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My Journey Through Prostitution.
About the Author Rachel Moran grew up in north Dublin city. From a troubled family background, she was fourteen when she was taken into State care. She became homeless and got involved in prostitution at aged fifteen, working in Dublin and other Irish cities for the following seven years. In 1998 at the age of 22, she liberated herself from that life: At 24 she got on the path to further education, gaining a degree in journalism from Dublin City University, where she won the Hybrid Award for excellence in journalism. She speaks internationally on prostitution and sex-trafficking and volunteers to talk to young girls in residential care about the harms and dangers of prostitution. She lives in north Dublin. http://theprostitutionexperience.com This book is dedicated to my parents, who did the best they could, and to my aunt Margaret, without whom I simply would not have the life I have today. Sewers are necessary to guarantee the wholesomeness ofpalaces, according to the fathers ofthe Church. And it has often been remarked that the necessity exists of sacrificing one part ofthe female sex in order to save the other and prevent worse troubles ... a caste of 'shameless women' allows the 'honest woman' to be treated with the most chivalrous respect. The prostitute is a scapegoat; man vents his turpitude upon her, and he rejects her. Whether she is put legally under police supervision or works illegally in secret, she is in any case treated as a pariah. SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, THE SECOND SEX ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to thank my family, who have been a never-ending support 1h rough the writing ofthis book, especially my son who, in telling me to put my own name on it, showed himself to be more ofa man than many who are decades older than him. I'd like to thank my friends, who know who they are, and I'd like to thank Fergal Tobin, Nicki Howard and all of Ihe team at Gill & Macmillan, for believing in this book from the outset and for being a joy to work with. Also Deirdre O'Neill, who worked with me on the earlier drafts of this book, and Alison Walsh, who worked with me on the latter ones. I want to thank all the survivors of prostitution I have come to know, both in Ireland and abroad, for being there for me and for making me understand that they always will be. I'd like to thank Sarah Benson for the warmth of her friendship and Nusha Yonkova and Denise Charlton for their energy and commitment to the Turn Off The Red Light campaign. I'd like to thank Theo Dorgan and his partner Paula Meehan, for being so helpful and encouraging. I'd like to thank my aunt Theresa, for so many reasons, one ofwhich is that I'd never hear the end of it if I didn't! Finally, I'd like to say a special thanks to Kathleen Barry, for her own hooks on prostitution, which were so important to my understanding of the politics of what happened to me. I'd like to thank her also for her kindness and her guidance, and for cheering me on through every line.
ITHE FIRST QUESTION.
What makes the simple act ofshaming or blaming people complicated is the knowledge that they each had a specific history, and the more we know about it, the easier it becomes to understand why they did what they did. RICHARD HOLLOWAY, GODLESS MORALITY T his book will not read in the style of a traditional memoir; it is not intended to. I have not written about prostitution with the sole focus on my own experience, because this issue is bigger than I am, and it is bigger than my place within it. My seven years in prostitution have brought me to the conviction that prostitution is also a collective, not a purely individual, experience. Therefore, I am writing this book in a manner that alternates between the personal and the universal. We women shared much more than our clients and our secrets. We shared an experience, the threads of which were so common that I have come to realise they form a pattern that makes up the basic shape of the prostitution experience. It presents a horribly ugly image. I pay no respect or accommodation to the glamorising or sensational.ising of prostitution. These are not true depictions of prostitution. They are not even caricatures; they couldn't be, because caricatures are nothing more than amplified truths, and glamour bears no resemblance to the truth here. My assessment of prostitution and my opinions of it I take from the years I spent enduring it and everything I ever saw, heard, felt, witnessed or otherwise experienced at that time. There was no glamour there. Not even the flicker of it. Not for any of us. There is always a first question asked of the prostituted or formerly prostituted woman. It is always the snmc one. People want to know: PAID FOR 'How did you get into it?' I believe it is the first question because humans are creatures in need ofthe comfort ofa linear trajectory, and it is difficult to answer because human lives are just not lived along those lines. Another problem with that question is that it can never be fully answered in the space ofone conversation, and certainly not in the space of one sentence, as it is asked. It is just too complex to condense without losing something vital ofthe answer. The truth is, there is no one reason, there is a web of reasons, and each part of it, each glimmering thread, is equally important to the overall balance of howyou got into prostitution. The purpose ofthis book is to take something bad and try to alchemise it into something good. The 'something good' here is in the sharing of this understanding for the benefit of those who want an awareness of it, but who have never and will never experience it for themselves. There is something good in that; I can sense it. There is something good in exposing prostitution for what it really is. It is the illumination that comes from shining a light in dark places. It is the essential honesty involved in showing the outlines as they truly are. Men who use prostitutes superimpose upon prostitution an image of it which to them is satisfactory, agreeable and pleasing. This image will vary from man to man. The only things which remain consistent are the fantasy element involved and the reality that shifting male perceptions do nothing to alter the experience of prostitution for the women involved. Their realities remain, concrete and immovable. It is my intention, with this book, to lay those realities before the reader. I do not expect any of this to be easy, because there is another reason why the answering of the 'first question' is particularly difficult: it is because it involves an unavoidable reaching into the self, a painful emotional excavation. The honest answering requires a feat ofpenetrative inward searching in areas you don't want to dig, precisely because you know what you will find. But as the most precious. artefacts are those which must be hollowed from the ground, the most valuable words are often those which must be laboriously quarried from the self. So I am going to have to be very thorough. I am going to have to dig. THE FIRST QUESTION 'lb go back to the start, to begin to answer that first question: my home life as a child was textbook dysfunctional. My parents were both patients of the local psychiatric hospital, St Brendan's. It is situated within walking distance of where we lived, in a council housing estate on the north side of Dublin city. HSE records show that my mother was 'thought to be schizophrenic' and that she was an