Conversation: Gerard Rodgers in conversation with Ursula Somerville
Ursula: Hi Gerard, thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I know that we met many years ago while you were training in Turning Point and I was part of the training staff then. You were in the collective group of students, if I remember correctly?
Gerard: Firstly, thank you so much for highlighting my work. I really appreciate it. I remember our meeting so fondly. Turning Point most certainly enlarged my humanistic vocabulary in a very tangible way. The co- founders’, Kay Conroy and the late Mary-Paula Walsh, emphasis on continuous learning toward excellence is something I am so grateful for.
Ursula: Gerard, I was deeply moved on reading your second book Resisting the Power of Mea Culpa: A Story of Twentieth-Century Ireland, where you document your early life full of violence and trauma, together with grooming leading to sexual abuse at the hands of a cleric, and again in your teens by an employee at a golf club. Not to mention a brush with addiction and attempt at suicide.
You do all this by writing in an academic style. Can you say how you made the decision to write about something so personal to you?
Gerard: Thank you again, Ursula. My childhood and teenage years were pretty torturous and injurious to wellbeing. Members of my family have suffered a great deal. Traumatic, violent and abusive atmospheres are not choosy when, where, and to whom they fall. I felt the academic style of writing was an important tool of decentring from the dominant idea that these experiences are/were personal. Thinking and feeling that trauma is personal can enact quietude. It is like complying with an atmospheric idea that inclines you to feel that what you are going through, no matter how bad, is irrelevant. Ruminating in these persecutory affects, you start thinking your shamed core is inherently bad, putrid and evil. The ways in which Ireland was arranged as a society damaged social autonomy (self-confidence/self-esteem/self-respect). Our historic value orientation rewarded and even enforced quietude in the avoidance of scandal. From our recent history, the book shines a light on a blind allegiance to such sacrificial idealism. In particular, the costs of this allegiance became more overt when anchored in the academic literature. For example, the critical theory tradition really opened up my eyes to what many in my family had soaked up, largely unawares. I have been gripped by the idea of how larger than life regulatory concepts (e.g. Mea Culpa) were/are enacted in dynamic psychologies over time. The German theorist, Professor Axel Honneth, titled one of his early books The Fragmented World of the Social. What I take from this title, and Honneth’s work more generally, is that the way in which societies are organized through recognition has significant implications for self-confidence and realising opportunities. Inspired by Hegel, Honneth talks of the self in ‘practical self-relation’ terms. In our early lives, the way we imbibe/absorb regulatory norms reach deeply rooted capacities for making meaning of our own psychological experiences. In the book, I felt I was pushing against the grain, recognising how my enacted modes of self-confidence developed in the context of atmospheric historical norms.
Ursula: Gerard, I don’t want to give too much of the book away because I think it is really important that people read it, but I think it would also be important to speak in some way about power, and in particular about the power in religious vocation of which you were a victim as a child marinating in a trauma-filled family environment.
Gerard: Ursula, this is a key theme in the CSA literature, how perpetrators choose their young victims. In the book, I expanded on this knowledge through my own narrative. Again, the valences of Mea Culpa are key to grasping this: how I, as a young traumatised child/boy absorbed and gravitated toward the preordination of religious vocation as a safety net to prevent further violence and social harm. I was running for cover into a junior religious novitiate and I thought this move would put me above very unsafe and even terrorising situations. I was also very religious and thought I had a vocation – I thought God was calling me. Leaving home to pursue an early religious vocation backfired. As a young teen, I was totally unaware of how my good intentions to be a religious brother were being manipulated by a now deceased adult paedophile. In all of this repetitive pain, I was building up more and more evidence for why I should distrust others and shame myself. I also had no inalienable right to be recognized as a gay boy. As an adult, my gay desires were constructed as pathological, construed as a moral sickness that stalked society. I will never forget how noxiously shaming these experiences were. The literature clearly suggests the brain architecture of teens implicitly absorbs so much.
