It is excruciating to watch someone you care about testify in a sexual assault trial. That difficulty can only increase when you have an assault in your own past, when you did every “wrong” thing in the aftermath. When you sent notes and gifts. When you told him you loved him and kissed him good night. When you pleadingly asked what you had done wrong.
There were so many moments last week while I watched my friend Lucy DeCoutere testify in the Jian Ghomeshi trial that I thought about the nature of memory. I tried to remember exactly what I did in 2003, the year when Lucy swore, under oath, that Jian had slapped and choked her. Where I was living, what my hair looked like, the contents of any emails I sent or any letters I wrote. Then I thought about the details of my own assault decades earlier. I remember what I was wearing, what the weather was like, what I had for breakfast the following morning. I remember what he said and what he did on that day. And yet I forget almost everything that happened in the weeks before and after it.
I also thought a great deal about how I didn’t report my own assault, and about how so many people for so many years have asked me why I didn’t just go to the police. Now, after watching a friend have the most intimate details of her life—her private correspondence, her confused emotions, her pre- and post-assault behaviours—exposed and made fodder for instant debate by countless strangers, the answer to that near-constant question has become entirely clear.
The first message I ever received from Lucy arrived on November 27, 2014, about a month after she came forward as one of Ghomeshi’s alleged victims. (He is currently on trial after pleading not guilty to one count of overcoming resistance by choking and four counts of sexual assault. Of the three women who have come forward to testify against him, Lucy alone has agreed to be publicly named.) A mutual friend connected us because Lucy was looking for a writer to collaborate with her on a book project, and he had some familiarity with my work. He described her to me as “great,” “god-damn tough,” and “a good egg,” and hoped we would become friends. After some brief back and forth with Lucy via email, the two of us agreed to talk on the phone the following day to discuss the details.
“Do you know what I'm involved with currently?” she asked before she signed off. Of course I did. We all did.
The next afternoon Lucy and I chatted for more than two hours on speakerphone while she drove from Fredericton to Halifax for a television gig. It was a meandering conversation that barely touched on Ghomeshi, and was simply us getting to know each other. She asked me about fairly innocuous things: my work, my pets, what I like to do for fun. She shared details about her own life: her teaching and acting career, her service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, her rich family history, her embarrassment over liking Taylor Swift’s catalogue. I came to understand her boisterous and sometimes bawdy sense of humour, the way she often makes crass (and hilarious) jokes in the face of hardship.
As the call went on, I revealed to her that I am a survivor of sexual violence who didn’t report. We talked about trauma, and what it does to your mind, your memories, and your body over time. Whenever the call cut out thanks to patchy cell service along the highway, we’d just dial each other back to continue. At one point, when she pulled over for gas and a bottle of coconut water, I listened as the station attendant enthusiastically recognized her from the news. (This happens to Lucy a lot, I have since learned.)
We had some more back and forth communication in the month that followed, and agreed to meet when she next came to Toronto. “I am more excited to meet you than is probably normal,” she wrote in mid-December 2014. When we had coffee together at a downtown café five days before that Christmas, it felt like a reunion of old friends. Lucy has a rare ability to put strangers at ease—she can make a comforting quip when things seem awful, even for her, and has the energy and kindness to pick others up when they’re down. I immediately liked and admired her.
When I visited her in Halifax a few months later, it seemed like everyone there knew and loved her, with people on the street waving and saying hello. I had tea with her and her parents at the newly opened public library, then wandered through town with her on her way to get a haircut. When the two of us passed the deserted finish line of the Halifax marathon en route, we comically ran through its arch, arms raised above our heads like we’d just completed twenty-six miles together, while strangers mock cheered us on. Our professional relationship—the reason we connected in the first place—had instead become something decidedly more close-knit.
All of this is to say I am biased. Over the course of about a year, I quite accidentally developed a close friendship with a person testifying in one of the more widely publicized sexual assault trials in recent Canadian history. I believe her, I care about her, and I worry about her. I am not a courtroom reporter, nor am I a “hard” journalist—I’m just someone who is writing about my feelings and impressions of two very trying days.
“There is no right or wrong way to cope or react or move forward with your life.” —Lucy DeCoutere in her statement
It’s also difficult for me to avoid comparing what Lucy has gone through, is going through, with my own contrasting experience of not reporting. I compare her actions and frustrations to my own, and I admire her courage and her strength where I felt I had none. The two of us have discussed at length our post-traumatic symptoms, the way they’ve wreaked havoc on our health and well-being, given us nightmares, and made other nights sleepless. We’ve exchanged coping tips and kind words. But we’ve never worked on that project that brought us together, and we’ve never once crossed the boundaries about what she could and couldn’t talk about regarding the impending trial.
