Author Catherine Bush on the trauma of false accusation

In conversation with Canadian author Susan Swan:

This week I interviewed author Catherine Bush about her new novel, Accusation. It’s theme is the dilemma of being falsely accused. Recently, I was falsely accused of something and Catherine’s q and a below helped me understand just why I was so upset:


Author Catherine Bush

1. Your novel is about the trauma of being falsely accused. Can you tell us its story (in a few sentences)?

While in Copenhagen, Sara Wheeler, a journalist from Toronto, stumbles almost magically upon an Ethiopian children’s circus and its charismatic director, a fellow Canadian named Raymond Renaud. When teenagers from the circus flee and make an asylum claim, citing abuse at Renaud’s hands as their reason, Sara decides to investigate, only to encounter a maze of conflicting versions of what has happened. Her interest in the case is driven in part by her own experience of being falsely accused of a small crime in the past.

2. Why does a false accusation live on so powerfully inside us?

Once you have been accused of something, even if the accusation is retracted or proved to be false, it continues to have a life. We can all think of instances of this. Someone who has been falsely accused of sexual abuse can never eradicate that stigma. People have killed themselves in such circumstances. Even much smaller accusations can have great power. At a reading recently, a woman told me a story of being accused by her mother as a seven-year-old of stealing money from her mother’s purse. The idea of stealing from her mother had never occurred to her. She found herself wondering what could possibly make her mother think this. She still wonders. So long ago, and the mother retracted her words, yet the accusation lives. And a rift forms because of it.

In the novel, Sara is pulled back into an old vertigo of helplessness. As a university student, she once found herself alone in a gym locker room with a woman whose wallet goes missing. The woman accuses her of stealing it. There are no witnesses. She is charged with theft and using the woman’s stolen credit card. Store clerks come forward and swear they saw her using the credit card. All Sara can really say in her own defence is, I did not do it. And it’s so hard to argue in the negative. Someone else recently wrote to me with these words: “Being falsely accused is a uniquely painful loneliness. Your innocence is so fundamentally obvious to you and completely unknowable to anyone else.”

3. Was a similar experience the trigger for your novel? Can you tell us what happened and when you started writing this book?

In the mid-90s, I went to Ethiopia with my then-partner who shot a low-budget documentary about an actual children’s circus. A few years later, allegations of abuse were made against its founder by performers fleeing the circus and seeking asylum in Australia. The director, when found (he’d left the circus), denied the allegations and said his accusers were simply trying to make a strong asylum claim.

In my shock, I kept wondering if we had missed something during the time we’d spent with the circus. Yet I did not want to leap to conclusions. And so I turned my lens upon my own responses, to the thorny problem of trying to figure out what to believe. I was also struck by the predicament of a journalist writing about the case. In trying to give someone a chance to defend himself, you’re broadcasting the allegations further and making them more indelible. With potentially disastrous results.

I was haunted by these experiences in the way one is haunted as a novelist. The journalist’s problem became my problem: how do I write about these matters? How to render them in fiction? The novel is full of other people’s stolen stories. How do I steal them responsibly? I started writing eight years ago. I wanted to create a situation in which guilt and innocence are not clear, one in which people confound our desires, vanish when we want to confront them, don’t speak when we want them to elucidate a terrible mystery.

4. You said there is no return to the state of being unaccused once the accusation is made. Why?

The accusation cannot be un-done or un-said or un-thought. I’m deeply struck by the way an accusation forces me to imagine it — you stole my wallet, you slept with my wife — even if I don’t believe it. It exists as a possibility, or at least as something that can be imagined. When I was researching the novel, a criminal lawyer said to me — and these words have also stayed with me, and I put them in Accusation — the court is there to get you off, not declare you innocent. In so many ways, you can never get innocence back.

5.  Does a bond grow up between the accuser and the accused once the accusation is made?

I suppose it is a bond, a kind of awful intimacy. In some instances, only accused and accuser will actually know what has happened. Sometimes accused and accuser will have utterly irreconcilable versions and each be unwavering in their belief and their beliefs keep colliding. Their views annihilate each other. In Accusation, Sara can’t help internalizing this other woman’s version of her if only to wonder why the woman is so convinced that she’s the thief, and that’s a strange and horrible intimacy. She doesn’t want to think about this woman or this woman’s version of her but how can she help it? She is forced to consider herself as a thief if only to deny that she is.

6. In many ways, racism and sexism are based on false accusations. Comment?

A false accusation radically eradicates or violates another person’s selfhood and the way in which they see themselves. Any racist or sexist remark or judgment denies another’s truth, the wholeness of another’s humanity.

Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, including Accusation (GLE, 2013). Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement, was a national bestseller and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Claire’s Head, was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award. Her nonfiction has been published in publications including The Globe & Mail, The New York Times Magazine, and the anthology The Heart Does Break. She lives in Toronto and is Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA. More information can be found on her website: