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The Ghomeshi scandal made me remember all the times I was sexually violated

Svea Vikander's picture
As former CBC talkshow host Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial for four counts of sexual assault this month, Canada is forced to confront its attitudes about sex, consent, and the validity of victims' stories. Each day of February, Svea Vikander, a Canadian radio host and therapist, shares another of her personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Day 9: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of my sleazy restaurant boss and his creepy friend

| February 9, 2016
Svea Vikander, waitressing

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Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial this month. And so, in a way, do Canadian women. This trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell. 

It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day nine, in which I share my experience of being harassed by my boss and his friends while working illegally at an upscale Greek restaurant in Vancouver, BC. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow. 

 

***

This is incident number 16.

I was 18 and had lied about my age to get a job as a Swedish-Canadian waitress at an upscale Greek restaurant run by a Chinese-Canadian family because, welcome to Canada. The family that owned the restaurant had once been employed in the kitchens of other Greek restaurants.

Much to my admiration, they had worked their way up to status of ownership. The food we served was very, very good. If the universe were just, they would now be making some of that good Vancouver resto money. But the place was lacking a certain je-ne-sais-quoitsopolis and the customers we should have had usually chose the authentic-authentic Greek restaurant across the street.

It's illegal for a person under 19 to serve alcohol in Canada. Alcohol is what makes people tip well, so lying about my age and pouring ouzo was my plan to make money before I left for Toronto. I was moving there in the fall, transferring to University of Toronto, and getting the heck out of my incestuous, mountain-curbed hometown. I worked three jobs simultaneously, went on a lot of dates, and was utterly miserable.

One of the (male) servers who interviewed me when I applied for the job. I only spoke with the owner, my actual boss, after having been hired. Because the restaurant was failing, he had little work to do in the kitchen. And so he would spend hours looking angrily out the window as people perused our menu, scaring off potential customers and cursing them as they entered the establishment across the street. Many of my shifts were spent with just the two of us in the restaurant, as I restocked things that didn't need restocking and cleaned beer faucets that hadn't been used since the last time.

At first, I felt positive about him. He made the effort to visit me at another one of my jobs, ordering French toast and leaving a generous tip. I encouraged a friend of mine to apply to work at the Greek restaurant as well, believing that business would pick up as the summer progressed. Aside from a few private parties, it didn't. She, wisely, quit long before I did.

 

 

It did not take long for me to become 100 per cent certain that my boss was 100 per cent morally corrupt and as trustworthy as a toddler with a Bowie knife. He had no qualms about telling me his evaluation of my appearance (that I had gained weight, was getting fat; that he liked it when I dressed sexy); and seemed to enjoy telling me to open my mouth so that he could spray whipped cream into it. But I didn't.

When his nephew gave me a ride home, my boss would say obscene things to him in Cantonese. I could feel the hatred his nephew, painfully shy and with only shaky English, felt for his uncle. On certain nights I worked with another server, a sad older man. He told me that it was hard for him to see a bunch of men (my boss had friends) harass the young female employee. I wanted to say, "Sorry it's so hard for you, maybe you could try saying something." But I didn't.

I don't remember feeling afraid of my boss, but I do remember fantasizing about poisoning the coffee he would demand that I serve him on slow afternoons. NB: Ladies, if there's one thing I hope you take home from this story today, it's that it's OK to fantasize about poisoning men who harass you. Just don't let it lead you into a google search for cyanide. #MensRights #Misandry #BringItTrolls 

It was a slow lunch shift on a rainy day when my boss invited his friend, Bill, over to the restaurant. 

There was nothing to do in the restaurant so, after re-stocking everything I could, I got out the vacuum and began to clean the filthy carpet at the entrance. Potential employers, please also take note: murderous fantasies do not interfere with my work ethic.

Bill and my boss began to drink cheap wine. They watched me carefully as I vacuumed the carpet. I didn't want them to know that it made me uncomfortable so I just continued without looking up, feeling profoundly uncomfortable. My boss called me over and introduced me to his friend. His friend said that he was one of the co-owners of the restaurant and he had heard that I was a good employee. Undoubtedly referring to the ones who used a 2-for-1 coupon, drank only water, and didn't tip, he said I was keeping the customers happy.

I don't remember what the rest of the conversation contained, but I think that my boss gave Bill my phone number. Or maybe I did. Bill definitely ended up with my phone number. At the end of my shift, Bill offered me a ride home. It was raining pretty hard. I had to go see my mom at the hardware store she worked at, which was about a mile uphill. I told him this and he said that he would drive me there and then home. I was scared to offend him, my new other-boss. 

I got in Bill's beige sedan and he drove me to the hardware store. I ran in to do what I needed to do -- say hi and pick something up from her; I think it was keys. She said later that she could tell there was something wrong with me in that moment but she couldn't put her finger on it.

