I have been friends with Anne Goodwin who blogs at Annecdotal for almost as long as I have been blogging. While there are many differences in our experiences, there is the right balance of agreement and divergence for friendly and robust discussion to occur. Anne regularly contributes to the conversations on my blog through her thoughtful comments.
Anne has also visited as a guest blogger twice before. The first was a discussion of The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. In the second she wrote about the treatment of friendship in her debut novel Sugar and Snails. This post celebrates that novel’s first birthday! Congratulations, Anne. I wish you much success with this and future writing.
In this post, Anne discusses the legacy of a Catholic childhood. I hope you will join me in welcoming Anne to my blog.
The legacy of a Catholic childhood
It was our last evening in Rome, and we’d grown weary of churches, even when they hosted a Caravaggio painting or a Bellini sculpture. But it seemed a shame to leave without a peek inside the church we’d passed almost every day that week on the way to some museum or other attraction. So while my husband walked back to our rented apartment for a pre-dinner cocktail, I pushed through the heavy door.
Just inside, I hesitated. I hadn’t expected there’d be a service in progress. I was mesmerised: the golden light; the scent of incense, the mournful melody of human voices accompanied by an organ. I registered this, not so much with my eyes and nose and ears, but in my gut. In another country, in a less magnificent church, this had been my childhood.
Ignoring the disapproving gaze of the usher, I passed through the rope barrier holding back the tourists, to take my place among the congregation. I no longer shared their faith, but I felt entitled to share the ritual.
My childhood, at Catholic schools, was passed within a bubble. It was something of a culture-shock to discover, at university, that the majority of people I encountered belonged to other religions, or none. Later still, more at ease in the secular world, it was always interesting when friends and colleagues outed themselves as former Catholics. Then there’d be that nod of recognition, a shared heritage marking our psyche more indelibly than the ashen cross the priest would thumb on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent.
I believe that we are strongly shaped by the past, so what is the legacy of a Catholic childhood? Some have found solace in the beauty of the liturgy and the sense of community while others have had their personalities destroyed through unimpeded clerical abuse. Many, like me, would place themselves somewhere in the middle, regarding Catholicism not as something to celebrate but to recover from.
The threat of eternal damnation incites fear, or disbelief, and neither is conducive to developing a person’s moral compass. Telling a child what she must believe, rather than letting her discover it, doesn’t facilitate an enquiring mind. While it might seem comforting to be able to believe there’s a God who will always take care of you, you’ve a more secure base if you’ve been brought up by parents who are responsive to your earthly needs. There seems to be a very fine line between putting your faith in magical solutions and the “delusions” of the psychotic mind. And the veneration of suffering and a tortuous death through crucifixion is decidedly odd. As for sex, the risky business of discovering a new kind of intimacy in adolescence is further distorted by the taint of shame.
When it came to writing my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, it made sense to give my main character a Catholic childhood. Uncomfortable in her skin from childhood, Diana finds no salvation in the church. She recalls morbid childhood games and, aged about eleven, being taken on pilgrimage to Lourdes for a miracle cure for a problem no-one will name. As an adolescent in the 1970s, her knowledge of menstruation comes from the bizarre instruction manual, My Dear Daughter, an exercise in obfuscation of North-Korean proportions, which her mother surreptitiously places on her bed along with a packet of bulky sanitary towels. Although it would be unfair to blame it entirely on Catholicism, she doesn’t have sex until the age of twenty-five and then it’s so dreadful she is celibate for the next twenty years.
Yet I didn’t want to stuff my novel with my own issues. Firstly, because I don’t think that makes for a good read; secondly, I didn’t want to alienate potential readers, especially not the old school friends to whom my novel is partly dedicated, most of whom have stayed loyal to their childhood beliefs. Fortunately, my novel’s first year of feedback suggests I’ve managed on both counts.
In preparing this post, I realised that less than half the Catholic scenes from earlier drafts survived to the final version. While there are solid structural reasons for these deletions, it also strikes me that, in the almost seven years I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve become less angry about the past. Perhaps it’s because I’ve worked through it or maybe simply because, as in that church in Rome, I’ve been able to reclaim the good bits. No, I don’t go to church, but I do sing with a marvellous mixed-voice choir. While we have an eclectic repertoire, it’s the sacred works – Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and the like – that really make me tingle inside. For more on the music that shaped my novel, see my forthcoming post on the undercover soundtrack.
Please check out some other stops and posts on the Birthday Blog Tour.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and longlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of over 60 published short stories. Catch up with Anne on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
In honour of its first birthday, Sugar and Snails is available in Kindle format at only £0.99 / $0.99 until 31 July 2016.
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