What We Think We Know About the Life and Career of Kathleen Scholler

by Aaron Schneider

Aaron Schneider is a Senior Literary Editor and the Reviews Editor at The Rusty Toque. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review  and filling Station.

Kathleen was born in northern Ontario. Her mother taught primary school and her father worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources. There must have been books in her house, but not many, and we don’t think her parents were readers. She was not a precocious or an avid reader. She has never talked about discovering The Lord of the Rings, finishing The Chronicles of Narnia, re-reading Little House on the Prairie or Swiss Family Robinson until the spine cracked, the folded corners tore off and the pages fell out. The public library she went to must have been small, probably a single large room. In the corner, there was a carpet with a bright geometric pattern, a dangling mobile and two bean bag chairs, and that was the kids’ section. Stickers on the spines of the books divided them into Toddlers (light blue), Preschoolers (dark blue), Early Readers (yellow), Young Readers (green), and Teens (red). She has never talked about that library or about the hard, bright pride of moving on to the adult section.


She learned to ride in grade school and started show-jumping when she was 12. He parents rented her a horse, and made her muck out stalls, mow the lawn and shovel the driveway to pay for it. Afterwards, she remembered the work, the feel of her muscles—sore after riding or stiff in the cold—more than the jumping itself. She won ribbons and pinned them to a corkboard in her bedroom under the name of her horse spelled in big colourful letters her mother brought home from school.

She has kept a picture of herself jumping. We saw it on a side table in her living room when she was in graduate school, and a few of us saw it more recently on the shelves to the right of her desk in the second bedroom that she uses as an office. Present but not obtrusive. In it, she is poised, leaning over the neck of the horse as it clears a jump, looking ahead, focused on the landing. The horse, her body, her eyes are tilting forward. She is determined, untouchable.

We hate Kathleen like we hate ourselves.

In her teens, she went to an equestrian camp in upstate New York. She made friends with a pair of Colombian sisters. She visited them during March break in Grades 10 and 11. These were the only trips she took in high school. They met her at the airport in Bogota, and flew to the family ranch outside of Honda. The ranch had a private airstrip, and long, low buildings with tile roofs and arched verandas overlooking the fields. The family had bodyguards who carried submachine guns. They rode the trails through the hills. Dinners were served on the veranda. The parents called her Catalina and the servants called her senorita. One day, the guards let them shoot their guns. Kathleen tried an AK-47 because she had seen them in movies. It scared her so much that she had to shoot it again and she walked away breathless and shaking and wet-eyed under the high white sky.

She has shown some of us pictures of the trips: the ranch house, the trails, the horses, her and the sisters and the guards posing with the guns. One of us saw the last one and asked her who the family was connected to. She looked uncertain and then surprised and then hurt.


Her high school years are mostly blank. She once mentioned Roland Michener Secondary School, and taking classes in French and English. She still speaks French, and has talked about doing translations. We imagine that it was a small school, built in the sixties or seventies of dun brick, modern then, but shabby now. She must have run on a weedy oval track, around a lumpy soccer field, under rusting uprights like the ones that some of us remember from our small town high schools. It was small enough that it had none of the cliques and divisions of city schools. Small enough that everyone knew each other well. Tight in the way compulsory communities are tight. Intimate. Narrow. She never talks about it. She could not have been remarkable. Was she encouraged?


Some of us have met her parents when they’ve visited her. They were smaller and greyer than in photos, as all of our parents have become smaller and greyer, transformed by age, but also by us, diminished when seen from new and fuller perspectives, from a greater distance, as people, now, as well as parents. They both wore hiking pants with cargo pockets (her father’s unzipped at the knee to become shorts) and their faces were dry and tanned. We thought they looked like they came from up north and belonged outside.

They were reticent. They didn’t ask us where we were from or what we worked on. Most of our parents were reticent when they visited us, unsure of themselves and of where they fit in our worlds, surprised by our confidence and by the reality of the lives they had only heard about and half imagined, but Kathleen’s parents were different than ours, more reserved, and we noticed it.

We saw them standing at the back of a room at a conference that she had organized. They were waiting to take her out to dinner. Her father said something to her mother. They looked around the room and only sometimes at the speakers; they listened for reasons to stop listening. This was the same defensive skepticism that we recognized in our relatives—What do you do? What good is it? Why does it matter? To me?—but theirs seemed more definitive, less vulnerable. When Kathleen took the lectern, they focused on her. They looked embarrassed. We could tell that they were seeing her mistakes. We saw them too. Each one stood out clear and irreversible: She stumbled. Her hands fluttered. Awkwardness. And elbows. And everything she said sounded like a question.

