IT IS TIME TO CALL an end to family romance and to say what happened in Ireland in the years before and after Veronica was eight and Liam was barely nine. If Veronica has been “listening [carefully] to the radio” and “reading the paper” in full, and hearing about what went on in various Irish institutions, including but not limited to “schools and churches and . . . people’s homes,” she is well aware that abuse and exploitation of the powerless and marginalized have been endemic in post-independence Ireland, with child sexual exploitation being the most lurid, the most sensational, the most scandalous instance, but not a singularly horrific instance (Enright 2007, 172–73). Yes, “the anatomy and mechanism of . . . a whole fucking country—drowning in shame” (168) centers on scandalous revelations of child sexual abuse, owing both to Ireland’s hyperbolic commitment to reproductive futurism, with its sanctification of children, and to the unique power of sexuality to elicit and transmit shame, for reasons that Jean Laplanche’s theory of the enigmatic signifier throws into sharp relief. But that does not mean that there do not exist an array of other national atrocities equally deserving of collective remorse. Anne Enright demonstrates not just an awareness of this reality but an exemplary, because dialectical, awareness.
On the reigning critical consensus, The Gathering pools Brendan’s story of abuse and abandonment into Liam’s, establishing a gamut of disenfranchisement, according to which each variety figures as a like object of traumatized mourning and moral judgement. Gerardine Meaney, for instance, remarks that Liam’s “injunction to give truth to the dead conjures up Uncle Brendan,” and Veronica discovers that her brother and her uncle are part of a larger story when she encounters the graves of the inmates of St Ita’s, Brendan’s mental asylum (2011, 157). Carol Dell’Amico designates Liam as “a figure for all those missing and unacknowledged in Ireland’s past,” an “entire panoply of lapses . . . at issue in The Gathering, most spectacularly the belatedly acknowledged dead” of St Ita’s (2010, 66). Finally, Liam Harte eloquently observes that Liam’s “fate is linked to that of . . . mad Uncle Brendan” and, further, that Veronica’s “mourning of the bodily remains of her traumatized brother mediates a much larger grief and anger for the unacknowledged trauma endured by generations of unknown Irish bodies made abject by post-colonial nationalism and discarded anonymously in literal and metaphorical unmarked graves,” such as those Veronica encounters at St Ita’s (2010, 199).
To be sure, material and symbolic connections between the fates of Liam and Brendan inform Veronica’s melancholic reflections and even the basic narrative itinerary of the period immediately following Liam’s death. Veronica’s comings and goings on behalf of her brother’s memory and in post-traumatic response to his death (her efforts to retrieve his remains, to collect mourners like her sister, Kitty, to flee and reassess her own domestic situation, etc.) impel her to remember Brendan, to revisit St Ita’s, and to reimagine the horrors she associates with being him and living there. Nevertheless, the linkage between her brother and her uncle as victims of neglect or bearers of trauma does not establish, as the criticism propounds, an easy continuity between the two as objects of grief, rage, and regret. To the contrary, there is a disparity between the ways Veronica envisions them, contemplates them, and reacts to and invests in their memory, which betokens the very different places they occupy, as child sex victim and mentally disabled subject, in the collective Irish Imaginary.
Let us begin with Veronica’s mode of recalling the scenes of embodied suffering each endured. As we have seen, her memory of everything surrounding Liam’s abuse remains uncertain, undependable, compromised, invented, even hallucinatory. Her memory of St Ita’s, by contrast, is extraordinarily sharp, detailed, even crystalline. Her narrated memory of a childhood visit to the institution unfolds “under a hard white sky,” and everything from Ada’s dress, to the “longest, straightest” country road, to the man with two sticks hobbling along, to the shape of the handball court emerges with such bright-edged clarity that Veronica concludes that “another part of me is still, these years later, walking along the road” (Enright 2007, 113–14). On a subsequent trip to St Ita’s, returning from the airport with Kitty, Veronica notices, “There is no shift between my mind’s eye and my real eye”; her memory is fully corroborated by and continuous with her immediate perceptions. As she turns into the hospital drive, she states, “It is as though we are driving through a sudden brief mist, on the other side of which is the past,” completely preserved, perfectly accessible (158–59).
