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Home: The Toast

In my third year of law school, I began to remember things I had spent most of my life forgetting. My attention fractured into a thousand glass splinters, each one cutting. I was assailed with strange images. With the images came disconnection, as if I was watching what was in front of me on a screen. Then, incongruously, a pervasive sense of threat, the shadows of my apartment stalking me.

I could barely focus on anything besides the rumblings of an emerging past. There was a lot of time spent on the internet, looking up various psychological pathologies, but none of them really fit this new, bludgeoning experience. There were the queasy feelings I had always felt about certain relatives, and what I knew about post-traumatic stress. Pulling the pieces together, I called my best friend in law school, who was also a social worker, and shakily asked if she thought maybe I had been sexually abused.

*

When I arrived at law school, it was in pursuit of justice as much as a career. I had known since the age of 10 that justice is gendered; this was the age when I became transfixed by the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings on the news. Through the haze of sordid details, I grasped enough to connect myself to the proceedings, and to gender-based inequalities of power. In high school, I was co-president of the women’s issues club; we started the school’s branch of the White Ribbon Campaign, a Canadian movement to memorialize and prevent such misogynist violence as had occurred at a Montreal engineering school in 1989, leaving 14 women dead. In conversation and in daily life, feminism and its evolutions were never far from my thoughts. As a newly-minted undergraduate, I conducted research on violence against women for a feminist legal organization. Law school seemed like the logical next step.

After the initial euphoria of having made it to a prestigious law faculty wore off, I began to sense a subtle edge pressing on me, telling me I did not belong. When Supreme Court justices visited in the fall of my first year, they took pains to discuss the need to retain women at large corporate firms through more family-friendly policies. The fact that this was the only remotely feminist concern they raised spoke volumes to me; I began to connect that unidimensional approach to gender with the un-belonging I was already sensing. Sometimes, entering through the school’s heavy glass doors, I felt as if invisible machinery descended from the ceiling and ground against my skin, trying to turn the raw material of me into something perfected in its own image. I started calling the faculty, “the factory.” I meant it as a joke, at first. 

When I pushed myself to speak in class, it was despite, or because of, the silence of so many other women students. This tendency did not go unnoticed. In one first-year class, the professor took to conducting mini-conversations with me during what were supposed to be open, group discussions. One day he would delight in my points; the next he would humiliate me, admonishing me in coded, gendered language for “emotional, intuitive reactions” that were anathema to the legal mind. Then he would invite me to talk after class. Other students teased me for being the professor’s crush. One talked to him privately about how he derided me in class, telling me after the fact. I admit this rollercoaster was exciting, and it also made me wary.

I waited for two months, thinking that this behavior would eventually stop. When it didn’t, I went to the Associate Dean to ask to transfer sections. Citing the need for fairness to other students who could not change sections of a mandatory class, she refused to either move me to another section, or to allow me to take the course with a different professor in my second year. It was only discussion with a third-year friend that changed the game: she encouraged me to seek the assistance of the university Ombudsman, and I did. After that, the Associate Dean was willing to reconsider.

*

The tendency for women students to remain silent in class, while the men dominated discussion, was the most obvious and most publicly-discussed problem of sex-based inequality in the law faculty I attended, and indeed at law faculties generally. This emphasis focuses on the symptom while refusing to acknowledge the cause. At its most obvious, the well-documented problem of campus rape, and contemporary collegiate anti-rape movements such as Emma Sulkowicz’s #carrythatweight, show that university campuses are often not safe environments for women. They also underscore administrative unwillingness to address the issue of violence against women that hits too close to home.

Meanwhile, professional schools seek to mold students in their own image of what it means to be a member of the field. Until the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of lawyers were male, and while many law schools now enroll more women than men, men still comprise a disproportionate number of leadership positions across the field. The law school’s approach, based on male models of the profession, upholds our status quo of gender relations, patriarchy and all.

Law itself, it hardly need be said, has a long history of misogyny. For centuries, legal traditions of all stripes condoned family violence, minimized and permitted rape, or conceptualized these behaviors as damage to property – that is, to women and children. It was only in 1929 that women in Canada were legally declared persons.

The legacy of these institutional outlooks remains everywhere. In first-year torts we considered the civil liability standard of the “reasonable man,” an idea whose invocation in case law decides legal responsibility for wrongdoing. It was only in the late 1970s that feminist legal scholarship began to emerge, asking, among other questions, whether an all-encompassing male standard of liability was appropriate. Although “alternatives” to the standard for liability may be discussed in classes, this standard is still commonly known and taught as that of the “reasonable man.” 

Women law students come from sexually abusive families just like women in any other part of society. The problem is too big, too pervasive, for any group, let alone a profession, to be immune. Further, the faculty’s own lack of safety and exclusion in intellectual and physical forms bleeds into gender inequalities in the classroom. It is ludicrous to expect women students to speak when they risk harassment, humiliation, or dismissal for doing so. It is ludicrous to believe the myth that inside the gates of a college or a professional faculty is a rarefied space where women know true equality. I am deeply sad and a little embarrassed for the pre-law school me who thought that might be possible, who thought maybe she had finally found a way out.