And added up to a confirmation of something.

Afterwards, she trailed after them, twelve again, sharp with need, aiming for grace, and arriving at clumsiness.


Her brother is an absence. He is in pictures and nowhere else. We think this is notable.


Kathleen went to McGill. In first year, she took Robert Lerner’s Introduction to Canadian Literature: World War II–Present. He played music before each class started, alternative artists that she didn’t know or had barely heard of, and every reading was paired with a song listed in the syllabus under the heading “Soundtrack.” The course was organized thematically, and each week they tackled a big question. In the first class, “What is place? How is it reflected in literature?” Introducing his lecture on Beautiful Losers, “What makes a book Canadian?” Leaning seriously on the lectern, to begin a discussion of Klein’s The Hitleriad, “Is satire adequate to horror?” He always returned, inevitably, by the end of the week, often by the end of a class, to the subject of his most recent book, Making it Mean: The Creation of the English-Canadian Literary Canon, the social institutions that shape literature. He talked about publishers, anthologies and reading lists, about the people and the decisions that created classics. He liked to hold up a book and say, “In a very real way, you, taking in the class, and I, make this mean.”

Kathleen enrolled in a Double Major in Canadian Studies and English Literature, and she has been thinking and writing about the social construction of cultural value ever since.

When Sarah walked past Kathleen’s door, she heard her whispering quickly and frantically, pleading.

She did well by writing papers that, at first tentatively and then with growing confidence, repeated what her professors said. She did well, but she never stood out. She was always second or third in the class after opinionated young men who talked in tutorial like they were at the bar and at the bar like they were in tutorial, and young women who looked more sophisticated than they were, who had the same clothes as Kathleen, but wore them better, and talked casually about books she hadn’t read and places she hadn’t been.

We don’t think she had many friends. She has never talked about friends. We can’t remember names or stories. No one visited her. We know whose courses she took, but not if she had a roommate or went to Schwartz’s. Denuja did her undergrad with Kathleen and followed her to graduate school two years later. When she arrived, she seemed surprised by Kathleen’s friendliness and assurance, by her tacit closeness. Denuja was uncomfortable when Kathleen introduced her to us, cool, as if she had known Kathleen from a distance, and was used to feeling superior to her. When we asked Denuja about Kathleen, she was evasive, and we stopped asking.

We imagine that Kathleen spent those four years in Montreal on the fringes of other people’s lives. We can place her on chairs she borrowed from other tables, leaning forward, hovering on the periphery of conversations, waiting for a chance to say something. And when she does, everyone stops, and then starts again, or doesn’t stop at all. We can see her listening intently, nodding sometimes, to someone who is not talking to her.

We know she watched and learned.


Kathleen met Ray Ianson in second year at a wine and cheese reception. Ray had a long face that shifted through several varieties of seriousness, and feathered, brown hair that fell in soft points over his forehead when he was reading. He was finishing a doctoral dissertation on novels written by poets, and he talked to her about his research as if she had read the same books he had and shared his interest in them. She noticed that he had delicate and expressive hands.

We think Ray took her home that night, and she followed him, tipsy, euphoric with anxiety, and docile. We have seen Kathleen around people she is attracted to: she turns passive, almost blank, and pliable. We think she gives up herself, lets go, and it is difficult to watch.

Ray liked to stay fit. Six mornings a week, he ran, and then did push-ups and sit-ups in the living room. He was showered and at his desk by 8 am. Kathleen tried to go with him once, but he didn’t want to slow down, and she could barely walk the next day.

When she was around Ray, she noticed things that were wrong with herself: the pudge of fat over her stomach, her bad skin, and the brown streaks in her blond hair. She got in the habit of bringing her laptop over to his apartment and working on the coffee table. Sometimes she could hear Ray typing in his office behind the closed door, other times there was silence, but she could always feel him—intent, producing. She had once seen a picture of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at their desks. The caption explained that they wrote together for eight hours a day without talking or looking at each other. When she thought of the picture, and of herself and Ray, she felt serious and adult.

This lasted until she discovered that Ray was sleeping with his French tutor. She told two of us this late at night. She was pale and soft around the mouth, blurred with emotion. They didn’t break up. Ray pointed out that they had never said they were dating. She had met his parents, but she wasn’t his girlfriend. He was right. She stopped working at his apartment. She saw him less, but she still saw him. They slept together on and off for years, whenever they were in the same city. Now, they are friends on Facebook, and Ray recently posted an encouraging comment under a picture of her finishing the Vancouver Marathon.


