For Michelle Nolden

Michelle Nolden is one of those actresses who turns up in things all the time (because she’s so talented), but that you keep thinking of her as “that girl” until a role comes along wherein her performance is so strong that her name is finally retained in your brain, and she ceases to be “that girl”.

For me, with her, that role is of Dr. Dawn Bell on CTV’s Saving Hope.

It’s funny, too, because in the beginning, I hated Dawn. She was Charlie’s (Michael Shanks) ex-wife, she pulled the plug on him when he was in a coma (but he lived, luckily for all), and she was a thorn in the show’s main love story’s side for quite awhile. Always cropping up to cause trouble for Charlie and Alex (the impossibly gorgeous Erica Durance). To boot, she became everyone’s boss as Chief of Surgery, and she ran a tight ship. It was annoying.

Over time, however, something changed, and Dawn slowly became one of my favourite recurring characters on the show. When I saw Michelle Nolden’s name in the opening credits (because by then I totally knew her name), I was certain viewers were in for a treat.

Like, more than usual, because I freaking love this show.

Anyway, once I got to that point, I reached out to her agent to see if it would be possible for her to join The Mind Reels at any point over our Guinness World Record-breaking weekend. It turned out that she had to work a long, emotional day on set, but that she would try to stop by if she could. I was ecstatic, and said we’d definitely make time for her if she was able to be there at all.

Much to my joy – and, if I’m being honest, surprise – she DID make it, after all! I saw her come into the hotel lobby that first night and completely forgot I was interviewing someone. I said, “Michelle is here! Yay!” and flagged my team down to make sure they knew to sneak her in between guests. I wasn’t feeling well already that night, so I barely remember what we talked about, but I know there was some discussion of the evolution and growth of Dawn’s character arc, and I gave her condolences for what happened to Dawn’s little sweater-wearing guinea pig that she didn’t even want but then fell in love with.

Since then, we’ve been wanting to bring Michelle into the studio for a better/longer chat, but there hasn’t been time or opportunity – yet. I’ll keep checking in with her agent until we make it happen, though!

However, turns out Ms Michelle Nolden won a Canadian Screen Award last night, and Tim and I made sure we were there to congratulate her on the red carpet in the press area after she left the stage!

You see, this season in particular has been insane for Dawn, and while there wasn’t time for chit chat, I do have a few things I wanted to tell Michelle about how her performance has affected me, and how much I feel it comes from a place of truth.

So I’ll do that here, instead.

There’s an episode – and anyone who’s seen it will know exactly what I’m talking about – wherein Dawn is raped – violently – by her colleague/boyfriend (Shaun Benson)…in her office. It was so powerfully filmed and performed by both actors that I can’t even remember anything else that happened in the episode. Just that, and the immediate aftermath. The rape scene was violent and disturbing without being graphic – a tight shot on Michelle’s horrified eyes with Shaun’s voice whispering in her ear. Gah!

To be clear, I know and adore Shaun Benson. I think he’s a fantastic talent. But part of me wished he wasn’t THAT fantastic as I watched that scene, because it was like watching a nightmare, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Damn you, Shaun!

There were red flags, of course; little warning signs that viewers and Dawn could pick up on, and then promptly ignore because he’s just so damn charming, and in a position of power, to boot. I still don’t think I expected what eventually happened to be as powerful and real as it was, though. In her office?! With windows everywhere, the space that she’s made her own. Her refuge from the trials and stress from running a hospital. And all the power she had job-wise didn’t make a lick of difference in the face of her attacker. Not only was it someone she trusted, but it was also done in such a way that everything Dawn had believed about her world was torn apart and demolished. Everything. She had nothing left to hold on to.

Well, almost nothing.

The next time we see Dawn it’s at the end of the episode, and she is alone again in her office. She is bruised, and in tears, her sensible work skirt ripped almost completely off. Her sanctuary looks much the same as always, but it no longer feels safe. Not to Dawn, and not to any viewer who’d just witnessed what transpired there.

In my mind, I wanted to hug her and get the police and all the big guys she works with and go beat the shit out of Shaun…’s character (haha He really is that good). I wanted to scream from the rooftops about the crime that had been committed, and go get the bad guy once and for all. I wanted him to lose everything, just as he’d taken everything from her.

