Lia Mills’s first novel, Another Alice, was originally published by Poolbeg in 1996. It has just been reissued in a new edition as part of the Arlen Classic Literature Series, which also features work by Catherine Dunne, Marian Thérèse Keyes, Anna Maria Hall, Kate O’Brien and Annie Smithson. The Arlen House edition of Another Alice includes a new foreword (by Paula McGrath), and an afterword by Lia Mills, which is reproduced here.
The best way to keep a secret is not to know it. There can be few nations in the world as talented at such artless oblivion as Ireland – an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that denial is embedded in our national DNA. It’s hard to credit, now, the number and scale of twentieth century cruelties that we managed not to know were happening behind the thinnest of veils, never mind high stone walls. If anything untoward was seen, suspected, almost understood – questions were quickly stamped out. It was the old Irish diktat: whatever you say, say nothing. The national instinct was to protect reputations and institutions rather than individual persons, to use euphemism to blur the outlines of a painful reality. Our everyday language was not equipped for the task of naming crimes of violence or shaming perpetrators. This is the Ireland Another Alice emerged from.
In the early 1990s, a grim series of cases of sexual assault and femicide emerged in Ireland, against a background that included revelations of the depredations of Fred and Rosemary West in England and rape camps in Bosnia. The atmosphere, for women, was toxic. At the time, we still had a collective, almost willful, blindness about the nature and effect of sexual violence. In one notorious case, a teenager who was raped by her boyfriend – a rape which caused extensive, lasting physical damage – was pressured by her community not to bring charges, because to do so would “ruin his life”. As if no harm had been done to her life. As if there was no harm in sending out a message that young men could assault and rape young women at will: they would be protected, as women would not. That young woman was brave enough to resist her community, to press charges and to go public. That there had been community pressure came as no surprise to most of us: this sort of subtle bullying happens all the time. It is, in fact, indicative of the problem. There has always been something skewed in favour of masculine impunity in the Irish sexual equation: witness the many ways in which women and children were forced to pay a heavy price for extra-marital conception while the fathers involved were held completely free and clear. Silence and denial protect an assailant, rather than a person who has been assaulted. They protect the We of a group and its more powerful members, rather than the I of more vulnerable individuals. What is a group worth if it doesn’t value all its members equally? It’s a question that can usefully be asked of states, religions, professions, families, a marriage.
I started to write Another Alice in 1992. Because the X case had put abortion back on the national agenda in that year, the airwaves and print media were as shrill with opinion, prejudice and vitriolic misogyny as if we were in rehearsal for the arrival of social media, although we were barely getting to grips with email and mobile telephony at the time. As long as everyone was striking a position or advancing a theory or acting in the interests of one side or another, advancing one political agenda or another, the voice of someone who had experienced sexual abuse or assault didn’t stand a chance of being heard: there was too much white noise getting in the way. I was angered by the level of dismissal, trivialisation and woman-blaming that poisoned the air and by our neanderthal judicial approach to cases of rape in the courts. I was also interested in the mechanisms and effects of denial. Why can’t we see what’s right in front of us? I wanted to open a different kind of conversation and it struck me that people might listen if such a story was written as fiction.
I don’t believe in many things but I do believe in literature’s ability to dismantle barriers in our minds and draw us, magnetically, magically, deep inside the consciousness of a story, and in doing so, to transform our own awareness. Fiction allows us to witness emotionally charged situations in a safe way and invites us to imagine the unimaginable. By opening us to other worlds – worlds that may be otherwise obscured by opinion, prejudice, ignorance, fear – it enhances knowledge, understanding, imagination, empathy. Reading gives us space and time to pay attention, to open ourselves fully to the nuances within a story as it unfolds; it brings us inside the skin of a character who was previously a stranger to us, shows us what that character knows and lets us feel what they feel. So why not, I thought, write a novel that explores one character’s experience of assault and recovery, in such a way that a reader will be drawn into that experience with her? Another Alice tells the story of one woman’s quest to understand her life and herself. I wanted to show, first how a person’s experience can be clouded, trivialised, distorted and even erased within her world – in this case, Alice’s family ‑ and then to bring a reader through the process of recognition and reclamation that Alice undergoes: naming her experience, even when the words feel too big, hard, ugly and dangerous to say. What she gains is the freedom of not having to waste all her energy in hiding, and hiding from, the truth. In Alice’s case, the challenge has more than personal relevance: the safety and security of her daughter, Holly, are at stake too. Resistance to truth has a long and devastating reach.
