A Spiritual Autobiography
It is hard to know where to start a story about faith. We all come from God. If things go well, by God’s grace, we are all headed back to God. But the road is almost never very clear, and it is the ruts and hurdles that make up the stuff of a story. Mine started in Seattle more than half a century ago in a family quarrel.
Elizabeth, my mother-to-be, had just introduced the man she meant to marry, Donald, to her mother, Blanche. There must have been some sort of meal. There must have been some sort of conversation. Elizabeth had grown up the unwanted second and last child of a relatively wealthy couple. Her best friend from school came from a big loving family that provided a refuge for Elizabeth growing up, and she wanted that life for herself. She had been engaged once before to a well-placed young man who shared her dream, but he had died of leukemia. Now she had found Donald. Unfortunately, Donald had told her that they could not marry unless she gave up on having children. And now her mother was telling her that something about Donald was “not right.” In a spirit of defiant optimism, Elizabeth married Donald over Blanche’s objections. I was born ten months later.
Elizabeth had thought that no one could really object to a baby. She had imagined that, once I arrived, her mother might reconcile with Donald, and he would realize that children are the greatest blessing a couple can have, and would want still more of them. Elizabeth was wrong. Although Blanche welcomed her only grandchild, she told my mother that my birth meant that my mother would be bound to my father for life, and would likely end up regretting the match. My father did his best to steer clear of me. And my mother went into a profound depression. She put me in a crib in a back room. I gather that she did not feed me—she remembers my father trying to make her feed me, and remembers this as spousal abuse. My father took over caretaking duties. My maternal grandmother, realizing that my mother could not cope, decided to take part in seeing to it that I was fed, and clean, and clothed. She found bloody diapers. The sense in which something was wrong with my father began to come clear, as did the reason he did not want any children.
Both of my parents were Christians—my father had even been a Presbyterian minister briefly before becoming a schoolteacher. He taught me to read and write, paint and draw, when I was very young. He insisted that we go to church every Sunday, but was in flight from the social changes happening around us in the 1960s and early ’70s, and so kept us moving from church to church, denomination to denomination, in search of an appropriately conservative and staid congregation. My mother kept having children, and he tried to manage by distancing himself more and more from each new arrival. I was his. And I had the benefit of having to develop a complicated relationship with a primary caretaker who had a serious moral and spiritual struggle at the centre of his life.
I read the Bible a lot. I thought that God had written a book, and that someone called “King James” had translated it into English. I especially loved the stories about Jesus, and I thought about them a lot, trying to put them together with my experiences. I had learned a lot by the time I was eight. I had learned most of it from my father. It seemed perfectly clear, watching him with my mother and grandmother, that men did not like women. From his relationship with me and my sisters, it seemed clear that the way that men liked children, when they happened to like a child, was not always good. Watching the Vietnam War on television every night made it clear that men did not even like each other. But when God decided to become human and walk with us and teach us as a fellow human being, God came as a man.
Jesus held me. He loved me. He loved my father. He loved my increasingly distracted and chaotic mother. He loved my grandmother, who tried her best to teach me about the world in her faintly ruthless way. He loved my sisters and brother, whose care fell to me much of the time. He knew as well as I did that men were dangerous. And I thought a lot about the depth of the sense in which he came to teach and to heal. He taught us that the ones who are most in need of teaching and healing are the ones who are suffering the most and the most in need of help. And I realized that in Jesus we have an actual model of a human masculinity that is not toxic to itself and to everyone else. We have a model of a man who humbles himself so that he can to come to us from love, a man who sacrifices himself from love. For everyone.
I grew up. My grandmother died when I was ten. And although I was often too ill or injured to attend school, I studied hard, I read voraciously, and I kept up with my schoolwork. The fact that both of my parents were schoolteachers and that I performed well on homework and tests made it the case that no one questioned my frequent absences. We had a veritable parade of pet dogs—two of them prevented my father from getting near me one very dark day when I hid in a thorny berry patch after he stabbed me. They disappeared a few weeks later. It seems very likely that my father had them put to sleep. He took two others away, females, as soon as they reached maturity.
My father did not want me to get pregnant, and so altered his conduct toward me when pregnancy became possible. I think that I had some sort of breakdown around that time. I was in the basement, feeding the current crop of dogs, who had a dog door in the laundry room. I had filled their food bowls with kibble, and replenished the water in their drinking bowls, and they had started in eating when they suddenly rushed outside, leaving me alone. I turned around to see what had scared them, saw what looked like me, suspended in midair, older than I was, with my head cut off. The head was floating just above the neck. The apparition was trying to scream, but couldn’t because the vocal cords were severed. I stared at the thing that somehow was me, saw my father coming in right behind it, and started screaming. Apparently, I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I was upstairs in our living room and the whole family was gathered around staring at me. And I was afraid.