The dramatic disparity between her remembrance of Liam’s and Brendan’s respective plights derives, of course, from the starkly different positions from which she experiences them, and accordingly from the different kind and degree of her implication in them. Toward Liam’s abuse she was a victim-witness, either a co-victim of Nugent’s rapine or a victim simply by virtue of witnessing her brother’s molestation, with all the sexual turbulence and moral implications that entails. Toward Brendan’s abjection, she bore a far more distant, indirect witness. But at least in retrospect she was also something of a participant therein, a witness-participant whose childhood awareness of Brendan shared in the culture of phobic disdain for and discrimination against the mentally or psychosocially disabled. As she clearly recollects from her first visit, “we did not think of what lunatics did when they saw children—eat them, I thought, suck at their ears and jibber . . . and we did not tell [Ada] about the one loony we saw walking up the path from the sea, slow and stupid and dirty and terrible” (116).
As befits her intimate involvement with Liam, Veronica bears a highly personal and self-conscious sense of guilt for her failed witness in his case: “And for this, I am very sorry too” (173). Conversely, her past attitudes toward the disabled spur no such avowals of contrition, perhaps because her derision, while applicable to her uncle, strictly speaking, was never directed at him in specific. She does, in any case, revise her views on his life of disability in connection with the death of her otherwise impaired brother. Upon returning with Kitty from England, where Liam perished, she feels “this fact” of Brendan “suddenly kick into [her]” (156), a phrase that suggests a bond of pain is being formed. Nevertheless, she holds her emergent sense of solicitude and regret for her uncle at arm’s length, rhetorically speaking: “I realise, as we land, that life in St Ita’s was not a romantic one, but more likely a long dirty business of watching the piss gather in your lap, and nearly knowing what you were thinking, from time to time” (157). The lifelong cleanliness of Liam, however, which Veronica is careful to emphasize, contrasts with the squalidness imposed on Brendan by his disability, highlighting a sharp caste distinction between the two despite their shared class origins. Whereas the vocabulary marking Liam’s errancy breathes a certain scapegrace familiarity, his permanent belonging to the tribe from which he strayed (“Pup, gurrier, monkey, thug, hopeless, useless, mad, messer”; 163), the parlance of Brendan’s disability—“lost to Largactyl and squalor. . . . He probably died wondering who he actually was” (156)—serves to underscore his foreignness even to himself, his profound exclusion from the tribe to which he belonged. In the very act of sympathizing with Brendan, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say pitying him, Veronica continues, in a different vein, her earlier practice of othering him.
This amalgam of familial compassion and ableist distance, pity and othering, fuels in Veronica a sense of Brendan’s ordeal, a commiseration with his suffering, which is powerful without being intimate, overwhelming yet impersonal. She rates Brendan the most aggrieved member of Ada’s damaged progeny, yet she casts the affliction he endured in an objectified register diametrically opposed to the frame of fellowship in which she processes Liam’s ruin. Thus, although she stops at St Ita’s to conjure, with Kitty’s help, memories of their uncle, she soon folds his ghostly image, with its “falling jowls,” “unpleasant” eyes, and superior “Maths” into a broader vision of the institutional ravages of twentieth-century psychiatric practice, of which he was but one obscure victim (156–57). As they approach the “boiler house” of St Ita’s, the institution suddenly morphs into a brick-and-mortar allusion to the Holocaust: “There are curious round windows on the boiler house, with the Star of David dividing the panes . . . I am thinking for a second, that they are burning mental patients in there, just to keep the hospital radiators hot” (159). By temporarily displacing Brendan from his Irish habitus, by invoking the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Veronica annexes her uncle to a horror whose sheer scale and historical saliency magnifies the import of his fate, while dissolving its particularity and immediacy.1
As they quit St Ita’s, Veronica espies an instance of that other staple of unspeakable modern atrocity, the mass grave. As she reads the sign imploring prayers for those residents of St Ita’s unceremoniously deposited there, she “wonder[s] how many people were slung into the dirt of this field,” with “no markers, no separate graves” (160). Veronica feels the ground beneath her quake, “boiling with corpses” (160), a phrase linking the boneyard to those spectral ovens. For us, the scene proves the single most haunting and chilling in the entire novel, more astringent, and deliberately so, than those portraying Liam’s sexual abuse. But the power and the poignancy of the scene—and this is most important—are predicated mainly on the permanent anonymity of the residents buried in that still unquiet earth, on the abjection and abandonment implicit in the failure to recognize their individual identities. It is a failure replicated by Veronica at this moment with regard to her uncle, who is not differentiated in her consciousness from the mass of “tangled bones” knitting the ground and catching like a “vague wind” at her thighs (160–61).
