The Stories of Abducted Children
“To lose one’s name is the beginning of forgetting.”
Keith Donohue in THE STOLEN CHILD
Abducted, Stolen and Given Away
There are constant warning tales in folklore that say do not go too far into the woods or you might find yourself getting lost. Or worse, taken by strangers. I mean, look what happened to poor Hansel and Gretel. But do abducted children who are stolen from their birth parents count as orphans? Again, strict definitions become meaningless where the focus of the tale is on powerlessness and, ultimately, the nature of your birth identity.
Most stories of abduction, or the forced removal of children from their parents, however, rarely centre on the children themselves, but rather on the parents or parent and the psychological damage of their emotional loss. An example of this is Ian McEwan’s THE CHILD IN TIME, a disturbing tale of a children’s author, Stephen Lewis, who loses his three year old daughter while out shopping. The result of this apparent abduction leads to strains in his marriage and his wife takes a leave of absence. Later in the story, to save the marriage, Stephen visits his wife who is staying with friends in a town Stephen doesn’t know. Here Stephen sees his own parents as a young couple in a pub before they were married, an event that they themselves later confirm. Is he having visions? Or has Time itself somehow fragmented? Stephen in the story becomes the child at the window who the pregnant young woman, that is his own mother, then sees. And it’s this image of Stephen as boy at that window that leads to her decision not to have an abortion. A Causal Time Loop of sorts. As ever with the work Ian McEwan it’s impossible to tie down a single reading or meaning, but perhaps the title THE CHILD IN TIME itself suggests perhaps that Stephen is a man trapped somehow in the idea of childhood. And looking in through the window, a potent image used in J.M. Barrie’s PETER PAN the once he did return home, turns Stephen into a strange puer aeternus figure who seemingly transcends Time itself.
There is a very unsettling illegal abduction story that features both a mother and child in the movie ROOM, written by Emma Donoghue. Mother, Joy, and son, Jack, have been held captive in one room for seven years. Their jailor is a man they call ‘Old Nick’, who, it is revealed, is Jack’s biological father. Jack, now five years old, believes that ‘Room’ is the only thing that is real and that the rest of the world exists only on television. However, once mother and son escape and gain their freedom, the boy has to learn to adapt to a very real outside world he has never known. Again, there are echoes of the Rapunzel folktale, but arguably ROOM in its reality is far more disturbing than anything in the enchanted world of the Brothers Grimm.
The television series Tales of the Unexpected in the 1970s featured a particularly unpleasant story concerning child abduction. The episode was called THE FLY-PAPER and it was set against the background of police dragging the marshes looking for a missing school-girl. Sylvia, a teenage girl, lives with her grandmother who no longer really understands girls of Sylvia’s age. On a bus journey, a strange old man starts talking with Sylvia but Sylvia soon becomes suspicious as to his motives. A kindly lady intervenes and takes Sylvia back to her cottage to have a cup of tea and tells Sylvia that she’ll ring the police. Except, in the final moments, there is the twist that this seemingly helpful lady is in fact in league with the male abductor. This unsettling tale was written by Elizabeth Taylor, the novelist and short story writer. Perhaps not surprisingly it was a particular favourite of Roald Dahl.
Perhaps the strangest tale of recent years where a young one is taken from its mother can be found in the Icelandic movie LAMB (called Dýrið in Icelandic or ‘The Animal’). LAMB was directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the well known Icelandic poet Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson). At the beginning of this bizarre yarn, some kind of deep-breathing entity makes its way into a barn full of sheep and a few months later the farmer and his wife, Ingvar and María, are shocked to witness one of their flock give birth to creature half-human, half-lamb. The pair immediately take the animal from its bleating mother to adopt for themselves and they call the baby Ada.
María soon becomes so attached to her new ‘child’ that her worried brother-in-law, Pétur, takes the infant on a walk with the intention of shooting the animal, only later he has a change of mind. The true mother of Ada still bleats longingly for her taken lamb, but when this ewe approaches the house María shoots it dead.
One evening, while María, Pétur and Ingvar are having a party, the child Ada notices the entity (still as yet unseen by the viewer) near the barn. Whatever this monster is then kills the dog and takes the family gun. When the party in the house is over and the drunken Ingvar has gone to bed, his bother Pétur begins to make sexual advances towards María, which she rejects and the following day Pétur is taken by María to the distant bus stop and sent home. After waking up and finding his wife and his brother are gone, Ingvar decides to take Ada with him on a trip to fix a broken tractor, but on their way back, the entity – now revealed to be a creature half-ram, half-man – shoots Ingvar and then takes a distraught Ada with him into the wilderness. Returning to find Ingvar and Ada missing, María begins a search which leads to the discovery of Ingvar’s dead body in the grass and the final image of the film is a tearful and grieving María.
The strong folktale elements and tropes are obvious but exactly what kind of story this is is far from clear. Is it an atavistic horror? A pagan nightmare? An absurdist fairy tale? Or just a silly shaggy sheep story (or, dare I say it, ‘yarn’)? However you classify it, the one thing that can be said for certain of this bizarre story of child abduction is that, in the end, there’s heavy price to be paid.