About three months before Ghomeshi was set to appear, Lucy asked me if I would be her “support person”—a local familiar face to accompany her while she testified in a city that isn’t her own. I agreed, and she in turn consented to me writing about the process of her testifying from my point of view. Lucy’s past involvement with the media has been a point of attack for Ghomeshi’s defence, so it’s important to note this piece is on me. I’m writing it in the hopes of revealing to victims of sexual violence exactly what it means to take the stand.
Lucy and I agree that it is important to humanize and demystify the process for those ever put in a position to report, and to convey to survivors that “there is no right or wrong way to cope or react or move forward with your life”—her words, from a statement she would release to the media upon concluding her testimony on Friday.
It was meant to be now.
More than a month ago, I scrawled “Lucy arrives” on my calendar for today’s date, which is when she expected to testify. Instead this happened, last Tuesday afternoon:
I am home when Lucy calls from Halifax to let me know plans have changed and that she’ll be getting on a plane the next day. The Crown is providing her with a flight and a hotel room while she’s needed, but it has become difficult to predict when she will take the stand and how long the process will take. There’s a certain opaqueness to everything, exacerbated by the fact that she’s not allowed to follow the trial in the news or talk to anyone involved. (On the phone, I’m careful not to relay anything I’ve learned from following the proceedings online.)
Lucy tells me she has less than twenty-four hours to get her affairs in order to leave Halifax. She has to find someone to take care of her pets, and negotiate time off as a captain in the RCAF. (She is a training development officer at CFB Gagetown.) I can’t imagine what it’s like to emotionally prepare to testify in such a high-profile case, to know you’re going to face someone with as formidable a reputation as Marie Henein—she is the same defence attorney who kept Michael Bryant out of jail—and then discover that the timing has been changed so dramatically.
From Halifax Airport on Wednesday Lucy texts to say she’ll be giving a statement to the Crown the following morning, but it remains unclear to her when she’ll actually be testifying. I tell her to check back in with me when she knows, then proceed to move some things around in my own life. Because I am a freelancer I have the luxury of doing so, but I wonder how often such scheduling changes occur, and how much harder they are on those victims whose supporters cannot so easily adapt.
Lucy contacts me just before 11 am on Thursday, letting me know she’ll be in court in just thirty-five minutes. She’s unduly apologetic, telling me she had assumed that she wouldn’t be appearing until the afternoon session. Rushed, I call a cab and make it to Old City Hall courthouse with only minutes to spare, her texts directing me to Victim/Witness Assistance Program services, a designated safe space where she’ll be protected from the media frenzy encircling the courtroom, and any other threats that may arise.
I hurry myself through a swarm of cameramen, through metal detectors and security, and up the courthouse stairs. When I arrive Lucy is with her lawyer, Gillian Hnatiw, who is explaining to her that after this moment they cannot speak again until Lucy is no longer under oath. Although Lucy is Gillian’s client, she has no role in the prosecution itself. She cannot ask Lucy questions, call evidence to bolster her case, or make arguments in the courtroom on her behalf. She has no information about the police investigation or the Crown’s strategy. Like us, she is external to the process.
My friend and I hastily hug hello, having only a few moments to talk before we’re ushered downstairs. Because the courtroom is full, there is some difficulty getting me inside, but a victim/witness support worker pushes the issue to find space. Within the span of about ten minutes I’ve gone from the sidewalk outside on Queen Street to a bench inside the courtroom, seated between Gillian—who tells me Lucy has not slept or eaten properly since leaving Halifax yesterday—and another support worker.
When we’re all asked to rise as the judge enters, I glance to my left, past the courtroom sketch artist and rows of familiar media faces, to see Ghomeshi flanked by Henein.
In our many conversations over the almost fifteen months that Lucy DeCoutere and I have known each other, she never told me what happened between her and Jian Ghomeshi that night in 2003—and I never asked. I hear the details for the first time during the Crown’s examination-in-chief. I listen as Lucy talks about how she came to know Ghomeshi, the dinner date they had together, and the scene at his home afterwards.
