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Edna O’Brien writes stories of the sad and the stranded, the hopeful and the lovelorn. The author talks with Diane about her decades-long writing career and why she keeps Ireland at the heart of her work.
From Edna O’Brien’s “Saints and Sinners.” Copyright 2011 by Edna O’Brien. All rights reserved. Excerpted by kind permission of Little, Brown & Company:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Acclaimed novelist Alice Monroe praises Edna O'Brien's talent saying the Irish author writes the most beautiful aching stories of any writer anywhere. In Edna O'Brien's 29th book, "A Collection of Short Stories," she tells modern day tales set in London and New York, as well as in the Emerald Isle, but you can feel the ghost of her native Ireland on each page. The book is titled "Saints And Sinners," and, of course, Edna O'Brien joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMIt's been such a long time since you and I have seen each other. I'm so pleased to have you here.
MS. EDNA O'BRIENSo am I.
REHMAnd please join us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I know there are many, many of you who have read the many books of Edna O'Brien, and enjoyed each one. So feel free to join us. Tell me your feeling about Ireland in this decade.
O'BRIENWell, it's -- that could take a book. I have many feelings about it. One thing is I am so glad that I am Irish. It continues to nourish me one way or another. It's full of stories, and my feelings about it alter as Ireland itself alters. The Celtic Tiger was a great time for some, and much bravado about wealth and showing off. But I think it wasn't as great as people thought it was. I think -- I revere poetry and literature, that is, being what my life is attempting to be a student of, and sometimes practitioner.
O'BRIENAnd that aspect of Ireland was sidelined in the great new wave of helicopters and all else and I found that a little -- more than a little, I found it disquieting. In fact, I'm writing a memoir which at the moment is in stasis because I'm here with you. But I do have a chapter called "Where have all the poets gone?" And I don't just mean published poets who publish, but that sense, that engagement, with language and with feeling, which Ireland, I think, is noted for.
O'BRIENSo my feelings about it, the crash that has come, is very sad for a lot of people. You see empty houses on a hillside. Not just houses, whole blocks of houses, the damp cement, windows boarded up. And Ireland is in a very chastened mood at this moment. They're very buoyed up by two visits as you probably know well. The queen was last week, and the president, who is a great friend of mine, Mary McAleese, invited me for a lunch with the queen.
O'BRIENAnd it was very cordial and informal, formal, of course, but it seemed informal. And many people have said, not just me, they never saw the queen smile so much. The Irish soil suited her. And then, of course, today, President Obama is there. And it's wonderful, you know, it's brief -- these are brief visits, but it's wonderful for the sense because there is some shame in Ireland of how they allowed themselves to financially crash.
REHMYou have actually written a poem about President Obama, and I would love to hear it.
O'BRIENWell, I'll have a go. I wrote it -- I meant to bring it with me, but of course left it at the -- it's for Obama who is today in Moneygall, not far from where I come from. But I'm delivering it in Washington so I think that's cosmopolitan. "2004 you glided on, Prince Hamlet himself from Illinois. A swank with a lava of language. Met your ghosts and raised them in belted sack cloth, chilled smiles, a screed of ancient wrongs. Met the living too who feared your witchcraft and ordered daggers and several sets of masks.
O'BRIENHow far you were meant to travel, cutting through sways of sky, losing or gaining an hour, hustling the sad, the savage things. Taupe earth down below, signatures of heaped snows. The sad, the savage things. Yet each time you emerged debonair as though from a game of tennis. The ones who waited on the roadside waited and were plenished. They were the ones who carried you hence as you had carried them in a beautiful baffling synthesis.
O'BRIENNow you are home. Brief is the banquet. Do you dream at night of boyish deeds long ago and do you now begin to fold those dreams under bales of blissful snows? Your tailor has arrived to measure for a great coat. After the fanfare and the anointing, there is the quiet room that some call a cell. There, poets weave epiphanies to the ranunculus that resembles the rose. They are monks, kneel on stone and pray for nothings. There the sphinx staring straight at you, not saying a word, not even a nod, and weighs a ton."
