Reproductive Justice: Uncovering the Voices of Women to Address Health Disparities within the United States

By Ellie Smith

Notable moments occur throughout data collection and analysis that strike researchers. These moments can be especially powerful when experienced during qualitative, in-depth interviews with women about their reproductive health – an immensely personal topic. This particular interview progressed in a typical, methodological manner with no interruptions or abnormal discussions. However, at the conclusion of the interview, the participant proceeded to  thank me, claiming “nobody ever asks me” about her thoughts and opinions. Nobody ever asked about her reproductive health care status and access within the rural, close-knit community she resided. Her voice had been overlooked in the larger discussion of health care access, specifically in regard to reproduction. This interview, and study at large, brought her voice to light, uncovering her story and highlighting her lived experience as a woman of color and a rural woman within the United States.

Women of varying backgrounds, such as women of color and rural women, face unique reproductive health care disparities, resulting in high incidence of poor health outcomes. Women of color face a disproportionate share of reproductive health disparities including low birth weights, preterm deliveries, and infant mortality. Often these disparities result from systemic issues such as oppression, racism, socioeconomic status, cultural norms. Additionally, reproductive health care physicians and activists must combat a legacy of coerced sterilization, and consider overwhelming mistrust of medical services due to racial discrimination. However, current discussion regarding reproductive health care access throughout the US often overlooks the unique and complex experience of women from underrepresented groups.

Reproductive justice encompasses the complete state of well-being of women and the full protection and realization of women’s internationally recognized human rights. Reproductive justice aims to create a more inclusive moment, one highlighting the intersectionality of race, gender and class on reproductive health. This brings attention to systemic issues women of color and rural women face including oppression, poverty, lack of social support, racism, and cultural stigma. The initial struggle for reproductive rights (i.e. Roe v Wade) predominately served the needs of white, middle-class women. However, these women maintained the ability to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care. Utilization of “choice” disregards women on the margins of society who may not have the social capital to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care.

This requires a shift from reproductive rights to a matter of justice to address issues that influence reproduction such as economic justice, environmental issues and racial discrimination. Moving beyond “choice” creates a more diverse and inclusive movement, providing a platform to address barriers women from unique backgrounds face when accessing reproductive health care. US-based organizations such as SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Project facilitate a national grassroots operation to view reproductive health care access as a universal (Greene, Joshi, & Robles, 2012)human right. Utilizing grassroots initiatives highlight individual experiences, especially those of women with limited autonomy of their reproductive health due to systemic issues. Further, reproductive justice allows autonomy for women to decide when, whether, and how to have children, but also to raise them in safe and supportive environments. Uplifting the voices of historically marginalized women not only constructs empowerment, but uncovers hidden truths of reproduction, allowing researchers, scholars, and activists alike to address barriers to reproductive health care access.

References:

Chrisler, J. C. (2014). A Reproductive Justice Approach to Women’s Health. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 205–209. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12056

Dominguez, T. P. (2011). Adverse birth outcomes in African American women: The social context of persistent reproductive disadvantage. Social Work In Public Health, 26(1), 3–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911350902986880

Greene, M., Joshi, S., & Robles, O. (2012). By choice, not by chance: Family planning, human rights and development. Presented at the The State of World Population 2012, United Nations Population Fund.

Hooton, A. (2005). A Broader Vision of the Reproductive Rights Movement: Fusing Mainstream and Latina Feminism. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 13(1), 59–86.

Lu, M. C., & Halfon, N. (2003). Racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes: a life-course perspective. Maternal And Child Health Journal, 7(1), 13–30.

Meier, S., Sundstrom, B., & DeMaria, A. L. (2015, October). “Beyond a legacy of coercion: Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) and social justice. Presented at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Exposition: Socialist Caucus, Chicago, IL.

Price, K. (2011). It’s not just about abortion: Incorporating intersectionality in research about women of color and reproduction. Women’s Health Issues, 21(3), S55–S57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.whi.2011.02.003

Rosenthal, L., & Lobel, M. (2011). Explaining racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes: Unique sources of stress for Black American women. Social Science & Medicine, 72, 977–983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.01.013

Ross, L. (2011, March). What is Reproductive Justice? Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://www.trustblackwomen.org/our-work/what-is-reproductive-justice/9-what-is-reproductive-justice

Zucker, A. N. (2014). Reproductive justice: More than choice. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 210–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12059

Ellie Smith, B.S., is a graduate student in the Master’s in Communication program at the University of Charleston, South Carolina. Her research interests include women’s health, health communication, and reproductive justice. She is currently examining women of color’s reproduction across the lifespan utilizing a reproductive justice framework.

 

Maternity Tales: Exploring the History of Maternity

By Emma Cheatle

Maternity Tales is a three-year research project led by Dr Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University. It looks at the buildings and interior spaces used for childbirth in England from the seventeenth century onwards and evaluates their impact on the development of maternity practices. Until the 1750s all births took place at home – except of course where birth occurred unexpectedly! A labour and the recovery afterwards were known as ‘lying-in’. The lying-in period was typically a month, during which the new mother at first recuperated bed-bound, then remained in the house, gradually returning to her household duties. Lying-in ended with the public cleansing and thanksgiving ritual of ‘churching’ performed in the local Church of England.

Two midwives assisting a woman in labour on a birth chair, Eucharius Rößlin, Rosengarte, 1513. Courtesy Wellcome Images, London.

From the 1750s the domestic spaces of home birth were made complex by the emergence of lying-in hospitals. These were the first specialist hospitals and began an era of institutions in general – from spaces of welfare such as asylums and hospitals to those of intellectual gatherings like the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle and the Royal Society in London. The lying-in hospitals were philanthropic charities aimed at poor (albeit married) women who lacked the funds to afford decent homes let alone good midwifery care. Although they undoubtedly helped many women, the lying-in hospitals were devised and controlled by the new men-midwives to develop their skills and establish their status. At first occupying large houses, as the century progressed they acquired purpose-made buildings. In contrast to the dark and airless domestic lying-in chamber, these were lofty and neo-classical designs, with roomy wards of 6-8 beds and large windows. Their advantages – including light and airy spaces, access to new forms of care and spaces of rest – contrasted with their disadvantages – lack of privacy, a shift in control over one’s own body as it was passed to the institution, the medicalisation of birth and an increased death rate from puerperal fever.Lying-in did not take place just anywhere in the home but involved carefully remaking the master bedroom into a dark and airless lying-in chamber. At the first signs of labour, extra linen was draped onto and around the bed and over the windows and doors. The fire was stoked up, and all openings in the room closed – sometimes even gaps and the keyhole were stuffed with fabric. It was thought air and light were harmful and may lead to the dreaded puerperal fever, a tremendously dangerous illness (essentially an infection) experienced after childbirth. Men were removed from the room, and replaced by a gathering including the midwife and at least five women to aid the birth, called the ‘gossip’. The room was darkened further after birth, as it was thought light could damage the new mother’s eyesight, already weakened by the effort of childbirth.

