THE GATHERING OF LITERARY CRITICS
To reflect on Anne Enright’s Booker Prize–winning novel, The Gathering (2007), is to reflect on trauma, the experience of trauma, the witnessing of trauma, the nature of trauma, and the consequences, individual and social, of trauma. From the time of its publication, literary critics and social commentators in and beyond Ireland have been deeply and rightly smitten with this novel’s unparalleled capacity to speak about the unspeakable, about that which cannot speak in its own voice, be it in the novel itself or in the world the novel represents. Thus, in the years since the novel’s publication, the focus of scholarly articles and book chapters dedicated to The Gathering understandably converges on the novel’s myriad, complex representations of trauma. Moreover, because most of these essays draw their understanding and their accounts of trauma from the same canonical pool of trauma theory—such as Cathy Caruth’s book Unclaimed Experience (2016), Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (1997), and Shoshona Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony (1992)—this shared thematic ground has resulted in an especially thoroughgoing interpretive consensus, issuing in a number of fine essays that remain relatively restricted in their scope.
The criticism on The Gathering has consistently brought similar elements of traumatic psychology and phenomenology to bear on the form and content of Veronica Hegarty’s testimony of child sexual abuse—her brother’s and, indirectly, her own. In this pursuit, each of the essays cited below begins its exegesis by quoting Veronica’s prefatory statement of purpose, as an index of the traumatic cast of memory anchoring her narrative: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me—this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones” (Enright 2007, 1). Liam Harte (2010) speaks for the critical tradition in asserting, “This confessional beginning confirms many of the central insights of trauma theory: the radical disruption of memory and its reliability; the imperfectly known past; the body as the site of an unnamable wounding; and the belated overarching urge to testify to a dubious, haunting event that was not fully understood or integrated at the time . . . and which may or may not be susceptible to meaningful retrospective narrative formulation” (191). Following on the trauma theory that Harte invokes, the consensus holds the scenario of Liam’s sexual abuse to be not only, in the context of Veronica’s narrative, an object of doubt and obscurity (an “aura of uncertainty,” “uncertain, almost, hallucinatory” [Oddenino 2011, 362], “fraught with distortions,” “riddled with gaps” [Dell’Amico 2010, 60]) but also the originary (enigmatic) locus of doubt and obscurity, an overwhelming “event . . . not initially remembered or represented but . . . held at bay by dissociation,” “cognitively unprocessed” (Harte 2010, 189, 192), “not available to the speaker” (Dell’Amico 2010, 65), “unprocessed and incomprehensible” (Downum 2015, 82). Until triggered anew by Liam’s suicide, Veronica’s memory of Liam’s horrific ordeal is known in the body and felt in “the flesh” and “in the bones” rather than consciously apprehended (Enright 2007, 1). Veronica’s body is understood to be “burdened, perhaps even possessed, by the story of the past” (Harper 2010, 77). As the vehicle of the trauma, Liam’s sexual abuse, in turn, cannot “take the form of a remembered or narrative event” (Harper 2010, 76). Instead, it leaves a psychic wound to be expressed through the repetitive and displaced enactments of the suffering it occasions: the tale of Liam’s and Veronica’s trauma is disclosed only in its symptomatic effects—in Veronica’s “alienated” relationship to her husband and her “emotionally distanced” posture toward the rest of her family (Downum 2015, 83), in her “association of sex with dirt, sickness and perversion” (Oddenino 2011, 371), and in her “inability to distinguish love from hatred” or intimacy from “annihilation” (Harper 2010, 81).
On this consensus, after the shock of Liam’s suicide forces some inkling of the abuse into Veronica’s mind, the traumatic import thereof positively disallows a lucid, temporally coherent narration of the “crime” to which she is driven to “bear witness” (Enright 2007, 1). Because “post-traumatic stress inherently creates partitions between experience and expression,” a traumatized subject “must speak confusion . . . in order to tell the truth”—that is, must retell events in a fragmentary and jumbled fashion in order to capture the feel, as opposed to the bare facts, of the outrage (Harper 2010, 76). Denell Downum remarks, “The Gathering’s spiraling narrative structure reflects both the nonlinear nature of memory and the obstruction posed by an event so unbearable” (2015, 82). Her insights second Harte’s earlier observation that Enright seeks “not merely to present trauma’s effects [on her protagonist] but to encode them in the novel’s form,” thereby transferring them in some part to the reader (2010, 192). Other textual analyses proclaim what these glosses strongly imply: the acknowledged unreliability of Veronica’s account of the summer at her grandmother Ada’s house, which extends to the reality of the abuse itself, must be taken as a type of fidelity, a higher fidelity, to the anguished impossibility of traumatic witnessing. Two separate critics express this idea using virtually the same succinct formulation: Veronica’s testimony “departs from the truth in the pursuit of an accurate expression of the state of being stricken” (Dell’Amico 2010, 63); or again, Veronica fabricates in order “to express the state of being stricken” (Downum 2015, 84). For Meg Harper, although Veronica “fills out her narratives with what she knows to be misinformation, infused with ‘biases and blindnesses,’” she is “nevertheless utterly reliable in that she explores honestly emotional truths” (2010, 74). In the most extreme variant on this interpretive line, Carol Dell’Amico concedes that Veronica “makes up the past” outright, most flagrantly in the romance she invents between her grandmother Ada and Liam’s rapist, Lamb Nugent, but insists nevertheless that Veronica “never lies” inasmuch as traumatic memory’s truth is to be found in its imagined components. She argues that the traumatic exigency of speculation confers the “license of the fabulist” on Veronica (2010, 62). For all of these critics, the avenue of fantasy proves to be the shortest distance to the tormented reality.
For most of these critics, finally, both this path and this destination belong not just to Veronica Hegarty but to the Irish nation as a whole. The dissociation of her 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. Seen through this optic, the narrative options she tries out to relieve the mnemonic void, the mythic components she rehearses to fabulate the irretrievable, do not spring from her mind unprompted but are formed in response to and in unconscious collaboration with the long-delayed revelation of child sex scandal across Ireland. From “listening to the radio, and reading the paper” (Enright 2007, 172–73), Veronica comes to discern that “individual memory is always at the same time collective memory and that repression is a social as well as personal response to traumatic injury” (Harte 2010, 178). For these critics, Veronica’s body harbors the traumatic memory of Liam’s abuse, unavailable to conscious recognition or narrative integration, by analogy to the way the Irish “body politic” has collectively secreted the traumatic grievances of its “members” in order to suppress the scandals that would ensue should they become a matter of public record. Taking the subplots surrounding Veronica’s “mad,” institutionalized uncle Brendan as evidence, prior critics construe the tort of Veronica and Liam to “refer to a host of national lapses,” to “mediate a much larger grief and anger for the unacknowledged trauma endured by unknown Irish bodies made abject by postcolonial nationalism” (Harte 2010, 199). Such readings seek to trace out a “capillary network of tragic consequence” from orphanages to industrial schools to Magdalene laundries to the sort of “lunatic asylums” where Brendan lived, perished, and was anonymously interred in a mass grave (Meaney 2011, 158).
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM
The single-mindedness of the critical tradition on The Gathering goes to show how compelling and convincing the trauma theory paradigm has proven for any in-depth engagement with the novel’s unsettling mode of narrative address. So indispensable, in fact, does trauma theory continue to be in this regard that we have found the project of shifting the paradigm to be coextensive with that paradigm’s further development. We use the phrase further development advisedly. On the one hand, it is precisely the particularized deployment of the psychosocial elements and implications of psychic trauma theory, as our synoptic account details, that makes this criticism both a necessary and a sufficient foundation for an argument seeking to question, challenge, or qualify it. On the other hand, in aligning itself with the theories of trauma as such, whose most cited test case seems to be the Holocaust, this interpretive line on The Gathering has so far failed to reckon in a sustained, conceptually rigorous fashion with the particulars of the trauma delineated—to wit, the suffering and the witnessing of child sexual abuse, its peculiar character and effects, particularly as enacted in a middle-class domestic space rather than the institutions incarcerating Ireland’s most disenfranchised and dispensable citizens. The psychoanalytic construct central to our study, the enigmatic signifier, can serve to facilitate and secure such a reckoning (Caruth 2014, 11–13).
In this context, the most telling function of the enigmatic signifier is as a conduit for the seductive transactions endemic to the parental-filial relationship, transactions at once dialogic (blurring the lines of unconscious agency) and traumatic (an unlooked-for impingement of adult sexuality into the child’s psychic terrain). As we discussed in chapter 3, the enigmatic signifier mediates a sexual/sexualizing event or encounter that is reducible neither to infantile fantasy on one side nor to sexual assault or molestation on the other. In the ordinary course of things—from bodily care to physical affection to soothing vocalisms—parents will inevitably transmit ambiguously eroticized messages expressive of their own unconscious stirrings. The very transmission of this sub rosa material catalyzes without in any way coercing, stimulates without even necessarily summoning, answerable unconscious responses on the part of the child. The issue of this subliminal interchange is a traumatic jouissance, the vehicles of which are the associated or ambient signifiers, insofar as they possess a sensory or affective power that exceeds even as it vivifies the determinate meaning they convey. Permeated with such jouissance, the enigmatic signifier transmits an undecidable eroticism that is also a profoundly eroticized undecidability. According to Jean Laplanche’s general theory of seduction, these sorts of unintended and uncontrollable erotic transactions serve to enlist the child into the Symbolic Order and hence subjectivity itself, which is predicated on the condition of desirousness and the metonymic substitutions it entails (Laplanche 1997, 661–62).
