The Children in the Road: Living With My Father’s Ghosts

This is the first story that I can remember my father telling me about the ghosts.  He was driving home late one night from a duty call when the headlights of his car illuminated two children standing by the side of the road. They appeared to be a boy and a girl, around six and eight years old. My father pulled over quickly and stopped the car. He got out and walked back for another look, but there was no sign of the children. He told me that he’d asked around afterwards and heard that other people had seen the same two children on that stretch of road at night.

The children in the road were soon joined by other ghosts. There was the man my father saw running across the motorway, only to vanish when he reached the central reservation. He saw that man at least twice. There were the strange feelings he would get on family trips to old churches, cemeteries and stately homes: “There’s something in that corner, over by the stairs”.  Some cemeteries were “quiet”, others, less so. One of the experiences I remember most vividly occurred on a holiday in Scotland when I was around fifteen. We visited a ruined castle. As we wandered around the empty rooms, my father turned pale and said that he had to sit down. Later, he told us that he’d been overwhelmed by feelings of grief and loss and had an impression of children crying for their father.

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5 Things

I was very interested to find out about exercise bulimia, not least because I believe that I suffered from it for years. It’s reassuring to have a term for this kind of eating disordered experience. When I stopped showing the more conventional symptoms of bulimia, I thought I was better, but then I started engaging in exactly the kind of behaviours described in the article above. I exercised compulsively in my late twenties and early thirties, and my experience of exercise is still hijacked by my eating disorder. I find it very hard to exercise without making it into a sort of penance for eating. It’s a difficult condition to address because we tend to view exercise as being always beneficial.

This devastating article about boarding school trauma helped me to better understand my father. He was sent to a brutal Catholic boarding school and suffered from a lot of the symptoms described on the survivors website. He was a workaholic and terrified of abandonment. He struggled to maintain friendships outside of the immediate family circle and couldn’t give up the cigarettes that eventually killed him.  He was sent to boarding school at eleven, which is older than most of the men featured in the article, but what makes my father’s case so horrible is the fact that he was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. I just can’t imagine the trauma of that second abandonment by his father’s family. On reflection, I’m surprised that my father managed to be as functional as he was in life.

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Denial as Virtue

A great post here from s.e. smith on Denial as Virtue:

This is not about whether people should love or hate their bodies, or about how people should navigate their own relationships with their bodies. It is about the ways in which society encourages a disconnect from the body, rewards people who ‘control’ their bodies by effectively turning them off and refusing to listen. It is also about a society where certain bodies are considered controlled and others are not, and by extension, people in control are considered virtuous while others are not. Lack of willpower, loss of control, are believed to be negative personality traits which can be read in the body. After all, if someone was in control, the body would be thin and lean and hard and it would conform with a specific beauty ideal. It wouldn’t be soft and fat.

Please read the rest. This is so important in creating a cultural and historical context for the development of disordered eating. My father, for example, who was sent to a brutal Catholic boarding school, could never get over his belief that denying himself food was virtuous and, in this, I’m sure he subconsciously influenced my own feelings about food and eating.  He believed that denying himself breakfast and lunch was virtuous and because he was starving would then eat “too much” in the evening and feel guilty about it. Quite often, I would catch him having guilt-ridden fry-ups late at night. It effected his health and his mood.  We tried to talk to him about it, and my mother even banned him from using negative language about food and eating in the house (he would refer to eating as “stuffing”), but we could never shift it.


Funeral and Aftermath

So Dad’s funeral was really, really hard. It would have been better if we could have had it the week after he died when we were all coping better, but we had to wait three weeks, which is too long.

We told people not to wear black because Dad never liked dark, sombre clothes.  When I was a kid he was always encouraging me to wear brightly coloured clothes, without much luck, since like a lot of teenagers I tended to think it was a good idea to dress almost entirely in jeans and black t-shirts. He liked the colour red, so for the funeral I wore a red top and my brown velvet jacket – and my jeans, since I think Dad would want us to go as we were and I am a jeans kind of person.

It was a small funeral, about 40 people were at the church and about 20 came on to the crematorium and to the house for refreshments afterwards.  While I know that we were in no condition to handle a big funeral, it also felt kind of wrong that it was so small.  My Dad touched a lot of peoples’ lives and many of them were missing on the day. I felt that more of them should have been there.