REHMEdna O'Brien reciting the poem she has written for President Obama in honor of his visit to Ireland. She has a brand new book of short stories out. It's titled "Saints And Sinners." Do join us, 800-433-8850. You, my dear and old friend, left Ireland a long time ago.
REHMYet you write with such passion about Ireland, it is as though Ireland is your long lost love to whom you refuse to go back.
O'BRIENWell, I do go back. I think it's my matrix, as it were. Love is a big word. I do love some about it. It's the place where I was born, where I was made a writer. That landscape, those people, that language, that history, that mythology, that everything was in me, as indeed it would be in many -- in everyone. So I do go back, but -- I have a very nice grave there, I'd just to mention, on an island. I don't go back to live there, and the reason is complicated and maybe not fully apparent even to me, myself.
O'BRIENWhen I first wrote, "The Country Girls" was my first book, and much brouhaha happened over it, and people were very angry about it. And it was banned, and a few copies were banned in my native village and all that, which is already well known. My reason for not going back is not to do with ill temper, or holding grudges about being banned or treated pretty harsh down the years.
O'BRIENOne reviewer for instance, called me a basement Molly Bloom, and so on. My keeping away and yet coming and going, seems to suit me as a writer, because to write you have to be very private. You go out into the world and you absorb it and you immerse yourself in it. But the actual -- like the cells that I mentioned in the Obama poem, to go back to the cell, you'll have to be by yourself.
O'BRIENAnd I find that easier in a large city like London than in Ireland where I know a lot of people and they know me. And therefore, over my shoulder, I would feel a sense of curiosity and perhaps judgment, which I don't wish. But at the same time, if like a Russian poet (unintelligible) or Joseph Brodsky whom I knew -- I knew Brodsky. I couldn't go back. That would be very unbearable cut for me.
REHMBut it is the richness of that soil, the richness of that air and that place that infuses your work.
O'BRIENWell, it's the richness, the wildness, the pain, the ghosts. It's everything because richness is a big pot. It's like a soup. There's more than happiness or joy in richness. There's all those echoes and, of course, the great heritage of writing that has been there. I wrote short brief biography of James Joyce some years ago, and living with the works of James Joyce for two years was an enormous richness. But along with the richness of literature, there is the salient richness in the place itself, in the people, in the sense of narrative.
O'BRIENIrish people, they're full of stories and stories are hard to find now in this cosmopolitan world of ours.
REHMEdna O'Brien, and her newest book of stories is titled "Saints And Sinners." When we come back, I'll ask her to read from a few and take your calls. Stay with us.
MS DIANE REHMAnd welcome back. Edna O'Brien is with me. She is in many, many ways the voice that so many yearn to hear. Her truly of-the-heart stories and novels have inspired many people including this person Rodney who has just sent us an e-mail. He said, "That poem was simply poignantly powerful, fascinatingly insightful and I hope she plans to give it to President Obama. Do you?
O'BRIENWe need a messenger.
REHMWe can find you a messenger, I assure you. We can indeed. I wanna ask you a little bit about "The Country Girls" because that book had such an impact both negative and positive depending on who was reading it. A lot of it includes facets of your own life...
O'BRIEN...in convent, your own experiences. Tell us about that life in convent. How it led to this book and what happened.
O'BRIENOh, well, convent was very strict, as you know. And looking back on it, there were about 200 women all under the same roof. There were 70 boarders, as we were called. There were 70 nuns and then there were some orphans in an adjoining building. So it was a ferment, if you like, of female longings, female crushes, you know. I was sure I would be a nun in that period 'cause I was in love with a nun.
O'BRIENIt was also -- I wouldn't think my education was that great or wide spreading but it was a different kind of education. I learned in the national school everything through Irish, and then in the convent, I learned a bit of English as well. And we used to do drill out in an open courtyard. And just to hear a boy whistle, when all of us thought it was a boy rather than an old man, this was the tune and the sound of the outside world. So it was fervid and it was enclosed. And it was good education in one sense, it was so strict. So I think I'm a quite disciplined woman, even though I would love to be more harum-scarum.