out-patient ofthe hospital. My father was sometimes an out-patient, sometimes an in-patient, depending on how his manic depression was affecting him at any given time. They were also both in the grip of active addiction; my mother to prescription drugs, my father to the lure of compulsive gambling. I don't blame my parents and I know they weren't bad people, they were sick people. These facts are simply facts and I harbour no desire to play them for tears. I only record them here because they are central to an understanding of how I became involved in a harmful, depressing, destructive lifestyle that would have been scarcely imaginable to me the day before I first embarked upon it. I am writing this work as a person who is still in a stage of transition, working towards being secure with my place in society. It is a difficult journey, because it is not as ifi am going back anywhere; I am journeying towards somewhere I never was to begin with: our lives as children set us utterly apart from mainstream society and we were raised both painfully aware of it and numbly accepting of it. We understood it. It was our position in the world. My life as a child primed me for prostitution in that it primed me to continue to live outside the sphere of what was normal. Italso primed me for any other socially unacceptable or unusual pastime or pursuit; it just happened that several factors of timing and circumstance fell perfectly in place so that prostitution presented itself both as a solitary option and a viable one. I grew up feeling as though I was separated from the world and all its inhabitants as if by something absolutely solid, but which I could not see, smell, or touch. By the time I was a yuun~ tccna~cr in prostitution, this sense of disconnectedness from thr world oprrntrd 11o11tron~ly that PAID FOR themselves. As in any walk oflife, people influence each other and where there is present in the same community of people both the need for escapism and the constant example of it, the writing really is on the wall. Becoming drug or alcohol dependent further separates the working prostitute from 'average' society on an emotional and psychological level and, in a lot of cases, the substance dependence accelerates the degree of time a woman must give of herself to prostitution as the addiction increases in intensity and presents a hunger that only money can feed. The effect is obvious: prostitution has caused a practical barrier in the form of an addiction, which has the cumulative effect of forcing her further into prostitution and further away from mainstream society. The sense of 'otherness' for the woman ensnared in this lifestyle is so strong that she begins to regard herself as so utterly different from other members of society, that it does not feel possible or feasible on any level to partake in that society. By that I mean it does not feel possible to get a regular job, to undertake education, or sometimes even to form relationships with people outside her sphere of reality. It is not possible, while earning an illegal living, to honestly obtain a mortgage or business loan, etc., further removing her from the remit of what it is to be con.sidered a 'normal' functioning member of the public. I believe this is especially true in the case of someone such as myself, whose first regular income was from prostitution and therefore had experienced no other occupational reality. It was, I can attest, something I considered totally unimaginable, that I could ever be any kind of functioning part of the society I saw around me every day, and that was something that both caused and channelled a great deal of resentment on my part. If, while walking down to the red-light zone in the early evening, I saw a group of young women walking together in the uniform of one of the local banks (as often happened around the Baggot Street area) I would be struck by a great wave of jealousy and resentment that tore through me in a way I could scarcely justify or describe. I know today, at a distance of years and after a great deal of examining my own feelings, that I felt very keenly that THE FIRST QUESTION they were accepted members of a world I had been excluded from, and I absolutely hated them for it. I can testify that this sort ofresentment further excludes the prostitute, becausenotonlyisshenotpartofsociety,butshealsoregardsherselfatodds with it. Society, in turn, confirms the hostilities. Attitudes and opinions directed towards prostitutes are almost never positive. A prostitute is only accepted within the sphere of prostitution, so, paradoxically, she begins to feel safe in the place in which it is least safe to be. The years go by; her friendships with other women of her trade have become longer, therefore more solidified, and there is often no positive aspect to the companionship of other people that makes itself apparent to her. Personally I had a wider remit than that, and I am glad of it, but that sense of being closed off to those outside of prostitution did exist in me to some large degree and I witnessed its existence to a near total degree in others. After some years have passed, it suddenly occurs to you that you cannot explain those years in any sort ofofficial capacity. For example, if a working prostitute attempts to compile a cv, she'll quickly find herself staring at blank pages that are impossible to fill. She realises she has taken a road from which it is impossible to return. Somewhere along the path, when she wasn't even looking, a gate snapped shut behind her. It seems that now there is no way back. Besides being a criminal in the eyes of the law, she now finds that she cannot explain herself on any level to officialdom, so she is further removed from society and this has the effect of affirming and compounding what she has always felt; she is further separated and alone and apart, she is further depressed, she is further removed from the general public and the downward spiral continues, on and on and on. So really, because all these facets combine to create a sub-culture which she is now thoroughly a part of, because she now exists in the 'world' of prostitution, 'lifestyle' is an entirely more appropriate term than 'trade', and certainly more so than 'profession'. Luckily for me, my sense of personal identity must have been stronger than my sense of identification with the underbelly of society, PAID FOR even at the worst of times, either later, when I was an 'escort' and cocaine addict, or in my early teens on the streets and seeing a disgusting number of'clients' per week. Although I could not imagine being a part of the society around me, I had a very clear sense of who I was as an individual, and that was very fortunate for me because losing the sense of yourself, of who you actually are, is the easiest thing in the world for a prostitute. Apart from existing in a world that would have been previously unimaginable to you and the separation from your sense of self that inevitably comes with that, the battle is from without, as well as within, in that society conspires to convince you of your new status as an unworthy piece of shit. Slut, tramp, brazzer, whore . . . these terms apply to you now in the most authentic sense of their meanings and it is easy to become separated from who you are, to forget who you were; and of course you can trace the trajectory ofthe transition, but you can never take back the person you were before that evil evolution took place. The sad thing is the social stain that is left upon you, but the important thing is to remember that