Ursula: It was the unique way that you brought the history of Ireland to life that so grabbed my close attention through the whole of the book. You delivered it with such clarity and yet it was this history that was part of the reason for the suffering in your family.
Gerard: Resurrecting this history was painful, consistent with the therapeutic idea of working through the past. I hope the outcome of this multilevel approach to personal narratives feels more roomy in resurrecting damaged self-confidence and enhancing social freedom. What does not stand out in the literature are the valences of history, how enacting regional histories are so much part of our social identities. Universalist language and discipline specific language can be socially weightless for how regional/period history is enacted, transferred and embedded in personal and social narratives. Another point around generic language is the theme of professional disciplines being colonisers of regional knowledge. Psychological discourse can often be dominating where the logic of local culture/s is deemed inferior to superior grander narratives.
Ursula: I am intrigued by the name of the book, and I think we have been numbed to the term Mea Culpa, you know, we use it in an exaggerated form of apology putting our hands in the air once we have been found out, but it is entrenched in the Catholic religion, so can you say what it means for you and how you settled on using it in your title?
Gerard: Mea Culpa represents a spell-like atmospheric formulation, capturing a regulatory concept of self-other responsibility. For example, powerful and foregrounded ideas from our history can literally preordain a false idealistic consciousness. Once enacted, this can even extend to a self-radicalising life-form, constricting and even shutting down core emotional competencies for making meaning of our own life experiences. Ursula, your term ‘numbing’ brings up my naivety to the tentacle-like spell of Mea Culpa in my early socialisation, having a concrete transaction for early cognitive development. Young brains are like sponges.
Ursula: Ah, can you say a bit more about this transaction for early cognitive development?
Gerard: For example, the developmental psychology literature situates childhood and teenage years as formative years. As a child and teenager, I remember feeling and thinking I was at the centre of the universe, everything revolved around me. This is as it should be. However, this extended to conflating the meaning of bad happenings as also meaning something bad about me. In my family history and early socialisation, I learned how to be suspicious of my thoughts and how to be distrustful of others’ intentions based on too many bad experiences. In the distrust, layers of disappointment could not find a language. This was certainly not my fault.
Ursula: That’s quite a powerful expression Gerard: “layers of disappointment could not find a language”!
Gerard: When further embedded in the proud idealistic armoury of Mea Culpa, quietude was pretty much guaranteed in a taboo-ridden, secretive and enclosed historic society. The tariff was shame and guilt. But what was seen by others were the externalising and internalising disorders, preordained by hierarchical thought-forms, making the un-concealment of paradigm cases of torture and rape almost inconceivable. Mea Culpa as a foregrounded regulatory principle in Ireland’s history shamed too many persons into silence and even defence of the status quo. Rather than work on our own experiences, our personas seem to dissociate. However, dissociation in the context of Ireland’s history, examples how individuals enact the normative ideology through quietude. This felt pre-ordained. In this sense, dissociation is like a learned coping strategy within the normative penchant for secrecy. The book tries to excise the burden of self-persecutory introjects learned from the circular feedback loops of projective idealism (e.g., it really is my fault). Self-sacrifice in this system of thought was deeply injurious, even ending lives prematurely etc. I consider myself fortunate to be alive to write about this and I am opening up a window on this torture to help others who may identify with these dynamics. For a long period, I felt I could be killed if I opened up about all these horrid secrets.
Ursula: Gerard, is it ok if I ask you to expand a little on this ‘self-sacrifice’ and that most profound statement of “ending lives prematurely…”. I know you cover this in the book but just here in conversation what would you like to say?
Gerard: I think of ‘self-sacrifice’ as a shield/armoury. It can be both productive and destructive. When self-sacrifice becomes larger than life, the person is cordoned off and out of touch with the deeper recesses of their own motivational drives. People may start to believe they are narcissists, attention-seekers, trouble-makers and burdensome to others, and that they would be better off dead. Shame and guilt can be corrosively poisonous to social autonomy.
