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.’
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). 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.
Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 51.
Carlota O’Neill, Una mujer en la guerra de España (Madrid: Oberón, 2003), p. 74.