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth at the 2016 Being Human Festival

General Lying In Hospital, York Road, Formerly New Westminster Lying-in hospital. Engraving by J. Shury, 1830, after N. Whittock.

Across the nineteenth-century, birth witnessed various experimental practices in these purpose made spaces. Men-midwives were gradually renamed accoucheurs and then obstetricians. Although the vast majority of women continued to give birth at home – indeed it was not until the 1940s that more than 50% women gave birth in hospital – midwifery care had shifted, and the practices and ideas tested in the hospitals affected home delivery. Light and fresh air were seen as important. Instruments such as midwifery forceps became more common, and men began to be called into the birth chamber in favour of the traditional female midwives, particularly by the middle- and upper-classes.

Parts of the Maternity Tales project are being presented in an installation which can be seen at this November’s 2016 Being Human Festival. The installation, taking place at the Laing Art Gallery and Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, presents a ‘listening booth’ to explore the history above. Aimed at parents to be, parents, grandparents, midwifery/obstetric professionals, plus anyone interested in architectural and maternity history, the booth comprises two parts:

[1] Histories: Visitors are able to explore a tall wooden filing drawer unit containing different visual displays and sound pieces on the history of spaces used for birth from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

[2] Collections: Visitors are encouraged to fill in record cards found in one of the drawers, in order to explore and share their own labour experiences as ‘spatial maternity stories’. Willing participants are also invited to make sound recordings in a separate screened private interview space. Both these collections will inform Emma’s further research and a radio play.

References:

Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge, 2000).

Ralph A Houlbrooke, English family life,1576-1716 An Anthology from Diaries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989

Pam Lieske, Eighteenth-century British midwifery (Pickering and Chatto, 2007).

Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-midwifery,1660-1770 (Harvard University Press, 1995).

Margaret Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, Medical Men and “Poor Women Labouring of child”: Lying in Hospitals in Eighteenth-century London’, in Helen Roberts (ed.), Women, Health and Reproduction (Routledge, 1981), pp 18–24.

Helen King, Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: the Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium (Ashgate, 2007).

Dr Emma Cheatle is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute. She is an architectural historian and writer, and author of Part-Architecture: The Maison de Verre, Duchamp, Domesticity and Desire in 1930s Paris (Routledge, 2017). Her current project presents a critical history of maternity spaces and examines how the past changes our understanding of contemporary experience.

Maternal Readings of Motherhood on Television: A Birthlight Summary

By Rebecca Feasey

I recently published a blog giving an overview summary of a research project that asked mothers in the television viewing audience to comment on their readings of motherhood on the small screen (Feasey 2016a). After presenting this work at a recent ‘Womb to World’ conference, I have been asked by Birthlight to consider the ways in which their members might be seen to adhere to or negotiate my original research findings. Birthlight members listened to my research and informed me of their individual maternal readings, before asking if Birthlight members could complete the questionnaire that informed the original project.

Birthlight is a ‘charity and teacher-training organisation focusing on the holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). During a time when pregnancy and childbirth are becoming increasingly medicalised, Birthlight members are committed to the ‘spiritual’ dimension of birth and view labour as a ‘light and fulfilling experience’ (ibid). The organisation supports families from conception through to the third year, with body-based practices inspired from yoga playing a crucial part in what members call ‘an expanding spiral of joy and wellbeing’ (ibid).  With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the ways in which Birthlight members responded to questions posed about representations of childbirth, their favourite maternal figures, those they can relate to and those that they see as problematic, and how this compares to the wider maternal population presented in the original research who had not spent time with the Birthlight group. In short, this blogpost seeks to draw attention to shared maternal responses from within and beyond the charity in question.

When asked if they liked to watch reality shows or television dramas about pregnancy or childbirth, many Birthlight members echoed the wider maternal population, with responses telling us that they not only felt an emotional connection with programmes such as One Born Every Minute (2010- ) when they were pregnant but that they looked to this programme and its successors for an insight into hospitalised childbirth. And like those women originally surveyed, the majority of those expecting Birthlight mothers, who were interested and invested in the show while pregnant, stopped watching soon after the birth of their first child due to an emotional or instructive need already fulfilled by the programme in question.

That said, for every Birthlight member who was emotionally invested in or looked for instruction in One Born Every Minute, there were those mothers who felt irritated, frustrated and angered by what they believed to be an unnecessarily dramatic and fear-inducing depiction of childbirth. What was interesting here was that for those women who looked to critique One Born Every Minute, they did so after their own childbirth, comparing their personal experiences to those seen on the small screen and finding them wanting. And such divisive readings of reality childbirth television echoes comments made by the original audience.

Comments relating to the question about ‘favourite’ television mothers again mirrored the wider maternal population as a number of these women pointed to the characters of Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls 2000-07), Lois Wilkerson (Malcolm in the Middle 2000-06), Sue Brockman (Outnumbered 2007-14) with the addition of Beverly Goldberg (The Goldbergs 2013- ) and Nadiya Hussain from Great British Bake Off (2010- ) fame. The common theme here was that these women were understood to be ‘real’ and believable characters rather than romanticised or rose-tinted figures, irrespective of their factual or fictional nature.

Some mothers pointed out that they struggled to find favourites or even likeable maternal figures because women in general and mothers in particular, tended to be marginalised in specific genres, which echoes recent research on what is being termed the ‘missing mother’ trope (Aström 2017). Sadly, however, this trope is not restricted to science fiction, fantasy or horror fare as suggested by some respondents, rather, it is evident in the wider cultural imagination. Indeed, a forthcoming volume makes the point that representations of motherhood are, across the medium of television, absent, missing and presumed dead in much popular media culture (ibid, Feasey 2017).

