Sunday, 10 February 2013

Unholy Hell

I knew absolutely nothing about the Magdalene laundries until I saw The Magdalene Sisters in 2002. The film is set in Ireland and I thought the horror stopped there.

Magdalene laundries are in the news now because of a report.
Ireland has officially recognised the state's guilt in the "enslavement" of more than 30,000 women, most of whom were sent against their will into church-run institutions where they received no pay, no pension and no social protection.

Labelled the "Maggies", the women were sent to the Magdalene laundries where they worked for nothing, serving in some cases "life sentences" simply for being unmarried mothers or regarded as morally wayward.

Dig this bit.
The inquiry into the Magdalene scandal was finally prompted by a report from the UN committee against torture in June 2011. It called for prosecutions where necessary and compensation to surviving women.

Just now, I learned that the racket was imported to the US.

(Here is Jerome Elam's website.)

Canada too?

And then I remembered.

Like most 14-year-olds, I was a handful. I wasn't quite (yet) into drugs and sex but I was getting into trouble in school, mouthing off, skipping out, hanging with friends. I bleached my hair, experimented with makeup. Nothing particularly outrageous.

But Maman, divorced since I was seven, had a new boyfriend. I didn't like him and he didn't like me.

So a plot was hatched. Boyfriend did the research -- I found the list in his handwriting years later -- on 'tough' Catholic boarding schools.

A shortlist of the toughest emerged and appointments were made. My presence was required.

We weren't Catholic, by the way.

I was shocked. My friends were shocked. A counter-plan was hatched.

A friend lent me a 'motorcycle' jacket. (Motorcycles were considered agents of Satan.) Scripts were written and rehearsed.

On the evening we were to drive to the first place (I've repressed the name; it was near Hamilton, Ontario), I rolled the waistband of my already-too-short skirt, slathered on makeup, and donned the jacket. My mother told me to wash my face and change my clothes. I told her that if she were going to force me into this, I was doing it my way. Huge fight, but I stuck to my guns and won that round.

Silence in the car.

We were taken to Head Nun's office. Short meeting with Maman, boyfriend, and me, then they were asked to leave. Head Nun wanted to talk to me alone.

Truth to tell, I was scared shitless, but I put on the performance of my life. Alternately truculent and foul-mouthed, I tried to be the baddest-ass girl of all time.

I told her that I was smart -- she had school records so she knew that -- and that I would use every single IQ point I had to make her life an unholy hell.

There was more of course and I probably wasn't nearly as bad-ass as I thought, but when adults were summoned back, she said she didn't think that Name of School could do anything with me.

She declined my challenge.

Silence in the car going home.

But there was still The List.

It took me a few days to realize that the Remove Fern Hill from the Family Home Project had been quietly abandoned.

And today, I'm wondering exactly what kind of unholy hell I had averted.

As a sad bonus, read what Sinéad O'Connor has to say. It explains much.

ADDED: I've always loved Sinéad O'Connor.

Singer Sinead O'Connor has said she has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church and said she wanted a certificate from the Vatican to prove it.

"Apparently I've been excommunicated but the only place you'll find this is in L'Osservatore Romano, their newspaper which nobody reads," she told the Sunday Independent.

"But I want something to show my grandkids. I've been tweeting Pope Benedict about this but I've heard nothing back yet."


deBeauxOs said...

Excellent post, fern hill!

Funny how survival instincts cope in different ways with the memory of life-threatening experiences. It sounds like you neatly buried that close call.

Well played, by the way.

I remember most of my head-on collisions with The Nuns. None were quite as spectacular as yours, just a daily war of banal confrontations with stupidity and loathing.

fern hill said...

I hadn't buried it, I just hadn't realized what other institutions may have been on that list. That place was certainly a school, but if there were Magdalene Laundries in Canada and Boyfriend had one on his list. . . .

deBeauxOs said...

The province most likely to have Magdalene Laundries would be Québec, I'd think.

fern hill said...

Even better. Farther away.

You're probably right. The fucking church got away with amazing shit in Quebec.

And it's looking like much of the rest of the world still under the Catlick thumb is wising up like Quebec did.

#CatholicNoMore coming?

Pale said...

Wow. Sounds like you avoided a bullet.
What happened to the boyfriend BTW?

I remember the first time I heard of the Laundries, and how incredible creeped out I was.

fern hill said...

The boyfriend chilled the fuck out.

And so did the kids.

He was actually a good guy, just overwhelmed by smart-mouthed kids who made him feel very unwelcome.

Nobody behaved well.

He and Maman married and he died about 10 years later. We were friends at the end.

Beijing York said...

So happy there was a happy ending to this, fern - avoiding what could have been a soul destroying if not physically damaging experience and actually finding friendship with you maman's boyfriend.

Southwestern Ontario may have been WASPISH but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some Laundries in Franco-Ontarian areas.

Agatha B. said...

There was one in Parkdale in Toronto, called Magdalen Asylum for Fallen Women. And there was also the Adam Mercer Reformatory for women in Toronto. I read about them in Suburb, Slum, Urban Village: Transformations in Toronto's Parkdale by Carolyn Whitzman.

fern hill said...

So there was one in Toronto and Protestants were involved too.


I'll see if I can find out how long they continued.

The last one in Ireland didn't close until 1996.

Thanks, Agatha B.

deBeauxOs said...

Oh look, I forgot the Vatican Taliban reviews films, too.

Its response to _The Magdalene Sisters_:

"When the film won the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice International Film Festival, the Vatican newspaper called it an 'angry and rancorous provocation'."

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