Canadian journalist’s memoir accused of depicting sexual assault as consensual

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

A Canadian film-maker who was allegedly sexually assaulted as a teenager has accused the country’s largest book publisher of knowingly releasing a memoir by one of her alleged assailants that depicts the incident as consensual.

In a 6 December post on Medium, Zoe Greenberg claimed she was subjected to a sexual assault in her youth.

“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,” wrote Greenberg, describing an alleged assault by two of her close friends, one of whom is identified as the writer Leah McLaren.

Greenberg says she brought concerns to Penguin Random House Canada before the release of McLaren’s book Where You End and I Begin, writing that she lived with a “trauma in a buried place that I could not fully access” – and only choosing to go public after her alleged assailant published a memoir that depicted the incident as consensual.

In Greenberg’s chronology of events, McLaren contacted her to discuss writing up “what happened” for her upcoming book.

Greenberg says she confronted McLaren about the allegations in person and recorded the conversation. Under Canadian law, conversations can be recorded with the consent of only one party.

“To my surprise, McLaren immediately apologised. She said she was sorry for her part in it, ‘for being an active participant’. She said she ‘always knew that it was awful, that it was wrong’ and it was ‘not nice’ for me,” wrote Greenberg. “She said she understood ‘when our friendship ended, it was because of that, and whatever happened that night was traumatic and awful’.”

McLaren, a well-known Canadian journalist who has written articles for the Guardian, said she had “spoken at length about the events the night of the pool party” with Greenberg.

“When Zoe raised concerns about the draft pages of my memoir I’d sent for her to review, I took the matter seriously. Over a series of emails, calls and Zoom meetings, Zoe talked to me about her concerns. I considered all of them. Based on these conversations, my editors and I made amendments that we felt were appropriate,” she told the Guardian in a message. “I did not, as an adolescent child, assault my older 16-year-old best friend at a pool party. Nor did I assist in her assault. I stand by everything I wrote.”

But when Greenberg was shown proofs of the book two years later, she wrote, she was shocked that the encounter was framed as consensual.

“There was no mention that I had experienced this as a sexual assault, no mention of how she herself was an active participant. McLaren portraying my sexual assault as the loss of my virginity – which it was not – was disgusting,” she wrote. In the book, Greenberg is referred to as ‘Joni’. “The pages went on to invent a number of conversations between us, as well as ugly lies about my family … McLaren concluded with the suggestion that I was responsible for what she and the boy had done to me that night.”

Greenberg said she met lawyers at Penguin Random House Canada to request the pages be pulled or changed to reflect her experience. But after she shared the audio recording of McLaren’s alleged confession, she says the publishers ceased all communications with her.

“I had thought publishers verified the memoirs they promoted to be certain they were truthful. I was never contacted by a factchecker to corroborate any of what was published. I was never informed whether my sexual assault would be depicted honestly, or my trauma handled with sensitivity,” she wrote. “It seemed to me that even though I had provided them with the credible allegation of sexual assault, Penguin Random House didn’t care. And they didn’t care what kind of harm they were causing by amplifying McLaren’s deception and marketing it as fact.”

In a statement provided to the Guardian, the publisher said it was “disturbed and concerned” by Greenberg’s claims.

“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. 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.”

Penguin Random House Canada said “substantial changes” had been made to passages in response to Greenberg’s requests, but that the company was “saddened to learn” the changes did not fully address her concerns.

“We will use this moment to reflect on our own internal processes and identify ways in which we can best serve our books, our authors, our communities, and our readers,” it said.

Greenberg alleges McLaren has continued to “misrepresent my sexual assault” in the media.

In a July 2022 feature published in the Toronto Star to promote her book, McLaren wrote that at age 14 she “chased a bottle of Schnapps with a tab of acid and ended up in a three-way with my close friend and a guy I’ll call Scott” at a pool party. “I promise you it was a lot less fun than it sounds,” she wrote, adding that “rumours spread through our Toronto high school” and that Greenberg “broke up with me, saying our relationship was ‘too intense’”.

After Greenberg published her Medium post, Sarah Polley, a prominent Canadian actor, writer and director, tweeted that she had spoken with Penguin Random House Canada and was advised that her endorsement of McLaren’s book would be removed from the audiobook and paperback copies.

“I pulled my endorsement and spoke with the publisher about this months ago as soon as it came to my attention,” she wrote.