Seth Shelley
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A few years ago, my grandfather died. He was an important figure in my life. He was someone I looked up to. He was in my mind the ideal man. He was an immigrant farmer who built a house where he raised seven kids, five boys and two girls. My dad also had seven kids, five boys and two girls. I can remember very vividly something my grandfather would say to us as we were growing up, if we got upset or we complained about something. He'd say, "Are you a man or a mouse?" I can hear the tone of his voice in my mind, and I can see the half serious, half joking face he'd make when he'd say it. But I can also remember how I felt: a little upset, a little confused, with just a hint of shame for not being manly enough. But I was just a kid! How could I understand this old man's wisdom? Was this some kind of Ukrainian fable or riddle? Obviously, I'm not a mouse, so I must be a man. And coming from a family with so many men, this wasn't the only half true, half serious one-liner that we were told. We heard lots of this kind of wisdom, every time for a different occasion. I had an uncle who would jokingly say, "See my finger, see my thumb, see my fist, you'd better run." In every community, there exists an idea of who we are supposed to be. And in my southern Ontario rural community, we picked tobacco, we played hockey, we filled the pews at the local church. And we were tough, we were Shelleys. To answer my grandfather's question, we were men, not mice. Our environment, our family, our community, they shape us, they offer us an identity, or at least a narrative that we're to follow, even at an early age. Before a child is five, they will have a fairly concrete understanding of who they are, with the broad strokes of identity starting to be formed. Life, however, has a way of challenging and confronting those family and community narratives that we grow up in. For me, this became present in the form of sexual abuse. Right at the beginning of my adolescence, a friend of the family took me into the basement of our home and raped me. This would continue over the course of that summer. And in those first few moments, my understanding of the world changed. My ideas about who I was, where I was from, the community that I grew up in, they were all changed. And my abuser also began to offer me a new set of one-liners, a new narrative to follow. He'd say things like, "This is all your fault," or, "I thought you wanted this," and, "No one's ever going to believe you." What I had believed about myself didn't match the experience that I was presented with. To make matters worse, I'd never heard of a boy being sexually assaulted. You see, strangers were the ones who hurt kids, and they're supposed to be driving sketchy vans and wearing ski masks, not my older brother's friend. My understanding, which came from books like Berenstain Bears and company, was that bad guys look bad and they're supposed to try and get you to steal something for them. But boys are tough, especially Shelley boys. We weren't supposed to be the victims. Real men are strong. Real men don't get raped. When something doesn't exist in your mind, or when the possibility of it even happening isn't even a thought, who are you supposed to tell? This wasn't the bad guy that I was prepared for. This wasn't the life that I was supposed to be living. "Are you a man or a mouse?" It echoed in my mind. And I'm not even really sure I knew what that meant. You see, I believed that I was a man. At least, that's how I thought the world needed to see me. But I felt like a mouse, maybe even less than a mouse. I had no idea what was happening to me or how to even rationalize it, and this confusion took me into some dark and terrible places in my mind. My early teen years were filled with suppressed emotion and with anger. I had no idea who I was. All I wanted was to be able to share my experience, what was happening to me, with someone. But I remember at about age 14 having a female relative reveal that she, too, had been sexually abused. The response, the attitude, the posture towards her, the community had just decided: she was a mouse. And as someone who had never told anybody about their own experience of abuse, the thing I remembered the most were the things that people were saying about her, things like, "She'll never have a normal relationship," "She'll be messed up forever," and, "What a shame, her future's gone." Without even being given a chance to counter it, a narrative was forced on her, ideas that I was believing and accepting myself, all the while still believing that real men are strong; real men can't get raped. But the reality is that sexual violence against males is not uncommon. The current stats reflect that about one in six males will experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their life. And the actual number might be very different, given the stigma behind reporting sexual violence. A stigma, a narrative, a misconception. And so, I see in my own experience a reflection of a greater issue in our society. Narratives, broad-sweeping narratives, replacing our own individual stories, replacing our identities. There's a pressure to accept what our community says is true about us, the family we come