By Julie McIsaac
January 11, 2018
A recent blog post by male writer Mike Spry is stirring up a lot of memories for me. The stories of male privilege, domination, harassment, and abuse in Concordia’s creative writing program are triggering and exhausting for so many of us. I’m up late, or early, one of the two, writing about this because I can’t sleep, because I can’t stop thinking about it. I know that many wounds have been re-opened in the wake of Spry’s article and that these feelings are personal and professional.
So much of what Spry writes exemplifies the way an ally should behave. He calls out predatory men while also acknowledging his own complicity. But from studying writing at Concordia and from knowing Spry, I have to say that he not only permitted the culture of toxic masculinity that he rightly calls out, but he also helped to breed it. He was much more than a bystander rolling his eyes in the background. He was an active player who belittled and harassed women writers who only wanted to make the same career moves he benefited from. And now his career is likely to benefit from his speaking out—his name is known across the country and it infuriates me that a man who I knew to be deeply sexist has gained esteem for condemning the culture from which he directly benefited.
Several of the women in our cohort stopped writing after they left Concordia. They never tried to publish. Writing had become closely associated with being manipulated and vilified. Mike published three books.
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Full disclosure: I dated Mike while at Concordia. We’ve both long-since moved on. Back then, he was a major figure in the Concordia scene—an aggressively judgemental man with an enormous ego and low self-esteem, just like the rest of them. He seemed knowledgeable and connected and I admired him. We talked about our writing, and these discussions felt supportive and reassuring. He was toxic, as he suggests in his article; he was misogynist, hypercritical, and alcoholic, which is what the scene demanded from him. I hope that the conversion indicated in his blog post is real.
When I was in grad school at Concordia I went to Lithuania as part of the Summer Literary Seminars. Mike was the manager of the event, and he was also my boyfriend at the time. My experience at SLS led to our break-up and nearly led to my abandonment of creative writing. For the rest of my Masters’ degree I was depressed and insecure. I was sure the male staff had launched a whisper campaign against me. I was sure that my female peers thought I was stupid and weak for dating into the boy’s club. I asked to be excused from workshopping some of my stories and produced very little work. I had panic attacks in the study room on days when I ran into Mike at school. I felt under attack because I had tried to have an adult relationship in a culture of stunted boyhood. And I blamed myself for being so stupid and weak.
While in Lithuania, my job as an assistant with SLS included getting coffees for Mike and the writing faculty and sitting on a chair at the entrance to the SLS office to tell people that a class was cancelled (I was asked to do this for a four-hour stretch, but abandoned my post after a futile 20 minutes). Male assistants played tennis with the big-name faculty members who were part of SLS. They were given petty cash to show the faculty around town. They chatted leisurely over drinks and I’m sure were never asked to bring anyone a coffee. Horrifyingly, men were usually paid for their work while women volunteered.
A lot of this divide had to do with Mike’s own deeply engrained sexism and how that trickled down from his role as manager. He had no problem yelling—actually yelling—at female volunteers while rubbing elbows with and patting male volunteers on the back. He was comfortable having a powerful role over women, and seemed compelled to use that power to wield frightening, denigrating language and tantrums.
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While I was studying at Concordia, another student in the writing program posted a Facebook photo of himself and his wife. A male writer/prof in the department commented on the pic to say: “Writers always have the prettiest wives.” Someone I don’t know replied to his comment: “What do female writers have?”
This is the erasure of women as belonging to the category of “writer” that is part of the ideology of the CanLit world. The position of “writer” is reserved for men; women are “woman writers.” Male stories are considered universal; women’s stories are for women. Male poets have a variety of personae and styles available to them, including virile male truth-talker (which often involves anti-PC rhetoric and trumped-up masculinity) and hopeless romantic (which depicts feelings as a sign of bravery, while emotion is often thought to signal soft-headedness in women). Women have fewer choices available, since too often the category of “woman writer” is made into a ghetto and kept separate. Rather than encouraging women writers and helping to expand our options, certain Concordia profs further diminished our roles by sidelining us as girlfriends, eye-candy, and sex objects.
