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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts of Some Eastern Ontario Women in their Twenties and Thirties on Russ Williams and his Victims

When Jessica Lloyd went missing in January, her family was frantic. Within a couple days, radio stations throughout Southeastern Ontario were helping to spread the word--help find Jessica Lloyd, call if you have tips. There was even a Facebook group, run by Lloyd's brother.

The radio station I like to listen to while I work announced updates before and after every commercial break, with people calling in to show their support for the Lloyds. The Facebook group quickly ballooned to thousands of members. Lloyd was popular, but more than that, the mysterious disappearance of an adult woman from a tight-knit community in the dead of winter sent shock waves across the region.

And then, just over a week later, everything happened at once. The police followed a tip, found Lloyd's body, matched some tire tracks to Colonel Russell Williams, base commander at CFB Trenton, and before we knew it Williams was under investigation for over a hundred charges, including murder, sexual assault, break-and-enter, and theft.

If Lloyd's disappearance shocked the region, it was nothing compared to Williams's arrest. We froze in disbelief for a few days. Here was a well-respected military commander, who had passed all sorts of psychological testing to get to his position--and he was a deranged rapist and murderer? Even his wife had no idea. His neighbours in Ottawa were incredibly unsettled, especially when police searches turned up hundreds of stolen women's undergarments.

It was something of a triple-whammy, especially for military towns with their United Empire Loyalist heritage. This was no Robert Pickton, way out there on the west coast, slowly picking off street prostitutes, or Paul Barnardo (with whom WIlliams went to school) and Karla Homolka with their vaguely foreign-sounding names. Williams was a well-respected military officer, operating right here in our own backyard, targeting women who were themselves integrated into the community--popular Jessica Lloyd, Canadian Forces member Corporal Marie-France Comeau.

Now, as Williams stands trial and more information about his crimes is revealed, shock is reverberating once more across the area. "So this is what it's like to be in the presence of pure evil," the Whig-Standard comments, before summarizing the "shocking and grotesque display of evidence" of Williams's "lurid and freakish conduct." In emphasizing how lucky Ottawa residents are to have avoided the fate of Jessica Lloyd, the Citizen describes the images:

So there was this tall, lock-jawed figure, wearing a dainty orange bra, or a black bikini, or stuffed into “Tweety” bird underwear — all stolen, all photographed, all stored — hundreds and hundreds of items, in his computer or in caches at home.

Repeatedly, the court was shown photographs of his erect penis, or various angles of the decorated airman engaged in masturbation — all images he carefully recorded with dates, times, places.

Williams eventually began leaving notes to his young victims--after photographing one twelve-year-old Orleans girl's ID, he typed "merci" into her laptop.


In the fall of 2009, Williams admits to breaking into two women's homes and tying them up, blindfolding them (he punched one in the head while she slept), and then terrorizing and sexually assaulting them.

In December 2010, Williams broke into the home of Comeau, a military flight attendant on CFB Trenton he had encountered professionally a few times. It was not the first time he had been in her house; on a previous occasion he had photographed her lingerie and sex toys. This time, however, Comeau was home, and preparing for bed. When she went downstairs to look for her cat, Williams hit her over the head with a flashlight and tied her to a post in the basement. He took pictures of her, naked and unconscious, before raping her repeatedly for two hours.

At one point, Comeau asked if Williams was going to kill her. "Have a heart, please," she begged. "I've been really good. I want to live."

Williams covered her mouth and nose with duct tape. After she suffocated to death, he washed her sheets and covered her body with a duvet before fleeing.

One evening in January 2010, Lloyd called a friend to let him know she'd arrived home safely. From outside her house, Williams watched as she prepared for bed. Eventually he broke in, physically subdued Lloyd, and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Quick-witted, Lloyd faked an epileptic seizure, begging to be taken to hospital for treatment. Instead, Williams moved her to his house in Tweed.

