Recent events at Concordia University in Montreal – the suspension of two creative writing teachers, the buzz leading up to it, and the attendant reaction – intersect with my life in several ways. I have no new revelations, but I did have friends in that creative writing department back in the 80s, when, according to some, the culture of toxic masculinity had its origin. And I knew one of the men in question quite well during the 90s. A final, recent twist is that I’ve published poems in the literary journal whose editor-in-chief is the other professor relieved of their teaching duties.
I’ve never taken or taught creative writing, but I do enjoy the company of writers. So, when I did my M.A. in English Lit at Concordia many years ago I hung out with the creative writing students as often as I could. For a term or two in the late 80s, I would join a group of students from Concordia’s poetry-writing class once a week for drinks in downtown Montreal. Their teacher, Irving Layton, was too old to join us. This was a good thing, because his students were free to recount and lampoon his more outrageous pronouncements. The literary patriarchy seemed to be on its way out. The women in our group may already have been sharing stories like passwords, improprieties may have been occurring somewhere, but we were OK. No one in that small circle took advantage of anyone else. We would talk poetry: our own, each other’s, our favourites. Was there flirting at our table? Naturally. But the relationships – desired, suggested, or embarked upon – were all peer-to-peer.
There are similarly comfortable and rewarding circles of friends in every creative writing department in Canada and the US, not only then but now, including those departments affected by – or in need of – sexual misconduct investigations. In spite of the recent publicity, aspiring poets and novelists should still consider taking creative writing. Indeed, the scandals can be seen as a sign that things are improving. Whether Concordia’s program (or that of UBC or UVa) was especially infected with toxic masculinity, or instead had students with the strength and solidarity to reject a toxic masculinity that is more widespread, is not clear, and not my topic here. I would suggest, against prevailing opinion, that it is the latter. Either way, there will be more scandals to come. The point, I think, is to celebrate and accelerate the change that has arrived, and to learn what we can in the confusion.
Coverage in the media of the events at Concordia and elsewhere – within the broader contexts of sexual harassment on campus, #MeToo, and state of the “literary world” – differs depending on the platform. Each is prone to its own sort of exaggeration. There is, of course, a gap at the centre of these stories: the details of the accusations are not available to the public. In the Concordia affair, even the names of the alleged offenders take some digging to discover. So, commentators focus on other angles. In the alternate media, there is a tendency to use these scandals to condemn the entire field: “Canlit is Crawling With Creeps,” or “Canlit is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” The need to grab people’s attention, even to be alarmist, gets a special boost when part of the agenda is hastening a generational shift.
A more old-school misconstruction appears in the mainstream Toronto Star, with the catchy headline “‘The interest is in sex, not writing,’ says one Concordia creative writing grad.” Here it’s not Canlit as a whole, but one creative writing program as a whole that is the target. The author, Allan Woods, gives plenty of room to Heather O’Neill on her experiences of harassment, but his analysis focusses on the recent expose “No Names, Only Monsters,” by Mike Spry, and adopts the narrative of another man, Stephen Henighan, in tracing the problem to the mid-80s. “That is when the marriage of poet and Concordia professor Robert Allen ended and a toxic culture in the creative writing program was born.” In this analysis, the mid-life offences of one professor – now deceased – poisoned an entire program for decades.
No mention is made in the Star of the fact that the program’s director is a woman, or that it has as many female as male instructors, or that it was possible to study there without taking courses from either of the men in question. The trivializing dairy metaphor in the first sentence of the article is telling: “a creative writing program that has churned out [my emphasis] many top Canadian authors.” For a refreshing antidote to this blame-the-father strategy, we are fortunate to have Julie McIsaac’s biting response to Spry, “And Then a Man Said It.” McIsaac reveals, from her first-hand knowledge, the depth of Spry’s complicity and reminds us that each is responsible for their own behavior. No timely mea culpa, even though it helps trigger an institutional response, can buy immunity from consequences.
I want to balance my memories of Concordia with an anecdote from a decade later, in which I appear less favorably. I first met one of the two scandalized writers not in Montreal, but in another province and city, where we both did our PhDs. As it happens, we had a mutual acquaintance – a current friend of his was an ex-lover of mine. She asked him to relay a message, which he did: namely that I was “a liar and a jerk.” I could not – given my behavior in that relationship – object or disagree. I had not been honest toward the end. Having done his duty (with some schadenfreude, I thought at the time, since he brought it up in a larger group), he nonetheless gave me the benefit of the doubt afterward. We were friends for the duration of our time together. And for what it’s worth I never witnessed him being a liar even once, or a jerk either (unless you count cynical humor, which I don’t).