O'BRIENBut the book itself I'd always wanted to write from the youngest age. And I would write little snippets and hide them because I felt with cause that writing was something you might be judged by or you might even get into hot water over. So when I -- I used to read for publishers. I used to read their manuscripts which I got paid a guinea. And my essays are a judgment of these other people's work. I think they were a little bit severe at times.
O'BRIENAnd I was commissioned by the publishers to write a novel. And that novel became "The Country Girls." I got 50 pounds, which would be $100 roughly. And an American publisher Knopf, Alfred Knopf, Blanche Knopf whom I met and Hutchinson, a wonderful man. Everyone needs a good shepherd in their life. In fact, I would like ongoing good shepherds if I could just mention. This man was my good shepherd and he asked me to write a book.
O'BRIENAnd I was married. I was young, but married. I had in true Victorian fashion eloped and -- with the man I was married to and I had two children. I had them very young. I came to England -- we came to England and I found it so lonely, so alien, so everything. Even the pigeons at Waterloo Station where we arrived with our luggage they didn't seem like nature. They seemed like manufactured. You know, they waddled. They didn't fly. They didn't have the flight of birds.
O'BRIENAnd I also felt or realized how deeply the cut, the severance from my own country was. I didn't realize it 'til I came to England. And I sat down every morning after bringing my children to the school with copy books. I still write by hand. I'm probably one of the last to write by hand. And I wrote "The Country Girls" in a matter of weeks, under three weeks. It just poured out of me. The story, very simple, begins "I wakened quickly, sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I am anxious that I waken easily. And for a moment I could not remember, but then I did. The old reason my father, he had not come home."
O'BRIENSo it has a elegiac quality as well as Baba being wild and rebellious and so on. And all went very well while I was writing it. I cried a lot while I was writing it, but the trouble was about to start with the publication. I had no idea that I would offend and certainly never wanted to offend so many people. My poor mother, who anyhow hated literature and realized it was a subversive act. She was so ashamed of me, as were all the villagers.
O'BRIENAnd the priest in the -- at the sermon at mass heard -- knew that two women had bought copies. This'll show you how wealthy writers are, two copies. And he asked that those copies be brought in. And there was a little burning in the parish grounds. I mean, I have talked of it before. Now I find it comic. It is ludicrous, but at that time I felt -- even though I knew I hadn't done wrong, I felt I had done wrong. Because they thought that I had brought shame on them.
O'BRIENAnd I actually contend and think, you cannot write about a person or a place or a situation through hatred. That can be an editorial. But to actually write a book, conceive and make living people, even though a lot of it is stimulated by your own life, your own autobiography, you still have to -- it's not a diary, it's not a letter. You have to make that a world of characters and landscape, hymns and songs and loneliness and longing to get out of there.
O'BRIENEven though it gave me so much I was also, as the two girls, Baba and Kate, have only one longing, to break out of the convent, break out of their box, go to Dublin and meet men. You know, it's rather limited, but that's how people are. And when it was banned, then that was very -- that brought more thunderbolts.
REHMBanned throughout Ireland?
O'BRIENBanned through -- oh, yes. There were a lot of books banned in Ireland. I wasn't alone, but I was singled out for a couple of reasons. One was I was a woman and there hadn't been much tradition of women writing. Secondly, I was a young woman, 25, 4 or 5, and partly the nature of the book seemed defiant because it's written in very simple accessible language. And Baba, you know, is not only sarcastic, she's irreverent and her language is -- Kate is poetic and Baba, of course, is -- and I don't know where the idea -- people have asked me always if Baba was someone I knew. And indeed I was persecuted by many girls at school as happens.
O'BRIENBut I think Baba was the secret side of myself that want -- that I could allow her to say things that I was thinking. And it started me off, but at the same time, I was very, very frightened. Frightened in that -- I got ugly letters and all that that happens, but frightened that-- it would show you how stubborn I am and probably unfrightened in the end, but frightened about doing the next book. 'Cause one book -- you know, one swallow never made a summer, one book is not enough.
