By Claire-Marie Brisson
It’s been a while since I’ve posted something to my personal blog, but I was inspired to take a step back and look at a brief chronology of where I’ve been, and where I’m headed.
“It is our great pleasure to offer you admission to the doctoral program in French in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia for the Fall 2016 term.”
These words moved me to tears. I fell on the floor, with my hands in the sky in thanks. As a person of faith, I thanked God for watching over this. I cannot think of a time that tested me more than in the months leading up to this e-mail. After a plethora of rejection letters, the small number of acceptances meant the world to me – particularly since UVa was my dream program. I thought it was a long shot, but it turned out that it wasn’t in the slightest.
After months of preparation, several thousand dollars spent on applications and updated test scores, and weeks of nervous anticipation, the path to the Ph.D. was set. I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t.
I hugged my family and friends. We celebrated, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to be with them or see them as often now that I had to journey over 600 miles to start my new degree program.
This is the second semester in Year 4 of 5 of my Ph.D. program.
In the first year, I felt isolated. I knew only a few people in my program that helped me discover my new city. I’d spend lots of time alone, contemplating what it means to leave a place you called home to forge a new path. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it.
As the years went on, I focused on building bridges and learning from others from a wide span of disciplines. I made some incredible friends and mentors along the way. Others distanced themselves from me. Everything and everyone was in constant flux.
Through the years, I’ve spent hours reading books that I’ve loved, articles that have made me groan, and sitting in on lectures that made me want to learn more. I’ve finished coursework, have had incredible experiences teaching abroad (in Germany, twice… soon to be three times), and continue to push myself towards goals that are sometimes attainable, and sometimes not.
I’ve had the great fortune of many interdisciplinary crossovers with scholars in Art History, Religious Studies, Architecture, and even in Engineering. I took on many roles and continue to do so.
I discovered what it means to be an academic. The community of scholars sticks together, learns together, and grows together. Likeminded academics nourish others, while necessary critique is given by others with contrasting viewpoints. Sometimes you run into a bad apple or two, as one does in any profession.
Those who are not within the academic community have their own opinions on what your work means and who you are as a person for undertaking what is commonly viewed as a daunting task. The reality is – it can be at times. But the passion that flows through a work breathes its own life into a subject. The research becomes much greater than the researcher, and I sit in awe at the bountiful resources that exist.
I started sharing these encounters on my new self-supported podcast. And tomorrow, I’m recording my first monthly interview in French with ICI Alberta. Part of my dissertation deals with the influence Radio-Canada had (and continues to have) on French-Canadian and Franco-American intellectual communities, and knowing that I have been asked to contribute in my own small way to that is humbling beyond words… though I’ve made an attempt to author a few.
I felt it necessary to pause and appreciate all of the challenges and inspirations that have brought me to where I am today… which is still a work in progress. I’m as energized as ever to make it across the finish line.
The people who have crossed paths on this journey continue to inspire me every day. Without the people who send their support, share a laugh, or spend time with me, I don’t think my project or my studies would have flourished in the ways that continue to surprise me.
Here’s to the road ahead.

What Remains Unwritten


It’s 3:17pm, and I’m looking at what used to be “Document 1,” now spanning almost sixty pages. It’s now saved as “Working Dissertation.” I’m nestled in a wooden sack-back Windsor armchair – the kind that you’d imagine to have been ubiquitous in the late-18th century. It’s comfortable and worn, much more preferable than the stark green plastic modernist chairs that sometimes find their way into the graduate lounge on the third floor of Alderman Library. It’s sunny outside, and I have the soft sounds of Beethoven playing in borrowed Sennheiser headphones.

Every time I go to a social gathering, friends and new acquaintances ask: “so tell me about your dissertation topic. What’s it like, you know, writing something like that?” I try to maintain a cheerful attitude, so I tend to reply that despite its challenges, it’s a fun process. This is true, but there should be much more nuance to my answer. It’s usually not the time to go into detail when you’re clinking wine glasses and eating hors-d’oeuvres.

