Follow me, I’m the pied piper



Paula Simons wrote so eloquently in the Edmonton Journal on Tuesday about the intimate magic of radio:

“We turn on the radio in our kitchen, in our bedroom, in our bathroom, in our car, and make the radio host our intimate companion. We can’t see him or her. There are no visual distractions. We let that voice insinuate itself in our brains, and make its own pictures in our minds.”

Jian Ghomeshi was no ordinary radio host. With one of the most successful shows in CBC Radio history, he was, in Simons’ words, “pied piper to his generation, and where he led, listeners followed.”

That analogy haunts me the same way Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter still haunts me after seventeen years. Robert Browning’s 1842 poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” provides a metaphor for two catastrophes in Egoyan’s 1997 film: a father’s sexual abuse of his teenaged daughter, Nicole, and an accident in which a school bus plunges into an icy lake and every child on the bus except Nicole is killed. Nicole, paralyzed by the accident, represents the lame boy in Browning’s poem who recounts how the piper lured his followers:

He led us … to a joyous land
Joining the town and just at hand
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew
And flowers put forth a fairer hue
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here
And their dogs outran our fallow deer
And honey-bees had lost their stings
And horses were born with eagles’ wings…

In The Sweet Hereafter, a town loses its children when they disappear into the mountain/lake, and the townspeople grieve their collective loss. In this latest retelling of the piper’s tale, it’s the fans who’ve lost their beloved piper who are grieving a collective loss. The women the piper lured into violent physical and sexual attacks seem important in this tale only insofar as they can offer proof of the piper’s guilt.

Who grieves their loss?

Who can even begin to imagine what they have lost?

Other women—it’s almost always women—who have been beaten, raped, degraded, and shut down. And so many of us have.

According to Jacques Gallant, who reported in The Star on Friday about the Twitter hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, which immediately went viral, “public figures and ordinary citizens” have “tweeted out praise for [the victims’] courage and shock that the problem [is] so widespread.”

I am happy that people are being supported to share their stories, but I call bullshit on anyone who says they are shocked that the problem is widespread. Women have been saying so since second-wave feminists coined the term rape culture in the 1970s.

But that’s the problem right there: When a woman says so, it doesn’t count.

Heather Mallick wrote in The Star on Tuesday that if any good news can be found in the Jian Ghomeshi story, it is this:

It was “uncovered and reported by two men (the great investigative reporter Kevin Donovan and Canadaland journalist Jesse Brown), studied by male lawyers and defended in print by the Star’s editor, who is a man. Many men are speaking out online about the horror of violence against women.”

This, Mallick says, is “a moment for men and women to unite.” How is this moment different from any other?

It is not.

Violent assaults will continue apace, and most will go unreported. The topic of unreported rape is viral this week only because of a scandal involving a media star. Next week will bring a new scandal and a different media frenzy. We all know how short the media’s attention span is. Our technologies, in fact, have made everyone’s attention span short. Twitter, for example, limits tweets to 140 characters.

Can 140 characters capture #BeenRapedNeverReported? Can a sentence or two convey the damage inflicted by a brutal assault? Can a woman express in a tweet what it cost her to deny her own reality during the attack so that she could feel safe when she was anything but safe? Can she describe on Twitter when she doesn’t even realize herself the emotional and psychic contortions she performs within herself just to function in a world that bombards her relentlessly with the message that it was her fault?

And what about the reality that so many people knew about Jian Ghomeshi? What power did the Q host hold that enabled him to act out his “violent tendencies” in plain sight?

Melissa asks and then answers her own question:

If so many people knew, why didn’t anyone stick their neck out to stop it? My question is: would you? Would you, if you had nothing besides stories that weren’t yours, little things you’d seen, a million tiny red flags that quietly added up to make you feel unsafe? Would you, if sticking your neck out meant publicly taking on one of the most influential people in the Canadian media landscape, someone with more money than you, more lawyers, more protection from his fame? Would you, if you knew that with a few carefully maneuvered cocktail meetings, a few woe-is-me turns of phrase, this person could quietly ensure that you didn’t work in that big town again?

As a woman who has #BeenRapedNeverReported, I will never criticize someone for not reporting an assault. I know intimately what’s at stake and how the consequences of reporting an attack can be at least as damaging as the attack itself. I don’t believe, as Christie Blatchford said this week, that women who choose not to report an assault do other women a disservice. It’s the system and culture that punish women for reporting an assault that do women a disservice.


Melissa is absolutely right about the risks of sticking one’s neck out. Her answer though, astute as it is, suggests that only the women Ghomeshi attacked (and their friends) knew he was violent. I find it hard to believe that people in positions of power didn’t also know, when so many knew. And I wonder how many powerful people who profited from his celebrity knew?

I wonder, too, about the role our entire culture plays in creating stars and then rewarding them with power—so long as they lead the masses to a joyous land where honey-bees don’t sting and horses fly with eagles’ wings.

Such a culture leaves us all bereft, to borrow a phrase from Browning’s poem.

Who is responsible to pay (for) the piper?

3 Responses to “Follow me, I’m the pied piper”

  1. carin

    “Next week will bring a new scandal and a different media frenzy. ”

    You’ve conveyed so well the frustration of the issue, its magnitude, its complications, the Sisyphean effort it (for some reason) requires just to keep it ‘newsworthy’… So what is wrong with us (all) that we are so easily distracted by the next shiny object? Because you are so right. We are. To different degrees, but all of us. It’s so easy to blame The Others, the nameless and vague ‘them out there’… but ‘they’ have no power if ‘we’ refuse to follow. The video you’ve chosen is heartbreaking and perfect.

    • commatologist

      Carin, thank you for “getting” the video choice. I felt the same way when I saw it.



Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS