The blackest period of Caitlan Coleman’s curious life, spent largely in the immense shadows cast by Joshua Boyle, came when she was living in the rudimentary toilet room of the couple’s quarters in Afghanistan.
The pair were kidnapped by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network about a week after they had entered the war-torn country in 2012, an “adventure” driven by Boyle’s belief that “the better cultures are Indigenous cultures, poor cultures” and that there they would live among the gentle Pashtun people.
They weren’t freed, by Pakistani troops, until October of 2017.
“He (Boyle) told me I had to stay in the bathroom stall,” Coleman told Ontario Court Judge Peter Doody Wednesday as she began testifying at Boyle’s trial on 19 criminal charges, most of which relate to alleged physical abuse of her.
Boyle, 35, is pleading not guilty to all charges.
“That was where I had to live,” she said. He allegedly told her, “ ‘Just your presence is hurtful to everyone around you.’”
The room consisted of a water source, buckets for washing and a toilet of sorts. Like the main room, it had a dirt floor.
This exile within a captivity, Coleman said, first happened in the spring of 2017, was interspersed with periods where she was allowed in the main room, but from August that year until the pair were rescued, that was her status quo.
By then, they had three young children, and “Josh would sometimes allow them to visit me or I could come out to visit them.” But mostly, she said, the visits would end quickly, with Boyle telling her “’You don’t know how to talk to kids, you’re the worst mother ever’.
“That was probably the darkest period of my whole life,” she said.
Their oldest child, she said, was by then so inured to trauma, he didn’t react.
Yet within two months, when they were freed, and the alleged abuse from Boyle had stopped, Coleman thought, well, “things would be workable…” Such is the age-old rationale offered up by women who stay with their batterers, and who have long ago lost any semblance of self-esteem or free will.
Coleman’s time in Afghanistan, of course, is not the subject of Boyle’s trial, so prosecutor Meaghan Cunningham’s questions were short and to the point.
And yes, Coleman said in reply, she had experienced “physical violence” by her captors, and so had Boyle, though because the pair were separated periodically, she saw only minimal amounts of it.
What is at issue here is Boyle’s alleged treatment of Coleman before captivity, during it, and after, when the couple was flown back to Canada within days of being released.
Their early years together — they met online on a Star Wars forum, as teenagers — were filled with angst and drama overblown even for adolescents.
He was still pining for a previous girlfriend, Coleman said.
“He was so devastated, he said he couldn’t live or love again.” She worried he was suicidal, and “I thought I could be the one to rescue him.” She crushed on him.
They didn’t meet in person for four years, and by then he’d had a new girlfriend, one B., and then she too broke up with him, and again, Boyle couldn’t “face life any more, he was going to kill himself.”
He would hint that maybe he could love her, Coleman, but then the next day would say no, B. was the love of his life; Coleman’s emotions were regulated entirely by him. She began self-harming, a practice that she says has continued.
At its best, their relationship was a volatile melange of fights, breakups and makeups, him criticizing her, her crying and self-harming and self-diagnosing as a borderline personality, then him saying he loved her and her filled with excitement.
Then in late November of 2008, he called to say he was marrying another woman.
This, as it turns out, was the jihadi-loving Zaynab Khadr, sister of Omar Khadr, and after a period of unspecified serious illness, Coleman pulled her life together. She was in college, seeing another man, living on her own in Pennsylvania, where she was raised.
Boyle called her, and soon enough, they were back in touch. He explained “he wasn’t really married to Zaynab, it was just (a show) for the media to help the Khadr family…. He wanted to marry me.”
As Coleman put it, “I still had the feeling Josh was my true love… He opened the door and right away I wanted to go through it.”
By November of 2009, she had broken up with the boyfriend and had committed to Boyle, though, inconveniently, he was still married to Khadr.
As was always the case according to Coleman, as soon as they were physically together — in the same country — the relationship would deteriorate. He’d tell her how to dress (“Eastern styles and what I’d call Prairie dresses”), and she’d do it “because I knew that it pleased him.”
Ultimately, they married in Costa Rica in July of 2011 while on a backpacking trip paid for by Coleman’s father.
After the trip, she went back to Pennsylvania, he to a New Brunswick home he’d bought; neither could legally live in the other’s country.
He threatened to disappear; she was at peace with that, she said. She even had a lawyer draw up divorce papers and was trying to figure out how to serve Boyle when he figuratively showed up at her doorstep.
Somehow, his overpowering magnetic presence — trust me, this is not easily visible — won her over again, and “He got an agreement out of me to see him again… I wanted to make him happy, I wanted us to work out.”
He misled her about the purpose of the Central Asia trip, she said, but three months after they landed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Coleman by now pregnant and “really, really scared,” they entered Afghanistan.
Within weeks of arriving back in Canada, they were staying at the Embassy Hotel in Ottawa, and the old familiar cycle began again: verbal abuse, then physical abuse that allegedly included punches, slaps, spanking, choking and even biting.
It was, she said, on Nov. 5, 2017 that Boyle re-created the shower room exile from their captivity.
“You have to go in the shower stall and strip naked so you don’t leave,” she said he told her. He hit her several times on the face, and ordered her to take three of his sleeping pills.
The trial is off Thursday, so her evidence will continue Friday.
She is testifying via closed-circuit TV, with a support person, her aunt, by her side, and is thus spared the presumably hypnotic gaze of her husband.