O'BRIENAnd since then -- one tiny thing I'll tell you when you're -- about transforming people's lives. I sometimes go to book festivals at Edinburgh wherever and I'm signing a few books. And a woman came up to me at one of these signings and she said, I went to the same convent as you. Oh, said I, getting a little nervy. And she said, you know, we said the rosary for you every single night. And I said, what good has it done?
REHMAnd the other story related to that book is what your mother did...
REHM...with that book.
O'BRIENThat's a more painful -- I dedicated the book to my mother and I sent her a copy. It was never discussed whether she'd read it or not read it, but she was opposed to the book and opposed to the furor it caused for her and everyone. And she did begin to soften and she was a great woman, my mother. But she was a formidable woman and there was no ethos of writing or reading. There was no library in the town. So I was like someone, you know, a buccaneer, if I can use such a word.
O'BRIENAnd after she died we were clearing up and, you know, all her clothes and all this. And in a bolster case, big white bolster case tucked into it, not in the room, outside was "The Country Girls." So I took it out. It was a bit mildewed and I opened it at random and I saw a lot of black ink through lines. So then I turned the pages and I saw more black ink. And my poor mother, she had gone through the book line by line and with black ink inked out any offending words.
O'BRIENAnd at that moment, Diane, when I came on that, and I was crying and I was raging, had my mother been alive, I would have addressed her on it. But subsequently, not just because I'm older, but because I think -- or I taught myself into her situation, of how much it must have meant to her, how awful it was for her. And, of course, I forgive her, but of course, I wish she had read it.
REHMWhat is so remarkable is that as you've just said, there were no libraries in the town. There were -- I think it was one book, "Rebecca"...
REHM...that got passed around, not necessarily...
REHM...in sequence. How in the world did you read that?
O'BRIENWell, I didn't get many pages. I would have loved to. I mean, in the first lines, last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Everyone knows it. Other people would tell you, did Maxim de Winter -- is he going to kill his second wife? Is Mrs. Danvers going to -- and so on. But as regards becoming a writer -- and I think this would be true of people in this country as well -- ugly enough out of the lonesome place and not much advantage of culture, as such as it's called. The need and the determination to write is even stronger.
O'BRIENVirginia Wolf has said that in another form and she came from a very intellectual family. But she was always glad that she had not had a university education. So am I because the feeling, the tenderness, the youthfulness and the appetite is something stimulated from not having -- I mean, I often think -- I look at a picture of James Dean, for instance. I have a wonderful photograph postcard of James Dean and he was wearing a cap. And out of that lonely place that he was from, you can see the loneliness around him, the emptiness. You can see his determination. But the irony is we can't forsake the place we came from. We can leave it, but not forsake it.
REHMEdna O'Brien and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Would you read for us a segment of your choosing?
O'BRIENSure. Well, the choosing -- this is from a story called "Inner Cowboy." It's about an innocent boy who gets caught up in the web of the moguls and the rich. And this is a moment of him speaking. His granny loved the olden days when shops were drapery and grocery and hardware all in one. "At the town square on a fair day every Christmas, she sold her turkeys and was still calling to get her turkeys back. After she lost her husband was all alone. She got a pattern book and crocheted a beautiful white bed shawl. That kept her alive.
O'BRIENBut she wasn't as glued up as she used to be and dozed a lot in the chair and came awake always saying the same thing, oh, Carly. You asked for a biscuit and a Coca-Cola and I gone and got you a biscuit and a glass of milk. Carly preferred the bog to the quarries. The quarries were big ugly places, cross places, noisy places, flying dust everywhere, showers of it black and gritty from all that crushing and all that blasting. The bogs were more peaceful stretching to the horizon, a dun brown with cushions of moss and sphagnum. And the (word?) turf and little stoops, igloos with the wind whistling through them drying them out. The birds flew high up in the air, only came down at night to feed and to suck.
O'BRIENAt school, the master read from an encyclopedia, that bogs were a place to bury butter, to take a shortcut and to dispose of a murdered one. Carly helped in the bog in the summer 'cause even though turf was (word?) with machinery it still needed the humans. The human hands to lay it and foot it and bag it and bring it home."
