Published: May 1, 2013 By

[1] In the early nineteenth century, lurid tales of imprisoned and sexually violated nuns entertained and outraged Protestant Americans.  The most famous and popular of these tales was Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery ostensibly written by Maria Monk about her experiences in the Montreal convent.  Awful Disclosures tells a familiar anti-Catholic story of a Protestant youth, seduced into convent life with promises of salvation, knowledge and opportunity. Once she enters the convent, the novice discovers horrible secrets of torture and sexual abuse.  Appalled by this violence, which reveals to her the true nature of the Catholic Church, the novice escapes to warn others of the convent’s danger.  It is unclear how much of Awful Disclosures came from Monk’s imagination or from the pen of a group of male reformers that included her lover, William Hoyt, nativists Theodore Dwight and J.J. Slocum and the anti-slavery advocate and protestant minister George Bourne, who introduced Monk’s story in his newspaper the American Protestant Vindicator (Billington, Fessenden, “The Convent,” Franchot, Griffen, McCarthy, Pagliarini, Regan, Schultz, “Introduction,” Sullivan, Weller).

[2] Awful Disclosures is notorious for its descriptions of tortured bodies and sexual violence. It was within the violated, pained and dead bodies of its narrative that Monk’s supporters and detractors located the truth. Her anti-Catholic supporters argued that her story exposed the literal whore of Babylon who inhabited the Catholic Church, while her critics countered that Monk’s ability to conjure such images revealed a knowledge of sex and violence more in keeping with the experiences of a prostitute than with those of a nun (Franchot 26). Likewise, historians have placed the truth of Monk’s story in its linkages between sex and violence. According to historian Bruce Dorsey, “the irony behind this anti-Catholic literature was that in an effort to expose the supposed sexual iniquities of Catholics, nativists produced a form of popular pornography for a broad antebellum reading public” (239). And, in his fascinating study of antebellum literary history, David Reynolds argues that these images of sexual violence overwhelmed any legitimate reform message contained within such tales. He places Awful Disclosures within an “immoral reform” tradition that “used didactic rhetoric as a protective shield for highly unconventional explorations of tabooed psychological and spiritual areas” (55). Reynolds concludes that Awful Disclosures’ “anti-Catholicism [was simply] a pretense for studying hidden lust and sadism” (65).

[3] While Dorsey and Reynolds use this claim to underscore the failure of escaped nuns tales as reform literature, I argue that their exploration of sexual violence is precisely what makes these texts fascinating. Awful Disclosures offers a unique opportunity for understating how male reformers imagined the techniques of violence that made a woman rapable. When the authors of reform literature conjured rapable women they had to imagine and account for the violence of the act of rape even if the prurient often overrode the pedagogical function of these narratives.  My reading interrogates how the authors of Awful Disclosures focused on the physical realities of violence to construct a rape script.  This focus on the techniques of violence that made rape possible exposes rape as a violation of women’s bodies and attack on their “souls” or inner most being. While this point may seem obvious to the twentieth century feminist reader, it represents a significant break from typical nineteenth-century constructions of rape.

Theoretical and Historical Context

[4] In their introduction to the anthology, Reading Rape, Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda Silver argue, “whether in the courts or in the media, whether in art or criticism, who gets to tell the story and whose story counts as “truth” determines the definition of what rapeis” (1).  As Northeastern Americans applied common law understandings of rape, the who in Higgins and Silvers’s account shifted away from the combined voices of men and women to those of men, who increasingly doubted that women who spoke of rape and sexual violence were pure enough to have been genuinely raped (Dayton, Gonda).  At the same time in which women’s testimony was viewed with increasing skepticism, sexually violated women emerged in reform literature as symbols of the evils, such as urbanization, religious unorthodoxy or slavery, which lurked within the new nation’s boundaries. Rape was a discussion between middle-class white men, who could imagine rape in part because they did not need to pay attention to the experiences or voices of real women.  As historian Sharon Block notes, as long as men kept real women out of their discussions of rape, they could avoid the troublesome issue of the veracity of women’s testimony. 