From 11:30 am to just before 1:00 pm, she outlines in as much detail as she can what she recalls from an incident that happened almost thirteen years ago. I am struck by her poise and clarity in the face of such a daunting, exposing situation, and proud of how she answers each invasive question with strength and resilience. When she recounts the assault, I have an entirely natural reaction of both rage and sadness. I’m seated on a hard wooden bench only about twenty feet from my friend in the witness box. I can make eye contact with her every so often and smile, but I have no possible way to protect her.
"I can make eye contact with her every so often and smile, but I have no possible way to protect her."
When the trial breaks for lunch, a support worker takes us back to the secure room for victims and witnesses, a small and suffocating space where Lucy is required to stay for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Because she cannot leave the courthouse, I run out to get her a salad and a smoothie for lunch. She’ll be alone while I’m gone, so I try to make the excursion as brief as possible, knowing she must face Henein’s cross-examination after the break.
As we eat, I notice how entirely depressing the room is. The courthouse itself is majestic but aging, and these shoddy walls are painted a pale shade of hospital blue. A keypad lock system is designed to keep out anyone threatening, and if we need anything we have to knock on the window that connects us to the support workers’ office space. I can’t help but think of all the people before us who have sat in these same bland vinyl chairs while feeling completely terrified.
The two women I meet who work in the office are incredibly professional, kind and reassuring. They keep us informed to the best of their ability, and make every effort to make Lucy’s experience as comfortable as possible. (It’s largely impossible.) There’s a single copy of O, The Oprah Magazine on the table where we eat, along with a colouring book meant to teach children about the process of testifying in court. There’s also a tiny TV with a built-in VCR, and numerous boxes of Kleenex. At one point we’re alerted that members of the media are hanging around the office, and the staff quickly shoos them away.
When we to go to the bathroom, we are escorted by one of the women who works in the office. She sits on a bench outside to make sure no one can reach us.
Henein’s cross-examination begins at 2:15 pm. Almost immediately, the tone is combative and unkind. From my perspective, this kind of scrutiny—a meticulous dissection of Lucy’s memory—is wholly painful, demoralizing, and anxiety-inducing.
Lucy’s media interviews. Lucy’s jokes about sex acts. Lucy’s details of the time period in question. Henein lays it out, making challenges at every turn. All the while, tweets detailing this personal information fly out of media hands and into the world. (It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that to testify, you must surrender your privacy, even if you don’t publicly attach your name to the complaint.) Henein is transparently intent on confusing Lucy, constructing her questions in backwards, misleading forms (“May I suggest to you...”), circling repeatedly around ideas, and theatrically revealing evidence in ways designed to rattle Lucy’s confidence. This is of course a defence attorney’s job, but it’s jarring to watch first-hand how combative Henein is, how aggressive is her approach and demeanour with someone vulnerable. As she rattles off the list of interviews Lucy gave throughout the preceding year, I think about how much we discourage victims of violence to tell their own stories, how much we demand their total silence lest they be labelled “media whores.” (I also recall “The Fixer,” Marci McDonald’s long-form profile of Henein, in her tailored suits and expensive shoes, which appeared in Toronto Life last October. I remember the luxurious photo shoot that accompanied it, styled like an aspirational fashion spread or promo for a prime-time crime show.)
"I think about how much we discourage victims of violence to tell their own stories, how much we demand their total silence lest they be labelled 'media whores.'"
After about half an hour of Heinen’s questioning, the judge’s laptop battery dies, and the court goes into a fifteen-minute recess. This early break dictates that the latter half of the afternoon will wear on much longer than the first, meaning Lucy will likely be exhausted by day’s end. So far she’s holding up incredibly well—when she takes the stand again, Chatelaine reporter Sarah Boesveld tweets that she looks “[N]ervous. But at ease at the same time?”
The second part of the afternoon is more ramped up than the first, as it becomes apparent that Henein is building toward a big reveal. When the questioning focuses on the good-night kiss Lucy gave Ghomeshi before leaving his home, I keep thinking how little it matters, that the things women have told me they’ve done in the wake of an assault never negate what happened to them. In my view, so much of what Henein asks Lucy seems irrelevant. Her questions go too much toward the victim’s behaviour, and too far away from the actual crime at hand.
Who cares that Lucy kissed Jian good night?, I think to myself in the courtroom. Who cares that she was nice to him, offering flowers and kind words? Who cares if they had brunch, went for a walk or “cuddled” (Henein’s word) in a park? Who cares if there are photos of them smiling together? Who cares if she occasionally corresponded with him in the weeks and months that followed? Who cares if, after she reported to police, she received gifts and supportive messages from friends and strangers, did media interviews, was offered the services of a publicist, and now has thousands more Twitter followers? (A number that Henein actually misquotes in her questioning. But again, who cares?) To me—and to so many survivors—all of it is irrelevant in the face of sexual assault.
