When John Cody attended Bell High School in Ottawa and enrolled in music, the last thing he expected was to be sexually assaulted.
But after a few years of unsolicited innuendo and inappropriate advances, assaulted he was – at the age of 15 by his music teacher, Bob Clarke.
And then Cody discovered something even more shocking: not only had another family member been similarly assaulted by Clarke, but there were at least eight others – all of whom, in a Federal Court, Clarke pled guilty to abusing – and was sentenced in March 2018 to two years in federal prison. He pled guilty to two further counts of gross indecency towards two more students on March 1, 2019, bringing the total of identified victims to 10.
“It was shocking how deep this went,” said Cody.
Consequently, a CBC investigation – documented in the CBC podcast The Band Played On – revealed that teachers and school authorities were notified of Clarke’s behaviour and that the warnings went unheeded.
The CBC also revealed that Clarke – who taught high school between 1968 and 1992 – sought therapy from more than a dozen psychiatrists and psychologists for his behaviour as far back as 1969, remaining on the job despite treatment.
“I felt betrayed,” said Cody, who was also interviewed for the podcast.
John Cody is the professional name of Jean-Marc Charron, a Canadian musician who has enjoyed some success in the music business.
He co-wrote “The Secret Is To Know When To Stop” on Tom Cochrane’s multi-million selling album Mad Mad World, co-authored the title track of the Bonnie Raitt album Fundamental, has shared the stage with Joni Mitchell and released four albums of his own.
John Cody is also not a well man, largely confined to an electric wheelchair as he battles a number of illnesses – cancer, auto-immune degenerative disease, neuromuscular and diabetes. He’s currently awaiting a handful of critical operations.
To say this recent trail reawakened nightmarish feelings and has made his existence even more stressful would be an understatement.
“I’m struggling not to say I felt suicidal,” says Cody. “It‘s the worst I’ve ever felt. I said in my victim impact statement that I resent having to go back to that time of my life.”
But his situation isn’t uncommon.
Although stats involving sexual violence involving physical contact against women are more widely publicized, similar assaults against men are more common than one may realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., one in four men will experience sexual violence involving physical contact in their lifetime, with one in four male rape victims experiencing an assault for the first time between the ages of 11 to 17 years old.
And many of those assaults occur in high school, confirms a 2018 report issued by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
The report – titled Child Sexual Abuse By K-12 School Personnel in Canada – based its data on 750 Canadian cases between 1997 and 2017, finding that these assaults were carried out by 714 employees employed in Canadian K-12 schools. Male student victims accounted for 24% of the total and 69% of them were enrolled in high school at the time of the crime. In terms of primary offender occupations, 86% were certified teachers employed at the schools.
In his case, Cody says the incident “has been in the back of my mind all my life,” he felt he was handling it until he read an article by CBC investigative journalist Julie Ireton about his music teacher’s conviction.
“Five days afterward, I called the police.”
A subsequent interview with two detectives at his Montréal home dredged up unwanted memories.
“I remembered stuff in that interview that was disturbing, “Cody recalled. “With these recovered memories, I remembered how exactly bad it was, exactly how bad I felt and exactly how bad things were because of this. I did a pretty good job of forcing it down and then all of it just came right back.”
Although the police convinced Cody to file charges, memories of the incident plus the recent death of his father brought on bouts of depression.
“Having to relive that shit – and it hadn’t been a year since my father died, so I was under tremendous grief – so dealing with that on top of it felt insurmountable,” he admits.
It also forced Cody to relive the shame and uncertainty he felt as a closeted gay youth in high school, ill-prepared to deal with the emotional fallout.
“It’s like when someone takes your trust, you don’t even know that you’re opening yourself up to others, allowing others to take even more.
“You don’t even see it coming. Throughout my life, I never saw it coming. If anyone was going to take advantage of my innocence or my trust, I never saw it coming,” Cody explains.
He was also disappointed by the school system, after informing other teachers about his predator’s behaviour.
“What I was told is, ‘we know about that and he’s been spoken to,’” Cody remembers. I thought that that would be enough. I didn’t have the language or the wisdom or knowledge in many ways to suggest that it wasn’t, either.