Later, on the night of Liam’s wake, Veronica’s final act of hallucinatory witness actually transforms Brendan into a personification of the teeming cemetery ground itself: “Brendan’s bones are mixed with other people’s bones; so there is a turmoil of souls muttering and whining under his clothes, they would come out in a roar, were he to unbutton his fly; if he opened his mouth they would slop out over his teeth. Brendan has no rest from them, the souls of the forgotten who must always be crawling and bulging and whining in there. . . . The only places clear of them are his unlikeable blue eyes, so . . . his shirt heaves and his ears leak the mad and the inconvenient dead” (216). Brendan looms as the last of a series of revenants, “disturbed” ghosts that parade before Veronica’s distraught mind after a cryptic interview with her Mammy concerning Nugent’s role in the family (214). On this occasion she explicitly declares Brendan to be “the worst” of “my nightmares,” making official the status implied in her visit to St Ita’s (215). But whereas the previous specters—Ada, Charlie, Nugent, and his chimerical sister, Lizzie—all bear the individualized impress of their respective roles in Veronica’s traumatic family romance, the visitation of Brendan is the vehicle less of his own personal revivification in Veronica’s memory than for a mass return of the forgotten, unknown, and nameless dead, of whom he remains but one example. As at St Ita’s, the gut-wrenching pathos of Brendan and his “gathering” of ghosts rests on their comparative anonymity and the symbolic destitution it evokes even in their commemoration.
In this regard, Harte has astutely observed that Brendan stands for the not “properly dead,” whose existence signifies a rupture in the social covenant between the living and the departed, an unpaid social debt that the former owe the latter (2010, 199). Enright has undoubtedly deployed Uncle Brendan to signal (a) the ethico-political failings of Irish society toward its disabled and disempowered members and (b) its continued moral default in allowing their systematic erasure from the national story. At the same time, she is careful to note how this function of Brendan’s, and indeed this gesture of hers, cannot but bespeak the comparatively abstracted, alienated, or estranged relationship these “inconvenient dead” bear to the bereaved community, a relationship of ritualized obligation rather than deep-seated, heartfelt sentiment, of formal mandate rather than emotional devastation.
On this basis, Veronica finds herself implicated in the ongoing condescension toward all the forsaken and forgotten abuse victims, but not in the same visceral, affectional vein that implicates her in the degradation of her dear, obsessively remembered sibling. Enright underlines the discrepancy between Veronica’s (and Irish society’s) acute personal guilt for the plight of the sexually abused Liam and the inchoate, impersonal revulsion at work in Veronica’s (and Irish society’s) response to Brendan’s fate, by way of Veronica’s more intractable imperviousness to the abuse that she and Liam inflicted on their younger sister, Kitty. Throughout Veronica’s maze of memories and compensatory romancing, Kitty functions as a scapegoat, as the family member toward whom Veronica need feel no empathy. In various ways, Veronica frames the childhood abuse of Kitty as normal or comical. Thus, the dichotomy between Veronica’s complete decompensation in response to Liam’s death and her heightened awareness of Brendan’s utter desertion is underlined by the fact that she never ceases to justify or minimize the past sibling abuse that has been propelling her younger sister along a traumatized, self-medicating life trajectory strongly reminiscent of Liam’s.
This disparity in the kind as well as degree of personal implication entails an incommensurability in the kind of mourning and/or melancholia that the respective cases of Liam and Brendan elicit, from Veronica certainly but also, by allegorical extension, from the hegemonic national Imaginary that an affluent lifestyle journalist from Dublin 4 might represent. The disabled, the institutionalized, and the abandoned, like Brendan and his fellows, may arouse a “much larger grief and anger” than Liam alone could focalize (Harte 2010, 199), but they have not enkindled the same deep, passionate, and gnawing “grief and anger” as all the Liams of Ireland, the child sex victims of respectable and relatable middle-class families.
In short, child sexual abuse does not represent, as Dell’Amico contends, the “saddest instance of collective forgetting” in the novel (2010, 63). That unfortunate distinction is held, rather, by the disabled and institutionalized—personified in Brendan. But child sexual abuse does emerge as the “instance of collective forgetting” that Ireland is “saddest” about and takes most fully to heart (which is paradoxically why it is not the saddest in the larger sense). By the lights of Veronica’s narrative, it is the most worried, most consuming, most sentimentalized object of cultural forgetting, so much so that in order to bring Uncle Brendan into its order of significance, she speculates that he, like Liam and herself, owes his dysfunction to Nugent’s predations (Enright 2007, 224). Of course, it will and should be said that her differently weighted investment in this matter arises naturally from her greater familiarity, greater affective entanglement, and correspondingly greater identification with Liam. But that is, at an allegorical level, just the point. The society of Irish journalists (lifestyle and otherwise), media exponents (social and otherwise), opinion makers, authority figures, professionals, churchgoers, job holders, and similarly classed subjects (from the upper to the lower range of “middle”) have had, on average, greater familiarity and engagement with those who are known, supposed, or imagined to be child sexual abuse victims than with the mentally or psychosocially disabled once thought to require commitment to asylums like St Ita’s.