it really only exists in the perceptions ofpeople; and so if you can manage to read the perceptions of others as of little value to you, and you can undertake the more difficult task of nullifying negative perceptions of your own, then it is possible to come out the other side of prostitution and at least make some decent effort at taking back what is left of who you were. Those remnants, unfortunately, can be hard to find, and more difficult still to identify upon recovering. I spent seven years in prostitution and I've been fourteen years out of it now, but though I'm out of it twice as long as I was in it, it is still, unavoidably, one of the clearest, most formative periences of my life. It shapes and forms you in particular ways. This is a hard thing to acknowledge for someone who doesn't wish to be defined by that experience, but if somebody who has been through this has any wish to be honest about its consequences, an acceptance of that fact is paramount. It was a university of sorts. I learned a lot, probably more than I'm aware of. I honed abilities that I was previously unaware even existed, THE FIRST QUESTION and which I still use, often semi -consciously, to this day. The knack of getting a man off as quickly as possible (though hardly a skill), was one of the first things you learned, for the simple fact that time was money and the quicker a man climaxed, the quicker you could move on the next man and the next man's money. This is an awareness you would acquire with regular clients, whose sexual penchants you were used to. I have no need to do that today. The act ofsex with somebody you love and the act ofsex within the punter/prostitute dynamic are about as different as it is possible to imagine. In fact, I doubt it would be imaginable for someone who hadn't experienced the depth of that distinction. I know I couldn't have dreamt it, before I had experienced it for myself. Another of the things I acquired through prostitution was a much.heightened sense of people's intentions. That has served me well, both in and out of prostitution. It has also changed me, and served as a reminder of how I am changed. This was not a benign alteration, and the road to that change was a long one. It began not with the first time I performed sex for money, but with the dysfunction of my family. The next steps on that road were educational disadvantage and adolescent homelessness. It is a familiar story in prostitution. It is the most common one I have ever known. I will detail my experience of it now, and you can believe that the stories of innumerable others are echoed within it. Before I do though, I will explain my decision to write the book in my own name. I wavered between writing this book anonymously and in my own name for a long time. I considered the issue of anonymity and I wondered: if secrecy and shame are the threads woven together to make up the fabric of this garment, and secrecy dissipates upon disclosure, does the garment itself disintegrate? Will revealing my identity possibly, in any way, free me of shame? Would that it might, but shame exposed is not shame dispersed. In my darker moments I think identifying myself will only change the texture ofthis garment and have it emerge in a new incarnation, a single-threaded fabric, consisting simply of shame which has been laid bare. Which is true? Maybe both are, and it is a pointless wondering. I could never get comfortable with the idea of writing this book anonymously though. I felt that to write it publicly was simply to share the shame between myself and my son and the rest of our family, yet I could find no peace in anonymity, so, for a long time, I was troubled. I just wanted to tell the truth, but how could I consider my account truthful if it were stamped on the cover page with a name that was not my own? Would I not have been guilty of presenting its readers with a dishonesty before they'd even opened the first page? Publishing this account under a pseudonym felt to me for a long time as though I had accepted the challenge of telling the truth and failed at the first hurdle. I resented it. I resented it dreadfully. Over and over I paired my first name together with a multitude of surnames in an effort to find a pseudonym. I did this because I thought ifI kept my first name, I wouldn't feel so badly about not being able to publish it under my full name. It didn't work, and on reflection, why should it? My first name paired with any other is still not my name. I felt there was no arguing with the necessity of a pseudonym, and yet there was no end to that nagging conviction that to have my account published under any name, would be to not bear witness fully, to not own my account fully. I could find no peace in being represented by any of these names. What to do about that? Eventually an answer came. I would use my partner's surname. The moment he suggested it, I knew it was the only name in the world I would not resent on the cover of this book. So there it was, and that was fine, except he and I broke up during the writing of the book and I was.back to square one, wondering what to call myself. I decided to end the mental struggle and to choose a name that expressed qualities I liked. Queen Maeve was an Irish warrior queen, and I know that the truths I'm presenting here will fly in the face of a lot of the nonsense that's circulated about prostitution, so I felt I could do with a bit of her energy. Also, folklore has it that Queen Maeve once demanded an interlude during battle because she got her period. She was not prepared, even by nature itself, to be put at an unfair disadvantage to the men. I liked her style. I've always thought the surname Conway had a certain melodic ring to it and felt it sat nicely with Maeve. I found, when looking up the meaning of 'Conway', that it had two possible meanings, one being 'fearsome warrior', so the names seemed to fit well together. Yet, even though I'd settled on a pseudonym, that did not quell certain fears of mine about making these truths public. If examining the truth about prostitution has been one type of pain, laying these truths before the public is another. This former type of pain has accompanied me constantly through every line I've written and it will only leave after I've typed the last full stop. Thinking about actually publishing the book, laying these truths before the public, is a different kind of pain and it is made up of different components; there is a constant low.level negative feeling, the fears and paranoia of being exposed. There is a sense of defensiveness, the expectation of being judged. There is, of course, shame. Todaythat feels as if it is abating, but not all days are like this one, and shame, I have come to find, is more stubborn than grief. Shame does not ebb away slowly over time; it sometimes hides its face for a while, seeming to slink out of sight, only to stride purposefully hack out of the shadows and onto the centre-stage of your life, as real and alive as it was the first day you saw it. Grief can and does pull this nasty little stunt too, but it has not the persistence or longevity ofshame. I imagine shame to wear a mask, like something you'd see at If allowe' en. Its image is always ugly. I cannot see it very clearly today, but I know that does not mean it has gone away. I have decided not to wear a mask here, not even one I like in some ways, because to take my mask ofT is my way of confronting shame and daring it to do the same thing. That is why I've decided to tell the world that my name is Rachel Moran.
