Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1, August 27, 1998



                  I am worth celebrating.
                  I am worth everything,
                  I am unique.
                  In the whole world there is only one me
                  There is only one person with my talents,
                  experience and gifts
                  No one can take my place
                  God created only one me, precious in His sight.
                  I have immense potential to love, care,
                  create, grow and sacrifice
                  If I believe in myself.
                  It doesn't matter my age, color, or
                  whether my parents loved me or not
                  maybe they wanted to, but couldn't.
                  Yes, I have made mistakes
                  I have hurt people,
                  but I am forgiven.
                  I am accepted, I am Okay.
                  I am loved in spite of everything.
                  So I love myself and nourish the seeds within me.
                  I celebrate me.
                  I begin now, I start anew.
                  I give myself new birth today.
                  I am me and that is all I need to be.
                 Now is a new beginning.
                  A new life, given freely
                  So I celebrate the miracle
                  And I celebrate me.
                                           Ruth 1997

  This was the poem given to me by Ruth, one of the first women to be interviewed and it reflects the magnitude of perceived change and heroic efforts the women whose stories follow have made, and feeling of accomplishment in the end.  The stories that follow are verbatim and have been only slightly edited by myself in very few cases for clarity of sentence structure.

  I wrote my prologue prior to the first interview in order to maintain my own truth and to avoid any possible influence by the subsequent stories.  It became eerily apparent to me as I sat listening to the women relate their life histories that in several areas we had similar experiences growing up in Catholic homes.  I became quite adept at listening for the first clues about problems in their homes as children, because almost universally the initial opening statements when addressing the issue of parents was that they came from good Catholic homes with hard working parents.  I remember myself as a child in school; if anyone ever asked about my parents I would always paint a perfect picture of my home life.  The line from Disney's “Bambi” comes to mind when Thumper is told “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.”  When questioned a little more closely about their parents later in the interview process, many times statements, tone and demeanor changed.  It felt as if, once the women were comfortable, they allowed themselves to elaborate on the deeper memories of childhood.  Other times the injustice meted out to them as children was the first thing on their minds and became uppermost in the story.

  Ruth, who was the ninth of 10 children, gave the opening poem to me.  One brother was a priest and the sister with whom she most closely bonded entered the convent when Ruth was two years old.  She stated she was very lonely as a child and felt abandoned when her sister entered.  The only photograph her mother put on the mantle of any of her 10 children was the one of her priest son flanked by her two nun daughters.  Her father was alcoholic and, according to Ruth, her mother hated sex.  She told me she was in her early 50s before she ever addressed or spoke about sexual issues and abuses which occurred early in her childhood.  She said

  The sexual repression didn't come from nowhere, and it didn't just
  come from the convent.  When I was four I was abused by an uncle of
  mine.  I repressed it until a few years ago.  I found out later that he
  did the same to my other two sisters, and this was never talked about.
  One sister is seven years older, and the other is 14 years older than I.

  Ruth went on to tell me that when she was in eighth grade a janitor at her school grabbed her and french kissed her.  She said,  “It scared the shit out of me.  Those things made it a no, no and kind of reinforced, I believe, that going into the convent was the safest place to be.”

  Out of 29 interviews, six women did not recall issues of sexual or psychological abuse in their childhood.  (One of the six, in retrospect saw her parents’ obsessive religious behavior as psychologically harmful.)  Two felt they suffered cruelty from their mothers upon leaving religious life.  Three had experienced incest, one at the hands of her brothers and their friends, two by fathers.  Two were raped, the first by a friend of the father, and the second by a paid assailant at the behest of the mother, who had physically and mentally abused her severely throughout her childhood.  A grandfather sexually traumatized one, two were sexually molested by uncles, one of these was also abused by an ex-priest and further psychologically and physically traumatized by the mother.  A further 13 considered that they had suffered some varying levels of psychological abuse as children, seven of those had alcoholic fathers.  This was a significant discovery and with the benefit of hindsight shows a gap in my research that did not address issues of abuse and alcoholism in the family of origin.  After the third interview if the subject was not addressed or I felt the issue was being avoided, I added questions on this topic.  My questionnaire lacked any direct reference to incest, sexual or psychological abuse.

  The Chibnall et al (1997) study is the first empirical research on the issue of sexual abuse among religious women [nuns] but did not assess childhood psychological trauma.  Their overall findings showed two out of five (40%) of the respondents had reported some type of sexual trauma in their lifetime.  About 19% of the nuns in their study reported sexual abuse in childhood; 13% reported sexual exploitation; and 9% reported sexual harassment.  A further 11% of respondents reported sexual harassment within community.  The Chibnall et al. report states that their findings were generally consistent with scientific literature on sexual abuse of children.  “The percentage of Sisters reporting sexual abuse was clearly at odds with any argument that religious life has served as a particular haven for women who have been sexually abused.  If that argument were true, one would expect that religious women would report much higher rates of sexual abuse than women in general.  In fact, the best available estimates suggest that 25 - 30% of women in general report sexual abuse in childhood” (p.4).  In the current study statistics based on the informants above found 27.5% had suffered sexual abuse as children.  This number concurs with the general public according to Chibnall et al. but is considerably higher than their findings for religious women.  The sample in this study was too small to draw any significant conclusions.  However, in this group, escaping from sexual trauma into a safe place was a statement often made.

  Further information from Chibnall et al. (1997) states the average age for disclosure of sexual abuse was 54 years.  In a newsletter entitled “Breaking Open the Silence - Healing the Woundedness” distributed by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Wilson (1995) found the average years of silence after sexual assault was 33 to 47.  As previously noted, Ruth told me she was in her early 50s when she first talked about the incidents from her childhood.

