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No safe place: what the Montreal Massacre means to women

Right after Marc Lépine’s murderous rampage at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, Flare magazine commissioned this essay. At least one member of the corporate brass took strong exception to my piece, which in his view turned the actions of a “madman” into a feminist rant. (Sound familiar?) But I still have letters from readers who were moved and challenged by the piece.

I was heading home from a Christmas party, sated on champagne and smoked salmon, when the car radio broke the news: 14 young women killed at l’Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal by a gunman shouting, “You’re all a bunch of feminists!” While I was deciding which earrings to wear with my new silk suit, they had been separated from their male classmates and mowed down just because they were women—bright, ambitious women intent on careers in engineering. What kind of lunatic could commit such a systematic mass execution, in which 10 other women and four men were wounded?

Cocooned in a car beside the gentle husband who has been my best friend for 19 years, I couldn’t imagine that the carnage had anything to do with me. I couldn’t, in fact, quite believe that a scenario right out of a schlock horror movie had actually happened. Christmas lights still twinkled on the familiar streets of Toronto—the same streets where I had often walked alone after dark, certain that my practiced, don’t-mess-with-me stride would keep predators at bay. I slept well that night. It wasn’t until I saw the blood-spattered murder scene in the next morning’s papers that I gradually woke up to my own—and all women’s—vulnerability.

Like most of my career-minded generation, I had long trusted that hard work and fair play were my ticket to equality. I didn’t need a shelter for battered wives, and the less fortunate woman who benefited from my token donation seemed as remote from my life as torture victims in Iranian jails. After 15 years of slogging, I’d finally achieved in my field what Marc Lepine’s victims had hoped to achieve in theirs. Now their slaughter raised troubling questions. If they had died because their quest threatened a man’s self-esteem, how safe were the rest of us? What can a corner office and a Donna Karan suit guarantee if there are men around with enough fury in their hearts to snatch all our trophies away?

Women across Canada were asking themselves the same questions. The massacre has destroyed the cultural myth that equality for women is just around the corner. It has forced us to confront the unpalatable fact—one many of us are still dodging—that we women won’t be equal until we can pursue our dreams in safety.

Marc Lepine’s rampage ended in suicide but his semi-automatic rifle spoke for other angry and embittered men who still brutalize women every day, unseen by anyone but their victims. They may be a small minority but they’re far more numerous than we’d like to think. One in four women is sexually assaulted at some time in her life—half of the time before age 17, reports researcher Linda MacLeod in a federal study released last October. One million women a year are abused by their partners either physically or psychologically. Few of the bullies responsible crave the perverse celebrity that follows mass murder, but all claim the right to hurt women who challenge their macho pride.

After the massacre, a Montreal cabby told Toronto Sun columnist Gretchen Drummie what bugged him about Lepine: “he didn’t even know” the 14 women. “I could understand if it was his wife cheating on him, or a woman giving him a hard time, but he didn’t even know them.”

While we might call this attitude “scary,” “backward” or “disgusting,” we don’t call it “mad.” That’s a word we reserve for people like Lépine, whom we tend to view as human tornadoes strewing random violence. Perish the thought that Lepine might have more than a little in common with ordinary Joes like the cabby. “He could have gone after any group,” I heard one man protest. “Hell, it could have been fat, bald men.” No way. Lepine chose students from the same engineering school that had rejected him, and had compiled a hit list of high-profile Quebec women.

Among the first to call attention to the social implications of the massacre was Canada’s acknowledged expert on mass murder, anthropologist Elliott Leyton of Memorial University in Newfoundland. He told The Canadian Press: “Whenever a social group rejects its subservience, as women everywhere have been doing, it threatens those in power.”

It’s an oddly comforting notion, this “madness” of Lépine’s. If he was a freak of nature, then his woman-hating is no comment on our supposedly tolerant society. So otherwise intelligent people see only what they choose to see—a sadly familiar response to unsavoury truths. The Nazies exterminate six million Jews; their collaborators claim they had no idea. Priests molest orphan boys in their care; the authorities look the other way. Now that it’s misogyny’s turn in the spotlight, feminists are branded “hysterical,” “strident” or “man-haters” just for raising the issue. Such is the nature of denial.

Reasonable folks, many of them female, have repeatedly accused the women’s movement of using the carnage in Montreal to score political points. When the CBC phone-in show Cross-Country Checkup explored the implications of the killings, some of the most defensive calls came from women. “How many women scream and hit a man with a pot and beat on him for two hours, and you never hear about that?” demanded one. She clearly had not heard the studies showing that the injuries inflcited by abusive husband are far more frequent and serious than those caused by abusive wives. The problem, she insisted, is that women aren’t “ladies” anymore. More denial.

