The Magdalene Sisters Controversy Revisited (2010)

By Steven D. Greydanus

Not long ago the Washington Post printed a scathing op-ed by the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor responding to Pope Benedict XVI’s March 2010 pastoral letter of sorrow and remorse over abuse of minors in Church-run Irish institutions such as the Magdalene asylums for girls and similar institutions for boys.

O’Connor, who infamously tore up a photograph of the previous pope on “Saturday Night Live” and was later “ordained” by the “Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church,” said in 2005 that she wanted to help “rescue God from religion,” although in her WaPo editorial she expresses some openness to being reconciled to the Church. The editorial, which blends legitimate outrage with perpetuation of widespread misreportage wrongly attempting to implicate the Vatican and Cardinal Ratzinger in cover-ups of abuse, is most notable here for O’Connor’s autobiographical comments about her own time as a youth in the Magdalene laundries:

When I was a young girl, my mother — an abusive, less-than-perfect parent — encouraged me to shoplift. After being caught once too often, I spent 18 months in An Grianán Training Centre, an institution in Dublin for girls with behavioral problems, at the recommendation of a social worker. An Grianán was one of the now-infamous church-sponsored “Magdalene laundries,” which housed pregnant teenagers and uncooperative young women. We worked in the basement, washing priests’ clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap. We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.

Although O’Connor reports no abuse, her comment that “one of the nuns, at least, was kind” surely suggests that many were not. O’Connor’s experiences may not have been as horrific as the stories dramatized in The Magdalene Sisters, but she may well have little reason to remember the time fondly.

Little reason, but not no reason. O’Connor does note one nun who was not only kind, but gave her her first guitar — setting her on the path, perhaps, to her future career. In five short sentences describing her time at the Magdalene asylums, O’Connor gave one sentence — fifteen words out of less than fifty — to a memory of positive treatment.

Similar memories of not unmixed treatment have been reported by the survivors of abuse whose testimony was documented in the 2009 findings of the Ryan Commission or Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The Ryan report documents in damning detail the culture of physical and emotional abuse endemic in Irish institutions for children, including reformatory institutions for both boys and girls.

The Ryan report confirms the substantial truth of the sort of stories dramatized in The Magdalene Sisters. These stories need to be told. But the report also reconfirms my fundamental objection to the way that The Magdalene Sisters tells its story, depicting the world of the asylums solely in terms of unremitting abuse, cruelty and sadism unbroken by any hint of kindness or humane treatment. This is not in accordance with the memories of those who endured the Irish institutions, according to the Ryan report (emphasis in original):

Many witnesses who complained of abuse nevertheless expressed some positive memories: small gestures of kindness were vividly recalled. A word of consideration or encouragement, or an act of sympathy or understanding had a profound effect. Adults in their sixties and seventies recalled seemingly insignificant events that had remained with them all their lives. …

Among the positive experiences reported by witnesses was the kindness of some religious and lay staff in the schools and institutions, including a number who provided support in times of difficulty after they were discharged. Many emphasised the enormous difference that just a kind word or gesture made to their daily lives.

Chapter 10 of the report, among other areas, deals with such positive memories. It includes such comments as these:

One very, very kind person, she was Sr …X… she was old, a lovely person. I have great memories of her. She would come in to call us, open up the curtains and she would be singing in the morning. She was lovely to us, she wasn’t long there. …

One nun she was absolutely lovely, I am a nurse today because of her, she was the nun in the infirmary, she would get you something and say “don’t say a word”.

It should be noted that not all such reports of kindness are reliable, just as not all reports of abuse are reliable. Where abuse is the norm, a mere cessation of abuse may be perceived as “kindness” — and the Ryan report does document instances of such positively remembered non-cruelty. In other cases, a child suffering in an abusive environment may invent or exaggerate moments of kindness as a coping mechanism. The will to believe, even decades later, that the experience wasn’t all bad — perhaps in some cases out of piety for the Church, or a kind of Stockholm identification with one’s tormentors — may be a factor in some reports of positive memories.