The Marvel Comic tale and now movie BLACK WIDOW features two girls who for political reasons are placed with a family that wasn’t there own, but that is back story rather than main story. Of course, there are heart-wrenching moments in films where the authorities take children from their mothers. A famous example is the 1960s drama CATHY COME HOME, but here the taking of the children is where the drama ends rather than begins. Besides, the taking of these children is perfectly legal. Perhaps so, but is it right? Which leads us the scandals of the Magdalene Institutions and the Stolen Generation.
“Let the tears which fell, and the broken words which were exchanged in the long close embrace between the orphans, be sacred. A father, sister, and mother, were gained, and lost, in that one moment. Joy and grief were mingled in the cup; but there were no bitter tears: for even grief arose so softened, and clothed in such sweet and tender recollections, that it became a solemn pleasure, and lost all character of pain.”
OLIVER TWIST, by Charles Dickens
“For 90 years Ireland subjected these women, and their experience, to a profound indifference. By any standards it was a cruel and pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in mercy. We swapped our public scruples for a solid public apparatus.”
Enda Kenny, Irish Taoiseach in 2003
The Magdalene Institutions and the Stolen Generation
Questions about morality and legality and how they conflict can be seen in two political and religious scandals concerning the taking of children that still have repercussions today. The first concerns the Magdalene Institutions and the second is the taking of children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, now known as the Stolen Generation. Both operations were legal at the time but each subsequently resulted in apologies at the highest level from government and the church.
The Magdalene Institutions, also known as the Magdalene Asylums or the Magdalene laundries, were religious establishments that operated in Ireland and Great Britain right up to the late twentieth century. The earliest were Protestant, with the first set up in 1758 in London’s Whitechapel, and the Catholic Church soon followed suit with many of their own in Ireland and across America.
The Magdalene Institutions were run by nuns and characterised by the church authorities as places of refuge for supposedly ‘fallen women’ who had become pregnant outside of marriage, who had no means of financial support and so had decided to ‘give away’ their baby. However, the truth was not at all as it was presented. Many of these Magdalene institutions were simply money-making laundries and, due to the practical difficulty of leaving them, they were effectively somewhere between the status of the workhouse and the prison. Put brutally, many of the young women were essentially captives. In fact, many stayed there their entire lives. On top of incarceration, there was the terrible moral crime that the illegitimate children of the young women were sold to foreign couples who were desperate for a child. The adoptive families, often rich families in America, were often told that the mother didn’t want the baby, which was an out and out lie.
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS and PHILOMENA are both films which explore this dark history of legal incarceration and financial racketeering, where, in blunt terms, nuns took children from their grieving mothers, sold them like soap and, with the law of the land on their side, effectively made then orphans.
The language use in explaining the purpose of the Magdalene Institutions is important here. The institutions where named after Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdela, a fishing village on the shore of Galilee. Tradition had it that Mary was a prostitute, though there is no biblical evidence to prove this. That in a way is the first lie. Then there is the fact that the Church authorities liked to described those put there ‘fallen woman’ who ‘gave away’ their children, but weren’t they in truth just desperate women in an intolerant society who simply had nowhere else to turn? And these women didn’t abandon their children, they were put in an impossible situation where they had no choice but to hand over their babies. Of course they were told that they were offering them a better life, but better for whom? Not for the mother. And not always for the child, either, whose new family was told the lie that they were ‘abandonment’ because their mother didn’t want them. Abandoned and unwanted. Not the best words for any child to be told when they started asking questions about where they came from.
The second political scandal that should be addressed is the taking of children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, known now as the Stolen Generation. These young children were removed quite legally from their parents by Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions during a period from 1905 to 1967 and later placed with white parents. The political belief was that the indigenous population were dying off and it would better if their children became assimilated in white society. But, of course, no one could ask the babies what they wanted, and, as it was law, the birth parents were given no choice in the matter either. Official government statistics now estimate that between one in ten and one in three indigenous Australian children were forcibly removed from their birth parents between 1910 and 1970.
The documentary film LOUSY LITTLE SIXPENCE (1983) was the first to deal with the story of the Stolen Generation and another documentary, KANYINI (2006), followed some twenty years later. Both are now shown in schools as part of Australian social history. The film drama RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce, was loosely based on the book FOLLOW THE RABBIT-PROOF FENCE by Doris Pilkington Garimara. The story concerns the author’s mother and two other mixed-race Aboriginal girls who ran away from Moore River Native Settlement, near Perth, to return to their Aboriginal families. In an echo of Philomena’s tale in the movie PHILOMENA where her son was always told while he was growing up that his mother didn’t want him, the Aboriginal daughter believed that her mother had willingly given her away.
And there are other explorations of the Stolen Generation. STOLEN (1998) is a stage drama by the Australian playwright Jane Harrison which tells the tale of five fictional Aboriginal people and how they dealt with the issues of forceful removal by the Australian government. Bryce Courtney’s novel JESSICA centres on the legal case brought against the Aboriginal Protection Board and the Aboriginal artist and author Sally Morgan has written several novels based on the life of her and her family members, including MY PLACE.
“As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her granddaughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction. In their grief the women asked why their children should be taken from them. Their anguished cries echoed across the flats, carried by the wind. But no one listened to them, no one heard them.”
Doris Pilkington, from FOLLOW THE RABBIT-PROOF FENCE: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time