THROUGHOUT THIS STUDY, WE ARE concerned to mobilize Jean Laplanche’s elegantly textured psychoanalytic conceit, the enigmatic signifier, as an instrument for illuminating, simultaneously, the cultural dynamic of child sex scandal in modern Ireland and the specific role of modern and contemporary Irish novels in responding to and participating in this dynamic—first, by exhuming its ethico-political bases, and second, by delineating its social and intrapsychic ramifications. In Laplanche’s theory, the enigmatic signifier functions as a vanishing mediator of infantile sexualization, the coded material whereby each developing subject receives from the adult world ambiguously beckoning psychic messages laden with repressed desire and unconscious libidinal energy.
As Laplanche (re)reads Freud’s seduction theory in an interview with Cathy Caruth:
There are always at least two scenes that constitute a traumatic “event,” and . . . trauma is never locatable in either scene alone but in “the play of ‘deceit’ producing a kind of seesaw effect between the two events.” . . . [Freud’s] theory explained that trauma, in order to be psychic trauma, never comes simply from outside. That is, even in the first moment it must be internalized, and then afterwards relived, revivified, in order to become an internal trauma. . . . First, there is the implantation of something coming from the outside. And this experience, or the memory of it, must be reinvested in a second moment, and then it becomes traumatic. (Caruth 2014, 25–26)
More than a vehicle of (unconscious) seduction, the enigmatic signifier is a seductive vehicle whose power resides in the eroticized indefiniteness of its suggestion: a confusion of the sexual and the nonsexual, of knowing and not knowing, and of innocence and incrimination, which carries a traumatic charge of jouissance. If the sexual tenor of the signifier renders it enigmatic, the enigmatic force of the signifier sexualizes it in turn.
Because like any signifier, the enigmatic signifier is iterable, the erotic current with which it is invested at the first moment of implantation remains available to be “reinvested” in a series of later moments recalling or approximating the original enigmatic encounter. Moreover, because like any signifier the enigmatic signifier bears its semiotic values as a part of a chain of metonymic differences, the traumatically fraught valences infusing any such activation of the enigma can extend to a wide array of scenarios, experiences, objects, and identity forms. That is to say, the enigmatic signifier makes new sense of Freud’s nachträglichkeit, which Laplanche translates as “afterwardsness” and redefines as both instigated by and accounting for the uncanny disappearance and subsequent traumatic recurrences of an enigmatic message deposited in infancy by the adult other.1 Scandals of endangered innocence constitute especially explicit and powerful sites for the collective reactivation of the enigmatic signifier and its ambivalent effects, both because they center on the coercive sexual initiation of a minor, thereby recalling the peremptory force of the infantile exposure to adult sexuality, and because they rehearse for the public at large the traumatic play of knowing/unknowing endemic to sexual initiation as such. A scandal of any variety comprises not only the precipitating exposure of a transgression but also a second stage of cover-up, dissembling, and gradual, uneven disclosure, and then a third stage of seemingly abrupt but always imperfect revelation, which transforms the concealments of the second stage into an outrage in their own right.2 In a child sex scandal, the intermediate passage from disavowal and undecidable awareness to incomplete transparency and residual doubt or deniability takes shape in and through the workings of the enigmatic signifier, which revivifies for the scandal’s participant-observers (and in scandal, all observers are participants) the traumatic jouissance of their own primal scenes.
Even as they represent fictional versions of the scandals of imperiled innocence that have bedeviled and defined modern Ireland, the novels under study here also reproduce the sexualized phenomenology of scandal itself—that is, by staging the eroticized dynamics whereby individuals are interpellated not just as consumers of scandal but as subjects of scandal culture, agents whose consumption of child sex scandals goes, recursively, to the roots of their own subject formation. To this end, as we have shown, such literary texts as Dubliners, The Land of Spices, and The Country Girls deploy enigmatic signifiers in two dimensions simultaneously: for the characters in the narrative and for the consumers of the narrative. In the lived experience of reading, these dimensions can neither be fully conflated with, nor dissevered from, one another. The shimmering overlap between the two issues, for the reader, is a higher or sublimated form of sexualized psychomachia. On the one hand, the traumatically charged erotic scenarios represented in the text, whether explicitly or implicitly, are bound up, knitted together, with the eroticism of reading about them; such scenarios pull the act of reading about them into their libidinal force field, so to speak, however aversive or repudiated the libidinal expressions on offer might be. On the other hand, precisely this enigmatic, ambivalently charged connection between the narrative and the interpretive event allows the sort of critical reflection encouraged in serious literary practice to be extended from the scandal dynamics unfolding on the page to the reader’s vicarious involvement in those dynamics (though when it comes to scandal, the line between immediate and vicarious can prove unexpectedly faint).
It is a major goal of our project, enacted with particular force in this chapter, to delineate the distinguishing structure of a specifically literary or aesthetic (as opposed to religious, journalistic, partisan, or tabloid) response to Ireland’s child sexual scandal. As we show, the literary response engages a dialectic that (a) interpellates the audience as already implicated in the process of collective judgment not only entailed in but constitutive of scandal itself and (b) does so precisely to lend that audience greater perspective on the stakes—ethical, political, and otherwise—of that implication. Or, to put the matter in the terms of our titular quote from The Long Falling (Ridgway, 1999), the literary response to scandal casts its readers into “the pits and ditches where people have fallen” so as to render palpable the overlap or proximity between scandal observation and participation, to overcome the surface effect, endemic to scandal culture, that a bright line exists between the two modalities of engagement. As our chapter title further suggests, the novel performs this literary-aesthetic function vis-à-vis its readers by folding the observer/participant dialectic back into the contours of the narrative. That is to say, it foregrounds in the design of the story the irreducible linkage between scandal observer and participant, “readers” and “protagonists,” and then teases out the two overriding effects of their correspondence:
- However disempowered and abused, the victims of an atrocity in one sociopolitical register are not immune to finding themselves incriminated in the burden of scandal enacted in another register.
- As a result, the enigmatic elaboration of the original scene of outrage opens up multiple lines of libidinal affective identification with perpetrators and victims alike, all the more so as each party stands in a different relationship to the normative ideologies of modern Ireland, the institutional mechanisms of regulation, and thus to any given “imagined community” of moral or legal judgment. The opportunities for projection and misrecognition on the part of any given scandal subject thus prove abundant, as The Long Falling dramatizes.
The narrative focus of the novel is the Quinn family, all of whom find themselves embroiled in at least one major scandal as an agent or participant and connected to another as a victim or observer. Moreover, each of these seemingly discrepant or opposed roles meld together, affording a kind of diegetic metonym for the simultaneously conflicted and collaborative nature of scandal culture. A series of traumatic convulsions in the Quinn family erupt along three axes of authority and disempowerment. The first is generational and involves what we are calling the disposable child, instanced in Michael Quinn’s vehicular manslaughter of an adolescent girl and, less graphically but as saliently, in the criminal negligence of the main protagonist, Grace, in the drowning death of her toddler, Sean. The second is gender, involving the category of the abused woman, instanced in Michael’s routinely brutal (and drunken) battery of Grace after her truancy in Sean’s death, and in her correspondingly plausible defense for her later vehicular murder of Michael himself. The third axis is sexuality, in response to the abased queer, and instanced in the domestic and neighborhood furor occasioned by the coming out of Grace’s second son, Martin, an event that prompts his father to assault him, verbally and physically, and actuates Grace herself to fund his flight from rural Monaghan to cosmopolitan Dublin.
Behind this interlacing network of family contretemps looms one of the most notable scandal figures in recent Irish memory: Girl X. In 1992, having been, over a three-year period, repeatedly raped and finally impregnated by a friend of her family, the 14-year-old X was in London awaiting a scheduled abortion when her parents contacted the Irish authorities to consult with them about the use of DNA samples in obtaining a conviction of her rapist. Her parents were ordered to return her to Ireland immediately, and she was thereafter restrained from travel and subsequently placed on twenty-four-hour suicide watch to ensure against harm to the developing fetus. Although X won the right to travel on appeal, her traumatic and highly public scandal trajectory ended abruptly and inconclusively in a (literal) miscarriage, and the constitutional wording that not only allowed for but mandated the assemblage of an extraordinary theater of cruelty as the requisite state response to a protracted sequence of assaults on a minor remained unchanged until 2018. It might also be noted that although the Irish Constitution certainly did not in any way mandate the reduction of her rapist’s sentence from fourteen years to two, this was to be yet another pain-inducing sequel to X’s horrifying scandal trajectory.