REHMEdna O'Brien reading from one of the short stories in her new collection. It's titled "Inner Cowboy," and the book is titled "Saints and Sinners." Such beautiful language, Edna, that some of us may not be totally familiar with.
O'BRIENOh, yes. Should I do a little translation? Which words were...
REHMWords that perhaps we have seen before, perhaps we've heard before, but haven't really recognized them as purely Irish words.
O'BRIENYes, I suppose there are. Again, I think I write unconsciously. I'm not thinking what I would write. Then you come or you say to me and it strikes me as oh, that word. One of the things about words is we have all the words -- I'm not the first to have said this. James Joyce said it. He said, I have all the words. It's a question of putting them in the right order. And I wouldn't want just for nostalgia's sake to kind of bring a word that was a bit fey or a big Celtic for its own sake.
O'BRIENWhen writing I want the words I chose to be what that character would choose. In different stories here, Madam Cassandra, the rather effete Irish wife wouldn't use those words. So I'm always groping to find the absolute word that will hit the nail on the head and I often fail.
REHMEdna O'Brien, who doesn't fail very often. Her new book of short stories titled "Saints and Sinners." Short break and right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Writer Edna O'Brien has been praised throughout the world. She has at least 29 books to her credit, the latest a collection of short stories. It's titled "Saints and Sinners." We have a number of callers. Let's go first to Ron, in Manchester, N.H. Good morning, you're on the air.
RONGood morning. I'm a fourth generation Irish-American. My mother's maiden name was O'Brien, don't know if I'm related to your guest or not. But I was listening to her reading of the poem she wrote for President Obama and I was reflecting on the fact that President Obama's not our first Irish President. And in the long tradition of the Irish-American experience, thinking probably the biggest population of Irish people outside of Ireland is probably in the United States. I just would like to really get a comment from your guest's point of view about that connection between the United States and Ireland for, you know, those of us who are Irish, but haven't ever actually visited Ireland.
O'BRIENWell, I think the questioner living here would be able to comment on it better. There is a huge Irish Diaspora and when I was growing up America was not only the land of plenty, but it was a kind of paradise. My mother had been to America. She had worked as a maid in Boston, I'm sorry, in Brooklyn for years.
O'BRIENAs regards the integration into American, I think it almost seems effortless the way it has happened and Irish-Americans come home in the summer to County Claire, where I am from, and it's interesting to watch. They're both glad to be back and in some sense look for their roots. And yet they couldn't come back, they couldn't come back forever.
REHMYou mentioned that you and your husband eloped?
O'BRIENYes, well, I did the eloping. The man I married, if you like, had the carriage.
REHMTell me what happened before you got away?
O'BRIENWell, it's not a cheerful story, but it's part of my life's experience. I was younger than my years, which is to say I wasn't very experienced in life. And I met this most amazingly good-looking and indeed intellectual man, who was 20 years older than me.
O'BRIENAnd it was the first time I was carried away, there is no doubt about that. I was carried by his fluency and by, what it seemed, a man of real sensibility, who was also a writer. And I think this is really the nub of it. I had made no secret of the fact that I wanted to write. But I was writing little silly things, you know, descriptions of clouds or something and then I would spout or I would ream off bits of James Joyce's Dubliners.
O'BRIENSo my enthusiasm far exceeded my abilities and yet it was in me, a determination. And the first few years, we lived in the country where -- it's funny, I come from the country. I write about nature. But between you and I and the wall, as they say at home, I prefer living in cities. I don't know why.
O'BRIENI can ruminate on the country better when I'm not in it. And then I wrote this book, "The Country Girls," by request from the person I mentioned to you. And my husband, I think he was surprised, but he was also undermined by it. I had not written it to undermine him. Not at all, he's not in it. But it's about Ireland girls and all the things, the big past that I brought with me.
O'BRIENAnd that was -- I wasn't that happy ever because I had married in haste or I had eloped in haste. My parents wanted to take me from the shop where I worked, a chemist shop in Dublin. And I literally ran down streets to him, to a bus, where I didn't have the bus fare even to the country.