Instead, I watched the scene play out as it was written, and was thunderstruck by how absolutely right it was. Dawn frantically searched in her desk drawers for something, and when she finally located it, she sat on the top of her desk, composed her features, and began to sew her skirt back together.

I lost it.

It hit me like a truck…how appearances inform our interiors sometimes…the attempt at retrieving a semblance of normalcy and some sense of control over something. Over anything, even if it’s something as simple as mending a ripped skirt. It wasn’t about pride nor humiliation. Not even fear, or anger at what had just happened to her. Dawn’s facial expression changed and her concentration was total. In that moment, that skirt was all she had.

When I was in University…I want to say third year? I decided to walk the few short blocks to McDonald’s (as you do) and grab myself some dinner. It was around this time of year, so even though it was only 7pm-ish, it was already dark. It was also unseasonably warm, though, so I was feeling pretty giddy with the touch of spring in the evening air.

I passed a young guy about my age, standing under a streetlight by one of the houses lining that portion of the street. Once I got by him, however, I could hear his footsteps on the sidewalk behind me. Warning bells went off in my mind, but I shoved them aside, because paranoia can be a dangerous thing, and usually when we think something is cause for concern, it ends up being nothing, and then we feel dumb.

Like, can’t a guy walk down the same street as me? Who the heck do I think I am?

I got near McDonald’s, and turned to go up a little grassy hill that led to the drive-thru and parking lot. As soon as I’d stepped off the sidewalk, though, I was banged into from behind, and felt two powerful-ish arms pin my arms to my sides. Well, my hands were in my pockets, so they got pinned there.

It all happened so fast, I was still thinking that it was someone I knew, just being a jerk. The force of him slamming into me actually pushed me further up the little hill, and he didn’t have his balance enough to lock his hands, so I ended up a step or two in front of him for a second. I turned to look at him, expecting a friend, and saw a stranger instead. He wasn’t looking at me, but rather past me, to where the cars were lined up in the drive-thru. I think at that point he realized we could both be seen, so he turned and jogged away. Or walked away. I don’t really remember. Just that it all seemed so normal, and wouldn’t draw attention to him either way.

And what did I do, you ask? Now that I was momentarily safe and had just basically been assaulted (see I can’t even call it anything specific because it still sits as a possibly jerky but innocent boys will be boys act), but it could have been way worse but now I was in full view of lots of people in a public place?

I went inside and ordered a Big Mac combo.

Yep. I didn’t make a sound. I didn’t try to confront him, or call for help. I simply composed myself enough to order the dinner I’d been looking forward to, and then sat down at a table by myself.

I tried to eat, but got nauseous, so I threw most of it away. Kept the fountain Coke, though.

I wasn’t sure what to do at that point. Had I been targeted? Or was being a female alone on a busy street enough to warrant what he’d tried to do. What had he tried to do? Rob me? Beat me up? Kill me? Rape me? Where had he gone? Was he still out there, watching me through the windows of the restaurant and waiting for me to come out? How would I get home? Could I stay in McDonald’s until morning?

So many questions.

I couldn’t figure out how I felt, nor how I should feel. I wasn’t sure of his intentions, and wasn’t sure I had a right to be angry or afraid or upset. I had no idea what to do.

I sat and thought and waited and finally decided to take a chance on crossing the parking lot to the phone booth on the corner. It still didn’t occur to me to ask for help, because I felt like…not that I’d deserved what happened, but more that nothing much had happened. I didn’t feel I had a right to expect anyone to come to my aid. My brain kept coming up with excuses for the guy, even. Maybe he’d just stumbled and lost his balance. Maybe he’d thought I was someone else and left when he realized his mistake. All kinds of crap went through my mind.

And because I’m old now, there were no cell phones. I had to get to the phone booth on the corner. At least it was lit up, and there were lots of cars nearby. Cars he could also be hiding behind, but maybe he wouldn’t know I would try for the phone. I didn’t know.

So I finally got my courage up (or stupidity…tough to tell sometimes) and speed-walked to the phone booth. I’d gotten a quarter out and had it in my hand to save time. I called the home of friends who lived down the street. I’d actually passed their place on the way.

Thankfully, they rocked.

They came to get me, en masse, and while I’m pretty sure Izzy in particular would have rather tracked the guy down and beat the tar out of him with her bare hands, they all convinced me to call the police. That the guy had done wrong, and that a crime had been committed, and that it was worth reporting.

