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A Battle Against Torture: Shining a Light on Women’s Truths

NOTE: This story was assigned by the late Robert Devet of the Nova Scotia Advocate because he believed strongly in Jeanne’s and Linda’s work. This is the wrong place for it but the story must be placed somewhere .out in the world. Please be warned it is disturbing and, in parts, graphic. This is for you Robert with faith in your belief in championing unheard voices.

It all began with a desperate, 11 p.m. phone call from a distraught stranger.

A young woman told Truro public health nurse Jeanne Sarson she was going to kill herself.

As Jeanne and her colleague Linda MacDonald worked with the young woman they encountered a horrific world existing right in their own community.

Since she was a toddler Sara had been physically, sexually and psychologically tortured by her parents, their friends and other perpetrators at home and at torture parties. She had been conditioned to never tell and to consider suicide.

That phone call led to a 28-year journey to define non-state torture and to have it declared a torture crime in Canada.

“When we started talking about it in 1993 we got shunned and pathologized,” says Linda, also a public health nurse. “We heard stories that we’re nice nurses but we don’t know what we’re doing. People would literally turn the other way when they saw us.”

“When we did presentations people would think it only happened in Africa or elsewhere,” says Jeanne. “As soon as we said it’s your neighbours next door that was the end of the conversation.”

“We’re not going to prevent torture until we start talking about it,” adds Linda.

In their groundbreaking new book, Women Unsilenced: Our Refusal To Let Torturers-Traffickers Win (FriesenPress), women who’ve remained quiet for years talk about extreme, ongoing violence within the home and at the hands of their families. It includes rape, torture parties, sexualized human trafficking, bestiality, defecation and damaging, psychological conditioning.

The book, being launched Saturday, Oct. 16, 2 p.m. (AST), via Zoom, is hard to read but it is essential reading. Jeanne and Linda include their own reactions which is a helpful guide to the reader and they share treatment models and methods.

Sara, who freed herself from torture, says the book “… fills me with pride because I know the authors. They saved my life and now I want to live.”

The details from interviews carried out at kitchen tables and by computer around the world will leave readers, at times, nauseated and headachy but, says Jeanne, a light must be shone on darkness. These women’s voices must be heard or nothing will change.

“We wrote up so much detail for people to understand the severity of the crime,” says Linda.

The book quotes a woman named Carrie who says: “As a child I felt my father took my heart, my body and my soul, he left me to rot in the bottom of the hole of agony. A hell hole! How could my father and his friends, who loved and derived so much pleasure from doing what they did, ever have stopped their behaviour? I doubt such people can stop.”

It’s hard to understand how this happens without people knowing about it and without perpetrators being charged with a crime. Twenty eight years ago when Jeanne and Linda were helping Sara she was originally being accessed by perpetrators.

However, the two women could not go to the police.

“We couldn’t put her at risk,” says Linda. “She didn’t want to go to the police. We didn’t make her. We had to just suck it up and the reality is you have to have the long view. That’s what’s kept us going is the long view.

“I still go to bed thinking of the babies being born into torture and the children being tortured. I hope over my lifetime we’ll put a light on this crime so people will start recognizing it more, teachers, people in daycare, social workers, police, whoever, will put two and two together.”

Perpetrators are often respected community members who are good at hiding in plain sight. Victims are told not to speak and are afraid to speak. If they do approach legal, religious or medical authorities they are often ignored or considered crazy and prescribed medication.

Lynn, a woman living in Nova Scotia, told Linda and Jeanne what happened when she went to the parish priest who’d married her. She had just escaped a husband and “his buddies,” who included policemen, who had raped and tortured her.

“For two hours I explained my horror – the terror, the torture, the repeated rapes, and the policemen as perpetrator-clients. His advice numbed me. ‘Go back; you broke your Catholic commandments; it couldn’t have been that bad; you gave your body to another man, you are a prostitute.’ The priest had given me holy reason to blame my-Self and another reason to think I harboured evil within.”

