Maclean’s Interview: Monique Lépine

Monique Lépine talks with Kate Fillion about shame, guilt and living with the fact that her son killed 14 women

Kate Fillion

Monique LePineQ: Let’s start on the evening of Dec. 6, 1989, when you first heard there had been shootings at the École Polytechnique in Montreal.

A: I came back from work and turned on the TV, like always, before going to my prayer meeting. I saw this news and I was in shock, like everybody else. Nothing like this ever happened here, in the province of Quebec, in a university. I thought it was terrible, a horrible tragedy. I went to my prayer meeting and I was moved to ask for prayers for the [gunman’s] mother, not knowing it would turn out that I was the mother.

Q: How did you find out that you were?

A: The next day, I was at a conference, so nobody was able to find me. Afterwards, I went to work to make some photocopies, and I saw everybody still there, at 6 at night, and there was a lot of turmoil. I wondered, What’s happening? My [boss] saw me and said, “Go to your office, I need to speak to you.” I thought he sounded angry, but now I think he just didn’t know how to tell me. I went to my office to wait for him and I had a lot of messages, including one from a close friend who never called me at work before, so I returned that and heard these words: “The crazy shooter from the Polytechnique was Marc.” I said, “What?!” and at that very moment I saw my [boss] walking toward me and I understood that he was to tell me my son was the killer.

Q: Was it immediately believable?

A: No. I was in shock and for months, every time I saw someone who looked like him, I followed him. I didn’t see [Marc’s] body, I was not capable, emotionally, so part of me felt he was still alive. It’s a mourning process, you see, and the denial was great.

Q: While he was shooting and in his suicide note, he said he was fighting feminism, and 24 of the 28 people he shot before killing himself were women. Was his anti-feminism a shock?

A: It was. I could’ve been considered a feminist, I had a good job. It could’ve been a reaction to that, I don’t know. But it was not in my home that he was trained to be macho, he must have learned that in school, or from the guys around him, or maybe it’s a genetic thing, I don’t know.

Q: In your new book, Aftermath, you say your ex-husband was also macho—abusive, actually.

A: Once, he slammed my son’s face so hard the marks were there for a week. But mostly it was psychological. He was forbidding me to pick up my child; in his mentality, if a baby was crying, you shouldn’t console him. He was very cold, I don’t think that he was a father, to tell you the truth. I would never have left the kids with him alone, I didn’t trust him. He said himself, very loud, that kids before the age of six were like little dogs you had to train.

Q: How did you respond to all this?

A: I’m 70 years old, in my day, the woman didn’t have much power, you know, especially in Quebec. I was scared of him, actually, and being scared, I was paralyzed. I was trying to protect my kids, keep peace. It was hard for me to leave because I have a religious background, I was a nun for a while, and it went against my [background]. But I did leave when my son was six and my daughter, Nadia, was four.

Q: Afterwards, was that a happier time?

A: At least it was more quiet. But it was a difficult time, because my husband told me he would put me in the street, which he did. He never paid [child support]. I had worked as a nurse, and I decided I had to go back to work to support my children. I couldn’t go to work and keep my kids with me, so I decided that the best for them would be a stable family, with a mother, a father, and some other children. And they lived in families like that for six years.

Q: Hiring surrogate families to take care of your kids must have been an extremely difficult decision.

A: It was, but what else could I do? The money doesn’t come from the trees. My family couldn’t help me, really. Daycare was not existing at that point.

Q: How did you reassure your children?

A: I had them every weekend.

Q: Didn’t they cling to you every Sunday, saying, “Mummy, don’t leave us”?

A: Of course. At four and six, what do you expect? Both of them want my attention, that’s normal. How do you explain to a child that Mummy has to work because she needs to pay the bills, and that the father doesn’t take his responsibilities? I was also studying during the week. To get a better job, you need education, so I did my baccalaureate and my master’s while my kids were, you know, in these families.

Q: What were the families like?

A: Wonderful. Only one time, when the first family moved and I didn’t know what to do with the kids, they went to live with a nurse for six months. When they were there, they regressed, it was not a good place. So I took them out and found another good family.

Q: When you reunited, Marc was 12 and Nadia was nine . Did you see a big change in them after living apart for so long?

