10 March 2024

Why Backstories Matter Today More Than Ever.

In mystery books, many of us consider backstories of perpetrators and the victims of crimes the meat of the book. Apropos of exactly that, lately I’ve written about the rise of hate speech against many vulnerable groups because this is the backstory to hate crimes. Doctors like me always tout preventive medicine and, as a person, it’s my core belief that crime prevention is better than crime investigations.

This month brought to light the terrible consequence of a fetid backstory that’s been gaining ground. I’ll reference events in Canada because that’s what I know best, but this has been a problem in the United States and other countries around the world. So, although the backstory is Canadian, the crime occurred in America.


In June, 2023, a professor and two students were stabbed at a gender studies lecture at the University of Waterloo and the police cited the motivation as “hate related to gender expression and gender identity.”

By August, 2023, many universities removed class locations and instructor names from the public domain to protect those teaching gender studies. The president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which represents 17,000 university faculty and academic librarians, said “racist, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ and other hate-motivated online extremism is being seen on university campuses and classes that explore social and gender issues.”

Despite the proof that anti-LGBTQ hate speech results in violence, in September we saw Marches against LGBTQ Canadians. I wrote about this in On our Streets and referenced these marches with the Orwellian name “Leave our kids alone” that actually targeted LGBTQ children. These marchers claimed that children were too young to hear about our LGBTQ community but what they really didn’t want is teaching our children the facts: some people are gay, trans or binary and that’s OK because Canadian laws protect them. One video of these marches showed a child claiming that LGBTQ Canadians are“disgusting” so, apparently, they weren’t too young to hear about the LGBTQ community, talk about them or insult them. They were just too young to hear that being LGBTQ is OK.


In February, 2024, Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Oklahoma high school sophomore, who identified as transgender and non-binary, had her head smashed repeatedly against the bathroom floor by fellow students and she died from her injuries.

Many people I’ve spoken with justify their silence on attacks against LGBTQ by saying they don’t really understand the issue. Surely, killing a child by bashing their head against a bathroom floor because they claim to be transgender and non-binary requires no complex understanding of sexual development to know this is wrong and a grotesque crime.

Our collective backstory:

Hate speech is a crime in Canada. Less so in the United States. Regardless of the legal status, hate speech is the backstory to an increasing number of vicious attacks against innocent people. Another crucial backstory is silence.

When I post on social media about many types of hate speech, more recently about antisemitic hate speech, I get some very ugly pushback. This is why many people are increasingly silent on hate speech related issues. It’s difficult to speak up.

Martin Luther King’s haunting line applies to this silence: “The ultimate tragedy, is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

So, if we are writing a fulsome backstory of bigoted physical attacks on people whether they be Asian, Jewish, LGBTQ or any other group - the silence of the many would be part of that.

How do we speak up?

Here on SleuthSayers, I’ve been so fortunate that Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti have been kind enough to allow me to indulge my penchant for writing crime backstories. On social media, I have followers who are incredibly decent and decry hate speech and hate crimes – and this makes it easier to handle the rude pushback.

Ultimately, it is the fact – and it is a fact – that we write the backstories for others daily and this should make us eschew silence. These are dangerous days for the rise of hate. In my decades of living, I’ve never felt so worried as I am now. If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.

This rise of hate against so many groups worldwide isn't just organic. Many reports from intelligence agencies show it's funded by foreign countries to sow dissent within our democracies, as well as by Neo-nazi movements, funded by ardent believers, some of whom have a great deal of money. It often feels like those of us speaking out are playing checkers with chess players who have moves, money and motives that we don't understand. It's all so infuriating. And depressing. I hope that writing backstories will help people connect the dots and maybe that will matter. 

UPDATE: Do new autopsy results clarify what happened to Nex? I give you the summary by a child paediatrician - because, of course, there are many who do not want this to be murder, but Dr. O'Brien clarifies the cause.


  1. Mary, I share your fear and frustration. I played a minor (very minor role)) in the Civil Rights Movement. in 1965 I marched with Dr. King in Boston, and from 1967 to 1970 I taught at Shaw University, the first college in the South for black students, established after the Civil War.

    I mention this because, despite the violence, the almost daily turbulence, we had faith that the future would be different. Now, that hope has been shattered. I hope I’m wrong.
    Edward Lodi

  2. Oh Edward, I share your sense that hope is failing. I hope we're both wrong.

  3. I remember a time with hope and civility and courtesy - but it seems a long time ago. Here in the United States, the former President made it okay to be nasty, hateful, and threatening to anyone who disagrees. And social media - and Fox "news" etc., have spread and are spreading lies as truth, and an appalling number of people want to believe it. I don't know what the solution is, but I do think there need to be strong laws against hate speech, and strong laws preventing its spread on social media on all platforms.

  4. I agree - stronger laws are needed as well as enforcement, even here in Canada.

  5. Mary, unfortunately, I think it's more complicated than silent people and vocal people, bad people who hate and good people who accept others as they are. I've been thinking lately of an experience I had as a young woman in 1967, going to hear famed Black comedian Dick Gregory at a nightclub in Greenwich Village. He made an audience of New York liberals, probably mostly Jewish, shout the "N" word, saying, "You know you're thinking it. You know you want to." What I wasn't savvy enough to say back then is that he was wrong. I'd never thought it. It was absent from my unconscious for good reason. I was brought up with words of the time like "integration," "brotherhood," and "solidarity" hardwired into me, only aware anyone used it because I'd read Huck Finn and accounts of the lives of "Negro" heroes like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I'm also troubled by the contempt of "woke" Blacks for white liberals, including many Jews, who marched for civil rights and participated in voter registration in Mississippi in the Sixties. (To read the position clearly stated, see Zakiya Dalila Harris's bestseller The Other Black Girl. Her protagonist is eloquent on the topic.) "White saviors" is hate language if you're Jewish, from a culture that doesn't believe in saviors and stands with other oppressed groups on the principle of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and the ethics of concern for the suffering of others. Same for those, including publishers, who spend their energy tinkering with each other's use of language. If we all devoted ourselves to speaking out against the real fascists, maybe we'd make more progress in healing the world.

    1. I agree that our Jewish community has stood up against all forms of hate and are now being targeted even more today. I also think that speech - and by that I mean words - can be Orwellian.

    2. When my parents came as immigrants to Canada, a Holocaust survivor who would become one our dearest family friends, brought my mother a coat because Canada is cold. How can you go through unimaginable horror and come out the other side with such kindness?

  6. Mary, your last line in the comment above is so on the mark. We need enforcement of the hate speech laws, and civil disruption laws we already have, for starters! I see great reluctance in lawmakers to enforce these laws, in Canada. And this line is particularly astute: "It often feels like those of us speaking out are playing checkers with chess players who have moves, money and motives that we don't understand." I feel our government in Canada is particularly naive about this.

    1. 💯 agree with you, Melodie. Trying to placate all sides is never a good thing when one side is simply wrong.

  7. I get it that some people feel their traditional values threatened. Abruptly one of the Scooby Doo characters is gay. (Hint: It's not Scooby.) Just as suddenly, the Camp Cretaceous Jurassic Park cartoon has two characters turn bi in the final season. A Texas judge allows a mother to give her child a sex change operation over the objections of the father. But there's another way to deal with traditional values, which is respect others. Or more simply, love one another. Let people be what they will be.

    1. My father - born in 1930 in a very Catholic family - commented on the LBGT community with bewilderment asking, “Why does anyone get so upset? Just let them be who they are.” So your comment is the family values I was raised with, Leigh.


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