C'-' CHILDHOOD SOCIAL EXCLUSION We know the world only through our relationship to it. DR M SCOTT PECK, THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED T here were significant world events that occurred during a time when I would have been old enough to comprehend and remember them, but I never did, because ofmy separation from societv. hoth 11 practical and literal. Two good examples would be ~L r_ .. '~ 1' in Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Even now, after all these years, I find myself making excuses. Why do I not remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? Do I not remember it was all over the television and it was all anybody could talk about? How come I don't remember the end of apartheid? Don't I remember how we Irish played our part in applying international pressure against it? Don't I remember the anti-apartheid workers' strike at Dunnes Stores? Those are the kind ofquestions a person in my position dreads, because the truthful answers are banging around in our heads, much louder than the lies we use to conceal them. Here are those truths: I do not remember the end of apartheid because in 1993 I was busy working as a prostitute and developing a drug problem. I was living a lifestyle wholly outside of communal norms and felt neither welcome nor inclined to participate in society on almost any level. Foreign politics was a long long way from the conversations we prostitutes would have among us and buying newspapers and watching the news was something that simply wouldn't have occurred to me, or to most of us, in those times. Is it any wonder? Why would anyone wish to engage with a world that collectively shunned them? I do not remember the fall of the Berlin Wall because, though we had a working television in the house at that time, on 9 November 1989, when the Wall came down, my father had been dead less than a week and my mother's schizophrenia was on a startling upswing. My father had committed suicide by throwing himself from the fourth floor of a block of flats and my mother had reacted in a manner that was creepy and horrifying: she was pleased about it. I was too disturbed and stunned to have any time for what might be happening elsewhere in the world. I could only just keep my wits about me enough to concentrate on what was going on inside our own front door. My mother had taken to dancing, literally dancing, in a crazed untrained tap-step all about the house, singing and laughing about the wonderful new freedom afforded by her recent widowhood. Please forgive the tone of bitterness, I do not know how to erase it, but that is the 'liberation' I remember from the week that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. .]king about here is familial dysfunction and the way in which it can separate you from the world, and can lead to social exclusion. It is such a short leap from one to the other that it is easy to confuse the two. In fact, there is no leaping involved; they literally blend into each other as they overlap. Familial dysfunction breeds social exclusion in the most thorough and painstakingly meticulous manner I can imagine, because it takes each child born into that household and schools them all the moments of their life to understand and accept that they and the world they occupy are wholly separate and apart. I have heard a lot of nonsense spoken about how children 'don't know any better'. Children do know better, and they know better in a hundred ways and for a thousand reasons. You actually come to your first consciousness, as a toddler in a dysfunctional home, with the Sl'nse that this home is different from others. In my family's case, we t'ncountered practical examples of our own poverty every day and we knew from the earliest age that it set us apart from those around us. Also, occasionally the world outside our community would intrude upon our lives to confirm the fact. For example, that happened every yt in the form of the budget. My mother would be interested in two things: would there be a rise in the cost of tobacco? And would there be a rise in the rate of social welfare? She was not interested in petrol prices because she couldn't dream of owning a car, even if she could drive, which she couldn't. She was not interested in anything to do with interest rates or mortgages, because she couldn't conceive of owning her own home. She was not interested in the tax rates that affected those in employment because her husband was almost always out of work and since she'd had her children she'd never had a job; nor was she interested in policies that affected trade, commerce or the business world because she was an uneducated housewife from the disadvantaged classes and inhabited an entirely different sphere of reality. Most of what was discussed was not relevant to us and never had been. The budget was just another way of officialdom reminding us that we were different. So our status in society was very clear to us, even as very young children. Our situation as the offspring in a family with mentally ill people at the helm was equally clear. Mental illness on the scale that afflicted my parents would be impossible not to be aware of, even at the youngest age, and most especially in the case of my mother. My father's manic depression meant that he would often, for extended periods, sink into a very morose state where he'd simply sit and stare at nothing for long stretches of time and I knew that this was not normal. I'd never seen any adult, besides my mother, do that. Otherwise, her illness was altogether different and I was acutely aware of the differences in their behaviour. Her illness would actually be impossible not to detect, even for the youngest ofyoung children, because it involved such fantastical breaks from reality. Her delusions would involve supposed occurrences that couldn't possibly have happened, things that broke the laws of nature; gravity, for example. It was very clear to me that she was someone who saw things that didn't happen. What was also very clear was that other adults did not discuss these things, so obviously they were people who did not experience things unless they had happened. The disparity between the behaviour of my mother and that of the teachers at school (who really were the only other consistent example of adulthood we had during our childhoods) was so cavernously wide as to be indisputable evidence that there was something wrong with her; but I had known even before I'd had the example of other adults that there was something wrong with our mother. Her descent into illness escalated very rapidly in my early years and I clearly remember asking her one day when she was going to get better. She looked at me in a manner that was wide-eyed and innocent and slightly perplexed, as if she wondered where I might have gotten such an idea. She told me that she was not sick. That was the day I realised my mother was sick but was unaware of it. I don't know for certain how old I was that day, but we had that conversation in the sitting room in my grandfather's city-centre flat and we moved out of there when I was f(mr years old. My mother's twelve-year addiction to the prescription tranquiliser Magadan, in tandem with her untreated schizophrenia, produced symptoms and behavi~urs that would have been impossible to mistake for anything other than a severe form of sickness. I knew it was not normal for her to lie in bed until 6 p.m. each and every evening of her life. This she put down to insomnia; in fact, it was just one of the many symptoms of mental illness combined with addiction. There are a million little ways to feel socially excluded as a child. Here arc some of my memories ofthat: never having a pencil in school, always having to borrow one, or if I did have one, it being about an inch-and.a-half long, chewed to bits and the subject of mockery and derision; rarely having a book; always having to share someone else's or 'look in' as the teacher would say, and battling feelings of humiliation and Ihe conviction that I was intruding and regarded as a nuisance; never having any knickers to wear and hoping, especially in the school yard, that nobody had any cause to find out; never having any socks; wearing my father's, which would be doubled over to compensate for their size and withering with shame in PE when I had to take my shoes off. Having to answer the teacher when she asked me in front of the whole class why I wasn't wearing my school jumper in the middle of January, when the truth was I hadn't got one; and, if I was late and knew all eyes would be on me, counting backwards from ten outside the classroom door because it helped to steel myself against the shame of being stared at. All of these things caused me to understand that I was separate and apart from my classmates. OfcourseI couldn'tapplythe correcttermsto whatwas happeningto me then. All I knew was that I was regarded as different in my neighbourhood and different in my school, for obviously justifiable reasons. I saw that the situation was wrong, and I was right in thinking that it was; but my mistake was in believing that I was part of that wrongness. There would come a time in my adult life when I'd study criminology and sociology, but I had lived these things long before I'd ever read about them. Later, studying those subjects in an environment that was so detached and divorced from them, was a strange and surreal experience. I know that my own journeyinto prostitution was stronglyencouraged by economic deprivation and social disadvantage. These lacks generally affect males and females slightly differently. While they will strongly encourage both genders into a life ofcriminality, the exact type of crime will often differ along gender lines. Men, in my experience, are more likely to become drug dealers, women drug couriers. Where theft is concerned males are more likely to become armed robbers, whereas the majority of shoplifters I've known have been female. As gender differences relate to prostitution, men are far more likely to be found attempting to control and profit from it by taking on the role of pimps than they are likely to sell their own bodies. I have witnessed in others levels of destitution and economic lack that could, in my opinion, justify criminality having been breathed into them, and I have seen this many times in my lifetime. To give one example, I will have to move forward in time: a few years after I got out of prostitution and about a year or so after I'd returned to education, I was walking down Parnell Street when a homeless man approached me. He was filthy, dressed in rags and had a long dirty matted beard. He looked at least forty years old, possibly forty-five. He spoke to me and the words that came of his mouth hit me with the shock of a slap. He said, 'Rachel, do you not remember me? It's me, John!' He said all this with a huge delighted smile on his face. He was so happy to see me. Past the beard and the dirt and the roughened skin I saw his eyes, the same piercing blue, the same liveliness behind them, sparks of the same merry and mischievous light. It was indeed John. John and I had been in a psychiatric assessment centre for adolescents during the summer of 1990. We'd both been fourteen at the time. I'd been placed there because I'd been suspended from a hostel, thrown out of a foster home and expelled from school all in the space of a few weeks. There were a dozen or so other kids in the centre but John and I had a great connection. We were always laughing. There was a little one-roomed school on the grounds and there came a point where I had to force myself not to look at John in class any more because any time we made eye contact, the pair of us would end up laughing and getting into trouble with the teac.her. In the end I got sick of being psychiatrically assessed and walked out of there. I hadn't seen John since then and ten years had passed between that day and the day I met him on Parnell Street. Ten years, and he had aged thirty. He told me that he'd been homeless since he'd turned eighteen. When a boy in care turned l'ighteen, he was expected to be able to take care of himself. He could tither sink or swim. Many sank, as John did. We talked for a good few minutes and then he held his arms out for a hug. I hugged him, and was nauseated by the smell of him, and the guilt hit right after the smell. I cried as I walked away. I'm sure the day I walked away from John he went right back to whatever he'd been doing; and I'm sure he stole and scammed his way through life any way he could, just as I had done when I'd been similarly dterate. I have heard it said that economic deprivation and social exclusion have nothing whatever to do with the existence of criminality and that I htatter can be explained simply by the presence of evil. I met many young people like John in the early 1990s. I was a young person like John the early 1990s. I know what happened to bring us to where we were iiiH.l I know that evil had nothing to do with it.
'"'-' IMY MOTHER'S ILLNESS She had secluded herselffrom a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding and solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order oftheir maker ... CHARLES DICKENS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS T he symptom of my mother's illness that was most obvious and most overt was a terrible fear of the world, and she was afraid both for herself and for her children. It was this fear that caused her to confine us to our home, so that the five of us were only allowed to go to school and to the local shops, very rarely anywhere else. We were not allowed to play with or interact with any of our neighbours' children. A 'hello' to any of our neighbours would have been taken as a sign of disrespect to our mother-by her, of course-so we were raised knowing to keep silent on our way in or out of the estate where we lived in north Dublin inner city. This was noted by the locals, along with our filthy ragged clothes, and naturally we were marked out as different. We were treated as such by the neighbours' children and (though I doubt they truly understood what they were doing) the cruelty of their daily taunts seriously compounded our sense of isolation. This in turn fuelled our mother's tendency to keep us isolated. But this was just one manifestation of an illness that became more marked as it displayed itself in increasingly disturbing ways. When I remember back over my childhood I see that it was like a living yardstick; an eerily accurate mode of measurement by which to gauge the progression of an unquiet mind. For example, I developed a fairly severe stutter in a short space of time as a child of about eight or nine. It didn't last long. That was a matter of luck I'd imagine, as my mother's technique of language correction was to hit me in the face with such force each time I stuttered that I would see blinding flashes of light like great bursts of electric lightning which, together with the pain, would leave me trembling in shock and fear. I have to give it to her though; it was effective. She literally frightened the stutter out of me, and I've never had a recurrence of it since. One of my most brutal memories of childhood is of opening our kitchen door and finding my mother lying unconscious in a monstrously huge puddle ofher own blood. I was about nine at the time. I remember, even though I wasn't a very small child, that the blood seemed like a small lake, extending three or four feet out from her body in all directions. I don't remember what happened after that, but I do remember her arriving home several days later in the same coat she'd been wearing, now covered in maroon-coloured dried blood and her muttering some nonsense about having had to receive a four-pint blood transfusion due to her chronic anaemia. There was no reference made by either of us to the truth, which was that she had tried to kill herself and had very nearly managed it. Where does the fragmentation of a dysfunctional family begin? I believe it begins before the family does. I believe the wounds are already there, waiting to be cut into existence by the meeting of two unsuitable people and the birth of the children they go on to create with a love that is potent in its powers of destruction. What happened was that my parents both reached out for the comfort of love, as all humans do, and that unfortunately they just happened to reach for it within each other. Of course I regard myself fortunate that flawed and fractured love existed, otherwise I would not be here to record the outcome. As strenuous as lite has sometimes been, and as emotionally arduous as it was in the beginning, it is my life and I have always loved it. There were times when I loved it more in the having than in the living; still, it's been a rare day I considered letting it go. Some of the terms that are used around family dysfunction would not be accurate in reference to my family. Terms like disintegration, degeneration, deterioration seem to refer to the destruction ofsomething that was at one time healthy or whole. My family did not break down: my family was born broken. My father had his first nervous breakdown at eighteen, some fourteen years before he met my mother. My mother had begun acting strangely some time during her teens, the best part often years before she met my father. These two people, both afflicted by serious mental illness, met and paired together as adults, my mother being twenty-four, my father thirty-two at the time. My father's first breakdown had landed him in St Brendan's psychi.atric hospital and his manic depression was diagnosed there and then. His family were keenly aware that any woman he settled with would have to be a stabilising influence in his life, and my poor mother, with her untreated schizophrenia, was probably the one woman in all of Dublin who least fit the bill. But they did meet, they did marry, and the manifestations of my mother's illness continued unabated and roared through her marriage and the childhoods of her children like the ocean in all of our ears. Another expression ofher sickness would have been the evening, a day or two after our father's suicide, when she sent me and my older brother to our father's bed-sit to collect whatever was useful of his belongings. We were thirteen and fourteen at the time. It was in Rathmines, on the south side of the city. The main street was dominated by the neon lights of the Swan shopping centre. I had never seen them before that, and every time I've seen them since they've brought me back to the darkness of that November night. Itwas only about eight o'clock, but the sky was black and those lights shone bright against it so as to bring to mind the video games and pinball machines you'd see in an arcade. When we got to the bed-sit it was just that, another one-roomed hovel with a paltry attempt at a kitchenette in one corner and a single bed in the other. We'd seen many ofthese over the years, a new one each time my parents split up, which was often. That was just the last time our family was physically fractured, and as for the regular dissolution of our family; I remember the cruelty ofit, the way it was accepted without question that whenever the family broke down, my father was always the disposable member. I have always carried with me, heavily, like a weight, a deep compassion for separated fathers. It is easy to see why. So we stood there in his bed-sit, looking around. We'd never been in this one before. It was particularly small and ofcourse, being the last place he would ever occupy leant it a distinctive sort of melancholy; a feeling ofpitiful sadness with the shameful smell ofpoverty and degradation all bound up with that awful sense of finality that only death brings. There was, besides the elements that made it unique to the death of my father, a heavy sombre atmosphere, a sort of sensory arollla offatality I'd never experienced before. We'd been instructed to take anything that was of any use or value. There wasn't much. We hardly spoke while we were there and when we did it was very quietly, as though we knew what we were doing would have offended our father, and no doubt it would have, though I can see now, through my adult eyes, that he'd have been much more offended for our sakes than his own. But there was shame then, at that time, and I wonder could my mother, in her sickness, possibly have known that I'd feel like a vulture picking over my own father's bones? We scrunched closed packets of cornflakes and sugar and took them home to our mother, who inspected her meagre inheritance with glazed, emotionless eyes. Though I could see no ordinary mourning in them, I could see something very deep in her eyes that told me she held the whole universe behind them, and all the grief that was in it. There are too many painful memories, and I will not recount them all, because they are not all necessary. I will only recount what is necessary to show the reader how and why things came to be as they were, and I don't believe the excavation of every old bone is required in order to do that. But this image, this is important: two children walking back to a bus stop on a winter's night carrying light bags, each gram of which weighed as shameful. This is important to an understanding ofhow and why it could not have been hoped we'd grow up without encountering great adversity in our lives. Sometimes, when I am feeling very embittered, I feel assaulted by the assertions of others that my mother will 'always be my mother'. I regard them as the pious ramblings of people who haven't got a clue what it feels like to be raised by a paranoid schizophrenic. I contend then that you can sweeten stale cream till it's edible, but no amount of sugar stops it being sour cream. I resent them, I do; these people who maintain that my mother will always be my mother. I once worked with a woman who had two grown daughters, young women in their twenties. She spoke about them daily: what they'd been up to, what they'd gone through, what was going on in their lives. She recounted their experiences and the advice she'd administered to steer them through work problems and social problems and their heartbreak with men. Regardless of what trials they were going through, I couldn't help but think how lucky they were, those daughters. I have often wondered what a normal mother/daughter bond is, but because circumstances have placed me so removed from that concept, I do not wonder this with any overt sense of sadness; just simple curiosity, tinged with an abstract sort of regret. I wonder what that is like, and when I see grown women having a laugh or a hug or a conversation with their mothers, I find myself looking with concentration at what they are doing. I watch their facial expressions and make an effort to decode their body language. There is inquisitiveness there, paired with a sense of puzzlement. I am trying to understand what it is they are experiencing. I am trying to decipher dynamics I know nothing about. It interests me, but it leads to melancholy feelings. As far as fully rounded emotional maturity is concerned, in many ways my mother was a young girl while I was, and I've no doubt she still is to this day. We don't see anything of each other any more and, sad as it is, that is what works best for me right now and no doubt for her, too. For my part, to a very great degree, I have moved away from my feelings of blame-filled bitterness. It's been widely commented that there comes a time when a person stops thinking of their parents as parents and starts viewing them as people, and I believe it's when that happens, that the inclination towards pity shifts from you to them. When I think about my parents now, the overwhelming feeling I have for them is sorrow: just that; sorrow and compassion. I was surprised by the force of the compassion for my mother when it did hit. I almost hadn't been expecting it. I had always known some part of me felt sorry for her but I didn't look too deeply into that, the same way when you break a bone you make it your business not to flex the limb. '
Chapter 4 '"'-'.