A: Well of course, because I didn’t see them growing, you know. I had to adjust to them, and they had to adjust to me. I had difficulties coping with this new situation. Some friends of mine were psychiatrists, and they said, “Maybe you should consult, find out how you can deal with family matters.” So we went, the three of us, and the psychiatrist said he didn’t need to see me or my son, but he wanted to see my daughter. Then and later on, my daughter was difficult, not my son. And there was a little competition between the two. It was always there. My daughter thought I loved my son more than her, you know? But she had behaviour that was not nice.

Q: She picked on Marc a lot, made fun of him. Did you try to stop her?

A: I was trying to reason with her. I thought it was her normal behaviour, but afterwards, when I found out she’d been taking drugs, I began to think it was emphasized by the drugs.

Q: At one point, Marc was so upset that he went into the backyard, dug a grave, and stuck Nadia’s picture on a tombstone. Did you think that was just a joke?

A: I thought it was strange behaviour, I thought, “Hey, it’s something out of this world.” But Marc was different than other boys.

Q: Partly because he didn’t want to feel different, he legally changed his name at 14, from Gamil Gharbi to Marc Lépine.

A: Right. He was tired of being asked what nationality he was. French Canadian, of course! And the name [was a reminder of] his father, who hadn’t seen him since he was six. He asked for that as a birthday gift, to change his name, and I agreed [to pay for it]. He was a very determined child.

Q: When you’re thinking of your son now, which name do you use?

A: When I think of my little boy, the one I played with outside, went skiing with, had good times with, it’s Gamil. Marc, for me, is who he became on his own.

Q: Can you hold in your heart the image of Gamil, your sweet little boy, or is that erased by the fact that Marc killed so many people?

A: I can keep it separate. Gamil was a quiet child, very lovable, very soft, very attentive to me. He wanted to please me. He was systematic at a very young age, I never had to tell him to pick up his things. At 12, he was already the man of the house. He took this role himself. He was cutting the grass, shovelling the snow, I never had to tell him to do these things. He was a good boy, but so quiet! He never expressed his feelings, deep down inside.

Q: And he didn’t have a lot of friends, like Nadia.

A: My son didn’t need that many friends. He had his regular friends who were friends until he died, four or five of them who were always coming to my place.

Q: Did he ever behave strangely?

A: Yes. I cannot say he did not. He was watching a lot of war movies. He was very, very advanced in computers and electronics, those were two passions he had, and he was very good at computer games. I couldn’t really follow what he was doing, but I think it was like today, these games were very aggressive, and he liked that, he wanted to be first. He was a strategic guy, and an enigmatic guy.

Q: Enigmatic?

A: He could go to a union meeting, let’s say just as an example, and he would write something with words nobody would understand, then read that, just to impress people. He was very intelligent, but it just wasn’t normal.

Q: Were you concerned about him?

A: I’m not saying he was strange every day. He might do strange things, but I was not overly concerned because otherwise he was doing well. He won a mathematics competition in his college, his marks were good. I asked a teacher at his college, “Is he anti-social?” She told me, “No. He won’t go to people, but if people are coming to him, he will be very kind with them.”

Q: And that’s what you saw in your own home. Except when Nadia told you Marc had killed your cat.

A: There was no proof. All we know is the cat never came back. I asked Marc, and he said, “No, I didn’t kill the cat.” Today I think it was possible that he did, but back then, I did not.

Q: What is your happiest memory of him?

A: I liked him the most when he was eight or nine, when he was learning—me, I’m for development. He was a lovely child. We’re having fun together, then, at supper and afterwards playing games, all of us.

Q: Do you feel you had a good relationship with your children?

A: Yes. It wasn’t perfect, nobody’s perfect, but I had very good moments with both of them.

Q: Quite a few people spontaneously reached out and offered you support after the massacre.

A: Yes. I never thought that people could just take a pen and write to a woman they didn’t know, but I had four albums full of encouragement. People in churches sent letters, all denominations, it was continuous. It gave me strength. It helped me to take a bit of distance from the tragedy.

Q: It’s easier for me to imagine the grief of the parents of the 14 young women who were killed. What does it feel like to be the parent of the man who killed them?

