12 writers cope with sexual violence in ‘Whatever Gets You Through’


TORONTO — For Lauren McKeon, it’s the force of impact between a boxing glove and its target. For Amber Dawn, it’s the reclamation of pleasure through kink. For Alicia Elliott, it’s the intentional act of forgetting. For Gwen Benaway, it’s a love communicated in silence.

These are some of the acts of survival shared by the authors in “Whatever Gets You Through,” a newly released anthology of essays on life after sexual violence.

The book posits that the path to healing is one without a destination. Sexual violence is not a hurdle one “gets over,” the essayists suggest, but a contentious coexistence with trauma that shadows survivors wherever they go, shaping daily routines, work, sex lives, relationships, physical beings and inner monologues.

But for each of the 12 contributors, there are moments of grace when the struggle subsides to become something more manageable, or even, a source of strength.

By drawing on the collective experiences of this diverse set of writers, co-editors Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee hope the anthology will connect survivors not only to each other, but also with those who, by witnessing trauma or providing support to those experiencing it, may have been proximally impacted by their pain.

“The reality we’re facing now is that if you’re not dealing with your own trauma, you’re helping someone else deal with theirs,” said Fowles, a Toronto-based sports writer and novelist.

“I think the book does speak to that: We have to find ways to support each other or support ourselves, or we won’t survive it.”

Fowles said she was first approached by Vancouver-based publisher Greystone Books about curating the essay collection in February 2017, months before the #MeToo movement picked up steam.

But even amid our current reckoning about sexual violence, the ongoing, tumultuous work of coping with trauma is for the most part carried out in private – and this may be by design, said Lee.

“Survivors in general, nobody wants to be inconvenienced by their feelings,” said Lee, a Burnaby, B.C.-based broadcaster and author of “The Conjoined.”

“The world wants you to behave quietly … They care about those stories not being told.”

Lee said the mainstream consciousness is fixated on the moment when sexual violence is inflicted, dissecting survivors’ accounts in voyeuristic detail, but seems to lose interest when it comes to the lingering aftershocks of trauma.

“We spend so much time worrying about the futures of the mostly men who are accused of sexual assault,” she said. “What appears to be less worrisome to the public is the futures of the people who have endured sexual assault. This book is an answer to that future.”

Rather, the book presents several different examples to what a future after sexual violence can look like.

Some essayists find solace in all manner of therapies, while others repair their relationships with their bodies through physical activity. Several survivors recount their assaults with vivid precision, while others make sense of their trauma through metaphor, or exert control over their stories in the details they choose to withhold.

For more than a decade, Winnipeg-raised writer Karyn Freedman felt too ashamed to talk about being raped at knifepoint while backpacking in Paris. Even after writing about this experience in a 2014 memoir, “One Hour in Paris,” Freedman said she felt honoured to see her story of healing through hockey alongside those of so many other survivors in “Whatever Gets You Through.”

“I know there is a great power in being able to see yourself represented in somebody else’s story,” said Freedman.

“For those people who haven’t yet told their stories, but have experienced sexual violence, I think they will find a tremendous amount of comfort and solidarity in reading these stories. I really hope it finds its way into the hands of just about everyone.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press