Writing and speaking like a budding academic place many other ideas, feelings, and sentiments of mine into the margins, particularly with those I meet for the first time. There’s a pretention that comes with this line of work that is arbitrarily constructed by society. It makes people I meet for the first time fairly distant with me. I wish this were not the case as much.

As for the dissertation, it has been a constant companion since March 2018. The first time I created “Document 1,” I was in Montréal on rue Saint-Denis, drinking a latte and people-watching. I’ll never forget that the moment I started writing the title of my topic into the document, I was watching a very happy couple having a debate about Montréal city politics and urban planning. It made me smile. I, too, was beginning to make a roadmap for another lieu – hopefully one with fewer potholes.

The second, the third, the fourth, the seemingly endless times I’ve opened the document (no matter where I am, geographically-speaking), I’ve discovered that reading the words put on the page is like looking into the mind’s mirror. I like to escape from it to remain conscious of a present time that is made more relevant by “the Other” – the people, places, and experiences that make life so enriching. Looking too long in the mirror can have negative consequences. My surroundings and the people who share their time with me contribute so much to the thoughts that inspire my writing. It could not be achieved in isolation.

When I am face-to-face with my writing, I sometimes laugh at how futile my attempts were to describe something, other times I ask myself: “did I actually write that?” The strangest thing about returning to your own writing is that, in a sense, a future version of your self has returned to a past version to have a discussion and clean up thoughts that just didn’t make that much sense.

From time to time, my ‘future’ self feels proud of what I have written. Those are the good days.

There is nothing more daunting than confronting yourself and your own thoughts on a matter. I think that’s why writing as a process is so complicated. There is an intimacy that emerges, a delicacy of thought that is wrestled by reason and supporting evidence. Each word is a choice, each sentence is a manifesto.

Often the sentences clash, and the discordant clang of paragraphs pushes you to highlight great chunks of text and want to delete them. I don’t. I have a separate document called the “Great Dissertation Garbage Heap” stored in a folder called “Erroneous Nonsense.” It saves me from the pain of parting with ideas for too long. The titles of the documents make me actually want to open them. Here’s my supporting evidence:


Humour teaches me humility. One can never be too proud when writing, particularly since there is never a final “perfect” work. Everything is a work-in-progress. Always. Even once it’s been submitted. Even if the author lived three-hundred years ago.

Writing the dissertation reminds me just how much I do not know. Many people would argue that I know much more in my position as a graduate student, and on certain niche subjects, maybe I do. But in the grander scheme of things, when I walk through the aisles of shelves, looking for the right book to support my claims, I realize that I really don’t know much. My voice on the digital pages reverberates quietly alongside the thousands of brilliant minds I encounter in print. For some reason, that to me is comforting and exciting. I am contributing, albeit in my small way.

My favourite part of writing is researching. I love encountering new ideas and authors – particularly ones I disagree with wholeheartedly. I like being challenged. It makes me realize what I do believe in firmly… but it also makes me appreciate perspectives that my biases miss. Quoting and citing other authors has helped my ideas to mature in unprecedented ways, though I still know I am only at the tip of the iceberg and likely will only make a dent of a few ice cubes in my lifetime.

What remains unwritten in those nearly sixty pages of my dissertation is how much gratitude I have for the people and ideas I am encountering along the way. I love learning from and sharing thoughts with others. I have found that the more I step back from the mirror-like nature of writing, the better I am able to return to it with fresh perspectives and encouragement.

What has not made it to the pages of the dissertation has made it here, where the unvoiced feelings of thankfulness are muted no more.

Thanks for stopping by.

Claire-Marie Brisson

3:37pm, Alderman Library (The University of Virginia), 3rd floor.


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When I was a child, my peers must have thought that I lived in a castle from the way I described my home. It was made of white siding and green shingles. I ran four stairs up to the kitchen, and ten stairs down if I wanted to play in the basement. My blue eyes faded to grey and then to hazel. I got taller, my hair got shorter (then longer), but the house remained the same. The pine trees stretched out for as far as I could see, and I’d often daydream looking through the blinds in my room. They still hang there – the creamy sashes connecting white slats of wood. There was a special kind of way that the sun filtered through the leaves and entered my room. The shadows danced upon the walls that were light pink, then sage green. These were the same walls where I made accidental scuffs and put one too many decorations.