In the years since the Ferns and Murphy reports, child sexual abuse has become “our” scandal, a heimlich site of open and public retrospective sorrow and remorse, in a way that the forced institutionalization of the disabled never quite has. As such, the scandal has also become what Kai Erikson has theorized as a collective trauma, in ways that the confinement of the mentally disabled never quite did (Erikson 1995, 183–99). That is to say, the child sex scandal has constituted a “blow to the basic tissues of social life that changes the bonds and impacts the prevailing sense of community” (Erikson 1995, 187), as Veronica herself observes. Locking the Brendans of the world away, sequestering them from their native community, perversely serves to insulate the “tissues” of that community from the traumatic effects of the violence it has perpetrated, at least until the claims of those most immediately harrowed have been substantially weakened by their disappearance into nameless obscurity, materialized in the mass grave. For individuals like Brendan, the classic response to mass atrocity, “never forget,” has already been violated in advance, not least by those, like Veronica, who assume that the victims themselves had been forgetting all along: “He probably died wondering who he actually was” (Enright 2007, 156). The mourning of identifiable victims whose plight initiated a collective trauma differs, markedly and necessarily, from the mourning of victims whose grievances were precluded from doing so.
Enright’s novel respects, by acknowledging, the stubborn reality of inequitable mourning, while advancing the ethico-political principle that things could and should be otherwise. It does so by insisting on the irretrievable anonymity of the departed “rejects” and outcasts while staking the outrageous urgency to grieve for them on that very anonymity. It does so by showing that the connection it unquestionably poses between Liam and Brendan as objects of mourning contains a significant hiatus or element of disjunction. Hence, the retrieval into cultural memory of one type or instance of erasure (Liam’s) points to and invokes but does not necessarily lead to or accomplish a retrieval of the other (Brendan’s).
On this score, The Gathering quietly touches on a robust debate in the global study of collective traumatic memory, recently canvassed by Michael Rothberg in his book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009). The field is presently divided between two paradigms of cultural memory. The older form, competitive memory, holds that the practice of making present the past is tied to discrete, firmly bounded identity formations. In order to achieve the specificity and saliency of the traumas they have overcome, these different identity groups seek to command the public sphere with their historical perspectives, narratives, and demonstrations, thereby blocking out or marginalizing the cultural memory of others. The second form, the multidirectional memory of Rothberg’s title, similarly tethers cultural memory to identity but judges such formations to be jagged and porous, to overlap with one another, and to share, accordingly, the building blocks of cultural memory: experiential points of reference, ethical codes, heroic ideals, narrative genres, and so on. On this model, disparate groups’ remembrances of trauma and victimization do not unfold in a zero-sum game, wherein a spotlight on one eclipses the others, but rather open a space of negotiation, wherein these commemorative efforts might reinforce and even enable one another (Rothberg 2009, 1–27). The critical consensus on the mutual resonance of Liam and Brendan, of sexual abuse victims and the incarcerated disabled, as objects of mourning presumes the operation of this sort of multidirectional memory.
As Rothberg himself concedes, however, his model does not exclude so much as contain (in every sense of the word) competitive memory. The negotiations undertaken under the multidirectional model harbor contests for recognition and authority among the distinct, albeit interlocking, identity formations, issuing in contingent hierarchies of cultural memory that further negotiations look to dismantle. It is just this sort of dialectic, in our view, that Enright broaches in The Gathering. Veronica’s traumatized reaction to the death of her brother, with whom she shares an identity—as psychic double—triggers a cognate sense of the more distanced victimization of her uncle, which is “always the worst” (215). This cognate sense reaches across boundaries of cultural memory but does not produce the full-throated investment or identification that it is shown to ethically demand. Multidirectional yet also hierarchical, Veronica’s mourning process comes, as the novel moves toward closure, to constitute a site of perennially open negotiation, in which Enright is summoning her readers, Irish society, all of us, finally, to participate. The goal is to adhere in the fullest measure possible to the essence of traumatic mourning itself as cultural memory: to do justice, without favor, to all the “inconvenient dead” (216).
1. It is important to recall that the first victims of Nazi eugenics were the disabled; the targeting of the Jews, homosexuals, and the Roma people came later.