[5] These readings understand  violence, including sexual violence, as a cultural phenomenon, the meaning of which changes historically, even though certain aspects of that violence appear transhistorical and even transcultural (Armstrong; Bakare-Yusef 311-23; Halttunen, “Humanitarianism” 303-34; Halttunen, Murder).  To paraphrase Shani D’Cruze, “whilst the basic physical realities of violence may be disturbingly repetitive, the socio-cultural contexts and meanings, as well as the techniques of violence, have historical specificities” (“Unguarded” 1).  Hannah Rosen, Carolyn Sorisino and Jill Lepore have demonstrated that violence against the body is often performative and designed to communicate particular relationships of power not only to the victims of that violence but also those who witness it (Rosen 267-93, Lepore, Sorisio 52).  By closely reading scenes of violence, historians can untangle both the cultural work of such narratives as well as how their authors imagined the act of rape. It is this reading of the act of rape that makes my analysis of Awful Disclosures unique.

[6] In speaking for the tortured nun, anti-Catholic writers did not simply describe scenes of violence but created cultural scripts that defined what constituted the act of rape.  This point draws on Sharon Marcus’s provocative essay, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention.” Marcus argues for an understanding of rape that locates its power and action within agendered grammar of violence, where grammar means the rules and structures which assign people to positions within a script” (Marcus 392). The rapist, Marcus contends, does not receive his power or ability to rape through superior physical strength but rather through this gendered grammar of violence that positions particular women as objects of violence and certain men as subjects of that violence.Awful Disclosures, offers a remarkably detailed text for examining how one group of male reformers defined both the physical violence and subjugation of rape (Sharpe, “Unspeakable”).  I am not suggesting that rape and the trauma it produces are fictions or can be reduced simply to cultural scripts. In fact my reading emphasizes the role of severe pain and terror in this script.  Rather, I am arguing for a method of reading specific texts that interrogates how those scripts create and communicate violence within particular historical contexts. 

[7] Key to the specific historical context of Awful Disclosures was the emergence of a  humanitarian tradition in which detailed descriptions of sexually violated women served to as critique institutions deemed “old world” and corrupt. (Abruzzo, Halttunen, “Humanitarianism” Hartman, Laqueur, Nuddleman). Like other pained and violated bodies, violated women served as symbols of the “the violation of human dignity and the unmaking of the civilized world” (Dean 2). Feminist critics contend that the sentimental narratives that dominated this literature did not locate the obscenity of violence against women in the destruction of a woman’s body per se but rather in the violation of what her body symbolized.  As white women came to embody virtue and the moral future of the nation, American cultural producers, such as those who wrote escaped nuns’ tales, used women’s bodies as signs of violated Americanness by “others,” such as immigrants, Catholics and slave holders; that is, that special class of men capable of rape (Sharpe “Allegories” 4).  In these representations of rape, it was not the violation of women’s bodies that demanded redress but rather the feelings of the reader or the property rights of men/nations. In this context, women were rapable only if they embodied abstract threats to men’s property rights and/or republican nation-making (Block 849-68).  Humanitarian reform literature displaced the violence of the act of rape from the literal bodies of women onto the symbolic body of the nation (Sielke 5-6).  Its link between particular institutions and rape also excused the actions of individual white men by suggesting that rape occurred only within these institutions and between individuals corrupted by them. The violated and captured woman emerged in humanitarian discourses as a special type of body in pain that defined particular institutions, such as the Catholic Church, as especially onerous.

[8] Accordingly, historians have read escaped nuns tales and their stories of sexual violence as narratives of sexual danger that warned young women against violating the tenets of Protestant domesticity, especially its dictates of sexual passionlessness.  The captive nun joined the murdered and raped cigar girl, the prostitute and the abused wife as symbols of the dangers of an increasingly heterogeneous and urban culture that had forced women into public roles. She defined the limits of normative sexuality and gender by detailing the consequences of women’s independence and rejection of Protestant domesticity. These historians argue that escaped nuns tales limited women’s independence by containing women’s sexuality and the potential gender disorder that middle class Americans feared would accompany political and economic change (Cohen, “Miss Reed,” Cohen, “The Respectability,” Fessenden, “The Convent,” Franchot, Griffen, Pagliarini)

[9] With only a few exceptions, these readings emphasize the repressive cultural work of escaped nuns tales and their representations of violence against women.  They illustrate how nineteenth century representations of rape link women’s bodily violation to patriarchal institutions in which men retain property rights over women.  In this scenario, humanitarian narratives define the violence of rape as metaphorical rather than literal.  While I do not deny the conservative function of escaped nuns tales, by focusing on the techniques of violence imagined by its authors, I offer another reading of Awful Disclosures that looks beneath the pornography of pain and witnesses the techniques of violence that its authors believed rendered women rapable.