The seasons passed, yet it seemed that winter was always brighter because of the snow. The squirrels and sparrows made imprints as they walked, and I followed suit when I’d crash and smash around in my puffy dark blue coat under skies that varied from a muted haze to bright blue. I’d run into the house, and it would embrace me with warmth and shelter from the bitter cold. In summers, I would curl up with sketchbooks and hatboxes filled with art supplies away from the humid afternoons in the room to the southwest with one large window. I’d stare at the ceiling fan as it made its rounds and tried on numerous occasions to focus on one blade. It almost worked once.

Above my room was the unfinished attic. For many years, the attic used to be the kind of you read about in a storybook. It was wooden and the floors creaked quietly, groaning in place from when they were first installed in 1927. There were suitcases and antique cabinets scattered amidst storage items. Through hard work, it developed into another livable level, but I often think of the times I spent up there hiding amidst cobwebs and fine china. Today, it seems worlds away.

At night, the driveway gives the perfect vantage point for Polaris. Standing next to this home was when I fell in love with the night sky. Back inside, my Dad showed me a closer look for the first time through his telescope. It doesn’t boast an impressively clear view given all the streetlights and industrial zones that are within a few miles of it, but it inspired enough wonder to never stop looking upwards. Mom would often call out from another room when fireworks were visible, but stars were always the most interesting thing that hung above the green roof.

This home is a familiar friend. It is humble and doesn’t like when things try to change it. It isn’t extravagant by any means, and it is filled with meaningful objects. It’s where everything began, and where a good part of my thoughts roam at any point during the day. To some it’s just a small lower-middle class home; to me, it’s still a castle.

C-M Brisson
19 February 2019

In the Shadows of the Wannsee Conference

On 20 January 1942, senior Nazi officials arrived at a lakeside villa at Am Großen Wannsee 56-58 to decide the fate of millions. The posh surroundings are in stark contrast to the horrors of the Holocaust.

On 11 January 2019, I made my way to the same house – a 44€ Uber ride from Spandau, where I had been with the group of University of Virginia students at a historical museum that preserves historical monuments that are no longer in their original locations, such as the head of a Lenin statue. One of the students on the program with me joined in the visit. As the black Mercedes Benz weaved through Berlin traffic, we were conscious of the historical juxtaposition a visit to Wannsee would have after having visited Buchenwald concentration camp. What kind of environment could have surrounded officials planning a genocide? It was a chilling question.

Minutes before our arrival, we turned onto a street with elegant, nautical-themed homes. Model ships were on display in private homes surrounded by tall hedges. Coming from Michigan, it was weirdly reminiscent of the homes one would see around St. Clair Shores or Grosse Pointe, if the reader is familiar. If not, think high-end yacht club homes.

“I always thought a decision like this would have been made somewhere more discreet, like in the middle of the forest,” commented Robert, the UVA student with me. “These look like UVA frat houses, a bit,” I commented.

Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

Surrounded by cherubs, statues of lions, and manicured gardens stands the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, built prior to the Nazi period. The Schutzstaffel (SS) purchased the home for their own use in 1940. After the end of the Second World War, the villa was converted into a school. Historian Joseph Wulf was glad that the space was repurposed as a space of education, however felt that there needed to be more done to educate the general public. In 1965, he suggested that the house be turned into a Holocaust memorial and documentation centre, a request that the West German government denied him during his lifetime. Infuriated with West Germany’s light-handed treatment of postwar investigations into Nazi war crimes and reliving the horrors of the Holocaust through his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Wulf took his own life in 1974. The library inside the now-museum – opened in 1992 – bears his name.

Dr. Joseph Wulf – Holocaust survivor and historian

The exhibition inside could easily comprise four dissertations. Primary sources are displayed, showing who took part in the conference, how mass persecution and genocide was perpetrated against ‘enemies of the Reich,’ such as homosexuals, the Roma and Sinti peoples, and the Jewish population of Europe.

Main view from the first room; start of exhibition.
Documents from the Wannsee Conference detailing the estimated number of Jewish citizens by region.

