For over 10 years, public educator and women’s rights advocate Julie S. Lalonde was stalked by her abusive ex-boyfriend, despite her attempts to move, engage the police and the legal system, and implement numerous security measures. Her experience of being stalked only ended when her stalker suddenly passed away in a car accident. In addition, Julie has survived death threats from the public over her work fighting violence against women, as well as a heart attack and a cancer scare. Now she faces a new challenge: trying to launch a book in the middle of a pandemic.
“The day the pandemic was declared, I lost all my jobs,” Julie recounted to me via email. “I’m a self-employed educator and advocate who lives contract to contract, training people on how to prevent and respond to violence against women. I do this through speaking at conferences, gatherings and workplace trainings – all things that are on hold indefinitely. To make matters worse, my book launch was on March 11 – the day the pandemic was declared!”
Despite the timing of events, there was a solid turnout for Julie’s book launch in Ottawa, held at Library and Archives Canada as part of the Ottawa Writers’ Festival. Wednesday, March 11 was the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, but was one of the last days before the various levels of Canadian government brought out strong physical distancing measures (formerly known as social distancing). At the event, Julie read a short excerpt from the introduction from her book, and then engaged in a frank discussion with CBC Ottawa’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, reflecting about her experiences. This was followed by questions from the audience, which included women thanking Julie through their tears for affirming their own experiences of abuse by sharing hers.
Books like Resilience is Futile are important because, like The Story of Jane Doe or Life With Billy, they provide insight into the perspectives of women experiencing domestic violence and stalking. Many people have ideas about how gender-based violence works from what they have seen on television or believe to be common sense. But it is not in fact common sense, and unless you’ve lived through these experiences yourself, it can be difficult to understand why some women behave the way they do to survive these experiences, because these actions may run counter to social expectations based on myths. Why do women stay in these relationships? Why do they “put up” with stalkers? How can they allow this to happen?
I asked Julie how she tackled the monumental task of challenging public myths about abusive relationships, such as how an abuser acts or looks. “It was really important for me to humanize Xavier as much as possible in the book,” Julie explained. “Humanizing abusers is important to me because it shatters our ideas of ‘good people’ vs. ‘bad people’ and in so doing, humanizes victims as well. It’s easy to judge a woman for staying in a relationship that’s abusive if all you see are his abusive qualities. But once I tell you, ‘He loved animals, was very close with his grandmother, and told me every day that I was beautiful’ then it’s easier to understand how I could have fallen for him.”
“Humanizing abusers is important to me because it shatters our ideas of ‘good people’ vs. ‘bad people’ and in so doing, humanizes victims as well.”
Julie’s book isn’t long, but it’s packed and intense. Dotted with journal entries and letters from her stalker, her stories of falling in love and subsequently deciding to leave the relationship fill the reader with strong emotions, including shock, outrage, sadness, frustration, and even occasionally amusement, thanks to Julie’s classic wry humourous style. Resilience is Futile is about more than her experience of being stalked, but also how these experiences relate to the other meaningful work she has been involved in over the years: her graduate research with elderly women, her efforts to establish a sexual assault support centre at Carleton University, and the fateful day she went to Royal Military College to teach a session on consent to cadets. By hearing her voice and following her efforts in activism, these stories allow us to see her as not just a helpless victim, but a woman with agency who refuses to be defined solely by the abuse she suffered. Her writing style is vividly detailed and honest, and she shares her joys along with her fears, including fun memories from high school and the sweet support of her friends. Ottawa readers may particularly appreciate the backdrop of the book, which is largely set in Ottawa with many familiar references: the OC Transpo bus strike, Ottawa’s sweltering hot summers, and the seedy, unsettling atmosphere of the local Greyhound station.
The title of her book, Resilience is Futile, refers to the double bind that people face when they show resilience after trauma. Julie first came across this insight during her graduate research on elderly women: “I had a record of the struggles of women fighting to make ends meet, crying over their inability to buy their grandkids Christmas presents. But they all took pride in being stoic. And as a result, their struggles were invisible. They were part of the ‘greatest generation’ and were happily pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Each woman insisted that they know someone who had it worse. They all insisted that their struggles weren’t that bad.”
