The Child Sex Scandal And Modern Irish Literature: Writing The Unspeakable

Authors: Joseph Valente & Margot Gayle Backus
Publisher: Indiana University Press, 2020. 271 pages.
Reviewer: Eamon Maher ǀ January 2022

Undoubtedly, one of the most seismic revelations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century in Ireland was the scandal surrounding the callous abuse of children by clerics, and the equally horrific treatment meted out to the same age group in Industrial Schools, Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, which were jointly run by church and state. In their introduction to the book under review, Joseph Valente and Margot Gayle Backus underline how in the heyday of the Catholic Church’s domination of Irish society after securing independence from Britain in 1921, ‘children were conceived of as empty vessels whose virtually coterminous spiritual and sexual purity was absolutely secured by the church’s social and moral oversight’ (19). This led to people from deprived backgrounds, or girls/young women who found themselves pregnant outside of wedlock, or anyone who was deemed to be ‘disabled’ or a threat to society, being criminalized and sent to Catholic institutions that served as what the authors refer to as ‘pressure-release valves within Ireland’s architecture of containment’ (19).

Such was the grip of the Catholic Church over the citizens at that time that it became well-nigh impossible to oppose its dictates, even unintentionally. For those who did (a prime example being Dr Noël Browne, Minister for Health between 1948 and 1951, whose attempts to introduce a Mother and Child bill to combat Ireland’s soaring infant mortality, led to a public squabble with the Catholic hierarchy and his resignation from the cabinet), the consequences could be anything from social ostracization, to losing one’s job, to being exposed to the rigor of the judicial system. It was just not a wise thing to do.

The steady secularization of Irish society from the 1960s onwards, increased access to education and well-paid employment, membership of the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973, and enhanced mobility as a result of more affordable cars and foreign travel, all led to a mindset whereby Irish people began to question Catholic dogma, especially in the area of sexual morality. The referendums on contraception, abortion and divorce, all of which were unsuccessful in the 1980s, mainly as a result of church opposition, are covered in the Introduction, along with some key events such as the Kerry Babies scandal, where an unmarried mother was wrongfully charged for killing a baby that was proven not to be hers, as alleged by the police, and the death of a teenage girl, Anne Lovett, when giving birth right beside the grotto of the Virgin Mary in a rural town called Granard. All these are seen as steps along the way to the dismantling of the moral monopoly so long enjoyed by the Catholic Church. Within decades, Ireland would decriminalize homosexuality, allow free access to contraception, legalize divorce, introduce same-sex marriage, and adopt what is considered some of the most liberal abortion legislation to be found anywhere in the world. A big influencer in the diminution of the power of the Catholic Church was undoubtedly the clerical abuse scandals of the 1990s and the early decades of the twenty-first century. When revered individuals and the monolith institution that they represented were shown to have had feet of clay, when their leaders put the reputation of the institution ahead of the safety of children, then the floodwaters broke and change, at a pace that had seemed unthinkable a few decades earlier, came quickly, and brought an institution once held sacred to its reputational knees.

