When you sit down to talk to Devon Brooks, you expect the conversation to be about her trip to Nice as part of the Canadian delegation of young entrepreneurs at the G20 summit. Or maybe the phenomenal success of Blo, the wash-and-blow-dry business she established in Vancouver with her mother and a business partner. Perhaps you’re turning to her for advice on how to brand your business since she’s done so well at branding hers.
What you least expect is for her to tell you about being raped by a family friend when she was 18 or that horrifically terrifying day when an ex-boyfriend broke into her apartment saying that if he couldn’t have her, no one would.
And you are certainly taken aback when she tells you her story in a calm, easygoing manner. How can this beautiful, self-possessed 25-year-old woman (who would make other women jealous if she weren’t so darned warm-hearted) be telling you about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and how tempting it was to kill herself rather than spend hours every day convincing herself to get out of bed. Really? This gracious, soft-spoken, talented business maverick once passed out because her panic attack made her cry so much that she couldn’t breath?
“Most victims are caught in feeling terrible all the time,” she says. “This is about me taking the reins and sparking the conversation. I need to be able to talk more about it as social conversation.”
At the recent TEDXKidsBC at Science World, Brooks told her young audience that “we can’t live in fear of conversation. We think trauma happens to one person. No, it happens to us. It’s all interpersonal. Each of us plays a role in changing that dialogue. We have to embrace vulnerability and encourage victims to tell their stories, to let light shine where violence has cast a shadow.”
A friend asked her why she’s willing to shine such a public spotlight on what are so deeply personal parts of her life. Brooks shrugs her shoulders. “This is life. Life is messy. This stuff is happening everywhere.”
She’s not discounting the role that therapy or medication can play in helping people cope with traumatic events. She’s not saying that her way of taking back possession of her life — confronting the victim in her but not allowing herself to remain victimized — is the only way to recover. But talking about it, and not in hushed tones, is what has worked for her. And she wants to encourage others — both the people who are victims and the people they tell their stories to — to be able to tell and listen to these stories without drama. Violence is happening to people all around us, every day. We need to be able to able to talk about it as part of our everyday lives.
How the story begins
Devon was 18 when she and a girlfriend accepted the invitation from a known and trusted friend to stay overnight at his parents’ house in Montreal. As her girlfriend slept in a nearby room, he raped Devon. She was able to escape, was taken to a rape clinic and then immediately flew home to Vancouver.
Three years later she was renting an apartment in London, England, where she was attending university. There was a knock on the door. It was an old boyfriend who forced his way in. He barricaded the apartment, put her phone’s SIM card in his mouth so she couldn’t call for help, grabbed a knife “and terrorized me for hours. “I was scared beyond belief. He told me to write down my last words to my family. He said if he couldn’t have me, no one could.”
Even though her apartment walls were so thin that she could hear her neighbours brush their teeth, none of her neighbours called the police when they heard the disturbing sounds coming out of her apartment. Devon was on her own. Once again she escaped and went to the police. Eventually the ex-boyfriend was sent to prison.
She then had to find a way to cope with the emotional aftermath which hit her with paralyzing force.
“Sexual and violent trauma is an act between people; it changes the way we feel about humanity,” she says. “I started to realize that what is most difficult about moving on us the conversations I’d have to have. People don’t want to talk about it. They’re scared to be vulnerable. They were afraid it would make [the violence] more real.”
Since 61 per cent of sexual assaults happen to people who are younger than 18, special care was made to invite teenagers to her TEDX talk. There must have, by odds, been people who had been victimized, or who knew someone who had been victimized. Brooks needed them to know it was not only okay to talk about it but it was something they, and society, had to do. “We can’t live in fear of conversation…. There is no in-between. You are either a bystander or a difference-maker in the face of changing trauma.”
Your genes can absorb the impact of trauma. Your psyche certainly carries the burden. Brooks was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. She was exhausted, sad every day. She was surrounded by people around her but they didn’t know what to do to help. Her mother, Judy, was an incredible support, always by her side, doing what she could to help, as was their business partner at Blo, Val Litwin. They could see how the numbed she was; she struggled to put her feelings into words.
One days Devon said to Val, “I just feel so… so… so….”
“Do you feel trapped,” he asked.
“Yes,” she exclaimed, and in that moment a door opened. Val neither over-reacted by what came flooding out, nor did he close the door because he didn’t want to listen.
It’s not that Devon wants to talk about her rape and assault all the time, it’s just that she’s realized she needs to encourage others to speak openly and without shame about what’s happened to them. In telling her story, she’s been amazed by how many stories have been told to her.
“The beauty about it is that things come to the surface. It’s not taboo. The more we have these conversations, the less big they’ll feel.”
And how to tell a new story
The experience is leading Devon’s life in a new direction. She’s not working on the day-to-day operations at Blo — which has expanded to 19 locations in BC, Alberta, Ontario and five US states — and is now helping others build their dreams. She’s in demand as a motivational speaker, an inspiration and the go-to person for branding and modernizing other people’s businesses. She’s on the radar of Flare (one of 13 Bright Young Things), Chatelaine (Hot 20 Under 30), and CityTV, where she appeared as a business personality in a docu-sitcom.
Meeting for breakfast the other morning in Gastown, Brooks was asked about finding that balance between the benefits of talking about the traumatic things in our lives and knowing when you can’t let that story become the entire narrative of your life.
“This is your story and you have to live it,” she says, “but there comes a time when you have to create room for a new story. There has to be a point where the story ends.”