After Lithuania, I distanced myself from Spry and from SLS. The following year, the group launched their inaugural Montreal Seminar, hosted by Concordia University, and Mike was promoted to Director. I did not participate in SLS Montreal, but did meet up with some of the friends I’d made who were part of the Lithuania group and who has joined SLS Montreal. One friend told me that she had been asked to work for the full two-week program. She spent hours of time working and as part of her job attended all events, lectures, talks, and workshops. She was told that she would be paid enough to cover her costs but that the work would be volunteer, and she accepted. Once she arrived in Montreal, Mike acted on behalf of SLS to retract that agreement, claiming that she had misunderstood—SLS would reimburse her gas money and that was it. He knew someone who would let her sleep on their couch for free. At the end of the two weeks, this friend presented the program’s founder with a bill, outlining the thousands of dollars she would normally charge for this amount of work. It was an exercise designed to make the organization aware of how little they had given her. The founder was shocked and said something like, “We only paid our videographer $1500!” (For the record, I’m quoting this second-hand information from memory.)
Um, what? The videographer was a Montreal native, so he had no travel or lodging expenses as part of SLS. He made a video of the event, which required about two-days of shooting, followed by editing. But he was a he and his time was worth something to Mike and to SLS. My friend was not considered as valuable as a man.
While in Lithuania, the biggest part of my job was managing Mike’s drunken behaviour. He would pass out on tables or appear visibly intoxicated when we went to bars and I’d wake him up or shuffle him home before his boss noticed. He criticised entire writing movements and publications in front of SLS delegates who were active members of those communities. And then in the morning I would tell him who he needed to apologize to, and to his credit, he would do it.
I am a writer of talent who was treated like a waitress/babysitter. I felt punished and maligned for my sexual relationships as well as for the sexual offers I rebuffed. I doubt that Mike had to deal with this. He says now that he is not proud of the work he created then, published with the help of the toxic colleagues and mentors he now despises. But those books are on his website, they are included on his CV, they likely helped him get hired in his new career that he writes about in his article. I’ve produced work from that time that has been published, that I am proud of, but I can’t look at it without also feeling shame and embarrassment at my time at Concordia. I think this is what Mike is describing, and it’s a very female experience.
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And I also know something about how difficult it is to rebuff sexual advances from professors. While in my undergrad, I took an upper-level writing class with an adjunct professor visiting from a prestigious American college. In one of our conversations, he alluded to the fact that he had taken the semester-long position, in part, to meet someone. He’d heard that Montreal was “fun.” Looking back, I now realize that he knew it to be a playground for ogling professors to seduce female students with impunity. I was young, a good student, and keen to get published. I visited his office hours regularly to discuss the piece I was writing for his class. He was supposedly interested in my ideas.
At the launch of a Concordia student-run literary magazine, he attended the event and monopolized my time for its duration. When I tried to leave, he told me not to, so I stayed and talked with him. He was demanding of my time, but I rationalized that he was new in town and that I should stay and talk with him. He invited me to go on a drive with him to visit some scenic part of Montreal that he had researched online. I evaded the question without really responding because I didn’t want to offend him by saying no.
A few weeks later, I again visited him during his office hours. It was the end of the day and after me, there was one other student waiting to be seen. The prof asked if he could see the other student first, even though I should have been next, because he know that this student’s request would be quick. I said that was fine.
When it was my turn to go into his office, he told me that he was starving—he hadn’t eaten all day and was feeling faint. Would it be possible for us to move our meeting across the street to a café? I said that was fine. When we got to the café, he ordered two beers and no food. We sat at the café for hours and he ate nothing. Every time I tried to leave he asked me in an accusatory voice where I had to go that was so important. I didn’t have an answer and his harsh tone made me feel guilty, so I stayed. When we did finally leave the café, he walked with me to the subway station, but kept pausing to talk about architecture, the quality of the snowfall, any other dumb thing he could think of to prolong our time together, time that I had felt tricked into spending with him. But I didn’t want to be rude, to risk a low mark in his class, to lose a shot at publishing that he had promised.