I was interested to find out if there were any mothers on television that inspired them or maternal figures that they could relate to, be it through parenting practices or sartorial choices, the Birthlight mothers formed an unwavering consensus, with each respondent answering in the negative here. That said, there was the acknowledgement from a maternal minority who felt that even though they could not relate to mothers on screen, they could on occasion learn from reality parenting texts such as the Three Day Nanny (2013- ), again echoing the findings from the original maternal survey.

Birthlight members were then asked to consider if there were any mothers on television that made them laugh, and the majority view was that there were very few humorous maternal figures on the small screen. Moreover, the small number of women that were mentioned such as Roseanne Conner (Roseanne 1988-97), Marge Simpson (The Simpsons 1989- ), Edina Monsoon (Absolutely Fabulous 1992-2012) and Lois Griffin (Family Guy 1999) were all firmly rooted in an earlier period of situation comedy. A few respondents made the point that although they didn’t like ‘laughing at’ other mothers, they felt a ‘frustrated laughter’ at those women who they deemed to be poor mothers, poor mothers by nature of their absence in their children’s lives. These responses blended into my next question that asked mothers in the television audience if they felt negatively towards maternal figures on the small screen, and if so, what was it about these mothers that encouraged ridicule or disapproval. Like the original responses, Birthlight mothers were divided, as some wanted to put an end to the ‘mommy wars’ which encouraged maternal divisions, whilst others spoke of their disapproval of what they deemed selfish mothers: those who put their own needs before and above their children – be it the Kardashian clan or the real desperate housewives.

What was interesting here was the fact that Birthlight members came to the research with the expectation of proposing or presenting an ‘alternative’ maternal voice, based in part on their shared ‘holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). However, it is clear that irrespective of time spent in NHS, NCT, Birthlight or other pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, childbirth or childcare classes, there is little in the way of diversity in these maternal readings. Birthlight members mirrored the broader maternal response when these women spoke of a desire for more maternal diversity on the small screen. They noted that television under-represents disabled mothers, fostering and gay family units, the medium presents very little in the way of racial differences, and when any of these maternal minorities are depicted, it is said to be ‘in a stereotypical fashion’ with ‘exaggerated characteristics assumed by the broader media and society’.

Bibliography:

Aström, Berit (2017) The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Birthlight (2016) ‘Welcome to Birthlight: For the Greater Enjoyment of Pregnancy, Birth and Babies,’ Birthlight. Available at: http://www.birthlight.co.uk(accessed 12/09/2016).

Feasey, Rebecca (2017) ‘Television and the Absent Mother: Why Girls and Young Women Struggle to Find the Maternal Role’ in Berit Aström (ed)The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.tbc.

Feasey, Rebecca (2016a) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television,’ WordPress.com, Available at: http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/motherhood-and-the-media/(accessed 12/09/2016).

Feasey, Rebecca (2016b) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television, London: Peter Lang.

 

Rebecca Feasey is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Communications at Bath Spa University. She has published a range of work on celebrity culture, contemporary Hollywood stardom and the representation of gender in popular media culture. She has published in journals such as the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Journal of Gender Studies,Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. She has written book length studies on masculinity and popular television (EUP, 2008) and motherhood on the small screen (Anthem, 2012). She is currently writing a research monograph on the ways in which women respond to representations of motherhood on television (Pater Lang, 2015:http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/).

Brexit and the Maternal Body: Stretching the Skin Until It Breaks

By Rosalind Howell

Upon recently encountering a friend who was in her last few weeks of pregnancy, I found myself saying: “My goodness, surely you can’t get any bigger – you’ll burst!” As someone who considers herself pretty comfortable with pregnancy and birth, I was rather surprised and embarrassed by the strength of my (mostly unconscious) response to encountering her maternal body.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum vote, the metaphor of the body – the maternal body specifically – is a potent and fruitful symbol in helping make sense of the distress and chaos felt by many people. As Psychotherapist Jay Watts has pointed out, since Brexit some of our most deep-seated fantasies of the body have risen menacingly and overwhelmingly to the surface  (Guardian, 2016). The vote exposed divisions in the country that gaped open and leaked rivers of grief, anxiety, rage, and hatred out of the ruptured body of ‘civilised’ British society.

A nation state, as well as a body, contains within it a fantasy of an inside and an outside with a boundary to keep the two separate and distinct and within that idea is embedded a promise of safety and order. Brexit in part exposed some of our deepest fears of the outside getting in and the insides spilling out.

The skin is our primary body boundary – the part that borders with the not-us, and it has a permeability that is both concrete and symbolic. If a pregnant woman exposes her belly to the summer sunshine, some photons of light will make it through the layers of skin and tissue to the baby. If music is played near the mother’s pregnant stomach, some people believe it may positively affect the child’s development. Even the womb is not hermetically sealed. And in some cases – such as in ideas around child development – there is belief that the bodily border can filter successfully to assimilate what is good, nourishing and beneficial.

But the skin of the maternal body can be stretched to its limits during pregnancy and as my response to my friend revealed, threatens to break the contract to keep those insides away and out of sight. Psychoanalyst Esther Bick developed a concept called Second Skin: a very early response to feeling anxiety. She suggested that a pseudo -independent tightening of the musculature by the baby could be felt to psychically protect her or him from feelings of disintegration by holding together the parts that were not yet experienced as having cohesion (Bick, 1968). In some ways, a Brexit vote can be seen as the attempt by a culture, country or political system to create a second skin around its borders. That by simply holding on, holding in, holding up and holding down we can protect ourselves – not just from the other – but also from a fear (crystallised in the Breaking Point campaign poster) that we cannot hold our disparate parts together to form a cohesive whole. That we may literally and symbolically break apart. A most literal example of this was by Donald Trump whose response, exploiting this anxiety, was a type of concrete thinking that came up with the solution of a concrete wall built along the US border with Mexico.

The pregnant and lactating body threatens this fantasy of borders that hermetically seal most of all. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, the maternal body terrifies us with its refusal to stay within its designated borders. During birth and lactation, blood, tissue, milk, even faeces spill, leak or are expelled with the force of the birthing. This breaking down of the borders of the body constitutes for Kristeva a breakdown between what is self and what is other and is experienced by us as a visceral and symbolic repulsion, or an abjection (Kristeva, 1984). Post-Brexit Britain has seen the thin social veneer cracking and the rage and hatred of racist attacks spilling out,  like a poison. Kristeva gives an example of the abject as our experience of the thin skin of warm milk that repulses, she says, precisely because its flimsiness threatens our confidence in our own skin’s ability to create a strong boundary between self and other. The abject refers to this place where the structures and laws that we feel keep us safe are disturbed to such an extent that we truly understand how fragile they are.