We saw Ray at conferences and noticed that Kathleen had adopted his mannerisms. She tilted her head to the right when she spoke, and said “of course” with a lilt and “we” with a conscious earnestness. She made the same intricate, sharp gestures with her hands. The resemblance was unmistakable. One of us called him “Manthleen,” and the rest of us thought this was juvenile, but also that Ray and Kathleen overlapped, like siblings.


We were close to Kathleen in graduate school, and we remember too much about her to write here. She started and joined things: a Canadian Literature reading group (started), a Medieval Literature reading group (joined), a Shakespeare reading group (joined), a conference on the topic of community (organized), and so on. She almost failed her comprehensive exams and broke down. She audited classes. She taught. She talked with authority. She tried on expertise. She embarrassed herself, but sometimes it fit.

She spent her grant money on pant suits. She wore one when she took the poet she wrote her MA thesis on out to lunch. She told us about a weekend in a hotel in Toronto with Ray, and how he offered to publish one of her papers when it was done.

It scared her so much that she had to shoot it again and she walked away breathless and shaking and wet-eyed under the high white sky.

She edited a special issue of the journal her supervisor ran. She used the negative of a picture Ray took of her standing on a rooftop in Montreal holding a martini glass for the cover. She cropped out her head, but showed us the original. After that, she edited a slim volume of poems by an obscure Montreal modernist, and called it, proudly, “my book” in conversation.

She read Bourdieu.

We remember too much, but there is a constant that stands out, that connects everything, and that we return to because we can’t understand or explain it. This is what we think of when we think of Kathleen and it is why we remember her: She had ambition. Some of us prefer to call it self-belief, others resilience. Pretension. We agree that part of it was naiveté, innocence, but not if it was deliberate. She wanted to be more than what she was, more than what we thought she could be, and that desire was immune to her failures and to our disapproval. Immune to shame. Was it determination? Perseverance? We suspect it was a refusal, what Kathleen had separate from us, from her parents and Ray, from everyone.


Kathleen’s supervisor for both her MA and her PhD was Fred Daniel, an experimental poet from the ’60s who had become an academic in the ’70s and who now presided over the territory where the avant-garde and the academy overlap. Every few months he would come to her apartment for coffee. She would clean the bathroom, dust and vacuum, arrange tea—although he never drank it—coffee and sugar on the kitchen counter, and pick up pastries from a Dutch bakery. We saw her several times, carrying the pastries in a cardboard box. She was vivid and concentrated and she didn’t want to talk.

He sat on the green settee that we sat on when we visited, and told her stories about the academics, writers and publishers that he knew. The personalities and animosities behind the articles. The partnerships that became feuds. Why someone won a prize and someone else didn’t. Who hated who. And why. Who had or hadn’t slept together. And regretted it either way. Everything that he would soon put in his biography, and more that he wouldn’t. When he left, the mugs stayed on the coffee table. The books on her shelves were people, now, as well as books. The dishes could wait: she was thrilled and languid with importance.


Kathleen told us that she slept with a man in his sixties when she was in undergrad. She said he drove a convertible and was good in bed. Was this before or after Ray? Some of us doubted her. Why would she tell us if it wasn’t true? This didn’t make us think that she slept with Fred. Her adoration of him felt sexless. We wanted it to be sexless. The commonplace magnitude of an affair would have diminished us.


She started running. Slowly. And alone. But regularly. On the paved paths along the river behind her apartment building. She went to Ottawa one spring and told us that she ran the half-marathon. Most of us didn’t believe her. We could have found the finishing times online, but we didn’t bother.


In the second year of her PhD, Kathleen attached herself to Joan Turner, a medievalist who had just been hired. Joan was young, and imperiously awkward, as if she had decided that social interaction was something she could excel at, when she chose to, and she often chose not to. She had spent a year as a visiting scholar at Oxford, had a degree from Princeton, and had packed her life with accomplishments the way she had loaded her CV: she had a black belt in Karate, an interest in late Victorian ceramics, a passion for Bergman, a copy of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire in the original French from which she had mastered three dozen recipes, and a long distance boyfriend who was as successful as her.

Kathleen gave Joan advice about the city, and sometimes about life, and Joan let her. She ate lunch in Joan’s office. They went camping together. Joan bought a house in the neighbourhood of tree-lined streets where professors bought houses, and Kathleen lived in it when Joan spent the summer in England. She showed us the small tins of caviar she was allowed to try, the shelves of feminist fantasy novels, and the collection of pottery vases she dusted once a week. They wrote an article together. Joan bought a dog, and Kathleen walked it when she was away at conferences, or visiting her boyfriend, or too busy. It was a Rhodesian Ridgeback, big and powerful and badly behaved, and Kathleen could barely hold it back.

