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No passive tellers of their past

Jennifer O’Mahoney on narrative psychology and historical institutional abuse.

29 September 2020

Narrative Psychology allows us to look back at historical abuses by focusing on the important role of personal stories for social change, grounding research in people's experiences and how they construct and understand themselves and the world…

Magdalene Asylums existed across the UK, Ireland, France, Australia, Canada and North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1900 there were more than 300 asylums in England, at least 20 in Scotland, and at least 40 in Ireland (Finnegan, 2004), which were often run by lay philanthropists with the ethos of caring for vulnerable girls and women. However, the Irish Magdalene Laundries are notable for their comparative longevity, remaining in existence until 1996 while Laundries in other countries were closed in the early to mid-20th century (Smith, 2007). Girls were sent to the Magdalene Laundries for a range of reasons including giving birth outside of marriage; being considered 'promiscuous'; being deemed a burden on the Irish State or their families; or experiencing abuse in their homes (O'Rourke, 2011).

The Waterford Memories Project (WMP) was established in 2013, initially to document personal accounts from women who worked in Ireland's Magdalene Laundries. Survivor testimony has been documented by Justice for Magdalenes Research ( and the WMP (, revealing daily life in the Laundries, which involved strenuous physical laundering work, silence and prayer. The girls and women were denied freedom of movement, and deprived of an education, privacy, and friendships. It is through these narratives that we can examine historical institutional abuse in Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, via a psychological lens (O'Mahoney et al., 2019).

To understand historical events we need to access the social worlds of the survivors. After all, their experiences of human rights abuses in the Magdalene Laundries can only exist and be considered in the teller's cultural context (Schiff, 2017). Narrative reorients psychology back into the context of a person's physical body, social relationships, and cultural worlds, even when the story is about historical events.

Framed by sexual discourses

Hearing and examining stories is paramount to the work of psychologists in both research and clinical practice. Analysis of narratives can tell us about the cultural, social and psychological contexts and functions of people's stories, while simultaneously recognising that we are shaped by the collective narratives produced by our specific cultures (Bruner, 1990; Mishler, 1995; Rice, 2002). In the stories of the Magdalene women, this analysis of narrative can aid us in understanding individual experiences as situated within the particular culture which existed in Ireland at that time.

The Irish culture into which these Magdalene women were born is filled with a 'stock of canonical life narratives...from which its members can construct their own life narratives: canonical stances and circumstances' (Bruner, 2004, p.694). The cultural discourses around women's sexuality in Ireland at the height of the Laundry System (1940s-1960s) were characterised by themes of innocence, subservience, and purity. Irish women were framed by these sexual discourses, so any transgression from this puritanical moral narrative was met with social disapproval and punishment.

These cultural narratives can be glimpsed in Maureen's testimony, as she describes telling her teacher (a Nun) about the abuse she was experiencing at home:Me bein' the girl, I was kept off school a lot, I wasn't important, don't educate her, so our childhood at home wasn't good… I was told not to tell anybody, not to talk about it and if I did, I wouldn't see my grandmother again, that was the threat, he knew that we loved our granny, so that was to quiet, to keep quiet… And so I start explaining to [the Nun] a little bit of what it was and she was shocked and she was upset about it so she said, we're going to call in the priest, and she said I have a little letter to take home to your mother… And my mother was very upset and she was crying, and the priest…suggested that I be taken out of the family home…I was to go home that night with my mother, but I was to stick with her, I was not to leave her side and she wasn't to leave my side. And went home and nothing was to be said to my stepfather because it could cause trouble.

Removing Maureen from the family home to be placed in a Magdalene Laundry as a young girl simultaneously obscured the sexual abuse, while punishing Maureen, instead of the perpetrator, who remained at the family home. It is through actions like this that the Catholic Church and Irish State 'fashioned a seamlessly homogeneous society… closed off internal challenges and contradictions even as they represented society as pure and untainted by external corruption' (Gray & Ryan, 1998; Smith, 2007, p.3).

These women have agency

While narrative provides a method for perpetuating cultural discourse, as depicted by Maureen's quote, it also affords the opportunity to challenge historical oppression and discrimination. The women telling these stories have agency, and are not merely passive tellers of their past. Narrative psychology connects narrators' pasts to their present, as storytellers 'look back' in order to tell a story about a past experience. Narrative psychology balances a sense of human agency and freedom with the recognition that past, present and future narratives are culturally, socially, and historically shaped (Murray & Sools, 2014).  

