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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Vanguard

Was the world ready for a book like this?

Kelly S. Thompson

Writing memoir is scary. It is even more terrifying than joining the Canadian Armed Forces, which I did in 2003. I always knew I would write about my military career, aware that it wouldn’t be a tale of comradeship and belonging like many of the military memoirs I cherished, because they had all been written by men.

After I was medically released in 2011, after eight years of service, I did write — first essays and later my own memoir. I wrote about my basic training nickname, Mount Vesuvius. I wrote about the time I was groped on the obstacle course, and about the seasoned soldier who grabbed my breasts and insisted they were nice, real nice. He called me “ma’am,” while his fingers clenched and unclenched and another soldier stood dopily nearby. And there was the boss who called me a bitch for doing my job and, when I complained, said I’d have to get used to his personality. This is just the tip of the harassment iceberg.

Considering that my book points a wobbly, nervous finger at an institution I pledged allegiance to for almost a decade, I had expected some nasty commentary. As I discussed the prevalent sexism and harassment, I also owned my own ugliness, ensuring my flaws and failings were reflected in a relatable character. It’s this very reason that makes memoir my favourite genre: the power of shared personal stories. In the #MeToo era, I hoped the world was ready for a book like this.

A pub date was set. Cover blurbs were acquired. Positive reviews rolled in. And then I dared to open my email and social media accounts. You should be raped silent. You are a parasite. You were promoted only through direct action in the sheets. “You knew it would be like this,” a writer friend said when I read some tweets aloud. Even this was eerily similar to another refrain, intoned whenever I dared to complain about the sexual harassment: You knew what you were getting into. A variation on You asked for this, for enrolling in a man’s world.

I set out on a cross-country book tour, meeting full houses of supportive readers, mostly women, many of them former or serving soldiers. I’ve done dozens of events, and they rarely end without shared tears when strangers reveal their tender underbellies in response to my baring mine. There was the soldier who said he was reading the book to better support his sisters in arms. And the woman who said that the military broke her, but my book was helping her fix that break. There was the colleague who had decided to seek treatment for her own sexual trauma. Others emailed me with variations of that same sentiment: “You’ve given us a voice.”

For every nasty comment, there have been ten kind-hearted ones, although these people offer me too much credit for their own paths to healing. But I also know, as a writer and a soldier, how validating it is to see my way in the world reflected on the page.

Soldiers and veterans have approached me, those who feel unseen in a community where willingness to serve is presumed to indicate consent to assimilate, those who feel kept to one side because of the colour of their skin, sexual identity, or the shared trauma of harassment. Together, we discuss how “otherness” within the Forces makes us feel overexposed and tender. We want to blend in. Hell, we wear actual camouflage! Yet we also want to be valued for the individual qualities we bring to the professional table.

In handling issues of harassment and sexism, there is no perfect answer. So while my book might not change everyone’s minds, it does start conversations that perhaps move us in that direction. And to me, that is a gift.

I’m often asked about the title. Am I saying women shouldn’t join? Is change coming despite the news that tells us otherwise? I understand the despair. When we see injustices, we seek to right them — that was partly my motivation for enrolling in the first place. But since the book’s release, military bases across Canada have invited me to speak to their troops, to find ways to support women and marginalized people. I even see veterans my father’s age buying the book and reaching out to acknowledge that they were part of the problem — that they are sorry.

As it turns out, I’m more effective with a pen in hand than with a weapon. And if that’s not change, I don’t know what is.

Kelly S. Thompson is the author of Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces, a recent Globe and Mail bestseller.

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