As these events unfolded, the so-called X case became a rallying point for mass resistance to the intrusive sovereignty asserted by a theocratic, patriarchal state over women’s bodies and reproductive decisions. Although the “long falling” into disgrace of Ridgway’s Quinn family culminates with Grace Quinn’s arrest for murder while participating in the giant Dublin march on X’s behalf, the figure of X herself does not appear or perform any discernible narrative function. Nevertheless, as the few critics who have written on The Long Falling would agree, Girl X is the symbolic hub on which the entire structure of the novel pivots. We would add, moreover, that Girl X is not just the novel’s premier figure of scandal but also its premier figure for scandal, the public enigmatic signifier of scandal’s cultural and sociopolitical economy.
It is vital to X’s central if enigmatic place in the symbolic pattern of the novel that her plight comprises each of the categories of traumatic violence on offer. On these grounds, she emerges as a potential analogue for each of the main narrative actors, whose scandalous transgressions, suffering or dishonor likewise derive from their place within and subjection to the patriarchal regime. In keeping with her algebraic designation, the novel seems to pose X both as a vanishing nexus interlinking the other characters along lines of indignity and as a common denominator, soliciting the reader to evaluate the other scandal scenarios by comparison with her own.
However, this role of X and the invitation it presents, while no mere illusion, does turn out to be self-negating, a false lead paradoxically necessary to arrive at the truth. Her status as an exemplar, rather than a mere example, of the scandal figure serves in the end to interdict the very sort of universal transference that her pervasive haunting of the events of Ridgway’s narrative would seem to solicit. Unlike the other main characters, X embodies all of the target registers of systemic violence: generational, gendered, and sexual. And thus, unlike any of the novel’s central characters, X is never situated so as to participate in the victimization of others. She retains a radical, symbolic innocence not unlike that of Sean Quinn, son of Grace and Michael and brother of Martin, who drowned in infancy. As a result, any equation of X’s subject position with the novel’s protagonists winds up exposing: how they possess a measure of social agency denied her, while forfeiting a measure of moral authority in turn; how each partakes of an empowered collective identity from which she is excluded; how each is fractionally complicit with the social hierarchy weighing on her; and how neither an express solidarity with nor a structural affinity for a particular mode of victimization stands proof against some level of incrimination in the web of social relations engendering it. As the narrative’s all-purpose double or doppelgänger, then, X proves to be undouble, even unheimlich, bearing toward each of the main characters (Michael, Martin, and Grace) a mode of resemblance, kinship, or identification whose underlying rationale or impetus will not hold.
For this reason, the letter X in The Long Falling always bears its notational import as a chiasmus, a trope that combines repetition with reversal. The plenary victim, X, doubles the other scandal characters and, in the same motion, reverses that likeness, revealing a muted but decisive contrariety in their respective moral and political postures or profiles. The clearest and richest case of this chiasmatic swerve is the relationship of X to Grace Quinn. The vicissitudes of this relationship encapsulate the moral journey on which the novel takes both Grace and the reader, its scandal protagonist and observer.
The narrative’s ultimately insupportable parallel between Grace and X follows a dialectical pattern of doubling over the course of the novel. In the first stage, or what scandal theorists Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin (2013) term activation, there obtains a purely external bond between them, a structural counterpoint in which emphatic parallels in their social position and experience are shaded with less conspicuous but ultimately definitive differences.
Both Grace and X have endured iconic forms of misogynistic violence—domestic abuse and rape, respectively—and both face periods of state-imposed incarceration as a direct or indirect consequence. The suffering of both accordingly spotlights the imbrication of male dominance and state power (Grace’s spurious confusion of Detective Brady with her deceased husband dramatizes this point) in an Irish state whose theocratic origins continue to structure an uneven distribution of protections and liabilities across the body politic. In addition, both are disposed at the periphery of the Irish community, with England serving in either case as the marker of their marginal status, their faulty claim to full inclusion. Grace is an immigrant from England, resented by her neighbors on this score. X has traveled to England, openly seeking, in contravention of native law, the alleviation of one of the many forms of harm her rapist has inflicted on her, and she is herself criminalized on these grounds.
Grace thus represents the novel’s most thoroughgoing counterpart to X in the register of gender, signifying, at first, as her sister-victim of the patriarchal church/state complex. At the same time, however, Grace also represents an antitype to X in the generational register, as the delinquent parent of her own disposable child. Less compelling at first than their gender alignment, this generational antinomy becomes the dominant factor in Grace’s ethico-political education, as child abuse slowly emerges as the novel’s central problematic.
The generational disparities between Grace and X come to the fore in the novel’s second stage, amplification. Once Grace is on the run, she herself internalizes their structural affinities as a full-blown identification with the girl. She configures X as a projective version of her own best, most ethically viable self, an unfairly accused scandal victim. By implicitly equating her own (justified) killing of Michael with X’s (entirely justified) proposed abortion, Grace simultaneously endeavors to occult her own sense of culpability in the death of her firstborn son.
In a symmetrical turn, her second son, Martin, initiates the third stage of the dialectic—justice—by convincing Grace that she is indeed blameworthy, not for the death of Sean but for the killing of Michael. The effect, though not the intent, of Martin’s j’accuse is to drive Grace to cognize and accept an extraordinarily thorny ethical proposition endemic to the child abuse scandals in Ireland: although she is in no way responsible for the abuse she has suffered, never to blame for her victimization, that abuse, that victimization, remains undecidedly tethered to other harm for which she is accountable. In a novel staked on the concept of falling and fallenness, the original sin of the modern Irish nation takes the form of this aporia: whatever its citizens suffered, however the patriarchal system constrained, coerced, or even terrorized them, they continued to be answerable to the children, who, like Sean, went unheard or overlooked.3 Coming to this insight greatly complicates and ultimately balks Grace’s identification with X. She becomes aware that she is not only X’s semblable but also her antithesis and, on this basis, must imagine another form of community or solidarity with her.
Grace’s moral journey entails a process of gradual anagnorisis, not the final resolution of obscurity into transparency, but rather the gradual consolidation within obscurity of a painful truth—to wit, her own compromised status. As a survivor of vicious domestic abuse, Grace earns the reader’s sympathy and retains it through the various misprisions that mark her unflaggingly earnest struggle to come to grips with the moral complexity of her circumstances and her self-fashioning therein. At the same time, the sensitive reader’s affective and interpretive experience of the enigmatic signifier that informs the three scandal registers on offer should prompt them to share, at a remove, Grace’s growing awareness of her implication in each register. The virtually universal critical failure, up to this point, to do so, betokens a collective denial that the novel, like the other fictional accounts we are examining, endeavors systematically to contest.4
Beyond the striking correspondences in Grace’s and X’s social predicaments, Ridgway employs an array of literary devices to establish a compelling counterpart relationship through their manifold associations with crime and abuse, scandal and notoriety. At the novel’s outset, an intertextual strategy unfolds, featuring a brace of extended allusions to Gabriel Conroy’s iconic closing vision in “The Dead”: “It rains on Cavan, Monaghan; rains on the hills and the lakes and the roads; rains on the houses and the farms and the fences between them; on the ditches and the fields, on the breathing land” (Ridgway 1999, 3). Mimicking with uncanny exactitude the rhythms of Joyce’s famed denouement, the passage transforms the cleansing fall and the anesthetizing coverlet of snow over Michael Furey’s graveyard into the raw, soaking rain more typical of rural Ireland. With this meteorological inflection, the metaphorical focus of the passage shifts from the desired burial of the past to the ineluctable exposure of the present—that is, to the afflictions of scandal rather than their elision. Moreover, the change of weather shifts the elusive focus from Conroy, snow aficionado, to his wife Gretta’s ex-suitor, Furey, who perished in an untimely drenching (like many such uncanny scandal doubles, from Anna’s brother Charlie in Land of Spices to Veronica’s brother Liam in The Gathering).
The long-departed Furey holds a place in Gretta’s memory primarily through the song he would sing while courting her, “The Lass of Aughrim,” whose title character, a folkloric double of Furey himself, is still more germane to the twinning of Grace and X. The Lass is callously abused by Lord Gregory, much as Grace is abused by her “Lord and Master,” Michael Quinn, in a series of events that leaves her, likewise, locked out and exposed. The Lass is also sexually exploited, impregnated, and abandoned by Lord Gregory, as X is exploited, impregnated, and left to her own devices by a friend of her family. What is more, the Lass’s infant, like Michael Furey but also, more pointedly, like Grace’s own little child, Sean, dies of something like a drowning.