Linda and Jeanne both had fathers who were abusive to their wives and respected in their communities so they knew society could turn a blind eye to domestic abuse.

But Sara “catapulted us into a Canadian and global reality we can only describe as crash-landing into an unknown culture with violent, manipulative relational practices,” they write. “This crash-landing was shocking. It introduced us to an organized family-based criminal culture. We would learn Sara had been tortured and trafficked all her life.”

There are laws against state or “classic” torture like electric shocking or water torture inflicted by police, military or state employees. Linda and Jeanne define Sara’s experiences as non-state torture (NST) – a torture inflicted by private individuals, families or groups.


It’s hard to know how prevalent non-state torture is in Canada or the world. “If you don’t name it in law you have no victimized person, you have no crime and, of course, you have no data. The Canadian government doesn’t want to say it happens,” says Linda.

They’ve been told it is covered under assault but, they say, torture is different from assault or domestic violence. “It would be a disregard and a lack of support for the dignity of a woman if she wants to explain she was tortured and we say, ‘No, you were abused.’ In that one statement you have discredited her,” says Linda.

“If you read all the crimes women endure how could you call it anything less than torture? It’s so discriminating.”

“Torture is the destruction of a human being,” says Jeanne. “The goal of torturers is to destroy the person, you destroy their sense of personhood. Torture is never accidental. It’s not spur of the moment if you hang a young girl on the wall and rape her with an electric shocking instrument. That’s intentional and planned and organized. We have to be willing to admit that.”

Think of Jane Hurshman, she says, the Nova Scotia woman who killed her abusive husband, Billy Stafford, in 1982, a result of what the stories of the day called “battered wife syndrome.” Hurshman spoke in whispers from the stand of bestiality.

“If you look at what she endured, she endured torture,” Jeanne says “The RCMP did the inquiry and the RCMP officer was asked why he didn’t include the violence Jane Hurshman and her son endured and he said he didn’t think it applied.”

Jennifer Dunn, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre in London, Ont., which serves thousands of women a year, says non-state-torture is a very accurate term and “is violence that is beyond the realm of abuse and assault. Non-State Torture is any act where severe pain, suffering, physical and mental is intentionally inflicted.”

“Right now in Canada, non-state torture is not named as a specific crime in the criminal code but based on our work, we have provided service to 85 women this year who identified non-state torture while working with us.”

She says Linda and Jeanne’s work “is vital to women and girls in Nova Scotia, Canada and internationally. Individuals who have experience non-state torture need to know that they are not alone and there is help available for them.”

Linda says if you multiply the London centre’s number by every women’s centre in Canada “that’s thousands and thousands of women. They’re torture survivors not getting the help they need,” says Linda.


When Jeanne and Linda started working with Sara they could find no resource materials. The tools they drew on were constant caring, storytelling, Sara’s drawings and exercises like going outside and experiencing nature as a healing space.

What it took was an incredible amount of time. The health care system often books 45-minute appointments. “We were with Sara on an average day for two hours and then when we got into days of healing we were four to seven hours and we went underground from the system which was not willing to hear this.”

Their first two messages to Sara were that they cared for her and that she was a person. Sara had disassociated her mind from her experiences to the point she couldn’t feel touch or see colour. She thought of her body as parts.

Jeanne and Linda sought to support Sara in her goal to reintegrate her personality and to get her to release her memories. Sara drew pictures as her way of “getting it out.” They tried to break the control that words and objects had for her and decondition her from her torturers’ “evilism conditioning.”

Jeanne talks about the experience of hearing the stories from Sara and other women. “When the women went into the horror and the torture and the cruelty that existed … I mean I can feel it just talking about it, there’s a bone marrow coldness that happened, and the women talked about it too, they talked about the energy of the perpetrators’ human evil.

“You have to be able to discuss that. When we started there was nobody around; the literature was not there. It was like ground zero everywhere we turned so that’s another reason I don’t think alone one of us could ever have taken us to where we are today.”

The process was hard on them and their families.

