After #MeToo: Sabrina Furminger on complicity, grief, and moving forward
This is a story about a #MeToo story.
My part in this particular #MeToo story begins in the second week of October 2017, which is not so long ago when I really think about it, but given everything that’s changed since then – both within the film and television industry, and within myself as one of its champions – it has all of the markings of another lifetime.
On October 11, I found myself compelled to write an article about sexual violence and harassment in the Vancouver film and television industry. It was the day after Ronan Farrow's initial Harvey Weinstein article – and six days before the #MeToo hashtag became a moment, and that moment spawned a movement.
In my years covering the film and television industry for the Westender (RIP), I’d occasionally hear off-the-record warnings from industry friends – about lecherous producers or actors to avoid at parties – but I’d never before considered writing about any of them. I see now that my reluctance was indicative of my own complicity in rape culture: as a woman, I’d come to accept certain realities that are, in retrospect, unacceptable, like how I just accept it as normal that I should never walk outside by myself after dark, or how the onus is on me to make sure my drink is never left unattended at a party.
And I think, in some ways, I’d considered the film and television industry to be safer than other sectors – which is absolutely preposterous in hindsight, obviously, but I suspect this is because as a columnist covering the industry, I always saw people on their very best behaviour.
On October 11, I posted the following to Facebook: “I'm writing an article about sexual harassment and sexual violence in the Vancouver film and television industry. I am looking for survivor stories. I won’t be naming productions or perpetrators, and if anonymity is important to you, I can and will protect it (ie. your words, but not your name, will appear in the article); it is important to tell the stories period. Please DM me. #beenrapedneverreported”
I’d expected that maybe one survivor would offer to speak on the record, and maybe one would agree to share their story anonymously. My plan was to then interview someone from UBCP/ACTRA who’d hopefully have tons of statistics for me, and also lay out how the union handles reports of sexual harassment and violence from its members.
In the end, five women shared their stories of sexual harassment and violence with me on the record. Every one of those women put their names to their stories: Chelah Horsdal, Jacquie Gould, Sarah Deakins, Enid-Raye Adams, and Lisa Ovies. I remain grateful and honoured that they trusted me with their stories.
And there were dozens more who shared their stories with me over Facebook messenger and email. They told me about rape, and groping, and harassment, and moments that continue to fill them with shame and sadness and rage.
They shared names with me: of perpetrators, of monsters that kept them up at night (quick but important aside: I’ve since learned that, had anyone named names on the record, Canada’s defamation laws would have prevented the newspaper from printing them; in Canada, the onus is on the media outlet to prove the allegations are right and not on the alleged perpetrator to prove that they're not, as is the case in the States. It’s a very different situation in Canada. Media outlets require irrefutable proof like recordings or a civil suit or criminal charges before they’re willing to print the name of a homegrown Weinstein or Spacey).
While they wanted to remain anonymous, they also wanted me to know what they had endured. I heard them, and carried their stories in my bones.
I conducted my interviews over two days, and managed to speak with Lori Stewart, health and safety performer advocate from UBCP/ACTRA, who told me “[how] widespread it is, and how widespread the reporting are, are two completely different things… Quite frankly, we very rarely hear about anything.”
But I had heard, and was hearing, something very different.
I wept during the interviews, and again over the weekend as I transcribed the conversations and wrote the story. The #MeToo hashtag took hold on the Sunday evening, as I sent the story to my editor and reflected on the truth that had always been there, had I bothered to see beyond my own acceptance of rape culture to recognize it: sexual violence and harassment is a problem in the local film and television industry.
My editor at the Westender read the article and immediately made it the cover story. Months have passed and the cover still gives me chills: the hashtag #MeToo on a purple background with the words “Film and TV veterans speak out about the culture of sexual abuse and harassment in Hollywood North.”
The article – which was published on October 17, 2017 – accomplished what I’d hoped it would at the outset: it sparked intense discussions within the local industry about sexual violence and harassment.
Other media outlets reached out to the women who’d shared their stories with me and some of these women now participated in additional interviews to bring the ugliness further into the light.
We’d established that the Vancouver film and television industry had a problem with sexual violence and harassment, and unions and individuals were taking actions to address it.
That week, I received nearly 200 additional emails and DMs and texts, detailing all manner of on-set and industry-related sexual abuse and harassment.
On the Friday, I did a radio interview on a local station, and when the interviewer asked a question I’d asked of others countless times before – What would you say to your daughter if she told you that she wanted to pursue a career in film and television? – I said, without hesitation, No, I wouldn’t recommend it; it’s not safe.
I startled myself. This was a brand new opinion for me, but in that moment, I was firm. I wanted to keep my daughter safe. The interviews I’d conducted and the hundreds of messages I’d received and the articles I was reading out of America told me this industry was anything but.
And then I spent a few days in bed. I turned off my phone. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
I look back now, and I see that a couple things were happening: writing the story had triggered past trauma (I too am a member of the #beenrapedneverreported and #MeToo masses), and I was also grieving, just like I’d done when my friend died and in the aftermath of my miscarriage – except this time I was grieving idealized notions I’d had about the local film and television industry.
I was grieving on behalf of women and men who’d been assaulted and humiliated while in pursuit of their dreams.
I was grieving because I’d been a champion of an industry that had hurt so many people, and how could I champion it any further now that I’d heard the roar of its ugliness?
I was grieving because I felt betrayed: some of the perpetrator names that had shown up in my DMs belonged to men I’d written about in my column. I thought of those women reading positive articles I’d written about men who’d hurt them, and I grieved.
As I wrote at the top, this all feels like a lifetime ago, because after I grieved, I buried my broken misconceptions and returned to the work, renewed. I’ve come back to this work because of those women and men who continue to pursue their dreams even after the most egregious and horrifying of violations. Their roars are louder than the ugliness.
I’ve seen ugliness in the industry, but I’ve also seen the beauty and resilience of its artists. I’d rather listen to their stories and amplify their voices than give up and walk away.
If you have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence or would like to support someone who has, help is available at Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (604.872.8212) or VictimLinkBC (1.800.563.0808).