For anyone keen to understand the massive changes that took hold of Ireland since the 1960s, the Introduction of this book should be mandatory reading. In trying to capture the Victorian form of puritanism that took hold of the Emerald Isle, the authors observe that ‘erotic energies feed on the practices and rituals of correction of the entire system.’ And they conclude: ‘For in the attempt to confine and canalize the unruly longings of its charges and dependents, the regulatory machinery of the Irish church wound up saturating certain sites of disciplinary constraint and purgation – orphanages, industrial schools, convents, rectories, laundries, and “homes” both public and private – with the very libidinal stirrings it sought to tame’ (31). The places of incarceration ironically provided a locus and pretext for the type of proclivities that the church condemned most vociferously. And, what was even worse, priests and religion were at the forefront when it came to engaging in such degenerate behaviour. When examining how the trope of child sexual abuse is captured in modern Irish literature – a term that is used to denote novels and short stories by canonical writers such as James Joyce, Kate and Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright, and the less well-known crime fiction of Keith Ridgway and Tana French – the authors borrow heavily on the French philosopher Jean Laplanche’s theory of the “enigmatic signifier”. This is possibly a good time to point out that this book comes with a slight health warning: it is in no way geared at the general reader, and is challenging even for those with academic training. In Laplanche’s view, parents and authority figures pass on the energies of their own repressed desires and compromise formations to children in ambiguous psychic messages that take the form of enigmatic signifiers. The implantation of such adult sexuality into the child’s psyche produces a type of “traumatic jouissance”, which is where the enigmatic element manifests itself, in that subconsciously, the child can derive enjoyment from what to others would seem like gross depravity. Valente and Backus set about examining how the Irish novelists they have chosen mobilized enigmatic signifiers ‘to explore the mysteries of sexual initiation, seduction, and abuse’ (35). They justify this choice by saying that fiction depends on experience being mediated in such a way as to encourage readers to identify with both characters and the actions that happen to them. This strong identification is used to ‘syncopate the unfolding of the action so as to replicate for the reader an abstracted version of the enigmatic signifier as both affective or erotic trauma and hermeneutical lure’ (36) – I did warn you that this was not for the fainthearted!

While each section of this book is worthy of discussion, for the sake of brevity I have decided to concentrate on chapters one and six, dealing with Joyce and Enright, as I feel they provide an excellent overview of how the premise of the ‘enigmatic signifier’ is applied to Irish literature in a manner that is informative in relation to the exploration of child sex abuse. Joyce was clearly fascinated with the traumatic intrusion of adult sexuality into children’s lives, as can be seen in the short stories from Dubliners such as “An Encounter”, “The Boarding House”, “Eveline”, or the sexually suggestive pandying scene in A Portrait, or various episodes recounted in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But it is the portrayal of the sexual initiation of a boy by an elderly priest Father Flynn, in “The Sisters,” that provides some of the most illuminating work by Joyce in this area. The story deals with the reaction of various people to the death of Father Flynn, who was well known in the local area of Dublin where he lived with his sisters. The boy’s parents react ambiguously to the news in a way that betrays some of the misgivings they felt in relation to the priest. This is conveyed through a series of ellipses: “No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him.” And yet they still allowed their son to go to the priest for lessons despite the knowledge that the two of them would be alone for a protracted period of time. For his part, the boy was at one and the same time attracted to and repulsed by Father Flynn, whose mentorship, we are led to infer, was more sexual than academic in nature. The authors offer the following assessment: ‘Joyce’s decision to render the sexual tenor of the boy’s discipleship fuzzy and obscure from the start enjoins upon the reader a like sense of complicity. In this way, Joyce refuses to portray the scandal of child sexual abuse as purely external to any imagined community his work might reach’ (54).

By broaching a subject such as this, Joyce knew the dangerous waters he was navigating. Not only was he implying that a priest could harbor lustful thoughts towards, and engage in lewd acts with a boy, but he was also suggesting connivance on the part of the reader with what unfolds in the disturbing narrative of “The Sisters.” Valente and Backus acknowledge Joyce’s bravery in representing this “censored chapter” in Irish history and emphasize how difficult it was to overcome the pressures that were brought to bear by the authorities on anyone daring to expose this hidden dark landscape in the manner that Joyce did. They quote a letter by Joyce to Grant Edwards pleading for the publication of Dubliners, in which the writer wrote: “I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.” The image of themselves they might find in the ‘polished looking-glass’ would not have appealed to many of the ruling elite of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century-Ireland, and especially not to the Catholic Church, which always had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Joyce, whom they both admired and mistrusted.