  In this study, 10 out the total 29 women interviewed were from Irish Catholic homes, two were from Italian backgrounds, two were French and one had a Latino family.  The remainder considered themselves American with no strong ethnic influences.  Alcoholism was reported in eight specified Irish homes and in a further five non Irish families. The mothers in these homes were either strictly disciplinarian, passive aggressive or extremely passive to the point of being described by the women as “beaten” physically or mentally, by their husbands.  In these families conflicted by religion and alcohol, the mothers often seem to take refuge in religion and the children along with them.

  It seems appropriate in this first chapter of stories to address why these women chose the route that lead them into religious life.  As their memories unfolded the decision to go to the convent was made quite early in life, at grade school age in most cases, and was very closely connected to their home life issues.

  For example, Wendy was the second daughter of a family where the mother was Italian Catholic and the maternal grandparents were very close.  Her father was not Catholic but was described by her as “a very good man, despite his lack of religion.”  He demonstrated patience, whereas her mother was the more volatile. Although Wendy does not explain how she knew it, she said.

     My parents slept naked, I always liked that about my parents who were otherwise
     quite modest.  The bathroom door was always closed when you were using it, we
     always got dressed in private, I don't remember there being a great sense of shame
     about it.  I think I only saw my father naked once and that was when I was a very
     little girl.  I woke up in the middle of the night and was sleep-walking in the living  room.
     My father heard the noise and came out and I remember seeing his family
     jewels right at eye level, and thinking, oh it looks just like grapes.  It was so
     beautiful and round.  I don't remember my parents being very demonstrative with
     each other and yet they were very loving and cuddling with my younger brother
     and sisters, lots of tickling and stroking and hugging.  I watched how they were
     with them and I'm sure that's how they were with me.  I like my body, I liked
     being tickled, I have a nice friendly relationship with it.

  Wendy told me she had thought of entering the convent from her middle years of high school but her elder sister went in a year ahead of her.  This made her reconsider the decision.  However she said

     I'm pretty sure the reason I entered was because it was
     counter cultural, you know it was the 70s, the days of cults and
     communes and flower power.  This was a socially acceptable way to be in
     a commune and get a chance to do something different from your peers in
     terms of going to college.  I definitely entered for the community, not
     in terms of some personal relationship with God, which is something I
     was pretty sure I didn't have, although I knew it was something I was
     supposed to have, so I tried to be as authentic as possible.  My sister
     entered the same order a year earlier than me and she's still in the
     convent, I think she truly does have some relationship with God as
     difficult as it is.

  Elizabeth said her father was a bright, brilliant man who couldn't show his feelings.  Her mother was outgoing, very sexy, it was “okay” for her mother to be sexy but not “okay” for the children.  She told me, “I was aware that babies came from Mom and Dad, Mom let me touch her tummy when she was pregnant.” Elizabeth was three years old at this time.  There were seven children in the family.  She never remembered being given any negative messages regarding sexuality during her childhood and the only related situation she could recall was the following,

     When I was seven I was in a grove of trees with my sister and
     brothers when a group of adolescents asked us to take down our panties
     if they took off their pants.  I remember peeking through my fingers at
     them but didn't take mine off. What I remember is my father was so
     angry, my sister ran home to get my father. The next day we saw one of
     the boys in the grocery store and I whispered to my father, that's one
     of the boys who took their pants down. My father was so angry at that
     little boy. I never quite knew what it was about, but that was my first
     memory. Of course growing up Catholic we had all the teaching of the
     catechism; it was so rigid, so that would color everything. We all went
     to Catholic schools, through high school.  It was an all girls high school.
     I had wanted to become a nun ever since first grade. Now I believe
     in past lives and I've done it so often in the past it was deep in my
     psyche. The convent I entered was in the grounds of my high school. I
     was pretty wild in high school, so they kept back my acceptance letter
     three weeks longer than the others and I was told by the Superior
     General of the Community that she had watched me every day coming down
     the hill. I didn't do anything wrong I was just loud and had fun, I
     enjoyed life. She said to me, “Now you're not going to boarding school
     and you can't be like you were when you enter, you have to leave all
     that behind.”

  Both of Caroline's parents were first generation Italian American Catholics.  She was the eldest of six children.  Her memories of childhood are vivid

     I think what formed me most was being the oldest girl in an
     Italian American family where the boy child is the most prized first
     one.  I know I felt it all my life and dealt with it in therapy but
     never really knew it was real.  It honestly didn't hit me until a
     nephew was born 21 years ago, that would make me 30 years old at the
     time.  I was standing in the kitchen and my father was on the phone, he
     was talking to somebody about his son who had just had his first born.
     His words were “Yes he's healthy, he's doing fine and you know my son,
     he's always had great luck, his first born was a boy.”  That made it
     real, it was like being socked in the stomach.  I know the history of
     my sexuality, and who I am, was formed a lot on that relationship with
     my father, always trying to be the boy for him.  I was always trying to
     be something for him. I couldn't have put that into words.  I look back
     now and I was trying to be that first born boy.  I remember when I was
     young always being by his side and learning how to use tools, how to go
     fishing.  When I was young my father used to take back packing trips up
     into the Sierras on horseback.  I used to watch him prepare and pack
     all of his camp stuff and I really wanted to go with him some day.  I
     said, “Dad, when can I go?”  And he'd say “When you're older.”  “Well
     how old do I have to be?”  “You have to be 14.”  During the course of
     therapy, I realized that trip never came true.  I never went
     backpacking with my father.  I remember writing about it in tears that
     it was the cross over when I became a girl when I started to develop a
     girl's body my relationship with my father grew further and further
     apart.  I made the connection that I couldn't go on that backpacking
     trip because I was a girl.