The fact that it was a Catholic funeral caused me a lot of pain that I’m only just starting to unravel.  Standing there with my partner in a church that rejects us, that says we are morally disordered people and that our relationship is sinful, I felt totally excluded from the ritual. I also felt terribly conspicuous sitting with Andy in the front row under the gaze of the priest, relatives and random Catholics who’d come in for the service. I felt anger at being made to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious while being comforted by my partner at my own father’s funeral.  We could have just not worried about it, but there would be real consequences for my mother if we’d made ourselves too conspicuous as a lesbian couple and I’ve decided to be sensitive to that as well.  This meant we found ourselves in an oppressive double-bind with no good choices.

It’s always a very strange experience to go back and immerse yourself in something after you’ve left it behind and for me it was hard to see just how bizarre the beliefs I was raised in are. I was particularly disturbed and upset by the denial of death – it rather felt like the entire religion has been created to assuage death anxiety.  Well, most religions try to assuage death anxiety in one way or another, and since human beings are so immensely averse to the idea of death that’s one of the functions religion serves.  However, I really don’t think the Catholic approach is helpful and in many ways I think it actually increases the suffering of the bereaved. The message we were getting at the funeral was:

1. He’s not dead because death doesn’t really exist – denial causes suffering because he is dead and death does exist!

2. We hope that he’s in heaven, but we don’t know if he is and he might not be – causes suffering because it produces fear and anxiety about where the loved one might be.

3. Because we don’t know where he is, we’d better pray for him and offer masses to try to make sure he gets into heaven (you have to pay for the masses obviously) – causes suffering because it puts responsibility on grieving relatives to get loved ones into heaven by doing the right things.  This is potentially guilt-inducing.
I’m sure a lot of Catholics have more sophisticated beliefs about death than this, but it’s pretty much where my relatives and mother’s friends are at and I find it disturbing.

My father was lapsed from Catholicism for years and reverted when he became terminally ill.  I feel that this happened mainly because he hadn’t made the effort to find another spiritual home and when he found himself dying, it was too late to look for something else. The upshot was that the Catholic funeral didn’t feel like my father at all.  He was an anti-authoritarian, non-judgemental man and his spirituality was very much a personal, simple “just me and Jesus” kind of Christianity.  He was a bit of an anarchist, really, who always believed in doing his own thing and I honestly think he would have been much more at home in Quakerism or Unitarianism.

The Catholic funeral also reminded me of my father’s lack of spiritual comfort at the end of his life and this is very painful for me.  I wish it could have been different for him, but for various reasons he couldn’t trust anyone and, ultimately, I think that included distrust of God as well.   It’s interesting that the person who helped my father most when he was dying was an Asian doctor, who he thought was either a Hindu or a Buddhist, and who sat down and talked to him very directly about death.

Andy and I have decided that we’re going to do out own memorial for my father which will involve going to a place that was emotionally significant to him and doing something to memoralise him, such as building a cairn. This will be a place we can return to when we want to remember him.

Doubt (2008)


Warning: spoilers for the ending

In Doubt Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the fearsome head teacher of a Catholic junior high school in 1960s working-class New York.  The Parish Priest, Father Flynn, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is a cool, post-Vatican II type of priest who believes that the church needs to loosen up and become more friendly.   Early in the film, Sister Aloysius begins to suspect Father Flynn of an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable black student in the school.  She decides to confront him about it.   Much of their subsequent intense conflict is seen through the eyes of an innocent young nun, Sister James, who is drawn into the case after admitting to having seen Father Flynn behaving in a way that could be construed as suspicious.  It initially appears that sister Aloysius represents the forces of conservatism in the church, as she apparently hounds the likeable, liberal priest, but as the film progresses, it undermines that narrative and raises the possibility that the nun might be right all along.

I was utterly gripped by Doubt, so I was rather surprised to find that reviews were mixed and most of the ones I read fairly unimpressed with the film.  It’s always a bit of a let-down when you experience a film as “amazing” and find that other people don’t like it.  I now think that your response to Doubt will depend very much on where you’re coming from and your own personal life experience.

