Author Marni Jackson's story of backstage harassment

From 2014: The former TVOntario host recounts 'imaginative acts of harassment' she suffered from a colleague

    Photograph by Todd Korol

    Photograph by Todd Korol

    It was the horror-movie detail of Big Ears Teddy in the Jian Ghomeshi saga that jogged my memory. Yes, I have a teddy bear story too—Little Ears, in my case. It doesn’t involve punching and choking but it does feature some imaginative acts of harassment on the part of the host of a cultural TV show.

    And it did not end well.

    Almost 20 years ago, I worked as a host on a TVOntario show about books called Imprint. For the first season, I got along well with my co-host, a fellow writer of formidable intelligence and charm. Hargurchet Singh Bhabra was known to all as H.S.—an authorial moniker appropriate for someone born in Mumbai, educated in London and a graduate of Oxford. He had also published a first novel to warm reviews in England (along with several thrillers under the pseudonym of A.M. Kabal), followed by a move to southern California, where he taught at UCLA, won a tidy sum as a guest on Jeopardy, and was once arrested for sport-climbing the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1993, H.S. arrived in Toronto, keen to conquer the new frontier of Canadian public broadcasting.

    At first I didn’t take his flirtatious remarks seriously, since he flattered everyone he worked with. Or his habit of appearing in my office door, looking winsome, saying “Hug?” I assumed he was a closeted gay man; at least, that might explain why he liked to boast about attending parties with “a leggy blond” on each arm. His co-workers and I tended to file his flamboyant behaviour under “continental charm.”

    H.S. had grandiose visions for our modest little book show, and an intensely ambitious focus on his role. He would work long into the night, often calling me at home at odd hours to discuss the show. When he phoned early one Sunday morning, my husband raised a brow. Doesn’t this guy ever knock off work, he said.

    When we were invited to the Giller prize party that first year, he was thrilled, zipping into my office to make plans. “We must shop for a frock for you, and stockings,” he said. “Let’s drop by Holt’s.” (I declined the invitation.) He insisted that we make our entrance to the party together—unnoticed by all, of course. But I let him off the hook for all this nonsense because he was new to Toronto and its cultural cliques. If he wanted to treat the literary scene here as something out of Tolstoy, fine.

    Then one day when everyone else had left the office he said, “You know Marni, I’m very grateful there’s a wall between our offices, because otherwise I should find it difficult not to throw myself at you.” (Yes, he really did talk like that.) I felt off-balance. This was not a compliment, I realized, it was more like a threat. I told him that his remarks were inappropriate and asked him to stop.

    His expression went cold. He offered an icy, insincere apology before turning on his (snakeskin-cowboy-booted) heels and heading for the elevators. I felt the doors close in my face. In H.S.’s binary world, you were either with him or against him, and I was now officially the Enemy.

    Still, he tried to enlist me in his battle against our executive producer, whom he loathed. When I told him I didn’t like to wage war at work, he had further proof of my treachery. That was the beginning of his tireless campaign to get rid of me.

    I remembered something he had said to me when we were on better terms: “You don’t want to become an enemy of mine,” citing three former friends who had crossed him, and then met unpleasant fates. His ambitions were Shakespearian—and his ending would be too.

    I’m not sure what was at the bottom of my colleague’s behaviour. He teetered between manic spells of creative energy and dark brooding moods. When he showed up to tape a monologue as Satan, in a red cape, everyone but me was amused. And he liked to make extravagant gestures. After the chill had set in between us, and Christmas rolled around, I came into the office one morning to the sight of lavish bouquets and gift baskets on every desk but mine. This was so childishly blatant that I think the producer must have said something to H.S., because the next day, I received my Christmas present from him: a calendar with teddy bears having sex in a different position for every month. I felt it as the creepy, hostile gesture it was—and yet, in public it could pass as a naughty joke. This was 20 years ago; you know—where was my sense of humour?

    Then some strange viewer emails started rolling in. These messages singled out H.S. for special praise before criticizing my on-air performance, in lurid detail. One message called me an “illiterate cow who needed speech therapy.” But this sort of vitriol was wildly out of character for loyal TVO viewers, and trolls didn’t yet exist. The emails were suspicious.

    Luckily, I was unaware of this hate mail. But a co-worker had seen the emails, and noticed a similarity in the syntax and wording. This producer suspected that H.S. was generating the emails.

    When I read the fake emails, the hair on the back of my neck rose. This was unhinged behaviour, and I should have marched right down the hall to human resources. I didn’t. Alas, I don’t think I even knew what the initials HR stood for. Complaints of harassment were rare then, and I didn’t want to face the consequences of getting my co-host fired—or of not being believed. It was normal for the “talent” to squabble, after all. And he kind of scared me. So I did nothing.

    This is how many women begin the slippery slide down the “I’m going to pretend it’s not happening” slope.

    After H.S. was confronted with the “viewer emails,” the messages stopped. But his efforts to undermine me continued. When I was granted a half-hour interview with the author John Updike, H.S. argued that Updike was an overrated writer who had no business being on the show. He turned some of the producers against me—which wasn’t difficult because H.S. was articulate and skilled on air, and a better performer than I was.