The initial installment of the novel’s dialogue with “The Dead” triangulates the figures of Grace and X through the folkloric “Lass of Aughrim” as paired victims of cognate patriarchal violence and malefaction. Everything the reader learns in the immediate aftermath of this opening gambit seems to justify Grace’s standing among Ireland’s brutalized and exploited innocents. In response to her son’s death, as it is first innocuously described, Grace suffers merciless vituperation from Michael—for example, “she was a stupid woman, more stupid than an animal” (9). Her husband disseminates his opinions (“all that he had to say”; 11) to their neighbors, who begin conspicuously to avoid her and to stigmatize her by look and word. At the same time, Michael commences beating her, apparently in reprisal for their boy’s death. Because the narrative voice, a variable frequency of free indirect discourse, channels Grace’s initial sense of guiltlessness without setting forth Michael’s perspective, his verbal and physical abuse of her registers as not only cruel and barbaric but gratuitous. Michael appears to exact vengeance for a tragedy suffered rather than a wrong committed. In this respect, Grace’s status as faultless scapegoat unmistakably corresponds to that of X, who was confined for the crime of being raped. The patriarchal subjugation connecting Grace and X in their metaphorical lineage to the seduced and abandoned Lass of Aughrim thus involves not just a blaming but a disciplining of the victim.
This perverse logic continues to mark, and mar, Grace’s marriage once her husband has “killed a girl,” another analogue of X, in a drunk driving accident (5). Whereas Michael receives an unconscionably light prison term for his crime, Grace pays a correspondingly disproportionate price in community ostracism and obloquy. In other words, Grace takes significant blame for a homicide fueled by the same alcoholic excess at work in her husband’s assaults on her. The previously noted link between her “accident” with Sean and her husband’s auto accident (both victims are stowed in that same car) suggests that the latter weighs as a symbolic extension of the former, with Grace unjustly bearing the recriminatory weight for both. As we shall see, such melding of different offenses is a note sounded repeatedly in the novel, even as the offenses and offenders themselves keep changing. Thus, in a variation on this theme, Michael escalates his beating of Grace after his release from prison, seeking to expiate his negligent homicide by violently calling Grace to book for hers.
Up to this point, the parallelism of Grace and X remains circumscribed within the category of abused womanhood. Accordingly, when the time comes, the sympathy that the beaten and socially ostracized Grace has attracted from the reader qua scandal-observer can be enlisted in a moral, if not legal, defense of her spousal homicide. Gradually, however, suppressed memories that contravene Grace’s conscious account of Sean’s death begin to surface, and her sense of blamelessness begins to waver. As this change is channeled through the novel’s prismatic indirect discourse, the reader’s allowances for Grace may grow more equivocal as well. This dual shift in attitude unfolds not in response to Grace’s vehicular assault alone, but rather to the double articulation of the two deaths to which Grace has been party—specifically, to their simultaneous connection with and partition from one another in Grace’s Imaginary.
On the one hand, Grace tends to confound the two incidents along a public-private axis: the guilt imputed to her by others (the police detectives, the journalist, her son Martin) with respect to Michael’s killing is internalized by Grace with respect, instead, to her son Sean’s misadventure. The official investigation into Grace’s role in her husband’s violent end winds up tapping her long-dormant, still largely repressed springs of compunction over her son’s drowning. In one particularly telling instance of psychic transference, Grace realizes that “it had not occurred to her to worry” about being arrested at her husband’s funeral “until that moment . . . in the grounds of the strange church,” when she suddenly sees herself as “a mother ignorant of the whereabouts of her child’s grave” (50).
On the other hand, Grace’s self-absolving ruminations on Michael’s brutality and on her last fatal rejoinder allow his slaying to stand, however perversely, as evidence of the innocence she has always maintained concerning her son’s death. As she abruptly flees a church adjacent to Michael’s final resting place in Cootehill, she explains her reaction: “It was not guilt. . . . It was panic. . . . But this time it came to her . . . as a thought that was as hard as it was irrational. She had sent her husband to the place where her son was kept. . . . Thrown one over the other like a cover, like a sheet. Why had she done that?” (49). The answer to Grace’s query turns on the metonymy secreted within her lurid posthumous metaphor. At an unconscious level, she broaches the notion that her killing of Michael, here figured as Michael’s corpse, acts as “cover” for her truancy in Sean’s demise, likewise figured as his remains. That is to say, her manifest responsibility for a crime deliberately executed, openly acknowledged, but substantially mitigated if not excused by her husband’s prior abuse serves to occult or camouflage psychically her irresponsibility in the tragedy that, on her own account, precipitated the abuse in the first place. As Grace’s memories have it, Michael’s wife-beating originated with virulent objurgations for her negligence in Sean’s death, a delinquency she denied at the time. So by a reverse twist of logic, her ability to rationalize Michael’s killing on these grounds only goes to support her original claim of innocence.
In keeping with the psycho-forensic relation that Michael’s murder bears to the “letting die” of Sean, Grace shows no conscious awareness of her responsibility for the earlier tragedy, but in its stead, she carries in her memory an implicitly inculpating reconstruction of the scene of Sean’s death:
She had held Sean in her arms and pointed at the stars and named the shapes she knew. . . . And then she had put him down so that she could take the clothes from the line. She threw them over her arm. She took each of them down and threw them over her arm. Then she had turned and looked into the darkness, and she had known almost immediately that he was in the ditch. It was easy. She looked at the clean clothes and turned again and draped them carefully over the line, knowing that some of them would fall and be dirtied, but knowing that some of them would stay where they were and that she wouldn’t have to do them again. Then she went and took her drowned son’s body from the shallow water and carried it into the house and sat with it in her arms until her husband came in. He hit her. He hit her and tore her clothes and dragged her out and threw her in the ditch and left her there. She had tried to drown. She had tried to lose consciousness, with her head under the water. But she could not. She could not stop herself from breathing, from gasping and sucking in the air in cold dark mouthfuls. When she climbed up out of the ditch she saw all the clean clothes lying on the ground. . . . It stayed with her more than anything else. Those clean clothes lying in the mud. (128)
In this passage we arrive at the primal scene of The Long Falling, the misrecognized origin from which the narrative’s scandal axes extend. Yet this memory has gone almost entirely overlooked in the criticism to date. The reason for this glaring blind spot in some otherwise fine exegeses of the novel can be traced, in our view, to the operation of the enigmatic signifier. Focusing as it does on emblematic, suspicious, yet still peripheral and morally ambiguous details of the scandal tableau—such as the trope of falling, and dirty versus clean laundry—the passage implies without explicitly indicating that Grace’s first (non-) response to Sean’s dangerous fall was purposive, whether consciously or unconsciously, rather than merely inadvertent, as she contends. The gnomically matter-of-fact report, with its fastidious tonal neutrality, allows for a less chilling interpretation of Grace’s part in Sean’s fate (which surely was sealed at some point during those precious minutes Grace devoted to rehanging laundry she had just taken off the line) than the details reported tend to invite, if not demand.
This discrepancy between poesis and diegesis, in turn, appeals to what we have termed the moral episteme of the audience, which is inscribed directly in the text in order to expose its limitations. Proceeding along binary lines, scandal narratives rely on Manichean scenarios for their cultural comprehensibility; to function at all, they must produce the kind of black-and-white judgment that eschews seeing the grossly sinned against as capable of grossly sinning, the injured innocent as, at another level, a likely transgressor. Grace’s son Martin speaks precisely to the sentimentalizing dichotomies of this moral episteme in response to the inclination of his partner, Henry, to condone his father’s murder: “Everybody loves a battered wife. . . . That’s all you have to tell them. He hit me. So I murdered him. Oh, that’s all right, missus, on your way now, there’s a good woman” (227). Having been shown from the start of the novel that Grace is indeed a “good woman,” and a long-suffering woman to boot, readers have found it difficult to reckon—midway through the narrative—with her liability in the death of a toddler.
Nonetheless, a close inspection of the above quoted passage makes it difficult not to issue some sort of indictment—of Grace herself and of the scandal morality that would exonerate her. At the heart of this difficulty lurks the novel’s shortest and most elliptical sentence, “It was easy” (128). Although the referent, It, remains willfully ambiguous, its positioning limits the statement’s conceivable import to the following:
- It was easy to know that Sean had fallen into the ditch.
- It was easy, in the dark, to have lost the child in the ditch, to have let him fall.
- It was easy to leave the child in the ditch, easy to let him die.
- It was easy, or easier, to leave the child in the ditch while she rehung the laundry, so that she “wouldn’t have to do [the clothes] again.”
In context, the sentence’s referential indeterminacy pointedly preserves a measure of psychic denial or deniability on Grace’s part, thereby making one of the final two meanings most likely. Grace’s subsequent, astonishingly disengaged reactions, which could be summarized as “taking it easy,” supply evidence that one of the two latter interpretations must be the correct one. She registers no anxiety in response to her child’s peril and exhibits no urgency to retrieve him from the ditch into which he has fallen; she does not attempt to resuscitate him once she has recovered him; nor does she recall either feeling or exhibiting violent grief over his sudden extinction. To the contrary, she averts her eyes from her drowning child in order to contemplate and rearrange her laundry with a deliberation that, intentionally or no, creates an interval of inattention sufficient for Sean to succumb.