I’m interested in feminism and I’d say this is one of the best films about patriarchy that I’ve ever seen, but of course  it also has profound resonances for me because I was raised Catholic.  Some reviewers didn’t seem to find the representation of Catholicism or the relationships between nuns and priests in Doubt to be credible.  This made me laugh because even though Doubt is set in the 1960s and I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, I remember fierce, uncompromising nuns like sister Aloysius.  The Catholic Church has just as much of a history of troublesome, rebellious nuns as it does passive, obedient nuns.  My mother, who is involved in the Catholic Justice and Peace Movement, went to a conference the other day at which the nuns present were talking about a nun who they all call “Attila the Nun.”   And the nuns in the film look like real nuns, not film nuns, who don’t look like nuns at all.  This is probably because they got a Sister of Charity in to consult on the production (well, Amy Adams doesn’t look hugely like a nun, but I thought she got the character down very well).   I also remember, cool post-Vatican II priests who liked to hang out with the kids and gave fun sermons, and yes, some of them turned out to be abusers just as bad as any old-fashioned pre-Vatican II priest could have been.

Whether or not you read the priest as guilty will depend on who you are and where you’re coming from.  Some people will probably find the film’s ambiguity and refusal to give a clear answer annoying, but I don’t think the point is to give an answer on the case; it’s to make the audience think about morality and about the prejudices we bring to the film.   In terms of my own biases, I should say right now that I believed the nun from the beginning and, yes, this presumption of the priest’s guilt was based on my personal experience of growing up Catholic.  I appreciate that other people will read the film in completely different and opposing ways.

One of the cleverest and most chilling aspects of Doubt is the way it undermines the comfortable and dangerous myth that bad people are always  nasty and good people are always nice.  This persists, although we know from real life experience that many very bad people are not only charming and charismatic but capable of doing good things.  We want to like Father Flynn: he’s fun, he smokes and drinks and gives hugs.  But the horrible truth is that it’s perfectly possible that he’s both a child abuser and good at his job of being a priest.  Sister Aloysius is not at all likeable, but many highly moral people can’t afford to be “nice” and it’s just as possible that the unpleasant, ruthless nun is a good person who is trying to protect the children under her care from a predator.   Sister James, the sweet nun, is very nice but she’s certainly not a moral person.  As sister Aloysius says of Sister James, she just wants to be “comfortable” and she’s easily taken in by Father Flynn’s charm.  I saw Sister James as a very dangerous figure, the one who looks the other way and doesn’t want to get involved.  Sister James uses her desire to see the good in people as an excuse for not facing up to the possibility of abuse.

The twist at the end is nasty, but also truthful.  Sister Aloysius confronts the priest, but all that happens is that he gets moved to a different parish and is made head teacher of another Catholic school.  In other words, he gets a promotion and is put beyond reach of anyone who can bring him down.  I’ve always found in my life that you really see patriarchy at work when the chips are down and this is a great representation of such a moment.  The men band together and support each other against women and children and Sister Aloysius finds that she actually has no power in the situation.  Anyone who’s ever tried to get an abusive priest removed from a parish will understand this moment only too well.  So, at the end of the film, when sister Aloysius suddenly breaks down and tells Sister James that she has “doubts”, I didn’t read her distress as being related to any doubt about her hounding the priest or his guilt, but as doubts about authority and the church that she’s given her life to, and which she suddenly sees is corrupt.

If I have any doubts about the film, they’re to do with the racial politics.  On one level, it made sense that an abuser might hone in on the one black child in the school because that child is obviously vulnerable, just as a caring priest might give that child special attention and protection (depending how you read the priest’ behaviour), but at the same time I wonder if the film uses Donald Miller to make points. After all it’s a film with a predominantly white cast and aimed at a predominantly white audience.  Viola Davis as the mother puts in an incredible performance; she’s only on for about 5 minutes and she manages to act Meryl Streep off the screen.   But still, a lot is made of Donald having an abusive father who beats him and the film ultimately presents us with a black mother who is prepared to sell out her son to a possible abuser in order to get him into a good school because she can’t stand up to her abusive husband.   You can see where she’s coming from in the context of the story, but reading some of the objections to Precious, I wonder if this is a case of white culture being comfortable with and even liking the representation of black families as abusive/helpless.

Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (2008)


This is basically an account of Sara Maitland’s journey towards becoming a modern-day hermit and it is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.

I’ve always really liked Maitland’s short fiction.  There is something about the way she rewrites mythologies that I find particularly elegant.  Over the last year I’ve been feeling the need for more silence in my life, so when I saw that Maitland had written an entire book on the subject, I ordered it from the library.

