This is a guest post written by Heidi Tiedemann Darroch.
For Sharon Rosenberg (1964-2010), whose thinking about how to remember is so missed
The first rumours swirl at dinner in our baronial dining hall, a nod to the University of Toronto’s Oxbridgean aspirations. Stern portraits of college heads—all men, all white—gaze down. In the main college building, a famed gryphon adorns the bottom of a staircase railing, rubbed shiny by decades of student hands seeking good luck before exams. Today I rubbed it, extra hard. It is the most beautiful place I have ever lived, and I feel safer than I have ever felt. The door to my room locks. Only I have the key.
Students have been shot, I hear in the cafeteria line. It makes no sense.
And then, Women have been shot.
We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. We called ourselves girls, usually, not women, and we were so much like those who had just been murdered: ambitious, hardworking, eager to embark on adult life and professions. Montreal was familiar, the big city two hours from home. I knew two of the women. One died. One survived her injuries.
Fourteen women died: thirteen students and a staff member.
We’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: in a classroom, the man separated the men and women, ordered the male students and professor to leave. He shot women after telling them that they were a bunch of feminists. One tried to protest, saying they were not feminists, just women seeking an education. To him—angry, thwarted—every woman seeking an education in the Engineering faculty was his enemy, his rival for entitlements: to education, to safety, to belonging in the world.
We need to remember that he said “feminist.” That he named accomplished women he believed to be feminists in a hit list the police were reluctant to release.
The fourteen women who died were Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edwards, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault and Annie Turcotte.
December 6, 1989 was the last day that I ever felt completely safe at school.
At eight, my reading obsession is boarding school novels—St. Clare’s, Mallory Towers, and the Chalet School, where the intrusion of Nazis and spy plot lines jostles uneasily against midnight feasts and sending a classmate to Coventry for tattling.
In one of these books I struggle with a puzzling phrase: “safe as houses.” My mother explains it means that the girl feels as safe as if she were at home.
My mother is wrong.
To be at home is not safe. My mother has never been safe at home, and she cannot keep us safe. She grew up with alcoholism, violence, sexual abuse, a sister stabbed with a kitchen knife by their own mother and then pushed down a flight of stairs. She left home at sixteen, married at nineteen, ended up in hospital from that marriage. She tells me her mother-in-law visited, and gave her money to get out.
I seize up, writing this reflection, for a week. This is not a story I am supposed to tell. This is not a story I am allowed to tell. It is, and it is not, my story to tell. Here is what you need to know: As a child, I felt safer at school.
And I learn, belatedly, that “safe as houses” means something entirely different—a Victoria phrase, referring to purchasing houses as a safe financial investment. It was never about homes.
As a child,I am safer at school. I arrive early to help the teacher, stay late to clean chalkboards and then bang the erasers together, releasing clouds of glorious white dust. My teachers notice, protect me. My fifth grade teacher calls us all “petit trésor,” little treasure.
It is January and time to return to classes. We have already stopped talking about the women who died.
My first new class is in a windowless auditorium. It’s a women’s studies course, but the exits are all the way at the back of the hall. It would be so easy for someone to come in the back, block us from fleeing, kill dozens of us at once.
I drop the course.
I choose new ones but stop attending. I drift through a winter, falling in love three times, not thinking about the women who died, too scared to go to class and too scared to tell anyone that my scholarship is in jeopardy. I get engaged and am on track to be married at nineteen, just like my mother. I end up in hospital, like—but not at all like—my mother. The assailant I am afraid of is myself. I don’t want to live in this world where going to school is not safe. Home is not safe. Walking down the street, going to a party, waiting in line at a movie, working after dark alone in a store–any next moment could be the one where a man decides I am a rival or enemy. He might be a stranger. He’s more likely to be a lover, a spouse, a father.