For Kristeva, these structures and laws which are defied by the maternal body are the building blocks of a patriarchal society, with its boundaries constructed and enforced by language, and definition. It is this. It is definitely not that. It is inside or outside, it cannot be both. The language of the Brexit campaign with its false promise of taking back control expressed a hopeless longing for an impermeable body, one that doesn’t bleed, ooze, sweat or leak, but as a result may also not be able to absorb, filter, sift, digest and discern. How we allow ourselves to ‘let in’ the consequences of the vote, both good and bad, and digest its ongoing impact on ourselves and others might also help us feel more safe, secure and nourished within our own borders.

References

Bick, Esther. The experience of the skin in early object-relations. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 49(2-3), 1968, 484-486.

Kristeva, Julia. (1984) The Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press

Watts, Jay. (2016). The E.U Referendum Has Caused A Mental Health Crisis. www.guardian.co.uk

Rosalind Howell is a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist and Writer. She has recently co-edited the inaugural issue of the Journal of Mother Studies.

 

 

Conceiving Histories: A Project Exploring the History of Pre-Pregnancy

If you begin typing ‘Am I …’ into a Google search box, ‘Am I pregnant?’ is the first offered suggestion, just ahead of ‘Am I registered to vote?’ (a vestige from the Brexit referendum), ‘Am I depressed?’ and ‘Am I insured?’. The internet is externalising and collectivising something that for our mothers’ generation had been private, internal: the ambiguity of early pregnancy. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, the wait to find out can be hard: a time of fantasy and projection, of bitter anxiety or ardent longing. These days, the time before a pregnancy test will give a sure result is referred to as the ‘two week wait’. In practice, because false negatives are likely in the early stages of pregnancy, it often takes a little longer than that for a not-pregnant woman to accept a negative result: more like two and a half to three weeks. What is more, some women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year. They are waiting, too, to try, as well as to test. They are waiting for parenthood, for something that may never be.

The monthly wait to test is speculative territory; people are left only with the option of asking a machine as if it were a fortune teller and which, for all the knowledge on the internet, finally cannot answer the question ‘am I pregnant?’. This wait, before it’s possible to use a pregnancy test, a wait swirling with anxieties and speculation, belief and fantasy, reconstructs in modernity a historical space, before the technology of the home test was available. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern. For the duration of this strange time we exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies.

Indeed, like the internet, the archive is full of materials about the difficulties and anxieties of diagnosing early pregnancy and the urgent desires that attended that ambition. The wait to diagnose pregnancy was more protracted in the past, but it was no more tolerable. Women, their partners and their medical practitioners all wanted to know, perhaps for differing and competing reasons, and to be able to solve the mysteries of the reproductive body.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary academic, Isabel Davis, and practising artist, Anna Burel. We will be researching these materials together and we will be presenting our research in different ways: through different kinds of writing but also in new art work, exhibitions and events. Anna’s first artistic responses to the Conceiving Histories collaboration will be on display at the exhibition Ends, being held at the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton 7-24th July. We will also be holding an event there on 21st July at 2pm at which we will be talking more about our project and particularly about one of our case studies: the Experimental Conception Hospital. The Experimental Conceptual Hospital is a strange building imagined in a commentary on an early nineteenth-century legitimacy trial by the botanist Robert Lyall, a place where the mysteries of conception would be solved and the outer limits of gestation fixed for certain. It would have high walls, over which air balloons would be forbidden from flying. Within it women would be imprisoned and visited by ‘healthy physician-accoucheurs of London’ who would, as Lyall euphemistically puts it, ‘administer physic and consolation’. Lyall’s is a bureaucratic vision and he is clear about how and who should keep the careful records which would supply the ‘sure data’ to the British parliament and enable them to ‘construct precise and just laws with regard to the legitimacy and illegitimacy of all children born in these realms’. ‘Nothing,’ he says, ‘should be left to memory’. We will consider this example, thinking through, and contextualising its naked anxieties and dark fantasies about the unknowability of women and their reproductive bodies.

Burel Anna, 2016, De Formatu Foetu, Ends Exhibition, Hundred Years Gallery

Conceiving Histories is a new project, funded by Birkbeck, University of London and the Wellcome Trust, which is looking into these archival materials to investigate two questions: how was the time of pre-pregnancy negotiated, experienced and described in the past, and how might this historical knowledge contribute to questions and debates about the experience of trying to conceive today and in the future? The project is a collaboration between art practice and academic literary research and it looks at the history of nothing happening, of un- and pre-pregnancy, as well as early pregnancy loss. We will consider hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies and fashions which simulated pregnancy. Because the time-frame of the project is a long one (from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century), Conceiving Histories will develop and work through case studies, from different historical moments, looking – to give a few examples – at the wishful idea of angel messengers revealing the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor for whom so much was at stake; strange plans for experiments (see below); questions around pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and other sensational stories both in historical and literary materials.

Isabel Davis is an academic in the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on medieval literature, gender, temporality and the body.

 

Anna Burel is an artist based at the Bow Arts Trust in London.She works in a range of different media – photography, drawing, costume and performance art – to think about the body, and particularly the female body, under medical scrutiny. Her work mediates on the properties of skin and viscera, anatomy, surgical examination and pharmacopoeia.

A Maternal Haunting

By Anna Johnson 

I began writing for no clear purpose other than from a need of some kind. And also, I think, from some notion that I could perhaps ‘make something’ of the unexpected, powerful strangeness of this experience of motherhood in which I am suddenly immersed – that something could be formed by placing these experiences a little way outside of myself (or attempting to at least). The writing kept returning, as if of its own will (though of course not – just at the behest of parts of me I am less than fully conscious of), to an idea of haunting, or multiple senses in which I experience my altered life and self as haunted. Hallucinations and ‘visions’ of imaginary objects, during and after his birth, perhaps draw unsurprising parallels with ideas of haunting, but the more mundane events of depressive episodes, repetitive activity and the altered consciousness of endless caring also carry this sensation for me. Perhaps, as Stephen Frosh writes of psychoanalysis, motherhood also “from past to future, from subject to other[…] disturbs rational communication.” And there are the objects (undoubtedly in the psychoanalytic as well as the physical sense), to which I seem to want to attribute or attach my ghosts. Some real objects, some imagined. I wrote that:

I have this image of a ceramic vessel, spherical, pale yellow ochre, textured, which is opened by breaking. I see it in my chest, though I didn’t know until now that it was there. It contained a body of emotion that now forms a well between my heart and stomach (since it broke with my baby’s first cries) and sloshes about messily in part of the space he once pressed upon. I wonder if there is a version of this vessel in ceramic history – I would research it if I weren’t too tired 1. This lodged vessel, that required the precise pitch of his first cries (actually, not his first, but his first out of my arms, flailing on our kitchen table, receiving his first nappy, I think) to break apart, as if dropped on stone, was not all that broke. Or, and I think maybe this is it, its contents trickled down the inside of my ribs loosening the sediment that had formed there, never terribly effectively, over my ghosts.

