Telling Stories of Residential Schools

November 24, 2016

by — Posted in Peer Edited Submissions

This blog is about stories. We all draw upon stories to make sense of our lives but we rarely think about them as other than our own. I want to broaden this out to consider how individual stories intersect with wider public or cultural ones. The particular stories I want to hone in on are stories of abuse in residential care. In that sense, I pick up on Jeffrey Ansloos’ recent blog Struggling Together in Reconciliation maintaining a focus on historical abuse in care settings and the cultural stories that have taken root as a result of revelations of such. I do not presume to comment on the specifics of the Canadian situation, which I realise is bound up in its own cultural sensitivities. But, in any case of major scandal there is something going on below the surface, which is not necessarily even conscious or deliberate, and which is not accommodated on the official stories of righting wrongs. Scandals happen at periods when societies’ tectonic plates are shifting and serve to provide justification for already set political directions; they provide the transition phase in processes of transitional justice, the shift from one set of norms to another. In setting down a new version of the truth, a historiography of the vanquished, responses to scandals foreclose vast realms of alternative experience, of other stories.

Jurisdictions across the developed world are confronted with how to address revelations of historical abuse. Responses in broadly liberal regimes are informed by two overlapping discourses. The first of these is a therapeutic one, what might be termed a harm story, which posits that victims or (S)urvivors of abuse (and increasingly their peers and even their descendants) are inevitably and overwhelmingly damaged by the trauma of their care experiences. The prospect of being believed, held out to them through various state initiatives, empowers victims or survivors to summon up the courage to disclose abuse and to seek a state identified as ‘closure’, often framed as involving the naming and bringing to justice of the perpetrators of their abuse.

The second, linked, discourse is a justice one, drawing on the dominance of human rights perspectives, and in particular a right to acknowledgement of and redress for past wrongs.  This approach is framed in terms of a pursuit of the truth so as past atrocities might never happen again.

The confluence of these discourses has resulted, increasingly, in state organised memory work, manifest in the establishment of institutions such as the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some of the complexity and pitfalls of such approaches are beginning to be probed in Canada by academics such as Ronald Niezen, who identifies how victim experiences can be co-opted to progress a number of wider political agendas. I think of the situation in Ireland, where the demonization of the Catholic Church’s role in the provision of residential care was almost necessary to render broader trends towards secularisation more palatable for a populace whose whole lives had been intertwined with the Church. Crucially, Niezen also raises the prospect of there being other stories in respect of the residential schools and particularly those of the religious who worked in them, which lie submerged beneath the dominant narrative that has emerged of what the schools were like. There is a major disincentive to even question this narrative; to do so brings with it accusations of denial or of failing to honour the testimonies of those who claim to have been abused. It is this idea of narrative or more simply, stories that I want to develop.

At this point, I should declare an interest. As someone who worked in residential schools in Scotland for almost 20 years, I struggle to recognise the stories I hear of what life in them was like. I struggle, too, to recognise the pictures painted of the religious who ran and worked in the schools. I worked for the De La Salle Brothers for around eight years and my experience of them, then and now, is of humane, generous and thoughtful men. My current emotions are particularly raw, having recently witnessed a former colleague, an 84-year-old Brother, convicted of crimes I and others who worked and lived in the school, are convinced he did not commit. This is part of my story, my truth, and it inevitably colours how I approach this subject.

I come at it from a UK, specifically Scottish perspective. Following a signal case involving allegations that a former BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile, abused hundreds of girls over the course of several decades, governments in both England and Scotland established Inquiries to look into historical abuse. Neither has been without its problems. The English Inquiry is on its fourth chair in two years, the first two failing to get off the starting block following objections from victim groups, concerned that the truth the chosen chairs might come up with would not be their truth. The third resigned, claiming that the scope of what she had been asked to do was unmanageable. She, and increasingly, newspaper commentators, express the view that resources might be better directed towards making life better for children in the present than gnawing over the bones of the past, a viewpoint that might cast some doubt upon the whole Inquiry process, the rationale of which is to open up the past to scrutiny. The fourth chair has only recently taken up post, a particularly well-remunerated post at that! Some of the concerns already circling around her, from survivor representatives, is that she is a social worker and not a lawyer and hence, less well qualified to uncover the ‘truth’ of what went on. This, of course, betrays a particular legal ontology, which imagines that there is a truth to be discovered. Scotland has lost only one chair to date, pushed out for deigning to upset the dominance of a particular psychological discourse around trauma. Again, all of these concerns may reflect the epistemic imperialism of particular academic disciplines in naming this field of inquiry. The ‘hard’ knowledges of the lawyers and psychologists hold sway, so much so that some victims are beginning to identify themselves as bit parts in an inquiry ‘industry’ that is not doing what they hoped it might. And that is because it can’t within the epistemic straightjackets it operates in, It is the anthropologists perhaps, La Fontaine in respect of debunking much of earlier satanic ritual abuse controversy, and now Niezen, who offer a more finely grained insight into the power of stories and how some come to dominate cultural and political landscapes.

This is all by means of background. My focus, as I indicate, is on stories of abuse in care. Its starting point is to problematize the conceit at the heart of claims to unearth the truth of what went on in residential schools and to suggest that more fruitful insights into the experiences of those who lived and worked in them are likely to emerge when we realise the storied nature of our lives. Stories are what we use to make sense of the world around us. However, we are not free to tell any story but are constrained by the dominance of the stories circulating at any given time. Certain stories have a particular cultural resonance – they push our buttons. The current dominant cultural and emotional script is one of victimhood. Against that backdrop, the story circulating about residential care is one of systemic and endemic abuse; it is a story that has become almost naturalised. It is hardly surprising that against such a backdrop, this is the story that former residents might write themselves into. The trouble with stories is that they don’t necessarily mirror what might be identified as any wider objective truth. The importance of stories, according to the oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, may lie not in their adherence to fact, but rather their departure from it.

