I wrote this in response to an abortion debate on Vincent Brown back in July. Not sure why I didn’t link to it here at the time. Posting it now.
Today, like Anne of Green Gables, I plumbed the Depths of Despair. I didn’t have much time to be there so I left fairly quickly, but it was unpleasant while it lasted. I wept hopelessly, and typed a list of all my failings, one of them, of course, being that I was wasting so much time on being in the Depths of Despair instead of transcribing and analysing my completely useless data.
I appreciate that this comes with the territory, that I am alone with my own impossible brain in this PhD, and I need to reconcile my self to my emotions in order to achieve anything. That small piece of self-knowledge stops me from despairing too much about being in the Depths of Despair. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.
In the interests of scientific enquiry, while cycling to collect the children from camp, I reflected on the triggers of my despair. They were twofold, or two-and-a-half-fold. First, following an irrelevant email thread, I found myself examining the supporting documentation for a generous post doctoral grant that might interest me. After 20 minutes of rooting, I confirmed that I wasn’t eligible. On some level, I had always known that I wasn’t eligible, so it’s hard to square the feeling it gave me – of uselessness, unemployability, and faint embarrassment at having thought a PhD was a worthwhile pursuit for somebody my age – but I think what really triggered despair was the knowledge that I had wasted nearly half a precious hour uncovering this information, when I could have been transcribing.
The second trigger was more far more upsetting, although it feels nonsensical. In another moment of distraction-seeking, I indulged a Facebook thread in which I was tangentially implicated. The thread was a discussion among communist friends (friends of mine, I mean), whose intellectual work I admire. The discussion was about the multiple failings of human rights, and the worthlessness of NGOs. I was being delicately teased by friends who saw me as being on the other side to them: they, dialectical materialists; us, foolish wrong-headed liberals. I felt inclined to weigh in, to give my opinion, but I couldn’t figure out how to frame it at all. I wanted to offer a nuanced perspective, neither a defence nor an agreement, but a different way of looking at the question, but I was somewhat lost in the abstraction of the argument, and pursued my thoughts in circles. What was the issue at stake, and what would conceding it mean, for my worldview? Had my worldview really been challenged, idly on somebody’s facebook wall, and if it had, did I have the guts to defend it? Or indeed would I have the guts to concede defeat, adopt a new worldview, and move on? The whole thing felt devastatingly trivial, and yet it stopped me in my tracks, because how could I continue with a chunky intellectual project like a PhD when my worldview had just been shattered?
I don’t think my worldview was in fact shattered; in fact, I didn’t feel my values budging an inch. I didn’t stop believing that everybody had an equal right to life, or speech, or a home; didn’t drift from a conviction that political action is needed to bring about change. Yet I felt adrift, unsure of my tribe, like the kid left waiting on the hockey pitch when everybody else had been assigned a team. Homeless. And stupid. And lost.
So there were two triggers: I will never get a job; and my worldview is subtly and confusingly undermined; plus a half trigger: I have now spent half an hour of my day in an internet tunnel of self-loathing, and as a result I now loathe myself and can’t possibly get anything done. This left me in the Depths of Despair.
It would seem utterly incontrovertible that what I should do is give up the internet, in particular social media. If ever there was an account of a self-destructive habit, surely this is it. And yet, it’s on the internet that I find intellectual nourishment, new ideas, challenges: some days I even get sucked into a different type of vortex, a productive one. My despair, a crazy brain-world luring me in, was neutralised by my kids, when the entire pursuit was cut short by their pick-up time; next thing I knew we were arguing about which route to scoot home and my worldview was of no consequence whatsoever. Dope. You don’t need a worldview to keep these two humans alive. You just need to show up, and pay attention.
So I’m grateful for small mercies: my kids, my bike, our back garden. I went to an event this evening and I talked to people, which also helped, because people rarely attack your value system in person in the way they will in academic papers, or indeed on Facebook.
This is the gig. A PhD in the social sciences is an invitation to make sense of the world through a teeny wormhole, to describe everything around your wormhole and everything that supports it. I am terrified of making decisions, but my topic can only have one context, one set of descriptors, which themselves use language that includes and excludes and above all exposes me. Perhaps I’m not afraid of decisions. Perhaps what I’m most afraid of is being exposed.