“And the teachers that I told – I loved them. I trusted them. Whatever they told me I was eager to buy. They knew and they were going to take care of it. They were supposed to. But I didn’t know how they were supposed to.”
He tried to cope in his own way, with minimal success.
“Grades took a nosedive,’ he recalls. “I was incredibly depressed. I was adrift. I had no exit. I didn’t know how to draw the line between what my teacher was doing and those horrible feelings that I had. I was not mature enough to understand how directly they were related.
“I did go to church and have a born-again conversion when I was 16 almost immediately after it happened, but that didn’t work. And I just buried myself in music.”
As much as his eventual career saved him, it also put him in a state of partial denial.
“For 40 years I immersed myself in music and rarely came up for air, to the detriment of my well-being. I feel like a successful artist, but it was always at the back of my mind,” Cody notes.
“I didn’t know what the impact was. I couldn’t process it. I don’t know what the direct influence on the way I lived was until I unpacked it.”
Decades later, Cody left Canada for the sunnier climes in L.A. and met his future husband. But that relationship turned violent and abusive, and eventually Cody, who had been diagnosed with cancer by this point, fled back to Canada and settled in Montréal.
He also started seeing a therapist, and then was recommended to see one that dealt specifically with adult survivors of sexual abuse when Clarke’s case came to the forefront.
“I needed a safe place to discuss this where nobody was going to judge me,” Cody realized.
“I needed to talk to someone who understands all the components of the shame and the embarrassment and …one of the first thoughts I had was that I should have been smart enough to know what to do and what to say and how to protect myself – but I have 40 years of living on me now.”
Cody says therapy, for him, has been a lifesaver.
“You end up blaming yourself, which is ridiculous, but you don’t know that. You’re going through this process and that’s why therapy is so important.
“I was having an easier time emotionally before all this shit happened, and it’s been a real struggle to get back to that but at least I feel that I can see it.
“It also brought some of my innocence back. As an artist, you need a childlike sense of wonder to create. It allows you to remain curious and as long as you’re curious as a human being, you’re never going to stop learning or evolve.”
John Cody admits that he wouldn’t have been able to analyze his problems without professional help, saying trying to solve things alone would be like “taking a filthy rag and washing a dirty window – it’s just moving the dirt around.”
He’s also aware that men in particular have a difficult time admitting that they need help.
“There’s a general sense that when you’re a man, that you’re weak to seek help,” he explains. “I don’t think this is true but I think a lot of men think stuff like this.
“You hear about this ridiculous toxic masculinity. We’re all affected by it to some degree. It is one thing that prevents men from saying ‘I need help.’
“But what men don’t realize is that it takes strength to say and admit that. And it takes strength to be honest with yourself. And it takes great strength to be honest with yourself and realize that you can’t do this alone and you need someone to talk to. It takes someone with experience to help guide you through this journey, because without it, what are you doing? You’re taking a filthy rag and washing a dirty window and just moving the dirt around.”
If there’s a positive outcome to this ordeal for Cody, it’s been having the creative outlet of songwriting. Julie Ireton used a snippet from a song called “The Great Divide” that Cody co-wrote Perla Batalla, best known as a supporting vocalist for Leonard Cohen, for The Band Played On podcast, which has accrued more than 1 million listeners.
“I couldn’t believe the lyrics that were pouring out of me,” Cody explained, adding that there have been requests for the song from podcast listeners.
“But it seems that no matter what I wrote, it always seemed to have something to do with the situation with my teacher.
“I went with it – you don’t want to force it – and that was the first song I wrote on piano in years. She came up with the lyric, “The push and pull/the far and wide/our love will fill/The Great Divide.”
“It was the perfect denouement to the grief I was exposing.”
Cody is in current negotiation to record and release the single as a duet with Batalla, with proceeds going toward the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
“It’s a national non-profit organization and they help kids who have been through the same thing and they have training programs for teachers and adults to look out for predator behaviour.
“When you go through something like this, you want to help people and I want to make sure, in my own small way, that if I can contribute to stop this from happening again, that’s what I want to do.”