I am very lucky. Once a month, I get together with a group of women who inspire awe. They are artists, writers, educators, researchers, business women, chefs and mothers. Smart, brave and tough, they set any room to buzzing. I regularly give thanks for their presence in my life. These women raise me up.
My guest today, Donna Decker, is a key part of this group. Donna is a writer and a professor of English at Franklin Pierce University. She contributes to Ms. Magazine and has completed her first novel. Whip-smart, indomitable and funny as hell, she does not back down from a fight. More than once, she has gifted me with strength when I’ve most doubted myself as a writer, a mother, a woman trying to be whole in a world that is not always eager for me to succeed.
As a blog contributor for Ms., Donna writes about the stories — personal, cultural, political — that we “must tell, or go mad or die.” Her essays challenge the status quo, the business-as-usual inertia that leads to the endless vetting of Frazen, the iniquities highlighted in the VIDA count, and, more broadly, the bill of goods that tells young women that feminism is over, unnecessary, kaput. She is not afraid to shout, to remind women that we don’t need to hobble ourselves in “stiletto sprint footraces,” that date night is not a cure for spousal abuse, and that “feminine decorum” is a cozy, noxious trap.
Our stories become a power in the telling, in remembrance, in what we seek and claim and honor. Donna’s current manuscript tells the story of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, the brutal murder of 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique. It is a story that must be told, and she will tell it with ferocity and courage and stunning eloquence. We will not forget.
All of Donna’s writing, her teaching, her mentoring — her life — puts a spotlight on “the dangers that lurk in failing to startle.” The dangers of complacency, of willful blindness and amnesia. I am honored to have her as a guest today, to be inspired. Please welcome Donna Decker to The Hatchery.
Your novel tells the story of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, a chilling and horrific series of events. I know you’ve done an enormous amount of research for this book. What startled you the most as you uncovered the details of these killings?
So many things startled and alarmed me while I was researching and writing this book. Crazy as it may sound, it was not even the cold-blooded murder of fourteen women that was the most horrifying. It was the vocal support for the murders after the fact. On talk radio in the days after the massacre, men called to say they admired the killer for having the guts to do this to “feminists.” One man called a Montreal columnist (who was on the “hit list” the killer left behind – a list of women he’d wished he’d had time to kill) and told her that if she wanted to interview the dead killer, she could interview him: he felt the same hateful way about feminists. In 2009, just days before the international conference on the Montreal Massacre, police feared for the safety of conference attendees (I was among them), and they arrested a man in Montreal for inciting violence against women (and for having a weapon) because his 100-page blog praised the killer for his actions, dubbing him Saint Marc and asking readers to lock and load on the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.
That “knife edge of mere fact,” as Adrienne Rich terms it, was tough to endure. Dwelling in that explicit hate, reading the misogynist blogs, realizing that there is still so much more hatred of women than I had ever known – that made for some long days. Often during the research and writing my soul had to look away for a time.
In my School Shootings Seminar for first year college students, our discussion of the Montreal Massacre led to a days-long, intense dialogue about the way the killer ejected the 51 men from the classroom, then lined up the 9 women and shot them. The question with which the seminar grappled was the one all of Canada tackled in the weeks and years after the actual event: should the men have stayed, protected the women from the armed man? We considered every viewpoint carefully and respectfully, and we came to no consensus.
The upside of these startling moments is that each day I renewed my commitment to tell this horrific story from the perspective of the women, not the haters. What was it like to be an engineering student in 1989, one of the 15%? What was it like to have your sister or your daughter go to school and never come home? These were the stories that I wanted to hear, so I wrote them, relegating the details about the murderer to footnotes (literally!).
What has been the most difficult part of this project for you?
Finding time to be in the writing process in the way I know works was the most difficult. During the four years I’ve been at it, I had one semester-long sabbatical and four summers. Those were luxuries. I was disciplined about my writing time, and I was able to linger in silence long enough to really work out a sentence or a thought or a revision of a chapter. All of that came crashing to a halt each August when the semester started to boot up. I found I could not work on the novel in any meaningful way during the school year. My obligations kept me far too busy. I am most fortunate to have the kind of job that allows the summers “off,” so that I can work at my writing.
Key moments were challenging, as well. I had to consciously work to keep my spirits up when, for example, the sister of one of the massacre victims told me about going to the engineering school the night of the murders and learning of her sister’s death, and later, reading her sister’s autopsy report. She was crying. I was crying. And that sadness lingered. I had to allow it to be there for as long as it needed to be then to move on and to understand that I was honoring that deep human sadness by way of writing that story for that sister.