  This reluctance to be female was so pervasive for Caroline that she told me her breasts did not develop.  She felt that it was “mind over matter.”  She had willed her body to remain masculine.  Her story continued

     Going back in time a bit I remember having no information about
     sex or how babies were made, despite the fact that I was the oldest of
     six children and there was always someone pregnant around [her parents
     ran a shelter for pregnant teens].  My understanding was that Mommy and
     Daddy prayed really hard and then you got a baby.  All through Catholic
     education was learning how terrible boys were, I went through coed
     elementary and all girls high school.  All of the messages about sex
     were bad, evil, and negative.  I had no information.  Throughout high
     school there was no necking, no petting, I didn't have a boyfriend to
     do that with and good girls didn't do that anyway.  I was student body
     President and I was a good girl.  Congruent with that from an early age
     I knew I wanted to be a nun.

  I interviewed Lua Xochitl [self named meaning Wild Flower Moon] in the garden of her home on a beautiful sunny day in the summer of 1997.  She was a born story-teller and the four hours I spent listening to her life history was a tremendous experience for me.

     I am the daughter of a woman who was Irish, Apache, born in New
     Mexico and my father who was Mexican.  He came to New Mexico and met my
     mother.  Their first child died of hunger.  My elder sister was born
     then and my parents moved to Los Angeles where I was born the youngest
     of five children.  My mother passed away when I was six months old, she
     was 29 years old. My grandmother passed away the same year three months
     earlier. My oldest sister was nine years old when my mother died so she
     lost her childhood because she had to be mother to four siblings, me
     being an infant.  She became a nun and was one for 24 years.   I came
     from a very poor family, and I think what happened to my mother is, she
     saw herself with five children and said, “I can't do this anymore” and
     left.  It's never been very popular to be of mixed blood in this
     society and I think she lived through a very hostile time.  I was born
     into a Mexican, Catholic family, which is like the Irish catholic;
     double shit on your back.  Now I understand how enmeshed the Church is
     in Ireland, now I understand why it's taken me so long to shed all that
     shit.  My father re-married, I was six years old and they went on to
     have five more children.  I got lost in the mix, so I think I can say
     to you, I pretty much raised myself.  All that, I think, affected how I
     related to myself and my own body and my deservedness or my
     non-deservedness.  So I was raised a good Catholic girl.  Being raised
     in the Church and the youngest and losing our mother, I was inculcated
     with a great deal of fear to do with sex and men and the world.  The
     Church and priests and nuns were a sanctuary for me to escape into in
     my head.    I wasn't surprising to me in my senior year to say to my
     Dad that I was entering the convent.  Also I have an aunt and an older
     sister who entered the same order.  But as far as I was concerned at
     the time I was making a very independent decision, which is not really
     true as you look back at the layers in your life.  I entered
     essentially to escape.  The strongest force in my life was my father, he
     was a very political figure.  As I grew up I looked more and more like
     my mother so he distanced me I think.  He felt a lot of pain and guilt
     for my mother's death.  He lived with the fact that he hadn't been able
     to provide for her as well as do his work for his people; my father was
     a man who worked for the Latinos.  He was very strict. I had two older
     sisters but they never went out on a date.  He didn't have to say
     anything we just knew we couldn't cause him any worry, that he had
     enough worry just trying to support us.  I think it's one of the
     hardest burdens to put on kids, to make them responsible for raising
     themselves.  So naturally that curtailed any necessary wildness that
     has to happen in your teenage youth.  It curtailed any kind of
     self absorption that needs to happen at that time so you're not doing
     it at 40 and 50 years old.  My pleasure as a kid came from being in
     school and being away from the house.

  Hazel, a gently spoken homemaker addresses the family dynamic issues fairly representative of those women who came from an Irish Catholic background.

