Credit: Indiana Joel/Xtra
Analysis
6 min

When abuse and bullying are normalized

The alleged sexual assault at St Michael’s College School made me reconsider what happened to me at school

The recent revelations of alleged sexual assaults at Toronto’s St Michael’s College School were a departure from the more familiar stories of clergy and staff abusing children. This was a story of boys abusing one another — six boys, aged 14 and 15, face charges of assault, gang sexual assault and assault with a weapon. And on social media feeds, I saw reactions similar to my own; which is to say, I was horrified but not surprised — a phrase I’ve seen several times since. I reflected on that.

Where did that thought come from? Why was I not surprised? I was educated at a rival all-boys Catholic school in Toronto in the 1970s. There, we were constantly reminded of the school’s long history, its illustrious grads and our dominance in sports. Sons of old boys whose photographs adorned the main hallway carried the added burden of living up to their fathers’ legacies. Most of all, I remember the way in which athletes were heralded and the rest of us were duty-bound to celebrate their successes.

The culture of toughness wasn’t limited to hockey, basketball and football. It permeated every aspect of our lives. As someone who didn’t crave competition and didn’t particularly care to conform, those early years were cruel and lonely. I was a quiet, shy kid and extremely polite. I liked acting, music and writing. I lived for books. I spent my Grade 7 and 8 years fending off homophobic taunts, getting shoved and hit, finding my stuff had gone missing or been destroyed. I heard the words, “fag,” “gay boy” and “fairy” every single day. Much of this took place in the presence of staff.

In June 1974, the Grade 8 boys packed up our duffle bags and piled onto a bus that would take us to a dock by Lake Simcoe. From there we boarded a small barge that carried us to a Catholic retreat on an island. I suppose it was a chance to say farewell to childhood, with high school and plans for university just ahead. Some of the boys had pilfered cigarettes from home. Beer and liquor, too.

By this time, I’d made a couple of friends, and I had also learned that I could fight. A couple of my tormentors learned this too, and they had backed off in recent months. It gave me a measure of peace.

The tents had been assigned, and I was sharing space with three students I wasn’t friendly with. One was a boy I absolutely loathed for his brutality and viciousness. He was the size of an adult. Dressed in our uniform of green blazer, red tie, white shirt and grey flannel trousers, it seemed like the fabric would burst under the strain of his bulk. His only passion was hockey, and it looked as if he had been bred for it.

It was evening, not quite lights out, when we were settling in for the night. Some boys were still carousing outside, having downed some beers. The boy I hated and feared took off his shorts, pointed a flashlight at himself and commanded, “Suck my cock! Nore, suck it!”

This moment has remained intact in my memory for 45 years: the mustiness of the tent canvas, the contempt in his voice and the laughter of the other boys. Was it nervous laughter? Or were they actually enjoying the spectacle? I recall my own voice cracking an octave when I refused, struggling to sound calm and unafraid. The matter seemed to drop. But I recall nothing else of that night with any certainty. I never told school staff. Or my parents. Decades ago, I shared the story with my wife when I was very drunk. Up until 17 years ago, there were many drunk nights.

Recently I wondered what might have happened if I had reported the event to the two Christian Brothers accompanying us. I imagine there would have been shouting, perhaps cuffs to the head — maybe to the both us, for disrupting the evening. (I had been told before by staff that I seemed to “have trouble getting along with people.”)

These were men who casually dispensed corporal punishment for talking in class. As a nominally Protestant kid with no old boys legacy, I had no power. I can imagine how others might have spoken up: “Nore’s always asking for it. Why does he have to be such a fag?”

There was also that measure of peace that I had purchased. That would be gone. Reporting on a classmate came with its own consequences.

I stayed at the school. Life got better. The bullying abated. I had friends, went to dances and dated girls. In 1979, I collected my diploma and walked away. Calls for donations to the school’s endowment go unanswered and newsletters are recycled. The thought of attending a reunion has never occurred to me. I’ve nothing to celebrate.

In my early 20s, I became aware of my bisexuality, though I didn’t come out until my early 50s. Many instances of bullying — save for that camping trip — were carefully examined with my therapist during my early years of recovery from alcoholism, and again when I came out. I talked about the verbal abuse and the shoves. I talked about the time in Grade 7 that I found my dictionary, a gift from my dad, with the word “fag” written beside my name — on the same page my father had inscribed it.

It is now my belief that I experienced bouts of depression in my middle and high school years that may have contributed to my habit of daily and excessive drinking that persisted for two decades. With support from my doctor, family and friends, my depression is now well-managed. I recently passed 17 years of sobriety. I am a happy, queer man of 58. I’m an elementary teacher, and I have advised award-winning gay-straight alliances. My wife and I have been together 30 years. We have a son in his late 20s who is kind and decent.

Though I never spoke to my therapist about the event in the tent, I had not forgotten it. I had misfiled it. To me, it became another episode of being bullied. Another of many unresolved episodes. The fact that my mistreatment during my years at school went largely unchecked by staff had a peculiarly normalizing effect. It’s only now, in the aftermath of the St Michael’s stories, that I can acknowledge my experience in the tent as an act of sexual violence.

The education I and many others received was rooted in the belief that boys needed to be forged into a particular kind of man and that our masculinity was commensurate with what we could endure: corporal punishment, harassment of peers dismissed as hazing, tough teachers, religiosity and an environment devoid of empathy. When I fought back in moments of great frustration and stress, it was a validation of their methods, one which even earned me some praise from former adversaries. I had been taught that this is why I had survived, and I believed it myself until recently.

This revelation has been profound for me, and there are lessons other men can learn: I made the threat of sexual violence seem normal in my memory because I didn’t have a word for what happened. In seven years at that school, I received no sexual health education whatsoever. And intuitively I knew that the people charged with my care would not care for me. I wouldn’t be believed, and others wouldn’t back me up.

I suspect in the aftermath of the St Michael’s story, many men are having this same conversation with themselves. I’d also think many of us are considering a place for ourselves in the #MeToo movement. We need to stop being so damned surprised that these acts of violence take place, dismissing them as anomalous.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, former St Michael’s student Bill Dunphy argues that the apparent attempts to cover up the scandal reveal the rot in the system. He points out that large sums of money are pumped into these programs by alumni and other donors — all to serve a legacy, not the students themselves. St Michael’s “didn’t call the police immediately,” he writes. “No teen who received the video called the police. No parent called the police.”

We cannot regard these events simply as individual acts by bad people, when they are apparently abetted by those in authority. There is no counterpoint to a survivor’s story. While there is room to acknowledge the necessity of proving allegations; we can’t seek to understand events we don’t acknowledge. I hope more of us come forward, to heal, and to make space to allow the stories of survivors overtake the myths that populated our upbringing.