from, the place where we grow up. And when we give in to that pressure, we rob from our communities the ability to listen to one another, primarily because we ourselves don't know how to share our stories. As a young man, in failing to share what happened to me, I lost the very idea of me. I was feeling the pressure to be a man, to not be a victim, to not acknowledge my pain and my grief. Worse, I was unable to ask myself the two most important questions for any young person: Who am I? Who do I want to become? What had happened to me was who I was becoming. I was believing what my abuser said about me, that somehow this was my fault. I was believing what I heard about other victims of abuse, that I, too, had no future. And even though they didn't mean to do it, I was believing what my community told me was true about me, that, "There was no other way, Seth. Be a man. Be a man. You aren't allowed to be a mouse." And this is the opposite of what happens in storytelling. In storytelling, we are the narrator. We're not the characters just placed in someone else's narrative. The earliest human artifacts we have are stories: oral tradition, language itself, paintings, religious and philosophical myths from across every civilization. They're stories that are embedded into their communities through individuals. The core of any culture is storytelling, honest storytelling. And losing the ability to share in our own unique experiences, in our own unique languages and understandings, is the slow death of any community. I grew tired of being told who I was, of who I was destined to become, of feeling this pressure to not embrace and acknowledge my pain. Call it foresight, call it divine intervention, whatever it was, I decided that I needed to take control of my life, and I discovered that in sharing my story. Working with youth, I have seen firsthand the powerful misconceptions that surround young people, especially young people that grow up with fewer privileges. So often, their identity is simply replaced with their context. Some misconceptions come from the family or community that we grow up in. Some misconceptions come from someone who wishes us harm. Some misconceptions come from someone trying to sell us a product, much like young women believing they need whatever that product is in order to be thin and have self-worth. But misconceptions steal from our stories and they rob from our identities. Indigenous Canadians have so many stories to tell, and they have the firsthand experience of the devastation that is felt by a community when those stories are silenced, entire communities losing their culture, their tradition, their stories. It's a profound and devastating example of applying a singular identity to a diverse group of individuals. For me, there was no healing without sharing. Learning who I was, who I truly was, was discovered in telling my story. And we exist here today as parts of a community, and a community is made up of individuals. And when we replace just one unique individual experience with someone else's narrative, we lose a part of our community. And as a part of this community, I want to recognize the importance of listening to indigenous people's stories. Being white and never experiencing it myself makes it all the more important to listen and to hear, because our stories are important, not just for the person sharing but also for the person listening. When we listen to stories of abuse, of pain and of grief in our community, we are acknowledging that it happened, we are acknowledging that it's not okay, and we apply value to the individual and the importance of who they are. We open the door for a deeper level of connection, and we open the door for healing. By sharing my story and experience of rape, I hope to regain part of my identity, to not allow what happened to me to define me. When I share my story, I include you as part of my community. And there are times that I share and there are lies and misconceptions that are confronted in the act of sharing, and it reminds me of the truth of the situation, even now, in this very moment. So my challenge is that we share and we shake off those narratives that we feel pressured to accept and adopt, and we write our own unique stories. And as we share, we become better listeners and we allow those in our community to have a voice. I believe to create healthy communities, we need to be healthy people and we need to provide safe places, places where we can share, where we can listen, places where we can embrace our identities, not simply based on circumstance. And so, I wish I had the chance to sit down with my grandfather one more time because I would love to hear him ask me again, "Are you a man or a mouse?" And instead of allowing those childhood feelings to take over, I would just love to tell him my story. And I'd love to ask him about his own. And as we share and listen to one another, we might see past our ideas and the misconceptions we have of one another and see each other just a little more clearly. So my challenge is not to look at each other and ask things like, "Are you a man or a mouse?", but rather, "What's your story?", and watch, and see how it changes your value, your engagement and your perspective in your community. Thank you. (Applause)