April Ford (photo by Antonella Fratino)
In the fifth and final articles of a series on sexual harassment and violence, the Jewish Independent speaks with Montreal writer April Ford.
As the late Maya Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Montreal-born fiction writer and essayist April Ford, who has been working as associate publisher for Southern Fried Karma, a literary press in Atlanta, Ga., since December 2017, knows this all too well.
“I’m honoured to stand alongside any woman who’s been mistreated, whether or not there’s a hashtag appended to her experience,” said Ford, a bold, heart-on-her-sleeve survivor of abuse. “The #MeToo movement, like any grassroots quest for equality, is one of unleashed compassion, controversy and confrontation … and, right now, it’s a mess. Sometimes, it seems more interested in the public shaming du jour of a celebrity sexual predator than in collective healing, and that frustrates me.”
Ford said she is not a believer in public shaming. “Black Mirror brilliantly depicts this nastiness in White Bear, season 2, episode 2,” she said.
“I’m even skeptical about how much the #MeToo movement can help women who’ve been abused, but who don’t have Twitter accounts, blogs or access to other popular venues for the dissemination of dark secrets to the masses … in exchange for emoticons and the chance to go viral,” she added.
In terms of some of the stories that have come out of the movement and how they have affected her, Ford said, “The story I’ve followed most closely is that of Concordia University in Montreal, where I completed the undergraduate creative writing program in 2007. Throughout the course of my degree, I spent a lot of time on campus as an aspiring but uncertain writer, and I sought mentorship from a handful of professors. I was consistently treated very, very well – there were no strings, pressures or consequences attached to the help and encouragement I received. That said, thanks to rumours, I knew to stay away from certain individuals within that concentrated world.
“Also, I started the program when I was 23 and, I think, being a few years older than the typical undergraduate student buffered me against harassment. Or maybe the negative experiences in my life outside of the program had trained me how to get through a situation as cleanly as possible, without giving anything away that wasn’t part of the experience I had signed on for, or having it taken from me without my consent.”
Regarding some of the high-profile people who have been outed as abusers via the #MeToo movement, Ford said, “I certainly have an opinion about how to cope with the abusive actions of people, whether family members, friends, mentors, celebrities or demi-gods. First, you have to be clear on your definition of abuse … and consistent. If you’re going to accuse one person of abusing you, then you can’t switch to a sliding scale when some actor or comedian you love is proven guilty of the same offence. And, no, I don’t believe you can separate the teacher, leader or artist from the abuser. That’s like saying you can separate all the white fur from the cream fur in a cat the colour of sand. It’s ridiculous.”
Ford was adopted as a child and only discovered after marrying a Jewish man (they have since divorced) – that her birth family may have Jewish roots.
When she was 15 years old, her adoptive parents, who had been fighting for years, decided to call it quits. Her mother left their home. Not long after, Ford lost her virginity to Bruce, a 34-year-old man. Up until then, she said, she “had hardly kissed a boy.”
Bruce instructed her to start taking birth control, “which I did,” said Ford, “as soon as I found a clinic that would dispense the pill to me for free and without questions like, ‘Where are your parents?’
“While my parents were dealing with the failure of their marriage, I was dealing with the euphoria and confusion that come with being a 15-year-old girl with no adult in her life to anchor her to a safe place. My mother, in trying to move forward from the damage my father’s abuse had caused her, was unable to be a mother to me. My father, in trying to hold his world together with rage, essentially fast-tracked me into the hands of a man who … [abused] me. I did my best to keep quiet – to hide the fact that this man I had rebelliously told everyone that I loved more than life itself was raping me every weekend.
“A lot of people in my life at the time could sense there was more to the story,” she said. “But, instead of getting involved or simply buying me a hot chocolate and asking how I was doing, they stopped being my friends.”
At that time, the mothers of Ford’s former friends insulted her with terms like “slut” and “whore” and said she had no business being anywhere near their daughters, sons and husbands. Ford went from being a decent student at a private Catholic high school for girls, a horse-lover and aspiring Olympic rider, to being what she referred to as “someone to be ashamed of, an afterthought.”
Ford can still vividly recall the whispers that, to her ears, were like screams of “all-knowing” grownups predicting that she was – at that young age – already done for; that she would end up pregnant, hooked on drugs and collecting welfare.
“None of that happened,” said Ford. “Not even close. Over the years, I’ve occasionally reconnected with people from that period. And, after they express exaggerated delight to see how well I’ve done for myself, they’d defensively stammer things like, ‘You seemed so mature and into your own thing … we just figured that’s how it was…. You said you were happy. Anyway, look at you now. Everything happens for a reason, right?’ No, it doesn’t.
“I’m sure some survivors can relate to my next statement: Bruce didn’t abuse me all the time. Not every time we had sex was rape, and there were times when he tried to initiate and I refused, and my wish was granted.” But there were several instances, as well as other types of abuse, that are too graphic to describe here.
Ford finds the whole concept of “moving on” troubling.
“It’s not a tidy process and it takes time,” said Ford. “It takes a lifetime. For me, moving on involved a lot of self-injurious behaviour in my late teens through to my 20s, and a lot of self-hate that I eventually learned to disguise as wit.
“My ‘disguise’ actually helped me push forward, to appear exponentially more confident than I was, so that I could create opportunities for myself. I’ve found there’s an expectation of real-life survivors of abuse to tell our tales demurely, to dab our eyes and conclude with, ‘But that was then, and I am stronger for it.’”
One message Ford has for other survivors is to not assume that people, including family and friends, will protect the deeply personal stories and truths you tell them. She advised that survivors tell their stories to the authorities and to people in positions to protect them, physically and legally. Most importantly, Ford stressed that survivors take charge of their emotional safety.
“In the years immediately following my break up with Bruce, I felt constantly in need of confessing my unworthiness to anyone who didn’t know the story, from new acquaintances to college professors to bartenders,” said Ford. “Thankfully, there haven’t been many cases where someone I’d confided in judged me unfairly. Mostly, people are compassionate and kind. But then, just last year, a pair of colleagues at the university where I had taught for eight years ‘profiled’ me, let’s call it … because they disagreed with a choice I’d made in my private life. They accused me of victimhood, based on what I’d shared with them in our friendships. We are no longer friends.”
As a self-described atheist, when in need of support, Ford prefers systems she can interact with directly, such as “proper nutrition, regular exercise and sleep hours, close friends and cuddly animals, work and pastimes that light joyful fires in her belly, and the occasional double shot of rum with a splash of Coke on the side. These things I can trust to always be available to me, and I am free to adjust and readjust their proportions to fit my always in-flux needs.
“What has not worked for me, in terms of healing, is writing about my experiences for the sole purpose of healing. I am a fiction writer to the bone. Sure, I graft details from my life onto the stories I write. But, actually, I use fiction to explore other people’s nightmares, so that I can take a break from my own. I need one kind of noise in my head to cancel out the survivor noise, if that makes sense.”
While Ford hopes that sharing her story here will do some good in the world, she would rather not impose her story on anyone. Further, she feels strongly that no one who has been abused is obligated to become a spokesperson for others.
“Sometimes,” she said, “the abuse a person experiences is so extreme that she needs the rest of her life just to learn how to step outside of her house without fear.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.