IA WEB OF DYSFUNCTION It is hard for children to withhold assent from their mother-to stand far enough apart to judge that what she is doing is not part ofnature. NUALA o'FAOLAIN, ARE YOU SOMEBODY? M y parents were not to blame for my becoming involved in prostitution. As I have said, they were sick people, not bad people. It is the background of dysfunction that acts as a gateway to that lifestyle and while sometimes such an environment can be attributed to the moral failings of parents, I truly believe that was not so in my case. Yes, they made choices that negatively influenced the direction of my life, but they didn't act alone. They were directed themselves by very powerful influences quite beyond their control. Mental illness, addiction and poverty existed as the trio of primary roots in our experience of dysfunction, and those were not threads of experience with which my parents or any parents would wish to be familiar, much less intentionally desire or invite. Whatever my parents got wrong, they must have gotten something right, because they reared five intelligent children who went on, after some adversity, to form decent and relatively emotionally healthy lives. I used to think I knew what it was to come from as horrible a back.ground as it was possible to know. I found out very quickly upon leaving home that I had no such knowledge. I met young teenage girls during my own early teens who had been horribly abused, physically and sexually, and bore obvious physical and emotional scars to prove it. I came to discover that sexual molestation was commonplace umon~ the girls I met and existed in a lot of cases as the primary reason they had fled their homes. I had, thankfully, no such experience; my father was a decent man. So if I hold a mirror up and look at where I've been and contrast and compare childhoods by that barometer, I have very little to gripe about. Still, though, conditions of consistent dysfunction act as a catalyst for future problems and if there is one thing I resent my mother for it is that she raised us in such a way as to be totally unskilled in dealing with the world, before turning us out, as fledgling humans, straight into the thick of it. These resentful feelings are there because I am only human and I can hardly be expected to be happy about it, but they are partnered with the knowledge that my mother did the best she could. And I wonder, if I were raising five children while struggling with an untreated mental illness along with a decade:..long addiction to prescription drugs, and all thisin the midst of extreme poverty, would /have done a better job? Could I even have found the strength to do an equal job? Somewhere inside myself, I doubt it. Looking at the three root causes of our family's experience of dys.function, now, when enough years have gone by to still my resentment to a degree that some level of contemplative analysis is possible, I can see how they worked together in a supportive triangular formation; and I can see how that formation nurtured itself and each of its separate components. Mental illness, addiction and poverty: active addiction is the surest route to extreme poverty and its function can only be accelerated when the people in its grip are poor to begin with. Mental illness, of course, reduces the capacity for rational thinking, which lessens the likelihood of those suffering from it engaging in any sort of successful struggle against either it or the grip of addiction. Poverty itself is an aggravating factor in mental illness, and it was especially so in the 1970s and 8os, when the only in-patient treatment available was substandard and wholly inadequate. Also, in a household with five young children, poverty creates the perfect breeding ground for depression, a central element of mental illness, which the depressive addict will then attempt to alleviate with their substance of choice, the use of which will further aggravate their mental condition. Poverty provokes a desire for escapism, which encourages addiction; and mental illness incapacitates, making employment less likely, therefore copper.fastening poverty. Really, I could go round in loops all day, uncovering further and deeper reasons how and why those three elements nurtured each other, but there is no need: my parent's problems were dearly relentless; besides, it is an upsetting thing to examine the impossible maze that ensnared those two people who loved me. 'What hope had they got?' The question is a cry that is angry and impassioned, but the answer comes back low.spoken in a tone that is factual and cold: 'They had none: I know that I was mentally and emotionally abused on a daily basis until I was fourteen years old. That abuse came about not by way ofdeliberate intent on the part of my parents, but rather as a consequence of the conditions their illnesses conspired to create. That truth, unfortunately, wasn't enough to alleviate the damage the abuse was responsible for, and why should it have been? If somebody has spent their first fourteen years of life in a state of almost constant tension, physically and mentally stiff, as if continually braced against some oncoming storm, how much smaller is the leap into a situation which will place them in circumstances to which they will respond and react as they have always done? In this way and for this reason, prostitution was much more feasible for me than for the child of a non-dysfunctional home. For all the tensions and stressors of my childhood, I do not claim, among the children my parents reared, to have drawn the short straw; not by a long way. For a large portion of my childhood, almost as much as she needed to have somebody on whom to vent her frustrations, my mother was in need of somebody to hold in high regard. That position was mine for a long time and retaining my 'post' involved the execution of particular types of patience and cunning merged together to form an unsavoury skill. Dealing with a mentally ill woman in such a way as to benefit yourself and your position within a dysfunctional household is a skill indeed and every day for me presented both the necessity and the opportunity to practise it. The negative side ofmy mother's nature, her all-consuming animosity, was in many respects something akin to a flame. It had to consume; it couldn't survive otherwise, and just like fire, you could blow it away and it would live elsewhere, as long as it had somewhere else to go and something else to feed upon. I could see what aggravated her, she made that very clear, and I deduced that the best way to play the game was not only to behave so as to deflect negative attention from myself, but also to actively direct her aggression onto the other children, so as to make doubly sure that I would remain unscathed. I deflected attention from flaws she might perceive in me by way of regular selfless acts, such as cleaning the house from top to bottom while she was in bed asleep, and also by exploiting through encouragement seeds of derision that existed in her mind, directed at my brothers and sisters. All of this had to be executed in a very subtle manner because schizophrenics are hyper-perceptive and if she had ever discovered the ruse, that would have spelled disaster for me; so I had to learn to gently encourage these ideas that my siblings were bad, misbehaved and unruly. Because she had made a confidant of me, and treated me as an adult and an equal, it was often only a matter of responding agreeably to her never-ending diatribe about my siblings' characters and behaviours. These perceived flaws existed only in her imagination, but whenever she would express them, I would deliberately encourage them. It was a constant exercise in manipulation on my part, and by dint of simple practice, I eventually became very good at it. It was, in essence, a struggle for a position of relative ease within the household. There were so many stressors in our lives at that time, from within and without, that a position of some favour with our mother was very enviable and I was prepared to resort to ruthlessness in order to attain it. It was a survival tool that I honed as a child in response to an appalling daily reality; but still, to this day, I am deeply ashamed of it. One example ofan outside stressor was the fact that we were known by the other children in the estate simply as 'The Knackers'. They'd dubbed us with that title in response to our permanently dirty hair and tattered clothes, which were passed from one child to the next, regardless of what sort of state they were in. They called us this to our faces on a daily basis for the ten years I lived in that house. A couple of days after my youngest brother was born in June 1989, I went to the local shop to buy a packet of nappies for him. My older brother had had his first ride home in a _police car that day. He'd been caught shoplifting in the local supermarket and my mother was at her wits' end about what the neighbours would say. I personally couldn't understand why she'd give a damn about the neighbours or what they'd have to say; it wasn't as if we could number any friends among them. So anyway, I walked into the shop; I was thirteen at the time. There were three or four of the neighbours' children, all around my age, standing huddled together in a group in the middle of the shop floor and I heard the boy with his back to me say, very distinctly: 'You know the young fella out of the knackers' house? He just got brought home in a police car.' At that moment, one of the children he was speaking to spotted me and elbowed him in the ribs. They all glanced at me quickly, looked away, and fell silent. I passed them without a word or a look and made my way to the counter. It was a shock of revelation; a very undesirable kind. I paid for the nappies in a sort of daze and walked out of the shop and all the way home still reeling from the realisation that they hadn't only called us 'Knackers' to our faces with the intent to insult; it was also simply a term of reference, a means of identification. 