Younger women who wouldn’t dream of calling themselves “ladies” can be just as tough on feminists. “I went to something that I expected to be a vigil and it turned out to be a rally for feminists against misogyny,” complained a Queen’s University student to the Kingston Whig-Standard. “…I feel sick.” Why wasn’t she “sick” over blatant contempt for women on her own campus? Queen’s, you may recall, is where a date rape awareness campaign prompted men to post signs saying, “No means more beer,” “No means dyke” and “No means tie me up.”

There’s a kind of desperation in some women’s efforts to deny the reality of male violence. Because the men who abuse women, far from having horns and a tail, may look just like your brother or the guy at the next desk—and that’s what makes them so scary. One of the most distressing interviews of my career was with a man who had molested his stepdaughter. Although I’d innocently expected to recoil from Kevin, he turned out to be an attractive, soft-spoken guy. If I’d been a single mother meeting him at a neighbourhood barbecue, we might have hit it off. And then he could have preyed on my child.

I learned a lot about denial from writing that story. While quoting experts on the frequency of sexual abuse, I quietly suspected them of exaggerating. Then I admitted that it had happened to me at 15 during a shopping trip to Boston with my mother. On a crowded subway car, I suddenly felt a hand groping between my legs. As it worked its way toward my panties, I kept telling myself that the squeezing fingers must be figments of imagination. Then I saw the tight-lipped, expressionless face of the man next to me, saw his arm moving up and down. I didn’t protest for fear that no one would believe me. “It was nothing,” I told myself.

Fear and humiliation aren’t “nothing.” And they’re as deeply embedded in women’s lives as diets or working-mother guilt. MacLeod’s study proves the point: 56 percent of urban Canadian women say they are afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighbourhoods, compared to just 18 percent of men.

A woman needn’t experience male violence directly to feel its breath down the back of her neck. Don’t we all know what it’s like to fear a man? My friend Gail, a graphic artist, was waiting for a bus one bright noon-hour when a burly man stood just inches in front of her and fixed her with an intimidating stare. She moved away, he followed. She asked him louder and louder to leave her alone but still couldn’t shake him, nor did passers-by pay the slightest attention to her distress. “I’d have run away,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t because I’d injured my back and was using a cane.” When she hobbled into the middle of the road and waved her cane, car after car passed her by before a security guard across the street finally came to her rescue.

Women are so quick to join in the denial of our own vulnerability. Most of us accept it in silence, the same way we accpet male supermarket clerks who call us “dear” and visiting clients who assume we’re the secretary. Yet we make accommodations to it nightly: crossing the street when we hear footsteps behind us, warming up our cars with the doors locked, avoiding dark streets and parking garages.

I’m not accusing all men of poisonous rage against my sex. Far from it. Most men don’t inflict violence on anyone (although I’ll bet that more than a few would be out for blood if any man harmed their daughters). I don’t know one father who didn’t suffer for the Montreal police officer who had been briefing reporters at the murder scene when he found his own daughter among the dead. I sympathize with the nice guys who were angry and hurt when organizers of a vigil for the victims in Thunder Bay, Ont., challenged all men to take responsibility for the shooting—and denied them a public expression of their sympathy and grief. If you ask me, the organizers missed the boat.

Men can’t share women’s intimate knowledge of sexual vulnerability. But they can try to imagine how it feels—if we tell them. And I think there are many who will listen. Nine days after the massacre, The Globe and Mail ran an ad placed by an engineering firm that was pledging its support to women in the profession. “We have been silent too long,” the ad concluded, “and deeply regret if by our silence we have fostered a climate which does not actively discourage hostile acts and attitudes toward women.”

We won’t turn things around without men’s help. Facing up to the closet Lépines in our midst is only the beginning. We also have to raise sons who welcome women as equals. The much-celebrated “new father” who whips up a mean chili while his wife crams for her bar exam is still not exactly mainstream. And as long as mothers bear the brunt of parenting, they will be targets for male anger. Think about it. Mom is the one who gives a baby food and comfort, but she’s also the one who takes them away.

In my years of chronicling the battle of the sexes, I’ve made plenty of blithe predictions based on scanty evidence. I once speculated that if a cultural icon like John Lennon could opt to stay home baking bread and tending his son, then a truce must surely be in sight. But Lennon has been dead for a decade and Lépine’s victims have served notice that it will take a lot more than stiffer gun control laws to create the kinder, gentler era being heralded in the press. Something tells me I won’t live to see the day. I hope my granddaughter will but I’m hedging my bets.

Looking into my mirror, I see a woman whose hours of toning on Nautilus machines would be scant protection from a 200-pound attacker. I see the hint of wariness behind the high-fashion sunglasses. But at least I’m seeing what is, not what I’d like to see. If we can all admit how far we really are from the brave new world of sexual equality, we just might get there one day.

First published at greater length in Flare, May, 1990. Copyright Rona Maynard.


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