There’s nothing for it at any rate but to make decisions, to push on, to be seen for whatever it is that I am. I had similar crises in the course of my Masters, which leads me to expect I’m not alone in these rather trivial feelings of existential failure. I share this so that at some point, another person might feel less alone, or less absurd. I’m out of the Depths of Despair, although the real circumstances haven’t changed in the slightest. I’m still unemployable, still unsure whether human rights are a tool of the capitalist system, or whether I believe that’s an inherently bad thing. Now I’m not despairing though.
Transcribing story upon story.
Different voices. Their pace. IDI_01 is steady, deliberate. Her tale is chilling in its slow precision. IDI_A1 spills one idea over another – five narratives bursting to tell themselves at once. IDI_C1 is broken. It takes her ages and ages to move beyond bureaucracy to reach into her own trauma. When she discusses the refugee experience, it’s a logistical tale, and she talks in clear detailed paragraphs. When she discusses the war it all shatters. “Bad things happen. Only God know”, she says.
I work in the space between their recorded voices and the Word document I transcribe. They leave, mostly lighter for having told it. I don’t think they want to analyse their words. For the most part, they want to be free of them, free of the words and of what they contain.
Of course that leaves the weight somewhere else. Where? On me? I switch off my computer and read my kids a story – those kids contain worlds and they consume me, no space for anything else. Is it in my computer, all that weight? Have to get it out of there. That confused substance, made of trauma, grief, self-loathing. Grit. Love. It needs to go somewhere.
First though, I need to catch it. Squeeze it out of the voice recorder, but gently. Tease it out.
Since starting this PhD, I have longed for an illustrator in my life. All the words I know have been used too many times. Even all the phrases. Nothing is adequate to this substance – maybe pictures are.
Hackneyed. Tired. Just type. Just keep typing.
I’m carrying out focus groups with small groups of African women, meeting them mainly with their friends. The purpose of these conversations is to explore social networks, and also to discuss perspectives on violence against women – what it is, and how common it is. These are great conversations, but huge chunks of them will never make it into my PhD. I want to capture some of those chunks here. This one is about racism and being black in Ireland. It is, to coin a phrase, a bit of a shaggy dog story, so I’ll give you the summary here:
TL:DR: Mary’s son was bitten by a dog; the dog’s owner was hostile towards her; she took no action because she needs to keep her neighbours on side. She stands out enough being black without being the person who called the cops on her neighbour.
We’re sitting in a circle in a community centre, beside a trestle table covered with mugs, cake crumbs, drips of spilled tea and my digital voice recorder. The room is far too big for the eight of us, so we huddle at the edge and pretend we’re somewhere cosier. It takes a long time to feel remotely cosy: me and seven women refugees from the horn of Africa. When I ask them about their stories, they mostly discuss their loneliness and isolation. After an hour, they are telling me about violence in their lives when a soft-spoken lady – we’ll call her Mary – announces that she has a tale to tell. For the next ten minutes, she narrates while the rest of the group provide a chorus.
The story happened just 3 days ago. Mary was at home with her young son (one of six), who really loves dogs.I don’t know what Mary’s house looks like, though I imagined a terrace, with a front and back garden, a flimsy fence separating her home from the neighbours. The boy wanted to go outside to play with the next door neighbour’s dogs, but Mary was busy, so she told him to stay inside. He went out anyway; she thought he was upstairs. Next thing she knew, he was crying in front of the house, so she ran outside and found him there, his hand bloody. The dog had bitten him.
Mary tells the story:
“I say which dog? That one. And looked and there was the owner. I asked – I say sorry. Which dog bit my son? He said mine. I say then, what are you doing now if you know that your dog bite my son, I said what are you doing? I didn’t see any kind of sympathy in his face. You are supposed to hide and say sorry, but now you are doing nothing, it’s like you are happy. He just answered me once that your son is the one come after my dog.’
“I took my son. I went to my GP. My GP asked me that – what happened, I told it to him, and he say where is the owner of the dog? Tell him that my GP told me that you have to put this dog down. You have to put this dog down, that’s the law here. Any dog bites somebody, you have to put it down. If you say no – let me know I’m going to call the gardai. That is what he’s saying.”