What I was most of the time for the following few years was afraid. I was afraid to look in any reflecting surfaces. I was afraid to walk to the end of the driveway to take out the trash. I was afraid to be alone. I was afraid of the other children in school. I was afraid of the other children in the neighbourhood. I feared that an evil thing had attached itself to me, and could injure anyone who got close to me. And still I prayed and prayed. I got over the paralyzing fear by forcing myself to do the things that had come to seem impossibly dangerous, reciting psalms in my head and whispering the Lord’s Prayer all the while. Bit by bit, over the course of a few years, I overcame the terror. And although I had very little contact with people outside the immediate family, I realized that all of this was abnormal, and strongly suspected that I was not a sane person. Jesus still loved me. I was very scared of myself and for my brother and sisters because they had to rely on me for a lot and children should not have to rely on a crazy person to feed them and get them safely to and from school, but Jesus was not afraid of me and I was not afraid of him and I felt sure that he, at least, could help shield my brother and sisters from my mental instability.
Thanks to my younger sister, Debz, who started attending my high school in my sophomore year, I started to know people my own age. Debz had loads of friends and was willing to let me be part of her social world. By then, none of my siblings wanted anything to do with Christianity. I was still Christian, but had lost any optimism I once had for churches. I had deep respect and admiration for a lot of people who belonged to one or another congregation. But I understood myself to be an ugly and undesirable creature tainted by my history in ways that made me unfit for the clean and well-lighted worlds of local churches. Jesus was the sort of person who embraced lepers. It was a bit much to expect that sort of thing from the local churches.
Looking for a Church
I had drifted away from church services by the time I graduated from high school. I applied for undergraduate admission to Mills College in Oakland, California, and to places like Princeton and Yale. My parents insisted that I stay on the West Coast, so I went to Mills. I wanted to be a painter. My high school art teacher, who had let me use a corner of his studio space, told me not to major in art. He suggested that I take courses in a lot of subjects, and major in the one that was the most difficult for me. I followed his advice. Philosophy was the most difficult subject. It dealt with crucial questions in human life, work, and thought—questions that had been with us a long time, and become acute for me over the course of my childhood and adolescence. Best of all, philosophy was an area in which you might be remembered for a thousand years if you managed to make an interesting mistake rather than a stupid one. The only sane aspiration in the field was to hope to one day make a useful mistake. This suited me.
Mills was a strange place—a small women’s liberal arts institution on a beautiful campus in East Oakland. Apart from my sense for what was at stake in my philosophy classes, coursework was not especially challenging. I got in the habit of working through everything on the syllabus in the first two weeks of term, and then going to office hours to discuss the assigned work with my professors, and get advice on how to build on what I had done. I took a couple of art classes, and managed to talk the faculty into letting me use a studio with a wall of windows overlooking a beautiful meadow next to the stream that ran through the campus. I had a place to paint.
Mills had a van service that shuttled students back and forth from the University of California at Berkeley campus several times a day. It was 1978, and the Second Wave Women’s Movement was gaining strength in Northern California. I joined the Mills Feminist Alliance. I helped to staff crisis phone lines in Berkeley. I took part in the first Take Back the Night March in San Francisco. I volunteered at a women’s health centre in Oakland. I went on retreat to a women’s commune in Albion on the coast. We were working against violence. And in the meanwhile, I reveled in the things that had never been possible for me before. I went to concerts and museums. I spent hours in cafés and used bookstores. I heard lectures, attended poetry readings, and hid myself away in magnificent libraries.
I had, by then, learned a lot about the situation of women in various corners of the world, and about ways in which various religious institutions had contributed to circumstances in which women of every race and ethnicity and creed, alongside colonized men, were denied rights to property, had no effective security in their persons, and were very fortunate if they managed to attain the status of second-class citizens in modern nations that were nominally democratic. It was inconceivable to me that this could have been the will of the God who had held me together my whole life and taught me about love. These were, instead, human institutions with all the homely qualities familiar from human beings—the very qualities that made it important for God to come among us as one of us. Still, I respected the aspirations of religious institutions. I was glad they were around. It wasn’t my place to say how God had worked in and through them, much less to insist that God could not be working in and through some of them.
Particularly painful experiences of being rejected and received with suspicion and fear in some of the churches I had attended as a child and adolescent had made it natural for me to separate my faith in God from the doctrinal and other contours of the institution in which I happened to be engaged in shared worship. The churches I knew were Protestant. I believed in transubstantiation even though my pastors did not, because that was what the Book said and because, after all, pastors are just human beings and transubstantiation is from God. God could work it even if the man in charge of handling grape juice and bits of pie crust did not mean for it to happen. But I also believed that respect for churches required that I not take Communion unless I had gone through the relevant confirmation process. In the childhood and adolescent migration from church to church, I had been confirmed in four different denominations. Mills had a chapel, and different pastors held services in the chapel each week. I tried most of them. The Catholic services were the best because of the Eucharist. Once I found that service, I attended weekly. The fact that I was the only person who came every week, and that there were never more than two other people there, made it very disappointing for the priest that I could not share in the sacrament.
