Laura McCarthy tries to recall the “worst day.” It isn’t easy. “They were all extremely difficult, all very personal,” she tells me. She finally settles on the day her husband Lyle was formally charged with sexual assault in the fall of November 2011. “That,” she understates, “was a difficult day. I’d never wish any of that on anyone else.”
But there have been plenty of difficult days in the five years since.
She was still in law school when the police charged Lyle. She remembers the police coming by the legal aid clinic where she worked; seeing other students reading the newspapers with Lyle’s photo staring back at her from the front page; making conversation with the parents of other students in their son’s four-plus kindergarten, knowing they’d been following the story too; standing with Lyle in the line-up at the grocery store checkout, overhearing someone behind her talking into their cellphone: “‘I’m standing in the line behind Lyle Howe.’ There was more positive responses than negative,” she says, “but there were crazy people who approached us too.”
That was not exactly what Laura had signed up for when she first met Lyle in 2001. He was earning his way through high school selling sneakers at Athlete’s World in the Halifax Shopping Centre; she was a customer. He was 17, she was 15. “It started with puppy love, you know, talking on the phone, getting together, and it slowly evolved from there.” It became more serious after Laura’s mother died soon after they met, “and Lyle was there for me.” He became her first and only “serious” boyfriend.
They came from very different backgrounds. Laura, who is of mixed race, grew up in Brookside, a mostly white, middle-class suburb on the edge of Halifax where there were “very few renters and no one we knew was on social assistance.” That changed in high school when she moved to the new Halifax West, the most racially diverse school in the city.
She believes her lighter skin colour and the fact she’s a woman made it “easier for me to get along in a group of white people.” But she’s had more than a few of her own encounters with racism. “I remember Lyle and I were driving on Quinpool Road one day and he had to brake quickly because the driver in front stopped suddenly. Then the driver behind us pulled up beside our car and started making threats and yelling the n-word at us.” When she was in law school, she remembers a class discussion about accommodation. The hypothetical issue was how to maintain historical accuracy while supporting visible minorities in hiring summer students to represent the all-white Highland regiment that would have been guarding Halifax Citadel at the time. One student suggested they could hire black students, but require them to wear white make-up. “How clueless,” Laura says today. “How insensitive.”
Her decision to go to law school, she says now, had more to do with practical reality than personal desire. She’d studied science in undergrad and initially intended to go to medical school, but she became pregnant in her final year of undergrad. Becoming a lawyer took fewer years than it took to become a doctor, “and I knew what to expect from law school because of Lyle,” she explains. “I don’t want to say I ‘settled,’ but it was the right choice for my life at the time.”
By the time she’d completed her articles at Cox & Palmer, a major Halifax law firm, and joined Lyle in his practice in 2013, he was already juggling his practice while preparing for his trial on the sexual assault charge and facing increasing scrutiny from the bar society. Since then, she acknowledges, “it’s just morphed from one thing to the other.” Her own assessment of the bar society’s pursuit: “I think if you look hard enough at anyone, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
She pauses: “To say I see light at the end of the tunnel… I just don’t know. I’m normally an optimist, but now I’m a realist. I do what I can do. I just deal with what I have to deal with.”