Once I shared office space with another business. It was owned by a man, Bill, who had a full-time job outside of this side venture, so was never there. Instead, he hired an 18-year-old kid, Luke, to answer the phones and secure bookings for their video services.
I liked Luke. He was gangly, and awkward, but sweet and honest about his flaws. The office was in a particularly seedy part of town and he’d make sure to walk me to my car each night, just to be safe.
In one of life’s funny twists, my parking spot was right under a massive billboard which featured a picture of an old boyfriend, Grant, modeling clothing that made him look way more happy, successful and lovable than he really should have looked without me. “Good lighting,” I thought. “And makeup.”
Luke’s company was a welcome distraction from Grant’s 30-foot looming presence.
One night, with Grant staring down, and our breath hanging between us in the cool night air, Luke said out of nowhere, “I did a stint in juvie.” He searched my face for judgement, and, finding none, he said, “I stole some stuff that wasn’t mine. I thought the world owed me something. It didn’t.”
“Huh,” I said. He looked at me expectantly. I cleared my throat and added, “Well, you know, um, at least…well at least you know that now.” I pointed up at the billboard and said, “I dated that guy for a bit.”
“Huh,” he said. “You’re probably better off without him,” he said.
“Yeah. Probably,” I said.
Luke had no experience running a business and, truthfully, neither did Bill. He was a public servant by day and an entrepreneur by night, but really, he was just a guy way in over his head. They were falling behind on the rent, so it didn’t take a genius to realize they were probably falling behind on everything else too. But I let them stay, mostly because of Luke. He was sweet and I felt safer with him there.
One night, there was a burglary. Nothing of ours was taken but the video business was robbed of all of its computers and equipment. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was an insurance ploy, especially after the owner immediately accused Luke.
“I didn’t do it, Susan. I swear I didn’t do it, ” Luke said. He looked genuinely anguished and I knew right then that he was either the best actor I’d ever seen, or he was an innocent guy who knew just how badly his previous record was going to hurt him in this situation.
I didn’t think he’d done it. Maybe I was naive but I kind of think he would have told me if he had. Plus, I’d seen some things that gave me pause to wonder about Bill.
“Could you talk to my lawyer Susan? Could you just talk to her and tell her what you saw and what you think? I can’t have this on my record. I’m an adult now. This will stay with me forever. I did the stuff when I was a kid. I didn’t do this.”
I talked to his lawyer and told her what I’d seen Bill do. “Yeah, that’s significant,” she said. We really need you to testify about that. Can you?”
I really didn’t want to get involved. But how could I not?
“Sure,” I said.
The trial date came and I was called to the stand. No one told me anything about what to expect except Luke’s lawyer who said, “whatever you do, no matter who asks you a question, always turn to answer the judge.”
Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity from the prosecutor and I was ordered off of the stand and out of the courtroom. I was told to stand by. About 15 minutes later I was called back to the stand.
The questions changed. They were no longer about Luke. I could tell the prosecutor was trying to get something out of me, but I had no idea what. The defence asked questions, trying to guide me closer to something, I could tell, but I was completely lost. It was like being at the centre of a joke where everyone else knew the punchline but you.
Luke’s lawyer once again asked me about my relationship with the owner of the other business. Landlord didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. Sharer of office space didn’t fly. Eventually she said, “look, Mr. ______ is claiming that you had an affair with him, he ended it, and this testimony is your way of getting back at him.”
I burst out laughing, and then realized that this was no joke. And for the next God-knows-how-long-but-it-felt-like-forever, I suddenly found myself down a rabbit hole defending my sexual history.
Do you know how hard it is to prove a negative? If I had been alleging I had slept with him, perhaps I could have remembered some detail that would have proved that. But try proving that you HAVEN’T slept with someone, or a lot of someones, because they didn’t just stop at my relationship with Mr. _________. Nope, it was implied that my office was some kind of den of iniquity.
The trial completely shifted from being about video equipment stolen by some kid into a trial about whether or not I was a whoring, scorned woman seeking revenge.
It was interminable. It was humiliating. And it was our justice system doing exactly what it was designed to do.
I finally looked at the judge and said, “Your Honour, I’m missing my bridal shower to be here. I have all kinds of girlfriends gathering right about now to help me celebrate my marriage this weekend. And instead, I’m sitting here defending my reputation and my sexual history.”
He looked at the engagement ring on my finger and then back into my eyes. He took a moment and then said “I find the witness credible and we’ve exhausted this line of questioning. You may step down.”
I was glad to be off the stand but the “how” of it was troubling. By virtue of becoming another man’s wife, I was suddenly deemed believable. The judge could uncouple me from Bill and from however many men he’d possibly imagined me fucking in my office. In one afternoon, I went from witness, to whore, to virtuous woman, defined entirely by my relationship with men. Meanwhile, I was asked precious little about the case itself.
Luke was found innocent. The judge said it was because I was a credible witness, and he mentioned my impending marriage. I was deemed worthy because I had a large rock on my finger. Meanwhile Luke was a poor kid with a record. It wasn’t a justice system built for him. But it wasn’t really one built for me either. If my wedding hadn’t been that weekend, I’m not sure I’d have crawled up from whoredom in the eyes of that judge, maybe any judge.
Our legal system is fraught with ready-made narratives we immediately understand but which fail us miserably. If we weren’t convinced before, the Ghomeshi case drove that home for many of us, particularly women. In the courtroom, women are often lying whores or paragons of virtue. There is no room for the complexities of real world women in an adversarial system designed by and for men of privilege.
And even when our sex lives have nothing to do with anything, they are readied as weapons against us, defining our worth in the eyes of others and under the law. We want to believe in a justice system that is fair. But it plays favourites. And we are not among them.
We are mad. But we are living in a changing world. Old judges are retiring and the next generation of leaders simply aren’t prepared to leave a justice system in place that caters only to a privileged few.
Because Justice is not blind. Where women are concerend, Justice wears blinders. And that’s not the same thing.