I took a junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh and found a home with the Quakers. The meditative stillness of silent service, the absence of wall hangings and choirs and carvings, the opportunity to be quiet and get far enough out of the way to be available to God suited me, as did the effort to be of use to people outside of worship service.
Life as a floating non-denominational Christian had its drawbacks, but the incarnation was unimaginably big. I did not see how God’s work with us and among us could be subverted by the wrong interpretation of a line of Scripture—which, I had come to understand, was not a book written by God and translated into a language I could read by a person I had never met. I did not see how his ongoing life with us could hang in the balance if we had the wrong understanding of the rituals at the centre of shared worship. After all, the work of grace in sacraments does not offer itself up to ordinary human understanding very readily. I knew that God loved my family. I knew God loved me. I knew that Jesus was willing to die to give each and every one of us a chance for a life with him. This seemed to me to be a very small, intimate, and deeply personal instance of the really important point. Trying to take that point in. Trying to learn how to live from that point was hard.
I tried to belong to some community while I was at Mills. Shared worship with the disappointed priest wasn’t it. The British Quakers were British, and a junior year abroad, however transformative, is a form of tourism. The women’s community at Mills and in the Bay Area more generally wasn’t it either. I learned through painful experience that they did not like me—a thing that I managed to hide from myself for more than two years. My father was distant. My mother was so rattled and disorganized at that point that the fact that she had long ago ceased to seem capable of telling the truth except by accident had become a serious barrier to pursuing any meaningful relationship with her. My sisters had, understandably, come to associate me with my father, and were accordingly scared of me. My brother was trying to find some way of living without the taint of fear and shame that were part of the lives of all the women in the family and was, accordingly, aspiring to a kind of middle-class normalcy that had never been possible for the rest of us.
The people who welcomed my company were gay men, starting with a man I had met in my senior year in high school. We loved each other. We had tried to date. Call him “B.” B came from a happy family in Edmonds, and his mother and father opened their doors to me. B and I corresponded regularly while I was at Mills and all through my junior year abroad. We both got jobs doing maintenance work for the local public school system in the summers. When I was raped by an acquaintance, got very sick, was ordered to stay in bed (thereby requiring that I stay behind when the rest of my family went away for vacation), B came. He brought me food and kept me company after work each day. I sat beside him when he told his parents that he wanted men, not women. His mother was unhappy. His father pointed out that I was the one who was most directly affected by the situation, and that it had not seemed to interfere with my love, so it ought not interfere with theirs. B’s family gave me most of the personal experience I have had with a well-ordered family. Up until very recently, B’s family was the only such family in my experience.
Through B’s good offices, gay men adopted me. I learned that most of the young men I had known in high school were now self-identified gay men, and I reconnected with another of them who was attending Catholic services through an organization called Dignity. I started going to Dignity Masses. B, who had given up on religion entirely, would not come along.
The summer that Dignity brought me into Masses with more than three people in attendance, I began wondering what I would do after graduating from Mills. I was about to enter my senior year, and I realized that I did not know why I was there. I decided that I would leave Mills and try to make my way in the world for a while. And somewhere in all of this, I was introduced to the most charismatic person in the Dignity congregation, Vincent.
We took an instant dislike to each other. Vincent was a writer who worked behind the desk at the largest homeless shelter downtown. He was loud and showy and smart. He loved crowds and he loved Mass. He was going to do a radio play for a local station, and he needed a female voice. I may not have been the only woman he had met in town, but I was the only one who counted as a friend of a friend and a person from church, so he asked me to be the female voice. I agreed. Around the edges of rehearsing and recording his play, we fell into conversation and ended up friends.
I returned to Mills in September, left halfway through my senior year, and moved back to Washington State. B had taken a job and an apartment in Seattle. I moved in with him and started looking for work. I found a job at the Winchell’s donut house a few blocks away from his place on Capitol Hill and got used to going to work with a pocketful of change so that I could buy coffee and donuts for the homeless people who came in. I liked the job. I liked my co-workers.
Vincent and I had been planning to find a place together once I was more settled. We wound up renting a small house in Fremont from my high school art teacher. B didn’t like Vincent. My family didn’t like Vincent. But Vincent wrote like an angel and loved and feared God. We had a household. We had a community at church. I knew a lot of people and got on well with them. We went out to bars and restaurants and movies together. It was the closest I had ever come to having a social life that I was not borrowing from my younger sister.
