At the age of twelve, my father and grandparents deposited me at Mount Saint Canice, one of the Magdalene Laundries. I was there for four years. The laundry was run as a commercial business by the order of the Good Shepherd Nuns in Hobart, Tasmania. There were a number of such institutions in Australia, as well as in other parts of the world. Up to this time, my grandparents had raised me. They were aging and unwell, and I had developed emotional problems. They asked my father to place me in a boarding school. My father lied to them and me about where I was going. He was an irresponsible alcoholic.
My first day at Mount Saint Canice began at six a.m. in the pitch black and freezing cold. The lights suddenly flashed on, hurting my eyes, as a nun swept through the dormitory shouting, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone sprang out of bed, fell to their knees and began The Lord’s Prayer. I learned early on that commands at Mount Saint Canice were to be obeyed or swift punishment would follow. “Make your bed, get washed and dressed,” said a girl who slept in the next bed. That done, we lined up before filing through to the next dormitory and down two flights of stairs to attend Mass. What happened next, and in the months and years that followed, would shock and haunt me the rest of my life. My friend, Annie, was part of that story.
I met Annie while I was working in the packing room of Mount Saint Canice. I had been sent to work in that area of the laundry because I was sick with a cold; the physical work was lighter there. I’d seen Annie from a distance in the refectory, walking through the corridors, and at mass. She was seventeen. I was thirteen.
Annie was a slim girl; she had small features with lovely hair. Before it was shaved off, it was long, straight blonde hair that always looked clean and brushed. I knew Annie was pregnant from hearing talk among the other girls. There had been an escape some months previously. Annie and two other girls had been on the run for about two months. The police caught the girls in Launceston, a city north of Hobart.
I saw the three girls return after their return to Mount Saint Canice. The nuns had shaved the girls’ hair. They were made to wear the usual punishment dresses made from burlap cloth with colored bias binding to secure the edges. These dresses were designed to degrade and shame, but in reality had little effect, as we all had empathy for the girls.
Meeting with families was hard on the girls as they felt shamed and naked when it came to the castigation and shock they felt from such visits. Many parents wanted to see their children released without further time added to their stay in Mount Saint Canice. Families would plead with them to work through their sentences without creating further trouble, regardless of the treatment they received.
The girls received visitors in the ‘Parlor’ on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. The escapees would be denied visits for varying periods of time after their return; the nuns also denied them their pocket money and they had limited speaking privileges. All were degrading, punitive measures designed to make them feel guilty for their behavior. In the years I was at Mount Saint Canice, I never attended Parlor. I gave up expecting to hear my name called
During the time I worked with Annie, we became friends. She told me she had a boyfriend on the “outside.” They had been together since high school. Annie had tried to elope with her boyfriend when she was sixteen but had been caught and sent to Mount Saint Canice for a term of two years. This decision was court-ordered.
Annie was not allowed to see her boyfriend or receive mail from him. She told me she escaped from Mount Saint Canice to be with him. She said her life at home had been intolerable. Her father had begun to have sex with her when she was ten. Her mother knew about it but had not reported it. I was horrified when I heard this. Sex was new to me and quite abhorrent. I did not like to think about being naked near anyone, much less a male.
There were many things I’d already learned by then. Matters such as incest and rape were spoken about among the girls, and lesbian relationships were prevalent in the home. I didn’t understand any of these words. It was all too much and far too soon. I found it bewildering and stressful.
“Sue and Pauline are engaged,” Helen said as we walked to lunch.
“Shhhhhh!” hissed a voice from behind. “You’ll get us all into trouble. No movies on Sunday evening if this goes on.”
We were quiet.
Engaged, I thought, how could this be? Later in the week, I mentioned it to Helen when we were pegging our personal laundry on the clothesline.
“How can they be engaged?” I asked. “They’re girls.”
Helen gave me a look that said, and not for the first time, that I’d been living under a rock. “They are lesbians, you silly thing.” She gave me a friendly push.
I had no idea what a lesbian was and made a note to look it up in a dictionary. I don’t know for sure they were lesbians. I know they were deprived of love and physical touch. It may be that they chose human contact regardless of gender.
I wished at these times that I could be back at my grandparents’ house in the country. I missed my freedom and the quietness of what I had known as home. I knew that some girls were in “relationships.” Most had a best friend in the home. They referred to their particular friends as “true blues.” There was a distinct sense of proprietorship about one’s true blue. Love letters were passed, tokens exchanged and jealousy ran rampant. All hallmarks of a genuine love affair were present in these friendships.
The girls would steal kisses when they could, and it was usual for them to have sex when and if they could get away with it. Friends of the lovers would stand watch by a toilet block nearest the laundry or under stairwells. To be caught was a punishable offence. Vicious fights broke out over jealousy or someone's lover flirting with other girls. These battles were often bloody; I used to be terrified they’d lead to death. Fortunately, these rows were quickly broken up.
There was always that nagging fear I would never leave St. Mount Saint Canice. I would die there.
Annie was a very kind and friendly person, but I could detect anger overpowering her at times. It wasn’t anything she’d say or do, but more the look she had in her eyes and the way she attacked the folding of the laundry. She was five months into her pregnancy when I first met her. She had hidden this fact for as long as she could, and the older girls were very supportive of her.
Girls would often return to the home pregnant. They would be allowed to stay until six weeks before their confinement date. After that, they were usually sent to the “Elim House.” This was a Salvation Army home where unwed mothers went while they were pregnant and to have their babies. I heard stories about what went on in this home that filled me with fear.
