Passing the shame from victim to State


CULTURE SHOCK:WHEN A society is shocked into recognising its own ugliest face in the mirror, as ours has been with the Ryan report, it needs a lot of things to happen. Most of them are political and financial and social. But some of them are psychic. They exist in the area of ritual, of atonement and expiation – even, perhaps, of exorcism. This is normally the bailiwick of religion. It’s the kind of thing we look to churches to do for us. In this case, however, organised religion can’t do the exorcism because it itself needs to be exorcised. What we’re left with is the arts.

I’m not talking about the construction of a physical monument, though the Ryan commission rightly recommends that one be made. Nor am I talking about the long-term resonances and reflections that will emerge, over time, in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of artistic forms. I mean, quite literally, a public ritual. We actually need a meaningful, symbolic moment, some kind of performance, hosted and embraced by the State, in which the air is cleared.

There is one obvious person to do it. He is the person of whom this was written by a court-appointed psychiatrist in 1970, when he was 13: “He was sent to Letterfrack Industrial School at 11 years and has been home during the past 12 months . . . Mrs X stated that he takes a bath during the night and remains in the bath for hours and that he is always terrified. Since his return home he has had two operations for abdominal obstruction which Mrs X claims were caused by being kicked while at Letterfrack.” The psychiatrist declared him “fairly severely mentally handicapped” and suggested that “residential care at a school for retarded boys” might be worth trying, “particularly if sedation were used”.

The boy’s progress to the system is like a microcosm of the Ryan report. He was in Goldenbridge in 1964. He was up in court for the first time the following year, when he was eight. When he was 10, he told a psychiatrist in the St John of God clinic in Dublin that some of the teachers in industrial schools “would be better off in St John of God Hospital”. He was sent to Letterfrack and then later to Daingean and Marlborough House. At the age of 15, he was sent to St Patrick’s Institution. Declared insane, he was sent to the Central Mental Hospital, where he was held for about a fortnight, until he was declared not to be insane after all.

This is the story told by Mannix Flynn in his extraordinary theatre piece, James X, which he performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2004. It was based around a legal file, a copy of which was given to every member of the audience, containing the traces left in institutional records of this harrowing progress through the State’s process of “care”. Hovering somewhere between himself and the fictional James X, he presented himself as being in the foyer of a courtroom, waiting to give evidence in a case in which James is suing the State.

Almost at the end of this riveting performance, however, Flynn did something extraordinary. He moved from the mode of semi-fictional theatricality into a straight, unadorned address to his audience. It described in simple, almost clinical language the truth that James X had been trying to hide – a story of violent sexual abuse in Letterfrack, of vicious beatings in Daingean, and of further sexual assaults in St Patrick’s.

And then, Flynn did something even more extraordinary. He announced his decision not to proceed with his court case. “This is not my shame anymore,” he said. “It is yours.” He threw the file down, telling us that it belonged now, not to him but to “the State, the church, their servants and agents, and you the citizens.” He left, leaving the documents with us, to whom they now belonged.

James X is a piece of theatre as artful as it is raw. It maintains a tension between reality and performance, between autobiography and metaphor with tremendous skill and intelligence. Its relatively simple form is in fact a distillation of 30 years’ work. These were things he had been working up to saying through fiction (the seminal novel Nothing to Say, published in 1983) and theatre (the Project play The Liberty Suit, which he co-wrote with Peter Sheridan and the brilliant one-man performance Talking to the Wall.) He was probably, at some level, saying them in his performance as Lucky in Waiting for Godot in the early 1980s – by far the most searing, in its rush of rage and madness, of all the performances of the role I’ve seen.

What’s so important about James X and about the installation, Statemeant, that Flynn did at Letterfrack in 2005, is the letting go. It takes the idea of shame, and the paradox that it is those who are abused who feel it more than those who abuse them. And it enacts the passing on of that shame from the victim to the State, to the citizens, to us.

In order for that letting go to be possible for those who have suffered, however, there has to be someone to receive it, and that someone has to be the State itself. This is not about wallowing in victimhood. It is not about engaging in self-indulgent displays of sorrow and sympathy, when we all weep and go home happy. Flynn’s work has been a deeply serious, minutely calculated and immensely dignified way of allowing those who have suffered not to be ashamed any more because the shame has been accepted into our collective consciousness.

Literature told us about the industrial schools long before any inquiry did. Writers sniffed this evil on the air, while church and State did their best to bury it. And it is to art that we must look for the rituals through which a deep psychic wound can be first cauterised and then, perhaps, healed. If it has any imagination left, the Government should ask Mannix Flynn to devise a work, not for himself, but for all of us.