Donna Decker remembers well that first day of research in Montreal. No one would talk to her.
She was a Ms. Magazine Foundation Scholar, intent on writing a book about 14 women who were ruthlessly murdered in what became known as the Montreal Massacre, a shooting rampage spawned by the misogyny of a lone gunman.
The concept she had outlined — a book centered on the women whose lives were taken, not a book about the shooter — was being suppressed by those most intimately affected, the very people she needed to interview.
“It was a terrible event and they wanted to distance themselves from it,” Decker, a full-time English professor at Franklin Pierce University since 1998, said Tuesday from her office. “They didn’t want to talk. I went back to the hotel, and I cried.”
It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that Decker shed tears while pouring out “Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You,” released in May by Inanna Publications of Toronto.
The 344-page novel dignifies the lives snuffed out and scrutinizes the misogynistic environment that enveloped them unknowingly, prodding readers to compare then with today.
The Montreal Massacre took place Dec. 6, 1989, when a 25-year-old male student, twice-rejected by an elite engineering college, L’Ecole Polytechnic, killed 14 women. He entered a classroom on campus, armed with a semi-automatic Sturm-Ruger, a Mini-14 hunting rifle, banana clips and a knife.
He ordered the men to leave the classroom, then fatally shot several women. He repeated his actions around campus, hunting down women. He killed 14 women in 24 minutes and wounded another 14, four of them men who got in his way.
The shooter, Marc Lepine, whose name Decker is loath to write and say due to the attention it affords him, then sat at a desk and fatally shot himself in the head.
Amiable, outgoing and a favorite among many students at Franklin Pierce, Decker is director of the English honors and the women in leadership programs at the university in Rindge. Raised in a working-class family in Pittsfield, Mass., she earned a Ph.D. from Northeastern University and a master’s in English at Salem State College.
She will be reading from and speaking about the book, her first, Saturday at Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough at 2 p.m.
Decker, who has lived in Ashburnham, Mass., since 1990, raised three children primarily as a single mother while juggling work and studying for her Ph.D., a nine-year odyssey. Her dissertation focused on 19th-century women writers, feminists who resisted roles they were forced into through marriage.
It was through that research that she came across a blurb about the Montreal Massacre.
It was merely a few lines, but she couldn’t get the story out of her head. Paraphrasing noted author and poet Walter Mosley, she says the subject gnawed its way out from the inside, prompting her to read everything she could about the massacre.
She found plenty of information on the shooter, plenty of psychoanalyses, but little on those who were shot. She encountered attitudes such as, “Oh, they were just the victims.” Today, ask folks in the U.S. about the Montreal Massacre and blank stares are likely to follow.
Sitting in her hotel room in Montreal on that first night six years ago, stymied by the cold reactions to her inquiries, Decker got a call from a sympathetic administrative assistant at L’Ecole Polytechnic. The administrator gave Decker a name and number, Sylvie Haviernick, the sister of shooting victim Maud Haviernick. Decker and Haviernick have since become close friends.
“She told me all about her sister. She just told me everything and I was grateful for that,” Decker said, recalling long walks and talks with Haviernick, day and night.
Communication avenues with other relatives and witnesses of the massacre soon opened, and Decker became immersed in their stories. She is close with filmmaker Francine Pelletier, whose name was on a list of 19 women that the shooter left behind, women he wanted to kill but didn’t have the time, he wrote in a note.
Today, Pelletier is an award-winning journalist who tirelessly brings attention to violence against women through her writings, documentaries and TV appearances in Canada. As Decker delved deeper into her research, Pelletier became one of her key supporters.
“You are the person to write this,” Decker remembers Pelletier telling her.
Nathalie Provost, today a mechanical engineer in Quebec, was shot four times but survived. When the gunman screamed that he hated feminists, Provost answered they were not feminists, they were women studying engineering. Then she was shot.
Decker says she took to heart the praise Provost offered after reading the book. “I needed that. People who were in the building thought that I got it right, and that was very important to me,” Decker said.