“Our relationship helped us cope,” says Jeanne, “We could brainstorm off of each other and the models we made took hours of conversation together.”

“The other thing about working together,” says Linda, “is the women tell us for them it is easier. They don’t have to worry about taking care of us. They know they can go to the worst stories and know we can process the reality with each other.

“One person told us they feel it’s like having counselling in stereo,” she laughs, “because they feel protected on both sides.

“I think we created a safe space for them to be able to go to the worst that they’ve ever endured and let it go. Every story we hear is the worst. It’s always a horror. You never get used to it.”

International Advocacy:

Since Jeanne and Linda set out on this path they have had successes in healing and in getting NST recognized internationally. They are optimistic about making the world a better place for their grand-daughters and for all people.

“Jeanne and I are not hopeless or we wouldn’t be doing this. We do believe it is the worst of humanity. If you can develop solutions for it we’ll be a much better society.”

In 2004 they were invited to the 48th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in New York. There they learned that private individuals or groups violating human rights are called non-state actors and that’s when they categorized ritual abuse-torture and spousal torture as non-state torture.

They asked people who identified as enduring ritual abuse-torture to submit testimonials for their CSW presentation. They hoped for seven submissions; instead they received 400 pages from 61 persons from six countries.

Since 2004 they have been presenters on NGO panels at UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) sessions and at UN meetings in Geneva and Vienna. “We’ve seen positives and positives over time especially in a more global sense,” says Jeanne.

“The momentum is growing,” says Linda. “When we first started going to the UN women told us later they thought we were mentally ill. That was in 2004; we had women tell us 10 years later they thought we were crazy.”

This year they were on a panel with a survivor of non-state torture, a former prostituted woman, a woman who had been trafficked and tortured and the female head of an exiting centre for kids in Washington. “It’s gone from us being called crazy to this panel.”

Their goal is to get NST recognized by the UN as a form of violence against women.

“The woman who got femicide recognized at the UN: it took her 37 years to get it recognized as a form of violence against women,” says Linda. “It’s been 28 years for us now. It might be another 10 years.”

Lawyers need to be taught about NST in law school; youth need better education about sexual violence

The women Jeanne and Linda spoke to told them if they had been taught in school about violent relationships maybe they would have learned quickly something was not right in their own relationships.

“Linda and I were teaching a grade 12 class and talking about sexualized violence and you could look at some of the young girls and you could tell they didn’t believe you. So they are at risk for dating violence or for being trafficked.”

“We have to talk about violence in its many forms,” says Jeanne, “like the weather. We have to know the family is the riskiest place on the planet for women and children.”

“What I’ve learned,” says Linda, “is what happens to women in violence is a crime against humanity. It’s not one massive gravesite, it’s global spots of gravesites and global spots of war in each home but if you take it all collectively it is another form of crime against humanity and I won’t be happy until the UN recognizes violence against women as a crime against humanity.

“We’re 50 or 51 per cent of the population. They know now if women are treated with respect the world moves forward. We better damn well get more respect than we are getting now. It’s outrageous what’s happening to women.”

To connect to the Zoom launch email flight@ns.sympatico.ca. The launch includes the authors, women who have survived torture, young feminist activists and advocates talking about what the book means to them. It features the premiere of a song written for the book by a woman who survived torture.

Women Unsilenced: Our Refusal To Let Torturers-Traffickers Win is on sale at Truro and New Glasgow Coles stores and will be at Dartmouth Chapters and at Bedford Indigo, Sunnyside Mall, by week’s end.

People may also purchase the book by emailing flight@ns.sympatico.ca or going online to FriesenPress and Amazon. For more details go to https://nonstatetorture.org/research/our-book-women-unsilenced.

End note: According to a 2020 release, Nova Scotia has the highest rate of human trafficking incidents in the country with 2.1 in 100,000 people. (Provincial Approach to Address Human Trafficking, Sexual Exploitation – Government of Nova Scotia, Canada)

Information on support and prevention is available at: Sexual Violence and Prevention Supports | novascotia.ca

Categories: Uncategorized

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