Karen Gosbee's tell-all book exposes domestic abuse amid extreme wealth - The Globe and Mail thumbnail

Karen Gosbee’s tell-all book exposes domestic abuse amid extreme wealth – The Globe and Mail

Karen Gosbee and her husband George attend a gala at the Banff Centre in 2012.

One night in the fall of 2011, Karen Gosbee’s husband pinned and choked her on the granite steps in their palatial master ensuite. She says she was able to get away by telling him she heard a noise from their children, and made a call to 911 from the landline downstairs. When he realized the police were on their way, she says he became doubly agitated.

“George began freaking out even more, raving about how he’d never be given an Order of Canada,” Karen Gosbee writes. “Being found out as a domestic abuser would ruin his chances. That’s what he was most concerned about.”

George Gosbee was the famous Calgary financier and philanthropist who made millions in oil patch deal-making before he turned 40. He founded two mid-size independent investment banks, AltaCorp and Tristone, and was the onetime co-owner of the Arizona Coyotes. He was a key character in the story of Alberta’s halcyon days, when oil prices were high and capital was plentiful, and a friend to billionaires and political leaders. Calgary was shocked when he died by suicide in November, 2017. It only emerged in the weeks and months afterward that the 48-year-old had long been suffering from a number of mental-health conditions, and addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Three years later, his widow Karen Gosbee is telling a detailed and harrowing account of the couple’s life together in her memoir, A Perfect Nightmare: My Glittering Marriage and How It Almost Cost Me My Life. The book was co-written by the late journalist Anne Kingston and will be published by Kenneth Whyte’s Sutherland House on Oct. 20.

In her book, she provides a rare glimpse into a world of extreme wealth – replete with fox hunts in the English countryside, luxury-goods shopping sprees and a calendar full of black-tie charity events. But beneath the well-manicured exterior, she says there were her husband’s crippling addictions and insecurities, and a boomtown culture that cultivated sexism and infidelities – where some women such as Ms. Gosbee were kept on a financial leash by their rich husbands. She started writing a journal because she wanted proof of her existence. “I was increasingly aware of how I was viewed as an extension of George.”

Ms. Gosbee also reveals for the first time the emotional abuse that led to several instances of physical abuse at the hands of her husband – that she feared for her life – and that he killed himself days after she asked for a divorce. Much of Mr. Gosbee’s business success came from the fact he was a born salesman. But that strength had a dark side, allowing him to manipulate personal situations to his advantage, like talking down the two police officers dispatched to the house that night in 2011.

A quarter-century of memories are sometimes honeyed, but mostly painful: “George and I getting married in Turkey, so young and unprepared. The early fights. Me with my babies alone in big, beautiful houses. George drunk, asleep at the dinner table. George curled into a fetal position on the floor. George threatening suicide. George threatening me. I think of the decades I lived in terror of a certain look from him, how I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the next outburst. I think of us fighting, us laughing, us fighting, then having sex. I think of the facade we constructed. Then I think about George’s fist pounding my face in a Buenos Aires hotel room.”

Ms. Gosbee, 50, is disarmingly frank both in person, and in her book, which also serves as a meditation on the stress of keeping up a public veneer as a golden couple while suffering immense private pain. She writes she has been the target of social censure and speculation for what community members have judged as her role in his downward spiral. Her dealmaker husband remains a polarizing figure in Calgary long after his death, and the memoir will likely serve to intensify those divisions in the city’s private clubs and wealthiest neighbourhoods, and among the couple’s friends and family.

“The George I knew was generous, outgoing, charismatic, accomplished, highly intelligent and would give his shirt off his back to anyone who needed it,” Mr. Gosbee’s sister Jean Gosbee said in an e-mail regarding the book, the specific contents of which she hadn’t seen. It’s unfortunate, she said, her brother isn’t able to speak for himself.

“I wish nothing more but for no one to ever have to experience the pain my family has endured.”

In an interview, Karen Gosbee says she doesn’t have any qualms that her husband isn’t here to give his account of their tumultuous relationship. For years, she lived with the “dark cloud” of his alcohol and substance abuse, suicide attempts, repeated tries at rehab and sometimes threatening demands for sex.

“For 23 years, it was only his version,” Ms. Gosbee says, speaking steps from where Mr. Gosbee died – a picturesque riverfront yard and family home, now a frozen asset in legal wrangling over a financial debacle left in the wake of his death.

“It’s time for the other side.”

Karen Gosbee in Calgary, on Sept. 26, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Why didn’t she leave? She says there were happy parts of their marriage, and a fully intertwined life with their three children. There were all the realities of tearing apart a family – ensuring that she and her kids were safe, and she would have access to a community of support, and some money. Then there was the optimism so frequent in abusive relationships, that better times were on the horizon.

She says her children, now adults, are supportive of the book, and won’t be surprised by anything in it. “My mom tried to convey he wasn’t a monster. He tried to get better. At the end of the day, he was a human being,” the oldest of the children, John Gosbee, 25, said of the memoir this week.

“I was very young and my mom did a really stoic, but unhealthy, job of protecting us from a lot of the physical and emotional abuse she had to endure.”