Victims of sexual violence gave testimony of how they were affected by it at the annual Humbert International Summer School in Ballina County Mayo. John Cooney, centre, Director of the Humbert School pictured with Marie Collins and Andrew Madden. Picture by Bill Heaney
It’s not always malice or misogyny that makes us blind to the nature and effects of sexual abuse and rape, but a kind of disconnect, a failure of imagination. It’s almost as if fear – even a fear of prurience, of trespassing in another person’s pain – makes us avert our inner eye so that we don’t fully grasp the nature of the experience and fail to understand the consequences. Like many other aspects of human life, sexual and gender-based violence exist on a continuum we all inhabit. Most women will experience some degree of sexual compulsion, threat or outright violence at some stage in their lives. The only surprising thing about this is the level of denial that goes with it. It can be hard to see things we are close to, but denial – the willful blindness and pretense that something vile and dangerous is not unfolding near us, around us, inside us – does not protect us. It has the opposite effect. It allows ugliness and hatred and corruption of any kind to escalate. Escalation can be gradual. As we allow small things to slip past, it becomes harder to challenge and prevent the bigger things until catastrophe happens and it’s too late. Sometimes we don’t understand what we are looking at until we are past it and, even then, we question ourselves. There are silences we don’t recognise until they shatter, experiences that are so primal they are difficult to name, progressions we don’t recognise until a woman is dead. Hindsight is about seeing things that have been there all along.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, by now, to hear that twentieth century Ireland didn’t value women much, but the truth is that the Ireland I was born into, in the middle of that century, did not, in practice, value children much either. I’m not saying that individual children weren’t loved, or that all children were neglected, not at all. Nevertheless, there were more children than many families – and the State – could cope with. Contraception was technically illegal until 1985, although in classic “Irish solution to an Irish problem” style, it was possible to access contraceptives through the Family Planning Clinics established in 1969, and a ban on importation was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1973 following the McGee case, brought by Mary Robinson and Donal Barrington. The dominant Catholic Church operated a policy that could be mistaken for a world takeover bid through numbers, resulting in over-large, exhausted, financially strained families and the shameful, shaming containment policies of the mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries. Young boys, in particular, were horribly abused in the Industrial Schools and within the Catholic Church. Read the Ryan Report (2009), the Ferns Report (2005), the Murphy Report (2009) for proof. Many people refused to believe these stories when they first emerged, just as doctors, hospitals and schools saw signs of injury and neglect and failed to recognise that they were looking at a systemic problem rather than individual cases. That applied to abusive families too. Like the Catholic Church, the Irish family could not be questioned. Children were low in the social hierarchy, with little protection from predators, whether inside or outside the home.
These days we understand more about the self-protective power of institutions (religions, corporations, sports organisations) but we don’t always recognise the extent to which the traditional twentieth century Irish family was itself an institution. It was so idealised that it could be hard to challenge, let alone to identify its potentially necrotic tentacles and bindings. These have been fertile ground for literature but in practice families were considered to be sacrosanct, not to be interfered with. That never stopped a priest from effecting the banishment of a woman from her home to a different kind of institution if he chose to do so, or the State from sentencing boys to incarceration in industrial schools for missing school, but people were blind to what went on behind next door’s net curtain. This blindness allowed appalling abuses to flourish. The convention that families were beyond outside interference is interesting, because there used to be a euphemism for a specifically sexual assault, that a person had been interfered with.
Our Constitution still frames the family, rather than the citizen, as the fundamental unit of society. The Citizen’s Assembly has recommended review, but at the time of writing, Article 41 stands unchanged. This framing is not always good for individuals, particularly not for women or children in violent situations. Don’t forget that divorce was not an option until a referendum voted to lift the ban from the Constitution in 1995; an earlier referendum had been defeated in 1986. We needed language as well as law – and often the backing of the European Court of Justice – to help us to establish civil liberties and understand the complexities of coercive and violent situations. We needed organisations like Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Aid. We needed the courage and real-life testimony of people like Sophia , Andrew Madden and Colm O’Gorman: Sophia’s Story (Susan McKay, 1998); Altar Boy (Andrew Madden 2003); Beyond Belief (Colm O’Gorman, 2010).
Our understanding was slow in coming. The terminology of ‘domestic violence’ was an important addition to the lexicon when it was formulated in 1973, enabling a discussion of a particular kind of systemic violence within families, but its effect was not entirely straightforward. It was valuable – even essential – in describing a category, a constellation of violence, with its own insidious, invidious effects and harm; but paradoxically, when initially used, it allowed people given to denial an illusion of containment, diminishing the recognition of violence now clearly defined as abuse and assault. Similarly, the term ‘date rape’, when it was introduced, allowed women to name an experience they may have been otherwise hesitant to claim, believing that rape had to involve an armed stranger and a dark alley, or a masked brute breaking into a house. But for those who are resistant to acknowledging the damage caused by sexual violence, the term ‘date rape’ was a gift. What harm if a woman’s body is broken into and defiled, if she knows her assailant? What did she expect, once she agreed to go out with him/let him buy her dinner/got into his car? Such questions lead us down a sorry trail of blame and deflect attention from the actions of a perpetrator. Is your house less broken into, plundered, trashed if the burglar happens to be your neighbour? Rape is rape. A broken arm is a broken arm, a frightened child is a frightened child. A dead woman is dead, no matter how well she knew the person who killed her.