Julie attributes this phenomenon to sexual assault survivors as well in her book: “The few women who decided to report to police lived in a double bind. They had to look bad enough for their trauma to be taken seriously, but not be too much of a mess, or else risk being seen as crazy and unstable. It wasn’t enough that women were being subjected to discrimination, violence and neglect, I realized. We also had to perform our trauma in a very precise way in order to get any semblance of justice.” Later on in the book, she finally connects this behaviour to her own life, noting how she coped by staying busy beyond her limits and never stopping, even at the expense of her health.
“It wasn’t enough that women were being subjected to discrimination, violence and neglect, I realized. We also had to perform our trauma in a very precise way in order to get any semblance of justice.”
While she may not have planned it this way, these acute observations of human behaviour have direct application to our lives now, under the constant threats of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people, especially women dealing with gender-based trauma, may use strategies to cope with their difficult feelings by keeping busy. With physical distancing measures currently in place, many people are suddenly being forced to confront their complex feelings head-on, now that their busy schedules have slowed down. Julie offers some advice on how to deal with this: “Capitalism has convinced us that our value is in our output… If you’re wrestling with trauma and COVID-19 is forcing you to sit with those feelings, I completely understand your desire to bury it in work and ‘productivity.’ But this is a global pandemic. The world will never be the same. And I want everyone to survive this moment. I want us all to be thriving. And we can’t do that unless we give ourselves the space to take a deep breath and process. When I have trouble taking my own advice, I ask myself ‘If Corona takes your ass out tomorrow, will your final thought be “I wish I’d worked more?”’ Doubtful.”
Julie has other concerns as well about the pandemic, specifically for women in abusive relationships who are now confined to the home due to physical distancing measures. “COVID-19 is going to kill a lot of people, regardless of whether they get the virus,” she told me frankly. “Isolation is a major risk factor for domestic homicide and we’re literally being forced into our homes. The space for early intervention is limited when a woman can’t see her friends or even speak freely to them because their abuser is in their periphery 24/7.”
Julie has experienced a lot of backlash due to her work as a public advocate for women’s rights, including receiving half a million death threats in a 48-hour period. But she has not let these challenges prevent her from continuing her work, or make her bitter. “Staying soft is the proudest accomplishment of my life,” she told me. “I have so many reasons to be cynical and hardened, but I still fundamentally believe that people are good and that change is possible.”
“I have so many reasons to be cynical and hardened, but I still fundamentally believe that people are good and that change is possible.”
It is with this optimism that she shared with me her vision for a system that adequately supports women in abusive relationships: “The best way to keep women safe is to prevent violence in the first place. In my dream world, we do lots and lots of prevention work with youth where we talk about consent, boundaries and what to expect in a healthy relationship. We would also talk explicitly about how to handle rejection and the difference between lust and obsession. But if we’re unable to prevent it all, then we need police to take it seriously from the jump rather than waiting for the person to “act” before we respond. And that requires us taking all threats seriously and trusting victims when they say they’re afraid.”
Despite the fact that the pandemic has cancelled her readings, book launches, and media interviews, Julie still has plans for the future. “Before I die, I’d like to write another book. A lighter one! I’ve given people all the heartbreaking truths but I’d love to talk about the happier moments, too. My mom was a professional clown when I was growing up, so I feel like my bloodline is owed some levity!”
For me, Julie’s book launch was my last social outing to date, and will likely remain so until physical distancing measures are lifted. Some might expect that I would have wished for something more “fun”: perhaps one last wild party with the people I love and miss, rather than a book launch about violence against women. But I am genuinely grateful that I was able to be a part of this launch, to be inspired by Julie’s words and the people who came out to support her. I am glad that I got my hands on her book before I confined myself to my house so I could read it right away. I am thankful for the stories she has shared in the book, and feel like a better, more enlightened person having read it.