O'BRIENSo to say I belonged in a Victorian novel or even earlier than a Victorian novel, "Lord Allen's Daughter," you know, come back, come back, he cried in grief, and so on, is absolutely true. And I found life -- I had worked at this chemist shop and I found life alone in the country very solitary. But a very good thing came from it.
O'BRIENMy husband had paid for me to join a library where you could get books immediately. I remember getting Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and feeling I was in another universe. But the publication of "The Country Girls" in the domestic -- in the public, it was a disgrace and in private, it was something of a disgrace or at least something that created conflict.
REHMFor your husband?
O'BRIENFor my husband. And then, I wrote the second book, "The Lonely Girls." It's called "Girl With Green Eyes." And there was a going to be a film, in fact, there was a film made of that. So everything got unhappier. And one day, rather like Nora in Ibsen's "The Doll's House," I just left. I left with no possessions, just the clothes I was wearing.
REHMBut you had two children?
O'BRIENI had two children and that became a big, long, tortuous battle.
REHMFor the children?
O'BRIENYes, and for me and probably for their father. But he was a more authoritative person and I felt, even though I had written these two books, I didn't feel I had any power or independence or a way -- I did eventually get it sorted, but it took a long time because I suppose I was afraid of him and that makes you powerless or helpless.
O'BRIENLooking back on it -- you see, we all -- obviously, we learn from our mistakes. Looking back on it, I could have a lot more forceful, but I wasn't. And...
REHMI think we all learn from our fears as well.
O'BRIENWe do, but the interesting thing about fears is you conquer that fear and then another comes up.
O'BRIENSo it's an ongoing school of learning.
REHMTotally. Would you read for us from "Green Georgette?"
O'BRIENFrom "Green Georgette." That's number three, yes. This is a visit of a mother and a daughter to the local bank clerk and his wife, big shots as they would have been called. It didn't go very well because Mrs. Coughlin, the wife, was really irked by this provincial mother. And it's from the point of view of the little girl the story is told.
O'BRIEN"So glad you could both come, Mrs. Coughlin said, but it lacked warmth. It was like telling us that we were dull and lusterless and that we were not people of note. Well, now I can say I met the grand Mrs. Coughlin, mama said to tartly as we walked home. And she repeated her old adage about old friends and new friends.
O'BRIENWhen you make new friends, forget not the old. For the new ones are silver, but the old ones are gold. We were in a gloom. The grass was heavy with dew. Cattle lying down munching and wheezing. She did not warn me this time to lift my feet in order to preserve my white shoes as she was much preoccupied.
O'BRIENThere was no light from our kitchen window, which signified that my father had gone up to bed and we would have to bring him a cup of tea and humor him, as otherwise he would be testy on the morrow. I had this insatiable longing for tinned peaches. But Mama said it would be an extravagance to open a tin at that hour while promising that we would have them some Sunday with an orange soufflé, which she had just mastered the recipe for. Mixed in with my longing was a mounting rage.
O'BRIENOur lives seem so drab, so uneventful, I prayed. I prayed for drastic things to occur. For the bullocks to rise up in mutiny then gore one another. For my father to die in his sleep. For our school to catch fire. And for Mr. Coughlin to take a pistol and shoot his wife just prior to shooting himself." So we all have what they call bad thoughts.
O'BRIENOr wicked thoughts or murderous thoughts.
REHMEdna and her new book is titled "Saints and Sinners." Let's take a call from Dallas, TX. Nefertiti, you're on the air.
NEFERTITIGod bless you. I'm Nefertiti and I'm originally from Liberia and my father was a diplomat to England and Ireland. I was struck by the beauty of Ireland, the landscape. And I'm also a writer, went to convent like you. Went to England as the only little black girl in the all-white boarding school and had all of the questions asked about Africa, except I never seen a lion or tiger until I went to the London Zoo.