Whether perpetrated by a familiar or by a stranger, and whether inflicted through an abuse of consent or a brute attack, child sexual abuse taps into, draws on, and replicates in a pernicious and harrowing key the primal seduction mediated by the enigmatic signifier. That is to say, undertaken along these lines, child sexual abuse functions as what might be termed a “slow violence” (Nixon 2013, 2), which “interferes,” as the Irish say, not just with the physical being or sexual organs of the child but with his psychic apparatus of desire as well. Such abuse is, one might say, the worst case or toxic version of the enigmatic message, implanting but also manipulating and exploiting the child’s infantile store of jouissance, their phantasmatic wishes and appetites, aversions and ambivalences. This is by no means to suggest, let us be clear, that the child unconsciously “wants it” or that the sexual predator is merely taking advantage of an always already latent wish. Rather, the sexual predator implicates the child’s circuitry of desire against their will and against their want, effectively turning juvenile desire against itself, psychically incriminating the child in an action that the predator alone commits and in a gratification that the predator alone seeks. By the same token, mobilizing the child’s jouissance against the child, however effectively, not only does not in any way mitigate or moderate the violence of the sexual assault but rather exacerbates it: more than simply overriding or subjugating the will of the child, the assault works to repossess that faculty, to appropriate not just the child’s desires but their command over them, hence to abrogate their still developing orchestration of their volitional powers.
In transactional terms, overt sexual assault forecloses the eroticized space of undecidability between the adult and child in the enigmatic encounter and forces it inward on the child as a traumatized space of doubt concerning their part in the action itself. In the primal, unconscious seduction constitutive of subjectivity, the implantation of adult sexuality into the infantile psyche carries a corollary traumatic charge or effect; in child sexual abuse, the violent, overwhelming erotic intrusion carries nothing but a traumatic charge or effect and thus works to negate the child’s subjectivity outright.
The scenarios of child sexual abuse that Veronica envisions—remembers, imagines, or both—Liam’s and her own, both fit the pattern of the latter assault-seduction. In both cases, the child is called on to manually stimulate and gratify the “member” of Lamb Nugent, who adopts a posture of jaded passivity: “like an old farmer getting his feet rubbed” in Liam’s case (Enright 2007, 144) and as a “welcoming darkness” of sly intent in Veronica’s more phantasmatic episode, where both parties submit to Ada’s “livid” gaze (221). Obviously, Enright’s purpose in portraying the children as physically active, or in portraying Veronica as conceiving them to be physically active, is not to cast them as initiating or even willing participants. What she has done, we would submit, is to provide a pragmatic allegory of the implication of their desire in its own brutal conscription. Liam’s and Veronica’s respective fondling of Lamb Nugent’s penis amounts to a simulation of agency in an encounter over which they have no control. Thus, with the slightest nod to Freudian dream symbolism, Veronica punctuates the fable of her own sexual abuse and affirms the reality of her brother’s by reference to Nugent’s profoundly passive sexual aggression, his self-effacing appropriation of the children’s geist: “I know he could be the explanation for all of our lives and I know something more frightening still—that we did not have to have been damaged by him in order to be damaged. It was the air he breathed that did for us. It was the way we were obliged to breathe his second-hand air” (224). Veronica’s metaphor of moral contagion here, being obliged to breathe second-hand air, perfectly captures the predicament of spurious because constrained agency that the children suffer: they are “obliged” (forced or enjoined) to go through the motion of taking on (breathing) Lamb’s toxic desires.
Unlike the bulk of the novel’s professional critics, Veronica Hegarty neither omits nor shrinks from the implication of the children’s sexual desire in the trauma they endured and its importance in understanding the nature and consequence of that trauma. To be more specific, Veronica’s account consistently reveals—sometimes self-consciously, sometimes unknowingly—that the libidinal investments of the sexually traumatized child can coexist with and even reinforce the fear, disgust, and horror that they originally experienced. When the matter of her brother’s death finally impels Veronica to “just say what happened [to him] in Ada’s house” (142), she fights through a “terrible tangle of things” (144) (barricades against traumatic reactivation) to uncover a variant on the Freudian primal scene, an image of taboo sexual intelligence, here displaced from parental intercourse to a symbolically incestuous man-boy encounter: “And before the scene became clear to me, I remember thinking, So that’s what the secret is. The thing in a man’s trousers” (146; emphasis in original).
With this presentiment as a frame—the effect of the constitutive intrusion of adult sexuality into her psychic ambit—Veronica cannot but intuit the promise or specter of erotic enjoyment imbuing her brother’s traumatic violation. Indeed, upon inadvertently interrupting the assault, she immediately “feel[s] that [she] ha[s] spoiled it for all concerned” (146). Veronica is by no means insensible to the distress her brother is undergoing. Amid her curious inspection of the mechanisms of the sex act (“the boy’s bare forearm . . . made a bridge of flesh between himself and Mr. Nugent. His hand was buried in the cloth, his fist clutched around something hidden there”), she also observes that Liam is not only “shocked” but downright “terrified” at the proceedings (143–46).
But on narrative reflection, she refuses to reduce the affective content of the affair to a single valence, to disentangle the sexual from the traumatic components of the sexual trauma, unwanted gratification from undeserved torment, however morally satisfactory it may be to do so. In Nugent’s face, she discerns a “struggle” that is “unbearable, between the man who does not approve of this pleasure, and the one who is weak to it” (144). Conversely, in her brother’s plight, in the very depths of his terror, she divines the prospect of a likewise unbearable ambivalence: “There is also the pleasure of the boy to consider” (145).
In appraising the last comment, it is instructive “also to consider” what Veronica recalls as her own contemporaneous reaction upon witnessing the sexual violation of her brother. As Harte has argued, while Veronica may or may not have been a victim as well as a witness of Nugent’s turpitude, “the distinction is in any case largely irrelevant, since witnessing has been clinically correlated with experiencing [an act of abuse] personally in real time” (2010, 192). All the more so when the witness and the victim are “Irish twins”—who “came out of her on each other’s tails” (Enright 2007, 11)—and, as Harper remarks, “psychic doubles or doppelgangers” (2010, 78). Under such circumstances, correlation can and in this case clearly has passed into identification. Accordingly, it is of surpassing importance that Veronica remembers her immediate response to the spectacle of her brother’s abuse along profoundly sexual lines: “I closed the door and ran to the toilet upstairs, with an urge to pee and look at the pee coming out; to poke or scratch or rub when I was finished, and smell my fingers afterwards. At least, I assume that this is what I did if I was eight years old” (146). As though to confirm that the witnessed tryst does in fact function as a primal scene, Veronica overlooks or represses the following:
- That her response initiates a transition in her juvenile awareness of her own genitalia, from the exclusively excremental (pee and look) to the nascently but unmistakably erotic (poke or scratch or rub). The latter practice involves a genital stimulation corresponding to that which she has witnessed her brother give Nugent and which, importantly, she deliberately rehearses even as she records its self-solacing effect: “I pause as I write this, and . . . lick the thick skin of my palm with a girl’s tongue. I inhale. The odd comforts of the flesh” (146).
- That her response transmits mysterious and forbidden knowledge, which, being traumatic, lodges in her body, where it thereafter not only resides but presides as a knowing that can be unearthed only through the body but that perpetually stands between her body and its most visceral responses. Veronica’s follow-up claim couches her childish ritual of genital scarification as the first step toward a self-lacerating release of information: “You know everything at eight, but it is hidden from you, sealed up, in a way you have to cut yourself open to find” (147). On this score as well, adulthood finds Veronica rehearsing her original reaction in barely displaced fashion. Abed with her college boyfriend, Michael Weiss, whose gentle intimacy she finds terrifying, she suddenly begins “hacking away at [her] inner leg, with a biro of all things” and then, to his horror, “running through the ineffectual blue lines with his kitchen knife” until she bleeds (130).
Later in her story, Veronica declares, “What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor” (163). What was written in Veronica’s body, what wounded her in the moment of witnessing, was written for a future in which she would have to write on/into her body once again (with a biro), wounding the same area (her inner leg) and thereby exposing, without yet fully understanding, what had remained “sealed up” in her eight-year-old self: not simply the hidden truth of sexual arousal, as she might have thought, but also the misrecognized consequences of child sexual abuse on both victim and witness. For Veronica, that consequence turns out to be an inextricable psychic imbrication of eros and trauma, or we could even say, eros and thanatos. Her libidinal attachments bear, even require, a traumatic component, which explains why her first love, “gentle, human Michael Weiss,” was unable, as she remembers, to “talk me down” (130, 81).
Traumatic pain, conversely, triggers a sexual response for Veronica, if only as a defense, which is why her long-deferred attempt to “just say what happened” to her brother includes a “pause” to indulge the “odd comforts of the flesh.” In simultaneously renewing and deforming the primal intro/seduction of (adult) sexuality, child sexual abuse can have the effect of both commingling and reproportioning the currents of desire and dread, wanting and wounding, at their wellhead. As a result, the line between the dissociated memory of trauma, as manifest in its inactive repetition, and the expression of libidinal investment, apparent in the selfsame conduct, can grow blurred to the point of indistinguishability.
