Author’s disclaimer: the comments made here are my personal comments and do not reflect the opinions of any other group or organisation. If you have the inane notion to take “legal action,” please note that you must take it with me — Mari Steed: personal assets=$0; self-respect and dignity=priceless. And for those who truly don’t have a clue, anything with an ellipse or quotation marks is just that — a quotation. In other words, not something I said, but a remark someone else said that I’m quoting. Clear?
For anyone who knows me, my history with adoption, Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, you know that my mantra has always been if you support these issues as I do, then I’m with you, 100%. My personal history: my mother spent ten years in the Magdalene Laundry in Cork, and then suffered the further indignity of being shuttled through three different Irish mother-baby homes, finally giving birth to me at the mother-baby home at Bessboro’, Cork. I am also the reunited mother to a daughter relinquished under Pennsylvania’s sealed records system in 1978.
A bit more background: I’ve worked with an advocacy group called Justice for Magdalenes for going on the last ten years. Our primary goals are (i) to bring about an official apology from the Irish State and the Catholic Church, and (ii) the establishment of a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors. Once JFM achieves these objectives, the door will be open to every survivor and/or her family and/or other groups representing Magdalene survivors to pursue their own claim for redress. And for the record: when (not if) that time comes, I will be glad to lay down the mantle and call it a job well done. I have no interest in taking on the work of running a support service or centre, don’t care to be the recipient of any State or Church compensation for such, and want to just quietly fade into the background. Having seen the state of many Irish survivor support groups, I want no part of that. I just want to kick the door down for women like my mother, and then let them all flood through on their own steam.
As part of JFM’s work, we have often been contacted by academics, researchers, documentarians, journalists, etc. In the early days, we were happy to offer our time, information and resources to these folks to help them with whatever project they undertook. Our mission was to spread awareness and their work was critical to this mission. In 2006, we were contacted by a young, eager man (an actor by training) from Ireland who wanted to create a documentary with a new twist: follow the travails of a Magdalene survivor or survivors, modern day, as they sought to achieve redress or file a claim under the existing 2002 Redress Act. We felt this was an important project and spent time connecting him with survivors we felt were up to the task of such a project, providing him background information on the Laundries, etc.
Fast forward to late 2008: said filmmaker is nearly at completion of his project and lets our online discussion group know the title he’s chosen for it: The Forgotten Maggies. Unfortunately, this caused a row among some of the group members, many survivors themselves, who feel that the term ‘Maggie’ is a derogatory insult to the women who were incarcerated in these asylums. Our young filmmaker takes great umbrage to this and a heated dispute evolves on the list over the next few months, with me and others trying to smooth the waters, unruffle feathers and generally try to keep people’s eyes on the prize: redress for Magdalene survivors. It’s about the ladies, people!
In early 2009, I approached New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House with the idea of doing a panel session on the Magdalene Laundries (they’ve done screenings before of the documentaries Sex in a Cold Climate and States of Fear). It was embraced enthusiastically by IH director Eileen Reilly and we started to plan the components. Initially, my thought was to screen Peter Mullan’s excellent The Magdalene Sisters and invite him as a panelist (I’d met with him at a Philadelphia screening in 2003 and spent fours hours over pints and fags discussing the Church and other topics with this very erudite man) as well as our resident advisory committee member and expert, the man I admire as the most esteemed scholar on the subject of the Magdalene Laundries, who has done more to further our cause than anyone I know.
But we were unable to pull the Mullan panel off, so my next thought was to invite the young documentary filmmaker to show his film, which he jumped on. Unfortunately, as plans for the Glucksman event gelled, the controversy about his documentary on our discussion list continued to devolve into angry accusations, childish behaviour and just downright nastiness, despite our best efforts to keep the train on the track.
It finally got so bad that our advisory committee scholar begged off the Glucksman event (understandably, albeit regrettably) because he didn’t want to professionally engage with this most unprofessional of young documentary filmmakers.
I managed to survive the event and even be civil and cordial to the filmmaker despite my misgivings about the quality of his film, his motivations and his practise of undermining others. After the event, I decided to keep my distance. I would neither promote his film nor decry it. He unfortunately took this and the discussion group’s criticism a bit too much to heart and thought we had turned on him, refusing to see the truth: that a documentary should be nothing if not accurate, and that it’s never wise to piss off the very people who helped get you where you are. In other words, he had bitten the very hand that fed him and then marched off declaring us all nefarious, treacherous, etc.
In fact, with the lone exception of myself, he refused to even acknowledge the help others within JFM gave him — not that they asked for acknowledgment. But it was as if survivors magically appeared from a fairy fort to talk with him and allow themselves to be filmed, rather than the careful and considered approach my colleagues took in asking the women if they’d like to participate and then liaising them with the filmmaker. We never just willy-nilly turn a survivor over to a journalist, filmmaker or other representative of the media without carefully preparing them. Primarily, out of respect for their confidentiality, we just aren’t in the habit of giving out people’s names.
And what many don’t realize (even the subjects themselves) is that even granting a short interview can bring up memories and emotions a survivor isn’t prepared to deal with. I’ve done my share of media interviews and my background isn’t nearly as harrowing as that of a survivor of a Magdalene asylum, yet it still leaves me feeling like I’ve been in a car wreck afterward. So we are very careful with how that’s handled. Our filmmaker apparently takes this to mean we’re ‘secretly’ guarding survivors or jealously hoarding them like china figurines. They are like china figurines in their fragility, but we’re certainly not hoarding them. We just like them to be prepared, fully aware of what they’re being asked for and permitted to make a decision of their own free will…something the Church never allowed them.
We’ve seen the results of his controlling, manipulative behaviour with the very women he highlighted in his documentary and now continues to trot out in an uncomfortable dog-and-pony show.
