‘I hate horror stories.’ I said as we watched the first episode of The Woman in the Wall. ‘Turn it off now!’ I wasn’t alone in switching away and other viewers did too. Did we do so for similar reasons? One viewer thought it ‘weird’. The next day I heard Ruth Wilson talking about the drama and why she chose to take both the Lorna Brady role as well as be an executive producer I was impressed by her feminism and decided to give the drama another chance. After two episodes I was hooked, but afterwards, when I went to bed, I had the first unable-to-breathe panic attack of my life. I knew I had to understand why the drama affected me so powerfully, so I had to watch every episode until the end.
It’s not my story
The Woman in the Wall is a Gothic horror story set in Ireland about Lorna Brady who, pregnant at 15, was sent to a Magdalene Laundry in the late 1980s. The TV drama opens in 2015 as the scandal about the Laundries is first being investigated. Lorna, still with no idea about the fate of her baby, is thought not ‘right in the head’ because she sleepwalks every night. The Irish Catholic Church used the Magdalene Laundries to incarcerate pregnant young women and girls and use them as slave labour and baby farms while running adoption agencies in exchange for money. Mothers and babies sometimes died. Death certificates were issued for them, but not burial certificates and only recently have undocumented mass graves been found. The Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes existed for over 200 years ostensibly to save ‘fallen’ women from prostitution. The last one closed unbelievably as recently as 1996. The stories of the Magdalene Laundries are of unbearable suffering and grief. To find out more about them watch the film ‘Philomena’ starring Judi Dench and listen to Mary Coughlan sing about them.
It’s like my story
I first heard of the Magdalene Laundries when Mary Coughlan sang about them in the eighties. Mother and Baby Homes existed in Britain. These institutions were immeasurably better than the Magdalene Laundries. At a dark time in my life, I met a young Irish girl who had arranged to go into one and have her baby adopted. That girl-mother had to nurse, breastfeed, and care for her child for 6 months till it was adopted. Imagine, after such bonding with a baby, the pain of that loss. I knew about them but knew I would not, and could not, go to one because the world then was racist. (Martin Luther King had been murdered a few years earlier.) I had a special responsibility for my baby. I had to try to change the world for her. Racism is also part of the story in The Woman in the Wall. A young black policeman is sent from Dublin to investigate the case of a murdered priest. He suspects Lorna Brady may be involved, but like her, he too has nightmares. He was segregated in an orphanage because of his skin colour.
This is my story
My story began in 1965 in apartheid South Africa. I was twenty-one years old, unmarried, and pregnant. Under South African law, I was a criminal guilty of miscegenation because I, a white girl, had sex with a non-white man. I could be sent to prison where I would give birth and from where my baby would be taken away from me and put in a non-white orphanage as a second-class citizen without a vote. According to most white South Africans, I was unfit for society, a disgrace, and a burden on my family. I was very lucky, however. I became pregnant because I was ignorant about contraception which I wasn’t allowed to have anyway, but my love affair happened because I was opposed to apartheid. I was also helped by people who were fighting apartheid both in Cape Town and in London. I was not made to feel bad because I was pregnant and unmarried, though I did feel bad because of the grief caused to my family. London was a racist city, it was a racist time in history and my life was complicated. I’ve written a memoir about it titled When I Was Bad.
I understand why people switched off The Woman in the Wall. It throws the viewer right into the trauma that the unmarried girls suffered in the Magdalene Laundries so that they experience that madness too. My story happened twenty years before Lorna’s story began and was in no way as terrible, but I was traumatised and desperately afraid all the same and I never really dealt with my terror of a South African jail and the possibility of the loss of my baby . My trauma wasn’t helped by the fact that my first husband controlled me by threatening every year to divorce me and take my children away from me. In those days men had that power but not all men were deliberately cruel. That’s another reason The Woman in the Wall made me panic and stop breathing. The power of a drama like The Woman in the Wall is that it allows both catharsis and healing for people like me and the Magdalene Laundry women. It is very hard to watch though but also very important.
Babies and mothers and the future of us all
What strange and driven creatures mothers of babies are. We had no idea at hat time what date our babies would be born or what gender they would be. No mother has any idea what personalities or characters their children will have – indeed, young mothers know very little about their own selves. When you think of all that befalls mothers and babies in their unknown futures, what they have to face, and what sadness and joy they will experience it is a wonder that we do it at all. When you are an unmarried woman or girl who is pregnant, it would seem reasonable to not care if your child is taken away for adoption and yet we do care terribly – we fight for our babies, we love them, we want to keep them safe and we want to change the world to make it a better home for them. As Lorna gradually stops being a victim and becomes proactive for herself and others, she becomes less mad and traumatised.