Courage and conviction are characteristics many associate with prominent feminist, journalist, and activist Judy Rebick, but it was only well into therapy sessions that she began to understand the source of her personality and commitments.
The discovery that she had buried her late father’s sexual abuse when she was only five is the most striking element of her latest book, a remarkable memoir titled Heroes in my Head (House of Anansi Press, 273 pages).
As she said at her Montreal book launch last month, the abuse she suffered from someone who was supposed to protect her, a part of her life she had repressed, fed into her life as an adult and turned her into a more effective campaigner. “My story is a good one because it’s a story about how fighting to help other people helped me help myself,” Rebick told a lunchtime crowd of some 100 at the Atwater Library.
A Toronto psychotherapist had diagnosed her condition in 1989. The defense mechanism she adopted to protect herself from the abuse was called multiple personality disorder, now commonly referred to as dissociative identity disorder. Because it was the result of the trauma she suffered, Rebick says she likens it to a mental injury rather than mental illness.
The book begins with her development as a public personality and activist, and part of that genesis began in Montreal in the mid-1960s when Rebick was a student at McGill and became involved in the McGill Daily, a magnet for those with a radical bent. Rebick’s life in Montreal continued after graduation, living the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” life in the McGill ghetto and even hosting the Grateful Dead when they played here during Expo ’67 – the word was out that her live-in boyfriend at the time, Roger, was cool and staying at their pad was cool, certainly better than any straight hotel.
Life with Roger became so chaotic that Rebick decided to move back to Toronto, worked as a journalist there, became disillusioned by it, and moved on to New York City – she was born in Brooklyn – which was miles ahead when it came to exciting times and sexual exploration.
“In Toronto men looked askance at ‘easy’ women but New York was an entirely different story. Greenwich Village was one big pickup scene.”
At first attracted to the Students for a Democratic Society, Rebick got fed up when some activists decided to adopt violent methods. The city was also becoming dangerous, so like many at the time. Rebick decided to hit the road and after a stay in Israel, followed the hippie trail, alone, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and India. Readers will enjoy colourful anecdotes about her “crazy adventures” on the road.
While leaving Israel when she risked arrest for carrying hashish, she kicked up such a fuss with customs officials that they gave up on her. She remembers this as “the first time in my adult life that I had dissociated from any feelings of fear.”
It was hardly the last time, her fearlessness was a feature of her public profile, most famously in 1983 when fending off an enraged pro-lifer preparing to attack Dr. Henry Morgentaler with garden shears after he’d opened an abortion clinic in Toronto. That moment was captured on video and is often rebroadcast when Rebick is in the news. Returning to Toronto, Rebick was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery and after recovering, was ready “to fulfill (her) promise of changing the world.”
She became involved with looking after transient youth in 1971 that flocked to Toronto, and helped set up the controversial “tent city” for them, making headlines in the process. Thus began Rebick’s career as an organizer and spokesperson for groups and constituencies where she saw a need for her support and advocacy, including advocating for those with hearing disabilities.
She became involved in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist Group. Like other far left militants she believed she had to get close to workers at the grass roots of the labour-capital conflict – to borrow from within – and Rebick got a job in the aircraft industry.
Their journal was called the Old Mole. She later was acclaimed president of the National Action Committee for the Status of Women, was a frequent commentator on national radio and television, founded The Rabble online journal, and was active as an author and public speaker.
The saddest aspect of Rebick’s story is her realization through therapy that she had been abused by her father and developed alter-ego figures in which to escape and protect herself – the guardian Simon, the playful Lobo, the fun-loving Sophie, the furious HIM, and five others. Her therapist called them “alters.”
She read a portion of her memoir in which a small boy alter-ego who is good at “running from” the scene of sexual abuse makes a dash for the nearest Dairy Queen and laps up an ice cream cone, which Judy is allergic to. It was, as she writes, “a brilliant defense mechanism,” and she credits her sense of selfpreservation for having created these “alters” to fend off “the unbearable horrors” inflicted upon her by the man who was supposed to protect her.
It is a painful story, but inspiring, with a message to all who have suffered childhood abuse, that there is a way to overcome the psychological damage. Though she started the book long before the current #MeToo movement, Rebick told her audience that when it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and childhood sexual abuse, it is essential to talk about it even if, in the case of abuse at home, most families do not want to hear about it.
“The secrets are killing us, and telling our secrets is the only way to heal!”