Feeding donuts and coffee to the downtrodden on Capitol Hill put me in contact with some of the difficult aspects of their lives. One of my customers was a tiny younger woman—Chris—a born-again Christian lesbian from Appalachia with a strong singing voice that sounded a lot like Anne Murray’s. Chris slept on the floor of the back room of the toughest bar on the street—the “206.” She was in love with the lady bartender. I was walking toward the bus stop late one night after work and there was a commotion near an alley. A group of men had cornered Chris and were holding her down and preparing to rape her. Something in me snapped. There was a wine bottle on the ground next to the brick wall. I grabbed it, broke it, and headed in. The men fled. Chris was badly beaten but too afraid to let me contact the police. We went back to the Winchell’s, and I looked after her as best I could.
She showed up at the door of the Winchell’s very late again a few weeks later. This time, men had tried to cut out her right eye. She would not go to a hospital. She would not let me phone the police. Winchell’s had a first aid kit on the wall. I prayed like mad as I got out alcohol, a tube of antiseptic cream, the sealed plastic bag with a length of suture threaded through a curved, sterile needle, and the surgical gloves from the first aid kit. There was a lot of blood. I cleaned the wound as best I could. I think it took four stitches to close the cut, but I don’t really remember. I was inwardly terrified of making anything worse. Happily, one of the excellent things I had gained from childhood was an ability to be focused, methodical, and steady when faced with a physical emergency. I used the last of our gauze and some white tape from the kit to bandage her up afterward. Then I bought her some orange juice and a plain donut and sat with her a long time while she ate and drank and began to calm down, singing a hymn to herself softly.
Life in my new home was getting more complicated. Vincent had invited a man to move in with us. Vincent wanted romance. Our new housemate, Peter, did not. The household had never been calm, but it had been optimistic. It was a place for art. We wrote. We read. We used coloured chalk on our blackboard in the hall to make elaborate pictures for each other. We left each other jokes on the dining room table. We criticized each other’s work. We went to Mass together. Peter had just graduated from Northwestern—he grew up somewhere in Illinois. I never did find out why he moved to Seattle or how he met Vincent, but the household began falling apart.
Around that time, I was heading to the bus stop late one night after work, walking past the 206, and heard a commotion inside. They had a round window in the front door, so I looked in. Some men had hoisted Chris onto the bar where she was standing, looking miserable, while they poked at her and demanded that she sing for them. In I went. I headed for the bar and started joking with the men. They relented and I helped Chris climb down. She ran away to the back room, crying. And then the men arranged themselves in a circle around me. I realized that I was about to be beaten. I stood very still, avoided making eye contact, and prayed silently. Before anyone could throw a punch, the largest man I had ever seen rose at the back of the bar and said, “She’s with me.”
The men around me mumbled some apologies to the big man and returned to their seats. I went over to join the big man’s table. He was celebrating his release from prison. I learned that the 206’s clientele was made up primarily of active duty and retired policemen. The big man, Larry, explained that none of them would give him trouble because he had been in a maximum-security prison. I didn’t understand this, and suspected that his size was likely more of a deterrent than his criminal history, but I didn’t argue. We talked for a while, then I headed home.
Larry showed up outside the Winchell’s as I was getting off work the next afternoon. I was glad to see him, and we went for a walk. This began a stretch of some weeks in which Larry sought me out wanting romance and I tried to figure out how to cope. He said that he wanted marriage and children. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. He showed me photographs of two women. One was recovering after someone burned her face. The other was recovering after someone cut up her face. He told me that these were the other women who had refused him. And I decided that it was time to leave town.
Debz was attending the Evergreen State College, and was willing to let me come and stay with her while I resettled in Olympia. She still moved with a big crowd of friends. She still was willing to share her social world with me. She wanted to be an actress, and was working with a well-known filmmaker who was an artist-in-residence at Evergreen. Her friends were exciting—musicians who were in the process of developing the music that came to be called “grunge,” painters and critics, collage artists, photographers, and writers. They let me tag along. I had a sort of brief romance with the filmmaker, got involved making props for the movie he was making, and learned a lot about cameras and lenses, light, and wooden boats. I got a job at the Dairy Queen up the street and took a small apartment in the complex where my sister lived—a place called the Angelus. The Angelus sat above a row of commercial buildings, above the pizza parlor and a café and the tiny storefront that a group of women artists rented called Girl City, across the street from the Oddfellows lodge and a few other small businesses. In those days, from my point of view, Olympia was paradise. It was small. It was exciting. We did things. A photographer, Suzanne, and I became good friends. She was involved with Victor, a man who was out of town visiting his relatives in Oklahoma. Victor lived in a barn on the rural outskirts of town, a space he shared with a man called “Hank.” Victor was due back from Oklahoma, and Suzanne hatched a bold plan to fix me up with Hank, so that when she went out to see Victor, I could go along and see Hank. She thought that she and I could garden out there.