     I am the third of four children.  There was a troubling aspect to
     my growing up. Much as I knew I was loved, my father was an alcoholic,
     and, as the third in the family I was the youngest for a number of
     years.  I've tried to figure out what was going on in those years with
     a father who was alcoholic.  I see in some ways I was conflicted by
     it.  I thought I was responsible.  I thought I could do something about
     the trauma that he was responsible for, but I never could; obviously
     there was no way that I could have.  I can't help but think that it
     affected me, perhaps even my thought to enter the religious life.  I
     don't know if there is an answer, but I do hold the question in my
     heart.  Was that part of my reason for seeking the religious life?  Mom
     was a staunch Catholic and Daddy would go to Church Christmas, Easter
     that sort of thing.  He would make fun of her, she was the object of
     ridicule for him. In a number of ways she was a battered wife.  We go
     back and revisit our childhood when someone close to us is experiencing
     a similar thing.  It was as an adult that I realized this about my
     parents. It was a typical, if there is such a thing, alcoholic
     household. The silence that engulfed us about this behavior I think
     influenced me in a number of ways such as sexuality. I wouldn't talk
     about it, because that was how we handled serious matters in our
     family.  Looking back, my sister and I marvel at the fact that no one
     talked about the chaos that this was causing in our family.  Now I find
     freedom in being able to talk about things that as a child I wouldn't
     even think about discussing.  Some of it was my mom.  She was not born
     in Ireland but the Irish, and I don't mean to stereotype people, but
     there is a cultural characteristic; perhaps with that generation
     especially, even using the word pregnant was not said.  I chuckle at the
     verbal gymnastics that went on rather than name reality, which I know
     influenced my appreciation of sexuality.  My father was more married to
     his job than to his wife, their relationship was more like an armed
     camp. That had a powerful influence on me.  When I got married I
     decided I would not fight because I'd seen how destructive that was
     between my Mom and Dad.  Well that was not the answer either; the
     pendulum had swung the other way as we have come to realize.  To squash
     feelings is not the answer. When I look back on my family, I loved my
     Mom and Dad dearly, but I couldn't go to them with things that were
     troubling me.  Especially as a teenager when so much of our personality
     is starting to come forth and you're not quite sure how to deal with
     it.  For example, I saw the word rape in the newspaper and asked my Mom
     what the word meant, she couldn't answer.  Right away I thought, oh,
     you don't talk about those things.  It's obvious what happened as a
     result of that; if I can't talk about that, there's a lot of things I
     can't talk about and I didn't quite know what to do with all of those
     questions.  One of the dimensions of that is a continuing sense of
     responsibility for people and issues in my life, a feeling of always
     having to fix things for everybody.  I think it had its genesis in
     those early years when I couldn't talk about those issues and felt
     responsible in some ways.  My father was a binge drinker.  He would
     start to drink as soon as he came home on Friday afternoon.  He would
     quickly become inebriated and would stay like that for the rest of the
     weekend.  Monday morning he would get up and go to work.  He became
     less violent over the years but more emotionally battering, first to
     Mom and then to the rest of us.  And yet there were such
     contradictions.  My Dad sensed that my older sister and brother had a
     bond of high school kids and my younger brother had a lot of attention
     because he was a little guy.   My Dad said to me something about
     whenever you're feeling sad or alone I'll give you the signal.  The
     signal was that he'd put his finger beside his nose and that would show
     me that he knew how I felt.  Isn't that such a contradiction?  It's
     enough to make a young person wonder what the hell's going on here?
     How can he be so sensitive to my needs and be so abusive first to my
     Mom and then to us.  I wouldn't know how he would be to us.  It was
     always that on-edge experience.
     I used to do a lot of baby-sitting.  I remember the house I lived
     in was high on a hill and I would wait at the dining room window for my
     ride to pick me up to go baby sit, usually the father of the house.
     Dad would storm through and be angry at me for something, because he
     was drunk and I was just a focus.  Mom would probably be in Church.  He
     would call me lots of names, “you whore” or whatever. Again I'd wonder
     now what did I do?  I'm waiting here to go baby sitting, a sense of not
     knowing what was going to happen brings the tears to my eyes even now.
     I can say from the position of safety, I loved you Daddy.  Yesterday
     would have been his birthday.  Sexuality was just not a part of my
     life.  I think if I was really honest with myself, I just wonder if I
     just plain didn't think about it, in light of my style that I had
     learned early on; well you just blow that off and you don't think about
     it.  I don't remember talking to my sister or anyone about sex. It just
     didn't matter.  Entering the convent, although I did long for it,
     offered my Dad an opportunity for ridicule. He just made more fun. I
     look back on that with affection. One of the things I learned from
     that, I would let him go so far and then I'd say, “that's enough,” and
     he knew when I set the limits, whereas Clare [her sister] would let him
     go beyond her limits.  This is an example of what he would do.  My
     sister and I had both gone back home. She was working on her Masters. I
     was waiting to enter the convent.  Daddy would grab Clare and try to feel
     her breasts.  He tried that on me once and I said “you're not trying
     that again” and he never did. Clare never set boundaries and that was
     her right but I thought I'm not going to let him man handle me.  I
     think that served me well.

  When I asked if this kind of behavior was common in her teenage years she answered in the affirmative and said it had the affect on her sexuality of putting it into neutral.

      It was in neutral, it wasn't disgusting, it was just-I don't want to talk about that.
     Which I guess is in keeping with that mindset.  Whatever is painful, deep,
     challenging, difficult, except for certain academic areas where I felt quite
     comfortable about probing and going further, it's just some areas that I would say
     no, I don't need to talk about that.  However, [There was a significant pause here
     and a rueful laugh] I think--I know, there's a very high cost we pay for that
     thinking, and I think I began to pay that price in the convent.

  This was an extremely important area of Hazel's story, one that will be enlarged and expanded upon when we follow her life into the convent.  As her interview progressed, Hazel discovered areas of her own life story that previously she had never given thought or shape to.  The fact that she remarked on her mother probably being in Church whilst her father was attempting to molest her and accomplishing it with her sister, was an interesting observation.

  Kate's story varied somewhat in that, although she was from an Irish Catholic family her father was the peacemaker.  Her mother was the disciplinarian who laid down the rules although Kate said, she wasn't very strict.