Reading Bodily Violence

[10] In keeping with nineteenth-century conventions, most of the sexual violence in Awful Disclosures takes place off stage. WhatAwful Disclosures does describe in intricate detail, and what will be the focus of this essay, are the disciplinary techniques that positioned women within the rape scripts it describes.  First and foremost, Awful Disclosures redefines Catholic religious rituals as these disciplinary measures. This ritualized violence often takes place under the guise of penance. The “old nuns” in particular used penance to humiliate, to inflict mind-numbing pain and above all to remind the narrator of the absolute power Catholicism held over her body and mind. These penances included walking on one’s hands and knees through basement tunnels; gaggings in which a ball is secured in the mouth to cause the gums to bleed; and the wearing of caps fashioned so tightly as to cause insanity if worn for more than fifteen minutes.  According to the narrator,

I have no idea of the cause of the pain...but although the first sensation was that of coolness, it was hardly put on my head before a violent and indescribable sensation began, like that before a blister, only more insupportable, and continued until removed.  It would produce such an acute pain as to throw us into convulsions. (Monk 107)


[11] Critic Elaine Scarry argues that extreme pain destroys its victim’s world and language by forcing that person into the torturer’s world in which nothing exists except pain itself (29).  Unable to reference anything other than pain, the victim’s sense of self is destroyed and that person is repositioned as an object on which the torture writes his or her power.  When fitted with the cap, the narrator loses access to language as she can only wither in agony and cannot accurately describe the pain produced.  Furthermore, the narrator “felt ready to do anything to avoid” suffering the cap, even acquiescing to the vilest demands of the priests and nuns. “Treatment of this kind is apt to teach submission;” wrote the narrator, “and many times I have acquiesced under orders received, or wishes expressed, with a fear of a recurrence to some severe measures” (Monk 107).  The narrator’s descriptions of the effects of the cap suggest that the authors ofAwful Disclosures saw the process described by Scarry at work in the act of rape.

[12] It is significant that the authors of Awful Disclosures selected a torture device that attacked the narrator’s reason and speech.  While Scarry’s argument emphasizes that the effects of pain are universal, the author’s choice of weapon underscores the importance of historical context.  The specific danger of the cap was its ability to destroy those attributes that nineteenth-century Americans believed were most essential to citizenship—reason and self-ownership. Severe pain robbed the narrator of these attributes positioning her as a will-less object. As Block has argued, rape served between men as a universal symbol of a dependent status that threatened nations as well as individuals.  What differentiates Awful Disclosure from the texts Block analyzes is its detailed descriptions of how extreme pain functions to position women within nineteenth-century rape scripts, suggesting that women’s dependent status is created rather than ordained.

[13] Flogging and branding held center stage in this literature because, like rape, they signified the bald, sexualized power held by individuals deemed too powerful (Spillers 65-81).   Flogging could also serve as a trope for rape. Accordingly the scarred bodies that resulted from these beatings contained an important truth about the inherent cruelty of these institutions often hidden behind benign exteriors.  As historian, Margaret Abruzzo argues, “scars told tales that nobody could deny; they clearly pointed to the pain-producing agency of slaveholders” or in this case officials in the Catholic Church (156).  Likewise Monk’s supporters argued that her scarred body literally stripped away the false exterior of the convent and revealed what lay beneath.  In other words, the narrator’s scars proved that she had been raped (Slocum 121).

