A Magdalene Laundry Tale.
In the cold hallways of Mount Saint Canice, we lived amidst a morass of coded rites, a lexicon of rules that evoked their own obscure logic, even as they contradicted all sensibility. It was as if we were caught in an enduring drama, intricate in its legalism and elusive in its rewards.
Every other Sunday, the measure of our worth, or lack thereof, hinged on the distribution of ‘marks.’ Mother Anselm cradled her bag of two-shilling coins with the solemnity befitting a matriarch, a dark inversion of Santa Claus. Our ‘failures’ were spoken aloud — a liturgy of imagined missteps plucked from a dogma distorted by subjective interpretation.
Seated in a semi-circle, we waited for our time to stand before Mother Anselm.
Mother Magdalene, the silent auditor, appraised us, her gaze keenly analytical. To lose a ‘mark’ was to be diminished, rendered less than we already were, less in terms of agency, less in terms of essential humanity.
Two marks for menial toil, two for what they called social manners, and two for basic cleanliness — the calculus of this punitive micro-economy was exacting and trivial. Our meager pay came tethered to an eighty-hour work regimen. Before Mother Anselm, we’d congregate on Sunday afternoons, a cross-generational tableau of souls, to account publicly for our perceived moral lapses.
This ritual laid bare the paradox of a purportedly just system that was, in its DNA, fundamentally inequitable. My thirteen-year-old child’s giggling during Mass was judged alongside an elder’s misread expression, each equitably diminished by the pitiful sums doled out or withheld.
The older girls, destined for an endless loop of eight-day workweeks, acutely felt the fiscal sting of this system. Each shilling forfeited was an insult, a visceral reminder that even their labor was undeserving of a fair wage.
Failure to comply with escalated sanctions — foregoing our fleeting Sunday cinema escape or donning sackcloth of public shame should a girl go longer than three consecutive fortnights with no marks. These deliberate humiliations were object lessons in a grotesque morality play, stark reminders of the system’s punitive inequity.
In this maze of regulation, the triviality of our offenses carried disproportionate consequences. These penalties were not abstract for older women trapped in an unceasing cycle of…