The Wannsee documents were side-by-side in German and English, but were also available in Hebrew, which felt like a triumph against the anti-Semitic documents.

The museum showed methods of ideological manipulation to provide support for the Nazi regime’s war crimes, particularly by way of stylistic propaganda posters. I found the following image the most interesting – a book advertisement for Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As an avid reader, it was strange to see it marketed in such a banal yet propagandistic way – intentionally so.

After reviewing documents and viewing racist cartoons displayed on the wall, the exhibit led the visitor through a different exhibition – testimony given by both descendants of the Holocaust and by those who are related to Nazi officials. It was striking, particularly since it shows that both those whose families were persecuted as well as those who are descendants of the persecutors agree that this period weighs heavily on the conscience of all. These testimonies included Dr. Joseph Wulf, Primo Levi, and Katrin Himmler, among others. These are the most memorable quotes seen in that exhibit (for me at least):

These quotes led into an exhibit about daily life in each country occupied by the Nazis. A poster was displayed in Hebrew or Yiddish, inviting members of the ghetto to a symphonic concert. Even in the worst of times, the arts act as a point of resistance and community.

Poster for symphonic concert in Hebrew/Yiddish.

At the conclusion of the museum, I made my way to the library and archive, which led outside to a balcony. The visual juxtaposition of where I was once again was striking. For such a catastrophic event, the milieu was unsettlingly serene. One could sense that the Nazi officials felt particularly disassociated with their decision to commit genocide, as if it were something that would reinforce this privilege.

To conclude this journal entry, I leave you with three images juxtaposed. The first is the view from the balcony; the second, images drawn by artists imprisoned in a concentration camp; the final one, a view of the villa at night. I hope you get a sense of the paradoxical, sinister nature of this place.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Special thanks to Robert Bork III for having accompanied me on this tour.

Impressions of Buchenwald

Buchenwald, Photo by Claire-Marie Brisson (8 January 2019)

A short bus ride through the countryside surrounding Weimar leads to Buchenwald – the largest concentration camp on German soil opened in 1937. Intentionally created to be unassuming and summer camp-esque, Buchenwald (literally “Beech Forest”) once housed nationals of some 35 countries, incarcerated for varying ‘crimes’ such as being asocial, homosexual, or of ‘inferior’ racial lineage.

Today, 8 January 2019, was particularly a striking day to visit Buchenwald. The wind was harsh – so much so that its sound whipped the barren branches across the Ettersberg hill – an area that once graced the likes of Goethe as he strolled finding inspiration for his works prior to the crimes committed in the same region. Cold rain dotted the thousands of pebbles across the grounds of the concentration camp – nature’s tears planted upon the ground where humans were sacrificed to bravado-filled hatred.

Warning: Unsettling Images Ahead – Reader Discretion is Advised.

Students on the program I am helping assist are normally loquacious, but upon reaching Buchenwald stopped chatting and began to take in what was before them. Mustard yellow housing that had once housed SS officers dotted the grounds, juxtaposed to the looming grey sky. One of these had been transformed into a café for visitors, where the coffee was scalding hot and staff muttered amongst themselves quietly. The other building had a cinema, where we saw an informative film.

Though visually distressing, sound for me was the most noticeable part of my first ever concentration camp visit. The wind, the stones, a bird cawing in the distance, a metal gate closing. Strangely, noises you hardly ever notice are more pronounced here, simply because it is so quiet and vast.

As someone who deals quite a bit with images taken during this time period for my research, another striking – yet subtle – thing I noticed here was the colour, particularly of the things nature has begun to reclaim. It is powerful and telling in juxtaposition to buildings and transportation networks once used for the worst crimes committed to fellow human beings.

“We don’t go in that forest to the right of us,” explained the tour guide. “It was used for small arms production and likely still has unexploded land mines. The people working to make these weapons were attempting to save their lives while creating munitions that were used against their own people.”

Humans were reduced to conditions that caused dysentery to outbreak in the camp. Prisoners worked to stay alive, but only in the hopes of someday leaving this hell.

