GLOBE AND MAIL Saturday, April 19, 2003 Leah McLaren

p. F7.


It's a bird, it's a plane, it's — the woman who took on the Toronto police and won, writes LEAH McLAREN

The people at Marvel Comics should model a superhero after Jane Doe. For starters, she is perfect-looking. Youthful in her late 40s, with a red dye job and tight jeans wallpapered onto the tiny, toned physique of a fitness instructor, she's a feisty-looking woman. Hard to imagine her as someone who is famous for being raped — she looks the exact opposite of a victim.

She introduces herself by her real name and confides that she is nervous — this is her first interview to promote her memoir, The Story of Jane Doe, published this week. It is tempting to believe that she is saying this just to make small talk. Jane Doe doesn't seem like someone who gets nervous under pressure. She is, after all, the plucky crusader who took the cops to court and won, a woman known for her ferocity in battle and flamboyant outfits. But don't be fooled by the breathy voice and tippy heels. Jane Doe might get herself up like a swanky nightclub bartender, but she is a feminist of terrier-like tenacity.

On the comic-book front, she is possessed of the one special thing all great superheroes have in common: a secret crusading alter ego. By day, she is a regular middle-aged mortal woman going about her daily routine. Single and childless, she lives alone in a condo in Toronto's Yorkville district, not far from the swish Windsor Arms hotel. She is an avid shopper and a fan of The Sopranos (a show she mentions in the book's acknowlegments). She works out regularly and practises yoga.

Currently on the hunt for a job, she is a teacher by training but jokes that she would make a fantastic personal shopper. Her blouse, a slinky fuchsia number, was a plum second-hand find. "Two ninety-eight at Goodwill," she says proudly. "I have an eye for bargains. I like to beat the system."

By night, however, this woman who describes herself as a very silly person ("I have a lot of fun") is transformed into Jane Doe, activist, lobbyist and fearless wager of political battles.

Double lives are well and good for comic books, but how does Jane Doe resolve the split between her two selves in real life?

"I don't know that I have or ever will resolve it," she says. "But I do know that if I hadn't taken on the piece of work that is Jane Doe, I would have taken on some other fight for social justice. I'm a political person by nature, and that was what saved me. The fact that I was able to experience my rape both as a personal and a political act helped enormously."

The story of Jane Doe is familiar to anyone who followed the years of coverage it received in the Toronto media. On a summer night in 1986, she became the fifth reported woman to be raped by the serial attacker known as the Balcony Rapist (so-called because he broke into his victims' homes through their balcony doors). The police knew that the attacker was preying on single women who lived alone in second- and third-floor apartments in the downtown area where Jane Doe was living, but they opted against a public alert, fearing that female residents would become hysterical and the rapist would flee the area.

Angered by what she viewed as police negligence, manipulation and insensitivity, she remained convinced that the crime committed against her could easily happen again to someone else. So she sued the police in civil court for Charter of Rights and Freedoms violations in the investigation of her rape. The case dragged on for years, and in 1998, she won. Jane Doe v. the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force made legal history, and Ms. Doe became a feminist hero.

"I was the right woman in the wrong place at the right time," she says with an untroubled smile. As a test case, Jane Doe and her lawyers benefited from her confirmed "good girl" status, and the fact that her rape was, to use her own term, relatively "clean" — i.e., she was not a sex-trade worker, and did not know her attacker.

In person, Jane Doe seems anything but a goody-goody. She sits with her tiny feet planted and knees spread wide like a man. Her phone-sex voice sounds a bit put on. She wiggles a lot, and is given to dark jokes and blood-dripping sarcasm that stops conversation dead -- and she knows it.

"I was a real rape," she sing-songs. "A good rape. A real good rape." (The title she originally proposed for her book was Jane Doe's Coffee-Table Book About Rape, but her publisher overruled it.)

She is definitely weird and possibly a bit mad, but you like her all the more for it. The posturing could be her way of warding off the cloud of victimhood. "The personal struggle for me was always to get out of the victim box," she says. "I was constantly thinking, 'Now how do I rip this halo off my head?'"

During her civil trial, Jane Doe's sexual, medical, employment and family histories were used to support the police defence. Her therapists' notes were cited to suggest that she was a batty man-hater on a political rampage.

Reading her story, it's impossible not to wonder what sort of person allows the worst thing that has ever happened to her define her life completely. Not your average cookie, that's for sure. But if Jane Doe is nutty, there is little doubt that she has used her nuttiness to an effective end.

"She took an ugly, evil, demoralizing experience and turned it around into a legal victory and a wonderful creative outcome of a book," says Rita Davies, executive director of the culture division for the City of Toronto.

The two women have been good friends since the early days of Ms. Doe's lawsuit, when Ms. Davies helped her to find legal representation. "She's the most courageous person I've ever met."

Stubbornly, and perhaps even perversely, Jane Doe herself refuses to admit that anything has changed as a result of all her hard work over the years. She is still involved in the Jane Doe Social Audit, a list of recommendations for the modification of police conduct. She speaks about what has happened since the legal trial in opaque feminist rhetoric and, at times, comes off as obsessively dogmatic.

"If you talk to police officers, they will tell you that progress has been made and things have changed. If you talk to me, I will tell you that nothing has changed."

But those in the legal system say the Jane Doe ruling has been hugely influential.

"There's been a complete sea change in values since then," Toronto criminal lawyer Frank Addario says. "From the perspective of criminal lawyers, it's been incredible. I don't think there's any question that in the city of Toronto, the Jane Doe case had a significant effect on the handling of complainants in sexual assault cases."

Clayton Ruby, another criminal lawyer, argues that the impact of the Jane Doe ruling was mainly a civil victory. "It showed that the police could be successfully sued."

While Ms. Doe says she would "love nothing more" than to see her real name on the cover of her book, she continues to conceal her identity. She has never told her elderly parents of her rape, and doesn't feel comfortable using her real name in public. It's a choice that stands in timely contrast to that of another famous rape victim, Trisha Meili, who recently threw off the shroud of anonymity in her book I Am the Central Park Jogger.

But Ms. Doe has people other than her attacker to worry about. "I'm not too fond of the idea of having 7,000 police officers knowing what I look like and what my name is," she says.

It's a delicate thing, having a secret life. Small talk in social situations can be tricky. "When someone turns to you at a dinner party and says, 'So, what are you doing lately,' how do you say, 'Well, I was raped and now I'm suing the police for $2.6-million'?"

While writing her book, she even came up with a fictional plot line so she could talk about her work at parties. "It was a murder mystery novel and it involved the mayor of Toronto and policing. I actually had a lot of fun doing that."

Ms. Doe says that while she suspects she may well be "a one-book wonder," she may take a crack at fiction one day. "I'd love to write a murder mystery. And this time I'd publish it under the pen name Joan Day."

Note to the people at Marvel Comics: Make that a triple life.