A: The shame was terrible. You feel you have no real value anymore. You want to be alone, you don’t want to see people anymore. And the guilt! I’m not a murderer, for sure, but that was my son. Even at my church, I was never mentioning that I was the mother of Marc Lépine. Nobody knew who I was.

Q: Did anyone in your life who already knew Marc was your son break off contact with you?

A: No. Never.

Q: When journalists called you “the mother of a monster,” did you want to defend yourself, defend your son?

A: No. I was silent for years. I had to be clear in my mind what he did, what I did, the relation we had—I had to get better, my own self, before I could start being with people and speaking about things. And after my daughter’s death in ’96, she overdosed, I was in a thousand pieces.

Q: Do you think her death was related to the massacre?

A: She had problems with drugs already, but she couldn’t cope with all this turmoil, so I think partially it was related. After she died, I didn’t want to live anymore. I was just praying, praying, just living one day at a time, until in 2001, I felt I had a choice: to live or die. And I chose life, to serve God.

Q: You’re a very active volunteer. Do you volunteer in an attempt to give back, to make amends—why?

A: It’s difficult in English, my goodness! Look, I believe that nothing happens for nothing, and [each of us has] a purpose in life that nobody else can do but you. I was born to help people. The little I can give back to society, I will give. I work in food banks, I go sometimes to prisons, I speak to church groups and at conferences. People are aware of their own pain when they listen to me. They tell me things they’ve never said to anybody—about their son in jail, about suicide in their family—because they see I won’t judge them. And it helps people to think, “If she did overcome that, I can overcome my own suffering.”

Q: Have you ever had contact with the mother of another child who did something like your son did?

A: Yes, but I can’t mention the names. I am very available for consults like that.

Q: This is a difficult question to ask, but did you blame yourself for what your son did?

A: It’s multiple factors, most probably, for him to do such a thing. But I tried to find out what I could have done wrong. And, actually, if I go back, I think I did what I could with who I was, and in the condition I was, for my kids. What more could I have done? I don’t know. I think this question should be asked of the father.

Q: Have you had any contact with him?

A: No, not since 1971. Only once, he wanted to see the kids in 1971, and when my son heard he was going to see his father, he grabbed the steering wheel of the car and pulled it all the way to the right, we wound up on the sidewalk. He didn’t want to see him, he was scared. After that, we never saw or heard from [my ex-husband]. Even when my kids died, he never sent a note or came to the funeral. Evidently he was in Montreal, the police told me, but I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

Q: Before writing this book, you granted a TV interview in 2006, following the Dawson College shootings. Was it cathartic to speak out, finally?

A: Yes. The first time I admitted I was Monique Lépine, the mother of Marc Lépine, and I said it loudly, I had my identity again. The shame and the guilt disappeared.

Q: Is this the best time of your life, so far?

A: Yes, I think it is. Nothing could be worse than what I’ve been living. Now what I want is to live. Now I smile, I have purpose in life, I have friends, and I want as many years of happiness as I had of suffering. It could happen at times that I have shame, but I won’t nourish it, and I will never let the shame destroy my life.

Q: Have you had any contact with the families of the 14 women Marc killed?

A: I’ve seen only one family. We just embraced, cried on each other’s shoulder, and let the pain and stress come out. I don’t think they asked me any questions at all. And I have no explanation—you cannot explain such a tragedy. The purpose was to liberate ourselves from the emotions. It brought me a lot of relief. And I can see them any time, you know.

Q: Are you concerned about how the other families may respond to your book?

A: No. I think that my suffering was as hard as their suffering. If they accept me, fine, but [if not] I cannot deprive myself of continuing my life. I am a human being as much as they are. But I pray for them every day.

Q: Something in your book really surprised me. You burned your photos of your children. Why?

A: There’s a period of time when you ask, “Why? Why? Why?” I had no answer to my whys. A social worker told me, “Why don’t you ask, ‘How?’ or ‘What can I do now to have a better life?’ ” It was part of my therapy, to tell the truth: I looked at a picture, then burned it, and told myself the good memories would be in my heart, and the bad things? I don’t want to see them again.

Aftermath, by Monique Lépine and Harold Gagné, will be published by Penguin on Nov. 22, 2008.