     We would go to our Dad to try and change the rules, and he'd try.
     They weren't very together in bringing us up. My Dad was very generous
     and very sweet, very loving.  He was also an alcoholic and a compulsive
     gambler.  That was really scary for me because I was the oldest.  I
     became the gatekeeper in my family and would try and protect the
     younger children.  I would answer the door or the telephone because I'd
     want to know if he was slurring his words.  My Mom would be very upset
     because he'd be drinking and I would try and keep the little ones out
     of the way.  I don't think their marriage was very happy, mostly
     because of his drinking and gambling.  I realize now that I grew up in
     a pretty sexually repressed family, not just my own family but my
     extended family also.  I think the Irish in general have very repressed
     feelings as well as talking about sexuality.  Many of my cousins never
     married or married very late in life some in their 40s.  Many of them
     never had children.  Sex also was an unspoken topic; I remember when I
     was very young I saw some caterpillars mating and I thought that it was
     bad and dirty.  Somewhere I got messages that it was bad, but I don't
     know how because I don't remember anyone talking to me about sexual
     things.  When my mother was pregnant I was six years old, I didn't even
     know she was pregnant.  She didn't talk about it, eventually she said
     the stork was going to bring a baby and she had to go to the hospital
     to get the baby.  I remember being scared because I thought she might die
     or something at the hospital.  I had no idea how she got the baby, I
     never noticed her body change or anything.  I didn't have a very good
     image of what marriage was.  Sometimes they would kiss when my father
     came home from work but they weren't usually very affectionate at all.
     I think my Mom, in her anger at my father, took her anger out on my
     younger brother.  She would be really critical and negative to my next
     brother. I have two younger brothers.  He really got a lot of the brunt
     of the screaming and yelling and name calling and now that I'm older I
     can see it was probably a lot of her anger at my father which she
     directed at my brother.  I think with all of that, when I entered the
     convent I was really trying to escape from my family.  I was always
     looking for peace.  I remember when I was a kid in school I would say,
     if I could just have some peace.  I really did feel as if God was
     calling me to it.  I wanted to be really, really intimate with God, but
     looking back on it I see it was a way of not developing intimacy with
     another sexual partner.  [This was an interesting use of the word
     “another,” as if Kate was seeing God as her sexual partner].  I did
     always make friends easily, so I think emotional intimacy was easy for
     me.  I don't like this about myself now but at the time I thought
     religious life was a higher way of life.  The life I saw in my family I
     thought, I don't want this.  I'd look at my aunts and they were married
     and had kids and I thought this is so boring.  They were all
     housewives, none of them had jobs or careers, I thought I just can't
     stand the idea of being in a house all day and looking after kids and
     cooking.  It just seemed like a waste of a life.  At that point I
     didn't see a lot of options and religious life was an option that
     allowed me to have a career and do something bigger for the world and
     not just being trapped in a family, which now I see as being very

  Several women expressed this same ambivalence about following the life choices of their female family members.  The routes open to them were few and limited in scope.  Entering the convent led to a much wider choice of career paths and the nuns who taught them were powerful role models as will be illustrated in the stories to follow.

  Maria was the second girl in a family of five girls and one boy.  Her story opened with the statement that they were a strong Catholic family, all were daily communicants.  All the children had gone to Catholic boarding schools.  As her story progressed she was somewhat conflicted by a considerable amount of, what she considered, inappropriate behavior from her father.  She also had issues only recently resolved with her mother.  She said

     We were from a very religious family, daily communicants.  I'm not
     sure if everyone has a similar experience as mine.  I think in your
     family there's always an elder who gives you permission around
     sexuality, especially who gives you permission to be who you are; I
     feel like my Dad did that in a lot of ways.  He, from the very
     beginning said anything that you want to accomplish, you can, any
     field, you can do anything.  There was also a playfulness he had and
     now today, when I read about a lot of these abuse things, talk about
     tickling as a part of power and abuse; he tickled us a lot.  I think
     that was where maybe some of us got some arousal or had some connection
     with him.  But to my knowledge, none of us were abused, physically.  I
     think a lot of us were abused emotionally or psychologically. Because
     along with this kind of strict attitude he had, and fun attitude, and
     from my point of view gave me permission to be a sexual human being, he
     also had that side that I thought was abusive because he was a heavy
     drinker. He was also a very fearful person.  My Mom was pretty closed
     down emotionally.  Over the years I've satisfied the need to get rid of
     some of the anger about her not teaching me how to be a full human
     woman.  So the two of them were very difficult for me as a young person
     to kind of put together.  He was strict and we were afraid of him, but
     he was the one who was fun loving and would go to the beach and stuff
     like that, so there's a push-pull there. Of course sexuality was not
     mentioned or talked about. Unless if I go back to when my Dad took my
     sister and me and told us the whole facts of life.  He told us we could
     ask any questions we liked, and that was when we were in fourth or
     fifth grade. I'm not sure how this plays out in my relationships with
     my husband or with other men.  One time I was sent home from school
     because my sweater was too tight, according to one of the nuns.  I said
     to my mom, “Sister Mary wants me to tell you I need another sweater.”
     She said “I don't know, ask your Dad,” and so I went in. I was a
     sophomore, and I said, Dad, what do you think of the sweater? And he
     said “I like it, I like it.”  So there was some times like that, when
     he would be permission giving, but certainly there was rigidity around
     sexuality with boy friends.  Although my older sister and I double
     dated a lot and I necked and stuff but never petted.  One boy went to
     touch my breasts and I twisted his arm so hard he had a cast on it for
     weeks.  I don't think any of us screwed around because there was such
     terror around how that would fit with my family, with my Dad.

  Maria received a lot of attention and generosity from her godparents.  Her godmother said, in response to Maria's news that she was entering the convent that she felt she was doing it to get away from her Dad and his drinking.

     I was very angry when she said that, but over the years I came to realize it was a
     promise I'd made at one point, if I go to the convent, just stop my Dad from
    drinking.  I think before I left for the convent I had started to sever the relationship
    with my Dad and Mom, I went at 16 and stayed for 19 years.

  Miriam, a bright-eyed Irish descendant told me

     I grew up in an Irish Catholic, no talk family.  As far as there
     being such a thing as sexuality, we had no awareness of it.  We were a
     family that dated and usually married the person.  I went into the
     convent to escape a very dysfunctional family.

Her father was alcoholic and her mother was a strict disciplinarian.  Another similar story came from Helen who said

       I was born into an Irish Catholic family with a drunken father.
       My Mom and Dad had to get married. She was pregnant with me before the
       wedding and my Dad always thought it would happen to me too.  I was
       determined it wouldn't. I wanted to do something really special with my
       life. In the eighth grade I loved the Sisters and decided then to go to
       the convent.  It meant I didn't do much with the boys because I knew I
       was going to the convent.