It is impossible to know what possessed Grace at this point. Her excuse for the miscarriage—that she “had turned her back only for a moment” (9)—reasonably accounts for Sean’s original fall but does not even touch on, let alone explain, her astonishing inaction after she was aware of the fall having occurred. Her attempt to drown herself in the same ditch, at her husband’s furious instigation, demonstrates the depth and intensity of her subsequent emotional trauma but not its precise nature. Is she simply devastated, belatedly, by Sean’s sudden death? Is she contrite for her part in the calamity? Is she ashamed at her lack of devastation, her failure to evince any conventional maternal feeling or expression? Is she each of these indeterminably? Does her gesture unconsciously enact an identification with Sean in his final moments, or is it an attempted administration of self-retributive justice, to exchange a life for a life?
Grace’s muted response in this revised and summary account of Sean’s last moments on earth opens a second, tacitly antagonistic version of Grace’s symbolic kinship to X, centered on the category of the disposable child. If the allusive role of the Lass of Aughrim is to connect Grace with X, the Lass of Aughrim also marks a crucial division between them. Impregnated and abandoned by an older man, like the Lass, X is also, like the Lass, nameless in her own tale, a condition that bespeaks a lack of socially sanctioned authority extending well beyond the partly disenfranchised position of Grace, whose allies include members of the police force.
Importantly, as both an abused woman and a devalued minor, X aligns with both the Lass and her dead baby, whereas Grace’s uncertain culpability in little Sean’s death aligns her, conversely, with both the Lass and Lord Gregory. Ridgway thus triangulates the spiritual kinship of X and Grace Quinn through a mythic nexus that serves to emphasize the difference between an object and a representative of Irish scandal culture. Whereas X exemplifies how the material effects of a scandal culture turn on the fervent and unquestioning protection (typically through institutional regulation and confinement) of a notional, absolute innocence, Grace embodies the lived moral contradictions that scandal culture systematically obscures.
As Grace strolls in Dublin the morning after her recollection, she senses “snow in the air,” which in turn prompts the second in a series of textual allusions to the final passages of “The Dead.” Her inward vision of a Monaghan reliquary in winter weaves together a chiaroscuro of similarity-in-opposition between Grace’s mental picture of the snow-covered roadside memorial where both Michael Quinn and his young female victim breathed their last, and the scene it unmistakably evokes: Gabriel Conroy’s culminating vision of the graveyard at Oughterard where his spectral rival, Michael Furey, lies buried. In Gabriel’s vision, the pure, thickly drifted snow graces a series of items metonymic and iconographic of Christ’s crucifixion—crosses, thorns, spears—all of which betoken a promise of redemption attaching to the figure of Michael Furey himself.
In Gabriel’s vision, which occurs in the very depths of winter—a seasonal correlative for his desolate state of being—Gabriel is already, metaphorically, knocking at Easter’s door. Grace’s inner landscape has likewise already begun transitioning to an early spring tide, reflecting her hope of impending renewal and liberation in her adopted Dublin home. However, the seasonal interregnum in her mind’s eye dismally intermingles atmospheric elements: a melting, half-liquified snow creates a muddled, muddy mélange emblematic of a moral infirmity and adulteration attaching not to that other Michael (Quinn) but rather to Grace herself: “She thought of Monaghan, covered by snow. She thought of the narrow part of the road where the flowers were propped up against the hedge. She pictured them, the snow resting on the bright petals and the green stems, melting into the colour, confusing the brightness and the dark, making a mixture of them, a damaged halfway shade that fell pure, and rested in stained patches on the grey ground” (134). Whereas the snowfall in “The Dead” figures in its all-effacing purity a felix culpa, a “fall” out of which a higher innocence may come, the “stained patches” of Grace’s imagined snowscape figure an implicit mea culpa, a “falling” from a pristine to a confounded and compromised state. Drawing back to the broader intertextual perspective, the gap introduced between Michael Furey as victim/savior and Grace Quinn as victim/unsaving bystander extends to the latter’s relation to X, by way of their shared mythic antitype, the Lass of Aughrim, of whom Michael Furey is the modern exponent and “voice.”
No less strikingly, for our purposes, this funerary passage simultaneously recalls an earlier sepulchral dream of Grace’s, which posts her (like Gabriel in his reverie) at a still unvisited (and in her case neglected) grave site: “He is kept there, beneath the wet ground, hidden. She sees the flowers, sees the petals knocked loose by the rain, scattered on the grass. . . . Sees herself by his grave. . . . She sees her mouth in the uttering of words, sees her knees pressing petals into the mud, sees her hands scoop the earth from around him, until she holds him in her arms” (18). Not only the physical features of the scene, particularly the disarray of the petals, but her own kneeling posture and her uttering of silent, secret, prayerful words closely replicate the tableau of Michael Quinn at the roadside shrine just before Grace runs him over. At the same time, her vision stages a compensatory fantasy wherein she supplants the figure of her husband, and, with him gone from the scene of memorial, she acts to protect and rescue her son, to retrieve him from the “pit” she had originally allowed to swallow him. Via a complex logic of substitution and displacement, the dreamwork subtending this image reveals (a) how, in Grace’s psyche, the murder of Michael equates to the earlier crime of letting Sean die and (b) how, by punishing Michael for slaughtering an innocent youth, the same murder pays off her own debt, reinstates her innocence, and restores her to the good-mother roles of safeguard and succor.
Her attempt to maintain that fantasy position in real time, however, specifically to adapt it with regard to her imago of X, is haunted, if not vitiated, by the reversibility of that same dream logic. Grace can stand as an ethical counterweight to her husband, as his victim and destroyer, only insofar as her legacy and his remain entangled concerning the two juvenile deaths at the heart of the novel, scandals closely related not just to one another, but to the evolving fate of X.
The sequence of allusions to the graveyard in Joyce’s “The Dead,” whence the buried Michael Furey returns to memory and imagination, performs a dual function in The Long Falling. As we have seen, these allusions resonate with Grace’s connections to the three homicidal events that structure the entire narrative. At a deeper level, however, this sepulchral pattern objectifies in symbolic terms the embattled psychic defense that Grace rears against the guiltiest and most painful aspect of this entanglement, what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (2005) would term her inner “crypt.”
At one point, Grace imagines her son’s grave “building itself inside her” (Ridgway 1999, 173), a cryptic metaphor, as Ed Madden has properly diagnosed, for “a psychic response of melancholia” (2010, 24). In its extreme form, melancholia impels an incorporation (or encrypting) of the deceased within the precincts of the bereaved’s bodily unconscious (Abraham and Torok 2004, 131). This extreme condition arises from an inability to reckon with a loss owing to the continued involvement of the bereaved’s very identity in some aspect of that loss. Melancholia represents a strategy for holding on to the dead not in memory or in symbolic terms but as an embodied and always ambivalent part of the self, without having to consciously acknowledge or even unconsciously sense the fact or mode of so doing. It should be evident at this point that Grace holds on to Sean in this exorbitant, not to say pathic fashion, as a kind of psychic reversal or remediation for her having physically “let him go” in the ditch. To incorporate the lost object, however, necessarily entails incorporating the self-corroding torment associated with the loss itself—hence the ambivalence that is endemic to melancholia. For Grace, that pain, that distress, comprises a traumatizing encrypted guilt at her own negligence in Sean’s death, for which her own abuse at Michael’s hands, and subsequently her retributive murder of Michael, serve as a psychically coherent earthwork.
There is, however, an overdetermined quality to Grace’s crypt, one that gives it a distinctively scandalous as opposed to simply taboo structure. It functions as both a psychic safehold for the mourned object (Sean) and a psychic repository for the inadmissible secret of his passing, and it depends for this compound effect not, as one might expect, on some outward facade of virtue but on the supplementary reinforcement of a second, less fully occulted transgression: to whit, the murder of Michael.
In Grace’s scandal crypt, one primordial secret lies buried within another more public or open secret—its outer wall, if you will—and remains concealed there even as the unconscious pressure it brings to bear forces the second secret, its protective barrier, into view. Retrospectively sanctioned by her identification with X as an abused woman, Grace’s public disavowal of responsibility for Michael’s murder keeps barred from sight, most importantly her own, her fault in letting Sean die. Conversely, without fully revealing itself to her conscious mind, the subliminal insistence of that primal scene winds up outing Grace as her husband’s killer.
This cryptological dynamic unfolds most emphatically in and around Grace’s big public reveal: the confessional scene located at the exact center of the novel. While Grace watches a television report on X with her son Martin, it occurs to her that “everyone might know” of her killing of Michael and simply “not mind” (136)—that is, everyone might have implicitly accepted the justification by abuse defense that she shares, in her own mind, with X herself. She resolves to test her hypothesis on the one person, Martin’s journalist friend Sean, who seems most obstinate in his suspicions and, given his profession, the most likely to pursue them.
