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'The Magdalene Sisters' as an Illustrated Abuse Primer

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The other day I saw “The Magdalene Sisters”, a film that tells the story of four young women in 1960s Ireland who, for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with their being female, clashed with the orthodox Catholic culture of that time and place, became seen as sinful and were subsequently banished by their families, or authority figures to a life of indentured servitude (or more properly – slavery) in the laundry works of a convent. Based on true stories (we learn that up to 30,000 women were subjected to this treatment), the film chronicles the living conditions of these women and the daily humiliations and abuses they were subject to. I bring this movie to your attention, not because it is worth watching (In my humble opinion, it is), or because I wish to make any anti-religious statement (I do not), but because it is a recent and vivid illustration of the various ways that human beings can be abusive to one another. My hope is that by providing a vivid image of abuse, we might help people to better recognize what abuse looks like, especially when it is happening to one's self.

Abuse can be a slippery concept. Like the famous quote about obscenity, people believe they, “know it when they see it”, but in my experience many people seem to have a difficult time correcting identifying instances of abuse. People see abuse occurring most easily when it fits the stereotypes we tend to have about it (e.g., when it is happening to someone else, and when the abuse takes on a physical form as in physical or sexual assault). People are much less quick to recognize non-physical forms of abuse such as harassment, verbal abuse, or coercion by powerful figures (such as a boss or a therapist). People are probably least able to recognize abuse when it is happening to themselves. What is nice about “The Magdalene Sisters” is that because such a broad range of abuses are chronicled (some being obvious and being some more subtle), and because the abuses are chronicled in a (relatively) dispassionate way, viewers of the film can learn a thing or two about what abuse can look like.

The dictionary defines abuse as follows:

Definition – abuse (dictionary.com)

  1. To use wrongly or improperly; misuse: abuse alcohol; abuse a privilege.
  2. To hurt or injure by maltreatment; ill-use.
  3. To force sexual activity on; rape or molest.
  4. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words; revile.

These words indicate wrongful or harmful treatment.

To this definition, we should add that the motive for this wrongful or harmful treatment is typically to achieve some measure of control over another – That is to say, abuse occurs when someone uses improper force, aggression, power, etc. in order to gain some measure of control over another person. The key word I use here is improper. Abuse is not applicable to just any use of force, aggression, power, but only those that are judged to be immoral, or unfair in some fundamental way. The way I interpret it, abuse is fundamentally about a violation of rights. Whomever gets to define what rights a person has or doesn't have is in a position to define what is abusive. A corollary statement is that people won't recognize that abuse is happening to them if they don't see the abuse as a violation of their rights. In the case of “The Magdalene Sisters”, the four young victims are abused by religious authorities with a broad mandate to define what is right and wrong within their society. In the context of that day and that place, the events depicted in the movie were simply actions (mostly) legitimately taken so as to better Shepard “wayward and headstrong” girls towards salvation.

The women victims in “The Magdalene Sisters” are subjected to a variety of situations wherein their sense of self is invaded, degraded and generally controlled for the profit of others. There are several layers of profit depicted. The most obvious profit layer is money that the nuns earn from the forced labor of their charges in the laundry works. A secondary layer of profit the nuns earn, which seems to be equally if not more compelling than the money, are the positive mastery feelings the nuns get as a result of suppressing and controlling the sexuality of their charges (and their own sexuality, I suppose). This second layer of profit is depicted by the film as being shared by the entire Irish 1960's culture; so for instance, we learn that one of the main characters (Margaret) was sent to the laundry by her family after she was unlucky enough to have been assaulted and raped by a cousin, and another character (Rose) landed at the laundry after giving birth out of marriage, also at the hands of her family. Through the eyes of their religious mid-20th century families and the nuns who later take charge of them, these women are not abuse victims, but rather, in the manner of Adam and Eve, themselves perpetrators who caused their own problems due to the essentially sinful nature of being a sexually mature female. Underlying the whole institution of this Irish laundry slave camp is the underlying concept of original sin and the negative attitudes towards sexuality that this concept can so easily produce. The women inmates are told they are sinners, and must work to erase the stain of their sin in this world so that they can go on to heaven in the next. The women characters in the movie who buy into this way of thinking submit to the abuse readily, while those who do not buy into this mindset so readily are those who continue to look for ways out.

To gain the submission of the women, the nuns are shown using a variety of common forms of abuse designed to break down people's self esteem and individuality, and to stop them from resisting the will of their captors. These techniques include: 1) cutting off the hair of women who resist, 2) verbally humiliating and ridiculing the women's bodies, 3) forbidding the women to speak to each other while working, or to go to the bathroom at will, 4) forbidding the women to leave the convent or to ever see their families, 5) beating the women when they assert themselves, 6), retaining arbitrary control over how long the women need to work until they have earned their freedom, 7) dispensing punishment on an essentially random basis to provoke maximum fear in the women. We should be clear that these techniques are not restricted to convents by any means, but rather can be seen on display in many different settings, religious, institutional and otherwise, panned and elevated both where people need to gain control over the behavior of other people. Some of these techniques are even used for socially sanctioned purposes (e.g., instructors at military boot camps use head shaving and verbal humiliation, etc. to produce soldiers who will obey commands).

Having cowed and controlled the laundry women inmates through abusive means, the nuns profit from their labor all the while rationalizing their behavior as firm but compassionate ministry aimed at straightening out the bent souls of their charges. This process plays out in real life, not necessarily with nuns and wayward women, but rather with people in relationships (married and otherwise) where one spouse controls another through physical and verbal abuse that can at times look a lot like some of the behavior depicted in “The Magdalene Sisters”.

The take-home messages I'm trying to get across are hopefully clear enough. Abuse is only visible as abuse when it is in contrast to the cultural values it takes place in. Part of the reason that it is relatively easy to view the events portrayed in “The Magdalene Sisters” as being abusive is that they occur to other people, who live in a culture whose values are enough removed from our own that we see abuse in high contrast. Part of the reason that it is sometimes so difficult for people to recognize when they themselves are being abused is because their self-esteem – their personal culture – has been either dominated and invaded by the abuser or was never strong – such that abuse is not recognized as abuse because it is perceived instead as deserved punishment. But abuse by any other name is still abuse. Learn to recognize what abuse looks like when it is perpetrated by others upon others, and then apply what you've learned to your own situation, keeping in mind that those who abuse you will never identify themselves as abusers, but rather as benign, even loving people who have taken an interest in your welfare. If your own loving relationship, or work situation leaves you feeling hurt, humiliated, or violated, start questioning whether you are in an abusive situation, and then take steps to protect yourself.