[14] Yet, the branding and flogging scenes in Awful Disclosuresdiffered from those in anti-slavery tracts because the narrator, unlike the slave, flogged and branded herself.  “Sometimes we were required to brand ourselves with a hot iron so as to leave scars, at other times, to whip our naked flesh with several small rods before a private altar, until we drew blood.” (Monk 114).  Such scenes reenacted what most Protestant readers would understand as a symptom of Catholic irrationality—the purposeful infliction of bodily pain and bodily mortification as a quintessential act of devotion.  The narrator’s participation in this ritual of self-flagellation not only underscored the bald sexualized violence that inhabited every aspect of Catholic life and religious observation, it also suggested consent. Her participation raised the disturbing possibility that the mysterious rituals that took place within the convent walls constructed a Catholic self that consented to its objectification.  It also suggested that the narrator might exercise the agency that the slave lacked.  Racial politics complicated her transformation into an object. Unlike the slave, who many humanitarian reformers defined solely as an object of violence and consequently whose social condition appeared self-evident, a “white” woman’s subjection to sexual violence needed further explanation.  The authors of Awful Disclosures had to explain how the narrator (a “white” woman) came to consent to her own sexual objectification. 

[15] In the Northeastern antebellum imagination, the domestic spaces of the home produced appropriate white womanhood, ensuring that a woman acquired the values that gave her an exhaulted place in the new nation.  As nineteenth-century humanitarian reformers attacked punishment as a legitimate method for regulating behavior, they turned instead towards character formation as generated within the loving family, the institution and the capitalist marketplace as their primary disciplinary apparatus (Armstrong; Brodhead 67-96; Buchanan 205-36; Clark 463-93; Favrert; Hartman, “Humanitarianism;” Hartman, Murder; Haskell, Laqueur, Sielke).   While punishment relied on brute force and spectacle to manufacture consent, discipline attacked the soul to construct a self, appropriately invested in the values of the Protestant middle-class culture (Foucault Discipline and Punish).

[16] Anti-Catholic pundits feared that the convent might offer an alternative domestic space as more Protestant parents educated daughters in convents (Shultz, Fire). Speaking to these fears, the authors of Awful Disclosures emphasized a relationship between the corrupted domestic space of the convent and the disorganization of the self that feminist critics argue is critical to positioning a women as rapable objects (Eckstein, Tanner).  Awful Disclosures attempted to distinguish the domestic space of the convent with the private domestic space of the Protestant home.  Impure domestic spaces, such as those in the convent, manufactured individuals incapable of showing the reason and moral sense necessary to transcend their embodiment.  This concern perhaps led the authors of Awful Disclosures to consider how everyday life within the convent produced a Catholic self.  In their minds, convents were mysterious domestic spaces that shunned the reproductive imperatives of the middle-class family (Schultz, “Introduction,” xii-xiv).  Rather than producing true women responsible for the reproduction of life, the convent created monstrous women complicit in the rape of young women and the murder of the babies who resulted from these rapes.

[17] According to Awful Disclosures, the nuns and priests refashioned domestic items and spaces into instruments of torture and death. The infliction of bodily pain was infused even within those domestic tasks that would otherwise confirm the narrator’s womanhood.  Tasks such as candle-making exposed the nuns to noxious chemicals while sewing for long periods of time affected their eyesight and pained their fingers. These tasks both destroyed their bodies and “muddied [their] mind[s]” rendering them unable to resist the nuns and priests’ assaults.  “My frame was enfeebled by the uneasy postures I was required to keep for so long during prayers,” the narrator explains, “this alone, I thought, was sufficient to undermine my health and destroy my life” (Monk 68, 82).  Whereas the pain inflicted by penance was situated outside the familiar, often imposed by elaborate torture devices and within darkened dungeon tunnels, this pain originated within domestic and religious tasks that the novice would otherwise find comfortable. As did the pain associated with the cap, everyday life in the convent disorganized the narrator’s sense of self which ultimately allowed the priests and nuns to position her as an object unable to resist her own subjection.  

