Sarah Polley is unbearably vulnerable in Run Towards the Danger

The Stories We Tell director confronts traumatic and horrifying experiences in her new book

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      Sarah Polley, the actor turned filmmaker turned author of the new book, Run Towards the Danger (Hamish Hamilton), is thinking about being an actor again.

      Polley hasn’t been in front of the camera in 14 years. When she was acting, Polley built a reputation for running away from star-making roles, doing everything she could to light a successful show-business career on fire. She explains in her book that a lot of that had to do with a deep-seated resentment toward the profession and a fear of saddling herself with commitment.

      “I felt so trapped in being a child actor,” says Polley, explaining the lingering effect from her years on the Canadian television series Road To Avonlea. “It was a prison for me, having to be on a set every day. It was really hard to shake that feeling, even when I was choosing [to perform] as a young adult. I kind of dragged a lot of stuff from my [childhood] along with me into adulthood, which a lot of us do. And for me, that took the form of this kind of resentment towards acting, even when I was liking doing it.”

      But there has been a shift. Polley is feeling different about it. She works through a lot of the trauma associated with acting in Run Towards the Danger, a collection of essays confronting her most horrifying and difficult experiences.

      These include becoming an independent woman in the public eye at a tender age after losing her mother; her terrible experience with Jian Ghomeshi, the former radio host accused of assaulting several women, and the whiplash of those memories during his trial; a high-risk pregnancy; a debilitating concussion; and the dangerous journey making Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

      Her hang-ups associated with acting may sound minuscule compared to some of the other abuses and tragedies Polley writes about. But one takeaway from Run Towards the Danger is that they’re all connected; the trauma from one event lingers over them all.

      Full disclosure: Polley is a friend. We discussed a lot of these stories in the past. But I never knew them like this. She goes deep in her writing, making herself so unbearably vulnerable that you feel compelled to handle the book with care. And her recollections feel vulnerable, too—time, new experiences and evolved sentiments have a way of changing the way Polley holds and understands her past.

      “The essays were writing themselves over many years,” says Polley. “Some of them took decades to write. Although they were about very different things, [they] had this connective tissue, this relationship between the past and the present—the way the past was coming up through the present and the way my present life was informing my relationship to my memories and my past.”

      She latches onto the idea of memory being a two-way street. In one essay, where she describes playing in the ocean with her child off Prince Edward Island, Polley writes about feeling a sense of nostalgia for something that was happening in front of her, as though she was watching a memory play out in real time.

      “I feel this nostalgia, as though there’s some part of me that’s always going to have this clock ticking,” she says, explaining the effect of losing her mother young.

      “Unfortunately, my husband, similarly, lost his dad when he was seven, so we have this sense of life being very, very precious and finite and precarious. It makes you feel like as you’re living you’re also capturing the memory of this moment living because you don’t know how many more you have. That’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because it’s terrible to live with that feeling and to be so aware of it all the time. But it’s also a blessing because I feel like we don’t take time for granted.”

      Polley shares emotional memories of her mother, Diane, an actor and casting agent, throughout the book. Her absence is part of its connective tissue. So, too, is Polley’s relationship with her body. Almost every chapter involves some physical struggle, whether it’s the scoliosis she had as a child or the concussion that made it impossible for her to function in recent years, or the fight for autonomy over her body, whether at work or in relationships.

      Nick Lachance

      “I think I was constantly aware that my body was stopping me from being able to do what I wanted to do or live the way I wanted to live, or that my body made me vulnerable or at risk,” says Polley, wondering if that emerged subconsciously in her writing. “I don’t feel that anymore. I finally sort of have a degree of trust in my body. It’s strong and it’s solid and it’s full of energy. That’s a new feeling.”

      How Polley is feeling is thanks largely to her recovery from the concussion, guided by Dr. Michael Collins, who gives this book its title. He’s the one who instructed Polley to “run towards the danger”.

      “That means all of the things you’ve been avoiding because you have a concussion and because it hurts too much, you have to do them. You have to do the things that bother your brain the most.”

      There was more to the treatment, of course, like carefully regimented physical exercises. Polley doesn’t want concussion patients out there to just start running toward bright lights and loud noises based on her recommendation (seriously, don’t do that). But she explains how much the mantra of running toward the danger felt like a “paradigm shift”, motivating her to confront her anxieties and fears.

      Sharing her violent experience with Ghomeshi—in an essay Polley says she wrote and rewrote the most times—is part of that journey. She contemplated coming forward in the past to support brave voices like Lucy DeCoutere. She explains, in a chapter called The Woman Who Stayed Silent, why she didn’t until now.

      She also recites the way she used to tell that experience before at parties as a funny worst-date story without the violence, to suppress and normalize the memory.

      “That was a lot easier to live with than the complete confusion and fear that the experience had left me with,” she says. “And I think lots of people do this. A lot of people kind of mutate trauma into something they can relate, and in then doing so kind of minimize the trauma.”

      But in Run Towards the Danger, Polley unpacks the trauma and more in a chapter about how she processed that memory, emotionally and physically, over decades. It’s about how victims are revictimized when put on trial, what we do with their voices, and how things changed when it came to the Harvey Weinstein case. And it’s also about the different ways that culture at large processed the #MeToo moment, which is too often reduced to punitive terms or cornered into so-called cancel culture but rarely discussed as a way to educate, take responsibility, and heal.

      “There were a lot of articles at the beginning of #MeToo like, ‘Let’s just ship all these men off to an island,’ ” Polley recalls. “There is no such island. They actually live amongst us and with us.”

      She goes on to explain that the thing she found most hopeful about the #MeToo movement is how it motivated some men to stay up late at night to take stock and reflect on their own behaviour.

      “We can maybe just be really angry they didn’t see that earlier. But I’ll take those moments whenever they come. I know a lot of people who received apologies out of the blue from people during that time, not because they were accused but because they just came out and were accountable.

      “I don’t think I’m naive. I’ve certainly seen enough people over my lifetime that have not changed and refused to change. But these little glimmers of moments where we feel somebody shift—I think that’s the progress.”