The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 04, 2022 - 2:47:11

An example of what I mean by “slave side morality”

Katie van Schaijik, Jun 13, 2017

Listening to an audio book while I was trying to sleep the other day—soon after conversation with a friend about the problem of clericalism in the Church—I happened to catch a passage that illustrates exactly the kind of thing I am trying to express when I speak of the need to develop a “slave side" theology and morality.

It’s from Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, among many others. Her reputation is as a writer of sweet and sentimental books for children. But she hated that reputation.

I’ve just finished reading a biography of her, which is heartbreaking. She was acutely sensitive to the common problem in the Victorian era she grew up in of adults dominating, even tyrannizing over children. Her mother died when she was two; her father abandoned her to the care of her maternal grandparents. The grandmother, while a good and virtuous woman generally, was unsympathetic to her highly sensitive and imaginative nature; the grandfather was irascible and domineering.

Montgomery’s adult life, despite her enormous success as a writer, was plagued by depression, insecurity, insomnia, headaches and miseries of various kinds, all very familiar to anyone who frequents “recovery rooms” for adult children of dysfunctional families.  One of her sons was a kind of psychopath. She seems to have died from Bromide poisoning that led to suicide.

Anyway. “Emily” is a young girl who has been orphaned and sent to live with two spinster aunts, one who is kind and one who isn’t. Aunt Elizabeth plainly resents and envies the girl, though she is in denial about those feelings in herself. She imagines it’s her duty to discipline and curtail what she judges to be Emily's excessive spirits. One day she decides to do it by cutting off her niece’s hair. It was too abundant. It was sapping her strength.

'You don't mean that are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,' she exclaimed...

'Yes, I mean exactly that,' said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. 'You have entirely too much hair...Now, I don't want any crying.'....

Emily was distraught. She was at her aunt’s mercy; there was no one to intervene on her behalf. She felt completely helpless.

The morality of the day would have called for her meek and uncomplaining submission to her aunt’s authority. But something unexpected happens.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something—some strange formidable power in Emily's soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way—she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistisble surge of energy.

'Aunt Elizabeth,' she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, 'my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.'

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale—she laid the scissors down—...and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled.

What the rest of the passage tells is that the aunt had been spooked because she had seen the image of her father (Emily’s grandfather, whom she had never known) in the girl’s transformed face; she had heard his voice in the phrase (highly characteristic of him) “Let me hear no more of this."

What I think the Church urgently needs today is a “loosening of the formidable power” from “unknown depths" given to laity in our nature and dignity as persons redeemed in baptism—our Father’s face and voice—the power to stand up forcefully against all forms of domination, including from the clergy.