Joining the Dots of Oppression and Trauma and Repealing the Eighth

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I wasn’t aware of the eighth amendment and its consequences until I joined the prochoice campaign several years ago. But I was always aware of the consequences of being a woman. I grew up in a state of confusion and fear about what the Catholic Church had to say about my life, body, desires, choices, thoughts and ideas.

It feels like a very long battle has ended, that an extensive wait is over. Even though I am overjoyed that the eighth is finally repealed, this happy conclusion is also the beginning of a grieving process. I think a lot of women feel like this. An article by Roe McDermott that sums it up very well.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we agreed that the campaign inhabited our bodies as well as our minds like something slowly splintering, piercing and cutting us open. The Eighth stood at the centre of a matrix of conditions that shamed, endangered and oppressed women: rape and sexual assault, child abuse, incest, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, mass graves of infants, illegal adoptions aka child trafficking, symphysiostomies, churching, physical and mental illness, race, gender, class and sexuality have all been drawn into the debates.

Many of us to reckon with our pasts on national, local and personal levels, especially in the last few months. Every antichoice campaign poster, every debate, every op-ed, and every antichoice canvasser were triggering. The waves of compassion emanating from the Together for Yes campaign were liberating. Indeed, trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk notes that

Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves. (97)

This country could no longer hide away from the uncomfortable topics, the hard memories, the awkward truths. I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of the X in the majority of Yes Boxes and that gave us our freedom in a landslide result. The X case of course comes to mind. Those Xs are like cross stitches sewing up open wounds. Instead of being crucified by the Church, democracy gives us space to heal.

Leo Varadkar described us as a “quiet revolution.” We were never quiet. They just tried not to listen to us and we persisted until they could no longer ignore us. Bessel van der Kolk also says that

Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.

There can be no doubting the strength of women in Ireland after this. Many have told their stories of horrific traumas and deadly experiences. They played a crucial role in making it safe for others. Women like Ailbhe Smyth and Clare Daly persisted in destigmatising women’s experiences. I have even told some of my own stories, whispered and muttered in one-on-one conversations, anonymously online, or encrypted between the lines of letters and articles. On people who shared their stories publicly Roe McDermott says rightly that

I hope they do continue to tell their stories. We need them to. Because women’s stories and emotions have been silenced for far too long in order to keep us comfortable, in order to stop us from confronting the pain we inflict upon women, in order to allow us to ignore the misogyny that has historically defined our nation and continues to affect it.

Another aspect of trauma is that it shatters memories. The rational becomes irrational, the clear becomes foggy, and linear becomes circular. Part of recovery is reordering and rebuilding your narrative. Until you put this timeline back together you exist in a state of confusion. In many ways, the campaign has been a join-the-dots exercise for Ireland. We needed to explicitly render the connections we all knew were there between the myriad of misogynist abuses against women and children to understand how vital a Yes vote was.

I joined some dots of my own. Some of the lines drawn between them were faint, gentle, even nostalgic. And some sliced through me viciously. The more painful ones remain my own private experience. But I don’t mind outlining out a few memories below that paved my way to the prochoice feminist movement.

My best friend and me.

One of my earliest memories of experiencing anxiety is in the weeks and months before my First Communion. As the date of my first confession approached I remember losing sleep trying to think of sins to tell the priest because surely I was bad and must have terrible things to confess. I worried that if I didn’t confess the very worst things, I would be guilty of lying to the priest. The consequences of that were apocalyptic in my six-year-old mind.

I distinctly remember receiving a piece of ice-cream wafer from my teacher to practice for the first Communion and my eyes filled up with tears. I walked back to my pew and bowed my head to pray. I remember Mrs O’Loughlin came down to me and asked if I was okay. I said I was fine. The truth is that I felt a surge of anxiety about accidentally chewing the body of Christ. My mother told me it was a sin to chew to Host. This sounds like satire, but it’s not. It was a most abject, harrowing thought for a little girl to have.