  June had an Irish father of another temperament.  She describes her childhood relationship as having an “Oedipal thing” for her father

     He was a wonderful father for me.  He was handsome and very
     masculine.  The kind of the quiet Irish man in the John Wayne sense.
     He was not overly demonstrative but he had ways of letting you know he
     approved of who I was.  Ways of saying boy you look nice, ways of a
     smile, running around opening doors for me when I  was a young, young
     child.  That's why I say I can recognize at least from that a lot of
     the oedipal thing.  I'm sure there are times when I would have gladly
     shoved Mom out and taken over.  I think the most tragic thing for me
     was that he seemed to have changed when I got back from the convent.
     He seemed to have lost his sense of humor and his lust for life and I
     blamed myself.  I think later in life as I talked with my Mom after we
     became friends I realized it was really between the two of them, but at
     the time I thought it was my fault that I'd killed Daddy when I left
     home, he wasn't very happy about it.  If I see my Mom through my own
     eyes only and shut out my brothers and sisters, I see someone who I
     always tried to measure up to.  Somebody who was always physically, so
     it seemed, more adept than I am.  There were long, long times that I
     sought her approval in a lot of ways.  I remember that after I was
     married and had quite a family, I had never been able to do anything
     for her of any value.  My grandmother died and my mother called me and
     asked if I'd go over and help her clean up before my aunt came out for
     the funeral.  I cried and she said “what in heaven is the matter?”  I
     said that is the first time you ever asked me to do anything.  It was
     overwhelming that she actually needed me for something.  She was the
     dominant one, her mask was there wasn't anything she couldn't do. Yet
     she was full of fears with things that shook her to her roots.  She was
     so insecure that she would never go outside her family circle.  In
     general I had a good home life, they took good care of us.  We all felt
     loved but once we grew a little they kept us at arm's length so a
     little more physical love would have been good.

  June entered the convent at 16 years old after the family of the young man she had been dating insisted upon their separation.  She entered more or less on the rebound from this unhappy experience, although I understood that she had intended to enter prior to meeting the young man.

  The common themes beginning to run through the stories are silence around sexuality, alcoholism, lack of affection among the parents and continuing this attitude in their interaction with their children. There are common traits in the discipline they experienced and a feeling that the convent was an escape from this dysfunction.  Another very frequent theme which evolved, was the neglect the women experienced from their mothers.  Some were emotionally absent, some extremely abusive.  There was a continuum of behaviors in between.  Some of these themes are illustrated in this short dialogue from Alison who said

     I don't think my parents had a good relationship.  When I look back on it now,
     my father drank a lot, and I remember being very surprised when my mother was
     pregnant.  My mother and father slept in twin beds, I don't ever remember seeing
     them in bed together.  In my teens I don't remember my father and mother being
     especially affectionate, yet my mother was very affectionate to me but my father
     was not.  He didn't show his affection, he was a man's man.  I didn't know my
     father very well.  He had high expectations of everyone but particularly of me.
     It  set sister against sister.  Going to the convent was a way to escape what my family
     was; it was always my refuge.  We were asked many a time and told the convent's
     not an escape hatch for you.  If you're not happy someplace else you're probably
     not going to be happy in the convent.  I would have denied that then but I think
     I've come to the point where I'd acknowledge that now.  But I probably did enter
     religious life to escape, and I don't know what I was trying to escape.  I think I felt
     that I couldn't make it in college or whatever.  I was never the brightest kid,
     maybe I thought I wouldn't be successful and I thought I would have some
     semblance of success in my life by entering.

  Parental control of sexuality was maintained in a variety of ways.  Sophia's story has similarities with others as she spoke of the control over her sexuality by her father

     I'm the oldest of three, I have two younger brothers.  Father was
     extremely strict, I guess I knew I dared not be sexual.  I went to
     Catholic girl's boarding school and when I went to college I was very
     close to the nuns.  When I lived at home I had to be in at a certain
     time and he always checked what I wore before I went out.  My mother
     was very passive, now she's still very passive, he's a very old man but
     he still rules the roost, and very, very, Catholic. When I left the
     convent I wanted to do something completely off the wall, I went to
     work on a cruise ship.  My father was not a happy camper, not with me
     living that kind of life.  He thought I was a harlot. I wasn't. I still
     wasn't.  He was afraid I was going to be sexually active and I wasn't.
     When I finished University, I dated but I still wasn't sexually
     active.  My sexuality just went away.  A friend I'm dating now says,
     “you were hiding behind things for years weren't you?”  I have to say,
     my father would become upset and angry and so we learned not to get him
     upset.  He's not a drinker, I know from talking to his doctor now he
     says he's a classic alcoholic, but no, he never drank.  He's a control
     freak, if he didn't get his way he would yell and so we learned to get
     around it.  We got the message you'd better keep yourself good.  I went
     out on a date and my mother bought me a dress and I had to go home and
     bend over for him to see whether or not I was showing anything.  He
     thought it was too revealing so I had to go back and have the lady at
     the store fix something so that it would cover me up.  It never
     occurred to me or my Mom that there was something wrong with him, he
     was really controlling

  Intuitively I felt Sophia had experienced physical as well as emotional abuse at the hands of her father and I asked if she experienced physical violence at his hands?  She responded

     Oh yes, but he stopped when I wouldn't cry.  I just decided I don't need to
     cry if  you're going to hit me and I didn't do it.  He got frustrated and just left the room.
     He said to my mother “What are we going to do with that girl?”  But he never did  it again.
     When I entered the convent he was very happy, I think he had a big  problem with sex.
     Sexuality was not a reason for going in, it was a blessed event.

