For women in Northern Ireland and a post-Repeal Republic telling stories which speak from the body and its traumas remains a powerful tool, argues Laura Hackett when considering the work of Sally Rooney, Lucy Caldwell, Sinéad Gleeson and others.
The second part of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends opens with the arrival of Frances’ period. Her bleeding is abnormally heavy, with ‘thick grey clots’, and she is in so much pain she cannot stand or see. At the hospital, they suspect she may be miscarrying. Frances rings Nick, the married man with whom she is having an affair. He scolds her for calling him – anyone might have seen her name flash up! – and promptly ends the call, leaving Frances alone with her hopes and fears. The phone call itself becomes a miniature miscarriage – the possibility of meaningful communication opens up, but is cut short. This pattern repeats itself throughout the novel – Frances types out messages and then deletes them; she starts to speak but stops herself; sometimes the narrative appears reticent to open up to the reader.
But the doctor returns, and the test is negative – Frances was never pregnant. It is unclear why her periods are so heavy and painful; she is booked in for a scan, put on the pill, and discharged. When Frances gets home she sleeps, eats and showers:
Then I reached for the soft part on the inside of my left elbow and pinched it so tightly between my thumbnail and forefinger that I tore the skin open. That was it. It was over then. It was all going to be okay.
The threat of an unwanted pregnancy is displaced by self-harm. Having faced the prospect of carrying and losing a child, of having her sense of self altered by the actions of another (Nick), Frances instead inflicts suffering upon herself. She is soon diagnosed with endometriosis, and over the course of the novel her pain worsens, as does her self-harm habit. On one occasion, she wants to hurt herself ‘in order to feel returned to the safety of my own physical body’. But when she cuts a hole in her thigh, she feels like ‘an empty cup’. Self-harm ostensibly offers a way to become more physical, more tangible, but in reality Frances is cutting parts of herself away, making herself smaller. Her dysfunctional relationship with Nick is another form of self-erasure: her best friend Bobbi tells her, ‘lately I sometimes feel like I’m watching you disappear.’
When Rooney’s protagonists choose to harm and starve themselves, to partake in sadomasochistic relationships…they are pre-empting the trauma of an Irish pregnancy and taking matters into their own hands.
Marianne, the female protagonist of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, finds a similar kind of self-erasure in her relationship with Lukas. His sadistic sex games make her feel ‘like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.’ Both girls also struggle with disordered eating patterns, Marianne more obviously. They regularly go full days without eating, and while their focalised narrative portrays this as accidental, or down to money problems, there are clearly more sinister forces at work. The girls want to make themselves smaller and smaller until they vanish, or become vaporised – existing as physical beings in the place and time they do is dangerous. In a female body, they face the threat of physical and sexual abuse, of an unwanted pregnancy they cannot terminate, of inadequate medical care. They want to make themselves the opposite of a fecund pregnant woman; they want to vanish into thin air – but they end up carrying around trauma like a phantom pregnancy.
Frances’ and Marianne’s bodies and voices seem to constantly displace trauma, the unspoken trauma of living in a female body in a country in which doing so is dangerous. Until June 2018, abortion was illegal in Ireland, except under a very narrow set of circumstances. Even then it could be refused. The Eighth Amendment ruled that the mother and foetus had an equal right to life, regardless of how far along in pregnancy the woman was. Such a position raises a great many philosophical questions about how we define life, and how we define personhood. But at its heart it is deeply disingenuous, because it is impossible to treat the figures of mother and foetus equally, especially in cases when the existence of one is harmful to the other. What the Eighth Amendment really did was place foetus above mother. In the London Review of Books, Rooney wrote on the ramifications of this law:
‘If the foetus is a person, it is a person with a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen: the foetus may make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body. In the relationship between foetus and woman, the woman is granted fewer rights than a corpse.’
The threat of an unwanted pregnancy, then, extended to so much more than Frances’ pragmatic concerns which she lists while waiting for the results of the test: ‘Irish constitutional law, the right to travel, my current bank balance, and so on.’ It threatened her status as a person. Faced with an unplanned, unaffordable pregnancy, Frances would become corpse-like, with no say in what is done to her body. When Rooney’s protagonists choose to harm themselves, to starve themselves, to partake in sadomasochistic relationships, then, they are pre-empting the trauma of an Irish pregnancy, and taking matters into their own hands. Their bodies and voices displace that trauma; they pick it up and set it down somewhere else, but they cannot get rid of it.
Eimear McBride’s protagonists often engage in similarly self-destructive behaviour. The speaker of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is faced with trauma from a young age, from a neglectful mother and a sexually abusive uncle. Her response to rape involves a string of casual sexual encounters at 16, and then again at college, often with men she despises or who treat her badly. The speaker often engineers the encounters, on the surface taking control of her sexuality, although it is clear she is struggling with mental health issues, and possibly addiction. ‘Fuck me softly fuck me quick is all the same once done to me’: even in her pursuit of sex, she is still a passive object.
Despite the speaker’s mix of promiscuity and risk-taking behaviours, the pregnancy scares we wait for as readers never arrive. We never hear about a missed period, or about those heart-stopping two minutes waiting for one line or two on the test. Instead, traumatic events are described as phantom pregnancies. Being raped by her uncle becomes like a birth experience, with ‘almost too much of my body taken up. The air squeezed out.’ A series of drowning dreams culminate in the speaker’s attempted suicide in a lake, a return to amniotic waters. Her sick brother’s death is a return to the womb – she imagines them both in ‘our chamber… A thousand years of sleep.’ The desire to return to a prenatal state, of course, has strong religious undertones – to live is to be fallen, to live in shame – but there is also a sense that postnatal life inheres the same helplessness as that of a foetus, but without the protection of the mother’s body. Once born, the speaker is battered by external forces: a family so suffocating it is a ‘womb’; religion which controls her very thoughts; the constant threat of male violence; and finally illness, the cancer which kills her brother. No wonder she wants to return to the womb – it’s a much safer existence, with more rights and protections, than being an Irish woman.