Judging by the hints available on Twitter and elsewhere, my friend is implicated in lesser transgressions than his co-accused. I hope – and it’s a dreary hope – that his greatest mistake was in the company he kept, joining what Katia Grubisic has dubbed the “Concordia Penis Cabal.”
Recalling my embarrassment and that friendship all these years later, my thoughts go in two very different directions. First, there is the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. When it comes to alleged offences that are not likely to go to court, this principle needs to be kept before the minds of those not directly involved even more than usual. Whatever grievance process is brought to bear by the university, it is likely to be more shrouded in secrecy than a trial, and arrive at no final judgment – just a dismissal or a reinstatement. Extending the benefit of the doubt to the accused does not mean doubting the accusers – it means leaving room for nuance and not allowing our imaginations to assume the worst.
If there are degrees of guilt, there are perhaps even more degrees of complicity. Which brings me to my other train of thought: is a friend’s forgiveness of unethical behavior in a bad breakup a sign of generosity or a sign of a willingness to be complicit? If the tables were turned, I would have similarly passed on the message, but I would also, similarly, have reserved judgment. Is this impartiality, or the beginning of the proverbial slippery slope?
Complicity is different for men and women in the context of heterosexual harassment. A man can more easily confront a man over his behavior, can intervene earlier because he’s privy to attitudes and intentions, not just actions. In saying this I’m not endorsing the “punch a creep” approach of some male commentators, who see men as confrontational by nature and responsible for “protecting” women. The difference for men is not essential, but social: we are in some ways already complicit.
Another important consideration is that a man is less likely to be keeping the confidence of a victim, whose choice of how and when – and if – to raise her complaint must be respected. We can see a perverse reflection of this un-equality in the stealthy ad campaign at the beginning of #MeToo, when posters mimicking the style of Barbara Kruger appeared in Hollywood with SHE KNEW emblazoned across Meryl Streep’s face. These anti-feminist memesters saw no need to put up HE KNEW posters. There’s not enough irony.
Margaret Atwood is fond of the “witch hunt” metaphor. She has suggested that #MeToo “is a symptom of a broken legal system” – an odd choice of words when the system was never not broken. Because institutions like universities and the law fail to support them, she argues, sexual harassment complainants are driven to a “a new tool: the internet.” The result is a dangerous new norm where people can be “guilty because accused.”
There will, perhaps, be a case where guilt is falsely ascribed. As Atwood has always insisted, women can be just as malicious and conniving as men. But we shouldn’t use the risk of false accusation to suppress the outing of abuses. Men and women in both Canada and the US are still protected from untrue and damaging allegations by the civil law, and from wrongful dismissal by labor law. The accused are also protected by their freedom to speak up in their own defense.
The industries in which simply telling the truth about someone’s transgressions can produce real results are a select few. They are the performative industries, where there is an audience whose disapproval matters. The entertainment industry – especially Hollywood, where fame and reputation are everything – stands out. Politics is another, despite the fact that brazen denial can still work (see Trump). Education, with its inherent power imbalances and age differentials, is yet another. The world of sports is included for similar reasons.
The teaching of creative writing, because it is both an educational institution and part of a larger entertainment industry, is doubly included. What’s more, creative writers have a built-in advantage for getting a hearing: they’ve been trained to express themselves effectively.
I hope that the momentum of truth-telling and the reduction of toxic masculinity in all these fields continues, and that #MeToo endures beyond its hashtag and its “moment.” The possibility of a stalling or a relapse is quite real – witness how Hollywood has attempted as much by purging a few producers and actors and then bouncing back with a righteous reclamation of virtue.
An even larger challenge will be to bring this same volatility to the many industries that have no audiences, no celebrities, no awards ceremonies, but just as many people on the short end of a power imbalance. Men breaking the cabal by refusing complicity will be even more important there. If this expansion into other industries cannot be made, we may find ourselves in an economy divided into two classes of workplace: those that are inherently visible to the public and open to reform, and those that are unglamorous, invisible – often outsourceable – and unable to shake off a culture of toxic masculinity.
Every field, every workplace and industry, deserves its dumpster fire.