I have this thing with blogging lately where I want to write a post about something that’s topical and timely and everyone is talking about RIGHT NOW, and then I think about it and real life takes over and by the time I finally post, it’s not topical and timely anymore. As happened a couple of weeks ago when everyone in Canada was transfixed by the trial of Michael Rafferty, accused of killing eight-year-old Tori Stafford back in 2009. But that’s not going to stop me from blogging about it … finally.
There are horrific statistics about how many women have been victims of an act of sexual and/or physical violence in their lives. I’m one of the lucky few to whom it’s never happened. When a story like this hits the news there’s always a weird double reaction inside me: a part of me that says, “That could have been any girl or woman — that could have been me!” and another part that says, “No, nothing like that could ever happen to me.”
I feel like the news stories of violence against women stand like milestones or markers in my life. Every so often one happens at a time that parallels what’s happening in my own life, and it sets off uneasy echoes.
Tori Stafford’s case was one of those. She was kidnapped, raped and murdered one day after she left her elementary school. On April 8, 2009 when Tori went missing, my own beautiful daughter was also in third grade and had just turned nine a few days before. I remember sitting in the car outside my kids’ school listening to the news stories — this was when Tori was still missing and hopes were that she would be found alive. I remember thinking, “What if someone — some acquaintance — picked up Emma outside her school, spirited her away? Could that happen?”
In recent months as we’ve learned more of the background that came out at the trial about Terri-Lynn McClintic and Michael Rafferty, I found myself thinking, “Well no, that couldn’t have happened to my daughter, because I didn’t place my daughter in danger by taking her to my dealer’s house when I went to buy drugs.” I should point out that was my gut reaction: there doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence that Tori’s mother, who definitely was an OxyContin addict, actually ever had Tori with her at the dealer’s house where she met the woman who would kidnap her daughter. The point is that in hearing and reacting to the story I cast myself, unlike Tori’s mom, as the Good Mom, the one who doesn’t expose her children to danger. I’m not proud that I think like this but I understand why I do it. It makes me feel safe, as if I and my loved ones are prevented from random acts of violence.
If I think back on these acts of violence that have stood out like bleak mile-markers in my own violence-free life, I notice that I do this again and again. It goes right back to Dana Bradley.
I was 16 when 14-year-old Dana Bradley disappeared after getting into a car a few blocks from my house. People said she was hitchhiking. Her body was found in the woods a few miles away, four days later.
It was the first major act of violence I’d ever heard of in my neighbourhood, in our quiet city. And it happened to a girl just a couple of years younger than I was.
Did I react by thinking, “That could have been me”? No, I reacted by thinking (though not articulating) that I was better and smarter than Dana Bradley. I didn’t hitchhike. I knew enough not to get into cars with strange men. My body would never be discovered in the woods.
In fact, over the years, without realizing it, as Dana’s murder continued to go unsolved, I changed the narrative in my mind. I remembered the story wrong. I thought she had been hitchhiking on the lonely stretch of road outside town where her body was found. In associating her death with Maddox Cove Road I thought she had been walking there alone, late at night, where no fourteen-year-old had any good reason to be. I was sure it was late at night.
I was shocked when I looked back at the actual facts of the case to discover that Dana got into the car at 5:20 in the afternoon on a busy commercial street. Was she hitchhiking? Was the driver of the car a stranger or known to her? Since the case is still unsolved we may never know. But what shocked me was not the location and timing of the event — it was the extent to which I had mentally rewritten the story to cast Dana as the Bad Girl. Meaning, of course, that my teenaged self could feel safe in being the Good Girl.
Some of the media-reported acts of violence that accompanied my own milestones were harder to recast, though. The impulse to blame the victim is deep-seated and natural, but who could find fault with the fourteen women murdered by Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989? They, like me, were bright, ambitious young women in their 20s. I got up and went to work that day; they got up and went to class. What did they do wrong, apart from being women engineering students and thus easily labelled as the “feminists” Lepine said he hated? I wasn’t an engineer, but I was a feminist. Could that have been me?
Then there was the murder that happened when I was pregnant with my daughter. I already knew the baby I was carrying would be a little girl back in February 2000 when 13-year-old Samantha Walsh went missing from her tiny hometown of Fleur-de-Lys, Newfoundland. A quiet place that her family apparently moved back to because it was a better place to raise kids. Knowing I was about to be the mother of a daughter made me feel even more vulnerable during the 17 days that everyone in Newfoundland waited with held breath for Samantha to be found. It was her body that was finally found, raped and murdered and left in the woods by a 16-year-old neighbour.
And no details emerged, nothing that would comfortably allow the rest of us to blame the victim, to point out what Samantha’s parents did wrong. They allowed their thirteen-year-old to walk home, a short distance away, from a family gathering. In a quiet small town where they knew everyone. Where Samantha knew the boy who abducted, raped and killed her. She didn’t go off with a stranger. She wasn’t a Bad Girl. Her mom wasn’t a Bad Mom. They were like anyone. They were like me, like the daughter I was about to have.
The fact is that we play “blame the victim” (or the victim’s parents) because it makes us feel safe. We feel terrified and threatened by random violence and we cling to the illusion of control. We like to believe there are things we can do to prevent such horrors. Blaming the victim allows us to draw a magic circle around ourselves and place others outside it — Bad Moms who do drugs, Bad Girls who hitchhike. It works until it doesn’t, until we’re confronted with violence against someone who did all the right things and got raped and/or killed anyway.
I’m not saying there aren’t things we can do to keep ourselves and our children safe. I’m all for safety and sensible decisions. But I have to shed the illusion that smart choices are any kind of guarantee of safety. Of course Tori Stafford was at higher risk for violence because of her mother’s drug use and the people with whom she associated. But if Tori’s mom had been, instead, a good Church Lady like me, had taken her kids to home Bible studies instead of to the homes of drug dealers — could Tori never have been abducted, raped and murdered by someone her mother met at a Bible study?
Tell me that could never happen. As Christians we’d find it comfortable to believe that, but we know it’s not true.
The fact is, violence happens. Evil exists. And while anyone can be a victim of violence — young or old, male or female, “good” or “bad” — it’s also true that there’s a lot of violence that is specifically directed at women and girls, violence that we “let ourselves in for” by making the poor decision to be born with two X chromosomes.
When we blame the victim or try to find excuses for why another woman put herself (or her daughter) in danger, or “had it coming,” we stand against victims of violence instead of standing with them. When we say “that couldn’t have been me, or my daughter” we deny the reality that it could have been. That violence in general, and violence against women in particular, is a problem that affects all of us. “Bad girls” like the twenty-six victims of Robert Pickton, most of whom were prostitutes, are vulnerable, but so are “good girls” like engineering students who just show up to class on time. All women are vulnerable; all women matter; no woman or girl “deserves” to be raped or murdered.
Violence is a problem caused by the perpetrators, not by the victims. I know most of you don’t need to be reminded of that, but sometimes I do.