*

I spent the summer of my second year in Jerusalem, pursuing a self-designed internship challenging the get. In Jewish biblical law, the get is the document a husband grants a wife, legally permitting her to divorce. In other words, she is dependent upon his permission to leave the marriage. This system stands as current Israeli state law.

After returning, I garnered a prestigious court clerkship that gave me insider access to the Superior Court. I was matched with a judge who had recently found himself with a plethora of family law cases on his docket. At our first meeting we exchanged pleasantries in his office; when he took me to lunch at the courthouse cafeteria, he warned me that an upcoming divorce case between an Argentinian doctor and a Chinese domestic worker might become explosive.

“Anyone could see it wouldn’t last,” he said loudly enough for the next table to hear. “They’re from totally different cultures.”

A week later I watched the case play out. I watched the judge scream at the would-be ex-wife because, having already used up her savings on a lawyer before the hearing, she was unable to correctly file the paperwork herself. Her English was such that even her ability to throw herself on the mercy of the court was compromised. The precedence of administrative concerns meant the divorce was scarcely discussed; the matter was postponed, creating more court fees the woman could not pay. 

A few weeks later I attended the fourth day of an unheard-of 9-day divorce hearing. The matters at hand seemed to be the settling of a minute portion of the couple’s assets, as well as custody on certain days of the year. Again the couple was interracial, but rather than assail the relationship, this time the judge extolled their social importance and explained to me how this translated into such a long and delicate proceeding. I watched the judge again, how he exuded patience going over the most belabored details of custody and finance. I watched his slowness, his deliberateness, his impartiality; I listened to his even tone. The contrast between that hearing and the one I had seen only weeks before has never left my mind.

When I began to remember being abused, I was eventually unable to continue with classes. This included the clerkship. I viewed the discontinuance as a blessing in disguise. I wrote the judge an email stating I had developed a health problem, and never saw or spoke to him again.

Looking back, I can see it is no accident that I began to remember sexual abuse while attending law school and clerking in a family law courtroom. At the time, however, I did not expect the depth of my own longing for a law that is somehow untangled from these deep roots of discrimination, how that depth might distort my vision. I did not expect to discover, through my interactions with an institution that claims equality as a fundamental principle, that I had experienced one of the most traumatic markers of misogyny. Contemporary law’s stated principles and the culture of gender inequality I experienced in law school each pulled in their own direction, until the ground on which I thought I stood began to crack. Up through those cracks came the ghosts of all that I had stifled to survive long enough to attend law school at all.

*

For the first several weeks after I began remembering abuse at the hands of relatives when I was away from home, there were near-sleepless nights and the deep disorientation that comes with confronting betrayal at bone marrow level. At this point I was still going to class. I felt myself wandering and stumbling in the halls, as though sedated or senile; most faculty members, whether peers or professors, didn’t seem to notice anything wrong.

In late November, I pushed myself through my last presentation for the term, in a course that mattered deeply to me. After that, it was as though I had fulfilled a contract to let that cracked earth beneath me give way. My mind became a cauldron; that night, the images bubbling up veered toward a deeper violence. I went back to being a toddler and felt my head held face down in a torrent of blood. I sensed the edges of knife blades along my wrists, my jugular. I felt myself almost drowning in a bathtub, felt the cold circle of a gun barrel burn against my temple in a forest. I was terrified, and unsure that I could maintain control. I called my best friend again. We decided it was best if I went to the hospital, and she and her grandmother came to get me.

(Several years into the healing process, I know that these memories may not be literally true. And yet, they are true. Sometimes the mind can only allow us to wake up to the truth of our lives through metaphor. My metaphorical memories allowed me to learn that I had been molested even if I could not remember all the literal specifics of the abuse. Many of the more literal memories came later – are still coming – and require their own grieving. Experiencing these metaphors, while plunging me into a horror I did not know possible, also allowed me to access the blinding depths of my feelings of betrayal, fear, and rage. They were a necessary first step to my healing, and I needed support to live through them, support that was not adequately present at the law faculty.)

Examining how the mental health system fails the high proportion of people who come to it already suffering from sexual trauma requires another essay. At the hospital, I was placed in an emergency lockdown unit. Two large men physically intimidated me and yelled at me, threatening me with arrest when I said I wanted to leave. I had brought my childhood teddy bear for comfort, but the aides locked him away. A male patient kept touching me and no one in authority did so much as to tell him to stop. The rooms were huge co-ed basins filled with rolling beds; in the presence of so many strange and agitated men, I was too petrified to sleep. It was always freezing and inmates were not allowed to wear shoes, walking constantly in sock feet on the icy floor. When my friend visited and brought me a Skor bar it was like my salvation. Under the stress of two weeks in the emergency unit, I got worse, developing dark circles under my eyes and scabs from chewing on my lips; the doctors I saw admitted I had worsened but said there was nothing they could do because there was no other space for me.

