comfort him, he left. It was a relief.

I have known Neil for a long time, and I have known him to be charming and fun company. But after him crossing the line for so many years, and after hearing about him cross other people's lines, I grew tired of excusing his behaviour. The alarms didn't start ringing that night at the bar; they had been going off for years. I know that Neil has his damage, and might think he has good reasons for acting the way he does, but it doesn't make it less toxic. Being friends with Neil meant I had to excuse the way he treated women, and I finally reached a point where I didn't want to.

There is a difference between knowing about something and condoning it. I know about Neil; I don't condone him. I do not get the sense that McLaren, or Toronto Life, has made that distinction about Ghomeshi.

Image via Dream Fierce