  Abuse on this level was quite common amongst the interviewees.  The extreme was demonstrated in three interviews where I would assess the damage to have had life long traumatic effects on the women.  Incest, psychological and sexual abuses are very common issues uncovered in therapy when dealing with a religious client pool (anecdotal accounts from therapists in California and Washington State).  Although this area was not initially anticipated in my research, sufficient cases surfaced during my interviews to warrant mention here.  Anecdotal evidence from professionals dealing with these people together with the previously mentioned empirical research by Chibnall et al. (1997), and evidence given by Sipe (1996), points to a high incidence rate of abuses both in priest's and nun's childhood.  To quote one therapist from a major in-patient treatment center, “A fair proportion, if not everyone, in the program had been abused.  Some women would go into religious life to avoid sexuality and they always tripped up, they ended up in therapy.”  Josephine said in her interview,  “Virtually everyone I knew in the convent was in therapy.”  I asked for clarification, “everyone?”  “Yes, I didn't have a friend who wasn't in therapy for years.”  When questioned on her thoughts as to the main reason these nuns sought therapy, she answered

     Family of origin issues.  I think a lot of people were doing
     repair work in therapy, that was at the heart of it.  A lot of women
     used the therapist as an intimate relationship to have a place to go,
     to talk about what you're thinking and feeling and what's important to
     you, in place of a spiritual director.  What's important about that is
     that people were very reflective, very aware and working on themselves
     all the time.  Who is your therapist? was the question, not if you're
     doing it.  They're [communities] spending hundreds of thousands of
     dollars on therapy.

  Doehring (1993) in the publication of her dissertation entitled, Internal Desecration: Traumatization and Representations of God, indicates that the God representations of those women in her study who had alcoholic parents were different from those who did not have such experiences growing up.  The child with the alcoholic parent had a decrease in experiencing God as loving and a clear increased experience of God as absent or wrathful.  Doehring further found that women who had been severely traumatized in their childhood most often experienced the wrathful absent God. In the case of the severely traumatized childhoods such as Ursula, Kathleen and Marian, their God representations in adulthood are gentle and loving, suggesting they have made some recovery from their earlier experiences.   Ursula however recalled a time at age 27 when she had her first lesbian sexual experience; at this time she felt alienated from God. Flaherty (1992) in her book Woman Why Do You Weep?, examines how woman who were victimized as children relate to God.  She asks,  “Does God become a part of the problem?  Is this God just another figure of male domination? How does one learn intimacy again when intimacy has been violated?”  She writes

     Fear also becomes an issue in our relating to God.  Fear of
     judgment, fear of God's abandonment.  Having internalized much of the
     responsibility for what happened to us as children, we believe we are
     to blame.  These feelings of responsibility spill over into our other
     relationships, and so we project that God will judge us as well.  As
     survivors of abuse our self-esteem has been affected, which also
     encourages our feelings of worthlessness and self blame.

  Ione feels growing up in strict, sexually repressive homes and in a wider sense in a church which does not deal with the topic of sexuality in a pastoral way, adds a great burden of fear that God will also abandon them.  This was a feeling expressed by the following women in their heart wrenching stories.

  Kathleen was born out of wedlock.  She thinks in retrospect that her mother had been raped by her own father and this was the reason for the terrible abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother.

     As far back as I can remember, I was my mother's black sheep.  I
     don't know who my father is, I heard stories about it being my
     grandfather, to this day I don't know who he is.  I was raised with a
     stepfather but he couldn't be close to me because I was not his child
     and my mother would always tell him to mind his own business if he
     tried to come to my defense.  She would never call me by my name, she
     would always call me by a curse name; even outside when she would call
     all of us children in at night, she would call them all by name and
     then say “And you, you----get inside.”  Every day she looked at me, she
     had to recall something bad that had happened to her.  It's a hard
     thing as a child not knowing why you're not loved, what you did wrong.
     I had very, very low self-esteem, craving love.  It's the biggest sin
     any parent can do to their kids, to deny them that.  Craving love and
     looking for attention, and not being able to get it, especially from
     your mother; you knew to keep away.  I didn't like women too much, I
     had seven sisters.  The one that was born after me was mother's
     favorite and she hated me, so in the beginning I didn't like women.  I
     couldn't go to my stepfather for attention because I didn't want him to
     get in trouble.  What my mother did was drink a lot.  They both were
     alcoholics.  They went out a lot and used to leave drunken men taking
     care of us. One was a merchant marine and he would start messing with
     me when I was nine years old.  Someone who had just got out of jail for
     being a child molester came to baby sit because she wanted to go out.
     He was getting ready to molest me but a cop that lived in our building
     found out about this and stopped it, so I was nearly raped at nine.
     Well finally her dream came true and I got raped at the age of 15,
     raped real bad, I couldn't walk for two weeks.  He was drunk and my
     mother had been paid for him to do it.  I found this out years later,
     so she had me raped and it was terrible, terrible.  I hated men more
     than I hated women. I hated everybody.  I was kind of saying I don't
     deserve this but I felt I must have done something terrible so I did
     deserve it.  An older woman who had two daughters studying to be nurses
     saw me and was very kind to me.  One day she asked me if I was feeling
     all right because I looked so ill.  I told her I didn't feel well, I
     didn't even know I was pregnant, I didn't know what was wrong.  She
     helped me and told me where to go and it was the Children's Aid
     Society, to go there and tell them I'm Catholic and they'll put me in a
     place and I'll get help.  I did and they took care of me until I had
     the baby.  My mother was still cruel even then, she came to the
     hospital, she was pregnant herself with her 10th child, and screamed
     and yelled at me and called me a little witch.  The hardest thing I
     ever did was to sign the papers to give the baby up for adoption; but
     if I loved the child I had to die to myself, to give him up.  I didn't
     want him to go through what I'd gone through.  I wanted to keep him
     because I wanted something to love because I'd never known love, but I
     didn't want to be selfish, I didn't want to hate him later, which I was
     told was a possibility.  Every time my mother looked at me she
     remembered what had happened to her.  The nun who helped me was so
     loving and accepting, I knew she was holy, just to be near her I felt
     special.  I guess it was the only time I got any kind of attention.
     They took me out of this Sister's group and moved me to another, they
     had different nuns in charge of each group, and I felt like I didn't
     want to live.  I cried, I couldn't eat, I can hardly talk about it
     without crying now.  I felt nobody can love me, I was so unlovable that
     they took me away and I couldn't figure it out.  I was so confused, but
     then I said I will do anything, I will become a nun, anything that I
     can be near her, anything so that she would like me.  So I joined up there.

