The unsinkable Julie S. Lalonde

Julie S. Lalonde

The fact that Julie S. Lalonde has built a career as a successful advocate and activist in the fight against sexual violence, is already pretty impressive.

That she has obtained a BA and MA in Canadian Studies and succeeded in getting a sexual assault centre at Carleton University while being stalked, harassed and sexually assaulted for a decade by a former boyfriend named Xavier is almost too much to take in. How did she do that?

Her memoir Resilience Is Futile: The Life and Death and Life of Julie Lalonde (Between the Lines) is her powerful answer. She will appear at Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. The event is sold out.

But why write that story?

“The literal response is I was asked to.”

The request came after her stalker had just died in a car crash. She took to Twitter “to let folks know this is something that happens in the world because it happened to me.”

Lalonde’s profile is pretty substantial on social media and she has relationships with many media outlets. Flare magazine picked up on her tweet and asked for an article. That was followed by the suggestion of writing a book.

“I had a lot of hesitation. I would be putting all of the worst secrets of my life out into the world. I am also really opposed to this idea that we need more survivors to lay their trauma out for us and somehow change things.

“I don’t think those narratives are particularly helpful to victims.”

But other considerations were at play too. Lalonde wants to change things. She understands the power of her story and what it might accomplish.

So she pushed to write “the book that I wanted. I said I would write the book but only if it had a small ‘p’ political angle to it.” Nor would it say that things will get better “because it doesn’t.”

She was adamant that she would write a book that would deal with the complexity of her  experience. That caused, she said, many publishers to turn away from the book despite initial interest.

“They wanted a story that said she had had a good life with dreams. This person came into my life and ruined it. I got sober, found Jesus or whatever and now I am good and you can do it too.”

This ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ story of resilience is not real.

“It’s not that cut and dried. I think it is damaging to put those tropes out there. Other survivors may feel like healing is impossible for them. They may feel they will never be as strong as that woman.

“My coping mechanisms aren’t cliches. I didn’t turn to substance abuse. I didn’t take up gambling. I wasn’t a mess. I still had my life put together. People used that against me which is how the title came into play.”

She felt that some people couldn’t believe that someone who was unafraid of taking on the military, which she has done over sexual assaults in the ranks, was in terror of one guy.

“You don’t win awards and go to grad school and do these things if you are traumatized but you do.” At least she did.

That was her escape, she explained.

“I really had this idea that if I was a good person, bad things wouldn’t happen; that people will care what happens to me because I am a good girl.”

She said she is grateful for all the small gestures that people made to try to help her.

“Sometimes that gets mocked as white knighting but back then I didn’t care. I was glad for the help. They showed up. They are the ones I could rely on. My parents weren’t there in the ways they should have been. The law wasn’t, my school wasn’t, but these young friends were. No one was able to stop Xavier but I didn’t kill myself because there were people looking out for me.”

As Xavier attacked her self esteem and self worth, Lalonde sought validation.

“Helping people makes me feel better, so I thought that maybe if I help one more person then I’ll feel like what I am going through is worthwhile. That was my fuel for so long.”

She says that she was struck by the level of grief that she felt after the death of her persecutor.

“I couldn’t explain it and people were really uncomfortable about it. They were saying I should be delighted that he was dead.”

It took a while to realize that she was actually processing the fact that the person that “I was is never coming back. I thought I would just put it all on a shelf and my life would be in limbo for awhile and then I’d just pull it off the shelf and go back to way things were.”

Not so.

One thing the book makes clear is that the system that should protect victims of stalking doesn’t.

“Because I grew up poor (in northern Ontario) I was very class conscious. My apartment was always neat. I always dressed well. I am a white woman who speaks several languages. If I got shafted badly, who is getting justice in that system. I was the quote unquote perfect victim.”

She had documented evidence. Xavier wrote letters and sent emails.

“It was such an open and closed case to me. … The fact that nothing happened tells you the system truly does not priorize women’s lives.”

So she endured a decade of abuse during her 20s, a time when young adults are finding themselves.

“When you are robbing someone of 10 years, it doesn’t matter which decade, it’s still a decade. But there is something about those years. I was trying to figure out who I was and I had to do that with this person” hanging over me.

Even the idea to be a public person was fraught.

“I had to decide if I wanted to create a website with a contact page and create an open channel for him to communicate with me whenever he wanted. I had to process every decision — where I lived, what career I chose, do I do this interview.”

The truth of her life today is that she remains on high alert even though Xavier has died.

For example, when Kobe Bryant died in  helicopter crash she tweeted that the NBA star had assaulted a woman.

“I got half a million death threats. Police told me to leave my home. It was horrific. I put all my social media on hold in the middle of promoting a book on stalking because I’m being stalked by trolls. That had nothing to do with Xavier. Some people don’t like the work that I do.

“How are supposed to tell your body you don’t have be on high alert anymore when police are saying it’s not safe in your own home.”

No wonder she doesn’t give her number out.

She is proud of the fact that she didn’t give up the work that she cares about and is good at.

“I know there were things meant to do and I am proud to have done them.”

Now, closing in on age 35, she says she is at a point where she is considering the way forward.

“Have I done enough that I can walk away and feel comfortable, or am I in a healthy place doing this work and not just because I am desperate to feel better. That’s what I need to figure out.”

But while that is happening she says she intends to push for changes to the laws on stalking.

“We often make the mistake of conflating raising awareness with real social change. We have raised awareness. We should pat ourselves on the back in Canada because we have been talking about these issues since 2014 before #MeToo blew up. We have failed to pivot toward solutions.

“What I am seeing in audiences are people who are glazed over and feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. Every single sector of society has a scandal emerging including one involving Jean Vanier.”

Society is thinking about these issues in a more complex way while not creating space for this complexity.

She believes that putting the solution on women to be more assertive and take self defence lessons isn’t the right thing to do.

“For me it’s about taking a piece of the issue such as reforming the law, prevention, trauma response, working with boys, bite off a piece and work on that.

“My nana was one of first 12 women hired to work at INCO in Sudbury and the level of heinous sexual harassment and violence she experienced in the work place she experienced and the backlash she got for wanting a job not as a secretary” was beyond belief. “She’s good at reminding that we have made progress.”

For Lalonde the current task at hand is changing legislation.

“I hope the book starts an important conversation around stalking and around the complexity of trauma and how we can understand what survivors look like. I want social work people to rethink their obsession with resilience.

“I have 17 years of experience professionally and I am someone who lived it intimately. I feel like I am well positioned to push issue forward.”

In town: Julie S. Lalonde will appear in an Ottawa Writers Fest event at Library and Archives Canada March 11 at 7:30 p.m. The event is sold out.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.