Mistresses of their destinies

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Childhood Interrupted: growing up under the cruel regime of the Sisters of Mercy

By Kathleen O'Malley

Virago pound;10.99

Alice in the Looking Glass: a mother and daughter's experience of anorexia By Jo and Alice Kingsley

Piatkus Books pound;12.99

My Life in My Hands

By Alison Lapper

Simon and Schuster pound;12.99

Bad times really can get better. That's the message that holds these three books together. Kathleen O'Malley, raped as a child, and incarcerated in "care", is now a magistrate. Alice Kingsley, at 14 a slave to anorexia and obsessions, is emerging from her teens into recovery. And Alison Lapper, born with startlingly abbreviated limbs, and erased from her mother's mind - well, she's up there in the middle of London now, in Trafalgar Square with Nelson and the lions.

Kathleen O'Malley's story is almost too painful to read. Daughter of May, a struggling single mother, she spent her early years in children's homes in Ireland, where she was physically and emotionally abused by nuns.

May tried to hang on to her children, but when Kathleen was raped at the age of eight by a neighbour, during a period spent at home, it was enough to put her back into care. She stayed there until she was 16, in the clutches of women such as Sister Gerard, a teacher who used her wedding ring (nuns being the brides of Christ) as a weapon with which to hit her pupils on the head.

"It was her own special form of punishment - perfect for instilling law and order into dirty girls whom she was wasting her time trying to educate.

That piece of jewellery which was meant to symbolise her marriage to God was used as a method of torture on children."

There's a particularly exquisite irony in the fact that the nuns who starved her, degraded her in disgusting lavatories, pretended to give her Christmas presents which were then whisked away, were called Sisters of Mercy.

Perhaps the ultimate cruelty was the way in which, as Kathleen recalls, the nuns turned her against May, saying her mother was "unfit". We can only imagine how May felt: possibly the same sense of bewildered loss as Jo Kingsley expresses in her account of her daughter Alice's journey through the darkness of anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While Kathleen was separated from her mother by the authorities, Jo saw her beloved child increasingly obeying, through the years from 11 to 14, a set of potentially fatal compulsions that came from within.

"It is the memory of Alice's eyes that will haunt me for ever: there was absolutely nothing but two dark sockets of misery," writes Jo.

Alison Lapper, like Kathleen O'Malley, spent time in a children's home.

Born with phocomelia ("a congenital malformation in which the hands and feet are attached to abbreviated arms and legs") she went into care at birth.

"So there we were, about 250 children with a variety of impairments: thalidomides, spina bifidas, cerebral palsies, limb deficients, mentally deficients and many other types of impairments, all lumped together in one big residential site. The staff called us 'the strange little creatures'

and did their best... Some of them thought our condition must be due to some kind of punishment from God."

The children's homes where Alison grew up were much more benign institutions than those experienced by Kathleen O'Malley, but they were institutions nevertheless, and she stayed in them until she moved into her own flat at the age of 19. Then began the hard-won independent life that eventually led to motherhood, a career as an artist, and fame as an inspirational figure.

Each of these women has turned a corner. Kathleen left her children's home, travelled for a while, became a beauty consultant and discarded her Catholic faith. Now she's proud to be a magistrate in Middlesex, and it was taking on this role that made her retell her story, first to the magistrates' selection panel, then in detail to herself, and now to us.

Alice Kingsley is still battling demons, but she's winning because she wants to - the prerequisite for success for everyone with an eating disorder - and at the time we leave her, she has the prospect of a place at medical school. "This might not be the 'done and dusted' ending to my eating disorder that we're all hoping for one day soon," writes Alice in her section of the book she shares with her mother, "But if I remember back to how dire our situation was, things are looking pretty good." Alice, every reader's with you.

And Alison Lapper, and that statue? Clearly she's pleased; she admits to liking attention, and is conscious of her place as a role model. Her real ambition, though, is to achieve acceptance for her own work as an artist.

Given how far she's travelled, fuelled largely by determination, it'd be foolish to doubt that she'll get there.

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