The Dispute Over a Canadian Memoir and an Alleged Assault

A former friend of Canadian memoirist Leah McLaren alleges the writer assaulted her when they were children

Day one of the London Book Fair at Kensington Olympia on the 12th March 2019 in London in the United...
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The Canadian writer Leah McLaren has, over a multi-decade career, earned a long and impressive resume: bylines in many of Canada’s most prominent newspapers, a monthly column in fashion magazine Flare, an auto-fictional CBC TV movie based on her dating life, and a short-lived CBC series adapted around the same idea. She has also, in that time, accumulated more than a few controversies.

There was the time in 2002, when she wrote a contentious Spectator cover story which concludes, as McLaren later put it, that “most British males were borderline alcoholic, fearful of women, socially and emotionally retarded and … probably repressed homosexuals as well.” There was the time in 2012, when she tried to sell her Victorian row house in Toronto in the pages of her own newspaper column. There was the notorious incident in 2017, when she wrote another Globe and Mail column describing how she once tried to breastfeed the baby of a Tory leadership candidate named Michael Chong, without Chong or his wife’s consent, and while McLaren herself was not even lactating.

And just two years ago, McLaren’s own mother, Cecily Ross, wrote a sprawling essay in the Literary Review of Canada detailing her childhood rape by a man “old enough to be [her] father” — after learning that McLaren had gotten a “major book deal” in which she planned to write about Ross’s rape herself. “I saw it as the appropriation of my story, a story that, if it is to be told at all, should be told by me,” Ross wrote. “After much negotiation, I asked her to drop the idea, and I assumed she had.” But she had not. The memoir in question, Where You End and I Begin, came out from Penguin Random House Canada last July.

Now, another of McLaren’s subjects has taken issue with their portrayal in the book. On Tuesday, McLaren’s former friend Zoe Greenberg, whom McLaren has mentioned in several columns, published a long Medium essay about Where You End and I Begin. In the essay, Greenberg alleges that McLaren and a male friend sexually assaulted her at a party in their teens, and that McLaren had written about it against her wishes. Greenberg writes:

The summer I turned 16 I was sexually assaulted by two of my friends. I was drunk. I was crying. I was barely conscious, on my back by the side of a pool. I didn’t want it. They both sexually assaulted me. He did, then she did.

Greenberg states that after the alleged assault, she ended her friendship with McLaren, though they maintained cordial contact. Per Greenberg, McLaren occasionally asked to write about her in her columns, but she declined. Greenberg says she never spoke of the teenage incident publicly — until “Leah McLaren, the woman who sexually assaulted me when we were teenagers, published a memoir where she depicted their attack on me as consensual.”

As Greenberg tells it, McLaren didn’t ask for permission to tell her story when she began writing her memoir, though she did adhere to some protocol. She allegedly informed Greenberg that she would “be depicted in the book, alongside the story of — how [McLaren] put it — ‘what happened.’” When Greenberg confronted her, McLaren allegedly apologized “for being an active participant” in an interaction that she apparently “always knew” was “awful” and “wrong.” Greenberg insisted she needed to consent to her public portrayal, and McLaren allegedly agreed. To ensure that McLaren kept that promise, Greenberg claims she recorded that conversation.

Two years later, according to Greenberg, McLaren sent her the relevant pages of her manuscript. Greenberg took issue with the text, which allegedly described what had happened as “a three-way” with McLaren’s “best friend,” who then “tearfully lost her virginity by the side of the pool.” In response, Greenberg hired a media lawyer, who contacted Penguin Random House Canada. Per Greenberg:

My lawyer shared my allegations with their legal counsel, respectfully requesting that my sexual assault be depicted truthfully or be cut from publication. We thought it should be easy for them to cut me out entirely; I wasn’t central to the memoir, and she was only asking me to approve a short excerpt under ten pages.
Penguin Random House’s general counsel responded that McLaren did “not recall the specific act” she had depicted as the loss of my virginity. My lawyer then provided a transcript of the conversation I’d recorded where McLaren acknowledged the sexual assault, apologised for what she’d done to me, and promised I could alter my depiction in the manuscript. At this point, Penguin Random House ceased their communication with me.

A spokesperson from Penguin Random House Canada confirmed that Greenberg had contacted them prior to publication but described the negotiation differently (Neither McLaren nor Greenberg responded to request for comment). “It is true that our internal counsel communicated with a lawyer representing Zoe Charlotte Greenberg earlier in the year when she raised concerns about details contained within Leah McLaren’s then forthcoming memoir,” the PRH Canada spokesperson wrote in a statement to Gawker. “We advised Zoe Charlotte Greenberg’s lawyer of the ways in which the author intended to change the manuscript, and we have no record of any further contact from her or her counsel that went unanswered.”

The spokesperson claimed that “substantial changes were made to the passages by Leah McLaren in response to Zoe Charlotte Greenberg’s requests.” McLaren, likewise, indicated that she had made editorial changes in response to Greenberg’s complaint, in a statement published on her Substack on Wednesday. “When Zoe raised concerns about the draft pages of my memoir I’d sent for her to review, I took the matter seriously,” McLaren wrote, claiming the pair had exchanged “a series of emails, calls, and Zoom meetings” over the phrasing. Afterwards, she and her editor “made amendments that we felt were appropriate.”

In reviewing the text of the memoir itself, it does seem that the excerpt Greenberg describes has gone through substantial revision from what she says McLaren initially sent to her. A passage that appears to correspond with Greenberg’s description does not mention “virginity” or the word “three-way.” Instead, McLaren details a planned “threesome” that went “wrong.” The multi-page section describes a gray-area sexual interaction in which McLaren appears both an indifferent antagonist towards her friend — noting that she’s crying, and later writing off her apparent distress — and victim of unwanted advances from the same male friend, whom she alleges assaulted her as well.

In her statement on Greenberg’s allegations, McLaren was brief and direct. “I did not, as an adolescent child, assault my older 16-year-old best friend at a pool party,” she wrote. “Nor did I assist in her assault. I stand by everything I wrote.”