We can place her on chairs she borrowed from other tables, leaning forward, hovering on the periphery of conversations, waiting for a chance to say something.

Joan would get drunk and call Kathleen late at night to fight with her. We don’t know what she said to Kathleen. We didn’t ask. Sarah, her roommate, told us about the phone ringing until Kathleen answered it, and about the time she picked it up by accident and Joan started screaming at her. When Sarah walked past Kathleen’s door, she heard her whispering quickly and frantically, pleading. Afterwards, Kathleen would come out of her room and talk to her about nothing in particular, tomorrow’s weather, the news, people they both knew, looking preoccupied, and holding onto things, the back of a chair in the living room, the lip of the kitchen counter, until she calmed down.

Sarah told Kathleen that the calls had to stop. Kathleen became helpless and confused, and Sarah never brought it up again.

Kathleen claimed she was bisexual. We thought saying this was something she did to seem more interesting, more sophisticated, like teaching herself how to make crème brûlée (the first time, she beat the eggs and the custard rose like a soufflé), learning rudimentary Spanish, and talking about the Nouveau Roman. It wasn’t until much later that we began to wonder about her relationship with Joan. Friendship didn’t explain the hysterical intensity of those phone calls or Kathleen’s desperate loyalty. Had they been lovers? In secret? Touching a handful of times? When they had both been drinking and they could deny or excuse what passed between them? One of us wonders if it was consensual. We imagine a silent, guilty, fervent struggling.


Kathleen wrote her thesis on poet-critics—poets, like her supervisor, who wrote criticism and who often worked as academics, and it alternated between chronicling the careers of Fred and his friends, and extending the arguments he made in his articles. When she decided that she needed to finish it, she set herself up in the office she shared with three other graduate students. She read and wrote from 8 to 6 every day with a half hour break for lunch. It was summer, the other students were gone, and the building was empty except for the faculty who didn’t work at home and who weren’t on research trips. Silence. Sometimes footsteps in the high, old hallways. She shared a casual friendliness, greetings and short conversations with the other people in the building. She complained to us about the Beckett scholar who wouldn’t acknowledge her when she passed him on the stairs. She developed the habit of mentioning articles in conversation. The way she said the names of the authors was familiar, offhanded, as if she knew them the way she knew the people she nodded and talked to in the hallways.


She got an interview. None of us saw the talk she gave, but we heard about it from friends, from acquaintances we met at conferences, in bits and confusing pieces that we assembled and tried to make sense of, never from Kathleen. We expected her to embarrass herself, and not only because of what her success would have said about us. She must have been the last candidate or the one from whom they expected the least. There may have been controversy. Did a friend of Fred’s lobby for her, and others resist? We are sure that the faculty was prepared to dislike her. We have been in rooms like that before, watching savagely, to disagree, to humiliate and destroy, or being torn down ourselves. Whenever we think about her in this moment, it is with a defensive cringe of shame. No sympathy. We hate Kathleen like we hate ourselves. Her carefully assembled confidence disintegrated. She tried to find an encouraging face in the audience. Nothing. Hardness. Doubt. Her talk hesitated to an end. The question period was worse. Someone asked her about Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. She panicked. She hadn’t read it. We think she tried to answer as if she had. We don’t know what happened, but we can see it, and Kathleen, desperately trying, and failing, not to become what the watching, vicious audience wanted her to be.


She got a post-doc at McGill with the help of her supervisor, and went back to Montreal. We didn’t lose track of her, but we lost the details of her life. There was the distance, and Kathleen herself became vague, elusive. She changed her Facebook settings, hiding everything but her degrees and her current city. She didn’t call anyone but Sarah. Was she leaving behind a humiliation? Was she transforming herself? Or was it something else, something more mundane, but less predictable? We tried to imagine a new version of Kathleen, more professional, knowledgeable, poised, and couldn’t manage it. Had she escaped us? Had she trapped us in our condescension?

What we knew for sure we learned from Google searches: She became the reviews editor at a literary magazine, and recruited her friends and ex-students to write for it. She sat on a panel discussing “Poetry Today” at the city library. She taught a contemporary theater course that was written up in the student paper. She won a Fulbright Scholarship and was a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia. We noticed that that same year, a professor moved from McGill to Virginia. We knew him and had seen him before, trailing small groups of female graduate students after him, and we included Kathleen with those women. She went to a conference in Paris.

This lasted until she discovered that Ray was sleeping with his French tutor.

