INSTITUTIONALIZED CHILD ABUSE IS A global reality, unconfined by national, cultural, or religious boundaries. Ireland is not unique in creating, sustaining, justifying, and eventually exposing a large-scale system of coercive confinement in which women and children were rendered vulnerable to every form of physical and psychological violence and exploitation. It is probably true, nonetheless, that there are few if any countries where this system was so central to the very nature of the state. The tight intertwining of the Catholic Church with both the institutions of government after Irish independence in 1922 and the moral and ideological underpinnings of independence itself meant that the control of sexuality, reproduction, and childhood could never be marginal to the definition of Irishness, of respectability, of citizenship, and of belonging.
This in turn meant that the exposure from the early 1990s onward of the whole archipelago of institutional abuse—industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, mother-and-baby homes, and (still underexposed) mental hospitals—had a very particular drama. It both coincided with and hastened an epochal shift, the fall of Catholic Ireland. Because so much abuse had taken place within institutions run by Catholic religious orders, the revelations of horrific crimes (and the doomed attempts to deny them) shattered the moral authority of the church and rocked the state that had been so closely allied to it. The question of the state’s collusion in the church’s crimes against children and women could never be a mere reckoning with the past—it also must be a force for reshaping the future.
And yet, not quite. In 2019, the Irish Times ran a yearlong campaign called No Child 2020 to mark the centenary of the Democratic Programme adopted in January 1919 by the First Dáil, the parliament formed by the majority of those who had won seats in the previous month’s Westminster elections but chose, in line with the policy of Sinn Féin, to secede and form their own national assembly in Dublin. In particular, the campaign drew attention to the contrast between the extraordinarily progressive nature of the Democratic Programme—its imagining of children as citizens of the republic and promise to prioritize their needs—and the abject failure to keep those promises.
The program had claimed that “it shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.” A century on, it was obvious not only that the state that emerged from the revolutionary period made a mockery of these pledges but also that, even in 2019, long after the exposure of this hypocrisy, it was still doing so.
It was not that the revelations had made no difference but that they had been somehow compartmentalized. They existed in a domain of horror and scandal and deeply felt shame. They did not transform life outside that domain. There were still scandals that were not scandals—a doubling of child poverty because children were the primary victims of the austerity policies that followed the great banking collapse of 2008, a huge rise in the number of homeless children being raised in objectively abusive accommodation, a crisis in mental health services for children and young people, a system of “direct provision” for asylum seekers that was acknowledged as grossly unsuitable for the children living in it. The great scandals had in fact done little to change the way vulnerable children were being treated.
This is the paradox: the exposure of child abuse was at once profoundly political and largely depoliticized. It was fully understood in and of itself as a story about power and belonging, about inclusion and exclusion, about gender and class, about nationhood and religion. But it did not (perhaps one should add, so far) fundamentally alter the way those forces operate in Ireland. It was certainly the case that the undermining of the political authority of the church had real indirect political consequences (most obviously in referendums to allow same-sex marriage and legalized abortion). Yet Ireland in 2019 was no closer to being a republic whose “first duty” was to the welfare of children than it had been in 1919, 1949, or 1999. The story of the great scandal was somehow both absorbed and deflected.
This raises the great questions that this brilliant book grapples with. What are the psychological mechanisms of abuse? How is it conceptualized and imagined? How can it be at once seen and unseen? I have suggested in writing about it that child abuse has been Ireland’s variation on Donald Rumsfeld’s epistemological musings. It is not the known unknown. It is our unknown known, always apprehended but never comprehended. Joseph Valente and Margot Gayle Backus use as one of their main analytic tools a more sophisticated version of this idea, Jean Laplanche’s concept of the “enigmatic signifier”: “sexually uninitiated juvenile narrators who can see things they have not yet learned not to see.”
When they write that “in twentieth-century Ireland, the vulnerability and trauma of children operated as a collective enigmatic signifier imbued with unspeakable appeal and saturated with shame, both personal and collective,” the words apply just as much to the twenty-first century. The documents of the scandal—the official reports, documentaries, films, journalism, and political speeches—themselves became a kind of enigmatic signifier, powerfully attractive, even seductive, but resistant to being configured as a political program.
And when Valente and Backus take us into the extraordinary ways in which so many Irish fiction writers have used the point of view of “uninitiated innocents who encounter taboo material,” it is hard not to think that this also became a pose through which Irish society managed to present itself in relation to the scandals. A society that was in fact deeply collusive with the mechanisms of exclusion and cruelty at the heart of the abusive institutions managed to think itself into the attitude of an innocent child shocked by its encounter with this taboo material.
Through their psychoanalytic readings of selected twentieth- and twenty-first-century short stories and novels, Valente and Backus give original, subtle, and acute accounts of the ways in which Irish writers interacted with, subverted, and transformed existing British narratives of imperiled innocence. Those narratives, privileging children’s supposed moral and religious well-being over their actual physical and psychological safety, are at the heart of the grotesque irony: using a narrative of vulnerability to turn children and women into prey, purporting to protect children and women from danger while exposing them to it, and rendering them defenseless by removing them from social and legal supports in the name of defending them from spiritual threat.
What these readings convincingly point to is “the endemic operation of sexual or sexualized abuse” in Irish society. This of course is the other paradox: fiction is much more “factual” in this sense than the vast bulk of contemporary journalistic and political discourse. It picks up on the intimacies that are so carefully occluded in official discourse. But it also maps the complex relationships between what can be said and what can be written. In life, much of what children know is communicated between them only in quiet speech—the unspeakable is really the unwritable. In art, it is writing that occupies the place of this speech, that broaches, more or less explicitly, what is not being said, either by the young characters themselves or by the world around them.
Writing the Unspeakable aims “to find out how and why the strong reactions stirred up by scandalous accounts of betrayed youthful innocents so often reaffirm rather than challenge a society’s complacent belief in its collective commitment to children and their welfare.” This is, to a large extent, the process that took place in Ireland in response to the great scandals of child abuse. Valente and Backus therefore achieve much more than a highly provocative and illuminating act of literary criticism. They open up a field of great importance, not just to Ireland but to every society that is seeking to grapple with the implications of systematic and endemic cruelty. The point, as they implicitly suggest in this bold and sure-footed expedition into dark psychological terrain, is not merely to interpret the cruelty, exploitation, and trauma. It is to change the society that colludes in them.