What was wrong with me was that I had become the cotton-headed, hooded, Miss Nice that I described in my post yesterday. I was stuck in a nightmare I couldn't get out of. You know those stories of women who have been kidnapped and held captive for years, who then reject the help of the outside world when they are discovered? I completely understand that phenomenon. When I was 18, it took all of one hour for me to become dissociated and compliant in this way. My mom could have even offered me a ride home and I would have told her that it was OK. That I had one already. 

Bill drove me home and parked outside my house. I went to open the car door and he grabbed my arm, saying he wanted to talk to me. I said OK but that I had a boyfriend. He moved his body close to mine and reached up to touch my earring. I had made it from a gold plastic photo frame, which I had broken up and melted, nearly ruining my mom's iron, but resulting in something kind of cool and unusual. He said that he would buy me real gold earrings.

 

 

I said that it was not necessary. I liked those earrings.

He was talking about the other waitress at the bar, my friend. He said that he wanted to go out with the two of us. He put his hand on my left breast and left it there. The action was so casual and so sustained I thought that maybe he had mistaken it for my shoulder.

I was wearing a tan-coloured trench coat purchased from a thrift store, and from which someone had torn out the lining. I probably had the biggest smile on my face. I said that I would love to see him again, that everything was great! But that I had to go! See you later! No need for gold! Bye now! I got out of the car and watched from the window to be sure that his car drove off. 

I remember nothing about the rest of the day. I expect that I was still in the fog that I felt throughout the entire time I was interacting with Bill. But even in this state I would have known that I was scared about him knowing where I lived. And by the next day I was angry. Livid. About him having my number, about him showing up at the restaurant at all, about him touching my breast. It must be from this rage that I got the courage to confront my boss.

He said that I shouldn't ever have believed Bill when he said he was a co-owner, that my boss himself had never said that. I said that wasn't why I was angry. He fixated on it, repeating over and over again that I was stupid for having believed the lie.

I told him that even if Bill was the owner, I didn't want to see him. I didn't want Bill to come to the restaurant ever again. He kept yelling back at me his one line about how dumb I was. I have a vision of myself, from outside my body: Svea having a heated argument near the credit card processor at the end of the bar of the the failing Greek restaurant on the edge of Kitsilano, and the thing she keeps yelling back is, "Little boy, little boy, listen to me!"

I don't know why I called him that. It must have gotten through, though, because Bill never called and never returned to the restaurant. My boss said that Bill had misunderstood the kind of girl I was. I worked there for the rest of the summer, earning the title of "Assistant Manager" to no one.

***

Like so many things in my life then, I was waiting for someone to tell me not to do it. I spent all of the first year of university waiting for an adult to tell me to leave my boyfriend. When I told my mom about the incident with Bill, I wanted her to tell me there was no way in hell I would be allowed to go anywhere near that job, which was illegal and not making me money anyway. But I was eighteen and about to move out of my mother's house; it was time that I took responsibility for my own safety.

It's just that there was something in me -- a memory of poverty, or the spiritual poverty we know as "low self-esteem" -- that ensured I would put myself in these situations again and again. It was terrifying to know that I would do anything for money. That I could be taken and manipulated so easily. That even though I dreaded going to work, I was happy to have a job for which my boss hadn't checked my ID. 

I'm proud of myself for confronting my boss. That felt good. Just not as good as storming out the front door would have felt.

***

I've been reading some great blog posts about the Ghomeshi trial and about sexual harassment and exploitation. I'd like to share some of them with you here.

I highly recommend Jane Eaton Hamilton's post "The Preludes to Assaults," which refers to an experience she had with Jian Ghomeshi. She deftly pulls us into an examination of the larger issues at play and the ways that Canadian women's reactions to the Ghomeshi trial are part of the dismantling of patriarchy. I felt real powerful after reading it.  

"The preludes to potential assaults are these: language or behaviour or touching that create in their  targets vague senses of unease that we 'get over' as the day or week wears on. There is so much of this kind of crap slung in women’s directions in the average day that often we don’t even bother mentioning an encounter....Because these little infractions against our sovereignty, these thousands of small infractions, intended to train us to patriarchy, are par for the course." 

And there's Lítla BB's deep yet irreverent account of the emotionally abusive relationship she had with Ghomeshi as a very young woman. She lives in Iqualuit with her partner and hosts free speakeasy events that look delicious. Pretty badass.

"Though, if I were in that court room, Marie Henein would rip me to shreds over all my prank calling and for using an Australian accent dishonestly."

And I recommend this post from Emma Healey at The Hairpin, forwarded to me by a very kind acquaintance just tonight. It was making the rounds a few weeks before the Ghomeshi allegations broke, and details the way that men of little influence can in fact hold much power over emerging artists/writers in Canada. 

"Abusers whose power and influence seem relatively minor are often the most dangerous kind, since the people around them who can afford to ignore their behavior will do so until something drastic forces them to act, while those who have something to lose at their hands will continue to stay silent. " 

Tomorrow: The 111th American Psychological Association Convention held in Toronto, August 7-10 2003, is full of bathtub scum creeps.

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