The grounds are vastly empty now, having once held dozens of prisoner-built barracks at one point.

The prison remains. Its architecture in stark contrast to another prison I saw a few days prior from another period – the GDR’s Hohenschönhausen. The prison cells at Buchenwald were less roomy and much more stark, though if a prisoner tried they may likely get a small glimpse of the outside ‘world’ in the camp complex.

The weight of history is palpable. Students noticed that a hill some miles away could be seen bathed in sunlight as we stood in the shadows of foreboding clouds instead, bearing the weight of the crimes committed and lives lost.

Everything here was meticulously planned to make sure inmates lost their sense of identity. Even the gate’s inscription “Jedem das Seine” (“to each their own,” from the Latin suum quique) is placed as a Platonic rule for the inmate that each must contribute his part to the state. It was also a motto used by high-ranking Prussian nobility in the German context, and is still used today as the motto of the Feldjäger military police.

Inside the crematorium, I was particularly struck by the memorial that caught my eye first before even noticing anything else. A bright display from visitors remembering their loved ones transformed this space from standing on its own as an apparatus of war crimes, to a memorial to those who might not have identifiable grave markers. This was a powerful way to reclaim this space.

Seeing the images of the camps or of the liberation is one thing; being here is entirely different. It was difficult to say the least to visit Buchenwald, but it has completely changed how I perceive historical documents I have been consulting for quite some time. It also left an impression on students. One student on the bus ride back mentioned that he “didn’t quite have the words” to describe how he felt, and neither do I. What I do have to say though is that the pain, suffering, and unbelievable weight are still very real and present in these spaces. It is crucial that we visit them so we work to never let such crimes happen ever again.


Lessons on a Green Chalkboard

The sound of a hammer driving in two nails into the side of the house rang out one summer afternoon as I was riding my tricycle. I saw my dad walk back in the house as I made another circle down the driveway. The sound of my plastic wheels made a memorable crinkly noise as they went over pebbles and twigs. The back screen door opened again, and in my father’s hands was a small green chalkboard.

He hung the chalkboard on the side of the house and smiled over at me. “Let’s have school!” he chimed, bringing me over to the board. “First, we’ll start with the alphabet. Are you ready?”

I happily wrote my first dusty letters. A, B, C… naturally my favourite letter, D… and then numbers. As the weeks passed, I started writing sentences that he’d correct under the warm summer sun. We’d practice simple math problems and I’d guess new vocabulary words playing hangman in several languages. I learned about law and history. It was an exceptional experience, and it’s all thanks to a man who sacrificed everything – my grandfather.

The chalkboard had originally hung in a school where my grandfather Ernest Brisson worked – not as a teacher – but as a carpenter and janitor.

Despite his wealth of knowledge in forestry, agriculture, medicine, carpentry, business, physical education, politics, and history, his skills were limited by his life experience. He was first and foremost a soldier – a decorated French Canadian war veteran who would eventually be transferred in the Allied war effort to the Americans who needed his assistance. His dutiful nature, noteworthy physical endurance, and cultural knowledge set him apart from the rest. He trudged through battlefields in Europe and witnessed atrocities that words cannot describe. He subsisted on coffee grounds for two weeks at the Battle of Chosin. After the war, he lived in Japan and began healing through the practice of Shintō. He never would attend university but would take classes through his military service from time to time.

He traveled – and often – to rediscover the world once again, not as a soldier, but in search of positivity. He learned about the world through its diverse geography and mosaic of languages. By the end of his life, the native French speaker also knew how to speak English, German, Japanese, and some Italian. He loved broadening his horizons and bettering himself. He was spiritually optimistic in defiance of the inhumanity he had faced.

Chalkboards became an important part of his later life. He would use his knowledge as a carpenter to build sturdy furniture for schoolchildren and teachers, and often had to clean or hang new chalkboards in his line of work. He would learn new things from what had been left on the boards, and sometimes – and often – found mistakes.

My grandfather was a person people wanted to get to know because of his simplicity. Students would approach him and ask him for advice or for help. He had a deep appreciation for educating others from the things he had learned outside of the classroom. Everyone in the school began to discover that the man who cleaned rubbish bins and swept the floor had an immense sense of empathy and worldliness. He was proud of what he did and remembered who he met.

