Mount Saint Canice undoubtedly became a part of my story — an unwanted chapter, perhaps, but one that unquestionably shapes the arc of my life narrative in ways I can neither fully understand nor entirely escape.
In a landscape of uniform bleakness, Mount Saint Canice stood like a grotesque monument to an old world’s ideal of purity and penance, an ideal made flesh by the women consigned to its harsh regime. These were girls, some barely of an age to be called women, who were entrusted to the moral guardianship of the Good Shepherd Nuns in Hobart, Tasmania. There were several such Magdalene Laundries in Australia and, indeed, in other parts of the world, the very names of which invoked a peculiar mix of fear, shame, and resignation. They were the repositories of a society’s moral failings, a kind of collective social unconscious.
The brutality of my first morning at Mount Saint Canice is etched in my memory. Six a.m., pitch dark and cold like the underside of a gravestone. Lights flickered on, sudden and glaring, as a nun swept into the dormitory, announcing the day in the name of a God who seemed unfamiliar to me. The Lord’s Prayer was the uninvited guest at this early hour, a ritualized supplication in a place where prayers were as empty as the eyes that muttered them. This was the immutable rhythm of life in Mount Saint Canice. Obedience or punishment: There was no third way.
I never did hear my name called for those visits in the Parlor. The years went by like molasses, slow and bitter, each day a repetition of the last. But there was something in the resilience of the girls, something in the way they bore their punishment dresses and shaved heads with a defiant grace, that spoke to a kind of strength I never knew existed.
It is often said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But that saying trivializes the profound impact that such experiences can have on the soul. It is not strength that comes from years of forced labor and moral degradation but a kind of soul-deep scarring, a permanent reshaping of one’s interior landscape. It leaves a mark, visible or not that you carry with you always.
In the cool Tasmania air, an atmosphere that still retains the feral menace of its penal colony history, one could feel the weight of silent judgment in the very stones that made Mount Saint Canice. It was not a refuge but an edifice of penance, a theater where a macabre performance of morality was staged daily, with…