Originally posted: January 7, 2018
It was raining out. Harder than I had ever seen before in my 20-year-old life. The streets smelled of lavender, sweet wine and bread. I was at a payphone and watched the rain incessantly pouring down. I had no idea at this time that the call that I was making would change my life forever.
I was in Nice, France. My grandmother had died when I was 17 and I had received a considerable sum of money in her trust. I had recently finished high school, flailed for a while and then decided that I would travel Europe. I was making the collect call home to tell my mother that I was going to stay for a few months or longer in this strange and unknown place. She accepted the charges.
“Him mum,” I tentatively spoke.
“I’m so glad that you called, I’ve been waiting to tell you!!! You made it into theatre school!!!!”
I had auditioned for the second time in two years a few months earlier. I was excited at the time not thinking that I would ever be accepted. But now I suddenly was.
I went back to the prairies for a couple weeks. Found a roommate in a funny place that seemed like it was Toronto called “Etobicoke”. I was scared and excited. I had just been accepted into one of the leading theatre schools in Canada. I was going to Toronto. I had felt fat and unattractive most of my life. I had auditioned and been accepted. These people thought I was good. They were the best, and they thought that what I had was good enough to be there. All my insecurities quieted a little bit and I looked forward to my new life.
I received my package from the school detailing what I would need to enter the program. The outline said several things, but the only thing I could think of was the dance criteria. ‘Unitard’. I panicked. Would I really have to buy a full unitard and show the world what I had been so desperate to hide? I was scared. I was anxious. But I had been accepted and that was worth a lot. These people wanted ME. They saw me and wanted me in the program based on what I looked like, and my abilities. I had to accept that and tried to push the insecurities out of my head.
My dad and I got into his pickup truck and made the 3-day trip to the big smoke. My dad helped me set up my apartment. We went to Ikea and with the left-over money from my gram we purchased what I needed to start my new life. I was going to be an actress.
The night before school started my dad and I went to Swiss Chalet and the next morning I didn’t think twice about this being the first time I was really away from my family. I was ready and I was full of hope and excitement. My dad held back tears as he left that morning and I pretended that I didn’t notice.
I didn’t get the unitard. I was going to wait until the first day of movement and dance to see what everyone else was wearing. I wore sweat pants and a T-shirt just like everyone else. My movement teacher was not impressed with my movements. She eyed me in a way that didn’t seem helpful and made comments about my body that I pushed aside and kept thinking that I had been accepted for a reason. I told myself I was being sensitive and that it was all in my head.
For most afternoons we traveled to a space at River and King Streets: a space unto itself. At first I didn’t think it was even a part of the college. But it was. It was the theatre building. Completely segregated and on its own. I never saw another member of the college the entire 3 years that I was in this space, aside from award ceremonies or productions. This was to be my own personal and shared hell. I just couldn’t see it at the time.
Shortly after we began the program our acting teacher placed a chair in the middle of this group of strangers and said: “tell the group something that you don’t want us to know and something that you do”. It was completely understood by us all that something like “I have a crush on someone” wasn’t going to cut it. He wanted something harder. Something that forced a vulnerability that a lot of us were not ready for and were not equipped to deal with.
“I think that I might have AIDS”.
“My uncle raped me as a child”.
“I’m addicted to drugs”.
“I’m a virgin”.
“I forced a woman to have sex with me”.
“I think that I may be gay”.
These were uttered in front of almost complete strangers. Then we went out to drink to numb it and make it a little more manageable to deal with. The next day you could see a visible difference in the faces of our classmates. A fear. A sense of fragile self that was slowly being broken down. We knew so much about one another. We watched one another being broken down on account of our sexual orientation or the way that we looked. We watched people that we barely knew, but then came to care about so much, be humiliated. We felt unable to help or say anything out of fear of being booted out. It changed the way I thought about myself. It lowered my standards of how I deserved to be treated. We received comments about how desirable or lovable we were. We helped one another through it and normalized it as part of a process. Because after all, this was a rite of passage at one of the best theatre schools in the country.
I wondered why I couldn’t say “I love you” in acting class. I struggled to say “take out the garbage” with the intention of “I love you” to my acting partner. I had my first kiss at 20 to a handsome French man during “the red coat scene”. I constantly struggled with what my acting teacher said was my blocked emotional availability. But I was never told how to work through it and I was at a loss. I didn’t have a lot of life experience. I was a virgin. I had never been naked in front of anyone, but I did suddenly have an intimate grasp of what humiliation was.
The fact that my movement teacher constantly looked at me and commented on my weight made being in front of the class much harder than when I had just privately felt ugly. Everything that I had thought about myself was being vocalized – it was all being put on the table for everyone to consume and judge. And we all just normalized it. I’m sad to say I was thankful to some degree when I flew under the radar and someone else was in the line of fire.
