He went through hell in 2009, and is now re-emerging into the media spotlight as a chastened figure who claims to have no interest in a political comeback. Just how different is the new Michael Bryant?
Prior to August 31, 2009, Michael Bryant appeared to be living the dream. The fast-talking former provincial Attorney General was as synonymous with a flashy wardrobe (hardly the norm at Queen’s Park) as he was with hot-button, headline-grabbing issues like pit bulls and gun control. At home he had a successful, entertainment-lawyer wife (the pair met while clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada) and two healthy, happy kids. Sure, there were conflicts—including a rumoured power struggle between Bryant and his boss Dalton McGuinty—but his departure from politics and a new gig as president of Invest Toronto meant that the B.C.–born wonderboy would soon be peacocking for Toronto on the world stage.
And then it happened—the now infamous altercation that caused the death of cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard and the reckoning of Michael Bryant. Coming home from a wedding-anniversary dinner, Bryant and his wife were accosted on Bloor Street West by Sheppard, who grabbed onto the side of the couple’s car. A few moments later, Sheppard’s body struck a fire hydrant; the blow to his head killed him. In Bryant’s new book, 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope (Penguin Canada), a much-humbled narrator lays out the details of his lifelong struggle with alcohol, the breakdown of his marriage, and what he gained by losing everything.
You talk a lot about your efforts to avoid the spotlight in your new life, and yet, obviously, a book like this is going to draw a lot of attention. So why write it?
I’ve gotten a lot of solace from people who were willing to share their experiences with me, which was so important in helping me to know that things get better after a crisis. I thought I should reciprocate. And, secondly, I’d never talked about what happened that night. It’s a tragedy, but it shouldn’t be shameful, and if you don’t talk about it, it starts to feel that way. Even now, when I bring it up, people will say, “Oh, are we allowed to talk about that?” It’s a little like when you’re at a wake or a shiva—really tense at first, until somebody makes a joke.
Before reading the book, I had no idea about your struggles with alcoholism. Were you keeping your in-recovery status a secret?
Yes. There are a lot of people out there who don’t want their co-workers or their friends or, in some cases, the media to know about their addiction. They avoid going to something like AA because they don’t think their anonymity will be maintained. I’m here to say that it absolutely can be. I was going to these meetings two or three times a week, every week.
As the Attorney General of Ontario?
Yes. As a cabinet minister, yes. As the head of Invest Toronto, yes. And then, after the accident, I continued to go. What happened on August 31, 2009, resulted in a tremendous amount of news coverage. I had a friend who read about it in Thailand. In Toronto, it wasn’t just front page news, it was the entire front page. And yet, at AA I was just another person sitting in those rooms.
Based on the picture you paint—daily hangovers, binges, drinking bottles of scotch in a single sitting—it’s hard to imagine you were able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone function as the Attorney General.
It seems crazy, but there are many people for whom this is the case. It’s confusing when you’re in it. You think, I am successful on paper, therefore I must not be an alcoholic. I could wake up in the morning and think, “I feel awful, I know I have a problem, this has been going on for years and I need to do something about this,” and then at 8 p.m. that night I would think, “What was I talking about? This [drinking] is the way to go. Who was that killjoy?” Of course, at some point it all falls apart. Eventually, my political career or my public life would have been compromised if I had continued drinking.
You stopped drinking in 2006, and keeping a journal was instrumental in your recovery. Would you recommend it to anyone trying to get sober?
The journal was what helped me, over time, to become honest with myself. At first I would write something like, “Yeah, this is great, I kept to my two drinks a night limit!” And then, by the end of the entry it’s clear that I didn’t keep to that—two mason jars of bourbon is not two drinks a night. Soon I stopped dating the entries and then the handwriting becomes illegible. You just see a person falling apart.
How much did you consult with your ex-wife, Susan Abramovitch, about airing the private details of your relationship?
I consulted her totally. We’re still partners in parenting, and this story is her story, too. I wouldn’t have written it if she had said not to. She gave feedback on the manuscript, she read the final draft. She was the lawyer for my book deal.
