Book Review by Dee Michell
Rie Croll is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, a province of Canada. Her background is in therapeutic counselling where she worked with sexually abused children and women. Croll first became interested in the Good Shepherd institutions during the 1990s through a song written by Canadian Joni Mitchell, “The Magdalene Laundries”. Later, when doing research about sexual abuse in the Mount Cashel Christian Brothers orphanage in Newfoundland, Croll came across more references to the laundries. The lack of records about “these lonely places” prompted her to speak with former inmates.
Shaped by Silence is the result of interviews Croll did with five women who were in Magdalene institutions between the 1930s and 1960s. Two of the women were in Australian laundries (South Australia and Tasmania), two in Canadian ones (New Brunswick and Toronto) and one was in New Ross, Ireland.
In the introduction to this important book, Rie Croll provides the contextual information for the five stories which follow. She overviews the history of the Magdalene institutions which were operated by the Roman Catholic Order of Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The Order commenced in France in 1835, in Canada in 1844, Ireland in 1848 and Australia in 1863 and operated laundries which took in “fallen women” and girls and used their labour to run lucrative businesses.
In the Good Shepherd reform institutions [schools as well as laundries], supposedly convertible souls became a coerced workforce, performing hard, unpaid, and relentless physical toil. Physical labour, isolation from unseemly forces, and prayer were a large part of the nuns’ strategy for converting their charges into the Christian image of pure womanhood.(p. 3)
Croll also provides background for ongoing revelations about the experience of girls and women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries. Irish inquiries into their operation did not begin until the Kennedy Commission in 1970 which investigated Irish industrial and reform schools. From the next decade, church authority in Ireland was challenged by ongoing sexual abuse scandals, films which told women’s stories including The Magdalene Sisters (2002) by Peter Mullan and Philomena (2014) starring Judy Dench, and inquiries such as the Martin McAleese report which resulted in an official government apology and implementation of a redress scheme.
Rie Croll’s compelling book is another of these exercises in “defying silence”. Girls and women for generations, she argues, disappeared “while hidden in plain sight”, often not even telling close family members about being in the laundry or what had happened to them there. Those breaking the silence—a silence indoctrinated into them while in the laundry—risk public disapprobation and disbelief. One of the women in Croll’s book, Autumn, did not want to be identified because of the ongoing stigma associated with her background.
All five women whose stories Croll tells had already begun defying silence. Maureen Sullivan has been outspoken about her experience in the British media; Chaparral Bowman published autobiographic work under the name of Georgina Williams; Rachael Romero has painted her story, made a documentary, and written about it; Janice Konstantinidis contributed to the Inside Exhibition held in Australia and published her story; and Autumn, too, has published under her legal name.
By bringing the five stories together in the single volume, Croll has exposed themes which cut across the women’s experiences despite the diversity of time and place. The loss of identity is one example. Rachael Romero was able to choose her new name, but Chaparral, who was in a laundry from birth to adulthood, was called multiple names.
I was baptized Georgina, I was baby Jane, I had Jean, I had Loretta, I was Gemma, I was Maria, I was Bernice, back to Jean, back to Loretta and when I finally left, I had been Jean for about five years…(p. 63).
Maureen did not adapt quickly to the assigned name of Frances, which meant she was physically assaulted whenever she did not respond.
“…I’d get a box in the ears, and after a good few boxes, you learned to answer. You know, when your ear is sore and your hair is pulled, and your head is sore, you’ll answer.” (p. 177).
The women as girls lived a regimented, routine life with little if any contact with the outside world, even items of clothing they wore into the laundry were confiscated. They did dangerous work in the laundry without pay, received a minimum of education, were put into isolation as punishment for minor transgressions, and learned to conform in order to survive.
Once they left the laundry, the women struggled in similar ways to each other too, including with stigma. Rachael, for instance, talks about thinking others can see she was in the institution. Because “incarceration was in her and on her and with her” (p. 120), she withdrew socially.
Despite the horrors of their girlhood experiences and the painful difficulties they faced when leaving the laundry—and the legacies of the laundry they continue to live with— each woman has managed to make a positive contribution to society. They have all refused to remain silent and thus assisted in breaking a long-held collective quiet into the abuse of girls by nuns, abuse in which the state and parents were complicit. And they have all worked to assist others. Chaparral encouraged at-risk Indigenous Canadian young people, Rachael teaches art to marginalised populations, Janice serves as a board member of a writer’s group in California, Maureen and Autumn are activists and supporters of Magdalene survivors.
By ensuring she included accounts of where the women are at now, Rie Croll has more than defied silence, she has challenged the view of anyone – including nuns – who thought that the once incarcerated girls “would not amount to anything”.
Shaped by Silence is recommended reading for anyone who has been incarcerated, as well as for Gender and Women’s Studies students, historians and sociologists.
Shaped by Silence Shaped by Silence: Stories from the Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatoriesby Rie Croll is published by ISER Books.
Thanks to ISER Books for a review copy of Shaped by Silence.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at The University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia (with Nell Musgrove, Australian Catholic University).
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell