Monsoon Wedding (2002) is my favourite film. I can watch it again and again and again and my heart will still be caught by certain looks, gestures and lines. One of those lines is when Lalit Verma (played by the hugely talented Naseeruddin Shah) the patriarch, talking about his family, says – his voice thick with tears he is trying to check:
‘These are my children, and I will protect them from myself even if I have to.’
In spite of the fact that I have seen Monsoon Wedding several hundred times in the 10 years since it was made, the delivery of this line always chokes me up. I think it’s because I wish to God that I had meant enough to someone that they would have had the same thoughts and feelings about me. I’d love to think that I would ever have meant as much to even one of my parents. But I didn’t. I was abused and neglected by parents who should never have been allowed to keep dogs – never mind children.
The state knew. I have several documents in my possession that unequivocally mention that people in the (then) Eastern Health Board knew I was being verbally, physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically and sexually tortured, and how my needs were being sorely neglected. There are mentions over a number of years of the ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ situation I was living in. There are references to how the Gardai needed to be involved and to how I needed to be removed from the situation for my own safety. Well, guess what? No one ever called the Gardai. No one removed me from that ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ situation and no one, not one single person – and there several who knew – lifted a finger to help.
At one stage, a member of the clergy (because, of course, members of the Catholic Church knew) told me that, while he would have a word with a few of the people who raping and otherwise abusing me several times a week, if they didn’t stop, I needed to remember that ‘Boys will be boys’.
As a little girl of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 I used to dream of being kidnapped, stolen, taken away. Rescued. It was what I comforted myself with at night when I cried myself to sleep, my heart like a stone in my chest, my head wondering what I had done that was so bad that meant I deserved to be treated like this, and my vagina on fire from the treatment of rough and uncaring hands, mouths and pensies (yes, dear reader, plural).
By the time I was 10, however, I realised that I was never going to be rescued and I’d just be better off dead. So I tried ever-harder to kill myself and felt ashamed that I never managed to pull it off – imagine being such a failure that you couldn’t even kill yourself.
So, when I heard that Irish people were finally, finally, going to get the chance to vote on something that would make life better for little children on this island, I was delirious with excitement. Finally, little Irish babies and little Irish children and big Irish children and Irish young people – and even babies and children and young people who weren’t Irish but who lived here – would be cherished (isn’t that a lovely word?) and nurtured (another lovely word) and maybe even shown some love and kindness.
Then I read the proposed wording and my heart sank. This legislation doesn’t even begin to touch the hem of the skirt of child protection. It is a mealy-mouthed sop that will not prevent children from being abused, it will not rescue children who are being abused, and it will not confer on the state any more rights to intervene than the state already has. Crucially, it won’t demand that the state use the power it already has.
I know that a constitution is only a set of aspirations. It’s a wish list upon which we base our laws – a public declaration of what we would like most and best for the good of our people – not the actual set of laws. It’s a reference point to remind us of what we want for our people. Given that, I believe we should aim for the moon and settle for the stars.
The proposed amendment is not an exercise in moon-reaching, it is an exercise in optics. In looking at the moon through a telescope, shrugging and saying ‘Shure, that’s too far away, we could never reach there at all, at all’.
We’re telling people – we’re telling little girls who are the little girl I was 30 years ago – that, really, they don’t matter. It’s not enough for our children. It’s not enough for my children. I’d like to think that, were they ever in danger, they would be protected – even from myself if they had to be – but this proposed amendment won’t do that.