While abortion has now been legalised in the Republic, Northern Ireland still has some of the strictest regulations on reproductive healthcare in the world. In Lucy Caldwell’s ‘Mayday’, the speaker narrates her experience of taking illegally purchased abortion pills over the course of several days. As she swallows the first one, she is reminded of slipping into Mass with her Catholic friends and taking Communion. They tell her that, as a Protestant, she has now committed a Mortal sin. In terminating her pregnancy, she commits another one. As she connects these two ideas, Caldwell posits an idea of pregnancy in the north as intrinsically connected to the church; women’s bodies, caught in the crossfire, become indistinct and indiscrete. As such, it is incredibly difficult to understand one’s own body. ‘Write yourself. Your body must be heard,’ said Hélène Cixous, but what if you can’t hear your body? What if it has been drowned out by the church and the state?
Rebecca O’Connor’s He Is Mine and I Have No Other is a coming-of-age tale, narrating the teenage years of a young Irish girl, Lani; her conflict with her family, and her infatuation with a quiet boy who lives nearby. At times it reads rather disjointedly – the narrator is 15, but often sounds much older. Her voice is separate from her character. This strangeness, alongside the interpolating voices of the little orphans which haunt the narrative, creates a disjunction between body and voice, reflecting in the structure of the narrative itself the lack of control its female characters have over their bodies, whether it’s Lani’s mother who falls pregnant in her 40s, her grandmother whose illegitimate first child is taken from her, or the orphan girls who die in a fire, not allowed to escape in case the fire fighters see them in their nighties. Restricted bodies are displaced into disjointed voices. Lani’s is the voice of a body which is not allowed to be heard, which is distorted and changes pitch, made dissonant by the influence of religion and state control.
In a manner comparable to McBride, Anna Burns incorporates this dissonance into the syntax and grammar of her prose itself. Milkman is dotted with neologisms coined to express the particularity of life as a young woman in a war-torn state – Belfast during the Troubles, although this is never made explicit. Names are replaced, as in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, with descriptions of familial relationships, creating an environment at once suffocating and almost mythical in its generality. Repeated, significant events are nominalised – ‘reading-while-walking’ is a dangerous act, and becomes a transgressive response to the nominalised violence enshrouded in phrases like ‘‘this side of the road’, ‘that side of the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’’. These repeated linguistic markers create a choking closeness in the novel, one which replicates the choking control placed on women and always connected to childbirth. This is a world predicated by a lack of choice; family dynamics are set up on the first page with the off-hand exposition: ‘this new man got her [eldest sister] pregnant and they got married right away.’ Eldest sister has as much choice when it comes to her marriage as the speaker (middle sister) has about her affair with paramilitary leader Milkman. Things happen to women, and pregnancy is just one of those things, an embodiment of paramilitary and state violence.
Gleeson gazes out towards a future in which women will speak their body without distortion, without the displaced trauma which underlies each of these texts.
Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations brings the gravity of personal experience to the conversation. This essay collection crackles with anger – Gleeson calls for greater urgency when it comes to female pain; for the right to be believed. She recalls being told to calm down as a child when a saw removing her plaster cast cuts into her leg too – she still has ‘six ghost scars’ from that day. Much later in life, the drugs she takes while suffering from leukaemia cause severe foetal damage; when she asks, worried, what will happen if her contraception fails and she becomes pregnant, the doctor replies: ‘Well, we’d have a conversation.’ Under Irish law, Gleeson’s recovery would suddenly come second-place to a pregnancy – she would be forced either to travel to England for a termination, or perhaps even to stop her leukaemia treatment altogether, risking the death of both mother and child. But this book is also full of hope; her essay on the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment concludes with polling day. She takes a photograph of her daughter: ‘The sun catches her hair, and I see all the ways her life will be different.’ Gleeson gazes out towards a future in which women will speak their body without distortion, without the displaced trauma which underlies each of these texts.
Much anti-abortion propaganda relies upon the power of the visual. It is difficult to forget images of a foetus which focus so much on recognisably human features such as the face and hands. Surrounding the foetus is nothing, a void, black, space. But that nothing is a woman. In creating this photographic discourse, women’s bodies are recorded but then erased. They are magnified to the point of dehumanisation, and deemed inconsequential compared to the miraculous growth of the foetus. It’s impossible to take a photo which shows the entirety of the mother and the entirety of the foetus – as in legal regulation, we must prioritise one or the other. But writing allows us to consider more than one experience at the same time. It allows us to provide the nuance which pictures and laws cannot give. It is telling that while images dominated the anti-abortion campaign, stories, such as that of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, were the most powerful aspects of the pro-choice campaign. For women in a post-Repeal Republic, as well as the North, telling stories which speak from the body, and genuinely represent the trauma of living that body, remains a powerful tool. The stories featured above do so with raw pain, while still celebrating the tenacity and strength of womanhood.
All texts referred to in Laura’s feature are available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Click the links above to find out more about each author and their work.
- Feature Image: Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1978. Courtesy of Wiki Art.
- Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Normal People, images courtesy of Faber & Faber.
- Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Being Various: New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell and Anna Burns’ Milkman, images courtesy of Faber & Faber.
- Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, courtesy of Pan Macmillan. Author Photo: Bríd O’Donovan.