While Mary spoke, the other women chorused in recognition and outrage, and from the very beginning of the story were muttering about the gardai. But the situation was strange, and complicated.
“The man started to explain to me that you know what? This dog is not belong to me. This dog is belong to my wife, and my wife is now in the hospital, I don’t know anything, only when I take this dog to her – she will start laughing. I can’t put this dog to rest.”
Sarah interrupts: “Who can start laughing – the wife? In the hospital?”
“Yes. This dog will make the wife happy.’
“Then! Then I say ok, you are not going to put this dog down? Then I say, you know what, I was not going to call the gardai for you. But the way you act, you act to my son, you treat him like animal – like the animals, not the human being. You didn’t even say sorry, to me or my son, you didn’t even stop your dog – just because you say that my son is the one follow that dog. You know. Ok, me, because I know them, they are not happy with me am only one in that area.
“….black in that area”, clarifies Sarah.
“Any time just you can see: the eyes would tell you the entire history. So I say ok I say I am not going to call the gardai, if you tell me you don’t want to put the dog down it’s ok with you. Let me just bring my son.”
Now the reactions were a chorus of outrage. “But the gardaí!” and “here there is law!” It seemed that most of the group were convinced that Mary should have called the police on her neighbour, perplexed by the bizarre story of the wife and the hospital, but equally unconvinced by it. Mary explained:
“If you go and call gardai even the other neighbours they know the dog made this mistake, and the gardai take another action, when they come together, you are not at home.’
An interjection: “They cannot do anything.”
“No! They will talk. One day something happened to your child again, they will not help and they will not touch it, you know? First of all you have to be careful, anything they are going to do. They will say that you are rude. You are mean – to people.
The story dissolved at this point into a debate: one woman incredulous that anybody could judge Mary as rude or mean when she was clearly the victim; Mary insisting that she couldn’t afford to take the chance, couldn’t afford to make a scene, draw attention, take a risk. The calculations Mary makes, 9 years to the day since arriving here. Ever denying herself a fair deal, in order to be seen to fit in.
I was reminded of a Libyan friend who argued that she didn’t have the luxury of not paying her water charges. The risk aversion of the migrant. The strain of having to fit in. It drives obsessive compliance with the law – but also a disinclination to invoke one’s own rights, indeed a disinclination to be noticed, to exist. Mary would shrink rather than be singled out for notice by her neighbours.
This is a far cry from what I would consider integration.
I’m interested in shame, and the politics of shame. Also, I’m a parent. The continued Church control of Irish schools bothers me deeply. Schools are sites where children are taught how to be in the world. In Ireland, schools have been used to teach shame and self-denial. After the most recent round of news stories about the mother and baby home at Tuam, I wrote about the implications for education.
A part of the purpose of my research is to add to the existing evidence on gender based violence against migrant women living in Ireland. I’m hoping to post pieces of my literature review here in bite sized chunks so that anything useful can be used as my research is ongoing. So here’s a powerpoint with an initial summary of what we know (and what we don’t) about violence against migrant women in Ireland.
Data on the subject is very limited: an EU-wide study of prevalence and types of VAW in 28 countries is recent (2014), but doesn’t go into detail about differentiated experiences or different population groups. It is now 15 years since the SAVI report documented fully the extent of violence in Ireland. At the time, neither migrant women nor ethnic minority women were included among the report’s identified marginalised groups. Thus, there is no statistically significant data on the prevalence of violence against migrant women in Ireland.
I’ve pulled together some relevant data from a series of small studies on the types of violence that migrant women in Ireland have experienced in their lifetimes. These point to three main conclusions:
I’ve attached a slideshow that gathers this data and my analysis of this. This is a work in progress: I’m hoping this might engage some interest, and hopefully deepen my understanding and analysis. Please get in touch to widen the perspective or correct anything dodgy!
I’m looking forward to chairing this discussion next Wednesday evening in the Teacher’s Club. I’m a big fan of Comhlamh’s first Wednesday debates, which bring together very mixed groups of people for really smart, engaged discussion. Hopefully this will be as good as others I’ve attended.
I’m presenting a chunk of my theoretical framework at a couple of postgrad conferences this weekend. I hope to write up the argument as a blog soon – but in the meantime, here are the slides: sibeal-presentation