Book Note: Country Girl: A Memoir by Edna O’Brien, Little, Brown and Co, 2014
On May 7, 2013 I posted a blog entitled “Forced Labor by the Irish Catholic Church (or was it Slavery?). It was about an apology by the Prime Minister of Ireland to women who had been imprisoned by the Church in so called “laundries,” run by nuns, where they were forced to labor long hours and in which some had to stay for many years. They were “fallen women” who had had sex before marriage, or were judged likely to, or had had children out of wedlock, as it was called in those days. You can find that blog here: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/05/the-magdalene-laundries-forced-labor-by.html .
I thought about this blog a couple of weeks ago as I was reading the memoir of the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien. O’Brien was born in 1930 into a conservative rural Catholic world in which the behavior of women was closely monitored, not only by their families but also by the Church. The monitors were the priests, who despite being celibate (supposedly) claimed to be authorities on proper sexual behavior. (Just like today’s “liberal” Pope Francis who a while ago criticized a woman who had had seven caesarian births and was expecting her eighth child, saying “that is an irresponsibility.” Never mind the irresponsibility of the Church for continuing, in 2015, to oppose birth control) (see Catherine Harmon, “Someone is getting lost in all this talk about Francis and rabbits”. The Catholic World Report, January 20, 2015, https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Someone+is+getting+lost+in+all+this+talk+about+Francis+and+rabbits .
O’Brien was a “good” Catholic girl who moved to the big city—Dublin--where she trained to become a pharmacist. She was also very beautiful. On the day after her first sexual encounter, she went to confession. The priest just about called her a whore, referring to her “loathsome sin” (p. 111).
Some years later, O’Brien started a sexual relationship with a married man, Ernest Gébler, whose his wife had run off to the United States with their son. One day at work, O’Brien overheard her boss and his wife talking about how her family was going to come and get her and have her “put away” because of her relationship with this man. O’Brien assumed this meant the lunatic asylum, but I wondered whether her family intended to have her incarcerated in one of the Magdalene Laundries, from which, given it was the 1950s, she might never have been released. She ran to Gebler’s house, and he then spirited her away to a friend’s house on the Isle of Man. Somehow, her family found out where she was and came to get her, with police assistance. Her brother strong-armed her into a car but she managed to escape.
This sounds like a happy story with Gébler as the romantic rescuer. But it isn’t. O’Brien and Gébler eventually married and had two sons in the 1950s (one, Carlo Gébler, is now a writer as well, though I haven’t read anything by him yet). O’Brien also started her writing career at the same time. Gébler, also a writer but one whose career was flagging, became jealous of her and forced her to sign over all her checks to him. One day, she received a check for almost £4,000, an enormous amount in those days, for film rights to one of her stories. She did not sign the check over to her husband right away, and he found it. He took her up to their bedroom and started choking her, until she agreed to sign over the check. She went downstairs, signed the check, and walked out. She also went to the policed but did not file a charge.
She managed to get her children out of the house and took them to various places for safe-keeping, but through a mutual friend her husband contacted her and persuaded her to bring the children back to the house for the time being. But apparently he had sought legal advice, while she hadn’t. As soon as she handed over her children to her husband’s temporary (she thought) custody, he said to her “Thank you, Edna, you have just legally deserted them” (p.164) and closed the door.
Eventually this all got sorted out, in part, it seems, because O’Brien was now well known enough to obtain excellent legal advice, and she obtained custody of her sons. But the story goes to show how recently women have achieved their rights, even of access to their children. And how vulnerable still women are to physical abuse.
I have friend who is the same age as I am. She had a child “out of wedlock” in 1966. The father would not marry her, and as a consequence neither set of parents would help her, and there was no welfare for unwed mothers in those days. She had the baby in an unpleasant home for unwed mothers and gave it up for adoption. Later, she married the father and they had another child. She put up with him beating her but when she realized he would probably start beating the child, she decided to leave him. The day she left, he broke her arm.
So when we read about the treatment of women in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East today, we should remember how recently we ourselves, in Canada and the West, obtained our rights. Wife-beating and other abuses of women are still problems in contemporary Western society, but there are now laws to protect us, police are trained to be more sensitive, and there are shelters (though never enough) for abused women and their children. These changes are the result of the feminist movement of the 1960s and beyond. When you hear a young woman saying proudly that she is “not a feminist,” remind her of where she would be without my generation of feminists having fought for the rights she takes for granted today.