This non-fiction book has been lingering on my shelf for four years now as the publishers sent it to me back in 2019. But I hadn’t had the heart to give it away as I was fascinated by the topic, and kept intending to get to it someday. Finally, I read Consent, A Memoir of Unwanted Attention by Donna Freitas, and it shocked and baffled me, just like I was hoping it would. It’s detailing a situation that happened decades ago, so Freitas has the benefit of hindsight, but it’s no less disturbing in the impacts its had on her life.
Freitas is the kind of student that professors and teachers dream about; eager to learn, excited to do the extra reading, dying to know the ‘whys’ behind everything she studies. She sails through her degrees, driven to earn her Ph.D. and fulfill her dream of one day becoming a professor herself. When she begins her studies at Georgetown College, a Catholic and Jesuit College, she feels right at home, as she grew up Catholic, and viewed priests as trustworthy and critical members of society. One professor in particular, who she never names other than “Professor L”, begins to take their academic relationship very seriously, insistent that he remain her ongoing advisor and pushing her to take his classes every year. These insistences grow into disturbing new contact points; her looks up her home address in the school system (this was before the internet was widespread) and visits her apartment, claiming he was ‘just in the neighborhood’. He begins sending her letters daily, even multiple times a day, and starts inviting her out for social calls; plays, weekend retreats, coffee once a week. Even more horrifying; he begins to write letters to Freitas’s parents, who don’t think anything is strange, as they regularly speak with priests in the community. Freitas becomes paralyzed by fear, obsessed with avoiding her stalker, but also desperate to keep him happy, as his approval and references are required for her to graduate.
I’m ashamed to admit the voyeuristic part of me is what initially drew me to read this book, as it felt like being included on a piece of juicy gossip that would likely shock and entertain me. Instead, I found myself filled with rage at this delusional man, and the cowardly institution that protected him. The fact that he is a priest is pivotal to Freitas’ experience. He used his stature in the community to gain her trust, her families’ trust, and for all we know, is still under the belief he did nothing wrong. As his behaviour became increasingly inappropriate, Freitas kept returning to the fact that he was a priest as a way to deny his intentions; she felt guilty assuming he was acting inappropriately, because after all – he is a celibate man, how could she misconstrue his words and actions? Sadly, for those who are familiar with the residential school system here in Canada, we know all too well how terrible the Catholic priests and nuns in those institutions acted, taking advantage of their power. Reading about the trauma that Freitas endured (and still does) when she realized she could no longer trust this man she previously looked up to, is a sad echo and reminder of what the residential school survivors here endured. Even sadder still is that like the Catholic Church, Georgetown worked hard to shield their professors from scandal and criticism, manipulating Freitas into believing they were on her side, until it was too late for her to take any kind of legal action.
Freitas’s voice is an accurate depiction of what I imagine my inner monologue sounds like; contradictory, circular, and repetitive. She begins the book by acknowledging that the situation she’s detailing happened decades ago, so she’s tried to reconstruct it as best as possible, but likely got some things wrong. Throughout the story, she is also second guessing herself (not in hindsight, just reconstructing her thoughts at that time), always trying to give this priest the benefit of the doubt, even when it’s glaringly obvious how inappropriate he is being. The majority of the book is her analysis of what’s happening to her, and she knowingly uses the regular ‘excuses’ for sexual harassment in her inner dialogue; she admonishes herself for dressing too nicely, changing her appearance and showering less in an effort to look less attractive to him. She is afraid to use the word ‘no’ too harshly, so she makes excuses and apologizes instead. She even goes so far as to believe that his maturity is stunted due to the early age he entered the priesthood, excusing his behaviour as that of a teenage boy who just hasn’t learned to control his emotions yet. But she’s also intelligent enough to recognize the danger in excusing the behaviour of a grown man who has so much control over the course of her academic career, and the repercussions it would likely have if she ever publicly accused him of acting inappropriately;
“They wouldn’t hold him accountable for what he’d done to me, they would hold me accountable for what I’d done to him.”-p. 206 of Consent by Donna Freitas, ARC edition
The “they” above are his fellow professors, priests and the university as a whole. Sadly, she was right, the majority of them did close ranks, and Freitas is not a professor like she always dreamed of. I’d like to say there is a happy ending to this book, and in some ways there is. Freitas is no longer being stalked by this man, which is a good outcome, but she is forever changed by his behaviour. Most surprisingly, she has remained Catholic, a defiant act and one that shocks me; although many residential school survivors have also maintained their religious beliefs, so definitely not unheard of. This isn’t a book that will hold the interest of everyone, as it is quite repetitive, but I appreciated learning about this experience nonetheless.