Take, for example, Veronica’s account of her sexual abuse by Nugent, which on her own testimony is more likely fantasy than memory, and for which reason, we submit, is all the more likely to be a symptom of the fraught experience of witnessing sexual trauma. Indeed, in her oneiric vision, she assumes the role of Liam, her hand clutching Nugent’s “old penis,” while her grandmother, Ada, takes Veronica’s place in the perverse constellation as the interested bystander (221–22). As a young child, Veronica may well have assumed, however unconsciously, that the presiding adult of the household, Ada, must have known about and so connived at, if not condoned, Nugent’s predations. As an adult, accordingly, Veronica erects her grandmother as the original, corrupt model of her own unavailing, erotically involved witness and hence a point of displacement for the guilt she has been carrying in consequence. At the conclusion of this interlude, Veronica proclaims, “This is the moment that we realise it was Ada’s fault all along” (223). She thereby calls attention to the unconscious transference in the dreamscape itself, wherein Ada is positioned as a receptacle, not to say scapegoat, for the regrets that Veronica nurses concerning her own performance in the original event. What were her perceived failings?
The trauma literature, and in particular Felman and Laub’s Testimony (1992), speaks eloquently of how witnesses like Veronica undergo survivor guilt along with remorse at having been unable to aid the primary victim. And to be sure, Veronica remains in the grip of this grievous emotional vise, exacerbated by her proximity to, her psychic twinning with, her brother. As the sibling witness to Liam’s abuse and his self-appointed guardian in its aftermath, Veronica feels a profound sense of failure, amounting to truancy, at her traumatized dissociation from that primal scene: “Even your sister—your saviour in a way, the girl who stands in the light of the hall—even she does not hold or remember the thing she saw” (172). Not coincidentally, when the thing she saw comes back to Veronica in the shape of her own abuse scenario, it is triggered, directly and exclusively, by hallucinations that she has at Liam’s wake of a series of victimized ghosts, culminating in the more vivid, entirely lifelike mirage of Ada, “as I might see an actual woman standing in the light of the hall” (217). That last phrase is especially significant. Its precise repetition of her self-description as “the girl who stood in the light of the hall” indicates that an unconscious metonymic association has been forged between this bodily placement and disposition, with its symbolic nimbus, and the role of “savior” or champion. For Veronica, to “stand in the light of the hall,” which she remembers herself doing, is to be posted to defend and obliged to protect an endangered child. Charged with the care of Veronica, Liam, and their younger sister, Kitty, Ada was installed in the role of protector before Veronica’s witnessing was thrust upon her. In keeping with this order of responsibility, Veronica’s screen memory not only transfers to Ada her own perceived guilt at neither rescuing Liam nor remembering his plight, but also minimizes her guilt by comparison, putting it, one might say, in proper perspective. Whereas Veronica proved lamentably incapable of fulfilling her self-assigned role as savior, she portrays Ada as betraying that mission outright, as enabling, encouraging, even instigating Lamb Nugent’s depredations. On Veronica’s phantasmatic account, Ada looms as a monstrous version of Veronica’s ineffectual bystander, allowing Veronica to forgive herself a little for her traumatically delinquent memory.
The specific nature of Ada’s monstrosity, however, brings to bear, by mirroring forth, the implication of Veronica’s desire in this primal scene, which is the key to its structure. More than a bystander to Veronica’s servicing of Nugent, Ada exerts a gaze that controls the action. At the outset, Veronica feels “Ada’s eyes are crawling down my shoulder and my back. Her gaze is livid down one side of me; it is like a light: my skin hardens under it and crinkles like a burn” (221). At the close of the scene, punctuated by Nugent’s monomial appeal to that gaze (“the single word: ‘Ada’”), Veronica wonders, “Is she pleased with what she sees?” (222). Here again, by the transferential logic of screen memory, Ada models a maleficent version of Veronica’s witness, but in its voyeuristic rather than its helpless aspect. Veronica’s ocular curiosity as to the function of the hidden penis in Liam’s hand (“so that’s what the secret is”) takes on, when fused with Ada’s grotesque authority, its own twisted, destructive agency.
At the same time, Enright takes care not to allow all traces of Veronica’s scopophilic desire to be expunged from the “memory or dream” (222), lest the impressment of that desire to the predator’s ends be omitted, along with the lifetime consequences of that impressment. Thus, Veronica frames the entire screen memory as an explicitly scopic mise-en-scène, using the term picture three times just to introduce the action: “I remembered a picture”; “it is a picture in my head”; “it is a very strange picture” (221). Within the frame, Veronica remembers the setting of her abuse as exuding the traumatic feeling it induces: “The walls are oozing [Nugent’s] sly intent,” “the pattern on the wallpaper repeats to nausea” (222). But her actual description of Nugent’s sexual organ is unexpectedly, quite self-consciously, gobsmackingly appreciative: “Hot in my grasp, and straight and, even at this remove of years, lovely, Nugent’s wordless thing bucks, proud and weeping in my hand” (222). Lovely? Yes, lovely is the word that shocks in this passage, marking a libidinal, visually inflected appeal, unravaged for Veronica by distance and time, a strange kernel of jouissance—unsought jouissance, unwelcome jouissance, toxic jouissance, but jouissance nonetheless. Her renewed access to this jouissance, another legacy of her brother’s death, actualizes the insight that Liam likewise had his desire implicated against his will, that her psychic twin was similarly conscripted in the working of Lamb’s desire: “I could also say that Liam must have wanted [Lamb] too. Or wanted something”—an all-important qualification (223). The homophonic bond between the two names, Liam and Lamb, under the inflection of an Irish brogue, further underscores the reciprocity of desire that child sexual predation orchestrates in order to compel.
With Veronica’s account of her brother’s ordeal and her own, the novel challenges, even confutes, the moral episteme that has dominated its reception to date. A moral episteme, as we are using the term, comprises a set of evaluative assumptions that precludes certain kinds of ethical analyses and judgments while prescribing others. In this case, the framework in question rules out the category of participant-victimage. That is to say, it takes those victimized by sexual abuse to be entirely passive and uninvolved psychically as well as physically in the event. This construction rests, in turn, on a largely unexamined premise that desire and will exist in perfect alignment with one another, such that one’s libidinal energies cannot be mobilized, one’s erotic stirrings cannot be elicited, one’s fantasies cannot be tapped, against one’s intent or volition. To put it another way, on this model, sexual violence reaches its limit in the brutal imposition of bodily force; it cannot turn the victim’s psyche against itself, coercing its complicity in its own subjection. At a theoretical level, however, the formation of the unconscious itself constitutes the ever-present structural possibility of just such an unwilled participation in one’s own eroticized violation. At an empirical level, primal seduction, the intrusion of adult sexuality into the infant’s life and horizon, inevitably enacts that structural possibility, but child sexual abuse serves to weaponize it. As The Gathering illustrates, graphically and persistently, the prevailing moral episteme, blind as it is to the capture of unconscious desire in its own exploitation, not only fails to account for the forced implication of the Hegarty victims in their childhood abuse, but in so doing, fails to account for the specific reverberations of that abuse throughout their adult lives. This episteme thus fails as well to fully account for what The Gathering has to contribute to a broader understanding of how child sexual abuse has shaped the Irish social order.
Long before Liam Hegarty’s suicide recalls some version of his sexual abuse forcibly, if indeterminably, to his sister’s mind, Veronica has not only fallen into the standard pattern of repetitively enacting her traumatic experience, but also of doing so in terms of the desires forcibly if indeterminably implicated therein. Her mature sexual preferences gravitate toward the properties that she associates with the remembered, imagined, and/or speculative memories of Nugent’s violations. Indeed, as she finishes her reconstruction of Nugent and Liam in flagrante delicto, she confesses to sleeping with men, meaning her husband, who resemble Nugent, in being torn between “disapproval” of their sexual appetites and “weakness” to them. That deep ambivalence is a source of torment to these men, and Veronica states, “I am attracted to people who suffer, or men who suffer, my suffering husband, my suffering brother, the suffering figure of Mr Nugent. It is unfortunately true that happiness, in a man, does not do it, for me” (129). The “unfortunate truth” of this declaration would still hold in the absence of the parenthetical “in a man.” That is, Veronica’s allergy to happiness in the other is strictly correlative to her aversion to any prospect of an unwounded or unscarred state of contentment for herself. In comparing her “suffering husband” to the suffering Nugent, she contends that “what he wants, what my husband has always wanted . . . is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred. It is sometimes the same thing” (145). It seems likely that she understands her husband along these lines, rightly or wrongly, because that is the way her desire runs as well, not toward mediated self-annihilation per se but toward the traumatic atmosphere created by such psychosexual aggression. As she herself concedes, “there is a part of me that wants to be hated, too” (180).
Nor is this traumatic magnetism that binds Veronica to Tom entirely the effect, as it has usually been read, of the emotional malaise that descended with Liam’s death and Veronica’s ensuing traumatic remembrance. After all, Veronica’s great love for Michael Weiss, which she continues to rehearse in her present testimony, could not hold her precisely because “he refused to own me” (82), which is to say he refused to reprise the violent implication of her desire in its own appropriation. Veronica finds that traumatic frisson—that displaced resonance of the primal scene—with her future husband from the very start of their relationship. It begins with “a little ruthlessness,” “a spill of blood,” over another woman (70), a brutality immediately incorporated into their own sexual practice: “in the early-early days, when it wasn’t like sex so much as like killing someone or being killed” (73). In other words, the threat of marital annihilation after Liam’s death does not differ altogether from the thrill of annihilation that fueled their initial conjugation. In either case, the libidinal and the lethal, the wanting and the wounding, not only internest but seem to interdepend in Veronica’s consciousness.