The breakdown of your marriage is really sad to read about. Was it sad to write about?
Oh, yeah. As much as we’re both in agreement about the decisions we have made, it’s still not what we wanted or imagined for ourselves. Both our sets of parents have been married for over 50 years. There’s a part of what happened that we don’t quite get.
I really liked the part where you liken having a happy marriage to building sand castles.
Right. I don’t remember where I heard this, but the idea is that a couple sits down and builds a life together, like a sand castle. In the beginning it might be a bit of a fantasy—here’s what we hope our life will be like—and then the tide comes in, and the first castle is just gone. One person has changed, maybe both, and you can’t just look back on that first castle if you want to move forward. You have to decide whether you walk away or sit down and build a new one knowing that the tide is going to come in again and again.
Dr. Phil better watch his back!
Ha. I’m certainly not an authority on the subject. I don’t know how much of making it work just comes down to chance. Susan and I certainly didn’t walk away without a fight.
What does your love life look like now?
My kids have made it very clear that they do not want to read about their single dad’s domestic life in the newspaper, so I’m honouring that. I’ll just say that I am a single dad.
Last year you were dating a dog-lover who took issue with the Ontario pit-bull ban enacted by you back in 2005. Was that some sort of cruel irony?
I think if anything it’s just a lesson in how unexpected life can be.
The ban continues to make headlines. Do you still feel like you made the right call?
I stand by the decision, although I have learned some things. I got a lovely letter from a woman in her 80s who had been a pit-bull owner and who used the dogs for therapy. Mostly, she wanted me to know that people cast very harsh judgment on her just for owning a pit bull. I hadn’t really considered that and I regret that those people suffered, but I haven’t changed my mind.
What do you think your old frenemy Dalton McGuinty will make of your book?
I hope that he sees it for what it was intended to be. I do feel some contrition around our relationship. I could have been a better friend to him, and I could have been a better colleague. I told him that when we spoke about a year and a half ago on the phone.
I’m sure you realize that a lot of people are going to look on your book as both an elaborate mea culpa and also the first step
in an image rehabilitation effort.
I can’t control what people think about the book. I explained before why I wrote it. It’s an offering and an effort to try to help other people.
Couldn’t it be both an offering and a first step back? After reading the book I like you more, I respect what you have been through.
I guess the lesson there is that people want authenticity from their representatives and that politicians can be imperfect and come clean. That is not necessarily a weakness and it can even be a strength. In terms of the future, I just don’t have any plans. I haven’t had a single meeting with anyone to talk about my political future.
What happens to all of that ambition?
Ambition to the extent that it’s all about me is not something to be fed. I see now that I am much better off focusing on how I can help others than on the various perceptions of me, and my success or lack thereof.
You mention how one of your peers said something like, “People like us need to kill the ego in order to survive.”
Wow, you really did read the book.
I really did. So is the ego really gone? Did you kill it?
Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it goes away forever. It’s like a weed and it can flare. I need to be careful, especially with this whole process of the book and doing interviews and talking so much about myself.
What would you say to that guy now—the Michael Bryant who thought he was invincible?
You better get over yourself soon, because the more you delude yourself, the harder this fall is going to be. It’s terrible the way that it happened because a man died, but for me it was like hitting Control-Alt-Delete. I got a complete reset and that opportunity has meant living a life that is more real.
What does a typical day look like now?
If I’ve got the kids, it’s a furious tsunami of morning activity until they’re off to wherever they’re supposed to be. Over the summer, it’s been a lot of sand and sun and Lake Ontario. When they’re at school I’m doing consulting work. I’m also going to be teaching courses in international law and aboriginal politics at U of T in the fall.
Do you still have a weakness for flashy fashion, or are the power ties and statement socks buried away in the old Michael Bryant time capsule?
Dressing is sort of like a mood ring, so I think my style has been toned down a bit. This is a pretty good indication. [Lifts pant leg to reveal beige socks.]
Wow! I wouldn’t even recognize you from the ankle down.
Next Page: The Michael Bryant Timeline + excerpts from 28 Seconds
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