When the Jian Ghomeshi story first broke back in 2014, I knew with unwavering certainty exactly how the story would play out.
“Just wait,” I would tell friends. “He’ll disappear for a few years, and then he’ll come back with some kind of mea culpa story, and everyone will praise him for being so humble and honest and brave. He’ll do some kind of apology press tour, and then it’ll just be business as usual, as if nothing ever happened.”
I’m not a particularly gifted psychic, I’ve just seen this redemption arc before and I know that it’s always the same: a man is accused of abuse, he expresses some kind of remorse, and after a little while everyone seems to forget about it. If it comes up at all, it will be regarded in the same way as a mildly off-colour joke—offensive, but only if you’re the type who gets offended by things. It’s complicated, people will say. Or: We’ve all done things we regret. But what they will especially say is: He apologized, what else do you want from him?
What else indeed?
In the autumn of 2014, a laundry list of allegations of sexual misconduct made against Ghomeshi—ranging from sexual harassment and assault in his workplace to choking and punching intimate partners—were published in the Toronto Star. Now, nearly four years later, we have finally reached the contrition stage of this particular narrative. In a lengthy essay for the New York Review of Books—accompanied by a Edvard Munch painting of a man deep in thought, entitled Melancholy—Ghomeshi takes 39 meandering paragraphs to say that he feels sorry; mostly for himself, but also a little bit for the women he hurt. Women, he explains, that he didn’t actually hurt in any of the specific, horrible ways that you’ve heard; mostly he hurt them by being thoughtless and a bit full of himself, which, he’s sure you’ll agree, is perfectly understandable given how famous and beloved he used to be.
But anyway, enough about these women! What Jian really wants to know is, What it will take for you to finally stop hating Jian? After all, it’s been four years, and he was cleared of all charges in court, and people have been very mean to him, and, not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but: he feels very bad. He has suffered “enough humiliation for a lifetime.” Don’t you get it? He’s already experienced the maximum amount of bad feelings a person can feel in their entire life. It is not just unfair to expect more from him, it is actually outside the bounds of the space-time continuum itself. Honestly, what else do you even want?
The thing about a redemption arc is that it has to involve some kind of atonement or reparations; it has to offer some kind of proof that the person seeking redemption has fundamentally changed. Ghomeshi offers none of these things. He barely even acknowledges any wrongdoing; when it comes to the peace bond he signed, he refers to it simply as “a pledge to be on good behaviour for a year,” a description that omits a wealth of legal details. He seems to have taken the phrase doing time literally, believing that he deserves forgiveness simply because he’s been out of the public sphere for a handful of years.
Time is something that comes up a lot during discussions about men and violence, as in: How much of it has to pass until he’s forgiven? As in: Is it really fair to ban him from everything forever? As in: Don’t you believe in forgiveness?
The problem with these arguments is that they treat forgiveness as a thing that’s owed to men like Ghomeshi, rather than a thing that’s earned. It doesn’t matter how long he’s away from the public eye; there is no set amount of days or years that he can cash in to buy redemption. Instead of time, Ghomeshi ought to be providing accountability. How, for example, will he work to ameliorate the lives of his victims? What action is he taking to change the social climate he describes in his essay, one where everything around him “seemed to condone the bullish way a successful single guy might act”? What will he do to make sure that other men don’t abuse women? Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t offer information about any of these things.
There is one point in the piece where Ghomeshi briefly approaches what might have been a meaningful discussion. In it, he describes how men approach him, both in person and online, to tell them of their own sexual misconduct. These men confess and commiserate, detailing the accusations the women in their lives might have brought against them. “I began,” writes Ghomeshi, “to see my own actions as part of a systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to get past beginning; the next sentence is about the other online messages he receives, namely from women who want to have kinky sex with him. These paragraphs are the closest approximation to introspection the essay manages to pull off.
Ghomeshi leaves us with an anecdote that’s apparently supposed to show us how much he has changed. In it, he manages to have an entire conversation with a woman without asking her for her phone number. This, we are to understand, is personal growth; if he had met her a few years ago, he probably would have name-dropped a bunch of the famous people he’s met and then pressured her into meeting up later for a drink. Instead, he shakes her hand and says that it was nice talking to her.
It’s simultaneously the saddest and most honest moment in the whole piece. Ghomeshi’s whole redemption journey—his public downfall, his trial, the hours and hours he has spent in miserable self-reflection—finally leads to a moment when he’s able to treat a woman like a real person instead of an object he can manipulate into sleeping with him.
What else do we want from him?
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say: more than that.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression. Her work can be found in the London Review of Books, the Washington Post, the National Post, and other publications. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats.
More from Anne Thériault:
Dear Louis C.K. & Sexual Predators Hiding in Feminist Communities: We See You
Reflecting on the Day I Did My Best to Die and Then My Best to Live
Remember the Women of the Montreal Massacre by More Than Just Their Names