When it became clear that Williams didn't plan on letting her live, Lloyd pleaded, "If I die, would you make sure my mom knows that I love her?" Shortly afterward, Williams strangled Lloyd, put her body in SUV and dumped it at the side of a road.


The details of Williams's crimes are disturbing and horrific, but I haven't been able to keep myself from following this story obsessively. Even as my stomach turns and my blood chills, I feel like I have to know every extent of his depravity.

A number of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way. When I posted on Facebook about my state of transfixed horror, several people, all single women in their twenties and thirties, many living alone--much like Lloyd and Comeau--in and around the Kingston area, commented that they felt the same way. A few others mentioned it to me personally later, as though they didn't want Facebook knowing that this was an issue that worried them.

Probably the most salient reason for our obsession is the question: why? Why did he do the things he did? Why did he find those things exciting? Why did he target the women he chose? This is tied both into a great fear on our part and a genuine, confused, morbid curiosity. By his own admission, Williams became attracted to the idea of stealing women's underwear when he was in his twenties, but it took him twenty years to act on it. But what did that have to do with his violence, his need for control? Why did he like to masturbate sitting among little girls' stuffed animals, and leave them notes afterwards? Why did he keep such an organized log of his activities, accompanied by so much photographic evidence? One friend thinks he knew what he was doing was fucked up, and secretly wanted to get caught. Another friend thinks he believed himself to be invincible, and kept the records and photos either for his own pride, or to leave behind as a legacy. Some people think that if we as a society treated deviant sexual desires like pedophilia or the desire to steal underwear as mental illnesses rather than lasting stigmas, maybe he would have gotten psychological help rather than letting his desires fester until they sought a violent release. Others think that he was simply abusing his position of power, his actions increasing in violence as he continued to avoid suspicion.

I don't know the answer, and I'm not entirely sure I want to know. The Whig-Standard claims that in court,
Every time there was a picture of himself on the courtroom screen wearing children's underwear, or lying naked on a child's bed, Williams would tilt his head and sneak a peak -- perhaps one last jolly before the twisted pilot and "shining, rising star" of the Canadian military goes off to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Citizen, meanwhile, observes that he "seemed a broken figure, sunken into himself. He spent most of the day bent over, staring at the floor, giving away nothing."

Col. Russell Williams told a packed courthouse here he was "indescribably ashamed" by what he had done and deeply regretted his crimes.
"Your honour I stand before, your honour, indescribably ashamed," Williams told the courtroom after being handed two life sentences for the murders of Jessica Lloyd and Marie-France Comeau.

"I will spend the rest of my life regretting most of all that I have ended two vibrant, innocent and cherished lives," he said. "I know the crimes I have committed have traumatized many people, he said, noting rape victims Jane Doe and Laurie Massicotte have "suffered terribly" as well.

"My family, your honour, has been irreparably harmed," he added. "Most will find it impossible to accept but the fact is I very deeply regret what I have done."

Williams emphasizes the effect this is having upon his family. He admitted to police earlier that he only confessed so that his wife's life would be easier.

Lee Burgess, Crown attorney, suggested a different tack on which Williams can hang his shame, saying in his closing comments that "No doubt, your honour, he laughed at us as he lived the life of a community leader by day and the life of a serial criminal by night."

Stephen Harper comes from a similar perspective, claiming that Williams's actions were a betrayal of members of the Canadian Forces.
"This is just a horrific event," Harper said while in St. John's on Thursday. "Our thoughts go out to all the members of the Canadian Forces who knew the commander and who have been very badly wounded and betrayed by all of this. Obviously, this in no way reflects on the forces."

Harper said the Department of National Defence would attempt to strip Williams of benefits he would have received for serving in the military.

"Defence Minister Peter MacKay has made clear the forces will undertake all necessary actions to ensure that all sanctions possible and all benefits possible can be withdrawn from the former commander but this is a terrible and unique case," said Harper.

"The Canadian Forces are the victim here, as are the direct victims of these terrible events."