The who cares question comes to mind again and again during Henein’s cross, so much so that I want to say it out loud in the courtroom, as the day ends abruptly on her carefully constructed cliffhanger.
When we return to victim/witness services late Thursday it is decided that Lucy won’t exit through the front door, but instead be escorted out through a secure entrance and into a police van that will drive us back to her hotel. The female support workers reiterate that they are there for Lucy’s safety, and that there are occasional risks at the courthouse that she needs to beware of (protesters, media, etc.). I can see that it frustrates her to be disallowed to face the world after testifying, that the perceived implication is that she should hide away and be ashamed. Beyond that, after being cooped up both in court and this tiny room, back and forth and back again, all she wants to do is go for a walk to clear her head. I understand these sentiments, but I admittedly strong-arm her into the decision to take the ride.
Inside her hotel we settle ourselves at the bar to review the day. I order a glass of wine (and then quickly another) while Lucy asks the bartender to make her something non-alcoholic and “fancy.” (She doesn’t drink.) At one point the muted television screen behind her shows an array of photos of her and Ghomeshi together in 2003—introduced as evidence by Henein mere hours ago. I look up as they flicker past. Lucy does not.
Friday morning I’m a few minutes early to meet Lucy for breakfast, so I wander to the hotel newsstand and scan some newspaper headlines, seeing those same old photos again and again. Because she is not allowed to consume any news or even go on social media during the trial, she’s existing in a total vacuum, unaware of what the media or public is saying about her. For me, this would fuel the worst kind of anxiety: to experience a terrible unknowing while a frenzy exists all around you.
A male friend of Lucy’s is joining us today as a second support person. As the three of us eat our eggs and croissants, I can see he is almost as nervous as I was yesterday. I warn him that the walk through court while everyone else is silent and seated is hard, but assure him it will be less intimidating than he expects.
While we talk, that same bar television starts running that same series of photos. Lucy keeps her back to it while I watch headlines scroll over her shoulder.
Day two of Henein’s questions and Lucy’s answers confirm almost every fear survivors have about reporting sexual assault. Forever-ago emails are dredged up one by one, revealed in a deliberate and increasingly “damning way” for maximum rhetorical impact. Lucy remembers none of these messages, but is asked to field each one in the moment, and at some points is forced to read their content aloud.
The point of all of this heightened drama is to weaken Lucy’s reliability and credibility in the eyes of the judge. (By Ghomeshi’s choice, there is no jury in this trial.) But in the moment it just looks like base cruelty—a complex and very publicly orchestrated process of deeply shaming a victim who dared to come forward. When Lucy’s “fuck your brains out” email to Jian is posted on numerous courtroom screens, a group of older women behind me audibly gasp, seemingly not because they are scandalized by the content, but out of sympathy for what Lucy is currently enduring.
My experience in the courtroom on this second day is a blur of increasingly emotional responses. (Again, how can anyone accurately recount the things they wrote thirteen years ago?) From where I sit the process looks entirely abusive and re-traumatizing, but Lucy’s resolve never wavers. “[She] is staying very calm and bright. It’s incredible...” Boesveld tweets that day.
Lucy’s testimony that she knew she would inevitably run into Ghomeshi in entertainment circles, and that she therefore only wanted to see him on her own terms, resonates so strongly with my own experiences—I was similarly terrified of running into my abuser after the fact. “Ghomeshi assaulted me and afterwards I tried to neutralize it and make it a friendship,” she tells the court, a sentiment that speaks directly to so many survivors who have done the same. As I watch her calmly and carefully explain every piece of email placed in front of her, I’m amazed by her resilience, her ability to articulate such complex emotions to people who may struggle to understand them.
There is something heartbreaking about the overall tone of the messages that Henein presents. I am struck by Lucy’s humour and casual language, and the way it seems like she’s trying to make an unimaginable situation as normal as possible, to both quiet her complex and painful feelings and apologize for what she’s endured. (I’ve learned over time that it is always Lucy’s way to be apologetic.)
By the time Henein reveals the climax—a now-famous “love letter” that Lucy testifies she has no memory of writing—and asks her to read its closing line (“I love your hands”) to the court, I’m no longer strong enough to keep my personal feelings concealed. I hear Lucy’s words on the stand, “Women can be assaulted by someone and still have positive feelings for them afterwards,” and I start to cry in court. When Gillian turns to me and asks if I’m okay, I feel selfish that I’ve made such an upsetting moment for a friend about my own personal trauma.
