Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dirty Family Secret

I briefly got to know my then 34 year old uncle when I worked in Ireland in 1986. I was a 19 year old computer science student doing a work term placement overseas (where I instigated & developed the prototype for a very successful automated tax software program, the first of it's kind). Up until that point this particular uncle had been shrouded in mystery and, well, infamy.

In those days, he was labelled retarded. Today, looking at pictures and knowing a lot more of my family history, I recognize that he clearly had what we identify as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  So yes, that means that my grandmother drank her way through his pregnancy. I can imagine her now, always with a waterford sherry glass filled on an afternoon and a waterford tumbler with gin and tonic in the evening. She was a champion national golfer and I really need to flush out a wiki page with more information. She has a brief mention here.

In 1952, in a pseudo-upper-middle-class Victorian Cork household, this high functioning level of drinking was perfectly acceptable. In fact, she continued drinking like that until her death in the early 1980s. I had a complicated relationship with her due to the fact that she clearly loved my sister better than me. I wish I had an opportunity to have known her as an adult.

But back to this uncle and his uniqueness. When I spent time with him as a child during brief visits back to Ireland I was astonished and thrilled with his Lego collection.  He was mentally very close to my age so he actually was kind of mean with the Lego. He would only allow me access to a very small portion of his vast collection.  I see now that he was likely retaliating at the limited amount of contact he was allowed with me, his eldest niece. By the time I was 19 we were both allowed free access to each other and I was able to enjoy him 'showing off' his more mature obsessions: taking photographs and stamp collecting. He was a bit of an idiot savant (I see that in hindsight). His cobbled together panoramic pictures were exquisite in their perfection. His thoroughness in documentation of his stamps suggested a commitment to detail that I still admire in others.

But his infamy? Alas, that's where the real story begins. It's one I just recently shared with Daughter and was surprised that I hadn't previously although it really does require a mature mind to understand it.

You see, this uncle was not only a fetal alcohol syndrome victim.  As is common with many FAS children, he was also sexually deviant. However, in the early-mid sixties in Ireland, that was not the label given to him. He was retarded, and, a pervert. So, as a pervert, his contact with my sister and I was severely limited (to the point that when my sister and I spent a summer in Ireland during my early adolescence, he was shipped back to Canada for the entire time).  By the time I was 19 he was very heavily medicated so the situation was 'under control'.

This skeleton in my family's closet cloaked a poisonous veil around sexuality and that was how the topic got raised with Daughter. Narratives around sexuality that are driven by church imposed guidelines are bad enough but when you've got an actual 'pervert' in your family it is quite another matter. I am just beginning to see the effects it had. It has affected my inability to give voice to the difficulties I have faced in my own situation with multiple sclerosis and the effects it has had on my sexuality.

In today's world (in Canada) this uncle would have been identified as FAS fairly early and, ideally, his sexual deviance would have been identified early and given appropriate treatment and support. In early sixties Ireland, his inappropriate advances were responded to with panic and medication and deafening silence. He was isolated from his only nieces and many others. His world was very small. And, at 39 years of age, after over two decades of carcinogenic medication, he was riddled with cancer and died within 6 weeks of first going to the doctor with a pain in his shoulder.

What lessons do I feel my uncle and his sorry tale leave me? Part of me will always feel enormous sorrow for my uncle. A victim of alcoholism and the pharmacological medicalization of his deviances. But, also, I feel his story allows me to start to see the tendrils that skeletons leave scattered throughout a family. His story gives me a deeper understanding of my family's narrative around sexuality. It gives me a personal understanding of my grandmother's plight as a woman blazing new trails in golf clubs in Ireland (and elsewhere) with a sorry state of affairs back home. And, at the heart of it, his story gives me a nugget of courage to start to tell my own tale. Watch for more, in this space.


  1. Very well written on a topic that is not yet in mainstream discussion particularly in the personal arena where family and close friends are affected.

    I gave this link to a relative this morning as he had mentioned a friend of his who has a child with this syndrome.


  2. Such a difficult thing to do but done very well.

    My god I'd have a tome, pages and pages. You've only one? One of the thoughts that keeps going through my mind as I think about if, and when, I would write, is that women are the keepers of the lies about the male family members. At least in my family. Read the eulogies. Oh my god what a saint but there's a little girl somewhere who knows better, now on in years, and we're told, if there is one, there are more. All these girls now women keeping it to themselves, making themselves sick over it. These are my thoughts.

    1. A very good friend was repeatedly raped by her father as a child.

      She killed herself in her mid--40s in 2011.

    2. Pages and pages. Start writing please. Namaste.

    3. Easier said than done. :)

      Clarifying, I meant *one* dirty family secret.

      Keeping secrets: Apart from keeping secrets, lying about the sad stories like your family, women always lie about their husbnads. Not all men are like that. My husband wouldn't harm a flea. But who is it then who is raping little children, keeping the porn industry going, making women feel afraid to walk in their own town, go somewhere alone. Who? Someone else's husband, son, brother. I have tried an experiment. I'm often told no to walk ... there, alone, it's not safe. From whom I say, well some people you know... Who what people? You mean men righta? Men, I say, you mean it's not safe because of men. The lying starts. You cannot say MEN DO IT. You must say, it's not safe. Some people. We just cannot name who it is does this to us, girl and woman. In the family. Or out on the trail.

    4. A university of Toronto education professor was recently arrested on multiple charges with child pornography. A colleague said: 'but he was such a nice guy'.

      I posted the article about the bust on my facebook wall, publicly. A complete stranger left a very lengthy porn apologist post in my comments. He also said he was abused. A female friend thumbed it up. Another female stranger applauded him. I wanted to throw up. Women hide the real problem (men) when they use the language to disguise reality. I did it myself for years but instead of feeling shame I am now committed to shouting out truth.

      Thanks for your comments, very helpful. Also, I only know of this one particular secret that indirectly affected me. There are likely many more I will never know of.

    5. I did read that story, and, the one about the VANOC ceo.

      I also recall the RCMP head of (huge division) who 30 yrs after the fact, and an MP, was up on rape charges of young native women. Back then, he took them into his office when they were somewhere they shouldn't be (?) had been drinking, had no ID...and raped them.

      I remember him really well, because his wife-to-be back in the day, was one of my teachers and a friend of someone in my family, so I got to see her "trouseau". The days when women did that. A beautiful blonde girl from the big city, all her lovely things mathcing and expensive things I'd never seen before, dove grey her chosen lingerie colour.

      I thought about her when I read about him. I thought about her, and the young native women who had the courage to speak out, years and years later. I think this was about 10 - 15 yrs ago. I can't even remember what became of him, after the charges. All I could think of was the young native women, and the dove grey troussearu.

    6. Dirty family secrets are everywhere. We are all touched somewhere by them. I believe that all of us need to start talking more about them.


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