Certainly some members of the Canadian Forces feel betrayed. The Whig-Standard, main newspaper in the perpetual military town that is Kingston, put out today a small editorial defending their reasoning behind publishing some of the gruesome details of Williams's crimes (because people need to know, and also because "where bloggers …[add] static and confusion to the debate, it has never been more important for professional news organizations to carefully frame the public record," which is ironic because (a) I have never put much faith in the professionalism or integrity of the Whig-Standard, (b) "carefully framing the public record" is clearly euphemism for spin and/or privileged bias, and ( c) you can frame the public record just fine without actually mentioning the graphic details). It also contains this explanation, which suggests there have been complaints:
For example, we understand running pictures of Williams in his Air Force uniform on the front page has, and does, offend current and past members of the Canadian Forces. We continue to run them because his uniform is germane to the story.

Williams was not a new recruit, he was one of the Forces [sic] most trusted men. Trust, and the betrayal of that trust, is something the Forces will undoubtedly wrestle as they seek ways to improve psychological testing in their promotion protocols.

While all this is very true, it hasn't escaped my notice that it's men who are putting all of this emphasis on Williams violating the trust put in him by the community, the military--abusing his position of power. Being a man in power did give Williams an edge in his criminal activities--mainly by giving him resources like an SUV, a digital camera, and houses in three different cities and towns, by placing him completely above suspicion for more than two years of criminal activities, and by allowing him to learn classified information about Corporal Comeau.

But being sexually assaulted by a stranger or relative stranger is essentially the same no matter his standing in the community. Acquaintance rape has a lot more of those dynamics--"He's my boss, I can't turn him in"--"But I thought we were friends?"--etc. But when someone breaks into your house, hits you over the head, and starts raping you, you don't really care who the crap he is. You mostly care that YOU are being hurt and violated. A friend of mine was chased down the street the other night by a homeless man waving his penis at her. For her it would essentially have been the same experience even if it had been, say, the mayor chasing her (except the mayor would be unlikely to do such a thing in public).

My friends and I aren't obsessively reading about this case so we can think, "Oh, wow, look at him abusing his position of power. What a betrayal of the Canadian Forces." Of course this matters--how did he get by all the psychological testing, for instance--but it's not the most salient bit for us. We read about his crimes, and we imagine ourselves as Jessica Lloyd, as Marie-France Comeau. We look outside our windows wondering if there is someone there watching us, we curse the fact that a single 20- or 30-something woman living alone, even a popular, well-known one, can so easily become a target.

We fear, we curse the patriarchy, we fear some more.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

70 Most Powerful American Women + we should probably include these really high-profile ladies from other countries, dudes

I just saw Forbes' new "World's 100 Most Powerful Women" list. Feministe remarks approvingly that the top ten "includes four women of color and at least one lesbian." Fair enough, this is a good thing.

However, I'm a little bit concerned about Forbes' metrics for rating the power held by these women (on a world-wide scale). I've been trying to find their criteria on the website but no luck yet.

What concerns me is out of these 100 supposedly most powerful women in the world, 70 are from the US. Of the top 25, only three are not American. Of the top 50, that number is 10. And this is why I'm so confused/concerned about the metrics…

For example, while it's great that Beyonce has such a high ranking on the list (#9), is she really that much more influential on a world-wide scale than the Queen (#41)? And I find it hard to believe that Stephenie Meyer (#49) has more power globally than the Prime Minister of Australia (#58), the President of Finland (#62), the President of Ireland (#64), the President of Argentina (#68), the Queen of Jordan (#76), the President of Iceland (#80), the President of Costa Rica (#83), or the President of Liberia (#86). (I'm also concerned that Stephenie Meyer made it on the list and J.K. Rowling didn't, even though Rowling seems the more politically active of the two. Also her books are better.)