Students eventually transformed my grandfather’s role into something unexpected. His talent in expressing himself verbally made them ask for help from him with their French grammar and sentences. He’d set aside his carpentry kit or waste bin, and pick up the chalk himself. He was the uncelebrated tutor and friend of many.

One day, another janitor set aside a small green chalkboard that had been used in a classroom. Its size made it unuseful in a classroom setting, and it was to be discarded. My grandfather couldn’t let it go to waste. He brought it home so my father could start using it for his own learning. It would pass through a wide usage cycle from schoolwork to oil change schedules.

By the time I was a child, I had no idea of the little green chalkboard’s mileage. I loved teaching my stuffed animals just as much as I enjoyed drawing on it – mostly birds and portraits. I was a very active child, much like my grandfather said he had been. I’d jump from sofa to coffee table to chair and back again all while watching a science documentary. I’d race myself to the chalkboard to complete my addition problems. I didn’t like being still. (Even now, I find myself doing several things at once.)

My father received a better education from his own father than anywhere else. Louis Brisson would eventually go to law school, start his own business, and dream of making the world a better place in his own little way. But it was Ernest that brought the richest life lessons despite my father’s education. Through him, he learned to love, to live, to seek positivity, and to seek to make a difference.

Today, I thought back to that small, green chalkboard as I passed by a Montessori playground with chalk strewn all over the ground. The simplest objects can carry so much meaning. I don’t know if my grandfather knew that saving that chalkboard would have had such a lasting impact.

Ernest’s quest for understanding the world was and still is infectious, and my father’s desire to instill that in me has brought me to a classroom of my own. And though I’m not writing this post on a chalkboard, I hope that this memory serves you well as you go about your day.

Thanks for stopping by.

Claire-Marie Brisson

First Chapter

It was lunchtime on a snowy March afternoon in Montréal. I was running on a stomach that was becoming more and more agitated that I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast. Instead, I had nourished my mind by scanning archival documents for several hours. I was planning my escape at some point. Just a couple more pages.

Snow crunched under my boots as I trekked from the Grande Bibliothèque down rue St-Denis, trying to avoid indulging in another generic coffee at Second Cup or at Tim Horton’s. (I’d eventually turn back and give in, anyway.) My brain was full, my face was cold, my notebook was filled with scribbles.

Hopelessly lured in by warm coffee, I climbed Second Cup café’s stairwell on rue St-Denis and placed an order. In the shadow of passerby walking near the café’s semi-foggy windows, I opened a blank word document and started typing:

Outline for the Dissertation.

A small bullet point list started accumulating random ideas. My mentor calls it working in the sandbox. I’d call this working in the caffeine-fuelled icebox.

Fast forward several days.

I was seated at a charging station at LaGuardia (in great proximity to a potted plant that could be about as old as I am) when I heard my flight was cancelled. Some weary travellers joined me as I rented a car and drove nine hours. No sleep that night.

Strangely enough, these seemingly incongruous events have provided me with much clarity as I’ve been drafting a semi-coherent first chapter this term. The crunch of the snow reminds me that my subject has long been dormant, cocooned in the halls of memory of archives. Will this work reactivate long lost collective memories, or will my narrative give voice to what has been forgotten? It gives me inspiration.

As for that long drive? It reminds me of the moments that don’t seem straightforward. I thought that by going from point A, I would arrive at point C by way of point B. Instead, I had to react quickly and adapt when everything fell through. Though it’s not as drastic, writing can be isolating. It can feel like you’re driving through the night. You have to adapt when paragraph A doesn’t quite join with all the rest.

Whenever I do drive long distances, I tend to do a long haul. I like seeing the sun rise over the freeway as I reach my destination, and my night owl tendencies make it much more enjoyable. Writing this dissertation, I feel like I’m behind the wheel of a very different vehicle. Instead of gasoline, I need facts and supporting evidence to fuel the drive forward. It’s exhilarating, but it’s only about 5pm, and I still have 12 hours of driving to go.

