Bridget Cleary part two: The Insult of Belief

Feb 26, 2007
Part one is here.

In writing about Bridget Cleary's death, Angela Bourke is obviously working at least partially within an anthropological tradition which tries to establish the validity of all the beliefs involved in a situation, while explaining why they were incompatible, which makes each side seem irrational to the other. To Michael Cleary, who had gone to the physician and the priest to look for help for his sick wife, and been basically turned away by each of them, an older tradition of healing would have been the only sensible option left; to the police and the magistrate, holding a sick woman over the fire and forcing her to drink medicines of herbs boiled in milk would have only looked like torture. Unfortunately, Bourke doesn't quite manage to be as even-handed as she might have liked: while she is generous towards the fairy beliefs of the townspeople, she doesn't seem to be sympathetic to it, and in fact gives the impression that she doesn't think they really believed in fairies at all.

It's a problem I had with plenty of my anthro classes (though not, to her credit, with the professor teaching them), that while we were expected to treat all beliefs fairly and with as much objectivity as possible, there was always this undercurrent of "but we know their magic doesn't really work; we know they're just justifying it to themselves when it doesn't; we know better, because we are the scientists." Bourke's book is particularly blatant about this, especially when discussing why people might participate in fairy exorcisms even if they don't believe in fairies (she actually states early on that she isn't sure that anyone ever truly believed in fairies or the supernatural, which is pretty drastic even for a skeptic to claim). She talks about how such rituals are acts of social condemnation, reinforcing ideas of conformity and "keeping in one's place;" and while it's true that lots of communal rituals and beliefs, particularly those dealing with creatures or people who live on the boundaries of things, do serve a social function like that, it's stretching it quite a bit to say that anyone was acting out these rituals with only that in mind -- putting an uppity woman in her place -- while not really believing in any of the supernatural elements.

There's a passage toward the end of the book where Bourke talks about how the case was discussed in official police documents, and how the word "superstition" was thrown around. When used between equals, she says, "superstition" can explain away personal quirks and beliefs we don't necessarily share with one another, but when used from a person with power against someone without, it's an insult, and frequently dehumanizing -- "they're so stupid they don't even know that fairies don't exist; obviously we shouldn't let them govern themselves." In her eagerness to disassociate herself from this position, though, Bourke seems to go too far in the other direction, as though she thinks that saying they believed in fairies would be an insult, when of course it's the attitude one takes towards their belief in fairies that makes it insulting or not.

As to Bridget Cleary's death, Bourke eventually says that she doesn't believe that it was malicious, that Michael Cleary merely snapped under the strain of his wife's illness and the attitude of the villagers toward them (they were not well integrated into the local society, for a number of reasons I've glossed over in order to not make this any insanely longer than it already is) and fell back on an older pattern of belief. Even with just the evidence prevented in this book, and apparently this is a case that has been written on extensively, I can't agree. Firstly, I find it interesting that Bridget's death actually occurred after the ritual of the exorcism was over, when Bridget's health was improving and everyone else who had been participating was getting back to normal. Also, as Bourke points out through the book, of all the people involved Michael Cleary was the most modern, the most literate, the least likely to retain what was considered an old-fashioned and dangerous form of belief. It looks to me much more like a man taking the opportunity presented to him by others, particularly the fairy doctor who seems to have been the first to suggest a changeling, to find an excuse to murder his wife.

Reading this book gave me one of what I call my "worldview instances:" moments in time when I realize just how differently I look at the world than whoever I'm talking with or reading from. Not so much involving the murder case itself -- although I did disagree with Bourke's reading of the evidence -- but in her general assumptions about mystical belief. Bourke really does seem to feel that saying that these people took action on a real person because they believed in fairies, an Otherworld, and in changelings would be insulting and demeaning to them. She comes, really, from the same basic assumptions as the colonial administrators who thought that belief in fairies showed signs of a childish mind: belief in magic is childish, but these people were rational adults, therefore they could not have believed in magic, her train of thought seems to go. I'd like to say this train of thought is unusual in anthropology, but I think it's just more blatant here than elsewhere. It's one of the reasons I find myself reluctant to look at graduate schools in anthropology. I'm pretty sure searching for a department based on "is not atheist to the point of religious intolerance" would be more than a little difficult.

1 comment:

cathy said...

Thanks for sharing your thougths on this book. I've ordered it and am looking forward to reading it.