I feel like income must be a prime consideration, otherwise there would not be nearly so many people from the fashion industry (models as well as designers). In a lot of cases--and here I'm not only referring to the fashion industry, but also many of the media personalities on the list--these women have influence as tastemakers and opinion makers, and largely, I would argue, only in the US. Rachel Maddow, for example. Now that I know of her existence I watch segments of her show sometimes, and I find her clever and funny. But I hadn't heard of her until earlier this year, and I'm pretty sure her show doesn't even air in Canada (I've only ever seen it online). And what about Danica Patrick, the race car diver? Sure, she's breaking down barriers into an old boy's club and she's probably inspiring lots of little girls who are into racing, but I don't know if I would consider her powerful on a global scale. I've never even heard of most of the news anchors that appear on the list.

Big corporations and big governments objectively harness a lot of power, and the people who run them control that power. The list at least mentions most of the important female heads of state, ministers, and business executives, and although there is a definite bias towards the US there, that can be partially explained by the political power of the US. As for the others--the singers, the talk show hosts, the athletes, the models, the authors--they are legitimately powerful culturally… in the US. Some of them do have a more global reach, but seriously… who is Suze Orman? Who is this Rachel Ray person? Does it count if I only know about someone because she's Arnold Schwarzenager's wife? Does it count if I've read a couple articles from the Huffington Post? Why are there no media/culture/lifestyle personalities from other countries (except the First Lady of France)?

You know who I think is a powerful woman? Michaelle Jean, who until a few days ago was Governor General of Canada. She had the power to stop Parliament in its tracks (which she did, twice). She's shmoozed will all of the heads of state and ambassadors. She was a major force behind bringing aid to her birth land of Haiti. Once she almost caused trade disruptions between Canada and the European Union by eating a seal heart, thus showing her support for the traditional seal hunt practiced by the Inuit, and infuriating anti-seal hunt Europe. Before she was GG, Jean had a CBC show.

Why aren't there more women like her on the list?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Support Our Troops, Except the Wimminz

This kind of makes me sick.

There's a new book coming out about Captain Nichola Goddard, the first woman in the Canadian Forces in a combat role to die in action. For the book, Capt. Goddard's husband shared some letters she had written him, and they carry some pretty disturbing information.
"There were six rapes in the camp last week, so we have to work out an escort at night."

Goddard, who had arrived in Afghanistan one month prior, said in that letter that she was "pissed" because all the troops had been told about the rapes, yet because one of her peers forgot to tell her, she walked the 300 metres to and from the showers unaccompanied on her first night at camp.

"You know how freaked out I get about that kind of stuff," she wrote. "At least I had my pistol."

Six rapes. In one week. That's practically one a day.

And while Goddard's words don't indicate that she ever felt physically threatened by her fellow soldiers, she did tell her husband that she suffered sexual harassment in the form of constant rumours that she was sleeping with men on the base.

This is disgusting and infuriating. Well, sexual harassment and sexual assault are disgusting and infuriating at the best of times, so perhaps that's not strong enough of an epithet.

This is horribly, intensely WRONG.

These women are putting their lives on the line just as much as the men who are harassing and assaulting them--they're doing their duty to their country, they're doing their jobs, they're fighting, they're in a fricking combat zone. The same sacrifices and demands are being made of them. And they're prepared to offer it--Captain Goddard did eventually pay the ultimate sacrifice to her country, as did Trooper Karine Blais a few years later.

And yet they and their female comrades-in-arms were subjected to this horribly demeaning, violating environment every day. Goddard spent the last few months of her life and Blais the last few weeks of hers in a base camp where, with the usual support for sexual assault and harassment missing, it ran all too rampant.

I am fortunate enough to have never been sexually assaulted, but I have been sexually harassed, and I can assure you that it is a humiliating, demeaning experience. It makes you feel angry, and worthless, and powerless; it reminds you that to some people all you'll ever be is a living, breathing sex toy, and those people will judge you only on your usefulness in that area; and because of this it plants little seeds of self-doubt in your mind--and your self-confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth suffer. You can't stop the words that have been said to you from repeating on a loop in your mind, taunting you, and the images evoked by their lewd suggestions play out endlessly, horrifyingly in your mind's eye, seemingly beyond your control. Maybe your body hasn't been violated, but your thoughts certainly have.