From the common root of Veronica’s childhood witnessing proceeds a double articulation of the erotic and the traumatic. On one side, because Veronica’s sexual impulses were constitutively implicated in an unspeakable spectacle, her efforts to master its traumatic import through active repetition of various sorts remain saturated with enjoyment or jouissance, a cathexis shattering in its ambivalent intensity. In the case of childhood sexual abuse, the homeopathic response to trauma that took Freud “beyond the pleasure principle” continues to adhere in some measure to that principle. Such thanatotic enjoyment is, if you will, a diacritical marker of this type of trauma, one of the elements necessitating the targeted critical approach we have aimed to provide. On the other side, because a powerful associative link is forged between Veronica’s early sexual stirrings and her helpless witness of an unspeakable offense against a loved one, her mature erotic arousal, attachments, and satisfaction come freighted with an unconscious alloy of remorse and the need for expiation. The signifier’s triggering sexual attraction pulsates not only with the traumatic witnessing but also with the trauma witnessed, the desecration of the other. This consequence in turn reinforces, on a renewable basis, Veronica’s subliminal guilt in not being able to save Liam.
Veronica firmly believes, for example, that Liam blames her for something, some hurt or problem not fully specified by him, faults her for “selling out” some unspoken, underlying compact between them. Yet she recalls no actual conversations to this effect, no carping or express accusations on Liam’s part, thereby licensing if not encouraging the reader to impute to her some sort of traumatic projection. Veronica’s ensuing denial of any credible moral basis for her own feelings of remorse only strengthens this impression while simultaneously knitting her individual case to a larger social dynamic:
And you feel to blame, of course. You feel it is all your fault. (144)
He managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty. Now why is that? (168)
This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and the mechanism of a family—a whole fucking country—drowning in shame. (168)
The splicing of the register of guilt, inculpation, and wrongdoing with the register of shame, the sense of disgust in being oneself, is crucial in these passages. For it not only speaks to the dilemma of traumatic witnessing, in which the incapacity to do something redemptive inflicts feelings of self-worthlessness; it also speaks to the ambient power of sexuality to entangle one’s being in an action or event in which one has not participated directly. Here, Veronica’s sexual being itself and the libidinal dynamics of her whole family have been profoundly implicated in the miasma—personal, familial, and national—of child sexual abuse. Elsewhere, Veronica remarks that “[Liam] just had a contagious mind” (125). But what she responds to in her brother is the contagion of “shame” emanating from scandal.
This is a hard truth, an exceptionally hard truth, but one that Enright refuses to duck or dissemble. However censorious the emotions aroused by the contemplation of child sexual abuse—whether in person, in testimony, in gossip and rumor, or in media reports—they are themselves sexually inflected or tinctured. Disgust, contempt, abhorrence, repulsion—none escape the transfer of an affect imbued with erotic valences, which can themselves be acutely aversive, even traumatic, as well as enjoyable. Part of the motivation behind the amnesia surrounding child sexual abuse in Ireland was the avoidance or resistance to personal incrimination, and hence disgrace, and shame, through the bare fact of knowing, perceiving, or witnessing at whatever remove. Because of Veronica’s proximity to her brother and to the primal seduction of the enigmatic signifier, the implication of her desire and her resulting shame is especially profound, impeding the standard mechanisms of avoidance and amnesia from operating efficiently. We have seen how, in keeping with current trauma theory, Veronica dissociates her memories of witnessing Liam’s violation, forgetting cognitively while remembering somatically. The same holds true for the recruitment of her erotic cathexis in witnessing: she retains the vicarious, abusive seductiveness of the primal scene outside of consciousness through bodily reenactment. Veronica thus proves to be Liam’s psychic doppelgänger in suffering not only traumatic infliction but also traumatic conscription.
On the night of Liam’s wake, an event Veronica (reasonably) traces back to the sexual assault, she has what she calls “terminal sex” with Tom, and her brief sketch of the encounter recalls the childhood sex that has indeed proved terminal for her brother (218). She “did all the moves” as Liam did; she “made way for him” as Liam did; she “did not tell him to stop,” again like Liam; and, most tellingly, she summarizes the state of her desire on this occasion in phrases eerily similar to those she uses in describing Liam’s attitude toward Nugent’s abuse: “So I must have wanted it too, or something like it” (219). The chiming of these two scenes speaks to the signature psychosexual harm of child sexual abuse generally, as it pertains to both Liam and Veronica. This most insidious damage is best represented not as a wound but as a short circuit. Both Liam, as a child, and Veronica, as an adult, seem to engage in a sex act voluntarily yet somehow athwart their own will. To put it another way, neither appears to own the desire that is nevertheless their own desire. Neither is a puppet, simply acting on the desires of others, of Nugent or Tom respectively. But that original appropriative intrusion of the desire of the other has left them abnormally estranged from the operations of their own desire, unable to recognize its limits or to reckon with its implications. As a participant-victim of Nugent’s brand of passive sexual aggression, Veronica not only epitomizes this psychopathology but also discerns its operation as a family inheritance, one that creates traumatic parallels among the different generations of her people: from the orphaned Ada, perpetually on her compliant “back foot,” to her mother, embracing the mandated violence of endless reproduction, down to Veronica’s own generation and beyond. Taken on its own terms, her summary of this history is the single most incisive and important analysis in the entire novel of the legacy of Veronica and Liam: “It is not that the Hegartys don’t know what they want, it is that they don’t know how to want. Something about their wanting went catastrophically astray” (187). And Veronica’s account can ultimately supply an attentive reader with an empirically cross-checkable understanding of when, why, and how.
(BAD) FAMILY ROMANCE
As we have previously asserted, Enright encodes Veronica’s traumatic amnesia and uncertainty not only in the narrative design at large, but also in the contouring of Veronica’s libidinal cathexis by and within the traumatic frame. Taking account of what we might call the traumatic structure of her desire proves particularly useful, we would suggest, for an interrogation of the origins and the endpoint of Veronica’s auto/biographical testimony, her self-reflective memoir of her brother. At the midpoint of The Gathering, Veronica introduces a pause in her narrative, a dramatic flourish that serves to heighten narrative tension, before proceeding to reveal the decisive, taboo secret driving Liam’s abbreviated life and unexpectedly squalid demise: “I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine” (142).
The criticism has generally taken Veronica’s “shifting stories” and “waking dreams” to be symptomatic of the traumatic amnesia and uncertainty wrought by the very event they have served to camouflage, if not conceal. In the unavoidable absence of assured recall, it has been argued, Veronica tries out different parabolic options, different fictive approaches to the same underlying truth. From this perspective, Veronica’s willingness to foreground the apparent arbitrariness of the “romance” that she concocts between Ada and Nugent works to cement her paradoxical credibility as a fabulist. She necessarily fabricates, but she positively refuses to lie. In overlooking the role of Veronica’s conscripted desire in her trauma testimony, however, this consensus fails to discern that even her disavowal of any truth claims and her admission of a certain narrative caprice might itself involve a significant degree of misprision.
Veronica acknowledges the fictive status of her story’s central romance in the most magisterial way possible, by asserting absolute creative sovereignty over the temporal genesis of her plot: “Lambert Nugent first saw my grandmother Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925. This is the moment I choose.” Yet her very claim to plenary authorial control of a given present is immediately divided against itself by the structure of its enunciation. Veronica in fact “chooses” at least two “moment[s],” and they coexist in a meaningful if subterranean relationship. In its conative function, the moment in the sentence refers to 1925 and more specifically to the moment “when Lamb Nugent first saw . . . Ada Merriman . . . [at] seven o’clock in the evening” (13). In its metalingual function, however, the “moment I choose” also marks the moment of enunciation or inscription, the point at which Veronica chooses her narrative opening.
Vexingly, though, the occasion and subject of Veronica’s discourse, the traumatic implication of her formative desires in Liam’s plight, involves unconscious processes, unassimilable to being “in the moment” or its pragmatic corollary, punctual decision-making, the self-coincident exertion of the will in time. The moment that Veronica chooses a Dublin hotel foyer in 1925 for her story’s originary moment (“and the rest, as they say, is history”; 85) is itself a part and a precipitant of a causal chain—no—a causal “tangle” of physical and mental events shaping, following from, and recasting Liam’s abuse, a congeries of overlapping perceptions and memories framed and filtered by one another, both in their emergence and then retroactively. It is this complex, metaleptic unfolding, time thrown out of joint by traumatic desire, that Veronica elaborates in the streamlined guise of a “romance.” Her ostensibly germinal moment of choice springs already, if ambiguously, formed from the very prehistory barring access to the determining conditions of that moment and the import they confer on her decision.
Thus, what Veronica would have her audience believe is a purely discretionary and arbitrary choice of where to begin, and in what mode, must be seen, from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, as an unconsciously motivated effect of Veronica’s place in the social dynamic she would rehearse (recapitulate/replay). We should not, accordingly, stop at the question of why Veronica fictionalizes the surround of Liam’s sexual abuse (or her own)—to which the known effects of trauma supply a ready answer. We need to consider why she opts for this particular genre fiction, this particular romance, and this particular point of departure. Why is this, and no other, “the tale that [she] would love to write” (13)?
Seen from the perspective of the author’s craft, Enright has set up her narrative to explore these questions, and hence to address the psychic rationale behind not just the fictiveness of Veronica’s testimony but also the particular kind and course of that fictiveness. Insofar as this rationale is necessarily to some degree unconscious, Enright must supply evidence beyond the statements given by the protagonist herself. That is to say, Veronica’s skepticism as to the accuracy of her account and even her avowal of creative propriety over the romance she embroiders do not and, in a psychic sense, cannot supply or even admit the possibility of any meaningful interrogation into the whys and wherefores of her fabrication. To this end, Enright must open up some other form of internal distance within Veronica’s narrative. At the same time, and herein lies the markedly complicating factor, Enright is equally concerned, as Harte indicates, to encode in the structure of the novel the difficulties of traumatic recall, including what we would call its repressed libidinal complement (Harte 2010, 192). In short, the itinerary of the novel must give prompts to a hermeneutics of suspicion that it will simultaneously act to balk, if not thwart.