When we have our second lunch in the victim/witness services room, we try to keep the tone as light and positive as possible, flipping through that ridiculous O magazine and mocking the terrible décor. The worst is now over. Lucy won’t have to face Henein again, and after more than a year of waiting for this moment, she can finally move forward with her life.
As we eat, I reiterate over and over that it doesn’t matter what she did after the assault. It doesn’t matter if she was kind, or loving, or sexual to a person who abused her. In some ways I feel like I’m also saying it to myself. There are tears, and worries now, but one thing remains certain after such a harrowing courtroom experience.
Lucy’s words about the letter, spoken on the stand, replay in my mind: “That doesn't change the fact that he assaulted me and I never gave consent to him.”
After lunch the Crown recalls Lucy to explain the letter further. She does, and is finally dismissed around 2:30. We’re taken back upstairs for a final debrief with victim/witness services. Lucy is at last allowed to interact with her lawyer again, and it is an important reunion, given how she has been untethered from any legal support for the past two days.
It is our collective expectation that the Crown will visit Lucy before she leaves to unpack what has happened in court today. While we wait, we talk about her best immediate response to the assembled media outside. After some discussion, it’s decided that she will draft a statement that Gillian will read to a scrum in front of the building, while the police escort us out of the separate, secure entrance in the back.
The statement is written and rewritten on a yellow legal pad until Lucy, now emotional and exhausted, is satisfied with the messaging. Gillian gives a few practice reads to the room, then folds it in three and slips it into her bag.
— Simon Houpt (@simonhoupt) February 5, 2016
The police arrive and inform Lucy that the Crown won’t be returning for a final conversation, a frustrating misunderstanding that certainly doesn’t help the lack of closure regarding the day’s events. Lucy is given a pamphlet about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, a government agency that may help her pay for therapy. Next, a police officer escorts us into the elevator and downstairs to where a van with tinted windows is waiting in an enclosed parking lot to transport Lucy back to her hotel. We all pile into it, sitting snugly next to each other with her in the centre.
As we pull out into the street, the vehicle is swarmed by photographers. One of them slams himself and his camera against the passenger window to my immediate left. For a jarring moment, the van fills with the light of his camera flash. He fires off half a dozen frames before we roll away.
We soon realize the van is being followed by a black GMC truck, and the assumption is that someone from the press is tailing us to discover where Lucy is staying. For a few tense minutes, our driver takes sudden, quick turns around downtown Toronto, attempting to lose the truck in thick rush-hour traffic. We discuss pulling into police headquarters to ultimately discourage the driver behind us, but are eventually able to sneak away and get Lucy safely inside.
While she goes upstairs to get changed, I return to the hotel bar with her friend. This time the television screen behind the bartender shows Gillian Hnatiw on the steps of the courthouse, reading the statement that was written on that yellow legal pad in that tiny, dismal room less than an hour before. There’s something surreal about the entire tableau, the knowledge that it is both over and never over, not just for Lucy but also for any victim of sexual violence.
WATCH: Lawyer for Lucy DeCoutere speaks following cross-examination at Jian Ghomeshi trial. https://t.co/Z6YgaqBUAC
— Alex Maveal (@AlexMaveal) February 5, 2016
When Lucy comes down from her room, we talk about how she will manage social media now that she is allowed to access it again. She’s already on the receiving end of online harassment, with people creating Twitter accounts specifically to hurl abuse at her. Though I offer to deal with it on her behalf, she declines, saying it’ll be okay. It doesn’t take long for a couple of men at the bar recognize her face from the news playing on a loop in front of them, and they lean over to get her attention. The moment of recognition makes me uncomfortable, but she is, as always, good-natured and kind. This is her life now. This narrative, this connection to Ghomeshi—only a small part of who she is as a human being—will inevitably follow her everywhere she goes from now on. Her only motivation, she has now told me, was to relay the truth.
But in this moment, sitting at this hotel bar, it feels like she’s sacrificed herself to a system that could easily fail her, and in some ways it already has. Even with this reality, Lucy has no regrets that she decided to go through the process, always believing in the importance of speaking out, of having these vital conversations, and of talking about what it really means to seek justice, in order to enact real change.
Later, as I hug her goodbye for the night, I realize that she is likely the bravest person I have ever known.