In The Whipping Club, Irish American author Deborah Henry takes us to mid 20th century Ireland where a young woman gives up her half-Jewish son for adoption. What follows is an eye-popping catalogue of shame, mistreatment and abuse. Cahir O'Dohert talks to the author about her debut novel, which has been picked for the Oprah Winfrey Summer Reading List.
When you give away unchecked power to any group, whether it’s your government, your banks or your church, get ready for unforeseen complications.
When there’s no one to stand up to them, it’s simply human nature for the powerful to lord it over the powerless, even when they know better, because the temptations to misbehave are just too seductive, it seems.
It’s clear to most now that the Irish people gave entirely too much of their power to the church in the last century because the abuse scandals that have erupted everywhere seem like they may never come to an end, plaguing the legacy of Catholicism in Ireland.
In every parish and townland a centuries long culture of incontestable dominance gave some of the most sadistic and antisocial personality types free reign for their worst excesses. Protected by their collars or their habits, they preyed on the innocent, and then they shamed or bullied them into silence.
It’s a story so shocking that we need to tell and re-tell it until we have all finally grasped its true warning.
The abuses happened because there was no one to challenge them. Bishops, priests and nuns weren’t subject to the law -- they were the law. They were also the gospel, too, for good measure.
Individually you hadn’t a hope against the might of the church as it stood throughout the last century. The church set the agenda for the entire country. You liked it or else you took the boat or plane.
For Irish American author Deborah Henry, the religious complications of Irish life in the last century are clearly dramatic subject matter, but the question is did she really want to kick over that hornet’s nest?
The Whipping Club (T.S. Poetry Press), her debut novel about a young woman pressured into giving up her half-Jewish son for adoption, took her almost eight years to write.
“I have relatives who change the subject every time I bring up the book’s subject matter,” Henry tells the Irish Voice with a laugh.
“They don’t seem interested. They want to look at the positive. I just decided that would not be for me. I was going to tell the truth. And anyone who does not want to look at the truth I feel sorry for.”
Truth-tellers are every society’s least favorite people, usually. Henry knows this, but it didn’t stop her.
“What I wrote is like a fairytale compared to the actual experiences of the people I interviewed while researching the book. The people who actually went through the Industrial School system or lived in an orphanage told me stories that made my hair stand on end,” Henry says.
“But art is not a retelling of atrocities. I had to find some way to up the level of the writing so that there was some beauty in the telling.”
She has succeeded in her aim. Henry’s debut novel is immensely assured, grabbing the reader from the first page. It’s the kind of debut that publishers dream of, confident, clear and appealing to a wide audience.
Perhaps Henry’s own unique background explains some of the interest the book is generating.
Her mother is a first generation Irish Catholic from the Irish enclave of Woodside in Queens, New York. Growing up she was also very close to her grandmother, who was originally from Portglenone in Co. Antrim.
Although it was a typical Irish family on the surface, her background was far from typical.
“My mother somehow met a Jewish man, which was almost unheard of in the 1950s,” Henry says. “They fell in love and got married and no one came to their wedding from either side of the religious divide. On the Jewish side they thought it was horrendous of my father to bring home this blond bombshell.”
It makes Henry shake her head to think that even in our own lifetime, these marriages were considered horrific.
“It’s so hard to make a connection in this world, let alone fall in love. I often think it’s a miracle anyone gets married,” Henry says.
Half Jewish and half Irish, Henry refers to herself as bilingual.
“I went to the Irish side by marrying a nice Irish Catholic man and I’ve always been close to that side of me. But at the same time I was intrigued to discover there’s a part of Dublin that’s known as Little Jerusalem,” she says.
“When I told my mom I was going to try and write a novel set there she rolled her eyes and said, ‘About all two Jewish people there - all of them?’”
But Henry went over to Ireland to research, and she started to uncover uncanny similarities there to things that were occurring in her book. She knew from the beginning that it would address the history of what happened in Ireland in the last century.
“I’m a happy person, but I really like meaty material,” Henry reveals. “I’m not really big on beach reads. I write things that I want to leave behind.”
The subject matter of the book, which involves overcoming abuse and adversity to achieve some measure of forgiveness and a new life, appealed to one of the most famous readers in the world -- Oprah Winfrey. Henry was astounded to be told that the chat show queen had picked The Whipping Club as one of the members of the sought-after Summer Reading List compiled by Winfrey’s magazine, O.
“That was a beautiful moment in my life,” Henry confesses. “I was in the auto shop of all places and I got an email to overnight my book to O magazine. To have a no-name novelist get picked up, it was really miraculous.
“I don’t know how they found the book or me. I have clues. I love New York and go to some writing events there. So maybe through one of her writing comrades?”
After it was published Henry says she treated The Whipping Club as if it was one of her children.
“I really had a lot of energy once it came out to promote it. I just went gung-ho to get the word out,” she says.
“I spent years rewriting this damn book because it was my first. I started before I took any writing course. It was painful getting it down right. So I wanted it to be read.”
The extensive research Henry did on the Industrial Schools and orphanages in Ireland outraged her, the sheer scale of the abuses and the dysfunction.
“I had an Irish grandmother who told me that Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was nothing like her childhood. She was on a pony eating apples off a tree, according to her. I grew up thinking that all these happy people that I loved represented Ireland,” Henry said.
To find out the real truth was like cold water to the face. But it was a wakeup call, and she welcomed it.
“The real truth is that I am a novelist who truly believes that telling the truth dispels darkness. I have an absolute passion to have this subject to come out in literature,” she says.
“All the books on the subject I have found to date are non-fiction or memoir. I didn’t find any novels that dealt with it, and I think there needs to be. I set myself the task. I asked myself who I thought I was to even attempt it, but I went ahead.”
In the end Henry realized her book was not an indictment of the Catholic Church. Instead it’s an indictment of the secrets we like to keep, the silence we let fall, and the unsavory things we all agree to sweep under the carpet.
“I think we should look our dark sides in the eye, because we all have dark sides. Staring the monster down is the only way to move forward. There’s a lot of good nuns in the book, there are decent hardworking Christian Brothers. Human nature presents us with grey areas,” Henry says.
The journey toward forgiveness is the journey that the characters in The Whipping Club are going on, and at times you have to wonder if they’ll ever get there.
But to reach that final shore of forgiveness there has to first be an admission of the truth, or else how can there be healing? Breaking that silence to tell the truth is the journey of The Whipping Club.
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