And that's the thanks our female combat soldiers get for putting their lives on the line.

No wonder so few women are in the Canadian Forces. Once when I was talking to a (male) friend in the Forces about the fact that in the US women are still not allowed in combat roles, and he said, "Well, most of the women in combat units are practically men anyway." In fact, he classified the majority of young women in the military as either "practically men anyway" or "huge sluts to make up for it [the relative lack of women, particularly at the Royal Military College]." Take your pick, military ladies--dyke or whore. Make sure you stick with it now.

Living/working in an environment of such constant harassment has to take an emotional and psychological toll on female soldiers, especially since they're already experiencing the anxieties associated with deployment to a combat zone.

The author said she was astounded when she read Goddard's accounts. "To read this in her letters, from this woman who was stronger than most people I've ever come across in my life, to see her get really freaked out and intimidated by all the male attention, was shocking."

I wouldn't exactly call it "male attention" which might be why I'm not as surprised as this author.

Goddard was 26 when she was killed. Blais was 21. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country and there is no doubt that it was a tragedy for their young, promising lives to be cut short. There's nothing we can do now about their experiences with sexual harassment and/or assault. But hopefully some good will come from this new book. I have enough faith in Canadians to believe that they will by and large be shocked and outraged at what our most brave and patriotic women have to endure while serving our country. And maybe--just maybe--we can make it better for future generations.

~*~In Memory of Captain Nichola Goddard, Trooper Karine Blais, Master Corporal Kristal Giesebrecht, Major Michelle Mendes, and the 148 other Canadian Forces casualties in Afghanistan~*~

Betcha didn't know that the Trews were inspired by Nichola Goddard to write this song.

UPDATE Oct 8: As a follow-up to that story, the Ottawa Citizen has published some stats about rape in the Canadian Forces. And it's not particularly cool.

The Canadian military has investigated just five reports of sexual assault in Afghanistan since 2004, with only one investigation leading to a guilty verdict — a number that contrasts sharply with the picture painted in a new book about a female soldier.

According to the Citizen, the case that ended up with the guilty verdict occurred in 2006, and the rapist was an Afghan man. Another case involving an Afghan man didn't end up getting off the ground because the rape occurred in 2006 but wasn't reported until 2009, and the victim couldn't provide an adequate physical description of her attacker.

The other three reports of sexual assault were dismissed by the Canadian Forces as unfounded.

Now I have no idea who the accused were in these allegations. But in a climate where, according to Capt. Goddard, so many female Forces members were being raped, isn't it odd that (a) only 5 sexual assaults were reported since 2004, (b) 3 of those 5 were dismissed as unfounded, and (c) the accused in both reports that weren't dismissed as unfounded were Afghan men?

People tend to excuse or apologize for the sexual behaviour of male soldiers, even when it becomes violent. (There are exceptions, of course, particularly high profile cases (Daniel Menard) or really inexcusably violent ones (Russ Williams).) I can also tell you right now that there's a culture of sexual harassment in the Forces (see my friend's comment, above--the same friend also told me about the extreme harassment young women face on their "walks of shame" home from the Royal Military College campus, and advised me to never sleep with anyone from RMC for that very reason). I think that the rationale usually given for this tolerance is the idea that we (as in the people in general but young women in particular) owe these men something for being so brave and sacrificing and defending our country, and gawd, they deserve to have a little fun when they're not out there putting their lives on the line, don't they?

The problem here is even if you abide by this flawed and super-problematic logic, you still run into issues when it comes to female soldiers (especially female combat soldiers). Do they still "owe" their male comrades-in-arms "something" for being brave and sacrificing and defending the country when they're doing the same thing?

In exchange for their patriotism, bravery, and self-sacrifice, men get a blind eye turned to their sexual violence. Women get slut-shamed, victim-blamed, ignored, and dispossessed.