In 2009, freshly liberated from a bad marriage, I flew from Toronto to Banff, Alberta, to begin a program at the Centre for the Arts. I needed a restart, a way to focus on my writing, which had taken a back seat to children for ten years. The Rockies made for an oppressive backdrop. Wildlife warnings loomed everywhere; it was impossible to write without the feeling of danger. I started a number of stories in Banff, some of which made it into my debut collection, How to Get Along with Women. But one idea sat in a file on my laptop, unfinished.
That story, where a talented principal dancer, Maeve Martin, struggles to free herself from an abusive relationship with her artistic director, gradually evolved from a series of intimate letters into a full-blown thriller. In the book, Maeve arrives at a mountain retreat to reinvigorate her career only to find herself trapped when a freak avalanche closes her in with a handful of other residents — one of whom might be a killer. But in writing Maeve’s story, I questioned myself. Was I making the right choice? Or had I fallen prey to a trope I don’t actually like: the use of violence to define a female character?
It’s not the only time I’ve encountered this problem. My first novel, The Devil You Know, was set in Toronto in 1993, at the moment of Paul Bernardo’s arrest. The story touched on real victims and real fear. I knew the responsibility I had as an author, but I was also fascinated by the lure of true crime for women readers. It is women, after all, who are the biggest consumers of the genre, from books to podcasts to TV shows.
A 2010 study from Wesleyan University, often cited, found that it’s not merely morbid curiosity that drives this interest: many women use true crime for tips on how to survive. This past year, the pandemic has sharpened the need to expose what goes on behind closed doors. The rise in reports of domestic violence has signalled that the home is not a safe space for many women, just as the recent #MeToo revelations have shown how loath society has been to believe them.
While writing about abuse, I often hedged, wondering if I had included too much, while at other times somehow not enough. Is there a threshold to pass? Does a woman have to be hit? When you are trapped in an abusive relationship, the thing you are most is alone. Even the language of “violence toward women” puts the emphasis on the victim rather than on her attacker. I hoped that a fictional character could at least help break that chain of isolation.
Incorporating graphic scenes into a novel also introduces abuse into the realm of entertainment, and that’s uncomfortable. While I wanted to avoid the trap of gratuitous brutality, it was like trying to be fair in a terribly unfair situation. And how do you describe gaslighting in the manner in which it is inflicted — subtly, coercively, progressively — while still keeping some reveals to yourself? The book is a whodunit, after all. It was only when I was finishing my revisions that I stumbled across the story of Olga Demina, a Bolshoi ballerina who disappeared in 2014 and was later revealed to have been murdered by her manager, a man who was also her lover. As in my story, he was someone who controlled her every moment, in work and in life. The familiarity was eerie. I felt sick.
Among the many photographs of Demina, one showed her en pointe and dressed as a marionette, while a male performer pulled at her strings. The image was symbolic of all that she had suffered. I realized that by paring back the violence in my own book, I could make one or two chilling moments symbolic for my character, as well as for the reader. But there was something more in that picture, something deeper and just as familiar. As I looked again, I could see the strength and control in Demina’s body, her every muscle working.
My own Maeve Martin goes to the mountains to reclaim her dancing career. She constantly refers to herself as an athlete; she knows her power. In the end, I didn’t ignore the abuse, but neither did I want to exploit it. I wanted instead to subvert the narrative of a woman in peril; I chose to show how she fights back.