Awakening from the Nightmare of History

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” —James Joyce, Ulysses

James Joyce in Paris, 1924. Portrait by Patrick Tuohy. Wikimedia Commons

Joyce’s quote, one of the most famous in recent literary history, seems more apt than ever at this time in the 21st century. Without debating the merits of the theory of social evolution—do humans really evolve socially or merely continue to repeat the same cycles?—I’ve always found this an admirable sentiment. Whether or not social evolution is an illusion, Joyce here echoes Robert Browning’s famous dictum: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Which in turn echoes the Zen Buddhist principle of striving without attachment to outcome simply because one feels it is right to do so.

The recent spate of documentary films exposing everything from government collusion with the telecommunications industry to hide the health dangers of ‘smart’ meters and other wireless technologies (Josh Del Sol’s Take Back Your Power) to the devastating effect on health of 20 years of GMO foods in the marketplace (Jeffrey M. Smith’s Genetic Roulette), to name only two examples, would seem to weigh heavily in favour of social evolution. And while it’s true that corporate media has co-opted and demeaned the once-honourable occupation of journalism, some of the best investigative journalism being done right now is by documentary filmmakers.

Nonfiction authors too are doing their bit. On my bookshelf is a whole string of books released in the past decade that—while hardly fun reading—demonstrate a deep-seated urge toward social evolution: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Wilkinson and Pickett. The Corporation by Joel Bakan. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I could go on. ‘Evolve or die,’ as the saying goes. The stakes for humanity have never been higher.

Dedication of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre as a national historic monument, New Denver, July 31, 2010. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Dedication of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre as a national historic monument, New Denver, BC July 31, 2010. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Although my pessimistic nature wants to argue otherwise, films and books like these suggest we may indeed be awakening from the nightmare of history. But if it only stopped at the screen or printed page I’d be afraid my pessimism was justified. Yet there are positive indicators on the ground too. For example, the redress movement for Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address crimes committed against aboriginal peoples in Canadian residential schools. I would add to this the breaking of the long silence about the abuses committed against British Home Children in the child emigration movement of the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Although books on the topic had been published since the early 1900s—usually by those actively involved—these were typically hagiographies extolling the virtues of child emigrationists like Annie Macpherson and Dr. Barnardo.

A New CanLit: The Literature of Home Children

It was 1979 before the silence began to break, with the publication of Phyllis Harrison’s The Home Children. Fittingly, it was the Home Children speaking in their own voices, without editorial gloss. While it was by no means a universally ugly picture, it effectively rebutted the rosy image painted by Barnardo and Macpherson biographers. Joy Parr approached the story from an academic perspective in 1980 with Labouring Children but even her clinically dispassionate view was shaken by the bleak reality faced by most Home Children. That same year saw the release of Kenneth Bagnell’s classic The Little Immigrants, this time from the perspective of a journalist with equal facility for detailed research and fine storytelling. The cracks in the Barnardo consensus finally began to show in 1987 with June Rose’s For the Sake of the Children, a somewhat ironic title. Rose was the first to reveal the sexual abuse scandal that unseated Barnardo’s Canadian branch manager Alfred Owen in 1919. It had taken 70 years to finally break that silence.

Ken Bagnell’s The Little Immigrants was one of the first to paint an unvarnished picture of the Home Children in Canada. Courtesy Dundurn Press

More recent books have provided added depth and dimension to the checkered history of child emigration. Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, helped kick off renewed interest in the topic in the 1990s with her seminal book Empty Cradles, the basis of the recent film Oranges and Sunshine. Roy Parker, a Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Bristol, took an unprecedented look into the legal and financial aspect of that history in Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917 (UBC Press 2008). Reading this, I was once again struck by the phenomenon of an academic’s dispassionate veneer cracking beneath the strain of the facts.

