Will we ever know any more about what Shanna Desmond was like as a person, or does her story stop with her violent death? So far, the details are few, but they point to someone who was lovely and dedicated to her job. She was "empathetic," according to a colleague who worked with her at St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Nova Scotia, where Ms. Desmond was a registered nurse. She would drive through bad weather to get to work. Her Facebook profile picture is a funny, playful shot of her at work sticking her tongue out alongside a patient.
Her sister, Shonda Borden, in a wrenching interview with CBC radio, described her as "a great mother" and "the rock of the family." Ms. Desmond's 10-year-old-daughter, Aaliyah, was "awesome." Now both mother and daughter are dead, along with Ms. Desmond's mother-in-law, Brenda Desmond. Even less has been written about Brenda.
Instead, the entire story of this horrible tragedy has focused on Lionel Desmond and his struggles with PTSD. Mr. Desmond, a veteran who had served in Afghanistan and was treated on-and-off for PTSD, is believed to have killed his wife, daughter and mother at their home in rural Nova Scotia before turning the gun on himself.
A narrative has sprung up that almost entirely erases the three victims of his crime. Indeed, it makes Mr. Desmond as much of a victim as the women he killed.
Interviews with relatives and friends have painted him as a happy person who had mood swings, and who was tragically deprived of the help he needed to overcome his mental suffering. He may have been sent away from the very hospital where his wife worked. But to place the blame for his crime solely at the feet of PTSD does a disservice both to the veterans who suffer mental anguish without resorting to violence and to the victims of domestic violence who are harmed or killed at the hands of partners.
In all the talk about PTSD – which is a pressing problem in this country, especially for women and men who have served in the military – another set of letters has been almost completely forgotten: VAW. That stands for violence against women, and it is also a huge problem – and one that is largely under-reported, except at the beginning of December each year, when the country gathers to remember the 14 women murdered at the École Polytechnique in 1989. We light candles, shake our heads, and move on.
We move on despite the fact that one woman in Canada is slain every six days by her intimate partner (67 women were killed by their partners in 2014, and 16 men by theirs.) According to a report from the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, in Ontario alone last year, 26 women were the victims of "femicide" – with the suspects charged in their deaths being boyfriends, husbands, relatives or acquaintances. The challenge, which is not adequately funded or addressed, involves protecting these vulnerable women before they are beyond help. Shelters are often overflowing, and affordable accommodation is almost impossible to find for a single woman accompanied by children.
We cannot know what happened in the privacy of the Desmonds' house in the weeks and months before the killings, but some chilling details could have sounded an alarm: Mr. Desmond wrote on his Facebook page that he was sorry for his "jealousy toward my wife" and "being over-controlling." They were living apart. Ms. Borden said in her CBC interview that she told her sister to stick with her suffering husband, and Shanna responded: "You're not going to be saying 'Shanna, Shanna' any more when you find Shanna dead."
If we make this tragedy solely about Lionel Desmond and PTSD, we lose sight of the underlying problems of family violence, which are even more deeply hidden by shame and fear. As Ardath Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison University, told CBC Radio: "There were four victims that day and we're talking only about the services that could have helped him, and not, for example, services that might have helped his spouse be safer, in trying to leave that relationship and get space."
In death, these women killed by their spouses lose their identities. They are reduced to mere casualties in someone else's violent narrative, doubly victimized for all time. A petition circulating right now asks us all to reconsider the way we tell these stories. It was spurred by the death of Elana Fric in Toronto; her husband, neurosurgeon Mohammed Shamji, is charged with first-degree murder. The petition notes that news stories about Dr. Fric's violent death dealt at length with the accomplishments of her husband, as if no one could believe a surgeon might commit such a crime, and ignored her own illustrious career. It asks for a more balanced approach in reporting: "Humanizing the (usually) male predators and murderers of women while the achievements and life stories of their victims are ignored only contributes to the epidemic of violence against women."
Those lessons have not been learned yet. Shanna Desmond was 31, a nurse and a mother, wife and co-worker and friend. There should have been so much more to her story.