I struggled for the first semester in school. I was in constant fear of getting kicked out on a daily basis. I was so aware of my weight and how it displeased faculty and I was constantly wondering why I had been accepted into the program when the faculty couldn’t seem to find anything right with me. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to be kicked out. I was struggling to deal with the emotions and issues that were being brought up, but at this point it seemed manageable. I could band-aid the feelings and deal with them at another time. There was no time to experience life outside of the school, the workload was heavy and it was nearly impossible to get everything done in the 6-day week. We would often be rehearsing or working on our Sundays off. I knew it was going to be tough. I was struggling to do what they wanted me to do and it all seemed like my fault but I was going to show them that I could do what they wanted. December of my first year I looked forward to going home to Alberta for Christmas.
“I suggest you try and lose some weight“.
This was the first time I could see the comment on paper in front of me.
I had always felt fat. Ugly. But now someone had not only validated what I thought, they had written it down for me to see over and over again. I still have my reviews and I graduated back in 2003. I was also on probation for the second semester. I was in tears. I was utterly deflated. I needed approval. I went to my interview with the faculty and watched them all stare at me while I was badly holding back tears. There was a box of Kleenex in the middle of the room. I distinctly remember that. I didn’t have the words to explain how I felt. I was devastated. They were all in this room together. Why didn’t anyone stand up for me? Why didn’t anyone say: “you’re an actor and this is your body, and we accepted you based on that. You don’t need to change the way you look”? Why didn’t anyone see that the comments about me being fat were going to make things worse and not better? Why didn’t someone in that room in my first year stand up for me and say: “This. Is. Wrong.”? I went to Edmonton a few days later for Christmas and pretended that everything was wonderful. And so began my long years ahead of secrecy.
The second semester was easier for me because I seemed to have a better grasp of what was being asked of me when I had a script in my hand. The second semester made me a bit more numb to comments because what had been said seemed like a nightmare already. By the end of the term my grades had improved and I was off probation, and was told “be physically active over the summer” in my review and the head of acting told me that being brash and loud was off-putting and to read over the summer because I came across as not particularly bright. These seemed like compliments as I was no longer on probation. He said that my body was blocked and that seemed okay to me because I had started calorie counting and had lost 10 pounds. I was only going to lose more.
I had spent my first year and the following summer struggling and wondering how to achieve what the faculty asked of me and it seemed like the most important thing in the world. I became obsessed with my weight. I constantly counted calories and wondered how long I could go without eating a meal and sustaining on a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes. I thought that if I was thinner it would make me more lovable. More worthy. It would make me a better actor and secure my position to finish the program. I craved approval. I needed for the faculty, for my acting teacher to tell me I was worthy, that I had done something right. That I was good. I had read 22 books over that summer. I made everything that had been said to me okay in my head. I normalized it all, along with my classmates. I had also secretly thought all of this before in my head for years. I was fat. I was ugly. I was unlovable. Not incredibly bright, or talented, ultimately very flawed. They had just confirmed it all to me. I thought that if these professional instructors that really knew acting were saying these things to me after knowing me for such a short time then I had better start changing.
I never felt good enough, pretty or thin enough. The comments were always constantly about the way that I looked and what I was not good at. Rarely was anything positive ever voiced. All of these things did a real number on how I felt valued as a human being and influenced a lot of my decisions. The program did not have anyone there for you to talk to. I watched classmates open up about hard and intimate details of their lives only to have them flung back in their faces in front of the class at a later date to prove some kind of point. I was bringing up hard emotional things that I had not felt ready or equipped to deal with and then didn’t know how to deal with what was coming to the surface. There was never time off allowed if I had tried to see a therapist anyway.
On September 11, 2001 I met a first-year student who was five years my senior. The man that I met would become my boyfriend for over 3 years. It started in my second year and ended after we had both finished school.
It started off as mean little comments here and there: “You just used a big word that I didn’t think you knew, did you hear me say that sometime?” Jealousy about how classmates (his and mine) liked me as a funny and outgoing person. Gradually the comments became more abusive. As our relationship became physically intimate, it got even worse. He had shown an interest in me on the day we met and for someone to find me attractive, and desirable, it satisfied the craving for approval that I needed. The faculty could say what they wanted because now someone approved of me and I wasn’t going to fuck it up. He drank a fair amount and was fairly new to drinking. I would get giggly and more fun; he would get dark and mean and usually say horrible things about me until I cried and then he would apologize in the morning. I was used to hearing horrible things and I always forgave him. I told no one. We had sex. It was my first time and I was then sent home crying hysterically because he couldn’t sleep well with me moving in bed. The cab driver looked at me from the rear-view mirror and said “I promise you, its not that bad”. “I know”.
I became a person who I never thought that I would be. I had also lost probably 25 pounds and didn’t look like who I was. I decided breakfast and lunch were overrated and coffee and cigarettes were cheaper anyway. I joined a gym and bought a bike to aid in my weight battle. I secretly noted when any of the other women gained any weight and I hated myself for it. I normalized what was happening with my boyfriend and praised myself for effectively hiding it.
