I’m Not Judi Dench. So Why the Hell Would I Forgive? – The Feminist Wire

I’m Not Judi Dench. So Why the Hell Would I Forgive?

By Aine Greaney

Once, on an expatriate trip back to my native Ireland, I took my mug of tea to the big kitchen window of our family home. My late-mother came to stand at my elbow. As I stood staring at our village street, Mam updated me on each neighborhood move and change:  Richard, the one in the new bungalow, an old schoolmate of mine, just had another child.  Mrs. H., in the sherbet pink cottage, was gone very bad with the arthritis. Mrs. L*., in the terracotta-colored two-story, the retired village school teacher, had suffered her second stroke.

Mam added:  “And I heard she’s completely seafóid (in dementia) now.”

Standing there, I felt the thwack of Mrs. L’s  hand across my own face.  I heard that screechy voice and the classroom insults that once, when I was five and six and seven, punctuated each slap.

Slob. Thwack. Chatterbox. Thwack. Dirty. Thwack-thwack.

“Good,” I said, turning from the kitchen window.

“Good, what?”

“Good that she had two strokes and is gone seafóid.  In her dotage, I hope she sees all of our little faces, all of us kids she tortured.”

Mam got that stricken look that said:  So this is what America has done to my daughter.

My mother’s name was Philomena, a girl’s name that’s been démodé for years now—until the current Oscar-nominated movie of the same title. Philomena, played by Judi Dench, is a retired British nurse who travels to America to find the adult son who, as a teenager, she was once forced to give up for adoption.

The movie borrows from a true story of the real-life Philomena Lee,  an Irish expatriate in the U.K. The real Philomena was one of the Irish girls who got sent to a convent-operated mother-and-baby home and whose child got adopted out to America (for a generous donation). Philomena’s toddler son was just one of an estimated 2,200 Irish babies who got exported—often with a false birth certificate name–to U.S. Catholic families.

In the movie, new-Mom Philomena is conscripted into the convent’s unpaid labor pool—the team of fallen angels who must work off the cost of their baby’s delivery and atone for their sinful fornication.

By movie’s end, Philomena never meets her adult son. Her transatlantic search lands her right back in that Irish convent, where she discovers that, all along, the nuns actually knew her son’s whereabouts but, amid this and her previous mother-searches, they chose not to tell her.

Just before the credits roll, Philomena/Dench faces an aged, fire-and-brimstone Sister of Mercy, the convent’s liar-in-chief.

“I forgive you,” Philomena/Dench tells the old nun (cue the violins).

Bully for you, Philomena. I’m not as big a woman.  And let me say that I don’t claim that deleting someone’s parentage and country is the same as a few grade-school beatings. Just like the movie nuns, I would bet my American house that my old teacher did not regret beating us. I would bet that she believed she was acting in accordance with her pedagogical calling.  I mean, someone had to keep us tatty farm kids in line, and someone had to teach us our multiplication tables.

In the movie version of Philomena Lee’s story, the backdrop of the Gothic looking convent, the close-up of the wimpled nun and aging, kindly faced Dench create a visual auto-link between forgiveness and formal religion.

Real-life forgiveness is more nuanced and more difficult.  According to one interview, the real-life Philomena Lee did, in fact, forgive those women who exported and then hid information about her child. Though a lifelong practicing Catholic, Ms. Lee’s forgiveness came not from her religious belief, but from her career as a mental health professional and the insight it gave her into the pathology of non-forgivenness.

As for me and Mrs. L., my forgiveness stalls on two major points.

First, some of the children in my mixed-grade classroom had learning disabilities. Also, a boy named Sean and a girl named Mary were what we now call developmentally disabled. In a more urban area, these children would have been in specialized programs, in the care of qualified and (we hope) humane professionals.  But in our 1970s classroom, they got taught the eight-times tables, and slapped when they couldn’t recite them.  I vividly recall Mary, who had Down Syndrome, getting beaten until she fell to the ground.

Our country villages didn’t have nuns or Christian Brothers. So these secular lay teachers, who had spouses and children and a shiny car, could claim no religious vocation as instigator or alibi for beating the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised among us.

Here’s my second forgiveness blind spot: Without the religious vocation, without the big “C” word (Catholicism) as alibi, what could incite someone to beat someone else’s child? Enter: The other big “C” word, the one that, in Ireland or America, we still flinch at discussing:  Class, as in, social class.