[18] The narrator’s description of St. Frances’s murder is the most dramatic illustration of how the convent turns the familiar domestic items against women through ritualistic violence that forces them to bear witness and participate in their positioning as objects.  According to Awful Disclosures, the Bishop of Montreal condemns St. Frances to death because she plans to refuse the sexual advances of the priests for fear that her compliance will result in the death of any children produced from that union.  When the Bishop pronounces his sentence, St. Frances’s tormentors leap upon her and violently force a gag “between her extended jaw, so as to keep them open at their greatest possible distance.” They then laid her on a bed and

in an instant, another bed was thrown upon her. One of the priests, named Bonin, sprung like a fury first upon her.  He was speedily followed by the nuns, until there were as many upon the bed as could find room, and all did what they could, not only to smother, but to bruise her. Some stood up and jumped upon the poor girl with their feet, some with their knees; and others, in different ways, seemed to seek how they might best beat the breath out of her body, and mangle it, without coming into direct contact with it, or seeing the effects of their violence. (Monk 63)

The narrator presents St. Frances’s murder as what critic Carolyn Sorisio characterizes as a “carefully choreographed performance,” which allows the the priests and nuns not only to punish St. Frances but also to discipline those who witnessed her murder (“Spectacle” 52).  The murder’s purpose is to rid the convent of a dissenter and ellicit terror in those who watched.  In fact, the narrator suggests that only the novices truly witnessed St. Frances’s murder because her killers avoided “direct contact” or “seeing the effects of their violence.”  For those forced to watch, St. Frances’s death was world destroying; it rendered each silent and unable to articulate its meaning. “During this time, my feelings were almost too strong to be endured,” the narrator explains,

I felt stupefied, and scarcely was conscious of what I did.  Still fear for myself remained in a sufficient degree to induce me to some exertion; and I attempted to talk to those who stood next, partly that I might have an excuse for turning away from the dreadful scene. (Monk 63)

By bearing witness to St. Frances’s murder, the novices are at once both complicit in her murder and reminded that their torturers have the power of life and death over them.  In this manner, St. Frances’s murder is an attack not only on St. Frances’s body but also the souls of those who witness it.

[19] The narrator’s legitimacy rests on her ability to distinguish herself from those who actively participate in St. Frances’s murder but drawing these distinctions is difficult given the author’s ambiguity over her participation in the event.  Unlike the participants whose refusal to view the carnage they have created defines the extent of their sadism, the narrator’s inability to view the scene reinforces her innocence and difference.  Yet, the reader is unsure of how extensively the narrator participated in the murder. She acknowledges carrying St. Frances into the interrogation room but does not specifically state whether she helped trample St. Frances. It is only in the aftermath of the murder that she separates herself from those who participated. “They then began to laugh at such inhuman thoughts as occurred to some of them,” wrote the narrator, “rallying each other in the most unfeeling manner, and ridiculing me for feelings which I in vain endeavored to conceal” (Monk 64). The main difference between the narrator and the others is simply how they felt about the incident; St. Frances’s torturers enjoyed the pain they inflicted and formed a community in sadism while the narrator’s witnessing produced alienation and isolation. Her feelings demonstrate that she had not yet embraced the cruelty that would place her outside nineteenth-century understandings of humane sentiment and moral thought. Such feelings suggested that the narrator was redeemable.

[20] Awful Disclosure represents the murder of St. Frances as the most dramatic and complex example of how convent life turns the domestic into a weapon of torture and death. St. Frances is not killed by exotic instruments of torture but by the most private and intimate of domestic items–the bed.  Critics Mitchell Merbeck and Elaine Scarry argue that the weapons chosen by the torturer “can lift pain and its attributes out of the body, and make them visible.” In this manner, Scarry contends that pain continues to reside in the weapon “long after the fact of wounding” (16). By murdering St. Frances with a bed and forcing the novices to watch, the priests and nuns turn all of the novice’s beds into devices of torture and humiliation.  The bed produces death both from its literal destruction of St. Frances’s body as well as the bodies of the babies produced from the sexual unions between the priests and novices.  The babies resulting from these sexual relations are baptized, murdered and thrown in a lime pit. From this day forward, the bed will continue to signify this transformation to those who witnessed St. Frances’s torture and murder.  In the rape script constructed by Awful Disclosures, domestic items serve as a continuous reminder that the novices no longer have property in themselves or their children (Merback 76-100 and Scarry).