And so I continue to write, and to look for objects to project my hauntings onto, to anchor my words and weigh down this weightless body of text.

Perhaps it is the repetition that comes, inevitably, with caring for a baby that causes images or objects to seem haunting now in their constant, paced returning. Or the returning of their loss. To me at least, the repetition involved in this practice is of a different texture to any I have experienced before. It is woven into our days, no matter how we spend them. And so, perhaps, the same cascades of connections are set off more easily by the familiarity of the sounds, actions, objects and spaces we inhabit, or even by the familiar ways in which we explore new sounds, actions, objects and spaces. He will, given the chance, make a full 360 degree survey of any new furniture or, ideally, person he is able to circle, moving his hands, one free, one secure, like a rock-climber, shuffling his socked feet. But this example is too concrete, too explicit – the texture of our most substantial repetitions is much finer. It is the grain of our movements and speech (or almost speech), the grain of our emotions too. But this is too microscopic to speak of, so I will zoom out again.
Each time I bath him, in his evening ritual, I am referred back, without fail, to a passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. It turns out it is actually not one passage, as I remembered it, but a repeating refrain. One instance reads:

“Yes, ever since old Mrs Constable lifted her sponge and pouring warm water over me covered me in flesh I have been sensitive, percipient.”

My experience of reading Virginia Woolf is, almost without exception, one of vivid emotional clarity. I envy this clarity. Not in the sense that I envy her writing (though I do envy the implicit yet sure nature of her language) but in that I wish I could experience my own, immediate emotional state with the crisp edges, the folds, the fullness with which I perceive (and, to the extent to which one might be immersed in reading, experience) the emotions of her characters.

Last year I described to the NHS therapist (the muscles just below her right eye gently twitching, with tiredness I assume, it was 6pm after all) the screen (like a light, open-weave fabric stretched taut) through which I thought I could perhaps make out my happiness, and all the rest. The feeling of being alienated from oneself, like the ghost (in the 90s movie trope) who finally realises it is dead and, no matter how much he wills it, cannot really be in the world. But this was not what I intended to write.

It is, I think, the ambivalence in being made to feel, in being born (or being made flesh by the water from Old Mrs Constable’s sponge) that I find so affecting. As I wash him and remember The Waves, each time, I am thinking about how these actions (the lavender in his bath water, the soft sea sponge that was a gift, our always too cold or too hot bathroom) form him, bring him into the world, and I hope it is okay. And how I too have been transformed by these actions, by the care that this ritual of bathing represents – made sensitive and percipient, covered, even, in a different flesh, it seems to me.
But it is the repetition that gives this remembrance the feel of a haunting. Perhaps I used to outrun such hauntings by the inconsistency of my days, before I was slowed to our more bodily pace and repeating rhythms. I am more present in myself, and it turns out I am haunted.

I am starting to see this writing as a way of fixing my maternal experience, of pinning at least some version of this down before it disperses and I am left only knowing that these things happened but no longer containing how they feel. And of course the writing is a way of coming to an understanding of my experience in the first place – like the imaging I wrote of earlier, but more formalised, more controlled, though also more exposed, more fragile and compromised by language, by being made external. I am thankful for it, the writing. If I can fix some sense of this time, create and contain some version, then perhaps it will not add to the ghosting that comes with the degradation, the thinning and crumbling, of what is retained.

Or perhaps something else is true. Perhaps I am holding on to something that should be allowed to pass, perhaps I am creating a ghost of sorts, in the sense of something held back, pulled out of the motion of time. But then, it takes on a life of its own, this writing, and refuses to be the real thing of course. Though I strive for accuracy, and more, when I look back at the text where it has settled over time, it has shifted. So perhaps it fulfils the claims I make for preventing haunting or creating ghosts in part only, because ultimately it is something new. I am reminded of the process of ceramics – the final glaze firing transforms what has in the most part, until that point, been a close, physical relationship between material and hand, and gives you back something you could not possibly fully recognise, something you did not know you were making.

I had been meaning for weeks to take him to the V&A, on some kind of odd pilgrimage to the object I had found (searching the online archives) resembling the vessel I pictured, so fully, breaking in my chest, leaking emotion and awakening ghosts. Illness, tiredness and difficult days had rolled this non-essential task over from week to week, but I decided finally to go. I checked the archive listing I had bookmarked for the object’s location in the museum and already there was a slip – the accompanying photo had been updated from a suggestive, partial image to a more explicit shot of the whole object, side on. It no longer suggested the vessel I had imagined, that I had seen and still see, lodged, broken behind my ribs.

Still, I was determined to seek it out – perhaps the resemblance suggested by the earlier photograph was still there, in the flesh, or perhaps I would find something else. And I had promised myself I would take him to play in the fountains of the museum’s courtyard.
As I struggled to contain his 14 month-old desire for constant movement and exploration on the tube journey from East to Southwest London I could feel in the gently pervading air of anxiety that I was too tired for this. But then we had made it, without tears and through his impression of a tiny commuter (in his own seat, discarded newspaper in hand) had spread some bashful smiles.

The 6th floor of the V&A, where the object is apparently housed, was closed that morning, suddenly and temporarily – it was not to be. We wandered a little, drawn into the darkness of a small cinema space where a film about the Great Exhibition played to empty benches. Here he could crawl on the carpet and feed a little in the dim space while narrators spoke the preserved letters of Great Exhibition visitors. There are so few spaces where his energies feel appropriate rather than disruptive, this domestic-sized and, importantly, empty cinema felt like a relief. And, purely for myself, I am closest to some kind of comfort in the dimmed, faux-red-velvet spaces of cinemas and the cool of museums.

