The Right Victim

As you know by now I have been involved with the organization committee for CAVA – Canadian Association for Victim Assistance – both for developing the groups structure and for planning its first conference, which will take place this December in Richmond, B.C.. One of my responsibilities has been to work with others to come up with the victim stream for the conference – deciding what workshops to present, what speakers to select – and it has been an exercise in tactical frustration deciding who is “the right victim”.

So who is the right victim? It is someone who is neither so close to the pain that they are in danger of falling to pieces, nor someone so distanced from their personal tragedy that they’re libel to put the audience to sleep. Finding the right victim involves discovering the balance between the tear-jerker and the talking head, the bureaucrat and the basket-case. The right victim is some telegenic everyman, someone who can get up on stage, speak briefly – very briefly – about their personal experience, spend about twenty minutes on victim issues – without saying too much concerning their personal believes and convictions – and wrap it all up in time for folks to enjoy their coffee and Black Forest cake.

In short, the right victim doesn’t exist, and it is fantasy to expect a victim to talk openly about their experiences without forcing someone in the audience to cry in their compote. Victims work is never easy, it’s very messy. It’s jarring to the eyes. That’s why most people don’t want any part of it. I well remember my own reaction of shock and embarrassment when one of the victim presenters at last Spring’s B.C. conference lost control and actually struck another attendee. Not that I am above any of this. I myself presented in B.C., what I felt to be a fairly mild introduction to the winding path that has come to be called Who Killed Theresa, but was surprised to read some of the comments submitted post-conference:

-“too anti-police, don’t really know what the victim service worker gained from this workshop.”

-“Spent all the time telling the story of his sister and very little practical information.”

-“The person seemed self-absorbed and I wondered what his motive was.”

-“Please tell the story then have questions!”

Well pardon-the-hell out of me.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Deborah Spungen – a victim, member of NOVA, and author of Homicide, the Hidden Victims – and I asked her, based on her vast experience in these matters, what advice she could give me in preparing Canada’s first victims conference. Without hesitating, she replied, “for god sake, don’t get anyone up there who’s raw!”

So in the past few weeks I have heard all sorts of suggestions; homicide victims, female victims of sexual assault, male victims of sexual abuse (fine, but not over the lunch break), B.C victims, Quebec victims (would anyone understand them?), maritime victims (perhaps one from each province?)… oh wait, don’t forget the Aboriginal victims! Do we want someone who’s a downer (again, not over lunch) or someone who offers hope? How ‘bout a Canadian 911 victim? Whatever you do, don’t invite a feminist; remember the lessons learned from Jane Doe at the Justice Canada conference!

This is more complicated than organizing the Christmas shopping list.

Back to Jane Doe. When did Jane go from being the savior of the victims movement to social pariah? Overnight, Jane Doe has become the big white elephant in the room. The victim no one wants to deal with. People are scared of Jane. Jane provokes. Jane offends. Jane speaks her mind. She’ll get everyone upset. For god’s sake the last thing we want a victim conference to be is upsetting.

What-the-hell is going on here? Jane Doe was the best speaker at last November’s Justice Canada conference. True, behind the scenes she wielded her own feminist agenda, but what did everyone expect? To not be a feminist, would not be Jane. I’ve heard Jane described as a “renegade”; someone who you don’t want involved in the “inner circle” of the victims movement because she has the ability to jeopardize everything. But without voices like Jane, what are we left with? Watered-down palp. Gooey messages of supposed triumph. Hallow tributes to the dead – people who I do not think would have wanted to be revered, but rather would have wished that their experiences would provoke meaningful changes in our criminal justice system. We don’t need the right victim. We need is a person that is willing to speak with honestly and clear precision about their experience.

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