Creative Non Fiction by Laura McDonagh
In my mother’s eyes, the world is split into two groups — things that are proper and things that are common. Her cataloguing system feels obscure and arbitrary but is actually fairly straightforward. It all comes down to one thing: sex, or the suggestion of it.
Things that are common include (although certainly are not limited to) Just Seventeen, anklets, ITV, tattoos (real or fake), earrings on boys and Media Studies. Getting a coloured hair wrap or a fake Tag wristwatch on holiday is common. Keeping a lipstick (Rimmel, Fudge Brownie) in the pocket of your school blazer is common. Tampons are common. Ribbed body tops, the spaghetti-strapped New Look dresses I covet, wearing a bra before fifteen or a push-up bra at any age — all common. Shoes from Dolcis are common, especially patent ones; shoes from Clarks, on the other hand, are proper, as is anything from M&S, including pleated skirts in the approved, proper shades of navy blue or beige. But worst of all are shaven legs; the absolute height (pronounced with an Irish ‘th’ at the end instead of a crisp English ‘t’) of common. I point out the fact that she shaved her own aged 11 — she told me that as I watched her deft, quick strokes with the razor in the bath one night — and she pounces on it. “Exactly,” she says. “And you have the benefit of my experience to learn from.”
She often issues cautionary tales from these 8pm baths, breasts splayed and bobbing under the water. One is about a night she came home late on the Metro. New to the North East and alone in the carriage, she smiled at the man who got on at Gateshead. He sat opposite her and opened his raincoat — such a cliché — to reveal his penis, shockingly pink and erect. I am incredulous.
“What did you do?” I want to know.
“I looked him in the eye and said a prayer until the next stop,” she says. “Then I got off.”
Then there’s the story of the drunk who followed her home from school one afternoon – a friend of her father’s or perhaps not. His trousers were unfastened and his flaccid member on show, fleshy and appalling in the open street.
“Again?” I ask. It seems incredible.
“It’s just how it was,” she says. She shrugs. She knows that this way, her warnings — no dodgy taxis, grip keys between fingers — will stick.
The remains of St Maria Goretti, patron saint of teenage girls, are housed inside a wax reproduction of her body, which in turn lies in a glass-sided casket in the Basilica of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti, Nettuno, south of Rome.
Little Marietta — it’s impossible to think of this statue as anything other than ‘her’, despite its macabre artifice — is dressed in a white tunic with a pale blue sash at the waist. A garland of faded artificial flowers weaves through her hair; her face is painted and perfect. White-stockinged feet rest on a red velvet bolster cushion. The scent of lilies, the symbol of Maria’s purity, weighs heavy in the air. She is tiny, this child saint, murdered aged twelve, by Alessandro Serenlli after she rejected the farmhand’s ‘lustful advances’.
Only her right arm, with which she defended herself from her attacker, is missing, donated by her mother to the church of St Nicholas in Corinaldo, the town of Maria’s birth. It forms part of another statue, encased in a glass reliquary above the church’s high altar. Like the waxwork in Nettuno, this statue lies on its back, defiant arm extended against Alessandro’s sinful desires.
“You’ll go straight to hell!” she tells him in a 2003 Italian made-for-TV series. “God doesn’t want it! It is a horrible sin and I will never commit it!”
Serenelli was twenty years old when he killed Maria in 1902. During his murder trial, the defence told the story of his family’s poverty, his father’s alcoholism. His life was blighted from the outset; shortly after his birth, his mother — who later died in an asylum — tried to drown him. Alessandro claimed that it was Maria who had made unwelcome sexual propositions towards him; stabbing her fourteen times was his way of defending himself. For the first six years of his thirty-year sentence, he was angry and behaved violently towards the other prisoners.
Then, one night, Maria visited him in a dream. She handed him fourteen lilies, one for each wound, which turned into flames as he touched them. “Take them, Sandro!” she said. The dream is widely interpreted as symbolising Maria’s forgiveness, the gesture echoing the words she reportedly spoke on her deathbed: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli…and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
I think of my mother’s silent prayer in that Metro carriage. I had always assumed it was for her, to keep her safe, but perhaps it was for him, to absolve him from his sin. Our Lady, St Agnes, St Maria Goretti, pray for us!
I am a virtuous child. Aged seven or eight, I spend school playtimes thinking about whether I should become a saint in the same way my friends might dream about becoming a vet or a teacher. I imagine sainthood as a lifetime’s exercise in simply choosing the right thing at every crossroads. Either that, or I could be a nun. I have a great aunt who lives in a Sisters of Mercy convent by the sea. She’s in her nineties and her eyes are glassy and unblinking. She plays faltering jigs on her squeezebox accordion and teaches me how to draw pansies; I later find out that they symbolise love, but also free thinking. I am fascinated by the white curl that sometimes appears between her veil and her ear: what is her hair like underneath? The convent is modern and bright, with access ramps and those abstract wooden statues of Jesus with worry lines and elongated limbs that became popular post-Vatican II. When we visit, we take her for a walk along the promenade and feel the salty breeze on our face. We don’t live near the sea. I could be a nun, I think.
Some years later at secondary school, we watch a grainy video called The Silent Scream, created from ultrasound images taken from an abortion at twelve weeks. A lurid pulp horror-style cover makes claims of ‘truth’ and ‘victimhood’ and a manly voiceover tells us to behold the ‘child…thrashing about in alarm.’ It’s a Damascene moment. I start wearing a SPUC baby feet pin on my lapel and write endless frenzied persuasive essays on the rights of the unborn.
