All The Court’s a Stage
It’s around 4:30pm on the third day of Jian Ghomeshi’s trial. The second witness, Lucy Decoutere, has been cross-examined by defence attorney Marie Henein for hours.
“Do you want to tell the court the real conversation? The one you have not told anyone here today?” Henein asks Decoutere, after a line of questioning concerning an email correspondence between her and Jian from 2002.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Decoutere says.
In response, Henein turns to Justice Horkins and asks for court to be adjourned. The day ends.
It’s not the first dramatic scene of the Ghomeshi trial — more like the seventh. On Tuesday, Henein dug mercilessly into an anonymous witness, breaking once to utter: “That photo is of you in a bikini, lying on a beach, looking attractive. You’re an attractive woman, aren’t you?”
Most involved in the conversation around the trial have expressed concern over sensationalism. Well, it’s going to be sensationalized because it’s sensational. Its exigence fits perfectly into 2016’s political fold — shifting attitudes towards rape culture, the behaviour of survivors, and how the justice system operates in accordance with oppressive cultural attitudes. It features actual celebrities — Ghomeshi and Decoutere — and Marie Henein, whose reputation in the legal field has quickly veered into the public domain following a glamorous TorontoLife biopic published days before the trial.
I have never heard Marie Henein’s voice, but last week I described it to my friend in a text message: velvety, I’ll bet. Such has been the trial for most of us; peeking in an imaginary window granted to us by Chatelaine’s Sarah Boesvold, Vice’s Hilary Beaumont, and a slew of like journalists on Twitter in live time. And the sight through the window, however obscured, is cryptically fascinating. NowToronto writer Jane Doe recently published an article titled “The Jian Ghomeshi Trial: Theatre of the Absurd is More Like It” . Doe notes how “it feels ludicrous that the police and Crown fail to make full disclosure to the woman in a sexual assault trial that the accused and his defence lawyer will have full access to her KGB statement and can use it to discredit her at trial.”
It’s true. A lot of the trial feels ludicrous. It feels like a thinly-veiled Samuel Beckett production, not much more than a dramatized array of bloated caricatures. We have Marie Henein, the defence attorney endlessly pegged with every sociopath adjective in the book. Unsurprisingly, most of her popularity lies not in the fact that she’s an excellent lawyer, but in that her grim expertise is coupled with her identity as a beautiful woman (emphasis on woman). Henein has received countless criticisms, most of which along the lines of “How do you sleep at night?” or other jabs at essential femininity. The underlying narrative at work here calls for solidarity among all women, and while most feminists acknowledge that it’s problematic to hold us to that standard (a standard that would obscure most women’s success), it’s still hard to swallow Henein’s instrumentalization of rape mythology. It only grows in absurdity when we remind ourselves she knows what she’s doing.
Opposite her stand the witnesses and their scarlet A’s, fumbling responses to inquiries on traumatic events that happened more than a decade ago. They prompt pity and, at times, frustration, as though missing marginal details from a decade ago is in some way incriminating.
And then you have Jian Ghomeshi — or, well, the lack of Jian Ghomeshi. He has no character in this play; he never once touches the stage. Rather than even being a piece of the puzzle, Ghomeshi seems more like a small gap in the hundreds of pieces, a nothingness present only to allow them to move around. Indeed, even the two anonymous complainants, devoid of any identity besides their words, take up endless more space than the man they claim violently assaulted them. Ghomeshi’s absence alone speaks volumes to the cracks in the Canadian legal system’s approach to sexual assault cases. The shadow that his silence casts on the trial only illuminates the accusers, their honest flaws and honest stutters in grave danger of collapsing the Reasonable Doubt house of cards. Ghomeshi doesn’t sit alone in his silence — he’s joined by the creeping truth repeated in the corridors of Toronto’s law circles: he probably did it, and that means next to nothing.
Here is where we need to step back and remember these are human beings. The trial is not an episode of Law and Order. Endless articles have arisen in the past while over this exact issue, some arguing that it should never have been public in the first place. I’m not here to make that argument.
The Jian Ghomeshi trial is a spectacle. It is our God Given Right™ to consume it in a detached, entertained manner. Most people who aren’t victims of sexual assault will find this consumption easy. Here’s the thing, though — most of us are victims of abuse in some form. And beyond the bright-eyed University Campus campaigns aiming to end the stigma around sexual assault, it remains to be aggressively silenced. I assure you, if it has not been apparent already, that thousands of people are watching this trial with bated breath. And this breath isn’t the same sort reserved for a football game or Gillian Flynn novel. Because the harsh spotlight on Lucy Decoutere has morphed her into more than just Lucy Decoutere. Now this stranger is also my friend Anna crying in dim-lit hallway in grade twelve, my friend Morgan in first year, Alex in third year. She’s the awkward shared flush in my girlfriend’s cheeks when someone makes a rape joke. She’s most of us: young, quiet.
Is it unfair to project solidarity on to human beings like they’re characters? In a million ways, yes. It’s even unfair to Ghomeshi to project villainy on to him without proof. But all the fairness in the world cannot take the art out of spectacle. We don’t still read Shakespeare because the plays contain complex characters. We still read Shakespeare because the complex characters are us; our pasts, our futures, our anxieties and dreams. If the capital T truth of the victims’ testimonies is never brought to light, and indeed it probably never will be, the spectacle will live on.
How do we deal with this unfairness? Is there a way to ethically consume these characters? Do we have some form of duty as an audience? In a million ways, yes. Talk about the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Talk about it in class, with your family members, with your friends. Tweet about it, sing it from the goddamn rooftops, because if the complainants deserve anything from this ordeal, it’s a paradigm shift. The court needs to change the way it deals with sexual assault trials. This will take paperwork, protests, slit red tape, and time. But the system and conversational rhetoric belong to the same strand of DNA. Storytelling and popular opinion cultivate realities, which, in turn, cultivate structural realities. A lot of apathy towards politics stems from powerlessness. Powerlessness and victims walk hand in hand. I would like to emphasize exactly how much power this trial has given victims of sexual violence — it has opened the door for a conversation to begin, put the ball in play.
This trial is going to have a sad ending. Most of us know that. Even if Ghomeshi is charged, which is unlikely at best, the verdict will not magically pull the trauma from the witnesses. It will not pull the trauma from any of us. And the witnesses will receive the same treatment for years after:
We do not have to accept this ending. We do not have to let this twisted piece of theatre close its curtains in the same manner it has for centuries. But nothing is going to happen if it is swept under the rug like millions of others. The absurd, twisted theatricality of the Jian Ghomeshi trial has given us a chance to keep the issue in the unforgiving light it deserves.
This time let’s not let the curtain close.