Kirk Angus Johnson first heard the story on the news. On Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond, a former Canadian soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), murdered his wife, their daughter and his mother, and then died by suicide in the tiny community of Upper Big Tracadie, NS.
“I hit me hard on many levels,” remembers Johnson (MFA Class of 2019) who didn’t sleep at all that night, worried that a veteran might have been involved. Johnson himself had also been a soldier who deployed to Afghanistan a few years before Desmond and had served in the same infantry regiment. Johnson too had been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of those experiences. But his connections to Desmond ran even deeper. Both men were of African lineage and came from small, rural Black communities.
Soon after, when Johnson learned the military intended to release him because of his own mental health issues—but with an offer to retrain him in a new field for civilian life—he decided he would use the opportunity to follow his own “natural curiosity” and explore what led to such a tragic end for Desmond and his family.
That’s when he “stumbled across” the University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. “The program was such a good fit,” says Johnson, whose undergraduate degree is in English and who had previously published poetry.
Johnson’s nonfiction book about the case, Some Kind of Hero: Love, Death and Trauma in a Nova Scotia Town, will be published by Random House Canada in October 2021. The publisher describes the book, which is available to pre-order in hardcover and as an ebook, as a “deeply personal investigation into an African-Nova Scotian soldier who came home from Afghanistan a changed man and made national news with a murder-suicide that raises nuanced and difficult questions about moral responsibility, domestic violence and the overlooked costs of war.”
Johnson himself says his book focuses on “Lionel’s psychological trajectory from birth to death,” but adds quickly, “it’s not just Lionel’s story. It’s as much [his wife] Shanna’s story as the book follows their life together from their first childhood union through some of the terrible times they experienced as a couple trying to cope with Lionel’s PTSD and deteriorating mental state.” It is also, he adds, “a story of their special, predominantly Black community, landlocked in the woods of Nova Scotia, and explores themes of race, post-colonialism and domestic violence.”
Without the MFA, Johnson acknowledges, “this book would not have happened on its own.” Being mentored by “working writing professionals who were as dedicated to the project as I was,” he says, equipped him with the craft tools needed to tell the story. And the program also then helped him connect with his agent and eventual publisher.
There were more than a few difficult days as he was forced to relive not only his own experiences but also “in cruel detail the nightmare of that night when the killings occurred.” Complicating matters was the added stress of “needing to navigate between two grieving families who experienced the tragedy so differently and were often at odds with one another. It’s been a difficult process.”
But writing, he points out, “is easier when there are people around you who believe in you and the value of your work. I needed encouragement to keep going, and the MFA community at King’s provided it.”
Although he hasn’t settled on a next book project yet, Johnson, who served 11 years in the infantry, believes he will continue to explore military themes in his work as well as the issues around how families cope with the mental illness of a family member “whose suffering and triumphs we can all relate to and learn from.”