Sad and Sick

So far, it’s been a weird year in the Edmonton theatre community. First, Liz Nicholls, the grand dame of dramatic journalism, was laid off from the Edmonton Journal after 35 years. Then there was the Walterdale tempest in a teapot. Now, a real shocker: David Belke is being charged with possession of child pornography. Belke is one of the city’s most popular and oft-produced playwrights – or he was. Now he is persona non grata.

I want to be careful, here: nothing I write is intended as a judgment, either of Belke (who has not been convicted) or of the communities’ reactions to the charge. I’m observing, and trying to sort out how a revelation like this affects people. I can write from a fairly comfortable distance, but I am by no means objective. It’s one of my questions, in fact – can anyone claim objectivity when approaching a subject like this?

I know Belke, but we’re not friends. The company with which he worked most closely (he has now resigned as Artistic Associate) produced two of my plays, but he and I rarely saw each other, and only sat in the same rehearsal room once or twice. I respect his work – as a playwright, he is a marvellous craftsman and storyteller, plus he has strong design and improv chops – and I used to be quite envious of his success. Despite being only 13 years my senior, he seemed to inhabit a much higher tier in the strange, subjective theatre pecking order. He won Stirling Awards and Picks of the Fringe; his plays were often published, and once he even had to litigate against an American theatre company that was stealing his work. What a flattering problem to have had!

Now, Belke’s problems are anything but flattering. So far, the public knows very little: he’s facing charges, a task force has confiscated his personal computer, which apparently contains illegal materials. Until his trial, he’s not allowed to go anywhere near minors, which puts him not only out of work (he was a substitute teacher in the public school system) but also out of home (apparently he was living at Holy Trinity Church – not sure how that works – where Scouts groups and youth choirs often convene).

Of course, the scarcity of information hasn’t held back strong reactions. A theatre community is tight-knit, a bit like a small town embedded in a city. Imagine living in a town of 200-300 and learning that one of your “pillars” harbours this dark secret. There’s disbelief, sorrow, and revulsion – often all at once.

I’m reminded of the wake of Jian Ghomeshi’s dismissal from CBC Radio in 2014. There are differences – as far as I know, Belke has made no public statements, whereas Ghomeshi tried to “get out in front of” the accusations and charges of sexual harassment and abuse. But there are similarities – like Belke, Ghomeshi was beloved because his work made you feel close to him. Radio personalities are voices we invite into our homes, and playwrights offer us access to intimate, private worlds full of profound emotions. Both Ghomeshi and Belke made people think and feel things for a living; it’s easy to make the mistake of believing that they think and feel the same ways we do.

The most common reaction, at first, seemed to be sorrow. “Sad news,” read the subject heading of a friend’s email, informing me of Belke’s arrest. On her blog, former Journal writer Liz Nicholls wrote, “The Edmonton community has been shocked by sad, bad news today” – an uncharacteristically Anglo-Saxon choice of words for Liz. I think “sad” is a safe blanket term that covers a range of deeper, maybe contradictory feelings. It’s also ambiguous, possibly on purpose. Do we feel sad for Belke, or sad because of him? Are we sad for the children he may have exploited? Or sad for ourselves, having had a layer of innocence stripped away?

But that same ambiguity creates friction, and battle lines get drawn swiftly. One comment on Nicholls’s Facebook feed: “It reads like you are sad he was charged. I assume you mean that it’s sad to learn that someone in the community is a criminal who harms children. But still. Strange wording.” I notice these sorts of posts often enough on social media – policing other people’s reactions, picking fights based on others’ perceived lack of conviction – but they seem especially loaded here, on the precipice of a witch hunt.

Some posts were less cautious. “I hope he rots in hell,” I read, more than once, posted by people I knew. That sort of curse might be commonplace in some people’s feeds, but it’s jarring to me. It serves as a reminder that, even amongst liberals in an age of moral relativism, there remain a handful of unforgivable crimes.

My friend R quotes Martin Amis’s theory that pedophiles have it especially rough in prison because of the displaced parental regrets of other inmates. Derelict dads see someone who’s been demonstrably worse to children, and transfer all their own guilt into rage. I wonder, tentatively and with all sorts of caveats, if that same phenomenon extends to the rest of us. Who among us feels like perfect parents, after all? Perhaps even the hint of child molestation stirs our collective need for a scapegoat.

Beneath that, I fear there may be something even worse – the fear of guilt by association. When a secret comes to light in a small community, it raises the twin questions: Who knew? And: Who else has such secrets, still? Vitriolic responses like “rot in hell” seem to sink beneath judgment into something akin to defensiveness. I’m not suggesting that the loudest detractors have anything to hide, but they may be afraid, on some level, that we think they do.

Regardless, it’s a sickening sensation to feel the floor drop out from underneath a whole community. For a time, every public response to Belke will sting…but soon, those references will become infrequent, as his plays vanish from bookshelves and marquees, and eventually from the lips of Fringe patrons. Even if the charges are dropped, Edmonton has a pariah. Worst of all, in 10 or 15 years, someone will write a play about the scandal, changing all the names of course.

I don’t know David Belke well. I have no idea what he’s guilty of, in thought or deed. But I hope he gets the chance to speak for himself. I hope he’s the one who writes that play. It’s not about what’s owed to him; it’s about us, and our need to understand the sickness in order to understand ourselves. As another great Canadian playwright wrote, “Before the healing can take place, the poison must be exposed.”

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