Can’t remember, can’t forget: what happened in 1989

25 years is a big anniversary. It’s been 25 years since 1989, since a man who hated women so much he targeted and assassinated them, just because they were women.

25 years looms, an anniversary, a milestone that demands its recognition, but how? As every year, there will be ceremonies, remembrances, formal affairs documented by news articles and printed programs. 25 years. We will try to remember the names of the women, try to forget the name of the man, that man whose toxic blend of resentment, fear, entitlement seemed unable to handle even the very existence young women who wanted to be engineers.

I remember, but I try to forget.

In December 1989, I was 16 years old. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet because I was the oldest in my friends and I was waiting for them to be old enough to take the class with me. I was in grade 11, and I was a nerd. My best friends Patti and Megan and Judith and I did everything together, like running the environmentalism club and reading Sassy magazine and doing academic science courses, and spending weekends holed up in each others basements, making grand plans for the future. In the summer of 1990, for example, I would be off at the Northern Summer School for Excellence in Science at Laurentian, a competitive, scholarship-based nerd camp with other kids from far flung Ontario towns, learning minerals science and entering the science pipeline.

In December 1989, I wore t-shirts that said “I love my attitude problem.” In true teenager fashion I saw everything that was wrong with the world and that I could fix it, with my attitude problem, and by starting clubs. In 1989 I knew I was smart, and I knew I was going to be a scientist–maybe a doctor!–and that I was aiming for an A+ in life, because I knew I could get it. My mom was a women’s libber in the 1970s, a career woman throughout my life, a strong role model who got a university degree as an adult, the head of the household. My best friends were strong-willed and independent. Anything was possible. I was a humanist, not a feminist: women could do anything, and we were all just people.

In December 1989, I learned that even in Canada, you could get killed. For being a smart woman. For being a smart woman at school, studying science.

This was a lesson I didn’t want to learn. The news was shocking. I don’t remember really talking about it with anyone. I didn’t want to. I remember reading and being … I guess, traumatized: a sharp, shocking injury to my sense of how the world worked, followed by a deep repression of that knowledge. An investment–for my own capacity to continue to operate in the world–in repressing that knowledge. I couldn’t learn that lesson and carry on. So I wouldn’t.

I knew, but I tried to forget.

It’s wrong of me, I know, but I don’t want to remember the Ecole Polytechnique murders because to hold that reality in my mind and in my heart makes it hard for me to live.

When I remember, it hurts, somewhere deep and important. “School” and “smart” and “science” and “woman” were keys facets of my identity when I was 16, and that it made me a target for murder was literally unthinkable. I wouldn’t think it. I have a strong, self-protective reflex to push it away, even today.

At 16 I was all hope and idealism and energy and ambition. I was also coddled and protected. The murders pierced me, somewhere deep. Something in me changed, and even the act of denying that change, of pushing it away just shifted me further. It made me feel unsafe, targeted, at some fundamental level just for being who I was. School was different. Science was different. Boys were different. Even if I was invested in pretending they were the same.

Nothing was the same.

25 years later, I’m still stuck in that loop. In her book One Hundred Demons, Lynda Barry tiptoes around repressed childhood sexual abuse in a strip on the demon of so-called “Resilience,” that bounce-back-ability we assume that children have. Resilience, she suggests, is just the unbearable oscillation between can’t remember and can’t forget.

This week, I will try to commemorate. But in my heart of hearts, to be able to keep on going every day, I will be trying to forget, trying not to remember.

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