Gregoire reported on her own past to tell a story about endemic sexual abuse in Nunavut.
By Ilana Reimer
Lisa Gregoire has read a lot of court dockets. As the managing editor at Nunatsiaq News, she gets them emailed to her each week so she knows which cases are coming up in the Nunavut Court of Justice. But one day as she opened the standard email in her Ottawa office, she saw a familiar name. It was her ex-boyfriend’s. The man who nearly killed her.
Seeing his name brought up memories she had spent 20 years trying to forget. “When I left the north I ran away. Literally,” Gregoire said.
It also prompted her to try to remember the charges in her own court case. But the details had disappeared. “It was all such a blur to me,” she said. “That’s what gave me the idea of investigating my own story.”
The concept was simple. Gregoire decided to use her reporting skills to rediscover the details of what had happened. She hoped the approach would give her answers and enable her to face her past.
The result became “Breathing Holes”—a piece that explores both the larger issues of sexual violence in Nunavut and Gregoire’s reconciliation with herself and what had happened to her. The story, which was originally published in Eighteen Bridges in December 2015 and re-published by J-Source in February 2016, took about a year to report, research and write. But really, it was about 20 years in the making.
The back story
Gregoire could have sold her piece to a number of larger publications. But this was her story, and she wanted it told her way. “I’m not normally precious with my work,” she said. “I’ve worked for daily newspapers and seen half my story get deleted before my eyes. I understand that happens.”
But this time it was different. So she talked to Curtis Gillespie, editor of Eighteen Bridges, because he was a friend and she trusted him with the story. It was the first time she’d written for the magazine. “I called him up and said, ‘I don’t care what you pay me or when it’s coming out, I just want to work with you on it.’”
Gregoire remembers how the two of them fleshed out the piece. It was last spring and Gregoire was sitting in the office one night after hours. Gillespie was in the car with his family on the way to a vacation. His wife was driving and Gillespie was on the phone with her. Gregoire explained how she wanted to report on her own story.
Gillespie listened. He thought it would make an interesting angle, but it wasn’t enough.
“I think you should go deeper than that,” he told her. “I think this really goes to identity—who we are, who we think we are. And memories are tied to identity because what we remember becomes the building blocks of our identity. So if you don’t remember, or if you’re ashamed of it, how does that impact your identity?”
Up until then, the piece’s focus had been about using journalistic devices to investigate Gregoire’s past. “But he was right,” she said. “I don’t think it was enough.’
Identity added a whole new layer. The piece suddenly jumped from being about violence and victimization to something broader and more universal. “Everyone has those stories that they tell about themselves—or don’t tell,” Gregoire said.
In the field
One night in September of 2014, as Gregoire recounts in the story, she told a reporter friend about the sexual abuse she had experienced many years before. This triggered a wave of raw, emotions.
For her, writing is a natural therapy. “I went in with the idea that I was going to be as honest as I could be,” she said. “I wanted it to be real. I thought that if I’d waited this long to tell it I wanted to tell it right.”
Part of the story was acknowledging a larger issue: namely, the endemic problem of sexual abuse in Nunavut. “What I experienced was just a fraction of what these women face day to day and week to week, and they can’t escape in small communities,” Gregoire said.
She spoke to a woman in a shelter because she wanted to show how some parts of her story were similar to her own and how other parts were drastically different.
She also mined scenes from her past for clues. For instance, several years ago when she was back up north visiting from her then-home in Edmonton, she took a bitterly cold trip across the frozen sea to spot that normally doesn’t freeze over due to warm currents. But ice was forming, and a pod of belugas was trapped in the shrinking gap, trying to breathe.
Standing on the ice, Gregoire had a panic attack. At the time she thought it was simply brought on by the sight of animals suffering. It wasn’t until later, about 5 a.m. and chilled to the bone—trying to fall asleep with the bright sky shining through her window—that she understood her own reaction with startling clarity. “All of sudden I had this image of hands around my throat and I realized that’s what it was. It was me.”
The parallel of the trapped whales to her own powerlessness and need to escape became the perfect anecdote to explain how she felt. “It’s unrelated, but related because it shows how over the years it intruded upon my life.”
Visiting Iqaluit House, the rental place where both incidents described in the piece occurred, was the last bit of reporting. “I wanted to get rid of that ghost,” Gregoire said. She even went to her old apartment door and knocked. No one answered, and she felt disappointed, but also a bit relieved. “It was a perfect ending because I didn’t need to see it, really. It was over.”
Gregoire’s husband and twin daughters flew out west at the beginning of last August, giving her two weeks alone before she joined them for a holiday. It was the perfect writer’s retreat.
The editing process took about three weeks that November. Gregoire had to detach herself from her own story and determine which parts were boring or too dragged out. “That’s difficult. To be ruthless with your own story.” But she ended up cutting the 7,000-word piece down to about 5,000.
Gregoire tried to prepare herself in the weeks leading up to the story’s publication. Her husband, writer Dan Rubinstein, had to remind her that she got into this business to tell the truth and write about important things, and that this was one of those things. He asked her if she regretted writing it. When she said no, he said, “Well, then, it has to be read.”
Reporting on herself led Gregoire to think back on the many profiles she’s written over her 25 years in journalism and about how she thought she knew the people she was writing about. But did she?
Looking at herself and her story was a reminder that people do have secrets. She found it difficult to be honest, even when she was her own questioner.
“It made me question that sort of hubris of journalism,” she said. “That when you tell someone’s story you’re telling the real, whole story. But we cannot know, and we need to be a little more humble when we make statements about people or when we are reporting on a story.”
Ilana Reimer is a journalism student at Algonquin College. She contributes regular freelance work to Metro Ottawa and has worked with the Canada Science & Technology Museum Corporation to edit content for a special project called Innovation 150.