The night before my 22nd birthday he had gotten enraged about something and screamed at me. He grabbed my shoulders and I pushed him off me. He hit me. I slept on the floor that night while he told me to “stop fucking crying!” The next day he joked to me that there was a serial murderer who used to make his girlfriend sleep on the floor.
He slept with someone else. An old girlfriend. I didn’t leave. I told no one. It’s hard to explain and I never for a second ever thought that I would be that woman. It’s humiliating and I’m ashamed. But I stuck it out. He had picked me and was kind at times. In some strange way this was still better than facing the belief that I really was the fat, unattractive, stupid girl that I felt was me. I normalized it.
Besides, what could I do? Tell the faculty, tell the college what was happening? Tell them about the abuse and ask for help? I watched those people walk into school day after day for three years. They watched us crying, lost and scared, and none of them did anything. They all knew what was happening: the humiliation in class, faculty commenting on how lovable or sexy we were, and none of them did a thing to stop it. I wasn’t about to tell them about this. The man I was dating was also well-liked in the school and was thought to be fairly talented. I would say nothing.
It wasn’t until after I had finished school and he slammed my head in a steel door and left me collapsed outside his apartment building at 2 am that I could no longer normalize it. That was the end.
I needed help. I needed some kind of perspective, but the ever-looming threat of being kicked out of school made me too afraid to rock the boat. I had kept everything so secret and was being praised for losing so much weight despite the fact that I was unhealthily skinny.
The comments on my report seemed to be approving:
“You are physically quite different now than a year ago, but I don’t think your image of yourself has caught up with the changes. You still tend to make yourself small. You have lost weight and are much more agile. Come alive with these changes, explore them, challenge yourself. Let go of the old and have fun with the new”.
“Congratulations, Jennifer. You look very different than the Jennifer of three years ago”.
Congratulations? I was 115 pounds and couldn’t eat. I was obsessed about my weight and had a fucking eating disorder. Congratulations????
The general feeling of the class was fear. It was not rare to come into the school at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning and see one or several classmates crying in the hall or bathroom. It was a constant theme and every faculty member saw it, passed it and looked the other way. We all thought it was normal. We were all going to be such strong actors.
We had a second-year Canadian scene study. The workload was hard but rewarding. Our Canadian scene study teacher was confused as to why we were all so anxious about our reviews. He told us that he thought that we were really good and to not worry because he was going to tell the faculty just that. We had a discussion with him about it and let him know that it didn’t really matter because if they didn’t approve, the comments would be altered. He in turn said that wouldn’t happen and as an assurance at the end of the study gave us each the comments that he had submitted to the faculty for our reviews. We had all long suspected that grades and comments were being changed. You would have what seemed like an amazing semester with a teacher only to be upset at the grade and the remarks at the end of the term. We couldn’t understand how it had been read so wrong in class. Now we knew.
The review that I received directly from our Canadian scene study teacher had very positive points and, as expected, some criticisms. In my official report from the school, any of the positive comments that would make me feel like I had accomplished something moving forward had been removed. I compared the two and when I went into my review meeting asked the faculty about it. The head of the program said that I was mistaken and that the comments that were on my review were the ones that had been given to them. I read the original comments that had been distributed to us and still it was denied. It wasn’t until later that same evening that the program head came up to me at a school function and said that yes indeed the comments had been changed as they were “not appropriate”. Funny that something saying that what I was doing was actually good, getting approval for something that I had tried so hard for, wasn’t appropriate for me to know. And this was an education that I was paying for. I went over to the food table and had some vegetable sticks without any dip.
It took a really long time for me to fully define and understand what abuse is. I graduated in 2003 and it is still becoming more and more real and apparent that what went on at that school was abuse. We went to theatre school to get an education, we all carried a certain amount of baggage with us and the faculty used that to exploit what we felt most vulnerable about. It was proudly proclaimed to the attention of the entire class just what exactly was wrong with us. It was humiliating and it was damaging and it put me in a place where I had never ever felt so worthless, void of talent and ugly. Any comments of praise were withheld, and to what end? What exactly did these people get out of it? Why would they continue this when it had been brought up time and time again?
The head of acting was protected by the rest of the faculty (except one teacher who taught us history, who my class universally adores to this day). The head of the program, who should have been there to protect us, to oversee our education, knew what was happening and made the choice to allow it to continue. There was a responsibility to us as students to stop the abuse that was so obvious but no one did. We were feeling like what was happening and what feelings came up did not matter to them.
I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed that I didn’t stand up. That I didn’t help and stand up for my classmates. My friends. I’m so incredibly sad that we didn’t take care of each other. And I’m disgusted at the faculty that stood by and normalized it. I guess that is why abuse is such a powerful thing. We, as an entire class, accepted what was happening because it somehow felt like it was a rite of passage. It was not a rite of passage, it was an abuse of power that continues to this day. Shame is a powerful thing. It keeps things hidden for years. By staying silent I accepted that to a certain extent. But this is not the same young and scared girl from almost two decades ago. Now I see how far reaching this is. And it stops now.