What happens after the worst imaginable comes true? How do you pick up and carry on? In I Am Nobody, first-time author Greg Gilhooly attempts to answer that question.
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Gilhooly was a rising star — straight-A student and promising goaltender — when he met hockey coach Graham James in Winnipeg in 1979, an encounter that would forever alter the course of his life. What started with a post-game comment on the way off the ice led to years of abuse, and decades of personal torment.
To understand Gilhooly’s story, one must first get a sense of Winnipeg’s minor hockey scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and the man that largely defined it.
James, says Gilhooly, “was seen as an esteemed god” in hockey circles: a man who controlled the fates of thousands of hockey-playing teens by virtue of his scouting connections in the Western Hockey League. James was a man who could launch careers, a man you wanted to impress.
He was also, unbeknownst to the community at the time, a sexual predator. After a tournament in Minneapolis, James and Gilhooly started to talk.
“He clearly knew a lot about me, and he said that when we got back to Winnipeg, we should get together,” says Gilhooly, now a lawyer in Oakville. “That’s how it started.”
“Once Graham had an opening to talk to me, that was all [he] needed to work his skills in terms of trying to get to me. I didn’t recognize it as grooming when it was happening, but when I look back on it as an adult, I can see that anything he ever told me—I have no idea whether it was true or not—but to the boy I was back then, it all made perfect sense.” – Greg Gilhooly
A coach of the hockey team several years ahead of Gilhooly, James promised a kind of personal mentorship to the young goalie, a path to bigger stages, as long as one caveat was followed.
“Right from the get-go, secrecy was of paramount importance to Graham,” says Gilhooly. “He made it clear, even from our first conversation in Minneapolis, that I was not to tell anyone that we had even spoken about this. That if my coaches caught wind that Graham was interfering at all, that would be no good for me.”
“I’m a 14-year-old kid, and it all makes perfect sense to me as to why I shouldn’t be telling anyone,” he adds.
When the two met, it started with conversations about hockey and personal training sessions. Over time, though, James began to work on breaking down Gilhooly’s barriers.
He positioned himself as a mentor: a caring mentor who was going to ask me things that nobody else would ask me. That’s exactly what he did, except he wasn’t going to be a mentor, he was going to be an abuser.”
“The way Graham worked on me for months was that he effectively became my father figure … He had me thinking that my father was not [looking out for] my best interests, that Graham was the only one who cared about me, [that] my coaches didn’t care about me, my friends didn’t care about me.” – Greg Gilhooly
The abuse, says Gilhooly, lasted for years: all the way up until he left Winnipeg for Princeton University.
“The mantra was always, ‘people like us have to stick together,’ and that if my secret ever got out, my hopes and dreams would be over. No hockey program in the U.S., college system, or whatever would want anything to do with me,” says Gilhooly.
“It happened again, and then it happened again, and it happened again. And I’m left thinking, ‘Why are you going back to him? You can’t stop this? You must want this to happen. You are everything he’s saying you are.‘ And so my sense of self fell away.”
In return, Gilhooly responded by taking it out on himself: a pattern of self-destruction that carried on, even after he left Winnipeg for Princeton, and later, the University of Toronto.
“That’s the problem with sexual abuse, is that it’s far more than the physical act of the abuse, because it leaves the mental carnage behind,” he says. “I hated myself, and so anything that I was doing that signalled to the outside world as being success, I felt instantly like a fraud, because I knew who I really was.”
“I was doing whatever I could to get the outside world to see me as a fraud, and it wasn’t working.” – Greg Gilhooly
In 1996, the past came rushing back to Gilhooly when a then 27-year-old Sheldon Kennedy announced that he had been sexually abused by James for years, dating back to the time that he was 14. James plead guilty and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.
“I wasn’t strong enough to come forward then, but even worse, I blamed myself for what had happened to Sheldon, because it had come after me,” says Gilhooly. “Someone’s life has been destroyed because of my inability to act. It’s no longer simply about me and the destruction of my own life; my inability to be me has now tangibly hurt another person.”
Not for the first time, he contemplated suicide.
“I got to the point where I sat on a bridge and looked the other side in the face,” he says. “I decided that I was either going to die or I was going to live, and I was going to give life a shot.”
By the time NHL All-Star Theoren Fleury released Playing With Fire in 2009, detailing his own experiences of abuse suffered under James, Gilhooly was ready to break his silence. He filed charges with the Winnipeg Police. He had already been going to therapy for the past year — a process he describes as a long road.
“Recovery was a process of letting a third party or third parties in to try to rightsize my basket of thoughts, for lack of a better image. I needed help working through why it happened to me.” – Greg Gilhooly
“It’s so humbling to need to reach out for help,” he says. “Coming out the other end, I can say that reaching out for help is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I encourage anyone who needs help to get it, but I completely understand how scary it is to ask for help, to admit that you need help.”
James plead guilty to the charges filed by Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, but in the deal he struck, Gilhooly’s charges were stayed.
“What I have learned is that to think that I’m ever going to get closure from a third party is an irrational quest, because what has to happen is to be able to live a life, and to live a life is to live a life without dark thoughts in your head, and to make peace with what’s happened,” says Gilhooly.
There are still bad days, nights when the memories return unbidden. Still, the worst is behind him, and better days ahead.
“If my story means anything,” says Gilhooly, “it’s that no matter how bad things get, there’s a reason to keep going, because you can come out the other side.”
Photo credit: Greg Smith