Still, it would be perverse to dismiss these positive memories altogether, just as it would be perverse to dismiss memories of abuse altogether just because not all reports of abuse are reliable. Indeed, these positive memories add to rather than detract from the credibility and the horror of the memories of abuse. If the report found only uniformly bad memories of consistently abusive treatment unmixed with any kind or humane treatment whatsoever, one would be forced to posit that the books had been cooked. Human nature is too complex for morally unmixed behavior, either good or bad, especially across a social spectrum.

Even in the worst depravities that the modern world has come up with, one finds signs of humanity, acts of conscience and compassion. Even in the Nazi terror and the Holocaust, Nazi officers and soldiers, Party members and other German citizens were not uniformly evil all the time. Films that deal with Nazism and the Holocaust are most persuasive when they acknowledge this (e.g., Polanski’s The Pianist, with its sympathetic portrait of one Nazi officer).

Such glimpses of humanity hardly falsify or mitigate the horror. On the contrary, in a way they confirm and accentuate it. Partly because they render the totality more real, more plausible, and partly because they confront us with the sickening reality that these horrors were perpetrated not by monsters or demons, but by human beings not unlike ourselves. Practical moral action, steps toward redress, reform and reconciliation, begin with this recognition.

This, as I see it, is what The Magdalene Sisters gets crucially wrong. Mullan cooks the books; he reports only evil behavior that supports his case, ironically undermining the credibility of his case. Mullan’s nuns are simply evildoers who do evil; we are never invited to see them as persons in any way like ourselves. It is us/them thinking: Evil is what “they” do; “they” are not like “us.”

Mullan never asks “How could this happen? How could people — people not unlike ourselves — do these things?” Writing by his own admission in “white-hot rage,” and likely not uninfluenced by his acknowledged contempt for religion in general and Catholicism in particular, Mullan created a tableau of stereotyped villains in black wimples instead of black hats, compromising the persuasiveness and honesty of his critique — partly, to be sure, out of legitimate desire to vindicate the victims and indict the guilty.

Do I see it this way only because I am a devout Catholic? I don’t think so. Although critical genuflection to the film was widespread, many critics saw the same issues I did. For example, Scott Tobias (A.V. Club) referred to the “sinister, money-grubbing Mother Superior (played with lip-smacking relish by Geraldine McEwan)” and went on to write:

The Magdalene Sisters reserves all of its empathy for the inmates … But the film might have been more powerful, not to mention fair, if the nuns believed they were doing right; only on movie night, when McEwan sees herself in Ingrid Bergman in The Bells Of St. Mary’s, does Mullan grant her so much as the delusion of rectitude. Other touches are simply inexcusable … A brawler who doesn’t know when to pull his punches, Mullan throws one haymaker after another, his unforgiving swipes aligning him closer to Mother Superior than he’d care to admit.

Ed Gonzalez (Slant), no friend of the Church but an insightful writer I have long admired, wrote:

Shipped away by their families to the Magdalene laundry house, the girls are dutifully tortured and humiliated by a group of nuns overseen by the hideous Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan, giving Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched a run for her money). … Mullan reduces Sister Bridget to a blubbering mess when she can’t find the key to the safe that guards her money, condescendingly implying that the thrill of commerce is enough to explain how devils are made of saints. Two scenes stand apart from the pack: the vain Sister Bridget crying during a screening of Leo McCarey’s humanist masterpiece The Bells of St. Mary’s and Margaret choosing not to escape from her prison through a garden door accidentally left ajar. These are Mullan’s only attempts at trying to understand the thorny seduction of Catholicism. Otherwise, Sister Bridget and her ilk come close to resembling cartoons, with the violence they wield so numbing it borders on the histrionic. There’s no discernable structure to this facile, episodic torture mechanism yet Mullan hopes that you’ll approach the film as a work of activism.

This doesn’t mean that The Magdalene Sisters has no value, or that no good could come or has come from it. There is still exposé of social sin here, and good may come of it in spite of serious flaws. I’ve often said that nothing is more likely to secure my distrust of a film than a complete lack of empathy for an entire group of people or class of characters. Mullan’s lack of empathy for the nuns compromises, though it doesn’t entirely negate, the value of the film’s empathy for the victims, who have the greater claim. It’s a claim that would have been better served by more honest art, by something better than prejudicial anti-religious stereotyping. Mullan’s decisions are understandable; that doesn’t make them less problematic.

Tags: Anti-Catholic, Magdalene Sisters

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