Prior to that, in 2003 Canadian historian Marjorie Kohli compiled a masterful overview of virtually every agency that sent 100,000 boys and girls to Canada in The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada, 1833–1939. For researchers this book remains a perennial and indispensable reference work. The field has expanded considerably in the past decade, with children’s books such as Beryl Young’s Charlie, several plays, novels and countless self-published family memoirs of Home Child ancestors. A nod must be given Perry Snow, whose courageous Neither Waif Nor Stray: In Search of a Stolen Identity, (self-published in 2000) provided a harrowing glimpse of one man’s experience as a Home Child. (Please note that my overview of books is far from complete.) To this impressive legacy I now add my own Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West (Hagios Press 2014).

Narrative Inheritance: The Past in the Present

The premise for my book is summed up in the question I pose in the Introduction: “Are we a people who have lost our ghosts? Or are we in fact haunted by them, but can’t remember their names?” I decided from the outset that I wanted to write far more than just another history. I wanted to explore questions of inter-generational legacy, of the effect of an historical phenomenon on psychology. As it happened, the principle of serendipity intervened on my behalf: recent studies by Dr. Fraser Mustard and Margaret Norrie McCain, Margaret McNay, Andrew Morrison, and others all shed light on the ways past trauma resonates down through the generations. The emergent science of epigenetics has demonstrated a link between environment and heritable traits of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A story by British journalist Michael Stewart published November 23, 2010 in The Telegraph explored the inter-generational impact of the trauma of the London bombings from the perspective of epigenetics. “Can nurture in one generation affect nature 
in the next? It’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer is yes,” wrote Stewart. “The offspring of male survivors of the July 7 bombings may inherit anxiety and
depression.”

For British Home Children like Frederick George Snow, the search for family was a lifelong quest. Photo courtesy Perry Snow.

For British Home Children like Frederick George Snow, the search for identity was a lifelong quest. Photo courtesy Perry Snow.

And indeed, many of the families I interviewed for the stories in my book suffered from a wide range of trauma-related symptoms—alcoholism, broken marriages, inability to settle, and suicide. As McNay explains, this can happen whether or not children were told the stories of their Home Child ancestors. It’s ‘in the drinking water’ of these families—literally passed down in the genes. It’s fashionable in conservative circles to denigrate this idea, but, as with global climate change, the social and epigenetic sciences are against them. McNay elucidates a principle she calls ‘narrative inheritance’ and its vital role in the formation of identity, touching a nerve exposed by Perry Snow in his father’s story. “Narratives are essential to the construction of personal identity, relationships, and fully actualized lives,” states McNay in Absent Memory, Family Secrets, Narrative Inheritance. Snow’s father spent a lifetime trying to pry his identity from the Church of England, the agency that had sent him to Canada as a boy. “My father was riddled with doubts every time he identified himself. All he could say was what his caretakers led him to believe. …Your identity allows you to value yourself as a unique person of some worth. …If you do not know who you are, you feel like a nobody.” (Neither Waif Nor Stray, p.9)

My point in all this is that while it’s wonderful that we’re creating books, films and monuments to the Home Children, if we only focus on the external work, we’re missing the point. We must be prepared to also do the ‘inner work,’ the work of examining just how the legacy of neglect, identity fracturing or abuse shows up in our own behavior. Otherwise we will be doomed to repeat it the same as if we were ignorant of this history. (I won’t enter the debate here of whether or not humans actually learn anything from history; my contention is that we are at least capable of doing so.) What is the point of erecting memorials to Barnardo children if in our personal lives we behave as autocratically as Dr. Barnardo often did?

If there is such a thing as a national character, and many great Canadian writers have addressed the question, then I contend that the history of the Home Children bears directly on that character. It has even been suggested that the search for self-identity and the need to justify one’s existence is a common feature of Canadian Literature. As Anne Champagne has said, Canadian Confederation was in 1867 and within two years of that date—only ‘moments’ historically speaking—the first shipments of British Home Children were arriving. Think about it: what people are known for apologizing for practically everything? For being deferential to authority? These were traits that Home Children were conditioned to adopt.

Though I hesitate to apply the much-abused term ‘positive’ to what I hope to accomplish with Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, I believe we’re at a unique juncture in history. We’ve been given a chance to awaken from the long nightmare of history. Let’s seize it with both hands.

NOTE: Please see next post for my upcoming Ontario tour itinerary for Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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