When you write a book and title it, I Am Nobody: Confronting the Sexually Abusive Coach Who Stole My Life, you don’t really envision it being under any Christmas trees or wrapped as birthday presents. That would be rather uncomfortable. But not near as uncomfortable as reading through the 276-page journey led by Greg Gilhooly that relives one of the darkest periods in the history of the game.
And that’s a good thing. We’re supposed to feel uncomfortable when we read this book, which hits bookstores in Canada and the U.S. on Saturday. Gilhooly was part of the #MeToo movement years before it ever existed. Long before the insidious behavior of Larry Nasser and Jerry Sandusky came to light, there was Graham James, famous junior hockey coach and serial sexual predator. Gilhooly talks in the book about how, like high-profile NHLers Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, he too was groomed by James and was repeatedly violated. By his own estimation, Gilhooly said in an interview with THN.com he was sexually abused by James about 50 times between 1979 and the early 1980s.
It should be noted that James has never admitted to abusing Gilhooly. After pleading guilty to two counts of sexual assault and being imprisoned for three-and-a-half years in 1997 – for which he later received a pardon from the National Parole Board – James faced three additional charges of sexual abuse in 2010 involving Fleury, Todd Holt and Gilhooly. With James unwilling to plead guilty to the Gilhooly charge, the Crown in 2011 accepted guilty pleas from James on the charges involving Fleury and Holt, but stayed the charges involving Gilhooly. The added wrinkle to all of this is that Gilhooly is a lawyer, not a criminal lawyer, but someone with a far better understanding of the legal system than most laymen.
In the book, Gilhooly sums up his experience with the Canadian justice system like this: “Make no mistake. We have a legal system, not a justice system. Justice is not guaranteed in a legal system. It is a system that yields legal results in a game played between prosecution and defense with its own set of rules that is in no way related to the reality of what did or did not happen.” Then he goes on to say: “Once again, Graham had won. I was never going to get anything remotely touching on justice. Not only had he defeated me, but this time he had absolutely destroyed me. Once again, I was a nobody.”
Now you could certainly understand if Gilhooly wrote this book out of some kind of quest for vengeance. But during the interview with THN.com, Gilhooly said he spent the past six years on this project to bring him inner peace and aid in his recovery. It’s also clear he wants to put a face to sexual abuse, to pull back the curtain and expose for all to see the irreparable damage that sexual abuse can cause. “Simply stated, child sexual assault is the killing of the victim’s sense of self, taking the child’s life as he or she knew it,” he goes on to write. “A life has been taken. It should be recognized as such a crime, and it should be penalized as such a crime.”
Gilhooly spends much of the book taking readers on a very personal journey that focuses on the time when he was an aspiring goalie in Winnipeg who was groomed by James, a local hockey volunteer and junior hockey coach who, in fact, knew Gilhooly’s father. His account of the first encounter between him and James is explicit and unfiltered, as are the dark thoughts he had in the years following the abuse. He talks about self-harm, obesity and thoughts of suicide, all the while graduating from Princeton University, then going to law school at the University of Toronto (and playing for the varsity hockey team) before going on to become a successful legal counsel at several high-profile Canadian businesses. Through it all, Gilhooly chronicles the pain of the abuse, the guilt over not coming forward when it happened and the profound effect it still has on his life almost 40 years after the first incident took place.
It is not a breezy, fun book to read. But it is riveting. And it is important, particularly in the climate in which society and sports finds itself these days. Gilhooly describes himself as a young boy with academic and athletic promise who had the misfortune of attracting the attention of a serial predator, with hockey as the backdrop. “I am nobody important, nobody of note,” he writes. “I’m just a nobody who was sexually abused by that once-prominent hockey coach, a nobody who because of the abuse actually became a nobody at all and believed that I deserved everything that had happened to me, that I deserved to fail at everything in life, that I deserved to be shunned, that I deserved to die.
“Except I’m still here.”