Self Portrait: Emily Carrington
A graphic memoir delves into a painful past to bear witness to child sexual abuse
Emily Carrington’s “Our Little Secret” handles her dark experience with frankness, yet her book leaves the reader with hope that healing is possible / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / April 21st, 2022
When Emily Carrington submitted her poem “Stone” to the CBC Poetry Prize in 2017, she was asked to describe it in five words. Since it was based on the sexual abuse she experienced as a child in rural Prince Edward Island, she wrote: “Our little secret no more.”
Her poem went on to be long-listed for the prize but, more importantly, it began an exploration into writing about the secret she had kept for more than 30 years. When she discovered memoirs could be written as graphic novels, something clicked, and she knew she had found the right format.
“I was always drawing as a kid … it was my refuge, along with my animals and nature,” Carrington said recently over Zoom from her home in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. “I didn’t see the finished product in my mind, I just knew, ‘this is how I want to tell my story.’”
It was the visual aspect of graphic books that appealed to Carrington, who is in her mid-fifties. Abuse often happens in isolation and the term “sexual assault” doesn’t convey the victim’s pain and suffering. “In a way, I want my book to serve as a witness to every case of child sexual abuse and not just my own.”
The result is her impressive debut graphic novel Our Little Secret, a frank and openhearted story about one woman’s journey towards healing. The cover features a menacing male figure, but when you open the book, you see a bucolic scene of the young Emily on her chestnut mare, followed by a trigger warning about its dark contents.
With a gentle but firm hand, Carrington illustrates how cases of child sexual abuse follow the same steps in a process known as grooming. She also understands the sensitivity of her material and her illustrations are deliberately not explicit.
“It was important for me to show what predation grooming and its aftermath looks like. Without seeing it, people just don’t get it. They really don’t.” She pauses. “Unless they’ve been through it themselves.”
Before delving into the story of her abuse, Carrington provides a backdrop. Born into a middle-class family with French and math tutors, music lessons and European vacations, young Emily enjoyed what appeared to be a typical life with her younger brother and their British immigrant parents in New Brunswick. Inside their house, it was a different story.
Her parents’ unhappiness consumed their daily lives with escalating verbal rages and physical violence. When her father lost his job as a school principal in 1979, the family moved to rural P. E. I., where her mother secured a job in the new field of renewable energy and organic gardening.
Basic household amenities were sub-par or non-existent in the old farmhouse they rented, and the family struggled to survive in their harsh environment. Eventually her parents separated, and Emily stayed behind with her father while her mother and younger brother moved to Alberta.
Enter Richard, a neighbour, “friend” and handyman 25 years hers senior, who ingratiates himself with the motherless 15-year-old and her eccentric father, and step one of the grooming process – finding a vulnerable child to target – is underway.
Carrington’s descent into a world of abuse and subterfuge continues for a few months, until Richard finds someone else to replace her, but not before telling her “what we did – it’s our little secret.”
The sense of loyalty victims have towards their abusers and their inability to talk about it is hard for many people to understand. Carrington outlines – one frame at a time – how this mindset is all about survival.
“I felt if I told, and wasn’t believed, that suicide was my only option. I could never live down the shame. For me, at that age, not telling was my way of staying alive.”
Another reality of sexual abuse is that victims can go on with their lives without fully understanding how it impacts them, until they’re triggered. In Carrington’s case, seeing Richard on a ferry – 27 years, seven months, and five days after he first raped her –spurred her to action.
“It’s hard for others to understand, but it [the abuse] just gets compartmentalized. You block it off so you can try and function in your life. Then something happens… and you must deal with it.”
She went to the R.C.M.P. first, and then she hired a lawyer. “The police and lawyers where not knowledgeable about the laws pertaining to child sexual abuse. They didn’t follow procedures correctly or follow through on matters they should have followed up on. They listened politely, and then did nothing.”
Carrington pauses before continuing: “The system, currently as it is, is not equipped to stop child sexual abusers … or has any will to stop them. It just can’t. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how to fix that. It should not take – as it did in my case – nine years of constant trying and getting nowhere.”
Like many East Coasters, Carrington left Prince Edward Island in her late teens to support herself. “I’d find work, make enough money to go home and take a few courses at UPEI until I ran out of money and had to head out west to work again.”
Carrington did undergraduate work at UPEI, then attended the Western College of Veterinarian Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, graduating in her late thirties. She worked part-time as a vet in Ontario and then British Columbia, where she settled in the mid-1990s. Although she found vet work rewarding, she struggled with her dark secret, and the prohibitive costs of her ongoing lawsuit.
After seeing Richard on the ferry in 2010, Carrington wanted to face him in court and stop him from hurting others. Since the events took place in P.E.I., she had to fly across the country to secure a local lawyer. Trusting the system, she waited. After three years of mounting legal fees and no action, Carrington discovered her lawyer was negligent, and had to start over, only to learn the two-year limitation on her civil lawsuit had passed and her claim was dead. She would never face Richard in court. “Every one of my attempts at the outward journey had failed,” she says. “There was nothing left but to go inward.”
That’s when her healing truly began. In 2019, Carrington moved to a rooming house in Vancouver to attend the Graphic Novel and Comix Certificate Program at Langara College, where she began working on Our Little Secret.
Then the pandemic hit. This, combined with Vancouver’s escalating rental prices, made it impossible for her to complete the course. Undeterred, she scanned her half-finished manuscript and sent a PDF to Drawn + Quarterly, a world-renowned Montreal-based publisher specializing in graphic novels, “and they liked it.”
The simplicity of Our Little Secret’s layout is its superpower. Toggling between now and then, present-day Carrington sits at a table matter-of-factly telling her story within the strong boundaries of each frame, while her illustrations about the past mimic overlapping memories pressed tightly together with no space between them.
“In the 70s and 80s, there were these Instamatic cameras that had little square photographs. I imagined my memories were overlapping old photographs and drew them to show what I was feeling.”
Understanding her book may difficult to read, Carrington makes a point of including happy memories to provide respite for readers. She wrote with the intent of helping others. Despite all the trauma presented, the book’s ultimate gift is one of hope.
“I drew what came up,” she said. “I was going through this journey alone, but I knew I was no longer trapped in my past, because I could imagine something beautiful could come out of it. As much as it was a hard topic to deal with, it’s exciting to be in my mid-fifties and discover I can remake myself. It never occurred to me that I could start a new life in the middle of all this.”