Neither Forgotten nor Fully Remembered: Tracing an Ambivalent Public Memory on the Tenth Anniversary of the Montreal Massacre1
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Although social power regulates what losses can be grieved, it is not always as effective as it aims to be. The loss cannot be fully denied, but neither does it appear in a way that can be directly affirmed.
—Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power
In the early evening of 6 December 1989 a twenty-five-year-old white man by the name of Marc Lepine entered l’Ecole polytechnique (the School of Engineering) at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. Armed with a semiautomatic rifle, he walked into a fourth-year mechanical engineering class of sixty (Rathjen and Monpetit 1999b, 10), ordered the male students, and two professors, to leave—which they all did—and shot six women to death, screaming the accusation that they were a “bunch of feminists.” He then walked through hallways and entered other classrooms, murdering eight more women. In addition to these dead, Lepine injured nine women and four men—the latter having been shot at, it is generally presumed, because they attempted to impede his rampage. At the end of this massacre he killed himself. In the three-page suicide note found on his body, but not released into public circulation for a year, Lepine described the murders as a political act and blamed feminism for ruining his life.2 Key sentiments in this letter (in translation) read:
Would you note that if I commit suicide today 89-12-06 it is not for economic reasons…but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have ruined my life, to their Maker… .Even if the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational erudite that only the arrival of the Grim Reaper has forced me to take extreme acts… .Being rather backward-looking by nature (except for science), the feminists have always enraged me. (in Malette and Chalouh 1991,180-81)
The text of the letter is followed by a “hit list” of nineteen prominent Quebec women and a note, “the lack of time (because I started too late) has allowed these radical feminists to live” (in Malette and Challouh, 1991,181).
Like many others, my life was pierced by these killings. Studying at another university at the time, not 200 miles away from Montreal, having made Canada my home for a decade and for close to as many years named myself a feminist, my identificatory proximity to the women murdered was high, even though in life they were unknown to me. More than twelve years later I recall with visceral texture the moment I received a call from a friend, telling me to turn on the television, sitting vigil in front of that small screen deep into the night, rigid with shock. While that rigidity gradually eased, I continued to live with the murders, which are a haunting presence in my intellectual and political life.
This is a haunting that turns me not to the past, as though it were suspended from the present, but to keeping a past-present relation animated and open. As Wendy Brown (2001,171) elucidates, drawing from the work of Benjamin, at stake here is “making a historical event or formation contemporary, making it an ‘outrage to the present’ [Bloz and van Reijen] and thus exploding or reworking both the way in which it has been remembered and the way in which it is positioned in historical consciousness as ‘past.’” This chapter endeavours to make the massacre at the Poly such an “outrage to the present.” Tracing the ways in which it has been publicly remembered through tenth anniversary commemoration, I argue that, far from being settled (and hence a matter of “the past”), the Montreal massacre remains an ambivalent memory that cannot be addressed without an opening of present-day frames and commitments. I begin by recalling the texture of the loss, grief, and shock that was expressed in the aftermath of the murders and how these have been named in the historical record. I then outline the conceptual terms of reference upon which the chapter draws—terms that are then put into play through an analysis of how the massacre is being remembered and how the strategies of that remembrance position the living. I end the chapter with a call to take up the fraught ambivalence of memory as a resource for opening the present so as to more fully encounter the loss(es) of the massacre.
Figure 5 Bench, Marker of Change—Nathalie Croteau, Vancouver (with permission of Sharon Rosenberg).