Her last thought before sleeping on her plan is of Sean: “The name of her dead son. She wondered for the first time what that meant” (138). On the face of it, Grace ponders an unremarkable and essentially meaningless coincidence, especially considering how common a name Sean is. The very fact of her wondering, however—her confidence that the coincidence must have a meaning—points in itself to the undercurrent of significance she senses. Her bid to ensure the presumption of her innocence among Martin’s friends, her new social circle, stumbles upon the signifier in which her stirring but still repressed guilt over her son’s death may be encoded, a signifier whose dual reference in this context taps her conflicting unconscious impulses mandating and prohibiting (self-)disclosure.
These conflicting impulses not only bear on the tête-à-tête with the adult Sean that Grace arranges for the following evening but also define its contours, and their respective points of psychic attachment mark its coordinates. Having initiated the interview as a kind of preemptive strike, a reconnaissance mission designed to forestall potential nemeses, Grace goes on the defensive from the start, sliding all too easily from agent of inquiry to subject of interrogation. Having been conceived in the televisual mirror of her identification with X as “abused woman in the news,” the interview terminates with Grace answering to another innocent victim—her deceased son—adventitiously resurrected in the symbolic mirror of his journalistic namesake. Within Grace’s testimony her two secrets—the two death scenarios—are internested to the point of confounding them altogether.
Her terse denial of her husband’s murder (“Oh no”; 150) serves only to trigger an extraneous account of a matter not even at issue: her son’s fatal mishap. Grace is impelled, perhaps, by the presence of a Sean—who by his current age and closeness to Martin has come to stand in for the Sean—to rehearse and refute the charge of negligence lodged by that other spectral elephant in the room: Michael Quinn. Answerable neither to her own reasons for this confabulation nor to any pointed questions or conceivable foreknowledge on Sean’s part, her decision to recapitulate the particulars of her son’s drowning, however favorably rendered, can only be in obedience to some inner compulsion, an unconscious will or need to unburden herself.
Grace may, in her own words, have been “talking about the wrong thing” (150), but she does so for a psychically compelling reason. Her exact motivation can only be gleaned from its destination, or from the ends or effects she actually achieves. As it happens, her unsolicited excursus ends with an origin. That is, the point of the story she tells Sean is how and why Michael first began to beat her, and Grace’s ensuing delineation of Michael’s progression from occasional to habitual violence carries her unerringly to the precipice at which the accumulating factors mitigating the murder crest and set off an avalanche of confession. Just after finishing the story of the death of her son, Grace suddenly “knew that she would tell him now” (151) of Michael’s murder. In this respect, Grace’s admission represents an unerring return of the encrypted. She is driven, beyond all sense, to plead to a murder for which she does not feel guilty to a figure whose name recalls an unprosecutable calamity for which she does.
The crux of this forensic odyssey appears just as Grace’s narrative of Sean’s drowning merges into the preamble to Michael’s killing. As Grace details how the former event corrupted her husband’s character, Sean inquires, “Did he beat you?” to which she replies, “Yes, but that’s not an excuse” (151). Poised at the nexus conjoining the two accounts, the word “excuse” bears a Janus-faced, prospective and retrospective valence. The beatings, Grace concedes, were no excuse—that is, no explanation earning forgiveness or exculpation (for the killing of Michael)—and the beatings do not serve to excuse the past negligence by which she is still unconsciously haunted—that is, they do not confer expiation or absolution (for the death of Sean). In its double inscription, the signifier excuse marks Grace’s earlier secret as providing the psychic impetus for her disclosure of her later “open secret”; conversely, it also marks the disclosure of that later, public secret as a psychic displacement of the earlier one, prompted by her ambivalent gravitation toward and fearful aversion to her own sense of responsibility. Either way, in displaying the elements of her psychic crypt to Sean, Grace has begun to imperil it. On this score, her predicament epitomizes the broader social dynamics of scandal, where the disavowal of an entire affair, the collective knowing without knowing, depends on the continued “unsaying” of each part, each item of evidence.
In keeping with the architecture of Grace’s crypt, with its strange logic of skeletons guarding skeletons, once Grace has confessed to Sean her guilt for Michael’s murder, her submerged remorse over her son heaves to the surface. Thus, she is infuriated on discovering that Sean has secretly taped their conversation. But owing to the unconscious force of the shared name, Sean, she rapidly becomes disoriented concerning who should receive censure and for what. She alternately “felt as if she had been robbed, or had stolen and been caught” (157). Allowing her fresh sense of betrayal to rebound on her own past, she confounds this Sean, to whom she responds with anger, and that Sean, for whom she was and remains guiltily responsible; she confounds the wrong done to her, for which she deserves an apology from this Sean, with the wrong done by her, for which she needs to apologize to that Sean. The word Sean thus possesses the diacritical property of the enigmatic signifier. It vehiculates a confusion between acting and being acted on, between willing and abiding, between inward drive and external force: “She looked up and it was Sean that she saw looking back at her. She had told him what she had done. She had wanted to say sorry to him for turning her back just for a moment. But this was a different Sean, who was interested in something else, who stared at her with a look that was not right” (156–57; emphasis added). The terms of Grace’s psychic crypt concentrate themselves in the ambiguous phrase what she had done. On the one hand, the unambiguous referent of the phrase, Michael’s murder, does not admit the same sort of mitigation as does the lapse that truly haunts Grace. Concerning her son, she can still cling to the casuistic qualifier, “just for a moment,” signaling the slightest inadvertence and hence a margin of innocence. The name Sean recalls something that she regrets having happened but does not think of herself as having categorically “done.” On the other hand, the more profound and authentic regret she feels for her passivity at the moment of Sean’s demise, compounded by the unimpeachable innocence of the victim, renders the killing of her abusive spouse (which she has unquestionably “done”) the wrong “something” to be “interested in,” a misjudgment compounded by the shady tactics of her interrogator.
The breach in the wall of Grace’s psychic crypt gives shape to the monumental symbol she tries and fails to adopt as her own upon fleeing Sean’s apartment. Alone in the Dublin night, she encounters a gigantic eighty-foot cross mounted, for no evident purpose, over a “blank expanse,” an emblem of the patriarchal theocracy that presides over the widespread social dysfunction dramatized in the novel. Grace immediately affiliates the cross with the one that marks her son’s grave, and going a step further, she envisages the latter badge of salvation as a metaphor for Sean himself: “a small cross, a child’s shape . . . in a throng of adult tombstones” (173). Now, as Grace can only surmise the size and shape of her son’s grave marker, having never visited his grave site, her imaginary identification with the diminutive insignia closely parallels Gabriel Conroy’s similarly visionary identification with the presumed iconography surrounding Michael Furey’s grave in the oft-cited conclusion to “The Dead.” By extension, this allusive web serves to tighten the textual web connecting Grace’s deceased son with Furey himself and his band of likewise distressed youths, including the Lass of Aughrim, her deceased infant, and X.
Like Gabriel, however, Grace doubts her fitness for the figure with whom she would be met. No sooner does she take up the cross as a vehicle in solidarity with Sean than she feels herself coming unstuck, losing her grip on that Christian standard of abused righteousness. She thinks to herself, “If somebody comes and finds me and asks me who I am, I will tell them that my name is Grace and I have fallen off the cross” (174). Her self-styled fall, in turn, replicates Sean’s stumble into the drowning pool; Grace even turns herself open-mouthed to the sky and inhales the rainwater, in an unconsciously enacted, topsy-turvy variation on Sean’s last bodily reflex. There is a reversal in the physical trajectory of Grace and Sean here that corresponds to the reversal in what we might term their moral orientation. Sean’s slip into a ditch carries him up to the cross in Grace’s imagination, absolved of all responsibility and embalmed in the brute innocence of infancy. Grace slips from the cross and finds herself exposed in her fleeting dereliction of responsibility. The dyadic mirroring of mother and son is accordingly skewed. As her crucified attitude attests, Grace remains, no less than her son, a victim of the intersecting pinions of Irish Catholic patriarchy: generational, sexual, and class inequity. At the same time, she remains implicated in the operation of that leviathan, even as it bears down on her. Unlike her son, she models what it is to be a subject of scandal in full, to find oneself suspended on both sides of the moral ledger in an insupportable complex of circumstances that society itself connives at while condemning.
