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.