If you ask Hank, he will tell you that he decided to marry me two weeks before we met. Suzanne arranged for the four of us to have dinner in the barn. Victor, who was opposed to matchmaking schemes, invited a lot of other people. Hank and I managed to have a conversation at one edge of the most boisterous dinner I’d ever attended. I talked about Plato and complimented him on his boots. He told me he wrote poetry. We played chess. I learned that he had his morning coffee at a café on his side of town, up a long hill from the Angelus, and I went there the next morning. We sat across a table from each other, writing in our notebooks, and occasionally getting coffee for each other that morning, and the next, and the next. On the fourth morning, he walked me down the hill to the Angelus. I invited him up and heated up a can of soup for us on my hot plate. After we finished our soup, he asked if I wanted to marry him. I told him that I thought you should know each other for at least two weeks before getting engaged. He asked again two weeks later, and I accepted. We were engaged for nine months. My cousin John, a Presbyterian minister, performed the ceremony and my friend B gave us a honeymoon for a wedding present.
Things were hard. Hank went into a profound depression shortly after we got back from the honeymoon. The two of us began discovering the physical wreckage left behind by my history of abuse during my first non-viable pregnancy—there were three non-viable pregnancies eventually. The emotional residue obtruded in night terrors and the beginnings of what would be my thirty-year struggle with chronic insomnia. My spiritual life became wide-ranging. I still prayed, but as often as not, the first prayer was just: “Help.”
People our age in Olympia and other places we lived thought that I was a witch. I wasn’t a witch, but I did engage in a wide variety of spiritual practices in a haphazard and superstitious way. My life as a sexual being had never been very far from my life as a spiritual being, and I was still haunted by the sense of being surrounded by dark forces and looking for a light in my dealings with other people—a light that was there with my husband, but elusive with everyone else. Hank and I moved back to California so that I could finish my degree at Mills. I won a fellowship for doctoral study in philosophy, and we took that to the University of Pittsburgh.
A lot of things happened. Back in my parents’ home, things were deteriorating at an alarming rate. My brother found refuge with the family of his sweetheart. My youngest sister, Lisa, was at the mercy of the middle child, Cynthia, who was by then a serious heroin addict. Cynthia sent Lisa on heroin buys because if Lisa was caught, she would be tried as a juvenile (whereas Cynthia would be tried as an adult). My father sold Lisa’s mattress and dog to get money for prostitutes. Both parents gave Lisa the job of answering the phone to deal with creditors. Lisa was fourteen.
Hank and I conspired with Debz, and begged money from our friend David, to bring Lisa to Pittsburgh. She arrived with a broken wrist and almost no clothing (my father had destroyed most of her clothing). She was terrified and terrorized. We kept her out of school for a year to help her get her balance. A member of the counselling staff at the local family services organization, the Whale’s Tale, took one look at her and set her up with free counselling services. When she was ready to re-enter the world, we moved to the neighbourhood with the good high school for her.
No one in the family in Washington had so much as remembered when her birthday was since I left home when she was seven. We celebrated her birthday. We celebrated Christmas with her. We taught her to live with people who cared what happened to her enough that we needed to hear from her if she was going shopping or going out. She had a successful social and academic life at her high school, and we did what we could to make her home life orderly. Neither of us understood how to make a well-ordered home from scratch. But the bar was set low enough for anyone coming from my family that even our chaos counted as a real home in Lisa’s eyes. By then it was clear that she was as close as we were going to get to having a child.
I did not talk to her about faith. She shared my siblings’ deep mistrust of Christianity, and I was afraid to broach the topic with her. What she saw in me was instead a drive to understand things through study. I prayed for her but not with her. I think that I thought that nothing about me could count as a good example, and the thing that seems obvious to me now—that God can work through a deeply flawed person whose manifest struggles are unattractive—did not enter my understanding then. Such order as there was in my spiritual life in graduate school came through work in various Twelve-Step programs aimed at one or another aspect of codependency. What Lisa did hear was frank discussion of the need for a Higher Power.
I was a graduate student for a long time. I wound up doing two doctoral tracks—one in philosophy with an emphasis in ethics, and one in English literature with an emphasis in cultural studies, along with taking a year out on a fellowship studying formal economics. Hank completed his undergraduate degree at Pittsburgh.