The crisis following Grace’s confession delineates a subtle but decisive shift in the psycho-symbolic workings of her self-adjudication. It marks the moment when X ceases to be merely the most public of Grace’s alter egos and comes to eclipse the departed Sean as her primary transferential object, the fantasy figure in whom she can see a plausible but still preferred image of her own moral estate. Grace’s first act of psychic transference onto X occurs by way of the signifier at its most material, the bare shape of the letter. Perusing the morning newspaper, her eye gravitates toward the repeated inscription, X, and she is mesmerized by the figure itself:
It was everywhere. It looked strange . . . not like a letter at all . . . a new symbol.
The words were cautious and slow, and Grace had soon lost the thread of them. It was not just her exhaustion. They were small and inadequate next to the enigmatic figure, the cross fallen sideways . . . this hieroglyph. It was something discovered, revealed. Oddly familiar. (175)
At the center of this mediation, we can discern the grounds of the X’s unconscious appeal for Grace, its heimlich/unheimlich quality. It is the vehicle of unconscious signification, internalized by yet still inaccessible to her. The X represents an “enigmatic figure” for Grace because it answers to her own self-styled insignia of the night before—the cross—and as a cross fallen sideways it answers to her position of having “fallen off the cross.” The metonymic connection here rings with especially audible overtones owing to the asymmetry it highlights. Grace’s fall from the cross skewed her identification with her son, denoting her unworthiness to claim his brand of inculpability. Concomitantly, the sideways falling of the cross, the sign of socially approved, religiously imbued persecution and redemption, suggests there is something skewed about the theocratic order of Ireland that it symbolizes.
It is precisely this systemic warping or deformation that fixes Grace’s identification with the embattled X girl as wrongly condemned: “The X stared out at her from the folded newspaper. She closed her eyes and saw it still” (176).5 At this point, she notes, “It was everywhere. . . . this hieroglyph” (175). From this point on, we would note, Grace’s lost son is basically nowhere; he does not return to her conscious mind for the rest of the novel. His only reappearance comes in one of her dreams, in which he is subsumed into the figure of X, thus rehearsing in little the terms of his original disappearance. Grace’s shift in transferential identification has as its unconscious aim a remortaring of the psychic crypt so recently breached. Reviewing the headline of the evening papers, she thinks, “All they said was X. What was she now? A murderer?” (232). This incredulous question might easily refer to herself as well as X, especially given the technique of free indirect style at play. But this is also to say that Grace’s growing sense of sorority with the girl derives from and gives precedence to the crime for which she feels hunted, the spousal homicide, rather than the authentic source of her compunction, her son’s death; or rather, it derives from and gives precedence to that spousal homicide so that her son’s death may remain safely interred behind its psychic walls. Here, if you will, lies the reason for the abrupt and thoroughgoing disappearance of Sean from her waking thoughts. Denial, the ability to forget knowing what one knows, is a subject’s last defense against scandal’s defining malaise, the inability to avoid or dismiss by force of will some degree of incrimination in its workings.6
But as the cryptologists Abraham and Torok have noted, these edifices of profound denial and repression, these crypts, are not individual keeps but transpersonal, mainly familial compounds (2004, 157–61), and this mode of structuration compromises the solidity of Grace’s defenses. As we have noted, Grace’s remaining son, Martin, rejects the abuse justification for her murder of his father and scolds all who would license her action on that basis. His harsh judgment of Grace and his willingness to turn her over to the authorities nonplusses everyone who knows that Martin too suffered his own abuse and brutality at his father’s hands upon revealing his homosexuality, and that Grace bankrolled his escape from the menace of Monaghan, a conservative Irish Catholic habitus, to the more liberal, hence far safer, remit of middle-class Dublin. Accordingly, Martin’s vengeful attitude toward Grace positively demands closer analysis. While his mindset may not be the central narrative conundrum to be solved in The Long Falling, it is perhaps the most challenging of the narrative’s major tributaries.
In a shrewd treatment of the novel’s gender politics, Madden proposes that for Martin, a gay man in a deeply patriarchal if liberalizing society, “the assertion of political subjectivity . . . requires the erasure or silencing of his mother” (2010, 28), whose intrusive presence in his new urban life space leaves him almost desperately afraid. On Madden’s reading, Grace represents the “corporeal, ancestral and non-national past” that threatens his commodiously modern “self-definition,” a hereditary avatar “surrounding him, encircling him like a border” (28). To assume the place that the Irish nation has now made relatively secure for him, Martin not only enters into an “alliance with the State and the police” (29) but also becomes, in the words of his boyfriend, Henry, “[his] father’s son” (Ridgway 1999, 293), subjecting his mother to emotional betrayal, a peculiarly heartrending form of abuse.
In his “final analysis,” Madden finds Martin’s identification with his gender and the civic privilege it enjoys, “over any sense of empathy for or connection with his mother, troubling and ironic given the violence he also suffered at his father’s hand” (2010, 30). As astute as this analysis is, Martin’s “troubling and ironic” enmity toward his fellow victim must rest on something more fundamental, more primordial, than gender solidarity or political instinct, and this primal psychic and emotional ground, the very heart of the family crypt, is revealed in aptly transpersonal fashion by Grace herself. As Madden observes, Grace discerns her son’s emotional distance from her, which she attributes to their spatiotemporal separation. But the language with which she reports this perception taps another layer, a deeper vein, in this tortuous family romance. Recumbent in her bath, she muses, “There was a new air around him. He had learned a way of being in the world, learned how to manage his progress, his breathing, his life. Learned all of it without her. She breathed across the water. . . . He had dug himself a dry pit, cleared a space amongst the shadows of his growing up. He had set himself against his past” (Ridgway 1999, 108). The odd focus on Martin’s “air” and his “breathing,” followed by Grace’s own breath “across the water,” followed in turn by the metaphor of a “dry pit,” a specifically dry pit, cleared against the “shadows of his growing up”—the whole tissue of Grace’s reverie unfolds an unconscious contrast between Martin’s “way of being” and his brother’s mode of dying, between Martin’s transcendence of his Monaghan wellhead and his brother’s literal submersion therein, between Martin’s achieved independence from Grace (“learned it all without her”) and Sean’s fatal dependence on her. In both her verbal and bodily figuration, Grace has Martin “set himself against a past” charged with, if not defined by, the dreadful legend of avoidable filial death.
Is Martin’s own sense of this past similarly haunted by unconscious intimations of his brother’s mortality? The “shadows of his growing up” from which he has “cleared a space for himself” clearly include Grace herself. Are those shadows darkened, is this separation from her tinctured, with a degree of subliminal misgiving or disquiet concerning her part in Sean’s demise? On the occasion of Martin’s coming out to his family, his father expresses the depth of his homophobic loathing with a series of murderous wish-fantasies, pronouncing, “Your mother killed the wrong fucking one, that’s for sure,” and, “You’d be better off if it’d been you that she killed,” and again, “You drowned the wrong one. It’s your fault.” Martin stands up for his mother, insisting, “She killed no one.” But Grace breaks with her usual custom and makes no protestations of innocence whatever (188–89). So at the very moment that Grace is to perform her most decisive act of maternal protection, delivering Martin from his father’s rage, the opposed notion of Grace as a lethal force is being inculcated in Martin, surely not for the first time. More importantly, if this is a long-standing formulation on Michael’s part, then Michael has made Sean’s demise an implicit death threat issuing from Grace and delivered to Martin, symbolically turning her nurture to vitriol.
The unconscious impression left on Martin by his father’s accusations proves durable. Upon his reunion with Grace in Dublin, after the still unsolved homicide, Martin grows suddenly mindful of a secret “strength” that he had found in his mother as a child, and by a seemingly reflexive mnemonic process he associates that inexplicable quality with “the smell of his father,” the “lap of the water,” and the “whole life” he had hidden from his father and placed in Grace’s trust (95). In combination, these become enigmatic signifiers, redolent—undecidedly but therefore suggestively—of another story, his brother’s story. Shortly thereafter, Martin reveals in thought and word how far his juvenile awareness of an enigmatic secret strength in Grace masked and continues to mask a lingering infantile fear of the power she rather carelessly held over his life and death. Calling to mind their rambles over the wintry Monaghan landscape, he remarks, “Do you remember going out walking at home, in the snow? You used to trip me up on slopes and go diving after me. It’s a wonder we weren’t killed on a covered rock” (140). Grace’s rejoinder, “I only did it when I knew it was safe,” cannot but belie itself in recalling her walk with Sean, when she thought “it was safe,” and he wound up “diving-in” to the watery pit (140). In the transpersonal unconscious of the psychic crypt, Grace’s assurance carries implications, has effects, unnervingly contrary to her consciously nurturing intent. In response, Martin phantasmatically conflates the symbolic threat Grace poses to his “self-definition” and civic belonging with a maternal threat to his bodily existence: “He galloped through words . . . all the time convincing himself more and more that his mother could expose him with a story . . . reduce his life to the few square miles of his childhood. He thought that if she wanted to, she could kill him. Tell him where he’d come from. . . . Kill him dead” (140–41).