A decade’s worth of national investigations has uncovered part of Ireland’s shameful history of physical and sexual child abuse.  Google these governmental reports and the follow-on commentary and what do you find? A digital photo of a rosary beads and a list of abusers with “Sister,” “Brother” or “Father” before their Christian names. When we read through these gut-wrenching cases, when we look beyond the Google photos or Hollywood’s facile representations, we see a recurring pattern. Most of the child and teen victims came from rural or working class families; many came from families fractured or gutted by parental death or mental illness or paternal abandonment. Some children were sent to religiously-run residential facilities for few or no other reason—no pregnancy or truancy or orphan-hood—than their family’s poverty.

By contrast, the religious charged with teaching, disciplining and housing these youngsters often came from families who owned businesses or large, prosperous farms. Some did not. But these latter had the advantage of academic scholarship or family-funded secondary education.   Having a nun or priest in the family elevated the family’s overall status, and religious vocations were not an open-admissions process.   So we must ask: can we truthfully separate class from religious avocation?

We must also ask: What about those secular teachers who abused without the rosary beads?

Again, let’s look at Ireland’s rigid class system. Secondary (high school) education only became free and available to all families in 1967. So for us pre- and post-European Union kids, we knew that those spelling tests and multiplication tables were our ticket up and out. Our lay teachers – smug and set in their middle-class status – knew it, too.  They also knew that we came from households, from parents who lacked the public standing to object, to respectfully knock on the classroom door to say:  “If you beat my child again, I will report and report and report you until I find some authority, somewhere, that will make you stop or resign.”

Just as abuse doesn’t exclusively belong within the convent walls, neither does it automatically happen across the class lines.  But in the 21st century, on both sides of the Atlantic, we must first admit and then address the fact that we have entire countries and regions and cities and neighborhoods whose history, public policies and inter generational biases have spawned a set of  power differentials that make inter-class abuse that much easier.

In rural Ireland, this power deficit turned some teachers into sadists and made us kids take it (literally) on the chin.

Ask any abused child or adult: there is no deleting those beatings.  There is no separating that thwack-thwack-thwack from our sense of self and who we have become.

Forgive? It’s a lovely movie ending. But I’m not Judi Dench.


AineGreaney-I'm_not_Judi_Dench__So_Why_In_Hell_Should_I_Forgiv-agAine Greaney is an expatriate Irish writer now living on Boston’s North Shore. In addition to her four books, she has placed essays in publication such as “Forbes Women,” “The Daily Muse,” “,” “Boston Globe Magazine” and “Books by Women.” Her essays have been cited as a “Best American Essay 2013” and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In addition to writing, she creates and leads workshops for colleges, arts organizations and schools.


  1. Roger

    April 24, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Powerful and thought provoking. I only wish I could forgive.

    • Aine Greaney

      April 24, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Thank you, Roger. “Thought provoking” is high praise indeed.

    • jeanne

      April 24, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      The only way I could get the abuse to stop was to cut off all contact with my family. I think it’s amazing that I’m able to apologize to anyone when I mess up – I certainly never learned it from any member of my family.

      I don’t forgive anyone who doesn’t take responsibility for his/her actions. Most people’s ideas of “forgiveness” are euphemisms for “Be quiet and stop making a fuss about something that doesn’t concern me.”

      This doesn’t make me hard and cold; it has given me peace for the first time in my life.

      • Roger

        April 24, 2014 at 7:13 pm

        Great perspective Jeanne, Thank you.

    • Kathy H

      April 26, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      After all that I have read, I believe that one must forgive their abusers in order to set themselves free. Until you forgive them how can you be a whole person? Look at what was done to Jesus, yet he forgave. Whether or not you believe in JC or not, one must look into their own heart and find their own way. Gos Bless everyone. My grandmother was from Cork and her family was treated poorly but her brothers, mom and dad all stayed together. They had love. Love will find a way to set you free.

  2. Jennifer Karin

    April 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Bravo, Aine!

    • Aine Greaney

      April 24, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Thank you, Jennifer. Glad you liked it.


    April 24, 2014 at 10:56 am

    What about the poor boys and the catholic preists. Knowing and loving Ireland like I do some of things that have gone on there are quite unbelievable. Irish men [Rebublic] who volunteered to fight the Nazis in ww2in the British army were treated like traitors and their children put into care and have been made outcasts. Thank God for Henry the 8th.