After I’d been reassigned from the folding room to the ironing room, it was harder for me to see Annie. She was not in my group, but we managed to catch up for a talk when we could. I would often save an orange for her. I’d heard she needed the extra vitamins.
Annie worked in the packing room until it was time for her confinement. Those of us who knew her were sad to see her go. We said our goodbyes and hoped we’d see her soon. Annie was convinced that her boyfriend, David, would work out a way for them to be together. We wanted her to be happy.
The grapevine was always laden with news from the outside, and that’s how we learned Annie had given birth to a baby boy and she’d be back soon.
News of Annie’s return reached me one afternoon as I was on my way to have my afternoon snack in the refectory. When I arrived Annie was there. But not the Annie I knew.
Her hair was longer and blonde but lacking its usual luster. She looked fragile and unwell with large black circles under her eyes. She spoke to no one. I didn’t see her drink or eat. She sat at the table like a statue, alone.
Later that week, I passed through the packing room on an errand, and I stopped to say hello to Annie. She looked at me and her eyes filled with tears. “I had a baby boy,” she said.
I was lost for words. I’d heard her baby had been adopted, but I waited for Annie to speak.
She said in a rush of words: “I fed him myself, had him for almost six weeks. I still have some breast milk. I’m taking tablets to dry it up. I don’t have David anymore.”
“You named him after his father.” I said. “Where is he?”
“He was taken from his crib while I was working in the house. He was stolen from me. They told me he’d been adopted by decent parents and that I had to forget about him, to get on with my life.” She reached into her apron pocket and showed me a photo of her holding a baby with fair hair. She looked happy.
“Where was your boyfriend?” I asked.
“The police told him to stay away, or he’d go to jail. We had no chance of starting our lives together.”
“Can you get your baby back again later?” I asked.
“No.” Annie began folding pillowslips. “I’m tired. I can’t think about it; he was my joy.”
I told her I’d see her later and walked sadly away. It seemed unbelievable that this had happened.
Annie continued to look unwell and was mostly silent. We exchanged words when I could get near her. She told me that her boyfriend managed to get a message to her. They were going to catch the ferry to Melbourne and would make arrangements to leave the state. David said his parents had offered to help.
“That’s a good plan. You should try to leave,” I said. And then she did a strange thing. Annie looked at me with those dark eyes, and for a moment I was drawn into her gaze. There was such piercing pain there I had to look away. A shudder ran through me. Then she simply shook her head and said, “I’m tired.”
The next day, I was on yet another errand which had become my lot in life at that time. The packing room wasn’t a secure area. The nuns knew I wasn’t one to try to escape. I was the person who ran messages or delivered special orders to the packing room. I was broken, too submissive to try to escape. What was the use? I didn’t want my hair shaved or my clothes taken. Where would I escape to? I no longer had a home. Long before, I’d accepted I had no place else to go.
That day, I made a detour to the toilets just off the laundry area. They were in an older part of the building, reached via a corridor that was cold and drafty.
As I opened the door to my cubicle, I saw a movement to the right of my peripheral vision in the next stall. I saw a sheet, which hung from a bean, it was moving.
I heard ugly gurgling sounds.
I tried to open the door, but it was locked.
I screamed and ran for help.
A nun and two older inmates tried to kick the door open.
Marion, an auxiliary nun, and an older inmate climbed on the toilet seat in the adjacent cubicle.
“It’s Annie!” Marion yelled out. “She’s hung herself and I can’t reach her.”
A man who worked the laundry boilers came running into the room, kicked the door in, and cut Annie down. He made an effort to revive her, but she remained unresponsive.
I was numb with shock. I couldn’t speak.
We were herded into a nearby room while Annie’s body was taken away. My lips felt tingly. There was the sense that the walls were not the right shape. I couldn’t feel my face or my hands.
I sat for a long time, my body rocking back and forth, something I’d learned to do many years ago.
We were released from the room some time later. It was time for afternoon tea. We drank our tea in silence, most of us crying. Not a word was said to us then or later about Annie. We were left to comfort ourselves.
Marion told us they’d found the photo of baby David in Annie’s apron pocket on which she’d written the words: “Together now.”
Annie wasn’t mentioned at Mass. We were told, “Suicide is a sin.”
Annie’s story haunts me the most from my years of incarceration at Mount Saunt Canice. Annie’s death taught me the meaning of life and death in all its sadness and finality.
I think most of all I learned what it felt like to be powerless, to have no control or to be able to effect change in my personal life or the environment in which I lived. This knowledge was devastating to me, because it took away my hope, my joy of life at a time when I needed to explore my world with fresh, optimistic eyes. Annie’s experience and death relays the post-trauma that is still present within me.
I see more deeply into Annie’s story than my memory will allow me to see into my own. I think writing about Annie serves to validate my personal story for me. Perhaps I see Annie’s pain and despair lending credibility to what I saw and felt. It may be said that Annie offers me authority that I never felt I possessed.
I will never forget my time spent in the Magdalene Laundry. Well, to be perfectly truthful, there is much about that time that I have neatly boxed away, in a place that is unreachable. So, I guess you could say it is forgotten. But not in every sense because I still feel those experiences intensely in waves of fear and humiliation. I can - and do - remember the stories of the other girls around me. Their stories come back to me more clearly than my own. Annie’s story is one that haunts me more vividly than the rest.
The story of the girls and women who died and those who survived, is not over. Survivors of Good Shepherd Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Amreican laundries are now campaigning to have memorials placed on the sites.Type your paragraph here.