Ursula: I consider this a brave and, in my view, a classic book in which you manage to marry the human suffering, which was in your family, with the political and social ‘norms’ at the time. Is there more you can say about writing in that style and how you were able to portray an even recounting in the face of such trauma?
Gerard: I am very grateful for such high praise for my work. The term ‘marrying’ the threads is key. I worked hard to understand the history of norms, how a family was situated within these norms. I try to make both lived experience and norms intelligible to each other. The academic literature was so helpful in this regard because it allowed me to piece together shamed social subjectivities in Irish history within the psychosocial/neuroscience and critical theory literatures. Trauma can inflame people’s intentional capacities, often making us distrustful, reactive and even quiescent around authority. I think psychotherapy has a moral duty to imagine how these social tariffs can be unearthed with care. I feel passionate about my own obligation to express this history, to make this history more intelligible so that the weight of history is less constricting on self-determination. Our in-depth understandings are growing.
Ursula: Gerard, I really hear what you say about the moral duty of psychotherapy to imagine how these social tariffs can be unearthed with care but can you speak to how you see us, as psychotherapists, doing more to achieve this? In other words, is there more we can do than sit with and witness the suffering of our client in doing the reparation work, and do you see psychotherapy, as a body, needing to become more vocal and active and, if so, how would you do that?
Gerard: This is not an easy question to answer. Many of the themes in this book feel dated. In the public domain, there is a strong sense of societal compassion fatigue. And I still think there is a disbelief and a conflict of interpretations about the impact of violence and abuse. This kind of ambivalence is not good. Many people who suffered decades ago are likely to feel a pressure to move on. The space of psychotherapy may also feel this pressure to keep up appearances, to be relevant to the age. I think we must possess a steely resolve and not be hoodwinked by fashionable trend-lines/attitudes. We can envision the normative resolve of psychotherapy as moral, ethical, spiritual/theological and/or social/political. When we are anchored in the literature, our imaginative confidence will grow as a creative contributor to the conversation.
Ursula: Oh my, “steely resolve and not be hoodwinked by fashionable trend-lines and attitudes” – thank you for that, it certainly gives me food for thought in my work.
Gerard: Ursula, good to hear how the book translates to practice.
Ursula: Gerard, you really put a fine point on what’s at stake when you say that you “did not achieve good results in your intermediate and leaving certs” and “… children from disturbed family backgrounds in combination with sexual abuse experiences are more likely to turn to substances to cope with negative affects/stressors” (p. 115), so how was it possible for you to turn that effect around to study to the educational level that you did?
Gerard: You are hitting on a key point here in this question. Education was significantly valued in my family, with high achievements notched up by siblings and my peers. In the context of my own failings in education, when I compared myself to others, this made the effects of shame worse. When I received my disastrous leaving cert results, I really felt caught out. I felt I was a blaggard and a total misfit. I was housing so much atmospheric shame.
Ursula: I know that the family trauma you experienced and, from your book, you say that all in Longford knew about it and so I have to ask, what were the teachers in your schools doing to support you and your family?
Gerard: I think my teachers just standing back and observing provocative behaviours didn’t help. Because my secondary school teachers knew about our family tragedy, they may have been afraid of probing the multivariate reasoning for poor results at school. Turning the ill effects of early deficits around has taken time, financial resources and a great deal of support and patience from my husband Paul, philanthropy and friends. I think a chip on my shoulder regarding education explains my persistence. It’s ‘a worked-for resilience’ and I am glad of it.
Ursula: Sorry, to interrupt you here Gerard, but I read in the book that you were to marry Paul in 2019 so many congratulations on that.
Gerard: Thank you so much. We got married in April. Over three decades, Paul’s presence in my life has been such a source of strength and love and key to my recovery. Ireland is a good place for gay people to live in, a lot of positives have been achieved.