He was joyous in the fountains. I wrapped him in my scarf to keep the breeze from his damp body as he sat on the hand-towel I’d brought along and repeatedly lurched in an effort to return to the water. I felt self-conscious in struggling with what was clearly a two person job, to dry him and re-dress him between the fountain and the inexplicably sodden grass I had planned to picnic on. So lunch in the museum café, opposite a work meeting of well-dressed, handsome people, and between a tourist couple and a local grandmother who smiled and chatted a little.

Settled in his sling, his head folded to my chest in an overwhelming sleep barely out of the museum. He slept the journey home as I read on my phone, over his shoulder. There was no object to speak of. Perhaps I was wrong to seek out the material counterpart to something hidden, haunting and imagined. I’m not sure now why I did – simple, casual intrigue or the desire to ‘see’, to be able (in theory of course) to hold?

And so I continue to write. And I make a plan to follow the writing, to work out from this dense central point of anecdote towards ideas, research, conversations and study. Still trying to ‘make something’ of this experience, but also to be led by it towards some exploration of what haunting might offer as a way of understanding, or at least speaking of, the maternal.

1 I later began looking for it in the V&A online archives.

References

Frosh, S. 2013, Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions, Palgrave Macmillan, p5

Woolf, V. 1992, The Waves, Penguin, p222

Anna Johnson is a craftsperson, writer (perhaps) and mother, living in East London. Her background is in history and theory of art, and she has an MA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins.

Meet the Mother House: A Creative Space for Mother Artists

Mother House is a pilot initiative from Procreate Project in partnership with Desperate Artwives. It is a dedicated creative space for London-based artists who are mothers, with a co-produced and flexible childcare model.
The Mother House will provide an experimental context within which women can share and reveal both the challenges and privileges of being a mother. The space will provide the freedom to work independently or alongside your children, and it will provide opportunities to work in collaboration with other artists to create a supportive and inspiring network. The Mother House idea is born in response to the urge “to make” within the life-changing experience of motherhood, offering a collaborative yet intimate space to curate your practice while ensuring your journey into motherhood is fed in a creative and inclusive way.

This experiment will turn into an artwork itself as a documentary, which will be shown for a final open-house day, celebrating this journey and exhibiting all the works created during this time. This short term project would demonstrate how a dedicated space provides crucial support for mother artists’ professional development.

“Mother House recognises the role space plays in creative work and exchange alongside the complexity of mother artists’ needs. Mother House inspires a wider understanding of artists engaged with their practices as mothers which is especially vital in a cultural epicentre like London where support is recognised as indispensable to artistic production” – Althea Greenan (WAL – Goldsmiths University)

More information about how to take part in the project can be found here. Mother House needs your support! Give your contribution to make this happen while securing a free of charge opportunity for all the contributing artists.

About the Procreate Project:

ProCreate Project is the first ever social enterprise which focuses on artists who are mothers. The organisation aims to provide practical help and financial support for artists, enabling them to continue producing work during pregnancy and motherhood. Find out more about the Procreate Project initiatives and the artists involved here.

On Equality and Childbirth

By Ozan Kamiloglu

I just had a child. What a weird use this is of the verb “have”. There hasn’t been any physical connection between me and the child until now. My partner changed with the child, carried her, fed her, changed her life style, daily routine, diet, and she has passed through a difficult labour. I didn’t do any of these things. When they gave me the baby in the operating theatre, I thought “whose baby is this one now?” Her experience of having a baby and mine are shockingly different. Apart from the commitment to undertake certain responsibilities in relation to the child, there is nothing that makes the “child” mine. When I was in the ward with my partner, observing her experience during labour demonstrated this to me in a very striking way. And even more curious, is how we continue as if the labour, and pain, and commitment, and risk, and passing through very acute physical and psychological changes do not exist. Nobody prepared me for this. Rather, I was told that I have some responsibilities, like reminding my partner to go to the loo every hour during labour and keeping an eye on the frequency of the contractions. Fulfilling these responsibilities was enough to be a part of the birth experience. I did what I needed to do, and she did her part. Now we have a baby

I think this forgetting of the differences in our experiences during pregnancy and birth, and perhaps until the baby reaches a certain age (although this may not necessarily be so) is the peace treaty between two people (at least one of who still tends to be a birthing woman) in order to be a functional family. As in all peace processes, a consensus can be reached only after both parties agree over acknowledging the pain experienced by the other party (like in South Africa or Northern Ireland) and forgetting the disproportionality of it. To be a functional family (in the name of a bright future, for peace that will bring prosperity to a society, for new generations to flourish), parties make an agreement over forgetting, and reach a consensus about what to remember. From this perspective women’s experiences during pregnancy and labour are reduced to a ‘necessary commitment’ on her behalf, in order that the family continue. Men must acknowledge her struggle and be grateful to her whilst continuing to expect women not to talk and think about it too much. Now the experience of my partner has to be forgotten (of course apart from my praises of her courage and greatness) and we should claim ownership of the baby equally. We have a baby. Peace! Now we can be a family.

There is a history of using the metaphor of war in order to define labor. Jacqueline Rose quotes from Plutarch, according to whom ‘the only exceptions to the rule against naming the dead on Sparta’s tombstones were men who fell in battle and women who died in childbirth: the woman, the producer of the future citizens of the city state, bore childbirth ‘just as the warrior bears the enemy’s assault, by struggling against pain: giving birth is a battle.’1 In many countries governments in different historical periods have used taxes or other financial manipulation to promote reproduction, and making kids become a national duty for women in totalitarian states. My argument is this; it is not only totalitarian states like Sparta or Mussolini’s Italy, but also a western liberal patriarchal mind-set that considers birth as a war, and the child as the agreement that comes after. Walter Benjamin in his well-known article Critique of Violence underlines how law-making violence becomes institutionalized with the establishment of borders after a war.2 Labour understood as war, with the peace agreement that comes after – the baby – becomes law-making violence. New territories of women that are not in reach of man are colonized, and this colonization is inscribed through the baby. The artificial borders, in this agreement, also conditions what is to be remembered and what is not. Benjamin quotes Anatole France who expressed: “Rich and poor are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges”. Forgetting of the experience of woman, the changes in her psyche, the pain she experiences, the scars she has to carry, becomes something nobody wants to remember. Instead society creates the figure of the mother in the way it makes martyrs: people whose heroic efforts are acknowledged, whose sacrifice is monumentalized and turned into myths, therefore stripped of reality.