Until quite recently, Maitland lived a very noisy life.  She comes from a large family, was educated at boarding school and Oxford, married a vicar active in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, had two children, got involved in feminism and became a relatively well-known author.  Everything went well for her until she hit a crisis in her late forties: her marriage disintegrated, she ran out of steam as a writer and, most frighteningly, began to hear voices.

She started to crave silence and decided to try and incorporate more of it into her life.  But as she cut out the noise, she was surprised by the alarmed reactions of friends and family, who interpreted her desire for quiet as some of kind of mental breakdown. She began to notice the negative associations that silence has accrued in our western capitalist society – silence is frightening, dangerous, oppressive, a possible source of madness, the place of death and chaos, something that is waiting to be broken. There is less and less space for positive silence in our lives, but what effect, she wondered, is all this noise having on us, physiologically speaking?

Maitland decided to try and expound the positive qualities of silence.  She spent an ecstatic forty days alone in a cottage on Skye and then visited a range of silent places, the most extreme being a spiritual retreat in the Sinai desert. Eventually she built a little house on a moor in Northern Galloway where she still lives alone. One of the most interesting chapters is the one entitled ‘Silence and the Gods’ in which she discusses a number of creation myths, comparing those that depend upon silence bring broken (i.e. Genesis; the “big bang”) and less well-known ones that depend upon the maintenance of silence.

Maitland does acknowledge the dark side, the dangers of silence.  On a symbolic level, in a world in which entire groups of people are “silenced” by various forms of oppression, it is important not to romanticise silence, or forget that in order for silence to be a positive experience it must be freely chosen.  More literally, imposed silence can indeed be dangerous.  Maitland recounts one frightening experience of being snowed in alone and losing all sense of control.  She also experiences a certain amount of accidie, the lethargy that has plagued silence-seekers all the way back to the desert hermits. She finds the silence spiritually fulfilling, but then it makes it harder for her write fiction.

Still, all in all, I felt she made a convincing case for the experience of silence as a necessary aspect of human life and for silence as “multiple” – there are so many different kinds of silence.  I have a very noisy life – I’m a loud person, with a loud family and lots of loud friends living in a noisy inner-city area. While I have no desire to go to the extremes of silence enjoyed by Maitland in this book, I do intend to make more effort to create silent spaces in my life.

The fact that I’m writing so much here shows that A Book of Silence also got under my skin and troubled me.  This is not least because it has its own deep silences.  I knew that Maitland was a Christian feminist; what I didn’t know is that after her marriage ended she converted to Catholicism, but she glosses this decision in about two sentences when it must have created some conflict for someone who is in many respects a radical feminist.  I also became a little concerned that I was about to be unwillingly plunged back into Catholic theology.  This wasn’t really the case, as Maitland is careful to keep her book generally spiritual rather than specifically Catholic in nature (she makes efforts to explore the silences of Buddhism and Quakerism) until, that is, the chapter on the ‘Desert Hermits’, which I did find uncomfortable reading because it put me back in touch with that extreme, uncompromising, anti-modern strand within Catholicism.  And I couldn’t help but feel that Maitland actually regards this kind of silence as her ideal.  She now aims for eighty percent silence in her life and prays for three hours a day. She is practically a hermit.

Class is also silenced in the book. After all, Maitland’s ability to carve out a silent life for herself is largely based on the privileges enjoyed by an upper-middle-class white woman from a wealthy background, who has had a lot of doors opened by a public school and Oxford education.  As a result, Maitland is able to do things that simply would not be possible for the majority of women.  Despite her “voice hearing”, for example, she is well able to stay out of the mental health system which I very much doubt would be possible for a working-class woman reporting the same experiences. She occasionally complains about not having much money, but she is able to build her own house so I’m not sure that her conception of being hard up is exactly the same as mine!

Perhaps the greatest silencing in the book is the silencing of gender.  As I read, I had an increasing sense that there was something unusual about Maitland’s narrative. I couldn’t put my finger on the source of the strangeness until Maitland decides to experience the silence of the stars by driving into the Derbyshire hills for a few days and sleeping in her car at night. Then it dawned on me: there was no fear in the narrative? No fear of doing any of this as a lone woman, no fear of being attacked, or robbed, or raped, of the car breaking down and being stranded in the middle of nowhere?  If I spent forty days alone in a cottage on Skye, there’s no doubt that gendered fear would be part of my experience.  The fact that I felt the lack of such fear made me realise the extent to which the expression of gendered fear has become a part of the cultural construction of femaleness.  A narrative that absolutely refuses to express fear comes across as oddly de-gendered.  When Maitland does experience fear (when she’s snowed-in for example) she still keeps gender strictly out of the picture and gives a lot of examples of men having the same kind of experiences.  The fear she experiences is not articulated as having anything to do with her being a woman in this situation.  This may well be deliberate of course.  She doesn’t express any guilt either, although I very much doubt that she has totally escaped the accusations of “selfishness” and “self-indulgence” that generally accompany any attempts by women to behave in ways that are traditionally reserved for men.

