The Truth, Trauma and the Law by Ruth Littlewood

In The Limits of Autobiography Leigh Gilmore comments on the tenuous link between justice and the Law, highlighting how the Law is fetishised as the arbiter of truth without taking into consideration its limitations as an institution. This includes an historical bias against women and children, who are not seen as full legal subjects and therefore have obstructed access to justice in its wider sense. Gilmore argues further that in many cases the processes of the legal system can be just as destructive for the traumatised subject, even if the court eventually rules in favour of the victim. The fairly slippery idea of ‘truth’ and how the victim perceives what has happened is made to conform to the models prescribed by the Law, meaning that there are only certain approved modes of ‘telling’ their side of the story i.e. under questioning in the witness box. Consequently, Gilmore claims that ‘not only is the relation between the two not causal – the exercise of law does not produce justice – but law cannot produce justice if it produces harm as a matter of course.’[1]

Carlota O’Neill

Relating this to my thesis raises several interesting ideas about the autobiographies of female prisoners from Franco’s Spain. The women included in my project unanimously rejected their incarceration as illegal because they viewed themselves as political prisoners. The legal process to which they were subjected in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War was also deeply flawed: it was common for large groups of men and women to be tried simultaneously by a military court and the defendants were usually not allowed to speak or present witnesses. The defence solicitors were often only given the details of the case hours before the trial took place and regularly provided no other function than to agree with the prosecution. In the case of two of these women, Ángeles Malonda and Carlota O’Neill, they were told that they were found innocent by the investigation into their wartime behaviour but were still held prisoner ‘en calidad de detenidas gubernativas’ (in the condition of government detainees).[2] What is clear from reading the many memoirs of these female prisoners is that there is no opportunity for them to tell their own story in the legal process. If we use Gilmore’s model, these women seem to undergo a doubly traumatic process in relation to the Law: their belief in the illegality of their detainment and the loss of an opportunity to voice their side of the story during the trial. This inability to expose their personal truths about the war and its aftermath continued for nearly 40 years as a consequence of the repression in Spain. The accusations that were levelled at these women (‘whore,’ ‘red,’ ‘godless’ etc.) were never publicly decried.

It is unsurprising then that these women should feel motivated to commit their stories to paper and to publish them after Franco’s death in 1975. Given the tacit agreement of the political parties not to use past grievances for political ends during the Transition, there was little appetite at a national level to discuss the past. Perhaps, then, these memoirs can be seen as an attempt to seek some kind of public, if not legal, recompense for the injustices committed during the dictatorship, thereby easing the trauma of their experiences.

[1]Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 51.

[2]Carlota O’Neill, Una mujer en la guerra de España (Madrid: Oberón, 2003), p. 74.

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5 Responses to The Truth, Trauma and the Law by Ruth Littlewood

  1. Alun says:

    Great post, Ruth! I have a question: In the context of Gilmore’s argument, do you think that your subjects’ trauma under trial stemmed principally from their gender, or from their ideological opposition to the regime which held them? Is such a distinction actually possible in this case?

  2. Ruthie says:

    Hi Alun, thanks for the comment. In many ways, your question is actually one of the central issues that I am considering in my PhD – by choosing to look solely at autobiographies by women, I need to justify to some extent the gendered nature of their experiences in the Civil War and Franquismo. I haven’t got a fully formed answer to your question yet (what a surprise!) but questions of gender certainly came into play during the judiciary process. As mentioned in the blog, women were routinely accused of being prostitutes simply for being associated with the Left. Carlota O’Neill was imprisoned because her father-in-law wrote to the consejo de guerra and accused her of, amongst other things, dominating her husband.
    It is also worth noting that the legal status of women had changed in the early 1930s, allowing women many more freedoms (up until that point, women effectively had the legal status of a juvenile until their mid-twenties and then once again when they were married). Women who chose to take advantage of laws which allowed civil marriage, divorce and abortion, amongst other things, were targeted in the aftermath of the Civil War.
    As a consequence, I think that the gendered element to Gilmore’s argument is particularly valid here. Her idea is that women are disadvantaged in countries where the legal system is fundamentally patriarchal (if not overtly misogynist – you only need to apply the example of rape victims being told that it is their fault for dressing provocatively to prove this point) and built around laws that have been created by men to uphold it over centuries. Spain under the rule of Francofalls into this bracket without a doubt.

  3. elroberts says:

    Reblogged this on eloiseroberts's Blog and commented:
    A brilliant post by fellow PhD student Ruth Littlewood on the SLC Postgrads blog. Worth a read..

  4. I think similar arguments can be applied to science – by its nature it is ever-changing and exploratory, and yet is misconstrued as absolute truth. Again, it can be used for social control – the flawed and purposeful hypothesis that men had bigger brains than women and so are more intelligent, for example (or pretty much any gender research and the associated publishing biases). It is sad that such pure, well-meaning structures become exploited by those in power to meet their own ends, and no surprise that we, a a culture, are now all so cynical and untrusting!

  5. John L says:

    A very interesting read, thanks Ruth

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