In an attempt to update my bookshelf I’ve started adding some new ones. There are two reasons why I hesitated, at first, to add Sarah Polley’s collection of essays to that shelf. The first reason is that I generally avoid memoirs written by celebrities. They tend, for the most part, to be poorly written, or ghost-written, and they’re usually only interesting if you’re a fan. The second reason is that I knew that in Run Towards the Danger she’d written about a damaging sexual encounter with disgraced CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. It seemed to me too little too late. Why hadn’t she spoken up at the time of his trial? If she had joined his accusers, might it have changed the outcome?
Well, lesson learned. Not only should you not judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge it by what you think you know of its author. Sarah Polley is a remarkable talent, both on and off camera, and her writing is brave, engaging, and important. I say “brave” because she has laid herself bare in these six essays in a way that I doubt many more seasoned writers would have the nerve to do. They are personal, revealing, and surprisingly self-effacing. Or maybe not surprising at all to those who know her and have followed her more closely. They deal with her professional career, her personal life, and her battle with some medical conditions that would take down a lesser being. The strength she displays is impressive; it takes a strong person to let herself be this vulnerable in print.
In the preface, Polley writes, “What follows are some of the most dangerous stories of my life: the ones I have avoided, the ones I haven’t told, the ones that have kept me awake on countless nights.” Telling them is a form of healing, and she tells them well.
Polley begins with what can only be described as a psychic breakdown while performing Alice on the Stratford stage, contending with the onset of paralyzing stage fright and increasingly debilitating scoliosis. She was 15 at the time and had been acting in movies and on TV since she was four but this was her first major theatrical role. She was the lead and was onstage the whole time. Her co-actors were seasoned and professional, and mostly kind, but she dreaded letting them see how terrified she was. Her mother had died a few years earlier, her father had abandoned his parental role, and she was living on her own. During one performance, “the fear turned to madness, and I myself went through the looking glass.” Desperate to find a way out of the show, she agrees to undergo the surgery she’s been putting off for years – 10 hours in the OR and a lengthy recovery. Her understudy, with little chance to prepare, takes on the role of Alice, and the show’s next run has to be canceled. Years later, she still burns with the shame of letting down her colleagues who would have benefited from the extra income.
Where Polley really shines, I think, is in the second essay, “The Woman Who Stayed Silent”. In this chapter she writes about her relationship with Ghomeshi, how she looked up to him as a child actor, and how she agreed to have a date with him when she was 16 and he was “around 28”. As a woman who was assaulted as a teenager, her description of the aftermath of this very cringe-making episode resonated with me. She relates how she continued to flirt with him during interviews, how she did her best to “make nice” when she dealt with him, and how she found a way to create a kind of party piece when talking about the experience. I get it; when a so-called date goes very, very badly, your instinct is to normalize the situation. She’s appalled that she laughed – too loudly – at his jokes, that she didn’t call him out when he was mean on air. The one piece of this I think she might have stressed a little more is the influence that Ghomeshi had at the time. Canada is a small country, media-wise; there are not many outlets for artistic people to promote their work. “Q” had a weekly audience of more than 2.5 million listeners in Canada and 550,000 listeners in the United States. That may be small potatoes by American standards but here in Canada it is huge. He was known to be petulant and thin-skinned and he had a lot of power. You did not want to get on his bad side.
When Lucy DeCoutere and other women finally blew the whistle on Ghomeshi, Polley struggled over whether or not to join them. She had used the incident many times as a funny story (leaving out the worst bits, obviously). She had sent him friendly emails and made countless concessions over the years to normalize their relationship. She knew she wouldn’t be seen as a credible witness; she could only harm the case against him.
She’s right, of course. As we know, that’s exactly what happened to the women who did appear in court. The judge didn’t believe them and Ghomeshi was acquitted. Polley’s investigation into her own responses, her own admitted manipulations and contradictions, is thoughtful and revealing. She has deeply thought this through and her story reveals the complexities, not only of human nature, but of the way things tend to work in court. She was told, several times, by lawyers she respects, that the system is ultimately rigged against those who come forward. She doesn’t put it that way. Instead she writes the following:
“Over and over I heard the refrain: ‘I would have a very hard time recommending that someone I knew and loved come forward in a sexual assault case.'”
What that says about our legal system almost doesn’t bear thinking about. Almost.
Polley, Sarah. Run Towards the Danger (2022) Penguin Canada.