Things continued in a downward spiral for my mother, father, and Cynthia. My parents lost the house in bankruptcy. Everything that could be sold had been taken and sold by Cynthia for heroin or my father for prostitutes. My father, mother, and Cynthia moved into a shabby apartment. And my father started stalking and attacking other people’s children. He came up behind them when they were alone in parks and playgrounds and assaulted them. The local police were, by then, tracking him, but his victims could not identify him. At that time, in Washington State, an apparently dangerous person could be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility three times and held for seventy-two hours each time. The state had three chances to get you and keep you institutionalized on a more permanent basis. My father, believing that he was probably HIV-positive because of his life with prostitutes, took to biting the police officers who apprehended him for involuntary commitment. On the third commitment, a clever psychiatrist told my father that, since it seemed that my father did not know what he was doing or had done, the psychiatrist was going to have to declare my father mentally incompetent. This so offended my father’s pride that he asked for an attorney and someone to record their conversation. Then he began a recitation of what he had done to children.
I gather that it took hours for him to recite a list of what he had done to me. I do not know how long it took him to say what he had done to Lisa. And then the police and social service agencies in Washington State started phoning Pittsburgh. The state of Washington offered me counselling and other services, and wanted to make these available to Lisa as well. He had not raped Lisa, but he was the source of scar tissue around her neck that still gives her trouble, and he had terrorized her. Her abuse fell within the statute of limitations. Hank and I talked about it, and talked with Lisa, who was terrified at the prospect of having to go back to Washington to testify against our father. We did not take Lisa back to Washington State. But my father stood trial and was committed to the psychiatric ward of the state penitentiary under the then-new, and now-defunct, sexual predator law in Washington State.
It was a relief to everyone. When justice is meted out to someone with the kinds of trouble my father endured and perpetrated, that justice is itself a mercy to the perpetrator. Hiding and shielding a perpetrator, as we had done for years, is not a kindness.
By the time that my father was in prison, I had decided that the whole of my philosophy doctoral dissertation was a defense against admitting how much I had been damaged by my childhood. I destroyed my dissertation and started reading John Stuart Mill, because I needed a philosopher who had broken under the weight of a heavy father, and used philosophy to pull himself back into life again. It was the summer before I was scheduled to hit the job market, and I started writing a new dissertation. (I had completed my work for English literature the previous year; the Program for the Study of Culture was not yet independently degree-granting, but I had my doctoral certification from them.) I wound up going to UCLA to teach Warren Quinn’s classes—he had committed suicide, and left my friend, Michael Thompson, stranded there. Hank and I separated while I was away in Los Angeles. Michael and I looked after each other. And I got a lot of good job offers, and accepted the one from the University of Chicago. Hank and I reunited over the summer and moved to Chicago together, sending Lisa off to college in Vermont.
Our struggles were not over in Chicago. Hank worked harder than one would have thought possible starting a woodworking business while I started teaching. After two years, Lisa left college and came home to us. My father died suddenly, having been moved from the prison to a secure psychiatric institution in the San Juan Islands. Lisa did the office work for Hank’s business for a few years before entering DePaul to pursue her degree, specializing in urban elementary education. I started spending a lot of time with the Psalms and the Gospel of John.
Hank moved away from the business, and it was clear that we needed to separate again. He went back to Santa Cruz to stay with his father and work through the remains of his own traumatic childhood while Lisa was finishing up her degree at DePaul. I had started leaning heavily on the Serenity Prayer when I was a graduate student. It continued to help me a lot.
After my father died, my mother fell in with Cynthia. Cynthia had stopped using heroin and had stopped using the varieties of speed that she took up while getting off heroin. She did some extra schooling and got a job as a surgical tech person. My mother found work as a receptionist at a local hospital. Cynthia talked my mother into cashing in some of her retirement. They used the money to buy an SUV and move to Denver, where Cynthia hoped to study to be an exotic animal veterinarian with a firm she’d seen advertised on Animal Planet. The plan failed. The school was too expensive. The climate was too harsh. They lost all their remaining belongings when their U-Haul trailer was stolen the night before they were scheduled to make their move to Portland, Oregon. They moved anyway.
Lisa and I were sharing an apartment in Chicago while she completed her degree. We discovered that Cynthia and our mother had taken out credit cards in Lisa’s name and run up as much debt as they could. Lisa and I managed to get the debt cleared. I sent Cynthia and my mother housewares for their new place. And Lisa and I began a long process of trying to figure out what to do about our mother. In that space of time, Lisa was betrayed by her boyfriend, but decided that she wanted to have a child eventually. She explained that it is very rare to have unconditional love from someone who knows you inside out. There is nothing you can do with that except find someone else to love unconditionally and to know as well as one person can know another. She had that love from me. “What you do with a love like that,” she told me, “is have a baby and pass it to your child. Consequently, I have to have a baby and it’s your fault.”
We were priced out of the rental market in the neighbourhood near my university. I bought a large condominium farther south—big enough that we could raise a child there, if need be. I brought Hank back for visits a couple of times a year, and went to see him in Santa Cruz when I could.
