Tuesday, May 19, 2020

the last book I ever read (Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, excerpt two)

from Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe:

The McConville family had two dogs, named Provo and Sticky. After Arthur passed away, his oldest son, Robert, might have stepped in to assume responsibility for the family, but in March 1972, when he was seventeen, Robert was interned on suspicion of being a member of the Official IRA—the Stickies. Jean McConville, who had been delicate by temperament to begin with, fell into a heavy depression after her husband’s death. “She had sort of given up,” her daughter Helen later recalled. Jean did not want to get out of bed and seemed to subsist on cigarettes and pills. Doctors in Belfast had taken to prescribing “nerve tablets”—sedatives and tranquilizers—to their patients, many of whom found that they were either catatonically numb or crying uncontrollably, unable to get a handle on their emotions. Tranquilizer use was higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In some later era, the condition would likely be described as post-traumatic stress, but one contemporary book called it “the Belfast syndrome,” a malady that was said to result from “living with constant terror, where the enemy is not easily identifiable and the violence is indiscriminate and arbitrary.” Doctors found, paradoxically, that the people most prone to this type of anxiety were not the active combatants, who were out on the street and had a sense of agency, but the women and children stuck sheltering behind closed doors. At night, through the thin walls of their apartment in Divis Flats, the McConville children would hear their mother crying.

Increasingly, Jean became a recluse. Some weeks, she would leave the house only to buy groceries or to visit Robert in prison. It might have simply felt unsafe to venture out. There was a discomfiting sense in Belfast that there was no place where you were truly secure: you would run inside to get away from a gun battle, only to run outside again for fear of a bomb. The army was patrolling Divis, and paramilitaries were dug in throughout the complex. The year 1972 marked the high point for violence during the entirety of the Troubles—the so-called bloodiest year, when nearly five hundred people lost their lives. Jean made several attempts at suicide, according to her children, overdosing on pills on a number of occasions. Eventually, she checked into Purdysburn, the local psychiatric hospital.

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