'Knackers' was what we actually were to them. It is not a term I could ever use in reference to the Travelling people. Years later, in prostitution, on hearing prostitutes casually referred to as 'whores', I was imbued again with the understanding that an insult cuts much deeper when it is not intended to insult, when it is presented as a simple term of reference with no intention to affront. The prostitute knows that she lives in a society which, however saturated with sexual imagery, is still steeped in the veneration of virginity, and has the wit to know that since she is placed on the opposite end of that spectrum she will not find herself venerated any time soon. When someone castigates women like me for their histories, I just think quietly to myself: you could have been me, I could have been you, and isn't the whole world made up of junkies who just never got strung out? But anyway, this is an example ofthe sort ofbanishment and shunning we lived with as children; this was an enormous part ofour daily reality, this experience of being ostracised by our neighbours' children on the one hand and being refused permission to mix with them on the other. In this way, we really only had one reality to which we could identify and belong, and that was within the home. Inevitably we would develop all the psychological problems that living in such an environment entails, constant and ensnared witnesses as we were to the sickness that raged within its walls. Of course, sheer poverty set us further apart and compounded our sense ofotherness in ways that operated beyond the physical realities and practicalities ofeconomic lack. I remember Brother Luke's ofBow Street well. Our mother used to send us down there when we were children to ask for food and to explain that our family couldn't afford any. As young as we were, we understood the nature of begging. It humiliated us, yes, hut we were inured to it so that what might have been a sharp sting to other children was just a dull thud in us. I remember so well that old medieval-looking street off Smithfield. The brother there (I'm not sure if he was Brother Luke himself) would move around the kitchen swathed in his huge brown cassock that skimmed the tloor as he wrapped meat and packed tins and cut great lumps of butter from an enormous block. I used to wonder what all that food was for; he never kept anything in small amounts. Years later I found out it was a food centre for the homeless. I can't remember him ever saying a word. He may have taken an oath of silence, I don't know, but I always got the impression that the sight of us depressed him, and probably it did, but it more likely just saddened him. His silence frightened me then, but I can see now that he was a very kind man. I remember one Christmas week he gave me and my sister so muchood we could scarcely carry it and had to keep stopping for rest breaks all the way home. The load we carried made a forty-minute journey out of a ten-minute walk. It was so much the more awkward because he'd given me an enormous cake and I had to carry it so that it wouldn't get mashed in the box while managing half a dozen bags strung along either arm. There was no top on the cake box and I remember the neighbours' children gawking at us as we walked in and the keen sense of prestige involved in being seen carrying an enormous cake, coupled with the relief that they didn't know where it came from. I'd often be sent around to the St Vincent de Paul who would hold a clinic in a building adjoining our local church one day a week; I think it was a Friday. There was a dim waiting room with a scruffy terracotta.tiled floor and I remember clearly the humiliation of sitting alongside the other people on the benches that lined the walls. I was not humiliated, for the most part, because of waiting there for charity, as we were all waiting for the same reason; but the sting was in being the only child in that room, because I could decode from the adults' sidelong glances that my unaccompanied presence there spoke volumes about what was going on at home. My mother's propensity to treat me as though I were ten years my senior began at a very early age and I'm sure it had a great deal to do with my feeling older than I was all throughout my childhood and adolescence. From the age of about eight, she would send me alone to visit my father during his stays in the psychiatric hospital. That was always a dismal experience, as he would be medicated and was always deeply depressed, often to the point of immobility. I also had negative associations with St Brendan's on account of earlier memories I had of my mother sitting crying on the white benches of its grounds. One particular day though, it went well beyond the depressing. My father was usually located in the day wards, which was the term for the downstairs dormitories that housed patients who had signed themselves in for treatment. I wasn't aware of the existence of any other wards at that time. When I approached the desk that day and asked to see my father there was a delay I hadn't experienced before. Normally, on giving his name, I would be directed to his bed. The nurse behind the desk went off and came back with a man who was tall, dressed in white, and of a heavy build, with a big belly that protruded far over his belt. A male nurse, though I hadn't any idea who or what he was, ignorant as I was that there was any such thing at the time. He guided me towards a lift I'd never been in and through what seemed to me then to be huge steel doors. The lift seemed extraordinarily large and was sheeted with steel and standing inside its metal walls as the lift moved slowly upwards, I just knew that something was wrong. The lift doors opened and the man walked me out into a hallway. The walls were cream and a dead-looking green. Straight away there was the sense that this was a place so different from downstairs, it was scarcely imaginable that anyone could make the transition simply by way of a lift. Just as the nurse was about to walk towards my father's bed, which I couldn't see, as it was behind a cubicle wall, the most intimidating person I had ever seen lumbered by. He was enormous in stature, seemed about six-and-a-half feet tall, with huge arms and shoulders. But it was his walk, not his stature, which exuded a sense of menace. He put one foot in front of the other in the manner of zombies walking in the movies and his eyes just stared straight ahead; he seemed to have neither time nor trouble for looking in any other direction. He opened his mouth and emitted a sort of deep guttural moaning sound that resonated more horribly than anything I'd ever heard as it bounced back off the walls, and the last I remember of him was looking as the back of his head as he moved onwards up the hall and I started to walk again, beside the nurse who'd temporarily stopped to clear his path. That in itself had struck fear into me; that the nurse, whom I'd regarded as an authority figure just seconds before, had deferred power to this man. We walked on and I saw that bodies lay in beds all around the ward, or sat up in bed, just staring with a spaced-out resignation that rendered them little more than statues that somehow managed to breathe, and a great air of misery and utter hopelessness permeated the air and made it heavy, so that I felt physically pressed against by it. When we got to my father's bed the nurse walked away and left me there. Everywhere I looked I saw dead colours; shadows of grey, dirty shades of cream, and that horrible decomposing green. I remember thinking how unwell my father looked while he made the gargantuan effort of lifting his head off the pillow. I kept saying, 'Dad, Dad', and pulling at his shoulder, and eventually he slowly raised his head and looked at me. I saw that he was heavily medicated. His eyes were glassy and unfocused and as he recognised me I thought I saw them cloud with shame. He managed the briefest of conversations before he sank back beneath the fog. I cannot remember what was said, but I know that if I could, recounting it would not take up more than a couple of lines. I'm sure he must have asked after my mother, because that was always his first question when he hadn't seen her in a while. I didn't know what to do. I sat on the edge of the bed in the en