Reading Violence Against the “Soul”

[21] The organization of domestic space in the convent further reinforces this point but also illustrates how that violence also attacked the “soul.”  “The beds were placed in rows, without curtains or anything else to obstruct the view,” wrote the narrator, “and in one corner was a small room partitioned off, in which was the bed of a night-watch, that is, the old nun who was appointed to oversee us for the night” (Monk 11). This arrangement subjected the nun’s behavior to the judgment of the entire community. “We knew,” she explained, “that the slightest deviation from the rules would expose us to [the old nun’s] observation as well as to that of our companions, in whom it was a virtue to betray one another’s faults” (Monk 11). As the organization of the convent’s domestic space indicates, the infliction of pain is only one part of how the author is rendered rapable.  The organization of domestic space destroys the privacy essential to the appropriate sexual relationships of the middle class couple.  In the convent, the narrator must assume that she is being observed and listened to at all times, a process that, like the infliction of physical pain, destroys her ability to distinguish between moral and immoral behavior.  “We were directed to keep a strict and constant watch over our thoughts; to have continually before our minds the rules of the convent, to compare one with the other, remember every devotion, and tell all, even the smallest, at confession, either to the Superior or the priest,” explains the narrator. “My mind was kept in a continual state of activity, which proved very wearisome” (Monk 45). The purpose of this surveillance, what Michel Foucault defined as panopticalism, was to shape the interior of the novice. This surveillance leads the observed (in this case, the novice) to “voluntarily” submit to the observer’s rules. As she disciplines herself to act as if under continuous surveillance, she internalizes the values and discipline of the observer (Castiglia, “Abolitions”). Such behavior isolates the novices from one another and encourages them to identify with their rapists and their power.

[22] In her study of American rape narratives, Sabine Sielke contends that late eighteenth and early nineteenth century texts “metaphorized [rape] as the penetration of [the victim’s] mind by rituals of persuasive rhetoric more powerful than physical attractiveness” (17). Sielke goes on to argue that the conquest of the mind through speech rather than physical force “underlines rape as a crime against the will, an act that is violent because it overrides ambivalence or nonconsent (18). Consistent with Sielke’s finding, Awful Disclosures emphasizes how the priests and nuns controlled knowledge as well as inflicted bodily pain to “override ambivalence or nonconsent.”  Specifically,Awful Disclosures constructs the confession as this “ritual of persuasive rhetoric” that generates consent.  It was in the confessional that the narrator internalized the priest and nuns’ grammar of violence as well as her status as an object whose will to resist the confession renders sinful.

[23] The narrator represents the confession as a ritual in which she publically acknowledges the power of the torturer and as an institution which renders her knowable and hence controllable. In this sense the confession mimics the narrator’s self-flagellation. For example, when the narrator of Awful Disclosures is tortured and imprisoned in a basement cell for disobedience, the Mother Superior forces her to acknowledge publically her sin by “kneeling before all the sisters in succession, [the narrator begs] the forgiveness and prayers of each” (Monk 108-9).  Again, the narrator’s confession is a carefully staged performance that reinforces the torturer’s power.  By compelling the novice to answer for her transgression, the Mother Superior turns the narrator’s resistance against her (Scarry 29).  For both the narrator and nuns who witness it, the narrator’s confession and repentance positions the narrator as an object on which the torturer writes her power.

[24] In fact, the narrator attributes her fall into Catholicism to the moral manipulations she experiences within the institution of confession. These manipulations begin early in her life. In the opening pages of her narrative, the narrator describes her first encounter with the unlimited power of the priest after a friend describes a priest’s sexual advances during confession:

She told me she had informed her mother of it, who expressed no anger nor disapprobation; but only enjoined it upon her not to speak of it; and remarked to her, as priests were not like men, but holy, and sent to instruct and save us, whatever they did was right. (Monk 6)

Believing that she has a duty to inform her priest of this incident, the narrator tells her friend’s secret. To her surprise, her priest condemns her for “indulging a sinful curiosity” and punishes her friend “for communicating it.” “I afterwards learnt,” the narrator writes, “that other children had been treated in the same manner, and also of similar proceedings” (Monk 6). Here, the narrator describes a chilling conspiracy between the priests and the girl’s mother to silence testimony about the sexual abuse of children, suggesting that, like the convent, the Catholic home prepares young women for their future status as sexual objects.