Ursula: Can we talk a little about your training as a psychotherapist and you went on to further training with a doctorate in psychotherapy. While I hear you say that “a chip on your shoulder regarding education explains your persistence”, I feel that this expression minimises the immense effort it takes to hold on to the Self in training.
Gerard: I hear you Ursula and thank you. The chip is a like a pebble in the shoe. For a long while, I never really felt I could own this pebble (chip) in a self-confident way. Deep down, I felt I had no real public right to feel and communicate how restless, irritable and discontented I can be about bad social conditions. I kept a lot in. I often feel envious of people who do not house this type of ruminating conflict. I agree it does take immense effort to “hold on to the Self” in training. I would like to think we can let go of the Self in expressing ourselves more assertively about the not negligible levels of suffering people have to endure on a daily basis.
Ursula: Gerard, you have said that your publishers intend to nominate you for an award for your book, can you say any more about that?
Gerard: Yes, the new Senior Commissioning Editor at Peter Lang, Anthony Mason, put forward my book for the James S. Donnelly Sr. Prize for books on history and social sciences. I did not win. I was thrilled to be nominated.
Ursula: I’m sorry you were not successful but it does not diminish the importance of your book. So, I wonder what did you get out of writing the book, you know in the way of healing, if any?
Gerard: I felt I released an inordinate amount of pain in the telling of these stories. Childhood family violence and trauma, soon followed by predatory grooming and sexual exploitation, when situated in the historical context of persecutory repression still tells us that a spark of passion is not quenched and can be claimed for the good. Receiving professional recognition/ praise for the book has also validated my decision to release this story for publication.
Ursula: Releasing this story has been important but this is not your first book. You have completed another one as recently as 2018 and I remember you also wrote some articles for this journal, Inside Out, in 2013.
Gerard: Yes, firstly just to say, I wrote the second book by accident. I wrote an epilogue reflection on my doctoral dissertation and Lexington Books offered me a contract to revise it without the epilogue reflection, saying they did not publish personal narratives. This first book, Being Gay in Ireland: Resisting Stigma in the Evolving Present, was published in June 2018. The Inside Out articles give a good indication of how I positioned this first book study within the literature and how phenomenology as a research methodology proved so fruitful in generating more person-centred knowledge of gay men’s lives in Ireland. I am so much happier I pursued the second book as a stand-alone and that Peter Lang offered me a contract to develop Mea Culpa as a book.
Ursula: Now, I don’t mean to startle you Gerard but I really feel that your book would benefit from becoming a film as it is full of such important information. What do you feel about that idea?
Gerard: It’s funny you say this. I really like the idea. I actually thought of it as a play. Maybe a period drama. It has been a long journey. Telling stories can help bring about societal change.
Ursula: I could go on talking to you forever because your book is so full. I’m hoping that this brief conversation will provoke interest in your most profound book. So, for now, I thank you most sincerely for your generosity of time and wisdom.
Gerard: I feel very grateful for such praise, and for the opportunity to speak about my second book. I have learned even more from our thoughtful exchange. Thank you so much.
Gerard Rodgers was conferred with a Doctorate in Psychotherapy by DCU in 2016. He lives in Dublin with his husband Paul and two dogs Lulu and Socks.
Ursula Somerville is a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor accredited with IAHIP.
Honneth, A. (1995). The fragmented world of the social: Essays in social and political philosophy (Suny Series in Social and Political Thought). New York: State University Press.
Rodgers, G. (2013). The lived experience of being gay. Accessed 7 April 2019 https://iahip.org/ inside-out/issue-69-spring-2013/the-lived-experience-of-being-gay
Rodgers, G. (2013). A phenomenological research inquiry of lived experience. Accessed 7 April 2019 https://iahip.org/inside-out/issue-71-autumn-2013/a-phenomenological-research- inquiry-of-lived-experience
Rodgers, G. (2018) Being gay in Ireland: Resisting stigma in the evolving present. London: Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.
Rodgers, G. (2019). Resisting the power of Mea Culpa: A story of twentieth-century Ireland. Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd., International Academic Publishers.