These days, Ms. Gosbee is an advocate for mental health, and co-chairs Calgary’s Community Action on Mental Health and Addiction stewardship group. She’s also grateful to have her autonomy, and the ability to create awareness and change.

“People will often ask, ‘Why did she stay? Why didn’t she get the help she needs?’ First of all, why aren’t we asking, ‘Why doesn’t he leave? Why does he abuse?’ “

“They don’t realize how little people know about domestic violence, and coercive control,” she adds. “And ultimately, on the back end, I want to work on changing policy and on gender education. That’s a huge thing, to get that in the schools.”

Ms. Gosbee writes that she identifies with the stories of Dr. Elana Fric, the Toronto doctor killed by her neurosurgeon husband, or Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste Wright in HBO’s Big Little Lies, whose hedge-fund manager husband quietly torments her in their plush walk-in closet. They are examples of what Ms. Gosbee calls affluent abuse. She argues wealth may create different barriers for women weighing whether to disclose the violence they have suffered.

“Their internalized privilege can lead to denial, and an unwillingness to identify with marginalized women who’ve gone through comparable trauma,” she says in the book.

“Affluent women often feel a need to protect the abuser’s social standing and income. There’s the fear the victim won’t be believed if the abuser is a pillar of the community, and that the abuser’s influence and connections could be used to ruin the victim. And then there’s the financial control, legal controls, and technological surveillance that often figure into ‘affluent’ abuse, as it did with me.”

Before there was physical abuse, there was emotional abuse, Ms. Gosbee writes. Her husband mocked her as stupid and uneducated, nicknamed her “Einstein” and called her far worse. He also monitored her e-mails and texts, and controlled their finances. She didn’t have to work and had the outward trappings of wealth: a new Range Rover, jewellery, clothes and family trips around the world. But none of it was really hers – she was provided a monthly allowance, and had no credit history of her own. He made the final decision to buy on every house they owned and often ruled over her clothes and accessories. “Prada bags were a guilt gift from him, in return for abuse or what I later came to understand was misbehaviour on business trips.”

He chased her out of their home on a number of occasions, once while swinging a bouquet of roses he had given her after their daughter’s birth like a baseball bat, she writes. His aggressive behaviour ramped up over a number of years, the book says, and culminated in him beating her with his fists after a wine-soaked dinner in Argentina in 2012.

Mr. Gosbee had started regularly drinking more after millions of the family’s wealth evaporated in the financial crisis of 2008. “If we’d been worth $50 million – I never knew the exact figures – suddenly we were worth $20 million,” Ms. Gosbee writes. In the years before he died, there were “manic” monthly credit-card bills averaging $60,000 to $80,000. “The money went to global expeditions: A trip to the South Pole, $85,000; big-game hunting, $60,000; the climbing portion of a trip to [the Carstensz Pyramid] in Papua New Guinea, $34,000. He spent $11,000 on a dirt bike he bought in Arizona and used once. The amount he spent staying at [luxury hotel] Le Germain would have paid a teacher for a year.”

The couple had been living separately before Mr. Gosbee died but were still in regular contact. However, Ms. Gosbee writes she didn’t know the financial distress her husband was in until she began picking up the pieces after his death.

“He was facing a call note on a big loan that was about to come due on November 13, the day after his body was found. He had been pinning his hopes on an investment that could bring in millions but hadn’t delivered anything.”

Ms. Gosbee doesn’t shy away from her own failings, and less-than-altruistic thoughts. Both she and her husband, she says, had an unhealthy dependence on one another. She would get under Mr. Gosbee’s skin by going after his insecurities – his poor body image, or by telling him some “nice, decent, neighbourly people” didn’t want anything to do with him.

She writes that Mr. Gosbee had a long list of affairs, but she also speaks of her extramarital relationship with the hockey coach of one of her kids (for which she said she was branded as a Hester Prynne-like figure by some in their social circle). She remembers judging another wealthy woman with extensive plastic surgery, until she realized how her new acquaintance’s anxious relationship with her husband mirrored her own.

The book is filled with conflicting emotions. In the closing pages, Ms. Gosbee expresses “gratitude to George Gosbee for the love, hope, and opportunities he gave me.” And when her husband died, she writes she “wanted to believe George was finally in a place of love and peace.” He had spent his life fighting for success and for social approval, fighting his addictions, fighting her and fighting to stay alive.

“Now that fight was over. But it would be a lie to say I wasn’t angry at him.”

In the end, Ms. Gosbee’s book is also damning of the work-hard, play-hard culture of the finance and business world her husband was once a part of – one that has existed in nearly every city when large sums of money are changing hands. When times were good, as they were in the first decade of the century in Calgary, men in Mr. Gosbee’s deal-making circles obsessed over ultra-expensive watches and the best tickets to sports finals, and partied “like frat boys.” She writes that celebratory getaways by chartered private plane sometimes included mistresses and hired women companions.

During one conversation with her husband, he told her he wished their marriage was more like another couple they knew, his business associate’s and his wife.

At that moment, she writes, the business associate he was talking about texted him a picture of female breasts. The image was of a woman his friend was having an affair with, the wife of another one of his business partners.

“Yeah, it would be great to have a marriage like their marriage,” Ms. Gosbee recalled saying, and laughed “at the absurdity of it all.”

With a file from Jeffrey Jones, Calgary

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