Although Maitland repeatedly identifies herself as a feminist in her book, the role that feminism plays in her journey into silence is also oddly silenced, which I think is a shame because I suspect it’s actually fundamental to this journey. Maitland places herself in a tradition of radical female Christian mystics who have rejected their gendered responsibilities and adopted male spiritual prerogatives.  If you think about it, what Maitland has done is refuse the kind of gendered responsibilities that she would probably be expected to shoulder as a woman in her fifties, particularly the social responsibilities of caring for other people. When her family do make demands on her, she becomes deeply frustrated and feels burdened. I think it’s very interesting that one of the first things that goes while she’s on Skye is any care for her personal appearance, something she gives up with evident joy and relief. On consideration I began to feel that this spiritual odyssey is also the logical culmination of Maitland’s own radical feminist journey, an utter rejection of culturally constructed femininity and a radical attempt to live an uncompromisingly authentic life.

Fascinating and disturbing.

Blog for Choice 2006

I wrote this post on Mind the Gap in 2006 for ‘Blog for Choice Day’.  It was raised in the “pro life” movement and it was a big deal for me to write a post on this issue at all, so I’ve decided to repost it here.  If I was writing  it again now I’d say a lot more about the broader reproductive justice issues. 

Having been raised a catholic I was active in the pro-life movement from the ages of 12 to 16. I went to a catholic school where such activities were strongly encouraged. I didn’t question it. I went to LIFE and SPUC events and took part in sponsored walks to raise money for these organisations. I always took the pro-life side in classroom debates. I wrote some of my GCSE coursework on pro-life thinking. I didn’t actually protest outside abortion clinics, but I might have done, given half the chance. We were told that life began at conception, that all life is sacred and so abortion is murder: period. No grey areas were admitted. It was an utterly ruthless morality. Every few months a man from SPUC came to the school to give us a talk on the subject. He brought slides to show us of late term abortions, usually from the 1970s: red and raw looking foetuses in buckets of blood, little half-developed arms and legs. We were not given a choice as to whether or not we viewed these images because choice was never a part of the picture. And I swallowed it all.

Then, when I was 16, this man came to the school and told us about a day he spent campaigning in a town, with the pictures of foetuses of course, and a woman came up to the stall. She looked at the pictures and began to cry. She told him that she’d had an abortion years ago and had never known what the foetus would have looked like. The man was smiling, triumphant – one up for the pro-life movement. Something went cold within me at that moment, because I realised that he didn’t care about that woman or her feelings or the reasons that drove her to make her difficult decision all those years ago, or the effect his pictures may have had on her life. He only cared about proving that abortion is bad. Then he moved on to his heroic rape victim story. While I never actually heard a pro lifer say that raped women should be forced to have the baby, they would change the subject when questioned and tell us the story of a woman who did and it all turned out well in the end. I was 16, pretty much a woman as far as I was concerned and, suddenly, I thought to myself, “Would I have the baby if I got pregnant from being raped?” and the answer came back a shockingly determined, angry “No.” Perhaps it was at this moment that I began to realise the implications of being a woman and imagined what it would actually be like to have pregnancy forced upon me. I remember it as a moment when I grew up a bit and, over the next few years, I slowly revised my thinking on abortion until I came to my current position.

When the feminist revolution is done, when every girl is raised to have high self- esteem and empowered by society to say “No,” when all young people receive proper sex education, when everyone has access to free and safe contraception, when men take equal responsibility for preventing pregnancy with women, when there is no stigma attached to single motherhood, when every woman who does get pregnant unexpectedly has a real choice because having the baby will not cause her to lose her degree or job or house or ruin her life in any other way because women are always fully supported when they have unplanned children, when no woman is ever raped, on that day perhaps we will be pleased to find that the need for abortion is limited. Until that day, access to safe, legal abortion for all women is essential and must be defended because history has already shown us that a world with enforced childbirth does not represent a “culture of life.”