    He’d linger in the studio to watch me when I was taping a monologue. “Nicely done, Marni,” he would say afterwards, “but do you have a cold?” He told the people in charge of fundraising for the network that I “probably wasn’t up for it.”

    I began to dread going to work.

    At the end of the first season, I offered to have the wrap party at my house. A few days before, H.S. casually asked me (although he never did anything casually) what I planned to serve. “I guess poached salmon,” I replied. Weird question. The day of the party, at work, we had our Friday noon meeting around the table—for which, to everyone’s surprise, H.S. had ordered a lavish catered lunch! In came a delivery man with a poached salmon, to delighted cries. A trivial incident, but a moment of subterfuge that only he and I could share.

    That night, H.S. arrived at the party late, having taken one of our colleagues out for dinner. People stayed until 2 a.m. After everyone had left, I found a manila envelope on the kitchen table. Unsealed, unlabelled. I opened it up and began to read a manifesto of 14 single-spaced typed pages, addressed to the show’s producer. It was about how the show could improve, listing ways to eliminate various bugs—one of which was me. The memo included references to a certain host who couldn’t be “brought to heel.” (Interesting phrase.) It referred to my “defence of anyone old, ungracious and untelegenic” and accused some of my work on the show of being “nakedly contemptuous of large segments of our potential audience.”

    At 4 a.m., H.S. knocked at our door, having returned to retrieve the envelope. Glowering, I passed it to him. And said nothing.

    Although I went to our producer about the personal attacks in the memo, it was treated as nothing more than a little spat between “the talent”—and I didn’t see it for the blatant harassment it was, either. I just thought I was dealing with a bit of a madman. (An earlier email to our team from H.S. listing highlights of the past year began, “Me! Me! Me!” and ended with the sentence, “All in all, I think I’ve had a pretty good season.”)

    At this point the executive producer was getting alarmed as well. One day he pulled me into his office and shut the door. “I’m afraid he might show up at my door in the middle of the night,” he said. My work on air deteriorated. I felt frightened. I finally understood, in my gut, the meaning of the word “toxic” because I did feel poisoned. My sleep and digestion fell apart, and my family was concerned for me. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through—and yet, in trying to describe it to friends, there was little I could point to by way of damage. No bruises, no visible marks. I wasn’t even touched. But I was the target of someone with a deep current of malice and misogyny in him. And that affects you.

    Finally, I went to someone higher up the ladder. I said that my co-host was a troubled guy who probably needed professional help, and that his behaviour was affecting our ability to do our jobs. Which was true—but I lowballed it. I didn’t want to stoop to “personal attacks,” or make it “about me.” So I didn’t mention the sexual innuendos, or the threats. Still, it’s no small thing to go to your boss and suggest that your colleague needs a shrink.

    How did he respond? “You know, TV is a very tough business,” he said. I felt belittled and embarrassed—and disappointed, as I had respect for this man. “And I hope when you see H.S. and I smoking together out in the parking lot, you won’t jump to any conclusions,” he added. Well, yes I did, and the conclusion I jumped to was that my co-host had already ingratiated himself with his boss. And that I was a woman who couldn’t take the heat on TV.

    Meanwhile, a third co-host was hired—a woman with whom I got along well. Come the end of the season, my contract was not renewed and, as more of his wonky behaviour became evident, neither was my co-host’s. Someone else threw the final wrap party, to which H.S. was invited. They couldn’t understand why, when I showed up at the door and saw H.S. chatting in the kitchen, I turned around with my salad bowl in my hands, and went back home. The producer called me at home, apologetic and in tears. She didn’t realize that I would still feel so strongly about what had happened. That was when I understood that I hadn’t been clear enough to the people in power about the impact of his behaviour. I hadn’t spoken up.

    Three years later, H.S. Bhabra committed suicide by jumping off the Bloor Street viaduct in Toronto. Soon thereafter, a suicide barrier went up, called the Luminous Veil. And it came to light that H.S. had misled many people in his life. Had he really been tear-gassed and shot at in civil insurrections, as one resumé claimed? He said he was making good progress on a quartet of novels, when in fact he found himself unable to write at all. (He left behind a ream of blank white paper when he jumped to his death.) H.S. was in many ways living a fiction—a terrible irony for the host of a book show.

    In the months after H.S.’s death, women would sometimes seek me out at events to say that they had known him too—and that he had first charmed them, then used them, financially or emotionally or romantically, then dropped them.

    As I follow the stories emerging in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, I am struck by some of the similarities: the narcissistic “host” whose increasingly self-serving behaviour was tolerated by his bosses and co-workers, and an intelligent, talented man whose “charm” had a hidden element of misogyny.

    I wish my boss had listened to me. I wish I had gone to human resources, and had used those slippery phrases I thought were reserved for other people—phrases like “toxic work place” and “harassment.” I did feel poisoned, and harassed—but the harm to me was minor compared to the buried struggles taking place inside the heart and mind of my former colleague.