Those must have been precarious years. There was teaching, but not enough. What would happen after the grants and scholarships ran out? Money was tight and there was a time limit on success. The possibility of failure, of a real and permanent defeat became more likely with each passing year. We admit that we expected that the list of results from the Google search would stop growing, that what was there would fragment, that links would break, results would drop off and she would disappear. We expected her to resurface in a decade teaching at a CEGEP. Behind the results, the handful of successes, minor, most of them forgettable, there was a persistent, invisible striving, a conviction that we openly pitied, and secretly resented.


We don’t know when the hard work started to pay off or when she met her girlfriend or how closely the two were related.

Emily Morin was a professor who had written a pioneering study of Canadian feminist poetics and a handful of books of poetry in which she explored the radical alterities of the feminine voice. She was 27 years older than Kathleen, a contemporary of Fred’s, had shoulder-length grey hair with bangs cut straight across her forehead, and spoke in a commanding, meditative drawl. Where did they meet? We imagine a reading. We can put them together in a noisy room, standing, detached. We can’t make them touch or speak. We have never seen them together in person. Did Kathleen listen to Emily with the same active adoration, nodding, prompting, making soft emphatic sounds of agreement, with which she had listened to Fred? Did she mirror Emily, adopt her mannerisms, her calm, deliberate gestures, and mimic her knowing maturity?

They did a walking tour of the south of Spain?

Paris?

Friends’ parties in Montreal? A dinner at a restaurant where you eat in the dark and are served by visually impaired waiters?

Two weeks in Cuba?

They went to conferences and sat on panels together. When Kathleen presents, we see Emily listening, Kathleen’s quick, searching glances, and her steady, encouraging reassurance. The room nods along with Emily.

Kathleen still talked about canon formation, the social construction of literary value, and the way writers intervened in the reception of their work, but she focused on marginalized voices, on the groups who are rendered invisible by the dominant cultural institutions. She started to point to how aesthetic debates erase questions of politics and identity.

Kathleen and Emily met before Kathleen made her Facebook page public again and began adding friends. Even then, it was several years before she mentioned Emily openly, and longer before she posted pictures of her. What we know we have guessed from her timeline: Emily is half of the we in a post about Andalucía. The person behind the camera for dozens of pictures. The gravity drawing Kathleen to conferences in Paris, Waterloo, at Black Mountain College.

Last year they were in a cabin in Northern Quebec. Emily was roasting a duck basted in lavender honey and Kathleen was trying to convince her to watch The Princess Bride. They spent reading break with Kathleen’s parents in Thunder Bay.


Things started to happen quickly, or time passed faster so they felt like they happened quickly. Some of them we missed, scrolled past or never saw, others we noticed and forgot. Some we remembered.

She ran her first full marathon. And then her second.

She turned a paper she gave on a panel with Emily into an article.

She started editing for several online archives, and talked about the digital humanities.

She added Facebook friends, people she knew, colleagues, people she wanted to know, until she had more than a thousand.

She did a triathlon.

She got a tenure track position at a university college that was affiliated with the university where Fred did his doctorate. She posted about early springs and mild winters. She tagged herself in pictures with mountains in the background.

She decided to train for an Ironman.

She started a blog called “Kat Tries” on which she wrote about training, races, and women in sport.

She spent a term teaching in France.

She posted links to articles about political issues: women in the academy, equal representation of female athletes in professional Ironman competitions, bike path expansion, LGBTQ rights. When Idle No More started, we followed the movement by checking her wall.


There is a pose that we think of when we think of Kathleen. It is how she sometimes presents herself and how we most often picture her: Her back is arched, but not too much. Her shoulders are up and back. She is turned slightly to the left or the right. One leg is raised, bent at the knee, the toe lightly touching the ground. Her hands are resting on her hips or her arms are raised and bent at angles she has thought about. She is looking into the space behind the camera. The pose is practised. Refined. She strikes versions of it effortlessly, beside her bike at the top of a climb, on the patio of a hotel in Cuba, wearing one of the blazers she teaches in. Repeated with variations.


Emily still lives in Montreal. She flies out for long weekends, and Kathleen visits her during reading breaks, over Christmas and for a month in the summer.

Kathleen has started building a website chronicling the literary history of the region. She is going to use it to teach her first graduate course and she is drafting a book proposal.

She has joined the local triathlon club and leads the Friday evening recovery ride. She marshalled at the spring 10k time trial. Her triathlon friends call her Kat and her colleagues call her Kathleen. They like and respect her.

She broke her leg in a crash last winter, but she has worked hard at rehab, and she is already back on her bike.

We can tell from a distance that she has become herself.

 


Aaron Schneider is a Senior Literary Editor and the Reviews Editor at The Rusty Toque. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review  and filling Station.

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