GLOBE AND MAIL Saturday, April 19, 2003 Elizabeth Ruth
The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape
By Jane Doe
Random House, 363 pages, $34.95
In 1987, when Jane Doe reported and charged the serial rapist who had scaled her balcony and then slipped into her bed with a knife, the case was strictly hush-hush. Police kept it to themselves, believing that warned women would become hysterical, alarm the perpetrator and cause him to flee.
But Jane Doe discovered that her attacker's pattern was known by police and that all five of his reported rapes might have been prevented, so she went public. She plastered her neighbourhood with posters, despite threats from police that she would be charged with interfering in their investigation. She told anyone who would listen that the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force had used women as bait to catch a serial rapist. Many Canadians nodded politely, but privately dismissed her allegation as hyperbole the justifiable, albeit exaggerated, rage of a sexual-assault victim. The thing is, she wasn't exaggerating.
Police knew the physical type of woman the balcony rapist went after, the neighbourhood and the time, always a full moon. They knew that he only preyed upon single women living alone in second- or third-floor balcony apartments. They had already botched the investigation in too many ways to list here, and they routinely staked out at-risk apartments, even removing back-alley light bulbs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the guy on his next attempt.
Ironically, it was one of the posters Jane Doe handed out that resulted in the tip that soon after caught the balcony rapist. The media waded in and the public began to take notice, so when Jane Doe filed a civil suit against the police force, something then legally impossible, the country began listening.
After 12 years of litigation, Jane Doe made social and legal history when the court ruled that police violated her constitutional rights with their discriminatory approach to the investigation. She was awarded more than $200,000 and received an apology from then chief of police David Boothby.
But there is a great deal more to this woman than either her victory or her pseudonym suggest; she is smart, has a wicked sense of humour and she can write. That combination makes for good entertainment. So good, in fact, that this story recently aired as a made-for-TV movie.
What is most valuable about the book, however, is the police culture that it describes. The Story of Jane Doe presents the author's first-person account, often supplemented by journal entries and trial notes, woven in with the fictionalized voices of the three lead investigating officers. These sections all facts are accurate provide some of the most compelling writing in the book.
The author shows herself to be adept at writing about people with authenticity and compassion. The book also presents newspaper accounts, courtroom testimony, excerpts from a rape kit and a victim-impact statement. The effect is a textured and complex account.
Media, police and court documentation are relegated to the margins of the page, literally and figuratively placing Jane Doe's personal account at the centre. Footnotes clarify legal terms.
The story is further supplemented with illustrations by Winnipeg artist Shary Boyle. I found the visuals to be overkill and distracting. But the multiple-narrative structure is seamless and works to create a story that refuses oversimplification or reduction.
The Story of Jane Doe shows how the police reacted to allegations of sexism and gender stereotyping with denial, effrontery, rage, then, finally, by individualizing the problem in court, reducing the issue to one person's problem, thereby minimizing institutional concerns. As such, this book is not entirely about the past. Consider that methods used by the Toronto Police Force are once more the subject of pubic scrutiny as the force is accused of systemic discrimination this time allegations of racism and racial profiling are at the fore.
Current Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino makes some unflattering appearances in The Story of Jane Doe, as do many other top cops. But the author notes that it is not individuals some of them well intentioned, if insensitive that are the problem. Rather, she says, it is the wider, poisonous culture that existed in both society and the police force, and perhaps still does, where rape is concerned. Don't target and vilify individual cops, she might advise; make institutions responsible for their members and procedures. Don't waste time changing what we call it rape or sexual assault change how you think about it.
While the book explains the ins and outs of one legal battle with police, it also chronicles the history of the country's feminist movement during the 1980s and 1990s a movement that worked for decades to bring sexual assault and crimes against women to the forefront of the national consciousness. In this regard, Jane Doe's voice is a refreshing relief from those of today's grrrl-power proponents who seem to have sprung up out of Much Music videos proclaiming that equity issues are passé and that liberation comes from a bare midriff and sparkly platform heels.
Jane Doe describes herself as the right woman in the wrong place at the right time and this seems accurate. In essence, when she was attacked, rape had finally arrived on the cultural landscape as a topic for public discussion, and she became its poster child.
The Story of Jane Doe takes readers inside prominent women's and activists' organizations of the day LEAF (Legal Education ActionFund), which for years covered Jane Doe's legal fees, the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, The Assaulted Women's Help line and WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women).
What is interesting is both how these groups struggled against funding cuts and a mainstream misunderstanding of rape, and how they navigated their own, sometimes explosive, internal disputes specifically around the hotbed issues of pornography and censorship.
The Story of Jane Doe is well researched, accessible and, arguably, the only Canadian book to tackle rape and rape mythology from inside the experience. It should be a serious contender for the City of Toronto Book Award.