Returning to Maureen's story, we can see how her narrative moves between the past and present even in a brief example: It took me years, and years, to get over all that, and work on myself, and get myself to where I am today, and to feel good about myself that I feel today, and I really do… And I do, I really do, cos I've been very lucky in life. I've met very good people. But you never get over it, one hundred percent, no you don't, you never get over that. 

Many of the survivor narratives can be examined as 'narratives on the move… opening up new contexts and futures, new possibilities for how one might and should live' (Squire, 2012, p.81). Importantly, narrative researchers have begun to examine the incoherence in people's narratives, believed to reflect the complex and varied contexts (interpersonal, social and cultural), which shape meaning in the stories we tell (Freeman, 2006; Squire, 2012). In other words, narratives can be contradictory and fragmented, especially when the teller is interacting with a listener. Because narrative is foundational to how we structure our experiences and actions, fragmentation is what allows for challenging the existing cultural narrative and engaging with social change (O'Mahoney, 2018).  

From chaos to quest

This journey through a fragmented story into coherence has been characterised by Arthur Frank (1995) as movement from a 'chaos narrative', where the 'wounded storyteller' is overwhelmed and cannot give their story narrative order into a 'quest narrative', where illness (or trauma) is seen as a spiritual journey. Frank reminds us that the person must be willing to be helped out of chaos and become a witness to their own story. For Maureen this involved counselling: The agreement you leave the hospital is, you go for counselling… So I met this lovely lady… And now things started to flow. And started to flow. It was the first time I ever spoke to anyone besides my mother about it. The first time… Well, I walked down Holloway Road in North London, like if somebody had just put something inside me, and took out this big load of rubbish. And I was after getting air inside for the first time, that's what it felt like.  

Counselling allows Maureen to manage the chaos of her story as she removed 'this big load of rubbish', replacing it with 'air inside me for the first time'. Maureen's story demonstrates how temporal and experiential distance between the chaos of the institutional abuse was needed for her to move to the quest narrative where she accepts her historical trauma and uses it to bear witness and share wisdom: And so I went over to her, got counselling, she's introduced me to other people, to other stuff to do. Ah my whole life just took off. Changed completely… And I've had so much help from people. I've met wonderful people. There's great people on this planet. And of course, you're going to meet the down people. They're there. They exist. Why, do they exist? Maybe there's a reason. And we just have to look at it, look at the bigger picture maybe and not judge.

Looking back to look forward

The role of psychologists in honouring survivors' chaos stories (from both a moral and clinical stance) is paramount, as 'to deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for' (Frank, 1995, p.109). Further, it is the psychological relevance of narratives of historical institutional abuse for current social justice issues, which is also of import for psychologists. In the context of the Magdalene Laundries there is a strong power dynamic between the historical and collective memory constructed by the Irish State, which stands in opposition to that of the survivors. In telling their stories, the survivors engage with both meaning-making of their own historical trauma as well as working towards social change by challenging the State's silencing of these narratives.  

The application of narrative psychology to examining survivor testimony of historical institutional abuse is even more essential for informing us about historical institutions when they are needed to compensate for the fact that the religious orders and Irish State will not release records relating to Ireland's Magdalene Laundries, even in redacted form (O'Donnell, 2018), and when the history of the Magdalene Laundries remains fragmented and contested. Bearing witness to survivor testimony and promoting public awareness and education of historical abuses has a dual purpose. In addition to aiding the re-storying of the historical record, bearing witness honours survivors' quest narratives by responding to what they have learned through their suffering and recognising the psychological impact of these abuses on the survivors and wider society. These interdependent processes are essential for social change (O'Mahoney, 2018), which requires us to look back and acknowledge past abuse in order to move forward and better identify, respond to, and prevent institutional abuse in the modern day. 

- Jennifer O'Mahoney is a Lecturer in Psychology at the Waterford Institute of Technology

Photo above: The former Magdalene Laundry and Industrial School Campus located in Waterford, Ireland (currently the College Street Campus of the Waterford Institute of Technology)


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