The birth of a baby always sparks  new relations of power. It can easily be an emancipatory moment, because of the very sacrifice women endure and the sheer uselessness of men. Therefore, the moment of birth has to be oppressed, dominated and domesticated by men. It has to be turned into the moment of mythic violence through the peace agreement that accompanies it. The peace that is offered by patriarchal society to women serves exactly this end. It is not surprising at all why depression is common, when that opening for new relations between men and women is smashed by the reactionary hordes of society. The baby becomes the written law to be obeyed. What the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, which we could read as a form of submission of the mother to the baby is submission to this new law. A kind of trauma that we saw when a revolution is crashed by reactionary forces: the woman soothes herself with devotion or depression.

So, the well-known feminist critique against the virtues of motherhood is very understandable but at the same time misses the point. ‘I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman,’ Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born.Such an approach does not take into account the importance of the loss and defeat. Loss of a hope that comes with the striking experience of childbirth. After observing day-by-day changes in my partner’s body and psyche, her life, daily routine, joys, and finally the birth, I am very much convinced that this feminist approach that equates all the women with each other serves rather than challenges the ‘normal’. All these changes are not normal, this sacrifice is not normal, the peace agreement with the world on the normalcy of this experience is not normal, to claim that after giving birth women become what they were before is not normal. This is not a struggle between the normal and the myth of the virtuous mother, but more a clash between the norm and the abnormality of childbirth. Taking a stand against the myth of virtuous mother shouldn’t makes us forget the experience of hope, hope for a new distribution of the sensible in Jacques Ranciere’s words.4 The woman has to show her obedience to the equality of parties, her return to normal life as if nothing apart from a medical intervention happened. I do understand the hesitation around the use of words with religious connotations like sacrifice or miracle, but again, hesitations shouldn’t reign over us while acknowledging the potential of birth to break the claim of equality in the eye patriarchy.

I am very happy to say after what I experienced, woman and man are not equals. And I do not accept the equality under the law, that forbids sleeping under the bridge for both poor and the rich. This is a law that threatens women if they refuse to be a part of a functional family with shared responsibilities, for being a single mother, a bad mother, an evil woman, and who knows what else. One more note; my mother always tried to talk to me about her labour, but I never wanted to listen. Because no man would want to listen to such an experience that can strike at the claim of equality. But then, she told my partner after the birth, ‘don’t worry it is all passed’. It didn’t pass. It will never pass.

1 In ‘Le lit, la guerre’, L’Homme 21, January – March 1981.

2 Walter Benjamin. Critique of ViolenceSelected Writings; Volume 1;1913-1926. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

3 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, W. W. Norton & Company , 1976.

4 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Ozan Kamiloglu

Ozan is a doctoral candidate and associate lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck University of London. He teaches Criminal Law,  and his research focuses on the ethics of Human Rights, questions surrounding violence and revolt, and relations between depoliticization and rights struggle.

Affordable Mothering and Respectability

By Agatha Lisiak

The low total fertility rate in Poland (1.3) has repeatedly been juxtaposed, in Polish and British media alike (often in an alarmed tone), with the apparently much higher (2.13) total fertility rate of Polish women living in Britain (ONS 2014). As analysts from Polityka Insight have cautioned, these numbers tend to be taken out of context: if we consider the overrepresentation of young women (20-39) among Polish migrants, Polish women in the UK give birth to only 15% children more children than their counterparts in the same age group in Poland. And yet, it remains a fact that the birth rate in Poland sank considerably from 2.0 in 1990 (GUS 2014), and the new government is set on reversing this trend.

The campaign program of Poland’s conservative party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who won last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, included a proposal to introduce a universal child benefit. The campaign promise has recently materialized in the form of the Family 500+ program, which, in a nutshell, is a monthly child benefit of 500 PLN (£90) for all parents or legal guardians (irrespective of their income) who have two or more children and for parents of only children if their monthly income per family member does not exceed 800 PLN (£140). The program has raised much controversy as economically flawed and socially unfair and has been criticized as discriminatory for single parents. For example, whereas a wealthy couple with three children will be legible for 1000 PLN a month, a single mother of an only child, whose monthly income even marginally exceeds 1600 PLN (£280) per month (the minimum wage in 2016 is 1850 PLN, or £330), will not receive any support within the new framework.

As feminist researchers have argued, women in Poland (and elsewhere as well, for that matter) are reluctant to have (more) children not, as it has often been alleged by the conservatives, because they are career-obsessed selfish monsters, but primarily because they simply cannot afford them. Job insecurity, unemployment, low salaries, precarious living conditions, and underdeveloped childcare infrastructure paired, in a perverse manner, with exorbitant costs of childcare are among most often cited reasons for not having children among Poles who declare desire to have them. Aside from these very concrete structural problems, another factor impeding women in Poland from having (more) children is, as we learn from talking to Polish mothers living in the UK and Germany, a general sense of unaffordability of life as a mother in Poland. What exactly then makes mothering affordable?

In my research project Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, I ask Polish women living in British and German cities about how mothering works for them in their adopted homes. The narrative and visual responses I have gathered so far point to the importance of the ability to satisfy family’s basic needs through an income that, even if minimal, allows for renting an apartment, keeping the fridge full, and even saving a little for trips to Poland or vacations in a warm country. What is also much appreciated is the partially free childcare (for kids older than 3), free medication for children, and financial support for single mothers. It comes as a big relief to the Polish mothers I have talked to that they can not only borrow, but also afford to buy everything they think their children need: clothes, shoes, diapers, strollers, toys, etc.

I see the danger of my findings being misinterpreted by those who oppose state support for low-income families on the grounds that benefits recipients are irrational and bound to spend the money on excessive consumption. Imogen TylerLes BackOwen Jones, among many others, have addressed such misguided views and repeatedly debunked the myths that emerged around them. And yet, it suffices to leaf through The Daily Mail, or to listen to politicians of the governing party, to realize that these misconceptions obstinately prevail in Britain. I, therefore, find it important to stress that the Polish mothers I have talked to in Birmingham and London do not think they found themselves in a welfare paradise, they are not set on having more children only so that they claim benefits on which they will then live extravagantly. What they undoubtedly cherish, however, is the kind of social security they lacked in Poland. As Paulina put it:

I simply feel free because we have a place to live, we have a car, and we don’t have to worry about money, which is very important when you have kids, it saves you a lot of stress. … I feel safe here, as a mother. It’s nice.

