Banshee journal

I’ve long-harboured a desire to publish my writing, and I’m overjoyed to be included in the forthcoming edition of Banshee Journal. It’s gorgeous, and I’m honoured.

It will include my essay, Once Removed, about my mother’s last boyfriend. As well as lots of other delicious poems, stories and essays.


Some quick thoughts about Tom Humphries, and shame

Edit: March 2018: I posted this blog when the Tom Humphries verdict was issued. I was pretty comprehensively schooled (on twitter and by email) by a friend who is also feminist, a criminology student, and a survivor of sexual violence. She pointed out that my “take” underestimated the shaming dynamics that operate in prisons and towards prisoners. She is one of the people whose opinion I will always shut up and listen to, particularly on subjects related to violence against women. I’m gonna take this blog down soon, but in respect to her, I’ll leave it here for now.



Lots of attention (and some great commentary) these last 2 days on the preposterously brief sentence that Tom Humphries received for grooming and abusing a young woman, in particular Judge Karen O’Connor’s rationale. She seemed to suggest that his fall from a high profile position constituted a punishment in itself, and commented that “it would be difficult not to have sympathy for him.” The thoughtlessness of vocally empathising with the perpetrator rather than his victim appalled many, including me.

And once again (I tied myself in knots over the George Hook business, before finally not blogging about it), there are plenty of voices arguing against “witch hunts”, “lynch mobs”, “trial by media” and all the rest. And given the particular Irish expertise at creating pariahs and then destroying them, I get it. Even powerful people can become marginalised and even oppressed: stigma and shame are remarkable tools and should be deployed carefully (they never are). But if you’re really so concerned that Humphries shouldn’t be publicly shamed, then why not hold him to account robustly, formally?

Most victims of sexual abuse that I know want to see their abusers cast out, humiliated, systematically excluded. After all, that is what victims and survivors themselves often experience. Silencing. Denial. Belittling. Doors closed, offers rescinded, if they insist on mentioning their abuse or naming their abuser.

We know that abuse is rarely reported, rarely prosecuted, and almost never results in a sentence; while victims and survivors suffer from a wide range of personal impacts (on their physical and mental health, their friendships, their relationships, their careers, and on and on), often threaded through with a heavy dose of shame. Impunity makes these impacts, and their attendant shame, far far worse.

It seems to me that if you are bothered by any instinctive social shaming of people like Humphries, you need to be demanding tougher sentences for real crimes. If sexual violence were consistently treated as the serious crime it is, then the impact of a conviction could be objectively assessed. What was Judge O’Connor really saying – that the public shame was a punishment equivalent to one and a half years in jail (or seven and a half years, depending on how you interpret the sentencing guidelines)? If you don’t want him to be shamed, send the message that he is accountable for his crime, formally, visibly, through an appropriate sentence.

Comments about trial by media are particularly amusing. On this occasion, the court of public opinion and the court of law came to exactly the same conclusion: that Humphries was guilty; and that his wrong-doing was especially egregious for the abuse of power it involved. The court of law failed to enact a fair punishment and you can hardly be surprised if other public spaces do so instead.

I think that public shaming for acts of abuse occurs because those acts are still somehow conceived as private, outside of the realm of formal justice. They are not. They are serious crimes. Once criminals are held to justice for their acts, then I’ll be willing to hear about the rights or wrongs of an emotional public response.

But until then, shame is the only justice available, and it will continue to be deployed.


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.


Occasional musings on Doing This PhD.

I worked for 10 years in the NGO sector. I didn’t quite fit – but then, if you spend your whole life looking for the space that’s exactly you-shaped, that’ll be a pretty unsatisfying life. I fit well enough. I learned a huge amount, and it formed my values and my friendships. I’m glad of it.

About 7 or 8 years in though, on the back of two (paid) internships and a year’s (paid) maternity leave, I realised that I had a passion and possibly a flair for research, and that’s how I ended up here. Doing This PhD.

I’m researching the impact of violence against women on African women living in Ireland. Important stuff, right? My theoretical lens (you have to have one of those) is stigma and shame. It’s a good theoretical lens, academically robust, and currently remarkably popular. I find there’s a groove, a community of people seized by this very subject, perhaps even a space where I can fit. And yet –

Early on in my data collection, it seems to me that stigma and shame are not the things that are crippling my research participants. Exclusion is; and in particular, for those still in the asylum process, Direct Provision. One woman complains: “It is many years I have been in This Kilkenny, and still I have no friends, no money.” Poverty is there too.

I don’t want to be too Mazlovian here, but I do think there’s a responsibility among researchers to recognise priorities. I’m delving into a tiny nook of people’s experience, and within that nook, encountering worlds. That’s how these things are supposed to work. But it’s my job to contextualise it too. I’m reminded of discussions about urban regeneration, the promise of good architectural design in deprived neighbourhoods (in this case, the design in question involves passive surveillance; provision of overlooked public spaces; permeability – I learned all the buzz words a long time ago). It’s good stuff, well researched and valid. But the truth is that bad design isn’t a significant driver of anti social behaviour and criminality. Poverty is. If you’re really seized of the importance of addressing deprivation in inner cities, even if you’re an architect expert in social design (if that’s a thing), you need to demand interventions that reduce poverty and offer opportunities and dignity to the residents.

Similarly, as I deepen my expertise on the role of stigma and gendered shame in the lives of migrants, I can’t be deaf to what they’re telling me. Which is that they can move past their experiences of violence, if they’re allowed to. If they can get out of the institutions that we have put them into.