Another childhood fear was “Bessborough.” I place it in quotation marks because as a child it was not a real place in my mind, but an ambiguous threat:

“Be good or I’ll send you to Bessborough!”

“Be good or the nuns will take you away!”

As the only girl in the family, I knew that Bessborough was distinctly female. At that time it was like the monster that lives under the bed or in the closet, an unimaginable horror. Alas, when I learned the truth about it years later I realised it was exactly how I imagined: a worst nightmare come true.

What a message to send to little girls: that we are so bad, such sinners, so impure and unmanageable that there is a special place for us to be locked away and punished. These messages continued throughout my teenage years. In school, our Catholic-centric education discouraged us from using tampons. We were segregated from the boys for any talks about periods or “women’s problems.”

A basic sex education talk was delivered to us by a nun. She sat red-faced at the top of a classroom and read from a clinical script about “sexual intercourse.” When she got to the line, “Then the man has an orgasm and ejaculates”, she skipped the word “orgasm.” We were not invited to ask questions, and even if we had been, what kind of answers could a celibate nun give, especially one who couldn’t bring herself to say “orgasm”? There was never a mention of how to use contraception. Aside from that unspoken reference to the male orgasm, there was never a mention of sexual pleasure, certainly not female pleasure.

The only other sex education we received was from a group of American virgins who travelled around Ireland giving talks about abstinence, and a local doctor who gave a talk about STDs that was so graphic one student had to leave for fear of vomiting. These were two extreme ends of the spectrum of sex education: the cautious, unsexed place that was the pinnacle of good Christian morality, and the horrific, shameful, painful, diseased place.

Following the abstinence talk, a particularly evangelical religion teacher read from a Catholic textbook that STDs, in particular, HIV and AIDs, are a punishment from God for sexual deviance. Aside from the doctor who spoke about topics she was qualified in and actually worked on, every person who spoke to us about sex was celibate, unscientific, unapproachable, Christian, and (presumably) a virgin.

Protesting Youth Defence, Cork City, 2012
Protesting Youth Defence in 2012.

I don’t actually remember abortion ever coming up in the classroom. I do remember some friends in primary school whispering about how it was a “mortal sin” because a character in a soap opera had one. I don’t remember ever being explicitly antichoice, but I did not become actively prochoice until I was a university student. The majority of us were educated to become bigots.

A culmination of many things led me to prochoice feminism. In particular, I was disgusted with the Catholic Church. The onslaught of stories that came out about them during my teenage and early adult years were repulsive. The mother and baby homes, the Magdalene laundries, the sexual abuse, and their feverish need to cling to any and all control of us led me to reject the religion I was raised in. Other private experiences showed me with the most painful clarity how oppressed and silenced I was. I wasn’t willing to accept that as my lot.

I met up with a former student who came #HomeToVote. In between checking for updates on the count, we discussed feminist writers. I told her that Gloria Anzaldúa says that “For the lesbian of color, the ultimate rebellion she can make against her native culture is through her sexual behaviour” (Borderlands 41). While Anzaldúa’s statement is particularly connected to Chicana lesbian feminism, it resonates with the experience of women in Ireland. All female sexuality has been maligned, incarcerated and exiled throughout our history, and up to the present moment. Women still have to board planes and order illegal abortion pills until the legislation is signed into law. Thankfully, 66.4% of voters moved beyond those archaic, and church-led views, or were never behind them in the first place.

I started writing this blog post because I felt a real urge to purge my feelings onto a page. I didn’t know where I was going, and I am not even sure if what I have to say makes any sense. But ultimately, for me this fight for reproductive rights has always been about the full spectrum of women’s experiences in Ireland. I am proud that our country made such an internationally stunning display of protest against the eighth amendment. I believe that all of the strength we have shown so far throughout the decades of campaigning against the eighth will serve us well as we recover collectively and individually from the traumas of our pasts.

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