It is fitting that the book closes with a reading of Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering (2007), which has the issue of child sexual abuse as its main focus. The narrator and central protagonist is a 39-year-old woman, Veronica (née Hegarty), who was brought up in a family of 12 children and was closest to her sibling Liam, who we discover in the opening pages was fished out of the sea in Brighton after deciding that life was no longer worth living. The ‘gathering’ of the title refers to the wake the family organizes for Liam in Dublin, which is the trigger for a discussion of the origins of their brother’s problems. Veronica knows his issues dated from the abuse he was subjected to by Lamb Nugent, a sinister character who controlled their grandmother Ada after her husband’s death. As a young girl, Veronica entered the front room in Ada’s house where she found her brother and Nugent engaged in a disturbing sexual act. After her brother’s death, the episode, which she never mentioned to anybody, comes back into her consciousness: ‘It is the struggle in Lamb Nugent’s face that is unbearable, between the man who does not approve of this pleasure, and the one who is weak to it.’ There is a suggestion that Veronica, in spite of her initial revulsion, derives some perverse pleasure from witnessing this act. Likewise, she raises the possibility that Liam too may have been a willing participant: ‘There is also the pleasure of the boy to consider.’

It is clear from various descriptions in the novel that Liam was a disturbed young adolescent whose aberrant behaviour was obvious to many people. But nobody thought to ask why he might be that way. Veronica’s silence about what she saw in her grandmother’s house is akin to Ireland’s collective ignoring of what was happening to children in homes all over the country; in institutions where they were sent because they were poor or had committed some minor offense; or simply because there was a need for slave labor to keep the money flowing into the coffers of the religious congregations and the Catholic Church. The authors observe in this regard: ‘The dissociation of her (Veronica’s) childhood memories, enjoined by their traumatic force, serves as the novel’s double synecdoche for the larger cultural amnesia concerning child sexual abuse in Ireland, of which Veronica’s specific state of PTSD is both a part and an effect’ (199).

Literature’s role is to reflect the lived experience of people in an artistic manner and not to reform society. There is no room for didacticism or judgement in a good work of art. The possible danger of applying a theory like the “enigmatic signifier” to a literary text is that the author may be seen as somehow acting out the role of moral guardian. This is particularly true when dealing with an issue as emotive as child sexual abuse. This happens, I think, in the analysis of Veronica’s strange interactions with one of her daughters – ‘I want to rub my hand down her exquisite back, and over her lovely little bum’ – which is interpreted in the following manner by Valente and Gayle Backus:

It almost goes without saying that these scenes confuse the roles of mother and lover, parent and paramour, a psychodynamic intrinsic, at an unconscious level, to the enigmatic signifier’s overt, genitalized replication in child sexual abuse (229).

While I get the point that is being put forward here and see some validity in it, I also feel that it proffers a retrospective reading of the text to suit the theory, or that it reads the words with a predetermined lens. The lines above could be read in a different manner; for example, as an insecure mother’s protective attitude to her child, whom she wants to shelter from the evils of the outside world. But that did not suit the trope of the enigmatic signifier. Another example of this intrusion can be found in the interpretation of Brendan, Veronica’s uncle, who spends much of his life in St Ita’s hospital for the mentally ill. This abandonment by his family mirrors Veronica’s own dereliction of duty when she fails to intervene when she sees what is happening between her brother and Lamb. Indeed, we discover in the novel that Liam and Veronica are less than kind in their treatment of their own sister Kitty, whose opinions they are quick to dismiss and to whom they are consistently mean. Once more, the extrapolation that Valente and Backus come up with goes a bit far in my view:

Enright underlines the discrepancy between Veronica’s (and Irish society’s) acute personal guilt for the plight of the sexually abused Liam and the inchoate, impersonal revulsion at work in Veronica’s (and Irish society’s) response to Brendan’s fate, by way of Veronica’s more intractable imperviousness to the abuse that she and Liam inflicted on their younger sister, Kitty (237).

I realize I am being very picky and possibly somewhat unfair in pointing out these small caveats. Overall, Writing the Unspeakable is a beautifully written and intellectually stimulating book that casts much needed light on the representation of the child sexual scandal in modern Irish literature. For anyone with the slightest interest in the intersection between literature, psychology, cultural theory and sociology and the light they can cast on Irish society, this book is a must read, provided that one understands that it is a highly academic study not intended for a general audience. It shows how in many respects the trauma associated with child abuse in Ireland is still at an early stage, and that healing will only come slowly.

Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in TU Dublin and the General Editor of two academic book series with Peter Lang Oxford, Reimagining Ireland and Studies in Franco-Irish Relations.

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