[25] The narrator’s emphasis on silence and secrecy underscores the importance of knowledge in the rape script of Awful Disclosures.  As the tortures of the gag and cap signified, the nuns and priests gained power from their control over speech and knowledge. But it was within the confession that the narrator internalized this control and disciplined herself to accept her status as the object of the priests and nuns’ desires:

While at confession I was urged to hide nothing from the priests, and have been told by them, that they already knew what was in my heart, but would not tell, because it was necessary for me to confess.  I really believed that the priests were acquainted with my thoughts; and often stood in awe of them. They told me that they had the power to strike me dead at any moment. (Monk 46)

It is this intimacy that most offended anti-Catholic writers. In their minds, the confession was, by its very nature, a sexual encounter as an unmarried man encountered a lone woman in a small room and probed her interior to discover her most private thoughts, while holding absolute interpretive power over her actions. Here, the confession becomes what historian Elizabeth Hanson describes as a “hostile discovery of [her] innermost being” (1). In the confession, the narrator loses all rights to self-knowledge as her secrets are exposed, interrogated and reinterpreted by the priest (Monk 11). The confession mimics torture as it seeks to destroy, in the words of critic Laura E. Tanner, “the familiar forms of understanding through which that victim constructs herself” (4).  Under such circumstances, anti-Catholic writers argued that a young woman was rendered helpless when her confessor ultimately demanded sexual favors from her. 

[26] Significantly, the narrator “divests herself” from this rape script by seizing control of knowledge, rationality and voice. “I soon began to believe that God might have intended that his creatures should learn his will by reading his word,” she writes, “and taking upon them the free exercise of their reason, and acting under responsibility to him” (Monk 136-7). By adopting the “Protestant” values of rationality and independence through telling her story and acquiring knowledge for herself, the narrator argues that she can escape her sexual and moral corruption. “To have knowledge of those things,” the narrator explains,

and leave the world without making them known appeared to me like a great sin, whenever I could divest myself of the impression made upon me by the declarations of the Superior, nuns, and priests, of the duty of submitting to everything, and the necessary holiness of whatever they did or required. (emphasis added) (Monk 134)

The narrator’s testimony depicts “freedom as a journey from silent witnessing to outspoken testimony” ( 253).  By borrowing this phrase from critic Jeannine Delombard’s description of Frederick Douglass’s self-described transition from a “brute,” defined solely by his beaten and pained body to a freeman armed with the knowledge that would liberate him from slavery, I am suggesting a place for a female subject in what Douglass understands as a masculine narrative of discovery.  By claiming truth, speech and reason, the narrator transcends her pained body and consequently repositions herself within the rape script.  Once she repositions herself as the knower rather than the known, she can assert the independent will that allows her not only to escape the convent but also to tell its secrets.  It is worth emphasizing, however, that to transcend absolutely her body and ascend to Protestant womanhood, she must not only reject but also render the Catholic body transparent by telling her story and unveiling the convent’s secrets.  In this respect, the narrator affirms her difference from Catholics by exhibiting the same rhetorical violence to which she was subject (Armstrong, de Lauretis 31-50). She positions the convent as the corrupt, known body that she had become within its walls.

[27] In the narrator’s claim that she could reinvent herself as a Protestant woman by reading and interpreting the scriptures, Awful Disclosures gives women access to this world of rationality and literacy. In fact, Awful Disclosures suggests that these attributes are essential to their ability to resist becoming pained and raped bodies, as it is within this world-–not in marriage–that the apostate nun escapes her raped body. Here my reading differs from that of previous scholars, who had placed the narrator’s recovery in motherhood. They argue that the narrator’s decision to flee the convent because of her pregnancy potentially situates Awful Disclosures within sentimental narratives of motherhood (Griffin). By replacing the narrator’s raped body with a maternal one, one could argue that Awful Disclosuresrelocates the violence of rape from women’s bodies to their maternity and legitimizes their witnessing through that maternity. But the narrative does not linger on the pregnant body and unlike the sentimental heroine, the narrator does not die, nor does she accept her fate as a fallen woman. Furthermore, Awful Disclosures rejects the conventional ending of the American captivity narrative in which a male hero, who currently holds or will hold property rights over her, rescues her. (Regan) The narrator’s rescue of herself and her insistence on telling her story enables her to escape this sexual exchange and its attendant understanding of rape as a crime against male property. Here, Awful Disclosures potentially relocates the violence of rape in the narrator’s body defining it as a crime against her person rather than as an assault on male property relations and the nation.