Paulina is a single mother who works as a waitress and attends college to be able to qualify for a better job. Her house is mold-infested (and the landlord refuses to do anything about it), her brother’s second-hand car was bought only after a long period of saving, and yet Paulina claims to be better off than in Poland where an independent place to live and a used car were beyond her reach.

Paulina feels safe in Birmingham because her basic needs are fulfilled. And basic needs, especially for low-income families, include the need to look respectable.

I wouldn’t say I buy a lot, and I don’t spend much money on it, but I buy nice things that don’t cost I-don’t-know-how-much, but I like it that they have… I like to buy only nice clothes for [my sons], I don’t like ‘home clothes’ — not even at home. I don’t mind if they get them dirty. I don’t care. I can always wash them. And here clothes don’t cost a fortune.

Clothes, as Virginia Woolf famously noticed, have “more important offices than to merely keep us warm”. In the absence of other forms of social recognition, investing in children’s clothes may be the only measure of achieving respectability available to low-income parents.

As austerity policies in Britain have disproportionately targeted women and children, it may seem surprising that recent immigrants feel safe there. It is important to remember, however, that Poland and other not-so-new-anymore EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of communist regimes in 1989-1991 – and that it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminization of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern Europe and South East Europe as Slavenka Drakulicdiscloses in her essay evocatively titled How Women Survived Post-Communism (And Didn’t Laugh). To those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in postcommunist countries, having children in the UK appears to be a much easier task – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, even despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing.

Dr. Agata Lisiak is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute of Social Sciences and Lecturer at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Urban Cultures in (Post)Colonial Central Europe (Purdue University Press 2010), as well as articles and book chapters on gender and migration, everyday life in the city, media representations of the city and cultural memory. She has published in City, Forum Qualitative Social Research, View, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Journal of Urban History, and other peer-reviewed journals. Agata is interested in visual cultures, everyday urban cultures, spatialities and visualities of migration and developing methodologies for researching said issues (http://vmw.bard.berlin).

10,000 Refugee Children Missing: Historical Coincidences and Historical Symptoms

By Marita Vyrgioti

In the Greek language, the word coincidence shares the same root with the word symptom; which creates a paradox. This sharing implies that when a coincidence (σύμπτωση) is repeated, it then becomes a symptom (σύμπτωμα).

On the 30th of January, Brian Donald, Europol’s chief of staff told the Observer that: “one of the most worrying aspects of the migrant crisis […] is that thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities’. It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”.

There is an oxymoron about the above statement. One of the leading members, of one of the greatest European organizations for investigating and prosecuting criminal networks, publicly and shamelessly announces that during his service as Chief of Staff in Europol, 10.000 children are missing in Europe. 10.000 minors that we “just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”. His words have no trace of guilt, personal incompetence, and professional failure. Quite the opposite, his over dramatic tone echoes an individual responsibility disclaimer, and is being projected upon us readers as our collective responsibility: “It is our fault that those children have gone missing. We are all responsible for them”.

Moreover, there is a shocking coincidence in Donald’s statement: there is an implicit association with Videla’s statement in 1979. “They are neither dead nor alive. They are missing (Desaparecidos)”. Videla, the Argentinian dictator, in a quite similar fashion, refused all responsibility for the 30.000 men, women and children “missing” during his dictatorship. Desaparecidos was the word used to describe what these people went through, which actually translates into imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, murder and disposal of their dead bodies in mass graves. Certainly, such historical comparisons will take us no further than declaring the European Union a dictatorship. However, for the moment, let’s stick to the fact that historical coincidences (συμπτώσεις) sooner or later become historical symptoms (συμπτώματα).

Such a historical coincidence is Brian Donald’s statement (on the 30th of January 2016) with the debut of the film Spotlight in cinemas, in the UK (on the 29th of January). Spotlight, which is nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, is a film about the exposure of the scandal of repeated child abuse by 296 Catholic priests in Boston. In the film, a team of reporters from the Boston Globe newspaper reveal that the Archbishop of Boston’s Catholic Church, Bernard Francis Law, along with a small number of lawyers and newspaper editors, were aware of the incidents of child sexual abuse by priests, had evidence of paedophilia from members of the Catholic Church and did nothing. In fact, when the scandal burst, in 2001, Archbishop Law resigned from Boston and was appointed, by the Pope John Paul II, as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, until his retirement in 2011.

The most grotesque element in this coincidence is that in early November 2015, Brian Donald had advocated that migrants and refugees in Europe are “identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, and the unaccompanied”. By exploitation, he meant prostitution and illegal labour as the most likely outcomes. Funnily, this statement took place at a conference organized by the Santa Maria Group, set up by Pope Francis, and was officially organized by the Catholic Church.

Writing about the 10.000 missing children in Europe is a particularly difficult task. When a child loses their parent, the child becomes an orphan. On the contrary, there is no word to describe what happens to a parent that loses their child; language does not permit such sorrow to be symbolised. It remains ineffable, unspeakable, indescribable[1]. There is no collective responsibility for the disappearance of these children. There is only collective sorrow, grief, desolation and despair. Facing such a tragedy, the Europol’s Chief of Staff, like Pontius Pilate, washes his hands, but the future’s film industry will not vindicate him. In the same way, it did not vindicate the Archbishop Bernard Francis Law. In the far ahead 2046, we might be lucky to see the testimonies of Syrian children that were abused by trafficking networks in  Europe on the big screen. Those that they will have survived will describe, in every detail, the physical and bodily violence they experienced, the misery and abjection of the world they were brought up. And we will run to the cinemas to watch them, because their movie will be nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, and the actor playing Brian Donald for best supporting actor.


[1] For a more detailed discussion about the profound lack of symbolic representation and the dislocation of time, sensed by bereaved parents, see: Denise Riley, Time Lived, without Its Flow, Capsule Editions, 2012.

Marita Vyrgioti is a Ph.D student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies and an Anniversary Scholarship Holder from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, at Birkbeck University, London. She currently works under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh, on a thesis titled: ‘Devouring: a Psychosocial Critique of Sovereignty’. Before joining MaMSIE as an intern, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Common Ground Publishing and as a Researcher in Educational Programs at the European Public Law Organization (EPLO).