Owing to the tragic enactment of the Quinn family romance, Grace’s role as the avatar of Martin’s “corporeal, ancestral and non-national history,” as Madden has it (2010, 29), blends seamlessly into his méconnaissance of her as a prehistorical, mythological imago, the devouring mother, of whom Ireland boasts a wide range, from the Sheela-na-gig to the Caillac Beare to Joyce’s Old Gummy Granny and the “old sow that eats her farrow” (Joyce 1992a, 220). The manner of Sean’s death, drowning in a sinkhole, evinces a link between the collective phantasmagoria of the devouring mother and the Earth Mother, both anatomical (watery pit as birth canal/vagina dentata) and functional (the confusion of enwombing and entombing, bearing and burying).
In all of this, there is no disagreement with Madden’s assertion that Martin has “identified with his gender over any sense of empathy for or connection with his mother” (2010, 30). There is, rather, a demonstration that the “shadows of his growing up” (Ridgway 1999, 108) make this particular instance of identification nothing less, at the level of infantile fantasy, than a matter of survival. Unconsciously, he experiences the threat she poses to his social “self-definition” (Madden 2010, 29) as a threat to his embodied self, the threat to his national belonging as threat to his very existence. The specter of her “surrounding him, encircling like a border” (Ridgway 1999, 160) shrinks from “the few square miles of his childhood” (141) to the dimensions of a watery hole in the ground. Martin’s adherence to the patriarchal sex-gender system could not, accordingly, run any deeper, referring as it does to the symbolic threshold where subjectivity emerges on an already politicized gradient.
In expressing his consternation with Martin’s sullen animosity toward Grace on behalf of an acknowledged scoundrel, Henry exclaims, “You hated him. You loved her. You knew stuff.” Martin’s reply, “What stuff?” signals not an absent but a double meaning to be attached to his boyfriend’s words (239). By “stuff,” of course, Henry intends the most legible Quinn family scandal, the history of spousal and familial abuse perpetrated by Martin’s unexpectedly lamented father. But during that cardinal incident of such abuse, cited earlier, the spousal and filial violence unfolded simultaneously by way of that other, more confidential family scandal, whose disputed tenor—that Grace was, quite literally, a femme fatale—has received fresh credence from the addition of her accuser-husband to the roster of her alleged victims.
This retroactive validation of Martin’s unconscious terrible mother fantasy, in turn, forges a transferential link in Martin’s psyche between the figures of Sean and Michael, the dead brother and the dead father, both left by Grace to die (in this regard, it merits notice that Martin feels most aggrieved over Grace’s decision to “just leave [Michael] there and head off home” , a move isomorphic with her decision to leave Sean in the pit while she finished hanging the laundry). Here we have arrived at the burden preventing Martin from “taking [his mother’s] side” (239), as Henry and all of his other similarly classed and gendered friends do so readily. His outrage at his father’s killing remains every bit as inexplicable as Henry claims, unless and until we understand it to be a displacement of
- The subterranean anxiety that killing activated over whether Grace knowingly left Sean to drown (or really withheld aid while Sean was still alive); and
- The infantile panic that Michael’s death rekindled over what Grace might have let happen to Martin on those “covered rocks.”
The metonymic slippage animating Martin’s fantasy in this regard stems directly from his place in the Quinn family structure. In the aftermath of Sean’s death, Martin was slotted as his replacement not only in Michael’s patrilineage but also in Grace’s affections and in those dangerous walks across the farm. Now, with Michael dead and Grace taking refuge in Martin’s abode and in his social family, he is being slotted as a replacement not for an elder brother but for the father. Under these circumstances, Martin’s prosecutorial reaction to the murder should be construed as proceeding not solely from some tribal “identification with his gender” but from an identification, largely imposed, with the fate of his two gendered counterparts, in a family romance freighted with mythic imagos. Henry is substantially correct, as most readers would concur, to call Martin out for displaying properties of toxic masculinity associated with his progenitor—obstinacy, obtuseness, mercilessness, and even cruelty. However, Martin is also his “father’s son” in inheriting from the man a symbolic position for which the unconscious fantasy of the terrible mother, bolstered by real-life events, carries visceral, motivational power. Triangulated as it is by the manner of Sean’s death, Grace’s violent disposal of her husband weighs in the precarious balance of Martin’s psyche as an assault—emotional, material, and potentially lethal—against himself.
Strikingly, Grace reaches much the same conclusion. Following a confrontation with Martin, she comes to judge her slaying of Michael as less (than) justified, precisely for the damage it has inflicted on her son. It is as if Martin alone can communicate to Grace the gravity of her action: “Martin had told her what she had done. Killed her husband. His father. As if she had needed telling. She had” (229–30). For this reason, the murder ceases, fully and finally, to function as the bulwark of her psychic crypt, the acknowledged but effectively rationalized crime that safeguards her denial of responsibility for Sean’s demise. Instead, the murder of Michael seems to have replaced, in another key, the moral tenor of the prior bad act: Grace has once again inadvertently but culpably brought violent harm to a son. Indeed, Grace goes so far as to figure the effect of her misdeed as the sudden, startling loss of her second son, and it triggers the same type of grief as the death of her first, with which it is associated in Grace’s topographical imagination: “A day begun here, unfolding in front of her like a Monaghan road . . . a construction that had crumbled as it was built, that had come apart in front of her. . . . Her eyes in shock. She had lost her son. As quick as saying it, as sharp as that” (241).
Further on, Grace even tropes the motives and consequences of her homicide as a form of oral ingestion, an engorging. That is, as if to confirm the transpersonal nature of her psychic crypt, its status as, in every sense, a family plot, Grace frames the violence affecting her loss of Martin in terms uncannily congruent with his own fantasy of her as a carelessly but compulsively devouring mother: “I wanted to be free of [Michael], and so I did it, but I’m tied to him now like I never was. . . . I wanted to spit him out and I swallowed him instead. I shouldn’t have done it” (300).
As the “construction” of Grace’s psychic crypt “crumbles” under the pressure of Martin’s virulent reprehension, her identification with X, the last layer of reinforcement, begins to fracture and give way as well. On the night before the Dublin X march, Grace indulges in a woozy, whiskey-soaked reverie in which she sustains a deep moral affiliation with the girl, a sisterhood of the wronged and wrongly indicted: “she might end up meeting the girl in prison. Murderers, the two of them. Grace would look after her, become her friend. Together they would move on. . . . They would have each other” (274–75). But feeling that her violence against her husband wound up damaging Martin, much as she had allowed harm to come to Sean, Grace can no longer pretend to that moral parity with X on which her sororal fantasy was reared.
The generational breach in Grace’s doubling of X reasserts itself; what is missing from her desired at-oneness with X is the element of being a minor at the disposal of surrounding adults, as opposed to being, however disavowedly, herself a disposer. Grace identifies with X’s scandal in the first place in order to obscure precisely this generational schism, as it played itself out with Sean. In predicating her identification with X on her self-justified murder of Michael Quinn, himself a notorious destroyer of children, Grace undertakes to forget or efface her own embroilment in this pattern of destruction. Her identification with X thus seeks, albeit unconsciously, to capitalize on the deniability structured into any enigmatic signifier (including a public scandal figure), that “occult zone of undecidability” that makes the enigmatic signifier such an effective encryption device.
But her identification finds its limit in this very motive; it cannot move toward completion, approach full determinacy, without exposing the fault lines sutured or shrouded by the enigmatic signifier. That limit imposes itself a short way into Grace’s reverie. Her new friend, Mrs. Talbot, points out that X is “too young for an adult prison,” implicitly reinstating the generational divide between the would-be cellmates (275). In Grace’s universe, children do not kill; they die, and at the hands of adults: “[Grace] had murdered. She had done that. . . . The X girl had not murdered. She had not done anything” (276). Even though Grace continues to fixate on her bond of gendered oppression and resistance with X, as victims of the same “machinery” of the patriarchal state, her own image of how the “machinery” is “grinding” on X ultimately convinces her that “she was not the same as the girl” (276). Grace now envisions X as a fourteen-year-old, from which vantage she appears not as Grace’s doppelgänger or counterpart but as a stand-in, a living emblem, of her dead son’s occulted memory.
As Grace falls asleep and reverie morphs into dream, X stands forth in the unmistakable guise of Grace’s own child. She not only “looked to Grace like her dead son” but like the son “who had held her hand on the way to the lake,” which immediately mutates into “the shallow pool” in which Sean drowned (279). The dream concludes with X meeting a like fate, except that her body is symbolically ruptured and lacerated in the process: “From her hands fell drops of water, breaking on the ground with a splash of red and a flower of white bone” (279).
