The boarding students were far from home and the variable consolations of family life. They were shackled with priestly companions, pledged to lives of celibacy, who also had been removed from their families in their early teens and isolated from society in religious institutions from which they were then turned out, with scant proper preparation, as teachers. How could things not go wrong?
A review of Martin Flanagan’s “The Empty Honour Board: A School Memoir” (Viking 2023).
The writer Martin Flanagan is an all-rounder. Renowned for his reporting on Australian rules football, he’s written novels, memoirs (including one with his father, a veteran of the Burma Railway), a book of poetry and several biographies – his one on the Essendon footballer, Michael Long, “The Short Long Book”, is a masterpiece.
Flanagan has now written a book about his years in the 1960s as a boarder at a Catholic school run by Marist priests on the north west coast of Tasmania.
It was an unnatural world. The boarding students were far from home and the variable consolations of family life. They were shackled with priestly companions, pledged to lives of celibacy, who also had been removed from their families in their early teens and isolated from society in religious institutions from which they were then turned out, with scant proper preparation, as teachers.
How could things not go wrong?
Removed from the often steadying influence of parents, boarders’ lives in these places often turned the competitive testing common in teenage boys into violent bullying in which much blood flowed. “Crippling humiliation was part of the game” Flanagan says, adding that “It wasn’t the adults that put terror into my heart, it was the boys.” An extremity of this phenomenon is described in William Golding’s novel “The Lord of Flies”, to which Flanagan refers. The boys at his school in Tasmania may not have had the murderous intent of Golding’s although the principle was the same.
To keep their unruly charges in approximate order, the priests relied significantly on violence. Allowing himself uncharacteristic hyperbole, Flanagan says their methods reminded him of “the role of American helicopter gunships during the Vietnam War.” The evidence was plain enough for, as boys jostled each evening to get into the showers, the main malefactors identified themselves by the welts and bruises on their arses inflicted by lashings of the cane.
Scumming this curdling brew was sexual assault by priests on the boys for whom they were the stand-in parents. Flanagan doesn’t pretend to provide a comprehensive catalogue and he is wary of people ascribing injury to others. He describes an incident in which a priest ostensibly massaged the site of a football injury he’d copped. Years later some tried to convince him he’d been assaulted. He says “I don’t think I was abused” and that “to be abused you must surely feel you’ve been abused”, perhaps not a wholly reliable criterion in all cases.
What can safely be said is that priest on student sexual assault at Flanagan’s school was not uncommon. While there, Flanagan and two others reported an assault to the headmaster. As so often happened, the case was not properly addressed and the person against whom the allegation had been made was simply moved to another school. The problem was smothered out of sight. Decades later, Flanagan gave evidence that helped to put a priest in gaol, one of at least four who were put away.
Flanagan spools his experiences into other parts of his life.
When he tells his mother about the sexual assaults she doesn’t believe him and says “You’ll do anything to discredit the Church”. His father asks him to leave home because his “views were too upsetting for my mother.” Yet decades later when he gives evidence in court against one of his teachers, his parents support him “unequivocally”.
When Flanagan’s wife “says the fact that I don’t miss people is an example of how boarding school fucked me”, he’s not sure, adding that “when I stopped needing friends in a desperate way, I started collecting them in a free and easy way.”
More recently the author hesitated to attend a get together of students from his school days fretting about demons that might be let loose. He goes along and finds “only goodwill at the table.”
We are unlucky enough now to live in an age when many think that most problems can be solved and many sins washed away by people “telling their stories”. While there’s something to be said for confessionals, St Augustine may have exhausted this genre more than 1600 years ago, at least in the so-called Western tradition. And most problems will not be solved by people “telling stories”.
Flanagan doesn’t fall for such vanity.
He says he wrote his book to help “work out…what the experience of school meant for me.” School times, he says, “kept re-entering my life” and that the “journalist in me was provoked”. He wanted to unlock “doors to an inner world otherwise kept private.”
While he is sure his school days were the worst time of his life, Flanagan says they “helped to shape me as a journalist…[and] taught me what not to fear and gave my ambition a hard edge.” Not bad results from a time in a compromised venue.
The greater geographic spread of educational opportunity and the Catholic Church’s retreat from excommunicating parents who did not send their children to Catholic schools have significantly reduced the numbers of the Church’s boarding institutions. There are now none in Tasmania. Moreover, the celibate religious orders that once ran these schools are now virtually an extinct species. That is to say, the circumstances that gave rise to the agonies Flanagan elegantly describes are much reduced and his book is not a list of lessons to be learned.
Its grand value is in showing ways in which people can make sense of school or any other experience through careful and honest self-examination and, with luck, to be the better for it.
Flanagan is an engaging writer and one without off-putting literary artifice and pretension. He speaks directly in ways that brings the comforting reassurances of a sensitive friend.
At the end of his book “A History of Books”, the pre-eminent Australian novelist Gerald Murnane develops images in which phenomena merge including “the writer even with the reader and whatever had been written with whatever had been read.” There is a sense of this in Flanagan’s book. He says he wanted it to be uplifting, and it is.