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Sarah Polley breaks silence about traumatic encounter with Jian Ghomeshi

The Current30:29Sarah Polley on why she’s embracing the things that once kept her up at night

On screen, actor Sarah Polley was often cast as the fierce protagonist veering straight into peril, whether it was an oncoming bus or some sort of explosion.

Off screen, however, she says she feared confronting certain things, including a traumatic experience with former CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi.

The 43-year-old filmmaker and Oscar-nominated screenwriter says a brain injury in 2015 became a catalyst for her to address some past trauma. The result is a new collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger (out March 1), which Polley says took years to write.

“These are the stories that haunted me,” said Polley in an interview with Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio’s The Current.

She is sharing them because “I think I’m strong enough to handle this now.”

sarah polley breaks silence about traumatic encounter with jian ghomeshi
Polley’s new book of essays is called Run Towards the Danger. (George Pimentel/WIREIMAGE/Getty Images, Penguin Random House)

Polley had her first film role at age four and was a Canadian television staple by the 1990s. Her roles ranged from the strong-willed Sara Stanley in Road to Avonlea to a teen paralyzed by a bus accident and sexually abused in The Sweet Hereafter. Polley eventually moved on to direct films, including the Oscar-nominated Away From Her (2006) and Stories We Tell (2012).

While Polley’s book is frank about her career in film and television, the most shocking essay involves an incident of alleged sexual violence with Ghomeshi, which Polley says she has carried since she was 16. In the essay, entitled “The Woman Who Stayed Silent,” Polley relates how Ghomeshi, who was 28 at the time, hurt her during a sexual encounter at his apartment, and ignored her pleas to stop.

Ghomeshi is a former member of the folk-pop band Moxy Früvous and hosted the CBC Radio show Q.

In 2014, he was accused of sexual assault and harassment by several women and charged. Ghomeshi argued that the incidents were consensual. He was acquitted on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants in 2016.

CBC reached out to Ghomeshi multiple times through Roqe Media, as well as his former lawyer Marie Heinen, for a response to Polley’s allegations.

‘I did struggle with this’

At the time of Ghomeshi’s trial, Polley considered coming forward to tell her story.

“I did struggle with this a lot,” she said.

WATCH | Polley on why she’s speaking out now:

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Sarah Polley on why she is revealing alleged violent encounter with Jian Ghomeshi now

1 day ago

Duration 3:15

Toronto filmmaker Sarah Polley says friends and lawyers discouraged her from coming forward about an alleged violent encounter with Jian Ghomeshi as allegations began to surface in 2014. But she said she ‘knew that I had to tell this story one day,’ and she does so in an essay in her new book. 3:15

But she said lawyers she spoke with told her she’d make a “terrible” witness because of inconsistencies in her story and how she interacted with Ghomeshi as a guest on his radio show in the years after the alleged incident.

Polley said she was told “your case won’t lend credibility to the women who have come forward because you will go through exactly the same evisceration that they are going to get set up for.”

“I had a lot of information about what I was headed … towards,” she said.

“I had two tiny children, and I knew I couldn’t handle it.”

After Ghomeshi’s acquittal in 2016, Ontario Judge William Horkins issued a searing rebuke of the complainants, saying their “deceptive and manipulative” evidence raised a reasonable doubt of Ghomeshi’s guilt.

“Many people who have come forward with stories like this get subjected to a kind of analysis,” said Polley.

“If you don’t remember every detail perfectly, if you can’t create a snapshot that is unassailable,” then you are not considered credible, she said.

How memory protects victims

Polley says she values the concept of innocent until proven guilty, but believes the adversarial legal system can end up re-traumatizing victims.

“Do women need to be destroyed in looking for those shadows and looking for those inconsistencies?” She described how her own memory blotted out things that were too damaging, and that makes it very difficult to retain exact details about traumatic events.

“The brain works hard to protect you from what’s happened and to make what happens after survivable. And that means obliterating a lot… I think it’s really, really messy.”

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Polley is seen being interviewed by CBC, during a visit to Prince Edward Island, in August 1991. (Midday/CBC Archives)

Polley has had traumatic memories return from her time grieving her mother — who died of cancer when Polley was 11 — and from on-set terrors while filming explosive scenes in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Stories kept in a ‘dark cave’

The book marks a new chapter for Polley, who was injured six years ago when a large fire extinguisher, which was hung on the wall, fell on her head as she bent over a lost-and-found box at a Toronto community centre.

WATCH | Polley on revisiting deeply personal memories:

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Sarah Polley explores memory in new book

18 hours ago

Duration 2:36

Toronto filmmaker Sarah Polley describes the process of writing her new collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger, and making deeply personal experiences public. 2:36

Polley says it led to three and a half years of difficulty. The first year after the accident was particularly extreme, she says, as her brain was unable to cope with noise and light.

While Polley was at a clinic in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, a doctor named Michael Collins advised her to keep doing what was difficult.

“Whatever was triggering my symptoms, I had to do more of. Whatever I was avoiding, my brain was getting weaker at dealing with,” she said.

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Polley is one of the directors on Hey Lady!, a 2020 Canadian comedy web series co-directed by Adriana Maggs and Will Bowes that airs on CBC Gem. (CBC)

So Polley forced herself to go to the grocery shop, even when the store lights made her feel like her head would explode. She says her brain feels healthy now.

The book is the result of her confronting other difficult parts of her life — memories she says she kept in a “dark cave.”

“I’ve been terrified to articulate these stories — even to myself.”

Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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