NEFERTITIBut I'm 65 now. I have several novels that I'm trying to write and I'm so inspired by what I heard today. And my question is also, would you suggest that after copyrighting your material to find an agent or what do you think about self-publishing today? You know, there's always a fear of not wanting to have everything authenticate about what you're doing, you know, just water it down to size. What would you suggest to writers like me?
O'BRIENWell, what I would suggest to you if you want to write, write. Do it with all your heart, all your instinct, all your head, everything about you. You are the door. You have no control over what will happen to it in the sense that publishing today, as you brought up, is harder.
O'BRIENBut if you're serious about it, it's the doing of it that will count and it's your own truth. Your own truth. And funnily enough, I had something I copied from John Donne that I will read to you that I was going to read to Diane at the end of the program and it says -- and it's about writing.
O'BRIEN"Whether we be young or old, our destiny, our beings heart and home is with infinitude and only there." I know it sounds very lofty and highfalutin, but if you think on that, writing to me, and to anyone who is serious about writing, as I trust you are, is like religion.
O'BRIENIt is holy, it is not a secular in that you earn your living or want to get it published. But in the doing, you have to be as humble and at the same time as proud and adventurous. And that's my only advice to you. You still have to go into that room by yourself and get it done.
REHMAlways by yourself and confronting that page, confronting yourself as you begin to write. Nefertiti, I wish all success. Good luck to you. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Edna O'Brien, considering that your book, "The Country Girls," which was written in 1960, was banned by the Irish censure, burned by priests for its depiction of convent life, what is your reaction with how the Roman Catholic Church has been responding to the sex abuse scandals in this latest study?
O'BRIENI think they have been disgraceful. For years, in Ireland, in this country and every country, this abuse, every form of abuse, from priests and nuns and Christian brothers has been going on. And it was covered up with, in the case of Ireland, the collusion of Church and state because in Ireland state was church and church was state.
O'BRIENWhat people suffered and what they suffered silently and they could not tell anyone. These young people in institutions, they could not tell because to tell, they were finished. So they lived with that and what I am surprised is to question the very ethos of what Christianity is. It was not Christian. Jesus Christ would not have done it.
O'BRIENSo these followers, very secular in their way, parish priests, bishops, wielded the wand of power and not the wand of truth or holiness to a great deal. I'm not saying all priests or all bishops were like that and some I would imagine are very ashamed and contrite. But if you take the great -- the Vatican and from the Vatican down to a parish in County Claire, it's power. It's about power and in that sense, it is political rather than spiritual.
REHMIs it the same today?
O'BRIENNo, it's better but there were two very long reports published in Ireland and they were brilliant. They were heartbreaking. I shouldn’t use the word brilliant. But they were so thorough is what I mean. Where they got people and their stories were told and what happened, not once, not twice, but happened all the time and Ireland was shocked.
O'BRIENNow, people knew about it, but it's very easy for human nature, all of us, to put to one side or repress the thing we would rather not have aired or told. So it did create a lot of -- it was open, it was discussed. The Archbishop's house, people stood outside the Archbishop of Dublin, his house, on hunger strike and they had placards voicing what they felt.
O'BRIENOutside the Cathedral in Dublin there were little infant shoes with black ribbon, which -- for all of those who had been deprived, as it was said, of their childhood. And it wasn't just their childhood, it was their psyches, it was their youth. So I think it is a very good thing that has been brought to light. But I do not think the official of the hierarchy have been as quick to act on it or condemn it as they might be. Because, again, there is this whole thing of we are the powerful people, we are the authority. You are the little, littler person in your voice.
O'BRIENBut voices are being heard and who knows, from it, I'm sure the Catholic Church has lost a great number of its congregation, I'm sure, because you go into chapels they're emptier. But from it a lesson might be learned. That is, one has to hope these things and that lesson would be to go back to what is great and to many people essential about religion.
REHMEdna O'Brien, her new book of short stories, a wonderful collection is titled "Saints and Sinners." How good to see you again.
O'BRIENWell, I'm sure my -- you can always interrupt me in my answers if you want to, you know, you can.
REHMBut I wouldn't dream of it. Thank you for being here. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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