Eventually I was moved up to a proper floor, which after the emergency unit seemed like a heavenly ascent. After a week I was told there was nothing they could do for me as I was “not mentally ill, just angry.” Despite my protests that I did not feel ready to be on my own, they discharged me just in time for the winter holidays.

*

The law faculty had not contacted me during my absence. At the beginning of January, the Office of Students with Disabilities convened a meeting with the new Associate Dean because this Dean did not know if he should re-enroll me. I had accumulated an unaccounted-for, month-long absence that spanned final paper deadlines and the exam period. He saw only unjustified truancy, the blanks on my transcript where judgment should be.

In the Associate Dean’s office, I shook, gripping the arm rests of the chair so he wouldn’t see the tremors. I told him as evenly as I could that I had been to the hospital because I was recovering from childhood sexual abuse. He looked through me, and never acknowledged my statement during the rest of our discussion. When I look back, it is hard for me not to see an administrator more concerned with the legal confirmation of abuse than with supporting a student struggling with its effects.

Dressed in a blazer and streamlined spectacles that were almost fashionable, the Associate Dean folded his fingers into a steeple.

“Ms. Dainow, the law program is rigorous, and we cannot change it just because you are encountering challenges. Are you sure you wish to continue with this program?”

I felt as if I’d been sucker-punched. I had sunk two-and-a-half years of my life and more than all my savings into law school. Of course I intended to finish.

“Are you sure? If the program is overly demanding for you, there’s no shame in admitting it. It would be irresponsible to continue pursuing a path that is detrimental to your health.”

I spent the next twenty minutes convincing the Dean, the midwinter sun slanting in through his institutional venetian blinds. He agreed to reinstate me but warned that if I ever disappeared without notice again, I would not be readmitted. I clenched my teeth to keep from telling him that internet access was not readily available in a hospital lockdown unit, and that sometimes people are beyond using those resources even if they are available. (I remain convinced that the only reason he readmitted me was because I had involved the Office of Students with Disabilities in my case. Is surviving sexual violence a disability?)

Toward the end of our meeting, his expression contorted, got stuck somewhere between pity and rage, belief and blame.

“We’re bending over backwards for you!” he burst. “I certainly hope you appreciate it.”

I assured him that I did. The self-loathing I had been battling crept up my throat, but I was no longer shaking. I hurried out of the office before he could change his mind, on my way to a class where I did not say a word.

*

It turns out that, despite the presence of some sympathetic professors and peers, law school was not the place to learn to cope with revelations of sexual violence. This is so not just for the obvious reason that law school is a mentally challenging exercise which demands focus and energy. Law faculties are also enmeshed in a patriarchal system of both subject and form, of learning and career design that hinges on modeling students into idealized images of the profession. There is little room for addressing trauma or gender discrimination in a culture that helps perpetuate it; that indeed depends on perpetuating it.

There is also little regard for the triggering nature of topics that law students must study. The semester after my return to law school, I needed to take Criminal law. It was a required course, and one I was dreading, a class whose every lecture, every reading, should come with trigger warnings.

My highly respected professor had a penchant for the rape case. In our third week of class, I sat in the crumbling lecture hall while he outlined the evidentiary requirements for proving acts of sexual violence, the criminal definition of rape. What counts and doesn’t count, what implicates a woman in her own assault. The room began to rock and go blurry. I started to hear his voice as if from far away. Images of assault crept into the edges of my mind. There was no warning for this. There was no direct faculty support for this. It was a required course. The only thing I could do was walk out of the lecture hall, trying to project a sense of prideful outrage so that other students would think I was leaving on some kind of principle. So that I wouldn’t crumble to pieces in the classroom. 

I did not return to Criminal law. I used set of public notes, called summaries, to study. There was a rape question on the exam and I fought against gagging as I drafted my answer. I accepted a C- in the course as the price of my wobbly sanity.

That same semester, I pulled my strength together to attend a talk by my favorite sitting Supreme Court Justice, Rosalie Abella. Born in a displaced persons’ camp to Holocaust survivors, she had initially made her career on the bench as a family court judge, focusing on feminist approaches to divorce and custody. I approached her after her talk with questions about the links between family violence and societal violence. I feigned academic interest in the topic, hoping she saw through me. I needed her to give me something, some answer I could hold on to, some sense that I was not, in fact, crazy. She brushed off the questions with warm charm and generalities and I remained as alone as ever.

The role of silent female law student never suited me, but after my readmission, I ended up adopting it as a means of self-protection. Law schools claim to promote gender equality, yet when I realized I am a survivor of sexual violence, one whose memories were triggered in part by the institutional sexism of the faculty itself, my school failed to adequately support me both interpersonally and institutionally. If I was not overtly told to sit down and shut up about the crimes I had experienced, the culture of both the faculty and the profession I was studying ensured that I got the message: in dealing with the effects of sexual violence on women students, silence is the lingua franca of the law. But I finished law school, and completed my articles, and passed my Bar exams. As a factory graduate and now a lawyer, I refuse to practice in this language.

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Susannah is a writer-lawyer/lawyer-writer currently based in Toronto. She dreams of truthfully using the phrase "she divides her time." She tweets here and her under-construction website is here.

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