He recently screened his film at the London Irish Centre (where he seems to feel he received a less than warm reception — no wonder, since he originally wanted to charge survivors to see his film!) One attendee at this screening said that “…at the end he asked the woman to stand up and more or less ‘let the people look at you.’ [Survivor – name removed by request] , who was also in front of me had to be pushed to stand up but would not face the crowd and the others tried to get her to turn but she remained rigid.’ Apparently our gallant filmmaker doesn’t understand that pushing these women into very public and traumatic scenarios like this is about like putting someone through intensive therapy and not ‘putting them back together’ before they leave the therapist’s office.
In other words, he is piling trauma upon trauma and it’s agonising to watch these poor women dance to his machinations.
And the poor sod has even gone so far as to libel us, declaring via a shared e-mail that we had gotten “$10,000 from Miramax” for our cause. The truth is (and Miramax brass are prepared to back this up), we received an in-kind donation of 5,000 black-and-white postcards to be used in a campaign to mail then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
He’s now banded together the original women featured in his documentary (two of whom also wanted to be part of our advocacy group, and one of whom actually was on our committee until she was told by the filmmaker that she had to declare an allegiance to one or the other of us!) along with some other survivors and started a group called ‘Magdalen Survivors United’. Recently they began a public Facebook group in support of Magdalene survivors called Magdalene Survivors Together. I tried to join this group, but apparently was blocked by the young man. When I contacted and clarified by e-mail with him that I was indeed blocked, and suggested that this was discrimination, his response was: “If that’s the way you see it that’s your choice!” Wow, that’s professional.
No, my friend…it is discrimination, pure and simple. I am the daughter of a Magdalene survivor and I am not permitted to join a public Facebook group devoted to Magdalene survivors and, presumably, their family members, because of my affiliation with another group. Boy, do I feel like I’m in the third grade again (“Wipe your mouth, you look like a dirty Irish orphan.” That’s a bastard story for another day).
So enough is enough: I’m outing him publicly. This is a man who refuses to accept that his film may have some warts and could not digest constructive criticism to save his life; this is a man who manipulated women no differently than the way they were cruelly manipulated and controlled by the very nuns and priests who abused them (despite that they may not even know they’re being manipulated); this is a man who will not allow these same women to have any allegiance or ties to our advocacy group; and this is the man who will not allow me — a Magdalene survivor family member — to join a public Facebook group.
In fact, this type of behaviour is actually indicative of an abusive personality, a personality I’m unfortunately all too familiar with thanks to my late, abusive husband. And as I know only too well, the women involved, victims of abuse at an early age themselves, are perversely attracted to this type of personality and can be easily swayed by a manipulator of his ilk. They like to control, isolate and bully, but do it as smoothly as a used-car salesman. Ask any cop on the beat and they can generally spot the type a mile away. They don’t all use their fists, either.
It is also, sadly, indicative of the way many Irish survivor groups have gone. They devolve into elementary schoolyard donnybrooks: “You can join this group…but you can’t! Nyaaah, nyaaah, nyaah.” In fact, some have devolved into actual donnybrooks featuring real violence and allegations of fraud, misuse of funds, etc. Which is why I share the motto of the esteemed Mr. Paddy Doyle: nothing about us without us.
And now apparently our young “hero” has moved on into the murky and often treacherous waters of adoption search and reunion. He crowed from his Facebook group: “50 Years ago a mother was seperated from her daughter. 50 years later the same mother and daughter have been reunited. her mother had struggled for 10 years to find her daughter. It took me 3 weeks to find her. I’m delighted to have played my part, I’m delighted to have been the one to reunite them. Anything in this life is possible!” and later, “Delighted to announce that mother and daughter are getting on fantasticly [sic]! It was great to see such lovely photos of both of them together after all this time. It’s amazing to think that each involved has no regrets or sorrows. Can’t wait to catch up with them again.. JUst goes to show everyone has a Gaurdian Angel, yo…u [sic] just have to find them. Such an emotional thanks, done with such decency, respect and gratitude to me for my help. “) So glad the woman contacted me initally as there’s alot of people out there who claim they can help when they can’t.” [no misreading the last aspersion — that’s a direct potshot at a legitimate organisation that does do fine work].
I have never in all my many years in adoption reform, activism and support seen any one of our very humble, reliable and behind-the-scenes ‘search angels’ (folks who volunteer their time and expertise to trace down birth certs, lost relatives, etc.) express a level of self-glorification like the above. “It’s all about MEEEEEEEE! Aren’t I grand? Aren’t I brilliant?”
What’s saddest of all is this young man doesn’t get that the arcane laws that prevent family members from knowing and finding one another, that prevent access to the documents of our birth, and that prevent women enslaved and abused from seeking justice, still exist in Ireland and that the real work is tearing down those walls. Those of us working toward those goals don’t seek gratification or medals or accolades. It just needs to be done. And individuals who undermine or cast aspersions on that work only denigrate themselves to the very individuals they seek to ‘represent’.
Scarier yet, this approach to trace and reunion, with no training or regard for the history behind an adoption relinquishment is not only foolhardy but possibly dangerous. Those who do the fine work of reuniting families do so with years of experience and training behind them. Not because they’ve just made a barely undergrad-quality film and now think they’ve written the book on it. I shudder to think of the potential botched reunions looming in this man’s future. But hey, I’m not gonna be the one to tell him…I’ve already spent enough time on this subject with him. Done and dusted.
I hope this is read as a cautionary tale: I stand by everything written here and do not share it lightly. This young filmmaker is not the first person to take up the painful and complicated causes of the Magdalene Laundries or adoption and make a shambles of them; nor, I suspect, will he be the last. Re-victimizing victims by exploiting them for self-glory is an international pasttime for some. Even among the victims themselves.