The dream image conflates the drowning pool with the “grinding” social “machinery,” Sean’s loss with the girl’s abuse. The scene unfolds in the shadow of a “narrow church” with a “tall spire,” an emblem of the theocratic authority underwriting that machinery. Turning to “[X’s] face again,” Grace “recognised” a “mix of Sean and Martin,” a composite dream image that encapsulates the realignment of the dramatis personae that has taken place in Grace’s mind (279). Whereas at first Grace internalized the parallels between herself and X as an identification with the girl, she ends by internalizing their salient difference. Grace’s dream positions her as an agent as well as a victim of the Irish social machinery and X as an abstract, a summary type, of all the children devoured by it.
The moral recalibration staged in Grace’s dream supplies a crucial guide to understanding the full significance of Grace’s attitude upon her arrest during the great march. At one point, the crowd sings, “Let her go, let her go,” in reference to X’s desire to quit Ireland to receive abortion services (302). In giving herself up, Grace plays on this coincidence in her parlay with Detective Brady:
“Are you ready to come in with us, then?”
“I am. You’ll let the girl go.”
“. . . What girl?”
“The X girl.” (304)
Framing her request almost as a plea bargain, Grace proposes a certain fungibility of herself and X in keeping with her past identification. But this is fungibility with a difference. Plea bargains necessarily entail the freeing of the less culpable, or innocent, “in exchange for the [more] guilty” (304). Grace’s proposed bargain aligns perfectly with her realization that however like, “she was not the same as the girl.” More than that, Grace bids to trade in her greater fault in exchange for the greater good—in the terms we used earlier, to transform mea culpa into felix culpa. Having “fallen off the cross,” she proposes, in effect, to climb back on it to redeem X, to barter for or buy back (re-deem) X as a way of saving her. Inasmuch as Grace had, the night before, enshrined X as the dream surrogate or double of her deceased son, her gesture also represents another unconscious attempt to reverse the outcome of that fateful night, which at this point we can safely designate the origin of Grace’s “long falling.”
But Grace’s final démarche carries still more sweeping implications. Having internalized her own unwitting complicity in the social machinery grinding on both X and herself, Grace simultaneously offers herself as a savior for X, restoring her from scandal object to innocent victim, and as scapegoat for the nation-state that victimized X in the first place. That is to say, she acts to dissolve the scandal embroiling X and to take upon herself not just her own scandal but also the scandal of theocratic social power grossly abused, what we might call the systemic scandal underlying the narrative with its three categories of violence: the abused woman, disposable child, and abased queer. Grace does not just give herself up to “let her go,” she gives herself up as someone who admits to wrong, and whose admitted wrong, following as it does on the sanctioned gender and generational violence of the Irish nation, is inextricably enmeshed with that social order. That is to say, the warrant that Grace presents to “let her go,” her own wrong, is effectively commutable with the wrong that society itself has inflicted on X, including the wrong of incarcerating her. It is a “commutation” of X’s sentence, warranted by the crime of having imposed it in the first place. By this psycho-symbolic gambit, Grace constructively, if paradoxically, transforms her final relationship to X. By relinquishing her spiritual kinship with the girl, she enacts a new mode of solidarity with her, one that circumvents the Manichean logic of public scandal itself.
1. In “An Interview with Jean Laplanche,” Caruth (2014) engages Laplanche in a focused and detailed account of the genesis and meaning of the enigmatic signifier, beginning with Laplanche’s account of how latter-day psychoanalytic theorists and exponents of Freud became fixated on seduction itself, mistaking the event of early childhood seduction for a theory of seduction. Laplanche ruefully describes the reduction of Freud’s theory of seduction to the mere statement that “seduction is important in the child,” which, as he points out, “is not a theory, just an assertion” (26). Laplanche describes how, in The Language of Psycho-analysis (1973), he and J.-B. Pontalis unearthed Freud’s original seduction theory qua theory, with its “very complicated . . . temporal aspects, economic aspects, and topographical aspects” (26). In Freud’s “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” Laplanche finds Freud’s founding theory of seduction “very carefully elaborated . . . in the famous case of Emma.” This theory accounts for “the complex interplay between the external and the internal” that occurs at the originary moment of seduction—a “wounding or ‘piercing’” that occurs when “the small human being [who] has no unconscious . . . is confronted with messages invaded by the unconscious of the other” (30). It is in response to this infantile encounter with the other, which Laplanche describes as an implantation of “the strangeness of the other,” that the child copes by building an ego. Thus, Laplanche argues, it is “in relation to the seduction theory that the subject builds himself as an individual.” It is to internalize “the other’s message” that the child first “builds an inside.” And it is because, as Caruth notes, the ego “is so very closely linked to this temporal structure of originary seduction” that “the ego is, after that, always open to the possibility of being traumatized again” (30).
2. Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin, in their article “The Return of the Repressed: Secrets, Lies, Denial and ‘Historical’ Institutional Child Sex Abuse Scandals” (2015), posit four phases of scandal, the first of which, latency (which corresponds to the open secret), may or may not proceed to the second phase, activation, at which point the scandal process is inevitable. Henry Fielding, in Tom Jones, serves as an early scandal theorist when he notes scandal’s propensity either to stay latent or, irreversibly, to cross the threshold into public visibility, when he observes that for “gentlemen who have the misfortune to have any of their rogueries detected . . . discovery seldom stops till the whole is come out” (2007, 99). After the “detection” phase, Greer and McLaughlin’s remaining three stages, which ensue only (but then invariably) once a latent scandal has been “detected,” correspond roughly to the three stages we describe—activation is defined as the point when a news organization has committed to publishing the scandal and naming the abuser, and it is driven by institutional responses that may entail denial of abuse, denial of knowledge of abuse, and/or denial of responsibility for abuse. Greer and McLaughlin argue that there is no such thing as a “deactivated” scandal. Once a transgression has become activated, the amplification phase shifts the focus of the scandal from the crime itself to institutional efforts to cover it up. The justice phase involves a reinstatement of the primary transgressions, new disclosures of incriminating evidence and supplementary evidence, and intensifying denunciation of the individuals and institutions involved. Sometimes the “trial by media” is prolonged, and sometimes individuals or institutions try to put an end to it through a public admission and apology (Whyte 2015, 113–23).
3. See especially Moira Maguire’s Precarious Childhood in Post-Independence Ireland (2009), which breaks ground in several crucial ways. It presents a new “history of childhood” in Ireland and is a new account of the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Irish state. Most importantly for our purposes, it breaks ground as a sustained, disciplined examination of “the child” as a discrete, autonomous category, an examination that is not folded into (and thus distorted within) a broader account of, for instance, women, the poor, workers, Catholics, Protestants, and so on.
4. Virtually all prior critics have accepted the Grace = X equation that our reading here demonstrates Grace herself gradually and painfully discarding.
The long falling that Ridgway describes in his opening paragraph is relentless and inescapable, and it establishes a pattern. Then, abruptly, it stops, and the sunlight, like the snow in “The Dead,” seems to transform and unify the whole of Irish society, ostensibly repairing harm that was heretofore ubiquitous; the whole country “looks new.” Thus, the metaphoric Irish nation that the novel presents has recently undergone an apparent collective transformation from the society-wide condition of irremediable abjection to the shared enjoyment of equally universal protections. However, through the contrasting life trajectories of Grace Quinn and her son, Martin, Ridgway makes plain that for most Irish girls and women the pattern the rain put down remains in place. In this new Ireland, after the flood, the Catholic Church may look bigger than it is only owing to its ongoing “power of suggestion,” but even now it “never moves.” The prevailing atmosphere, “the sky,” “moves behind it and changes it,” but such changes are variable; bathed in the vacillating light of the Bishop Casey, Kerry Babies, and Ann Lovett scandals, the Irish Catholic Church, in response to the earliest of what will become an unimaginably protracted series of scandals, appears, by turns, “solid . . . and soft, depending” (Ridgway 1999, 4).
5. This scene, with its uncanny inculpating or condemnatory gaze, recalls the earlier scene when Sean, the journalist, looks at Grace with a look that was “not right.”
6. Clearly, the subject’s drive to avoid feeling or being shamed is fundamental to the operations of scandal. The following two studies look at scandal or public exposure through the lens of shame rather than noting shame only in passing as one of scandal’s structuring effects: Koestenbaum (2011) and Munt (2007). The role of shame and denial in the pattern of forgetting that could be considered the final stage of scandal stems from scandal’s constitutive relationship to trauma, via the enigmatic signifier. The propensity of the social order to treat scandal both as license to speak of the unspeakable but also as subsequently reinstating that unspeakability through a kind of reforgetting is apparent, for instance, in the repeated discovery and amnesia, the surfacings and submersions of facts, relating to Ireland’s most iconic child abuse scandal, that of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.