The school chaplain invites me and a handful of friends to attend weekly prayer meetings exploring edgy teenage topics such as ‘Sex for Young Catholics’ and then to a weekend faith festival at a Pontins-style holiday camp. At one of the more charismatic fringe events, a preacher ‘senses’ various vague ailments amongst the crowd — a dodgy leg, a bad back — and asks people who identify with the complaints to come forward so that he can pray over them. His pièce de résistance is intuiting that a woman in the audience has undergone an abortion, asking her to come to the front of the room and identify herself — in front of hundreds of people — “for healing”. People are praying loudly and speaking in tongues; chaos reigns for a few minutes as an older woman collapses in a faint and is carried out by two men, her long arms hooked around their shoulders. A line of people snakes around the front of the gymnasium and I try to work out who, if anyone, has stepped forward.
Maria Goretti is only one of the Catholic Church’s great back catalogue of virtuous girls. Twelve-year-old St Agnes was condemned to be dragged through the streets naked after rejecting a number of suitors. One account claims that the authorities’ attempts to humiliate her were thwarted when her hair grew to cover her body. St Agatha’s breasts were cut off after she refused the advances of Quintantus, the governor of Sicily. Catherine of Alexandria was imprisoned without food by the Emperor Maxentius, but a dove from heaven visited daily to feed her. When she was beheaded, it was reported that a milk-like substance flowed from her neck.
Of course, these girls are never actually ravaged. The stories take bizarre turns — Cousin It-style hair growth, amputated breasts, doves supplying food — but they don’t end in violation. These governors, soldiers, and emperors, despite living in an ancient world bereft of smartphones and CCTV, didn’t take what they wanted by force the way that pot-bellied movie moguls and intoxicated Stanford swimmers insist on doing. The tellers of the stories know that violation denies beatification; the first step in the process to sainthood and public veneration. “What a shining example for youth!” Pope John Paul II said of Maria Goretti in a letter to the Bishop of Albano — although it’s unclear whether he meant an example to young men, women or both.
After Maria Goretti appeared in Alessandro Serenelli’s dreams, he turned towards contrition. In fact, such was the change in his character, he was released from prison three years early. “Addicted to lust?” reads the title of one blog post from Aleteia, a ‘spirituality, lifestyle, world news and culture network’. “Alessandro Serenelli could be your new patron saint for breaking free.” At eighty, Serenelli made his will, explaining that he had “chosen a bad path…which caused me to ruin myself.” Specifically, he blamed “print, mass-media and bad examples.” He lived out his days as a lay brother with the Capuchin Franciscans, growing herbs in their hillside garden and watching the cypress trees’ shadows lengthen as night approached.
My psoriasis flares up on an annual visit to family in Ireland; the “change of water” declared the culprit. Thick, yellowy crusts of skin appear overnight on my bedsheets, leaving raw, exposed skin behind. When my scalp starts to bleed, an aunt recommends a faith healer, and so my mother drives me the best part of an hour through boggy countryside to a pebble-dashed bungalow in County Mayo. What’s most surprising is the normalcy of everything — the children’s bikes thrown down in the driveway, the socks drying on the radiator — until we enter her dining room and there is an altar-size statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the middle of the table. The healer is blonde and in her thirties and she’s wearing denim shorts. She places her hands on my head.
“Can you feel that?” she asks. “It should feel warm. Do you have a headache?”
I hear clattering cupboard doors and a kettle boiling in the next room. I am embarrassed by my body, my pale, freckly skin that sheds too quickly, my sheer physicality. She presses a card into my hand as we leave: Jesus and his Sacred Heart again, all curls and rolling eyes and soft, girlish fingers. My mother gives her a twenty-pound note.
In 2015, the year of papal mercy, the remains of St Maria Goretti went on a US tour. Thousands of Americans turned out all along the East Coast to see the Little Saint of Great Mercy from Nashua, New Hampshire down to Ocala, Florida. Inventive ideas for fundraising to restore the Nettuno basilica were taken up, including a Spaghetti For Goretti dinner at Christ the King Church, Oklahoma City. “May [the relics] be an inspiration to us all, but especially our youth, to live chaste lives of joyful communion and peaceful witness to our Church and to our world,” said Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre Diocese — a diocese which, in June 2020, faces bankruptcy. Since 2017, it has paid out $57 million to 320 victims of sexual abuse. It is currently actively investigating another 50 claims.
Fourteen wounds. Fourteen lilies. At fourteen, my body was disputed territory: proper or common?
Underneath the SPUC badges and the essays, I’m desperate to shave my legs, paint my face, be kissed, be somewhere else. Tony Blair claims Things Can Only Get Better but here — a deindustrialised town in the north of England — everyone seems angry and everything feels hopeless. The local newsagent sells bottles of sarsaparilla pop and single cigarettes to kids in school uniform and I spend Saturdays clacking through the poster display in the shopping centre’s record store. I walk home through subways guarded by greasy boys and mute, grinning girls with Coke can fringes and thick eyeliner. Even an empty tunnel — an abandoned trolley, the silent affront of IF YOU WANT SEX PHONE BECKY scrawled in marker pen — offers no security given the stories of men appearing suddenly with their hands stuck down their tracksuit bottoms.
I’m always primed, house keys pinned between my fingers like shuriken, ready to run at the sound of shoes slapping on concrete behind me.