It is impossible to imagine, in the twenty-first century, that we would consider it in any way acceptable for seven-year-old children to be ‘fostered’ out to work for families on farms or in domestic service, but in living memory that was done. The nuns who arranged those transactions are directly to blame, yes, but there were families who took advantage of them and communities who saw those children and knew what their role was and accepted it as part of life on this island. Children went barefoot in cold, wet, filthy streets. Boys were openly beaten in ordinary schools. Babies were minded by children not much older than themselves.
A quarter of a century has passed since Another Alice was first published. Ireland has changed out of all recognition in some ways but in others – not so much. Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network, Ruhama and One in Four have done much to transform our understanding and to support survivors in recovery from traumatic situations. But judicial treatment of complainants in cases of rape is still an issue – consider the infamous Belfast rape trial of March 2018 (R v Jackson and Olding) as an example. Ironically, discussions of that case served to highlight the adversarial treatment of complainants in cases of sexual assault in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland and may yet prove to be a catalyst for change in both jurisdictions. Anecdotal evidence and statistics from Women’s Aid suggest that levels of domestic abuse increased during pandemic lockdowns, which created a perfect environment for abusers while simultaneously throwing up barriers for women seeking help. The sexualised nature of social media harassment, threats and incitement to hatred are pervasive, as is the use of the internet to groom children and stalk women. The term ‘grooming’ has entered the lexicon to such an extent that a child of ten could probably define it for you better than you could yourself. Pornography and misogyny proliferate online. Women and children are trafficked for sex that Irish men pay for. Girls in other countries endure forced marriages or are kidnapped as ‘brides’ for jihadi soldiers. Rape continues to be a weapon of war. On this very afternoon, as I write, news is breaking of yet another murder of a woman by “a man who was well known to her”. She joins an ever-growing, chilling list of femicide victims. Women’s Aid’s Femicide Watch states that “every day 137 women across the world are killed by a partner or a member of their own family”. (These and other figures are available on womensaid.ie).
There have been positive changes in the law, including the recognition of marital rape as a crime (1990) which led to a historical conviction in 2002, and the introduction of a statutory definition of consent in 2017. Yet rape is still under-reported, in part due to a perception of the legal system as adversarial to complainants. Sexual assault can be difficult to prove. In 2018 the detection rate for cases of rape and sexual assault, as reported by the CSO, was 11%. The Rape Crisis Network and One in Four struggle to cope with the demand for their services, and survivors can face substantial waiting lists for counselling. Each individual assault is shocking, sickening and devastating for those who experience them. Sexual abuse and gender-based violence are no longer unspeakable. We know what to call them, we can name them without flinching, but they still happen, with mind-numbing frequency. What we don’t seem able to come to grips with is the fact that such assaults are not separate, unrelated instances but are intrinsically linked on a continuum of gender-based violence. This failure damages us all, men as well as women. We need to know why assaults happen and how to change ourselves so that they become as alien and incomprehensible to our world as the idea of the Magdalene homes or seven-year-olds compelled to do hard labour in dark fields.
I heard a story recently about a theatre company who run drama workshops to highlight issues of gender equality and consent for school children. On the day of one particular workshop, a co-educational school sent their boys to visit a factory instead. Only the girls turned up to learn what might well be one of the most important, influential lessons in the life of any young person of any or all genders. It is a classic example of how blinkers are formed, applied and supported within our communities. An adult made that decision, probably supported by other adults, and it would take a lifetime to unpick the reasons behind it. What hope do we have of challenging rape-supportive beliefs as long as we think boys don’t need to be in the room when those conversations take place? Back to the page we go, to the intimate encounter between reading mind and fictional world, where barriers are dissolved by page or screen and language forges new levels of human understanding.
Twenty-five years separate the writing of Another Alice and this Afterword, years that have seen much positive change for women and children in Ireland. Sexual mores have changed, issues and pressures change for each generation. But whatever our public attitudes and after-the-fact remedies, sexual abuse and rape are still horribly prevalent, and we have to ask ourselves why. I still believe in the fundamentally illuminating, transformative power of fiction and its potential to raise awareness and to generate understanding and empathy, which in turn have the power to change cultures. Alice is a fictional character but she is real in the pages of this novel (Another Alice). Her story is still relevant; it is happening all around us, every day. It is not just a story about abuse but about learning to see, understand and, crucially, name what is right in front of us.
Another Alice is published by Arlen House.