Last week Maria Monaco was freed by Italian police after being locked in a room in her family home for eighteen years. Her crime? Out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
My ancestors are from that part of Italy–and here’s a shout out to ol’ Giuseppe and Rocco for getting the H-E-L-L out! Tho’ it’s hard saying whether southern Texas was a dramatic improvement.
I was pregnant around the same as Maria Monaco. I was in Italy, too, but just as a traveler. The old women in my village narrowed their eyes at my unmarried, knocked-up self, but what could they really do? They whispered. They made it clear that if I chose to raise my child in their pretty little town, they would whisper louder. My daughter would pay for my indiscretion.
Back home in California, folks said I made my bed. Still, I got to raise my baby, go to college and grad school. Pretty much free. Shamed, and learning to ignore it. A neighbor banged on our door and walls and screamed at my daughter that she was a “Welfare Queen.” She was maybe eighteen months old. Learning every day to ignore it. We moved. Learned to ignore new people.
Maria Monaco was — is — ten years older than I am. She’s 47 now. She wasn’t even a teen mom — she was a grown-up mama by anybody’s standards. Simply unmarried. Breaking the rules.
It makes me so sick, the incredible shame and punishment we inflict on each other for being sexual, for having kids at the “wrong” time or in the “wrong” circumstances. And so often it’s the women of the family who enforce the laws of the patriarchy.
Maria Monaco’s mother is charged in her imprisonment.
Maria Monaco’s sister.
And her brother, too.
Maria Monaco was confined to a small room on the first floor of the house–bare except for a single bed.
At least once a year a woman comes to my memoir workshop and among her many stories is the story of being forced to give a child up for adoption. Sometimes adoption is a woman’s true choice, of course, but I’m not taking about being allowed our true choices. I’m talking about the way we are coerced, for all intents forced, to give our children away, to lock ourselves up, to pretend it never happened–as if that’s possible.
And so often it was the women in the family who insisted that it had to be so.
All to avoid what? Shame? Pain? What?
“Nobody’ll call my daughter a whore.” I mean, WHAT?
So, anyway, Maria Monaco, I’m thinking about you. I’m lighting a candle because I can’t think of much else I can do right now. A candle, an old Catholic habit, one of the ones I actually like, actually hang on to. I’m lighting it for you, Maria Monaco, and for all the nameless women who are locked in rooms all over the world. And I’m thinking thoughts that are the opposite of shame. For Maria Monaco: Honor, strength, pride at your ability to survive, a shout out for your emotional and physical healing. I’m thinking of you.