Some people train for marathons. Others challenge themselves to be a better self through travel, prayer, education, or whatever makes sense. For me, the dissertation allows me to give voice to narratives that are underrepresented. In doing so, I’m challenging myself not only to train for that long haul intellectual pursuit; I’m also discovering a lot about the geospatial reality of Québec’s past and how it converges with my present.

While taking a break from research, I came across a thread posted somewhere online. “Doing a dissertation is the most selfish thing you can do,” asserted a comment, while others called the pursuit a “pedantic” act that resonated strictly in the halls of the Ivory Tower. It’s fine and dandy if that’s your view of this whole thing. Some people might think running a marathon is pointless, too. But why are we so impressed at the final achievement? It’s not a selfish act. It shows us humanity’s potential, and more often than not, athletes are a part of immensely supportive communities. I’m not doing this for myself at all. If I were trying to do a selfish act, it would be a hell of a lot easier.

It’s almost November. I’ll be turning in a draft of the first chapter. It’s nowhere near being perfect, nor complete, nor anything anyone would ever publish (just yet), but through the snow on St-Denis to the halls of The University of Virginia, I’ve begun to chart that long journey through the night. The ultimate academic marathon.

Wish me well.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Charlottesville – One Year Later

Standing in the midst of protests during the State of Emergency – Charlottesville Downtown Mall – August 12, 2017

I moved to Charlottesville on August 11, 2016.

One year later, my new hometown became a trending hashtag. Heather Heyer lost her life on a street where I would walk every single day to buy groceries. My campus was awash with tiki torches. The pungent smell of smoke still comes to mind every day as I walk to work. The same night that alt-right protestors flocked to “The Lawn” at The University of Virginia, I was wholly unaware of what was coming towards me as I sought to recover from a day of travel from Canada one day prior – until a police officer recommended I get to safety. Though I sought solitude, I was instead involuntarily in a line of literal fire. My story was documented in a blog post published only moments after returning home.

Celebrating my one-year anniversary of living in the historically rich (and complex) city didn’t feel the way I expected after having packed all of my worldly belongings into cardboard boxes and made the journey from Metro Detroit. Though I was a newcomer, I never felt a more profound sense of belonging to a geographic place than I did in the midst of crisis. I equally have never felt a deeper sense of urgency for the topics I research – fascism, the Second World War, ideological conflict, propaganda.

Though the world remembers August, I remember the months that led up to it. I lived on 1st Street at the time – one of the roads that intersects the Downtown Mall, and equally meets the statue of Confederate-era general Robert E. Lee in what is now known as “Emancipation Park” (formerly “Lee Park”). I was unaware of the history of the statue, but I wasn’t too shocked to see a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, as Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy. I was a bit more surprised once I found out the statue was commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924.

It’s interesting to think that all of the events of August 2017 were precisely one hundred years after it had been commissioned by a philanthropist named Paul McIntire – a man who equally donated generously to the University of Virginia and was decorated with the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.

It was in February 2017 that I first encountered a protest against the removal of the statue – a solitary man sitting on a park bench.


I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to me. He saw me looking at him and glanced back at me briefly. Having never seen anyone displaying a Confederate flag in this way, I took a photo, took note of my surroundings, and walked back home. I didn’t think much about it, except for the fact that I never would have encountered a similar scenario anywhere where I had lived in the past.

Fast forward to May 13, 2017 – a date that often goes unnoticed by those outside of Charlottesville. This was the day that the first tiki torch rally took place at the base of the statue. I once again was nearby, just as I would be in August. Shouts rose to the sky like smoke. “Russia is our friend!” they shouted. “You will not replace us!” cried others. Needless to say, I was confused by it all. It was only upon going home that I had remembered that the City of Charlottesville had offered to sell the statue, and that an injunction of six months had been put into place by a judge in April 2017.

Instead of fast forwarding a few months, let’s focus on the ones we don’t think about too often. Now-infamous Jason Kessler was booed off the Downtown Mall while eating at Miller’s Bar with some of his friends in June 2017. He started a Periscope video to rally his supporters on Twitter, and I decided to interview his group with questions after they began to move away from the bar. You can read my article from that time here. What I gathered from my interaction with the group and having seen how the antifa had organized itself to track and denounce Kessler – I recognized that our community was on the verge of something unprecedented.