While Hank was in Santa Cruz, he became deeply involved in an Afro-Brazilian spiritual practice called “Umbanda,” and his life in Umbanda became my way of finding my way back to an ordered community-based spiritual practice—a religion. I followed Hank into Umbanda from a distance. Perhaps because of my own difficulties, I have always respected syncretic religious practices. They are a place to feel how people who have suffered horrors I cannot even imagine negotiate a spiritual life with God in the face of ongoing hideous trouble that I have never known.
I had started reading work by G.E.M. Anscombe in graduate school. I loved Intention. It seemed likely that there was a ghost writer at work in that slender volume, and it seemed clear that it wasn’t Aristotle. I knew that Anscombe was a devout Catholic, a convert, so I suspected that the ghost author could be Aquinas. I had started reading Aquinas our first summer in Chicago, and it was the best philosophical work I had ever read, so I just kept reading him. By the time that I had been working with Aquinas and Anscombe for more than a decade, and understood the depth of the strand of Catholicism in the syncretic spiritual practice that was the sort of Umbanda I knew, I started to be able to imagine the Catholic Church as a possible place to be.
By then, I understood that the stories of Jesus that had been my one hope as a child would not have been there for me without the Catholic Church. The Church had preserved the texts. The Church made the decisions about which texts belonged to the Scripture that nourished me, and which texts did not. They had a bigger Bible than the one I had known as a child, but I recognized their Bible as Bible.
Hank came back to Chicago, officially because my sister Lisa found her true love, married, and was expecting her first child, Nora. Hank wanted to be part of Nora’s life. He brought his spiritual practice with him, and I took part. We lived apart for a few years, then he moved into the spare room, and we started making a new life together.
We had divorced when he was in California. He said, “I keep looking over my shoulder toward Chicago, and I need to divorce so that I can do what I need to do here.”
It was horrible. He later told me that what he really wanted was to free me to marry someone else. This turned out to be unimaginable. Hank and I decided to remarry, but to do it very quietly. The only person we told about it was my friend Fr. Kevin Flannery. Fr. Kevin had said a small Mass asking for us to reunite when he was meeting with Pope Benedict at the Vatican several years before. We wanted to let him know that his prayers had been answered. I wrote to him first thing in the morning—around 4:00 a.m.—the day we were headed for the courthouse. He wrote back so quickly that I assumed he was in Rome, but Fr. Kevin was in Chicago. He had never met Hank, but knew that I had never stopped looking to Hank as my husband. We met Fr. Kevin for a drink at the Drake Hotel the night we remarried, and learned that he and his fellow Jesuits had celebrated a Mass for us at about the time that we were saying our vows in the courthouse downtown.
By the time Hank came home, things were very bad in Portland. Cynthia had gotten pregnant and had a baby, Sadie. She phoned to tell me she was pregnant, and I became involved in trying to help. My mother, Cynthia, and Sadie were living with Sadie’s alcoholic father in a house owned by Sadie’s paternal grandfather. My mother had a stroke, and had barely recovered when she found herself responsible for most of Sadie’s care. Children are differently at risk with my mother than they were with my father. It is hardest for the children that my mother likes best—I have always had an easier time than Debz or Cynthia, because our mother doted on them. I understand how my father hurt children. My mother’s ways are sometimes clear, but often mysterious to me. I asked her about my early childhood with my father once and she said, “I knew what he was doing to you, and it would have killed me, but you were such a strange, silent, staring child that I didn’t think it was affecting you the way that it would affect a little girl.”
Cynthia kept taking as much of my mother’s limited income as she could get hold of to try to keep the household afloat. Sadie’s father grew increasingly unhappy with both Cynthia and my mother. And Lisa and I made the decision to try to bring my mother to Chicago. It seemed to us that everyone in our family had suffered enough, and that our mother might be able to experience a few years of security, and possibly even some sort of happiness, before she died if we got her out of Portland. The time we had needed her to be other than she was when we were children. We were grown. We had lives. And I started the long project of getting my mother to Chicago, as much for Sadie’s sake as for my mother’s. It took two tries. In between the two, she took a bad fall in Portland and had a brain bleed in exactly the area where the stroke had struck. She was a wreck.
All through this time, I kept reading Aquinas. If you work long enough and hard enough asking for discernment with Aquinas, you find yourself in powerful Catholic intellectual circles where many of your fellow thinkers and students have exactly the kind of intellectual life that you dreamt about in graduate school. They are honest. They are humble. Their intellectual lives are animated by deep devotion to God. They are erudite in ways that you can only dream about. They have reasonable moral compasses. And they welcome questions and argument. Fr. Kevin was the first of my scholarly priest friends.