I illustrate this point with a story from my own experience

A number of years ago I received an e-mail at my work address, which read along the lines of

I am a 29 year-old man. Growing up, I was in 42 foster and residential care placements. After spending time in the jail I have got my life together. I am now a writer and want to write something on the experiences of young people leaving care and was wondering if you could help me with the statistics …

I responded saying I would be happy to help … ‘but I think I know you’. James had been a resident in a secure unit I managed in the early 1990s. We re-established contact and after a few weeks he sent me, unsolicited, a short story he had written. Essentially, it was an account of having been abused in a residential school setting – all the features of the standard abuse story were there. In fact, too many features of the standard story of abuse were there; it came across as something of a pastiche of residential care experience.  And it didn’t fit with my knowledge of James and his care career. When I asked him if this had really happened, he acknowledged it hadn’t and that he had employed artistic licence. Intrigued I went on to ask him why he chose to interpret his care experience as one of abuse.

  • Me: And, the plot, if you like, or the main part of the story about the sexual abuse and that, where did you get the ideas for that?
  • J: It was TV I think … I think a bit of it was based on, like, an experience that happened to somebody else that I’d… I can’t remember if I’d witnessed it or if I’d been … because, with being young, you get …the homes, I’m always aware of stuff that you get told when you’re 13, 14 can suddenly seem like a memory, so I’m always aware of that.  So, I’m not too sure whether it was completely based on something that did happen or whether it was something that I was told that did happen, … I obviously managed to take the incident … and just take different things out of different situations that I’d been told and made one situation out of them … .

What James offers here is an illustration of how stories are constructed; they draw on stories that are already circulating, on the TV, in the snippets that other people tell you and which may be incorporated into a group memory, in things that may or may not be personal experience – all of this rendered still more tenuous by the vagaries of memory. Whatever else, the construction of stories makes the pursuit of ‘truth’ problematic. But it also opens up possibilities for other, perhaps more positive, stories

Having acknowledged the disruption to the story he sent me, James went on to hold out the prospect of a different type of residential school, in which religious Brothers could be good guys.

  • … I only heard that the Brothers were bastards when it came to, like, hitting you or giving you a clout on the back of the ear, but apparently they were alright. Like, at (School) anyway, … but I’d only heard good things about them, I never heard bad things …, so I wanted to try and show that part in a good light as well, that there’s just something about a priest being in a field, kicking a football about with these young laddies, that the audience will probably think straight away, oh, this guy’s suspect, the priest, because that’s what they’ve been force fed for the last 20 years now about priests working with kids.  But, we’ve got to flip that on its head again as well and have the guy being a good priest, because it’s not something that’s really done these days, a good priest.  So, my priest, my brother, my monk or whatever he is, being a good guy.  …it’s called characterisation, …          

Now, obviously James’ stories of residential care are his and do not alter or detract from the range of experiences that former residents will have had. But they do highlight the power of stories in framing such experiences and how these are recounted. And indeed, how they might be recounted differently. They may also raise questions about the assumptions that can be made about some therapeutic value in telling stories and having them heard or, as current parlance goes, ‘honoured’. Stories are not necessarily liberating and disclosure rarely brings the closure imagined or hoped for. Indeed, once told, stories can become freeze-dried, imprisoning as much as liberating those who tell them. James recognised the down side of the victim story when he observed:

It’s easy to label yourself a victim and I think as soon as you do that, you’ve pigeon-holed yourself into some sort of corner that you’re never going to get out of, …

By this reckoning, those who proffer victim accounts may become victims of the limited ways they are allowed to tell their stories and thus to make sense of pasts that are likely to be blighted by far more than their care experiences. When the only accounts that are legible, perhaps even permissible, in a broader cultural script of victimization and pain, it is hardly surprising that those who have experienced the setting and the assumed inevitable victimisation and pain that goes along with it, have no access to tell their stories, to make sense of their lives in any other way.

My concluding observation is that the privileging of a particular story also has the effect of silencing those of other former residents of residential schools, rendering their stories less important, their memories peripheral. On the back of the case of my jailed colleague, a number of former pupils of the school set up a Facebook page to counter the negative stories that appeared in the press. Replete with pictures of the school, even of the school bus, maintained and driven by the Brother in question, their comments include  ‘Memory’s m8.. Home sweet home…’, ‘gd old days – we were all family in there’ and ‘just wish i could go bk in time for 1 more day there – what a laugh’. We need to make space for these stories to be heard.


This article was peer-edited by Dr. Ben Anderson-Nathe

About Mark Smith

Dr. Mark Smith worked for almost 20 years in residential schools. He went on to develop and teach a Masters program in residential child care at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is currently senior lecturer and Head of Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.

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One thought on “Telling Stories of Residential Schools

  1. Thanks Mark. There is no doubt in my mind that in the ever unfolding story of historical cases of institutional Child Abuse there are many cases of real abuse. However, little,if any, recognition is given to the incidence of false/wrongful accusations. Much is made,quite rightly, of the victims and survivors of Child abuse but nothing is said about the victims and survivors of of false accusations……..and there are many.
    Your blog gives much food for thought ,emphasizing the complexity of the problem whilst pointing a way forward, Thank you.

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