The book isn’t non-fiction but a novel with fictional characters based on the lives of the real victims. For instance, Maud is obviously Marin in the book. Decker labored over how to structure the book, settling on the novel approach, inspired by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic’s “S: A Novel About the Balkans.”
Drakulic used fictional characters to illustrate the horror of the Bosnian War, and Decker says it empowered her to employ a similar technique. In “Dancing,” Decker inserts a fictional subplot about a rapist, a tool to highlight vulnerabilities women face every day, she says.
The book’s prologue and final chapter are brief yet apocalyptic, a sandwich mechanism that metaphorically entraps the victims.
Decker wrote the book in the summer of 2012, in an old farmhouse in upstate New York. Her partner, a former state trooper, was renovating the property and the tandem of physical work and intense writing proved to be an ideal combination.
“I was in a zone,” she said of her writing. “I am overly disciplined when I want to be and I guess that’s a good thing.”
Firing the same model gun the killer used was more distressing. Her partner, the former state trooper, offered expertise and guidance, showing Decker how to properly handle the weapon and lean into her shot, focusing on the target.
“All I could see was 14 women,” Decker said. “It became so real to me how conscious this person was in what he was doing.
“I put the gun down and cried. It was devastating. Now I have the knowledge and I wish I didn’t have it. That was a very conscious killing.”
The book’s title is taken from the final stanza of a poem written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and, yes, Marin sometimes wears red shoes and likes colorful clothes.
At Franklin Pierce, Decker teaches a course on school shootings called Intentional Venom: Making Meaning of School Shootings. She is using her own book this semester for the first time. Decker is engaging in the classroom, her students say, insisting on spirited discussions whether the subject is banned books, feminist scholars or an introduction to American literature.
Decker’s upbringing in Pittsfield consisted of 12 years in parochial school, her teachers mostly Catholic nuns. Her father was a firefighter and her mother a homemaker.
“It was kind of a classic 1950s model,” she said. “Everybody was like me growing up — European, white, a little bit of Irish. I was always intrigued by other kinds of people because I didn’t see any.”
Though she didn’t really follow the sport, she remembers being “intrigued” by transgender pro-tennis player Renee Richards, who underwent a sex-change operation in 1975. It was an introduction to Decker’s own lifelong journey in feminism, not the hate-spewing stereotype propagated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, but a quest for equality.
Her ascension through academia began modestly at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, and she lauds the advantages and opportunities offered by community colleges. It led to bachelor’s degrees in psychology and English at SUNY-Albany.
She explored careers in a tobacco company (Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.) and banking (John H. Harland Co.) but quickly grew bored with each while deciding life as a hardcore workaholic wasn’t for her.
She got married and moved back to Pittsfield, though the marriage ended when her daughters were 12 and 10, and her son 5. But she kept moving forward with her education, assisted by many friends — “the whole concept of it takes a village,” she said.
She later worked as a reporter for the Gardner News and a columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, eventually landing a full-time teaching position at Franklin Pierce in 1998. She also blogs for Ms. Magazine.
“Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You” has been well-received critically, and its comparisons with the number of mass shootings in the U.S. inevitable Although her heartbreaking depictions of the funerals appear in the second half of the book, they were the first scenes Decker wrote.
“It sort of became the cornerstone,” she said.
Decker is 40 pages into a second novel called “Fifteen Years” that she says is about two sisters carrying secrets revolving around a rape.
Meanwhile, real life intrudes.
Decker naturally followed the recent rape trial involving students at St. Paul’s School in Concord, a peek inside the culture Decker spotlights in her writings. Decker says she wasn’t shocked by the testimonies, verdicts and relentless attacks by the defense against the alleged victim.
It’s a well-established pattern repeating itself. But she was upset.
“I was incredibly proud of her for standing up the way she did,” Decker said of the 16-year-old girl on the witness stand. “But seeing her go through what she did was very disturbing.”
As is the book.