My mother lived with Hank and me for several years. She had spent some time living with Lisa, her husband, and little Nora when they were renting a large apartment on the North Side, but was persistently psychologically abusive to Nora—Sadie was the good grandchild; Nora was the unjustly privileged one; Nora needed to be discouraged and kept down verbally. We needed to put some distance between Nora and her grandmother.
Sharing a household with my mother was hard. She is, understandably, very needy. She is desperate for approval. She is very talkative. And she has had to work so hard for so long to keep a lifetime of disappointment and loss from stopping her efforts to lay hold of whatever seems like it might make something bearable that it is hard for her to function without having something or someone to envy or despise. She lavishes hollow praise on people and later speaks ill of them behind their backs. It is still unwise to take her accounts of things at face value. And Jesus loves her enough to have died for her.
Nora had recovered some and regained some balance by the time that Lisa and her husband bought the apartment above ours. Nora enjoyed being able to go up and down the building stairs and see her aunt and uncle and grandmother whenever she liked. She learned to take some benefit from seeing her grandmother without being hurt. Lisa developed a relationship with our mother that seems to be about as good as such a relationship can be. We both developed a more accurate sense for what is and what is not possible with our mother.
My work with Aquinas, my association with Dominicans, and being adopted into the family surrounding the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton were bringing me closer to the Church. My mother had a horror of Catholics, but came to feel secure enough to have suppers with priests when my friends were in town.
I was blessed with a growing number of Catholic friends and colleagues. One of them, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, made a lot of space for me in the Dominican circles where he lives and works and inspires those around him. We both wound up invited to the Symposium Thomisticum in Paris.
I have always hated Paris, even though my own work is deeply indebted to French thought. My two trips through Paris during my junior year abroad were both pockmarked by encounters with men who were hurting or about to hurt young women, so for me it had become a place marked by monstrous academic politics at the surface and a dark underbelly of violence in train stations and alleyways. Fr. Thomas Joseph loves Paris, so I asked if he would come early to the conference and show me a Paris one could love. He agreed, and we prayed our way across the Left Bank.
I do not share Fr. Thomas Joseph’s love for the architecture of the churches of Paris, although I share his enthusiasm for walking in the footsteps of saints. The unadorned silent Quaker circles, and the praying in song and dance in Umbanda, will probably always be more to my taste than genuinely marvelous big stone buildings. But Fr. Thomas Joseph and I had an opportunity to engage in Eucharistic Adoration at a lovely, empty church—our second stop—and in the meditative peace of the Real Presence, I asked Christ if he could hold me in the Catholic Church. He let me know that he could. Then we went to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which was filled with African congregants who were, in turn, so filled with the Spirit that the air was fairly humming. And then we made our way to the Chapel of Saint Vincent-de-Paul, a church filled with the stillness of the Father. It was a Triune day of prayer.
On our way back to the hotel, Fr. Thomas Joseph mentioned that I could just come into the Church, that I even could enter at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, where several of my friends were. I sent him an email that evening, asking if this was true. He said that it was. And he undertook the work with his superiors and a canon lawyer to make it possible. I was under instruction with him all summer. I stopped practicing Umbanda, and Hank agreed to come to Mass with me if he got to pick the church. He chose Saint Sabina, and the two of us started attending Mass there. It’s an African American church with a profound social justice mission that meshed well with community work we have been doing since we first arrived in Chicago.
I was received into the Church the day after Trump was elected president, and my friends at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington made a proper fondue supper for everyone. Friends and colleagues came from the Catholic University of America, across the street. Luis Tellez came from the Witherspoon Institute. Fr. Kevin came. My colleague and friend Jennifer Frey came up from South Carolina. Our friend Fr. Raphael Mary was my sponsor. It was a joyous day.
Fr. Thomas Joseph once told me that he thought that I had been given special graces by Jesus all my life. I have. But it is an extraordinary blessing to get to enjoy the ordinary graces of sacramental practice after years of just reading, praying, worshipping God in this place or that, and following along in the rosary with Mother Angelica and her sisters on television. I have come here from hard places. I am not clear of the difficulties, and may never be.
My mother is now settled into a retirement home that she likes, and Hank has shouldered almost all the burden of overseeing her finances and her care. Jesus is holding us. Hank does most of the hard work with my mother. I am with her once or twice a week. She has more security than she has known since leaving her home and striking off with my father, and my nieces are growing up at a safe distance.
As for me, I enjoy a kind of peace now that I could not have imagined before. I am the luckiest person I know.
This piece is reprinted with the permission of Ignatius Press. It originally appeared in the anthology Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism, edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua. The author is grateful to Hank Vogler and Fr. Stephen Brock for comments on this piece in draft, and for their friendship and support.