  4. Wanda Kolomyjec

    April 24, 2014 at 11:23 am

    There is grace in forgiveness which allows the forgiver to move on with their life. I wouldn’t be one of those people, I don’t think.

  5. Kathy Downey

    April 24, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Provocative essay, Aine. Starkly, skillfully, and unapologetically written. I can still vividly recall my sadist elementary school principal, back in the 60s in Methuen, Massachusetts, flinging one “troublesome” student (who in reality, was “troubled”) – down the stairway. As he lay curled up on the landing, crying, she told him, “Stop being a baby.” Then she cursed him for having broken her fingernail as she flung him.

  6. Debra Michals

    April 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    This is a truly terrific essay — provocative, insightful, and researched (not to mention, personal.) Very moving piece from a very smart writer. Brava!

    • Aine Greaney

      April 24, 2014 at 8:04 pm

      Thank you, Debra. High praise from a fine writer and researcher in the field.

  7. maura

    April 25, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Terrific article. My siblings and I were smacked or humiliated on a regular basis in school. We had nuns, mean ones. I remember my older brother would be sick to his stomach or wet his pants before going to school. He was tormented by the nuns. He never get past it nor did the rest of us. Sadly, my parents sacrificed to send us to private school. Very provocative essay Ms. Greaney.

    • Aine Greaney

      April 26, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Thank you, Maura. I’m sad that you and your siblings were so humiliated which, in some measure, is more wounding than the slaps. It also makes me glad that, at least in most U.S. states, teachers like these would now be fired and or criminally liable. Our modern times are better.

  8. Tempa Pagel

    April 25, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Eye-opening and wonderfully written. Bravo, Aine!

    • Aine Greaney

      April 26, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Thank you, Tempa.

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  10. Neville Ross

    April 26, 2014 at 1:39 am

    I am a Afro-Canadian male with a disability (I now know that it is Asperger’s syndrome) who went through the school system in the 1970’s (I was born in 1968) and I suffered a ton of shit for having a learning disability in the Toronto school system (I was put into Special Education classes that were segregated from the standard ones, given no homework or study skill instruction, and as a result when I got to grade seven and eight, I was a failure.)

    But that was small potatoes compared to the hell of the ‘private school’ my parents were conned by the North York (a former borough of Toronto; the city was amalgamated in 1997) school board into sending me to. There in the third semester, I was taught be a Ms. R who treated me like crap when I couldn’t answer any questions or do the work right. A female classmate also suffered. On the last day of school (the two of us were the only students in the classroom!) both of us were blasted by this ‘teacher’ with a big tongue lashing. The ‘school’ did nothing for us or our lives (my friend has suffered the most) and both of us are on social assistance after years of trying to become part of society.

    I’ve always wanted to find and sue the lady who ran this school and also give Ms. R a tongue-lashing back for all of the hell she put me and my friend/classmate through; I’ve never been able to forgive her, and I understand what Ms. Greaney has said here. This was a pretty well-written essay.

    • Roger

      April 26, 2014 at 11:01 pm

      My heart goes out to you for the injustices you’ve suffered. My son is also an Aspie with learning disabilities who suffered greatly too. He, like most Aspies, is hypersensitive to any injustice and finds it very hard to forgive those who deliberately wrong others. That’s also typical of Aspergers. Fortunately, the injustices he suffered led to a special boarding school for Aspergers kids his last two years of high school which proved wonderful in helping to pave the way to transition to our neuro-normal society. He’s now in college and doing quite well.

      Please realize that you also have gifts that Aspergers provides. For example, you are especially good at hyper-focusing on things that matter to you which gives you a great edge over others who are often distracted. If you can learn to develop those strengths as well as understand where your weaknesses lie, you can achieve almost anything you want. I wish you the best of luck.

  11. Aine Greaney

    April 26, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Neville, your perspective and experience add a richness and authentic voice to this tough discussion. I am sorry that this happened to you. I also became a teacher, but lasted for only 4 years. It’s a tough and often isolating job, but in some deep part of me, I think I feared (and will forever regret if I did) that I would repeat history and visit my own experiences upon my young students. Thankfully, I left teaching and came to the U.S. Thank you again for writing.