They walked me back home, and stayed with me while I made the call, and together we waited for a police officer to arrive. Even though I was going through a myriad of emotions by then (including wishing I’d beat the tar out of him myself and humiliated him and perhaps ruined any chance he’d had of procreating), one thing that kept nagging at me was that maybe I was wrong. Maybe I’d misread what had happened and misunderstood the whole thing.

Maybe I was wrong.

I worried that the cop wouldn’t believe me, or brush it off as the non-incident I feared it was, or that he would believe me but the guy would never be found and how would any of it ever be proven, anyway? I thought at most it would end up on the back-burner and eventually forgotten.

The policeman arrived, and even though he was kind of cute and had a kind face, I wondered briefly about the decision to send a male officer over to talk to a female who’d just encountered a less-kind male. He was, however, pretty great. Took us all for a ride in his police car (I got to ride in the front, though), so I could show him where everything happened.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of it was murky in my mind. I could not remember exactly which house he’d been standing by. I couldn’t remember the colour of his clothes, or his hair, or even if he’d been wearing a hat. I could see him in my mind, but I couldn’t see him at the same time. There were no details. Unfortunately, even when there are warning bells and red flags, I don’t go into super spy mode and memorize every detail possible. Stuff happens, and I apparently can’t quite recall the main points to any helpful degree. The chance of catching him was getting slimmer. It was a University town, after all. Maybe he was just visiting, and didn’t go to school there at all. Who knew?

Definitely not me.

My lack of recall, coupled with my inability to completely agree that the guy had done anything really all that wrong was crippling, and as a result, my case got more flimsy by the moment.

The police officer, however, was on top of it. Less than two weeks later, he called me and wanted to come over with a photo line-up for me to look at. Apparently some other poor girl had been sexually assaulted in the same area, with the same basic desciption of her attacker.

(Insert guilt forever that I wasn’t able to stop him from going after other girls)

I looked through a book of mug shots and more candid photos, all of guys who were roughly the same age and description as my guy. The officer told me to take my time, and even pick out a few photos, if any of them had certain qualities that reminded me of the guy. He said I didn’t have to be certain; that I could kind of pick parts of some of them to give a better idea of what little I recalled about the dude. He said the guy may or may not even be in the line-up. It was just to get a better idea.

I chose 3 different photos, two of them were on the same page. One was mostly based on angle, because when I’d turned to look at him, he was no longer facing me directly. It was more of a profile view. I can’t really remember what drew me to the second photo. But the third, there was just something about the third. I couldn’t shake it. I kept going through more photos and always came back to that one. Finally I just pointed it out and said that it maybe wasn’t exactly as I remembered (vaguely remembered), but that it was the closest one. I wasn’t confident enough to proclaim, “THAT’S THE GUY!”, but it was the only one which felt close enough to be accurate in the light of day.

The officer wrote everything down, and then collected his things. He told me he wasn’t allowed to confirm or deny if the one I’d pointed out was the same guy they’d arrested in the other attack. I said I understood.

And then he winked at me.

We had our “man”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over that night – and a few other incidents which have occurred over the years – and re-written it all in my mind. I change how I reacted, I…sometimes become kind of violent, and I always, always stand up for me and mine.

My reality, for whatever reason, has always been very different. I freeze, I shrink, I keep walking, I put my head down, I stay quiet and still, I ignore the signs, I make excuses for the perpetrator, I wonder if there was something I’d done to cause it in the first place. After the fact, I am all indignant righteous rage. But during? I just have never figured out how to go against my very instincts and react differently.

The following year I was walking home from an evening class, and heard footsteps behind me, running up the sidewalk. I flashed back to that other time I’d felt the warning bells, and in a moment of pure terror, I spun around at the last second to at least greet my inevitable end head on.

But the jogger went right on by.

I see something like this portrayed so realistically – and intimately – on screen, and I’m all, “I would have done THIS!” But at the same time, I know from repeated experience that I would not. I only wish I would have.

That is what struck me the most about that episode of Saving Hope. Sometimes there are no heroes rushing in to save you. Sometimes you don’t suddenly know street fighting. Sometimes you don’t keep weapons on hand and aren’t afraid to use them.

Sometimes you don’t do what you “should” do, or even what you think you’d do.

Sometimes, all you can do in the moment is order a Big Mac, or mend your torn skirt.

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