Q&A: Violinist Lara St. John on her sexual assault and the aftermath
World-renowned violinist Lara St. John reveals she was sexually assaulted by her teacher
Lara St. John has performed around the world, playing with some of the world's greatest orchestras. The London, Ont.-born violinist was a child prodigy, who later founded her own record label.
But it wasn't always an easy road. Last month, the acclaimed violinist revealed she was sexually assaulted by her former teacher at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. On July 25, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a 5,000-word story, detailing how St. John says she was assaulted by the late Jascha Brodsky.
London Morning host Rebecca Zandbergen sat down with St. John to hear her story. Here's a portion of that interview. The text has been edited for breadth and clarity.
How old were you when all of this went on?
I was 14 years old. It happened in my first year at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Are you able to tell me a little bit about about what went on?
He found the perfect 14-year-old person who was all starry-eyed and excited to be at Curtis. I also had a brother there and so that was the sort of leverage that this person had to make me do things that I didn't want to. There were threats. Curtis is an all-scholarship school so they can just say, 'Okay, we're gonna kick you out.' That was basically the threat that he made that he would kick my brother out. And I inferred that also (meant) me.
And how long did it all go on?
From the beginning to actual rape was about eight months, and then I had this summer and then came back and realized that I couldn't really do this anymore. Psychologically I was starting to sort-of shatter and I couldn't go into these lessons anymore. I just started cancelling them and I was on the road to disaster. I went to the dean at the time and I had with me two friends who remember this meeting very well.
I told (the dean) — not the extent to what I have (now), but enough that it should have been extremely alarming — and instead he just kind of laughed at me. He basically said, 'Well what do you want me to do about it?' And my friend said, 'Well, then we're gonna go to the police,' and at that point he said, 'Who do you think they're going to believe? A bunch of kids or somebody who's been with this school for decades?' And I actually I kind of agreed with him. Basically my whole point of that meeting was to not have to spend an hour a week alone with that man anymore. I just sort of rode out that second year, and then they finally switched the teacher in my third year.
Did you ever go back to the dean or go back to the administration?
What happened was I got a phone call in 1996 from the then-counselor. She called to ask about it and at that point I had left Curtis after three years because it was just too traumatic to be there. By '96 I was living in New York, I had made a great life for myself. She called me up and that was actually the first time I told anybody the entire story, all the way to the rape and all this kind of stuff. Then I was very upset and called a friend.
The very next day the wife of the director called me up and basically said, 'You don't need to talk about this. He's really old now and almost dead and only teaching one person.' And I took no convincing. I was like, 'Look, I don't want to talk about this. You guys brought it up.'
In 2013, the then-dean wrote a famous classical music blog post. He made himself out to be this protector of children or whatever. It was so laughable and I basically saw red. I was always so angry and so upset about this that he would have the nerve to do that. I wrote a detailed letter — nine pages — detailing every single thing that had happened because I have a near photographic memory.
Since the Philadelphia Inquirer article came out, has there been an apology?
They sent an email out the morning that (the article) came out, which was last Thursday morning, to all of their alumni basically saying, 'Please don't talk about this if anyone contacts you.' Basically, telling them to stay silent. Predictably, a lot of the alumni were rather horrified at being told what to do with their social media accounts. And so there was an apology from Roberto Diaz (president and CEO at Curtis) about that email.
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And why did you decide to do this interview with The Inquirer and be the subject of a story now?
I think I had to come to the point where I just realized that no matter what, if this absolutely tanks, everything I've ever worked for, I will survive because I've spent my life surviving. It wasn't a small amount to do with also the zeitgeist that they call the Me Too movement. I was quite heartened by a lot of that and been watching it closely.
Four years, ago there was a big thing at a music school in Chetham in Manchester, England. And I was watching that. And then there was a big article in The Washington Post last year about some conductors and a concertmaster. Finally I just decided, 'Look, I'm in a position where they can't hurt me anymore.'
I live in New York and the political climate south of the border is disturbing for people who identify as feminists, and just watching the Kavanaugh hearings and remembering the Anita Hill thing, just watching these women get dragged over the coals, it was enough for me to think, 'You know what? I'm not, big-school-little-girl, that's how it was, and now it's big-school-big-girl and I'm ready for it.'
Do you think you just scratched the surface? Is there a lot more going on in the industry?
Definitely. Hopefully this will be the turning over of the rock. There's sort of an idol-worship thing: your teacher is your idol. Maybe more so than in, I would imagine science or math, and classes are one-on-one. They're private lessons and so that ends up being sort of a bit of a possibility for people who are predators. It's kind of easy for them: these starry-eyed young women and men kind of do everything they say. And if they're bad people then they use that to their advantage. My problem is also how badly the institutions deal with it. They literally just sweep it away.
How do you feel now that it's out there?
I'm a little tired, I guess. Everybody knows how it is when you work so hard toward a final exam or something and then it's over and you feel kind of deflated. I feel like it's been that for 34 years. It's been something I've had to deal with alone for all this time and now I have hundreds of people thanking me and giving support. In a way it's been a very good feeling, actually.
The Curtis Institute has said it will now review its sexual assault policies and establish an anonymous reporting hotline.