Sara N. Ahmed writes about fear’s stickiness, such that “objects of fear become substituted for each other over time” (“The Politics of Fear in the Making of Worlds” 389). These relationships of substitution are confusing, confused. Who is a friend, and who is a threat? I work the most frantically at placating the people I fear. Reading Ahmed’s “Resignation Is a Feminist Issue” shakes me. I leave a job where I am unsafe and then, isolated, email her, because collective disbelief and denial is hard to survive. Over the next year and half, I work through official complaints and processes, lawyers and allegations that I was too competent for my own good. Ahmed includes my experience in her work, quotes my words in a public context. I feel safer, because this is solidarity, because she believes me, which helps me believe myself.
I have learned to theorize my way through trauma. It works, most of the time. I write a paper for a conference and sit, calmly, reading it out loud because it is less scary than making eye contact with the handful of strangers in the room. I write about trauma, historical fiction, and false memory allegations. I do this for years, because the longer I stay in school the more therapy I can access for free. This is one way to end up with a PhD.
And then I am too embarrassed to include the counselor who enabled my work in my acknowledgements, U of T’s first sexual assault counselor and educator. Thank you, Patti McGillicuddy.
For twenty years I have been teaching in colleges and universities. I feel safe. To be the teacher, my favourite make believe as a child, is to be the safest person in the room, the one with the most power and privilege. I love teaching.
After I have been teaching for several years, there is a campus shooting—one of many in the U.S., so frequent they become wearying. This one is at a university and there are stories about a brave professor who died protecting her students.
I am not that brave. I burn with shame. I will plead and bargain with the shooter, I imagine, and my words will be inadequate. The image of how I will fail my students is so vivid that I have to remind myself, over and over, of how unlikely it is that my students will be endangered.
My students are in danger. In their residences, the weekend partying is a euphemism for rape culture. A student, eyes swollen, sat in my office on a Monday afternoon, explaining why her paper is not finished. She went to a party, woke up 18 hours later, hurting and with no memories. I offer to walk her to the campus clinic. She just wants to go home. She drops the course and I don’t see her again. She doesn’t answer my email. I failed her.
It is time for my eighteen-year-old to start university, and I am terrified. I spend a summer obsessing about danger and planning for disaster. Their dad buys them earthquake supplies, even though the city where they are moving is not in a seismically active area—we are. My child is moving to greater safety, and I should be grateful, but I am so scared.
Yes, I know it’s PTSD. But living in the world and feeling this unsafe is exhausting. Fortunately, there’s baking. And my child is less scared than I am, and this is progress.
Fourteen benches sit in a circle outside the Vancouver bus station, in a neglected park. The Canada geese have taken over, and it’s a mess. Every time I visit, I take a picture, charting decay, then send angry email messages to the parks board asking for the memorial to be maintained.
Christine Bold, Ric Knowles, and Belinda Leach consider in their 2002 article how a memorial site might help sustain memory and resist the “active forgetting” of “hegemonic memorializing” (“Feminist Memorializing and Cultural Countermemory: The Case of Marianne’s Park” 130). They point out that race, ethnicity, and social status inform how much public support there is for commemoration. These 14 benches are only blocks from the Downtown Eastside where dozens of women vanished over several decades. Not disappearing: being disappeared. I think of Rebecca Belmore’s powerful, haunting “Vigil,” the way she stood in a parking lot shredding rose petals from their stems with her teeth. Raging, mourning.
On December 6 I will teach my last day of classes, saying goodbye to students and the communities we’ve built together this term. I will gather with colleagues to celebrate each other’s care and support. And I will look forward to helping create a world with more light and hope in the coming year, so that all of us–all of our children–can step into classrooms, and out into the world. Unafraid.
Heidi Tiedemann Darroch teaches English and Access courses at Camosun College as a term faculty member. She is the co-editor of this month’s special section of the Canadian Journal of Studies in Discourse and Writing on pedagogy and academic labour and she has recently published in several collections of Canadian literary criticism, including Ethics and Affects in the Fiction of Alice Munro (edited by Amelia DeFalco and Lorraine York) and the forthcoming Canadian Culinary Imaginations (edited by Shelley Boyd and Dorothy Barenscott. She also works on women’s cultural production, higher education activism, and writing studies.