I was sitting in my car checking my bank account balance when I got a phone call from Laurie Lamont, a woman who works for Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services. I’ve known Laurie for a couple years – she’s spoken at the Huntsville Women’s Group drop-in, and I’m a volunteer with the agency. In December 2017, I’d agreed to do the Keynote for the bi-annual Survivor to Thriver event, a conference for women using MPSSAS services and the survivor mentors. This was the first event where I’d spoken solo –another year, I’d spoken as part of a panel.
When I was younger, I’d been involved in public speaking contests and I did fairly well. Even back then, I spoke about sexism and the unjust treatment of women in our society, both historical and present. However, there was a long stretch of time where I’d really struggled with public speaking – I couldn’t stand it. The very thought of it filled me with sharp things, and actually I remember in my first year of university, my TA asked if I’d present something I’d assembled for a project to an auditorium. It was a neat submission: taking the book Trainspotting, I’d selected passages and reframed them into short poems. This poem journal sat in a small chest, and there was a false bottom, beneath which was very believable heroin paraphernalia. I was really proud of this project but I asked her to present it for me because I was too scared.
So now, I have one Keynote under my belt. The audience for that was made up of survivors like me, many women who I knew personally. I told my story and read it from printed pages. It was a little rough, and dragged a bit, and ended up reading like a CV at the end because I was dedicated to the idea of showing how ‘healed’ a survivor can be – how far I’ve come.
When I got the call from Laurie, she was quick to assure me that if this wasn’t the right year, she would keep me in mind for the next one. I told her I would have to think about it, and my main reason for that was because many of the people at the DART conference (domestic abuse review team) are my colleagues at the shelters and I hadn’t shared all the depths of my story with most of them, if any. I told her my hesitations and explained that I would have to think about it. I was pretty sure, though, that I had to do it.
I am on a journey of sharing my voice and uplifting the voices of other women. I have many self-care skills and a strong support system. The timing was right, I knew it. I just needed to explore it with my loved ones. One of my concerns was that it would change the way my co-workers interacted with me. People have a tendency to treat trauma victims like we are made of spun glass, still hot from the kiln.
I told Laurie that I would do it, and I immediately set about working on my speech. I read it to my girlfriend, Kai, who helped shape some components of it to be more powerful. Her observation was that when I discuss traumatic events, I tend to describe them very factually, almost as if they were happening to an adult, removed from myself. So I took that constructive criticism and used it to make sure the different parts of my story were framed with physical descriptions of myself at the time, to orient the story in time and place. Then I read it to Nancy Osborne, who is a Keynote speaker herself and a dear friend. She offered vital feedback with regard to stance, voice, gesturing, as well as content. Due to the ensuing conversation between her and I, I decided to revamp the second half of the talk.
So the first half was the telling of my story as a survivor of multiple victimizations and the way I remained resilient due to my love of writing, and the second half was a plea to the audience to shift the dynamic between ourselves as service providers and the clients with whom we work, ending with three pointed questions for them to think about how to better relate to female survivors of sexual assault.
As part of my agreement to do the talk, I received two nights at the Sherwood Inn in Port Carling. I’d been there once before, at a DART conference in 2015, so I knew the setup of the room and was familiar with the surroundings, so my anxiety chilled on that front. I made a point to recite my talk at least once a day in the preceding week and a half, so I could get my wording down.
Upon arrival, I checked in and saw my beautiful room. It was upstairs in the Inn so the conference hall and eating area were below me. That made it so accessible, which was awesome. In the room, I filmed a short video describing the room and shared a story of how even just two weeks before, I’d been so trapped in anxiety that I hadn’t wanted to ask Nancy to turn around because I’d forgotten my coat – I was so locked in my thoughts that I’d been just about ready to give up on my coat rather than speak up. And now, here I was, getting paid to speak. The dichotomy was too precious to resist remarking on!
I set the video to upload and I went downstairs with my speech. I’d decided to format it so it was like a little booklet rather than a stack of pages, which made it easier to read and to get through, and (hopefully) made it seem more like storytelling than dictating. The conference room was empty so I stood at the front and began my recitation. I couldn’t be as loud as I wanted because I felt self-conscious; there was staff everywhere preparing the Inn for the next day.