To execute this ambidextrous strategy, Enright has recourse to a complex, chronological internesting, especially apt for the representation of mnemonic struggle and selectivity. She interweaves five separate divisions of time: the ancient romance of Ada and Lamb; the dimly remembered, vividly constructed childhood era when Liam was sexually abused; the desultory young adulthood of Liam and Veronica; the tightly focused period of Liam’s suicide, wake, and funeral; and, following from the funeral, the volatile, dysfunctional present of Veronica’s insomnia and alcoholic excess, during which she composes the story left us to read. By including this last segment, Enright is able to play off the chronology of the tale against the chronology of the telling, the durée of the plot against the moment of its enunciation. If there is a key to the novel as an experiential structure, a mechanism for orchestrating the dynamics of readerly engagement, it resides in this manipulation of temporal registers. What Enright accomplishes thereby is to feed her readers’ expectations of narrative progress toward the sublation of adversity and the achievement of closure, only to counter this movement with the shock of recursivity, of the plotline turning back on itself and seeming to return to an earlier, torturous point in the story. Signally, as the novel nears its conclusion, it seems to gather a developing momentum, or momentum of development, toward full resolution, both psychic and narrative, thanks in large part to Veronica’s discovery of elements new to the narration. As readers must continually remind themselves, however, these elements, which look to either clinch Veronica’s speculative version of past events or to put her on a more positive footing for the future, have in fact occurred earlier in the plot sequence—that is, before the catastrophic period of Veronica’s sleepless, inebriate inditing of this traumatic memoir. In narratological terms, Enright induces a confusion between the fabula and the sujet, such that the reader, anticipating the climactic resolution of the novel (the story as a whole), will mistake the earlier for the later development, will mistake a recursive movement in the plot for a linear progression of the plot. The published criticism has consistently turned on such misconstruals.
At the symbolic level, this involuted chronology works to simulate not just the effects of trauma per se but also the traumatic recruitment of libidinal energy: the forward movement of erotic cathexes or attractions captured and subsumed by their repetitive enactment of the traumatic event. Across the whole of Enright’s text, a palimpsestic relationship obtains between different events and temporalities—past and present, childhood and adulthood, conscious and unconscious. Enright hereby stages how the damage specific to sexual trauma—the disruption of the psychotemporal coordinates of those involved, their chronotopes of sexual identity—makes the inciting episode, fugitive as it is to cognition, ubiquitous in effect and impossible to leave behind.
At the pragmatic level, however, Enright’s involuted chronology does more than reflect the traumatic disturbances wrought on her narrator. It illustrates how these disturbances inform—in the sense of giving form to—her narrative, and in this respect, the novel’s contrapuntal chronology serves Enright’s ambidextrous strategy of ratifying the sincerity of Veronica’s testimony while opening its unconscious motives to critical scrutiny. The introduction of new textual elements within disparate temporal frames simultaneously incites in careful readers a cognitive dissonance that compromises their alignment with the narratorial consciousness, compelling them to entertain different possible meanings or functions for these elements than those Veronica has assigned them, those she apprehends, or those she can admit—subliminal meanings or functions that convey the truth of Veronica’s being rather than the truth of her discourse.
From Veronica’s opening, establishing reflections on her intentions in telling her tale, found objects serve to anchor her overlapping, chronologically scrambled meditations, some explicitly fabricated and others scrupulously, photographically rendered, in a manner that allows Enright to broadly explore the multidirectionality of trauma. Starting with the “clean, white bones” that Liam once loved, and that Veronica herself surreptitiously collects, found objects serve as objective correlatives for Veronica’s writing and, more importantly, as key elements in Enright’s narrative strategy (1–2). Dating back to Yorick’s skull and further, to the Anglo Saxon “ubi sunt” thematic, found objects have been employed throughout literary history as focal points for narrative flexibility. A found object can be integrated in a storyline in order to advance, layer, or reinforce the dominant viewpoint. But it is also positioned, through its sheer givenness, to retain a discrete field of interpretive gravity in order to admit an alternative gloss that can test or controvert that viewpoint. In this sense, the objet trouvé bears something of the iridescent quality of the enigmatic signifier, at once compelling yet labile, forceful yet not definitive. This device is especially handy for Enright’s purposes in that its bivalence can be so readily mapped onto the split-level chronology of The Gathering, its equivocal division between the time of the telling and the time of the tale.
One such found object is the cache of letters from Nugent to Ada, which Veronica believes decisively verify her speculative vision of the past, specifically the pivotal role played by Ada and Nugent’s notional romance in the violation of Liam and, perhaps, Veronica herself. Not that these letters breathe any hint of romantic passion or erotic longing. Each specimen is nondescript, businesslike, and banal; in aggregate, they strongly support Mammy Hegarty’s impression of Nugent as “the landlord” and nothing more. Veronica manages to read into these missives “a relationship of sudden pique and petty cruelty,” though she has to concede, “I may be wrong—this may just be the way that landlords speak to their tenants” (235). With greater confidence, she detects “a sense of thrall,” a suggestive yet underdeveloped notion of financial sway that Nugent exercised over Ada, leading ultimately to her connivance at Liam’s abuse, even if she did not consciously collude therein. In Veronica’s urgent drive to ferret out an explanation for the harrowing events of her childhood that is both documentable and bearable, she somewhat improbably tropes the landlord-tenant relation of Ada and Nugent as a relation of serf to liege, in which Nugent held some sort of droit de seigneur over the children. But does this feudal exaggeration of Nugent’s petulantly exerted power really serve Veronica’s stated purpose—that is, to locate the origins of Liam’s violation in an aborted romance, where the protagonist-villain won neither the girl nor the affection he sought? Well, yes, it does, if the stalled yet smoldering romance is already established, as it has been over the previous thirty-five installments of Veronica’s witness narrative. For under these circumstances, Nugent’s lurid attitude resonates, as Veronica suggests, with a certain resentment at being slighted, feelings of frustration and entitled vindictiveness that result in his targeting of Ada’s most vulnerable trusts: “When Nugent saw a child he saw revenge—I have no doubt about that” (236).
It is rare for Veronica to have “no doubt about” something, and it is one of the ironies of the posttraumatic condition that her unwonted assurance in this instance warrants serious critical suspicion indeed. The preexistence of the lurking attraction between Ada and Nugent to any further information about their interaction forms the predicate of Veronica’s careful arrangement of events, the sujet of her narrative. For this reason it is all the more important to keep in mind how far the actual timing of events, the fabula, belies this arrangement. Veronica first comes into possession of the rent books and letters on the night of Liam’s wake (217, 232), weeks before the period when she begins “to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine” (1). That is also to say it is weeks before the fateful “moment I choose,” the moment she chooses the moment in the hotel foyer as the point when “my romance” begins with thoughts of love on both sides. Before that decisive moment—the moment of Veronica’s speculation and the scene that her speculation lights on as the ancient ground where “the seeds of [Liam’s] death were sown”—there arrived those letters that would metaleptically extend and complete this imagined account (13).
But coming before the moment of invention as they did—and this is crucial—the letters do more to obviate than corroborate a romantic connection between Lamb and Ada as having given rise to the assault on young Liam. Nugent’s status as the landlord at Broadstone gave him both means and opportunity for his predations, and his status as a landlord, at least along the feudal lines that Veronica envisages, also gives him plenary authority over the property’s inhabitants, the license that accompanies ownership: “He had the house, and he had the woman, more or less, and he did what he liked with the children passing through” (235). The final element in any criminal prosecution is motive, and Veronica has already provided as much in her witness to the actual assault. “What he liked” was the sexual enjoyment taken from pedophilia, the pleasure, let us remember, to which he was “weak.” The revenge motive that Veronica imputes to Nugent is not just forensically gratuitous in itself but it also depends entirely on a likewise superfluous tale of thwarted passion.
The significance of rebutting Veronica’s romantic account lies not in the conclusion negated but in the questions raised. Since Veronica’s history of her grandmother performs no indispensable function of explication, does it have some other function, equally vital to Veronica’s avowed task of witnessing, and if so, what is it? The most compelling answer begins with the observation that what she calls “my romance” represents not any old version of romance—pulp fiction, medieval, teenage, or otherwise—but specifically a family romance in the proper Freudian sense. While Veronica credits “listening to the radio, and reading the paper, and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes” with shifting her reflections on Mr. Nugent, her romance narrative in fact distances what went on at Broadstone from the mainly institutional forms of child abuse for which Ireland was becoming infamous (172–73). This model would be better exemplified by treating Nugent as exclusively a landlord-predator rather than a family member. By casting Nugent as Ada’s jilted yet lifelong, ever-present spectral lover, Veronica modulates the child-predator scenario she witnessed into a symbolic version of an incest narrative in which her mode of witness, the stories she relates, plays a formative role. Ada, of course, is installed by the Hegartys themselves as a mother figure to Veronica, Liam, and Kitty, a surrogate for their Mammy, who was “not herself” that Broadstone summer (46, 86). But it is Veronica’s elective romance that lends a distinctly paternal air both to Nugent’s presence in the home and to the various grooming practices he deploys, be they the regular allowances of sweets that Veronica still remembers fondly, the display of curiosities, or the automotive mentoring. Introduced by Veronica in connection with “Ada’s wedding picture” (21) and culminating in a graphically imagined sexual encounter, the enduring connection between Nugent and Ada delineates the scandal of Liam’s abuse in familial terms. This fabricated romance constitutes Liam’s abuse not as an open secret that everyone knows and yet disavows (though as Veronica concedes, Liam’s status as an abuse victim was an open secret “all his life” [2007, 167]) but as what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok designate an encrypted secret (2005, 159–60), one that is collectively forgotten only to be preserved in the bodily containers of the associated individuals. It is not family life in general but this romance, this scandalous romance in particular, that Veronica references in her comment, “I do not think we remember our family in any real sense. We live in them, instead” (66).
