It can be so puzzling, looking back at even quite recent history, trying to figure out “what were they thinking?” What were the people who ran Irish industrial “schools” thinking when they treated the children like shit? What were the people who screamed abuse outside Little Rock High School in 1957 thinking? What were the people who owned slaves thinking? What were the people who sold slaves thinking? What were the people who captured human beings and sold them into slavery thinking?
What were the people who stole children from unmarried mothers in Australia thinking?
Hundreds of mothers and their families gathered yesterday to hear a historic national apology from Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard. Forced to give up their babies, these women were among the thousands of young mothers who endured a cruel and often illegal approach by governments, churches, hospitals and charities towards pregnancy out of wedlock in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s, whereby unmarried mothers were coerced or deceived into giving up their babies to adoption by married couples.
I could see what they were thinking if it were a question of pressure and persuasion. I wouldn’t agree with it, but I could see it. But it wasn’t a question of pressure and persuasion.
The stories are nightmarish – from the abandonment by furious families of frightened, pregnant daughters into homes for wayward girls, to the truly excruciating accounts of the births themselves, where young girls were drugged during labour and forcibly restrained with pillows over their faces so they could not see their babies as they were born. It says something about how intentional the shattering of the maternal bond was that mother and baby were not even allowed to lay eyes upon one another.
One mother interviewed in the Senate committee report described what it was like to know what was coming during your pregnancy:
“I’d lie in bed every night with my arms wrapped around my baby inside of me knowing that I would never hold him after birth. I’d feel his feet and hands through my own stomach as he moved around, knowing that I wasn’t ever going to feel them after he was born. I’d talk to him and tell him that I would find him again one day and that I and his father loved him.”
The more young women resisted, the greater the malice against them – babies were pulled from clinging arms, moved to different hospitals, and dishonestly recorded as dead so as to stop young women continuing to fight for them. For the mothers who experienced these events, even the term “forced adoption” is too soft; “kidnapping newborn babies” is how they describe it.
That’s why it’s hard to figure out what they were thinking: because you would think compassion or empathy would get in the way, and it’s hard to see what kind of thinking would trump the compassion or empathy.
Maybe disgust helped. Maybe they saw the girls and young women as so disgusting that it blocked or reduced the compassion or empathy. That probably answers the other ones, too. If you feel enough disgust or contempt or hatred for a person or set of people, then your capacity for empathy may be impaired.
Andie Fox goes on to say much the same thing, but in slightly different terms.
These stories illustrate a frightening capacity to dehumanise women from the institutions involved. That these women’s own communities would believe mothers could possibly get past an experience like that, let alone forget it entirely upon leaving the hospital, is extraordinary.
It is. Hence the “what were they thinking?” Disgust is probably part of the answer.
It seems to be very, very deeply-rooted, this ready disgust for women and girls in connection with sex.
Not surprisingly, the experience of forced adoption has for many led to pathological levels of grief. An abyss of trauma opened up in their lives that engulfed the babies’ fathers, other family members, future siblings, and in many cases even the adopting parents and adopted children themselves. One mother, Julienne, described her haunting loss: “I always felt the weight of a ghost baby on my arm and never left a room without feeling that I had left something behind”.
Disgust is the parent of a lot of monsters.