When I was almost finished, Lauren Power, the Executive Director of MPSSAS, arrived. I helped her and Laurie unload the car when I was finished, and then had a beer with Lauren, her husband, and Walter DeKeseredy, another speaker.
The dinner was set for 6:30pm and it was absolutely delicious, especially the salad.
We chatted for a bit around the table, and then I went to find Laurie to try on the mic. Unfortunately the hands-free mic was a bit unwieldly and actually fell apart, so I secured it with tape and it seemed like it would hold up okay. We tested it for volume and it seemed fine, so I headed up to my room.
I’d been blessed with a big tub so I poured myself a healthy glass of wine and climbed in, taking much needed moments for myself. After a while I gave the speech another run-through and then got ready for bed.
I had a hard time sleeping both nights I was there. I’m not sure why. The bed was beyond comfortable, I was exhausted because I’d just come off back-to-back 3pm-9am shifts at the shelter, and there were no distracting noises. But I always struggle to sleep so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I woke up early to the pink streaks of sunrise over the snow-covered lake. I took a moment to rest in gratitude for this experience and then I got up. I ran through the portion of my talk that includes improvisation, and got ready for the day.
I tried to make myself a tea with the tiny coffee pot in the room. I took the lid from the pot of to put my tea bag in, and waited for the water to boil. I could hear it boiling away but it wasn’t dripping through, so I grabbed the tray to see what was wrong, and the hot water went everywhere! APPARENTLY, the lid to the pot presses against a release on the underside of the tray, which makes the water come through. LOL! Newfangled technology… Anyway, I only burned myself a little bit.
Downstairs, I sat at the table with Laurie, Lauren, Dawn Novak the emcee (a previous guest of herstories), Jodi Baker, and Water DeKeseredy. Jodi opened the day and burned smudge, and Dawn did a lovely introduction of me.
I’d been asked a few times if I was okay, comfortable, nervous, and the truth is I had so little nervousness that I actually had to make sure I was checked in with myself. And truly, I was. I think I was actually prepared (who knew how much THAT would help!) and confident that my story and my analysis are worth hearing.
The speech was 30 minutes and felt about that. There were powerful moments, I got some laughs, lots of nods, sympathetic looks, and what felt like rapt attention from many people. The improvisation part went as smoothly as it ever had, and I’d wondered if I’d be able to manage that, so that was a great relief.
When it was over, I was flying for some time. We took a break right after my talk and people came up to me for hugs and to chat. I always find that part so interesting because I made myself learn to take compliments well, but I do find it challenging to accept them at times – really, I want to ask people what part spoke to them directly, what they related to, and what their takeaway was. But I don’t want to be assigning homework so I just say thankyouverymuch.
A woman approached me to ask for my information to possibly speak at another event, which was everything I wanted from this. I want this to be Something I Do. I think it’s important and I really enjoy it.
The rest of the conference was a blast. The food was delicious, the attendees were friendly, and I learned a lot. Walter spoke about the increasing risks of porn culture, advances of porn-friendly/abusive tech, and how that plays into rape culture. He spoke to the need of a complete surveying of rural violence against women. Jeff Perera spoke about the conversations that men need to have with one another and with boys.
Seeing Lucy DeCoutere speaking about her experience with pressing charges against Jian Ghomeshi and the subsequent shitshow of a trial was a really elucidating experience. She mentioned that she hadn’t been prepared for the people who would come up to her and share their story, hundreds of stories of rape, abuse, and violence. This is something that happens to me all the time, and it can be very difficult. We don’t always consent to hearing people’s stories of pain. Sometimes we are not in a place to hold these things along with our own stories, and that’s something we need to be able to say.
Lucy mentioned that countless people have thanked her for telling her story, and she wondered why. I thank women for sharing their stories, for speaking their truths. In fact, part of my talk states that we must remember that women disclosing abuse to us is an honour, because it’s an incredibly personal, difficult, and sometimes dangerous decision.
I had a great couple days at the DART conference and I am so thrilled about this experience. I hope people learned, and absorbed, and maybe had their own experiences validated. More than anything, I hope my decision to speak leads to a more empathetic and wholehearted conversation about how to support women.