Investigating online, I discovered that the worst was to come in the form of a major rally to be held in August. I tried to ignore it as I taught middle schoolers for a month and then traveled to Canada to visit family and conduct research in the national archives. I thought I was going to miss all of the events. Instead, I was back just in time.

As a doctoral student focusing on cultural history, I’ve come to realize that Charlottesville – like the rest of the world – has layers of history that are memorialized in different ways. When these histories intersect present academic and social initiatives to re-document and accurately represent the past, there will always be resistance from groups who collectively remember historical events differently. These histories – which are inherently connected – bring out unresolved conflicts, biases, and insecurities that can lead to the events we saw unfurl in our streets in August 2017.

But where do we stand now in August 2018?

An area councilwoman was quoted to say that we as a community have ‘lost our naivete’ in a recent Washington Post article. As someone who witnessed these harrowing events firsthand, I respectfully disagree. We as a community have never been naïve. We are conscious, we are active, and we are resilient. It has taken a lot of time to recover from last year’s events, and as I am typing this, I am still hearing State Police helicopters patrolling every inch of this city. Others in this article agree with this sense of resilience, but it is telling that the title of this article (and general tone) has painted a fractured portrait of Charlottesville one year later.

The same article also states that “the real damage has been to the city’s psyche and the sense of itself.” Residents of this city – commonly called C’villians – would disagree. Our city is vibrant and self-aware. Its residents define it – not the tiki-torch wielding alt-right protestors who stole our tranquility and tried to dismantle our sense of community.

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This is what defines Charlottesville. Only steps away from where a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters and residents, graphic designers at Charlottesville’s Rock, Paper, Scissors shop designed a heart that symbolizes our resiliency, our progress, and our unity. We as a community recognize we have much to address – rapid gentrification and its consequences, being the city with the most expensive ACA health insurance in the nation, and a past rife with discrimination – but we are challenging ourselves every day to face the real tasks at hand that will enable us to build a more egalitarian, sustainable community.

As for this weekend, only time will tell what will happen. We have reverted to our State of Emergency, and our streets are filled with law enforcement. The alt-right was denied a permit to hold a second “Unite the Right” rally here, so they’ve taken their show down the road to Washington D.C. instead.

Charlottesville is one year stronger.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Authorial Appreciation

While taking a break from writing two documents that are due this week for my degree program, seeing all the work scattered across my desk around my laptop made me smile. Not because I’m particularly satisfied with how the million thoughts in my brain make their way to the otherwise blank word document, but because I finally took a step back to see the process and not the result just now.
It’s a messy lab experiment-meets-twenty-first-century-graduate student sitting in her home office, books and papers seasoning what otherwise would be a clean white desk. Book pages marked with cards and postage stamp booklets, a tepid mug of tea holding onto its last bits of warmth, a candle flickering on a nearby bookshelf, my rug housing crumpled up papers that I’ve launched from my authorial island. My work environment is a familiar, comforting tsunami of paper, ink, and soft lights – as it has always been, as it will always be – and today, familiarity transformed into appreciation.
Claire-Marie Brisson

Double Digits

My third grade teacher made us brainstorm about what we wanted to do once we were older – “say twenty-five!” she said – in a journal activity. It seemed like centuries would pass before I even reached that age at the time. To the girl with the messy bob and shiny patent leather shoes, two digits in my age instead of one was remarkable! I’d probably be taller, wouldn’t I? I remember scribbling down that I wanted to be happy and that I wanted to teach to make others happy too. I drew a picture of myself on the crisp-smelling lined paper with a dull pencil. My pencil-point eyes were gazing out at a class while I was holding an extraordinarily misshapen book.That activity came back into my mind just now. Though that teacher is no longer gracing the earth, the lesson came back as a reminder. Reaching out to people in meaningful ways can bring back memories right when we don’t expect it. And guess what? I am taller, I am teaching, and double digits never seemed so comforting.