Perhaps the worst day of all was when I shot a Ruger Mini-14, the weapon used by the Polytechnique killer. I am an inveterate researcher, and I felt I had to know what it felt like for the killer to shoot that semi-automatic rifle, what it might have felt like to be one of those fourteen on the other side of that gun. My partner John is a gun collector and happens to own a Ruger Mini-14 ( I do recognize the irony in this.). One sunny morning, wearing a blue cotton Laura Ashley nightgown and pink rain boots (these details remain crystal clear to me), I went out to his back acre (he lives on a farm), where he loaded the gun with a banana clip (as the killer had done in order to maximize the bullet count), donned ear covering, and shot the gun at a paper target. Then it was my turn. Never have I done anything so foreign to my experience. I had to hold the gun high, butt it against my shoulder and ear, and then lean into the target. My entire body wanted to resist leaning into that target, though it was paper. “Release the safety,” John said, and I did, and I leaned in, and then I had to stop. I put the gun down, removed the headgear, and cried till my body ached. It was the leaning in that did it. The killer had to lean into those young women. He had to pull the trigger for each round he shot. There was nothing easy or automatic about these murders: it was a conscious decision to squeeze off each round. And I, in my Laura Ashley and pink boots, could not lean in because the paper target I was aiming at looked like fourteen female engineers.
In addition to your writing, you are a teacher and a mentor. What’s the most
important lesson you’d like to convey to the students in your classes?
Hands down, the most important lesson I want my students to take away from my classes is to have empathy for other people. This is not easy, but it is the work of the English major. One reads literature in order to dwell in the experience of another, to meander around in the brain and heart of a human being in a way that is impossible in real life even with our most intimate others. Literature enables us to think more broadly, more deeply, and more generously.
Can you name one or two topics you’d like to tackle in future blog posts for Ms.?
Sexism in the literary world; rape on college campuses and as a tool of war; the prevalence and popularity of the anti-intellectual character; brave and extraordinary women/feminists.
Who was your role model growing up? Who is your role model now?
The Sisters of Saint Joseph were my role models growing up, all through high school in fact. Nuns get a bad rap, but I must say that the nuns I had were smart women who taught us to be kind and socially conscious and to work hard. They were the first ones to teach me that God created everyone equal. I loved that immediately, and immediately discovered that not everyone felt this way. Those nuns planted a seed that grew me into an activist for social justice.
My role models today are women of courage: Texas’s Wendy Davis of recent filibuster fame; Gloria Steinem and Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood who never fail to challenge the status quo in creative and brilliant ways; and my friends, real women who endure loss and illness and inequity and dark nights of the soul and still manage to get up for another day.
I have two young daughters, ages 6 and 9. They are spunky, irreverent, math-and-science loving hooligans. What are the greatest obstacles they will face? What do we need to change today in order to preserve the feisty spirits of our daughters? What do we most need to teach them?
Ahhh…what a wonderful question. I, too, have two daughters, 27 and 25 now, and a son who is 21.
We need to do exactly what Wendy Davis did in Texas. We need to claim our own voices and to teach our daughters to claim theirs – even if it means standing up to scary people and even if it feels uncomfortable. We need to teach them to learn to think critically about the world rather than swallowing it wholesale. When my daughters were little, we told stories about our day at the dinner table. Whenever I would tell a story about a female student, both girls would immediately ask, “is she pretty?” I would never answer that question. I would say things like: she is very bright; she wears purple Converse sneakers; she writes with a Hello Kitty pen, but I would never answer the reductive pretty question because that is not how I wanted my daughters to give value to girls.
We preserve their feisty spirits by letting them pick their own mismatched outfits, by fostering their interests in pottery and ice hockey and political analysis. We need to hold up a stop sign to those who would mold our daughters into anything other than what they would be: kind, intelligent, curious, and strong girls. While they are too young to advocate for themselves, we do that for them, teaching them all the while, that they are loved and valued for just being little feisty girls.
Thank you, Donna. As always, you amaze and inspire.
Donna Decker is Professor of English and women’s studies at Franklin Pierce University. She is the mother of three children, a Ms. Magazine Feminist Scholar, occasional columnist for The Berkshire Eagle (in Pittsfield, MA).