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The Light in the Window
By June Goulding. (Ebury Press: 2005. Pg. 224.) ISBN: 0091902053

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - March 8, 2005

In 1951, June Goulding accepted a position as midwife at the Bessboro Home for Unmarried Mothers. Little did she know that she was stepping in an arcane world ruled by Catholic Nuns who felt it was their duty to punish the woman in their charge for the heinous crime of getting pregnant without the benefit of being married. Located in the town of Blackrock, in County Cork, Ireland, the Bessboro Home for Unmarried Mothers was run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose convent was adjacent to the Home. Few of the women who entered the Home knew what was in store for them. Most came with the idea that this would be a safe shelter for them in which to give birth to their child, out of sight of the critical eyes of neighbors and friends who might judge them harshly for this 'sin'.

The father's of these women's children faced little if any negative social stigma due to their action. The women, on the other hand, were treated like pariahs. Once they entered the home, the nuns assumed complete control of their lives. The women were imprisoned in the Home for a period of three years, unless they could pay the enormous sum of 100 pounds. Under no circumstances were the women allowed to leave with their children. While in the home they were mistreated, deprived of proper medical care, ill clothed, and forced to give birth without any pain relief. Any damage caused by the birthing process was left to heal naturally. If the mother or child died during the birth, so be it. In addition, the women were forced to do grueling manual labor - even during their pregnancy, and the babies were given out to breast-feed without care of who was the mother of which child. Worse, after three years, the babies were taken from their mothers and adopted out, often to American families. Records were falsified to insure that the mother's would never be able to track down their children.

Goulding worked in this hellish environment for nine months before leaving to get married. Fifty years later, she wrote The Light in the Window, a book that recounted her memories and impressions of her stay at the Home. For readers around the world, this book opened a flood gate of repressed anger, and compelled numerous journalists and historians to begin to ferret out information about these Homes, and what life was like for the women who were sent there. These draconian homes for unwed mothers' existed throughout Ireland for decades - they were a dirty little secret that no one ever acknowledged. Even the women who were forced to slave away in these homes fixing roads, working in laundries, farming, mowing lawns by pulling grass with fingers, and other degrading tasks, seldom spoke of their ordeal due to fear that they would be stigmatized by their incarceration in the Home. Goulding's book, however, opened Pandora's box. Shortly after this book was released, numerous women came forth to tell their stories, collaborating Goulding account. The nuns have apologized for their actions, but for those who endured this torture their apologies are most likely meaningless.

The Light in the Window, by June Goulding offers readers a first hand account of what life was like in the Bessboro Home for Unmarried Mothers, and the ill treatment that the unwed mothers received. It also provides an intriguing glimpse into the attitudes and mores of Irish men and women in the early 1950's. Despite protesting that she found the practices in the Home repugnant, and while she did what she could for the women under her care, Goulding never challenged the nuns or demanded that they provide proper nutrition or medical care. Had she done so, she may have been able to force a change in how the pregnant women, at least, were treated. As she acknowledges herself, she knew that the nuns were desperate to have her work at the Home as they had a great deal of difficultly finding and keeping a trained midwife on staff - besides one of the Sisters who had trained to become a midwife. This is not meant to chastise Goulding, rather to show that cultural attitudes of the time condoned, at least superficially, such harsh treatment of women who were seen as immoral.

This is a hard book to put down once you start reading it. Goulding's narrative is riveting and unforgettable. Although the events she describes seem almost unbelievable, they have been verified, and the sad truth is that the events described in this book were all too real for the women who endured them. Highly recommend, but not for the faint of heart as Goulding account is graphic and heartrending.

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