The decision to trace Liam’s sexual abuse to the imagined history of Ada and Nugent answers to Veronica’s conscious desire (“this is the tale that I would love to write”; 13) because it answers to the implication of her unconscious desire in the dynamics of that abuse. To put it another way, in elaborating a family romance manqué as the expository structure within which her witness takes place, she in effect turns Liam’s violation into a version of the primal seduction, the originary, enigmatic intrusion of adult sexuality, that the act of child sexual abuse evokes, replicates, and perverts. Thus, if the incrementally emerging focus of Veronica’s saga testifies to the trauma of her brother’s abuse, the saga’s form testifies to the jouissance that Veronica cannot but find reenacted there.
As it turns out, Veronica’s profoundly, confoundingly transferential relation to her brother’s abuse is already encoded in that oft-quoted statement of purpose with which her chronicle begins: “I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me—this thing that may not have taken place” (1). As a witness, Veronica stands outside the event; yet she feels it “roaring inside” her. And while her phraseology certainly signifies her internalization of her brother’s plight, a common effect of traumatic witnessing, it also indexes how the event taps into and amplifies stirrings interior to Veronica’s affective and libidinal constitution. Indeed, her initial paragraph is entirely self-reflective; no mention is made of Liam, only of the continued life of the event within Veronica’s body. The inference to be drawn, both from this prelude and from the ensuing family romance, is that the spectacle of Liam’s seduction by Nugent reignited, powerfully if unconsciously, the tumult surrounding Veronica’s own enigmatic sexual initiation. The result is an identification, amounting almost to a conflation, of inside and outside, of her brother’s shattering and her own, and, most acutely, of his and her coerced desire. At the same time, such an unconscious identification on Veronica’s part, while obviously painful, also serves as a defense mechanism against her sense of having betrayed her brother. Here again, Veronica’s experience of her brother’s “contagious mind,” which zeroed in on people’s “weaknesses” (125), their portals of shame, seems a legible enough displacement of the layered and conflicting sources of contagious shame inscribed in the traumatic yet libidinally charged ordeal they shared.
The extent of the transferential sibling identification occasioned by the signal events at Broadstone helps elucidate the delicate, asymptotic correlation that Veronica draws between the apparent reality of Liam’s violation and the likelihood of her own. She does not envision her own abuse independently of Liam’s, but neither does she equate the two. Hers consistently emerges as the less substantiated, less credible, less objective version. Having said that, the two incidences do not break down, in her mind, along simple binary lines of observed versus hallucinated, or remembered versus imagined. She knows that “Liam was sexually abused,” but with the caveat, “or was probably sexually abused” (224). She wonders, “Did it happen to me,” and opines, “I don’t think so.” But she cannot rule out the possibility, which she continues to treat as a memory rather than a figment (222). To be sure, in recollecting Liam’s violation, she must fight her way through a “tangle of things,” while mnemonic access to her own is obstructed by thoughts in which “words and actions are mangled” (144, 221). The inner/outer, subject/object distinction here asserts itself in the language of her testimony. The rhyming and synonymy of “tangle” and “mangled,” however, sets up a mirror relation between the two events, suggesting a joint and jointly obscured psychic origin that Veronica repeatedly calls the “missing thing,” which in psychoanalytic parlance would be the primal seduction conjured in either instance of abuse. Finally, while Veronica presents her brother’s violation as the more materially tangible, she elaborates her own as its symbolic supplement. By envisioning Ada and Nugent presiding together over her “interference,” Veronica condenses her background family romance into an iconographic image of the primal scene as archetypal (family) ménage.
A NEW EPISTEMOLOGY OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
In folding the problem of implicated desire into that of inflicted trauma, The Gathering powerfully destabilizes the classic roles of the abuse scenario—victim, witness, bystander, predator, enabler, deliverer, betrayer—and thereby brings forth a new epistemology of child sexual abuse, one in which the line between different modes of agency and responsibility, participation and observation, is irretrievably blurred without being entirely erased. Both the perspective of witness and the interpretation of the ensuing testimony are even further complicated in turn. While under this dispensation the roles in the abuse scenario are shown to be more permeable than previously assumed (including in current trauma theory), these roles are nonetheless liable to vastly different moral and social judgment and so incur shame and judgment in vastly unequal measure. As such, the sort of transferential identification among the involved parties that a participant-witness like Veronica Hegarty might unconsciously register not only molds her narrative but also compounds it with psychic defense mechanisms like repression, denial, displacement, and projection so as to alter substantially its testimonial impetus and value.
We have already treated instances involving the several figures and roles in the abuse scenario where the transferential identification incubated within Veronica’s elective romance structure may or may not function as a mode of psychic defense. For example, is Veronica’s belief that Liam “wanted him [Nugent] too . . . or wanted something” (223) a displacement of her own libidinal agitation at the startling spectacle of pedophilic activity, or her own inchoate wanting, or is it a disavowal of the full extent of Liam’s jeopardy so as to rationalize her discomfort at failing to rescue him? That is, does her claim testify to her subliminal self-image as participant, co-victim, or complicit bystander? Correlatively, does Veronica’s exclamation that “it was Ada’s fault all along” (223) displace blame from the landlord to her grandmother in order to domesticate the harm done within family bonds, or does it displace responsibility for enabling Nugent from Veronica’s passive moment of failed intervention to Ada’s more aggressive if hypothetical orchestration of the episode, or does it simply vent a lingering resentment at the apparent inadvertence of the traumatized children’s designated guardian? It is impossible to determine, finally, whether Veronica’s vision of having fellated Nugent under duress represents the fundamental traumatic reality from which she has distanced herself by projecting that reality onto her brother, or whether it is an interjection of her brother’s distress in order to assuage her survivor’s guilt, or whether it is a more straightforward identification arising out of their Irish twinship.
It should be noted that these and alternative interpretations of each party’s role in the episode of abuse are:
- First put in narrative play by Veronica’s decision, before writing, to treat the landlord’s letters as appendages to the romance she “wants to tell” rather than on their own terms; and
- Themselves potential factors in Veronica’s decision to frame the narrative and to treat Nugent’s letters as she did.
The vertiginous complexity of Enright’s new abuse epistemology finds its answerable form in a Möbius-strip inversion of the figure/ground of her novel, the inaccessible traumatic Real and the traumawerk in which it is (dis)figured.
The reversibility of one figure-ground nexus in particular—concerning that Irish twinship of Liam and Veronica—solicits a profound and profoundly disturbing recalibration of the potential impact, import, and even reality of the sexual transgression at the heart of the novel. As we have mentioned, Veronica portrays herself as being preternaturally close to her brother in age, in alliance, and in affect; and that proximity, universally acknowledged among Enright scholars, has been seen as raising the stakes of Veronica’s witness in every respect: its poignancy, the sense of guilt and responsibility it induces, the psychic and practical demands it imposes, the experiential transitivity it enables, and the identification and confusion it occasions. But the tropes Veronica selects to aver this proximity indicate that the scripting question might well be flipped. Rather than an organic immixture of their identities that intensifies the various aspects of Veronica’s witness, their intimacy can be seen to arise precisely from their shared traumatic experience of premature and predatory sexualization. Veronica’s instinct to cast that intimacy backward in time stems precisely from the contagiousness of the pedophilic transaction. Being galvanized by a libidinally invasive and overwhelming encounter, the intimacy of Liam and Veronica cannot but assume a likewise powerfully sexual complexion.
Thus, Veronica’s initial description of her Irish twinship with Liam is markedly sexualized: “There were eleven months between me and Liam. We came out of her on each other’s tails; one after the other, as fast as a gang-bang, as fast as infidelity. Sometimes I think we overlapped in there” (11). The individual metaphors constituting this remarkable portrait of the protagonists as young fetuses radiate throughout Veronica’s narrative, resonating with far-flung passages relating to the abuse scenario, its imagined backstory, and its overdetermined aftermath. The metaphor “gang-bang” migrates into the idiom “slap-bang” in Veronica’s comment, “It [Liam’s abuse] went on slap-bang in front of me and still I didn’t realise it,” and the chiming of the two terms points to the incestuous sexualization of the siblings’ “unholy alliance” as a factor in Veronica’s dissociated memory (171, 173). The unusual interest, both positive and negative, that Veronica insistently expresses in her brother’s looks might not signify an incestuous attachment, but as one element of a larger composite, her continual assessment of Liam’s sex appeal is suggestive: “I remember thinking how good he looked; how handsome he might seem” (53); “At sixteen he was beautiful” (163); “Think of . . . the beauty of the boy” (236); “This grey thing . . . this horrible old fucker” (28); “He is a small grey heap of a man” (169). The migration of a second metaphor reinforces this suggestion. The image “we came out of her on each other’s tails” reappears when Veronica receives news of Liam’s death: it appears as a phantom sensation felt on Veronica’s tail, “a warmth at the base of my spine,” which she takes to be contact from Liam’s disappeared, dead, but essential self (29). Later, at the wake, when her Mammy exclaims about what “great pals” Liam and Veronica were, she feels the exact same touch on her tail, “warm on the base of [her] spine,” only literally this time, as a tactile hallucination (198). Despite the presence of Liam’s deceased self, Veronica does not interpret the feeling as a spiritual communication from him but rather turns to see who has placed a “loving touch” on her and, finding no one, worries the question throughout the evening, and even later at the funeral (244). Her surprising failure to connect the two phantasmal touches with one another, or even to remember her prior association of the tail warming with Liam, counterbalances her deliberate affirmation of their all but fused identity with a reflexive repression or denial of its sexual dimension.