In the coming weeks, he started emailing me, asking me to go on a drive. At the end of one of our workshops, he asked me—in front of the entire class—to stay for a minute after class because he had something to ask me. When the rest of my classmates left, he asked me to go on a drive with him. He asked me why I hadn’t responded to his emails. I evaded the questions as best I could and somehow got out of that room without agreeing to anything. He continued to email me about going on a date. In one of his emails he wrote, “don’t be alarmed if I call you soon. I have your phone number from your student file.” I worked on campus and I’d mentioned this to him in passing once, and he showed up at my work. I asked him to leave, promising that he could come back at the end of my shift, but he said that didn’t work for him and sat and waited. I thought I would cry. I pretended I had something to do in the adjacent office and hung out there as long as I could. My work was a busy place at that time and I was shirking by responsibilities. I didn’t know what to do. I still can’t remember how exactly it happened, but he eventually left without us talking.
When I got home to my apartment, there was a message from him on my landline. I was shocked by his aggression and gall. I called Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities. Within a day the director called me back and I explained my situation. I said something like, “he asked me out on a date!”
And the director told me there was nothing wrong with that. The Concordia Code of Conduct didn’t prohibit professors from dating students.
Next, he asked if I’d told this prof that I didn’t want to go on a date with him. I said that I’d hinted at it in ways I that I thought made it clear.
He said that wasn’t good enough. I needed to tell him directly and explicitly that I didn’t want him to contact me ever again. If this prof continued to contact me in any way, I was to report him to the police for stalking. I wrote the email, cc’d this director, and the prof did not contact me again.
Interestingly, this director told me he’d looked at my file before initially calling me back. He remarked that I was an excellent student. I still wonder why that mattered.
* * *
At Concordia, I ended up depressed and lonely, unsure of my work or myself. Fortunately, I had a coterie of female peers who helped me get through. Women are deftly skilled at building communities and networks, often just adjacent to corrupt dominant networks. And this is on top of all the other work that we do.
But there was also an amazing community at Concordia. I’m still friends with many of the people I met there, and we continue to read each other’s work and talk about writing and books. I’m glad that we drank together, shut down bars together, made a point of meeting out in Montreal and not just at the library. Drinking and socializing are not the problems. The culture of male dominance and sexual predation is.
Emma Healey’s article “Stories Like Passwords,” published in The Hairpin YEARS AGO, summarizes the problems at Concordia perfectly. These words stick out in my mind and I reread her essay often:
We consistently fail young women — all women — by tacitly relying on them to learn from each other, or from their experiences, which of the people in their communities they can and cannot trust. We ask them to police their own peers, but quietly, through back channels, without disturbing the important people while they’re talking. We wait for the victims of abuse to be the ones to take power away from their abusers, instead of working actively to ensure that these motherfuckers never get that far in the first place.
Stories of predatory men are so often triggering and exhausting for the women involved. I’ve had extreme writers’ block since the Me Too moment began and it’s been intensified by the latest CanLit outrage. I can’t sleep from anger. A good friend who works in tech described her lingering rage after reading news articles about James Damore and his foolish lawsuit. As she pointed out, these men feel so right about their ways. They’ll put it in writing, take it to a judge, go public. Imagine if the real victims were so bold? Think about how they are treated when they are.
And the predators seem to always find allies. Crackpot scientists who badly research gender difference make claims that lady-brains can’t do tech, and somehow this flawed theory gains mainstream traction. We are told that we need to discuss these opinions in order to seem fair and balanced. At other times sexist and predatory men style themselves as brave iconoclasts, willing to boldly speak truth to power. They see champions of diversity and equality as brainwashed sheep who are incapable of questioning the tyranny of political correctness. None of this is true; it’s only sold to us as the truth, or at least, as worth contemplating alongside the truth. But it’s garbage.
If you want to see challenges to power in action, look to the women. We’ve been here, in spite of efforts to invisiblize us and in spite of the climate of male toxicity that can exhaust and wound us. Spry’s article is good, but Emma Healey’s article contains a kind of bravery that leaves me in awe of her strength. She lit a flame years ago, and women circulated her words in the channels we created.
And then a man said it, so now everyone is listening.