THE MAGDALENE SISTERS

If you’re wrestling with whether to remain a Catholic any more, then you probably shouldn’t go see “The Magdalene Sisters.” It’s a gut-wrenching account of how the Irish Catholic church policed sexual morals in the last century in part by removing up to 30,000 “errant” young women – with the consent of their families – into penitential workhouses. Young girls could be sent away for flirting or getting pregnant or, in some cases, even getting raped – in a “Christian” version of the misogeny and sexual repression of fundamentalist Islam. It’s a simply horrifying tale – and, so far as I have been able to research, completely true. What you see is how the Gospels have been turned by some into a mechanism not of liberation and love but of social control and sexual panic. The brilliance of the movie is in showing how this system of extirpating human pleasure is perpetuated by those already victimized. In these Catholic gulags, women who themselves have internalized the idea that all sex is evil proceed to impose that system on girls and women with a brutality made all the more intense by their own misery. The cruelty enacted by those in the name of Jesus, the folly of attempting to extinguish the simplest sexual and emotional needs of the human heart: here you see it all. It resonated for me partly because part of my own family came from exactly that Irish-Catholic atmosphere. Women especially were inculcated with sexual self-hatred, traumatized in many cases by the prospect of eternal damnation if they so much as expressed interest in boys or men. (My mother was disciplined severely once at school for shining her shoes too brightly. Boys might be able to see reflections of what was up her skirt! My grandmother – one of thirteen dirt-poor kids, who eventually found work as a servant for priests – viewed all sex with a mixture of horror and disgust.) And all the while, of course, many of the men who controlled the institution were raping boys and girls with abandon and impunity. How is it possible to describe an institution constructed in this fashion as anything but fundamentally sick? Or, dare I say it, “objectively disordered?”