But that dimension is not lost to inspection; it is merely displaced and inadvertently encoded in the romantic narrative that Veronica “wants to write,” in part because it substitutes for or doubles narrative possibilities that she would rather avoid. Such an interpretation is pointedly solicited by one more prenatal metaphor, in what is arguably the most horrifying fantasy scene in Veronica’s imaginary history of Ada and Nugent. Directly after Nugent first meets Ada (and before their one and only “date”; 13), Veronica envisions Nugent as indulging in an erotic fantasy or memory in which he violates the sexually nascent, disease-ravaged body of his now deceased sister Lizzie. The scene proposes a sinister analogy between the two pairs of siblings, Lamb and Lizzie on one hand and Liam and Veronica on the other. Like Liam, the homophonically related Lamb is slightly older than his sister, whose bed he enters uninvited, as Liam enters Veronica’s after their visit to St. Ita’s asylum. Most importantly, at the incestuous culmination of his fantasy, Nugent feels the skin of his penis to be exactly the same as, at one with, the skin of his dead sister: “always damp, never sweating” (35). The commentary Veronica offers seems as gratuitous as the scene itself: “Because, in those days, people used to be mixed up together in the most disgusting ways” (35). But in fact her words consolidate the analogy as if by some unconscious compulsion. Liam and Veronica began life, on her own account, “mixed up together” in the womb, with similarly sexual overtones.
The mirroring of the respective sibling relationships of the child victim and the predator runs disquietingly against the grain of the narrative Veronica “wants to write,” and that is perhaps why it has gone largely overlooked to this point. As we have already previewed, however, the deeper significance of this parallelism derives from its place in the complex temporal framework of the novel, in this case the twist it gives to the chronology of Veronica’s family romance. The placement of the fantasy scene situates Ada not as Lamb Nugent’s first love but rather as a derivative or rebound interest. This development, in turn, implies that the true seedbed of Liam’s abuse and eventual suicide is not in that future meeting of Ada and Lamb in a Dublin hotel lobby but in Nugent’s taboo passion for his lost sister, for whom Ada turns out to have been a substitute. Their meeting, of which Veronica says, “This is the moment I choose,” accordingly, is not the origin of her tale but already a part of “the rest” that “they say is history” (13, 85). Viewed psychoanalytically, the fantasy that Veronica attributes to Lamb Nugent bares her own unconscious promptings. Overriding her assertively self-conscious emplotment of her testimony, Veronica has laid at the foundation of her tale an incestuous attachment that doubles her own sexual enmeshment with Liam. Or, to take up another angle, she has at once divulged and denied her incestuous feelings by projecting them onto the figure whose predatory actions may have helped cultivate them. That is to say, Veronica’s invented romance poses Lamb as a kind of demonic correlative to her ineffable bond with Liam because in the annals of her dissociated memory Lamb figures as the demonic catalyst of that bond. Given the precedence that Nugent enjoys in both narratives—temporal in one, causative in the other—they unconsciously attest, in combination, to the coercive activation of psychosocially inadmissible desire being a primary traumatic component of such child abuse. The infliction of child sexual trauma—whether in victim, witness, or witness-victim—always involves the conscription of a traumatic sexuality.
It is arguably owing to this forced elicitation of desire rather than to any brute traumatic shock to the system that Veronica’s mourning process, in the words of Harte, “remains unresolved” (2010, 202). To advance her new abuse epistemology, of which this insight is a crucial part, Enright deploys her signature manipulation of the novel’s temporal registers, again playing the sujet against the fabula, the telling against the tale, to create a sense of progressive, restorative momentum that proves at once diegetically recursive and psychologically regressive. Centering once again on a found object of vital import for Veronica’s story, the chronological fold in the text opens to reveal an isomorphic crease in Veronica’s response to sexual trauma, a dissociation between what she cognizes and what she somaticizes, what she thinks and what she is defended against knowing, what she repurposes and what she merely reenacts.
THE ROMANCE OF REPRODUCTION
The most sensational of the novel’s found objects appears at Liam’s funeral. It is a person, unknown as yet to the Hegarty clan, a boy, the son of Liam, whose resemblance to his father is uncanny. As Veronica tells her husband, “Oh, there’s no doubting the child. . . . It’s Liam. To the life” (245). The symbolic weight of her words cannot be mistaken, particularly in the context of her brother’s passing. For Veronica, and indeed for the rest of the assembled, young Rowan personifies renewal, a surprise legacy of Liam that is also a revival of his genetic stock, and this in a narrative that takes as its mantra, “History is only biological” (162). The sudden upturn in the arc of the Hegarty family history at the funeral lightens the tone of Veronica’s account, of the repartee among the guests, and indeed of the entire affair: “It is like we had never seen a child before. . . . Everyone wants to touch him. They just have to” (246). Enright thus stages, or has Veronica stage, a climax that looks to double as a classic mode of closure.
Liam’s funeral serves to site a marriage of dominant social ideologies, what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism” on the one hand (2004, 29, 58) and what Leo Bersani calls “the culture of redemption” on the other (1992, 1–2). The former is perhaps the defining creed of heteronormativity operating on a collective scale. It enshrines the figure of the child as both the emblem and the agent of the reparative power of the future—that is, the capacity of the future to indemnify the social damages and demerits incurred in the past and the present. For this reason, the child (functioning as an epitome of that hope) and the bringing of children into the world (undertaken as a pragmatics of hope) must be protected and celebrated. Reproduction thus becomes an art and a technology of redemption. This ideology has had an especially strong purchase in Catholic Ireland. Splicing the image of the innocent child with the redemptive agency of the Christ child, the Roman Catholic Church had, throughout the twentieth century, staked the future of a properly “Irish” Ireland on the moral and theological protection of children.
Representing for Veronica and her fellow mourners a symbolic resurrection of young Liam, Rowan becomes just such a child-epitome, the very pattern of reproductive futurism, the bearer of tomorrow’s compensations and guarantees. That he assumes this status as the novel draws to a conclusion gestures toward an embrace of the culture of redemption. The latter centers, for our purposes, on the aesthetico-normative principle that literature possesses and should be in the business of exercising the power to repair or at least alleviate the problems, the anguish, and the sheer disappointment of everyday life. While traumatic witness or testimony plays in a somewhat different sociopolitical register than the culture of redemption, there are salient points of affiliation and even convergence between the two, plainly exhibited in the Hegarty chronicle. Inasmuch as Veronica comes to recognize, decades after the fact, the probable abuse of Liam as part of the larger, notorious sex abuse scandals consuming late twentieth-century Ireland (“listening to the radio, and reading the paper, and hearing about what was going on”), her story must be seen as a document of this very particular ill of Irish everyday life that The Gathering as a whole means to address. Accordingly, to stake the resolution of the book’s narrative on the remediation of family and social dysfunction through the magic of an unforeseen birth, to find the possibility of closure in the promise that heteronormative reproduction affords a future renovation, to craft an ending that allegorizes the exorcism of the specter of Irish sexual abuse in the figure of an innocent, undefiled child—all of this seems to punctuate the novel’s trajectory of development with a massive and frankly uncritical subscription to the culture of redemption.
But it is all a feint, a glorious feint, one of the greatest and most pointedly instructive feints in all of modern literary history. First of all, Enright invokes reproductive futurism and the culture of redemption to expose their mythic status, that is, their inflated reputation for fashioning satisfactory prospective resolutions. Veronica’s infatuated reaction to Rowan indicates that she believes, at some level, in this idealizing myth, and her climactic placement of Rowan’s tonic debut among the Hegartys predisposes the reader to believe as well. But while Veronica ushers in Liam’s son at the end of her composition as an agent of reconciliation and rejuvenation, he in fact enters the tale itself, the fabula or sequence of events, weeks before Veronica’s full-on psychic crash prompts her to compose her witness-narrative in the first place, during those late-night bouts of wine and sleeplessness. Gazing through the filter of Rowan’s presence, Veronica sees her family dynamics in a more positive light and in colors predictive of a return to a more typical mix of tension and affection, love and antagonism, a blend unravaged by traumatic aftershock. In the recursive spiral of the novel’s temporality, however, this sanguine moment actually precedes, and clearly does nothing to ameliorate, Veronica’s subsequent breakdown, which places on display the whole array of traumatic injury and anguish: the inflicted, the suffered, and the collateral. Enright, it would seem, remains committed to toting up the full damage of child sexual abuse, and to do so means reckoning with the iron recalcitrance of the past, including its immunity to redemptive icons and ideologies.
Indeed, Enright takes this anti-redemptive anatomy of child sexual abuse a crucial step further. She shows how in collaborating to effect the enthronement of the innocent child as a simultaneously social and aesthetic ideal, these redemptive ideologies necessarily frame the child as an object of desire and so prove continuous with the dominant scandal of everyday Irish life that they are called on to dispel. Enright reinforces her critique by positioning her narrative-protagonist as the novel’s main exponent of both ideologies. Veronica enacts the creed of reproductive futurism in her response to Rowan at the funeral. Precisely because her “brother’s son” is “terribly like [his father]” and thus seems to resurrect him in untainted form, redeeming the traumatic losses of the past, Veronica professes “absolute regard” for his mother, Sarah, for whom she elsewhere expresses the harshest contempt (242). Enright thereby underscores the implicitly anti-feminist bent of an ideology that values women not for their present being in the world but strictly as bearers of a purportedly better future. Veronica enacts the creed of cultural redemption in her representation of Rowan’s impact on both her state of mind and the Hegarty family mood, as the positive consummation of her testimonial project. With the arrival of Rowan, Veronica attempts, in her own mind, to convert her harrowing witness to the past, to “the flesh . . . long fallen away” (1), into a triumphant witness to the future, to the filial flesh, like her daughter’s, that is falling nicely into place, “moulded and compact” (152). Far from denoting a final resolution of her traumatic backstory, however, Veronica’s unspoken fantasies concerning Rowan bespeak its repetitive enactment. Specifically, these fantasies betray the residual implication of her own libidinal impulses in the sexual assaults she has witnessed and suffered. In this respect, her fantasies can be seen to adumbrate the psychic breakdown to come, unraveling the narrational metalepsis that tricks us into thinking she has already weathered it. Veronica’s affective investment in Rowan is stunningly, even creepily, sexual. Indeed, it takes on precisely the language of child seduction: “Then I say, ‘Hello Rowan,’ again, ‘Hello sweetie-pie,’ wondering how I can trick or induce this child into my arms and, after a while, kiss him, or inhale him. How will I steal or filch permission to rub my cheek along the skin of his back, and play the bones of his spine, and blow thick kisses into the softness of his arms?” (242). And then she continues in phrases redolent of the notorious grooming process: “Perhaps over time. Perhaps I will be able to do it over time” (242).
A later reverie couples her eroticization of Rowan with her incestuous attachment to Liam, forged in their shared experience of abuse. Struggling, as the funeral service starts, to determine “what I want,” Veronica first determines that she wants to know who at the wake gave her tail the “loving touch” previously associated with Liam’s ghost. She immediately follows this option with, “Also, I want Rowan. I yearn for him, not with lips or hands, but with my entire face. My skin wants him. I want to nuzzle him, and feel his light hair tickle my chin. I want to flutter my eyelashes against his cheek.” As if to insist on the reality and intensity of her ardor, she continues, “This spooling fantasy runs through my head through all that follows” (244). More surprising, perhaps, than the transparently erotic nature of Veronica’s “want” in these moments is her evident obliviousness to its erotic overtones, to the untoward, pedophilic flavor of her expressed desire, let alone its incestuous triangulation with her brother. One must wonder how this is possible, especially for a subject whose extended traumatic witness so clearly proceeds from extraordinarily acute powers of introspection. We would submit that the diffuse yet fortifying assumptions of reproductive futurism, fully internalized by Veronica, license her libidinous fetishism as if it were something else altogether, something spiritual, uncompromised, innocent, and idealistic. Inasmuch as this reproductionist turn celebrates the child as a revelation not of truth (“the only thing that the dead require”; 156) but of hope and possibility, it rivets her testimonial all the more firmly to the culture of redemption, further insulating her consciousness from the embodied residue of traumatic sexuality feeding her delight in Rowan.
We have to wonder if the pervasive influence of these paired normative ideologies, the biopolitical and the aesthetic, helps account for the minimal attention that these glaringly scandalous passages have received from Enright’s otherwise canny exegetes. Certainly these passages cannot be dismissed as merely occasional. Once noted, they fit a pattern that extends beyond family gatherings, like the funeral, to Veronica’s quotidian family life. She consistently represents her interplay with her daughters in suggestively carnal terms, as if the somatic memory of her premature sexualization is reasserting itself in displaced form:
So I get a daughter on the sofa and manhandle her into loving me a little. . . . We cuddle up and there is messing. (38)
I know that her smell is there as I lie down with the thought of her beside me. I want to run my hand down her exquisite back, and over her lovely little bum. I want to check that it is all still there, and nicely packed, and happy. . . . I want to squeeze every part of her tight, until she is moulded and compact. (152)
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 in primal seduction and not entirely alien to the enigmatic signifier’s overt, genitalized replication in child sexual abuse.
If one were disposed to doubt the linkage of this sexualization of Emily to Veronica’s traumatized witnessing of Nugent’s “interference” with her brother, her description of a photo she took of Emily and Liam together, during one of his last visits, should resolve any lingering doubts: “Emily is two; naked, straight as a dye, and more beautiful than I have words to say. Liam’s hands are big, stuffed hands, wrapped around her middle as he holds her on. Her bum is neat and sharp, sitting saddle on one of his thighs. Behind her, the cloth of his trousers wrinkles and sags around a crotch that is a mystery no one is interested in anymore” (169). Beyond the fulsome tribute to Emily’s attractiveness, Veronica’s reflection features a comment on Liam’s crotch that is entirely gratuitous were it not for its allusion to Nugent’s “interest” therein. That unmistakable allusion in turn directs readers’ attention to how Veronica’s description lingers, a beat too long, on Liam’s hands, which were of course importantly active during the earlier abuse episode. Given the posture of the photo’s subjects, Veronica’s editorial rendition of the tableau is reminiscent of the novel’s traumatic primal scene, with Veronica herself once again in the role of witness. Enright hereby demonstrates how the repetitive enactment endemic to traumatized subjectivity passes from one generation to another. More than that, her staging of Veronica’s narratorial consciousness reveals how the implication of the traumatized subject’s coerced and repressed desires can be translated intergenerationally, via the family “crypt” described by Abraham and Torok (2004). Thus, instead of children as emblematic of future renewal, saving the Irish from the baleful effects of their sex abuse scandals, the baleful effects of those scandals threaten in hidden ways, and on a case-by-case basis, this generation’s children and the very future they symbolize.
Veronica herself possesses unusually sensitive antennae for sexual threats to children, the consequence, no doubt, of remembering by way of the contemporary media what happened to her brother thirty years on. She can even acknowledge her own incrimination in this massive affaire du scandale: “And for this, I am very sorry too” (173). What she cannot face, however, is the guilty horror that her desire, what she wants, has somehow been incriminated as well. She has adapted a substitute language of desire, an idiom of interior-design consumerism focused on motifs suggestive of immaculate cleanliness: “Oatmeal, cream, sandstone, slate” (130). Just for good measure, she appends the phrase, “There is no blood here” (130), dissociating her life space from the “spill of blood” that marked her early sexual passion with her husband (70). Thinking of herself as now “beyond sex” (97), she levels unwarranted, even unhinged accusations against her husband that reflect her own desperate need to disavow the libidinal affect that has been forced on her: “You’d fuck anything. . . . You’d fuck the nineteen-year-old waitress, or the fifteen-year-old who looks nineteen . . . I don’t know where you draw the line. Puberty, is that a line? It happens to girls at nine now” (176). And this bitter vitriol, notably, spills out months after the funeral and months after the seemingly redemptive appearance of child Rowan. In one sense, Veronica’s overflowing invective simply treats her husband as a revenant of Nugent; Liam was, after all, exactly nine at the time of the assault. But her rant is also an act of projection that serves to defend her from what, at an unconscious level, she already knows and feels. The underlying, self-referential thrust of her attack becomes clear, appropriately enough, when her husband asks, “What are you talking about?” She replies, “Or not to your actual fucking, of course. But just, you know, to your desire. To what you want. Is there a limit to what you want to fuck, out there?” Then, in a direct apostrophe to the reader, she adds, “I have gone mad” (176).
Veronica knows whereof she speaks, even as she misrecognizes of whom she is speaking. Because the unconscious, as Freud observed, admits of no contradictions, it is the condition of unconscious desire to operate without definite limits; its lines of exclusion, prohibition, or unacceptability are not clearly drawn. Because Veronica cannot own the agitation of libidinal stirrings that are, in any case, not her “own,” that are repugnant to her moral sensibility, she cannot master their unconscious effects. She cannot, that is, in refusing these stirrings’ conscious recognition, as she must, set final limits to their unconscious circulation or the symptomatic disturbances they produce.
This catch-22 represents, if not the gravest, then surely the most insidious burden of her traumatized experience, whether as witness or victim, of childhood sexual abuse. The cardinal symptoms of trauma in general—the unreliability of memory, the somatization of awareness, the uncertainty concerning the past, the haunting power of the unmetabolized event—combine to protect the subject, paradoxically, from a recognition of how the specific trauma of sexual abuse has captured her desire behind her back, as it were, and so protects her as well from the intolerable shame such a realization would elicit. In the case of child sexual abuse in particular, however, some such realization proves necessary if the traumatic fetters on memory—the basis for all those cardinal symptoms—are to be released, so that the past might be cognitively processed instead of obsessively embodied and repetitively enacted.
Nothing in Veronica’s final gesture toward recovery as she returns from self-exile in Gatwick Airport credibly promises an escape from this psychodynamic vise—certainly not her explicitly parodic indulgence in reproductive futurism, which she pitches, hypothetically, to her husband (in the recognizably wheedling voice of the officiously tea- and cake-pushing Mrs. Doyle from the 1990s’ Father Ted): “Hey, Tom, let’s have this next baby. Just this one. The one whose name I already know. Oh, go on. It’ll cheer you up, no end” (260). No end indeed. Dedicated as she is to treating the evils of child sexual abuse with all the seriousness it deserves, Enright is also too honest a novelist to mitigate the evils she portrays by allowing them to subtend a comedy in the end. Instead, she elects to leave her narrator-protagonist up in the air, literally, and falling with equal symbolic speed back into Ireland and back into “my own life” (261). In the last sentence, she “is about to hit it now,” a formulation that undecidably holds out the possibility that she might be coming smoothly down to earth at last—or crashing.