[28] In a 2002 discussion on H-Catholic, a poster asked if historians should read Awful Disclosures anew given the awful disclosures of the institutionally sanctioned sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church.  The responses varied from those who emphasized the anti-Catholicism in media discussions of the scandal to hints that recent historians have been too dismissive of the text’s claims that nuns were sexually exploited within convents. Still others relied on the most common critique of Awful Disclosures to dismiss the poster’s question—its believability was suspect because it was, after all, pornography.  As it was in nineteenth-century North America, Awful Disclosures remains a suspicious text. On the one hand, most historians and critics deny its specific claims, noting that its charges of the sexual exploitation of young women in the convent says more about the Protestant imagination than Catholic actions.  Originally produced in the context of rampant anti-Catholicism, the narrator’s specific claims were clearly untrue.  But the poster’s question asks historians and feminist critics to think beyond the specifics of Awful Disclosures and to reconsider its underlying claim that intimate violence results when “human interaction [is transformed] into a struggle of power in which the victim is stripped of the ability to define and control her or his participation” (Tanner 3).  

[29] Perhaps, as critic Michelle Morgan suggests, because the male authors of Awful Disclosures could not imagine themselves solely as sexual objects and also because they were attacking an unpopular and suspicious institution on which they could blame the corruption of these human interactions, those narrators could imagine rape outside the conventional seduction narrative.  Awful Disclosures creates a narrative in which rape is an act of torture and power. As significantly,Awful Disclosures suggests that access to knowledge, reason and the ability to speak about violence are essential to the moral development and ultimately women’s freedom from these corrupting relationships. It was reason and storytelling rather than chastity that gave women a way out of these power relations.

[30] In making these points I am not arguing that Awful Disclosuresoffers a more palatable understanding of rape to feminists than other nineteenth century texts, nor am I suggesting that underneath its anti-Canadian and anti-Catholic exterior is a buried women’s rights message, especially given Higgins and Silver’s reminder that who successfully claims truth determines what is rape. The authors ofAwful Disclosures appropriated Monk’s story.  Whatever part she may have played in its construction, the narrator in the story was not Monk but rather an invention of her male benefactors and lover.  Once Maria Monk spoke, her story fell apart not only because it was not true but also because she failed to meet the standards of nineteenth- century womanhood necessary for rape (McCarthy).  As Block argues, early American print culture represented rape as a political battle between men in which women’s voices were absent.  Bringing in women’s testimony, Block contends, introduced “women’s potentially dubious claims,” complicating these rape scripts.  Women’s absence allowed for the preservation of a meaning of rape that “made men the defenders and saviors of their women and by extension their nation” (857-67).  As “real” women began to speak, judges and legislators set very specific conditions under which women could testify to rape. While judges accepted that sexual purity was not a precondition for rape, they maintained that it was a precondition for women’s veracity.  Judges and juries assumed that women who had surrendered their chastity were lying about their rapes (Gonda 29-62).

[31] In this sense, the narrator’s story must be read as an appropriation of Monk’s voice and experiences by men who sought to authorize their own vision of who belongs and who does not belong in the American republic.  Perhaps they could imagine rape and expose the bald physical violence behind rape because the rapists they described were not like them and lived outside the middle class domesticity believed at the heart of the American Republic.  We must read Awful Disclosures as a protean text offering constructions of rape that expose how those men imagined the effects of bald physical violence on women but one that continues to preempt women’s interpretation of that violence.  Without an accounting of the world destroying effects of that pain to real women such understandings will continue to serve the agendas of those power brokers seeking to appropriate that pain to their ends.  These agendas will always ultimately be about men’s stories and conflicts with one another about who has the power to define the other as the rapist and who has the power to expose the rapist’s secrets.  While it would be naive to believe that simply listening and accounting for the pain and violence of rape would in itself stop rape, the truth and secrets exposed in those stories might shift the conversation away from who is telling the “truth” about an individual act to what is the truth about the social and individual cost of the world destroying violence and pain.

The author would like to thank, Holly Baggett, Pam Sailors, Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Ralph Smith, Diana Wright and the anonymous readers of Genders for their comments and suggestions.

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