  Kathleen told me that there were two “levels” of nuns in the order she joined.  One was for girls such as herself and was called “The Magdalene's”.

  A story of similar intensity to Kathleen's was Ursula's. The agonies suffered by these women at the hands of those who should have loved and protected them was very difficult for me to listen to.  That they should be as emotionally strong and able to share their stories with me in such a trusting open fashion filled me with an even deeper respect. Ursula was French.  Some of the transcription may appear to be incorrect English. However, I have attempted to keep her own words as closely as possible for authenticity.  At the time of the interview she was 75 years old.  Before we began the interview she prayed before a small altar in her home, to be as honest and helpful to my study as she could be.  The story of her childhood follows:

      I came from a broken dysfunctional childhood.  There were four of us children,
     two brothers and a younger sister.  There were daily wars of religion in our home
     because my father was a Protestant and my mother a Catholic.  My father never
     forgave my mother for having changed her mind to bring up the children Protestant.
     She tore up the piece of paper when she had the first child, and she
     was in such agony the first son died after a few months.  The second child died at
     birth then came me, then my sister and then twin boys.  My mother was extremely
     religious but despotic, and I believe that my mother was either sexually abused in
     her childhood or was a true victim of a very narrow and despotic up bringing in an
     orphanage with nuns, medieval type nuns, this was some hundred years ago.

  Sadly this kind of treatment was not just a historical speculation.  In my own story I spoke of the life my mother must have experienced in her orphanage in early 20th Century Ireland.  The evidence of such severe monastic practices was the subject of a recent documentary in Southern Ireland called “Dear Daughter” (Lownstein, 1996).  The film was based on the true story of a young girl growing up in an orphanage in Dublin in the 1950’s.  It details the atrocities she and other girls faced at the hands of Sister Xavieria and her “regime of nuns” the Sisters of Mercy.  Some of the abuses that the Sisters inflicted on the children included ritual beating with chair legs and rosary beads.  These revelations have caused the reopening of a 40 year old case involving the death of an 11 month baby.  The result of this documentary was the subject of an article in the National Catholic Reporter (1996).  This reported an apology for the alleged abuses from the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, and the establishment of a hot-line to provide support for former orphans who still may be traumatized by their experience.  “By mid March, the help line was said to have received calls from more than 600 people.”  Sister Xavieria alternatively named “Sister Severia” was accused of beating children so severely that they needed medical attention.  She allegedly threw boiling water over another child.  The subjects in this documentary talk of mental illness and stories of profound cruelty defying reason.  Forty years later these Irish women re-lived the horror of their lives with the Sisters.

  In contrast the respondents in my study virtually all speak of their dealings with nuns in glowing terms.  Thankfully, none have experienced any of the atrocities experienced by the former generation of children who grew up to perpetrate such damage on their own children.

  Ursula continued her story with further reflections from her childhood and information about her mother

     My mother never talked about it, [her experiences in the convent]
     but she was a very bitter woman, her solace was strict religion.  This
     was quite a bad atmosphere.  Sex; we did not speak of sex.  Priests,
     nuns, nobody dared say the word sex.  This was the period of my
     upbringing.  Now I'm 75, when I was 60 I went through a biofeedback
     process and just to tell you how traumatized I was about sexuality, the
     counselor who was doing the biofeedback named a few words and suddenly
     she said sex.  The machine jumped including myself, and so I became
     aware of how painful sexuality was in my life, how twisted, what
     twisted thinking and feeling I had about it.  Even at 60 years old I
     still believed that intercourse is dirty and even as I speak now I can
     still feel something dirty about intercourse.

     I shall go back to my childhood.  I was raised in a very strict
     milieu, on top of this my mother abused me emotionally. Because she was
     very unhappy, and I was very willing and out of nature very tender and
     affectionate, and I always mean well.  I may be very wrong sometimes
     but I always mean well. After the second sexual abuse, which my mother
     witnessed at 13, every day she called me dirt of a pig or dirt of an
     animal, every day until I was 20, practically every day. This created a
     tremendous fear in myself and a kind of self hatred, a disgust with
     myself.  When I was 30 I really thought that I stank, I couldn't see
     myself, I was ashamed of my hands, my feet, my nose, because I was
     constantly criticized by my mother. When I was 10 years old I was
     molested by my uncle, my mother's brother. I was not aware that it
     would mark me and my sexuality; I didn't know, I was too innocent.  He
     molested me for about three weeks, and because it was my mother's
     brother I couldn't say anything to her or to my father, I couldn't tell
     anyone; I was too ashamed.  I know I was so ashamed I wanted to die.
     At 13 a similar thing happened in the school with a priest, and the
     horrible thing that happened I really wanted to die then. When I was in
     his arms being submitted to this horrible happening, he was molesting
     me but I thought it was horrible, I wanted to die on the spot.  That
     man kept me prisoner there for hours and so my mother came to the
     school and found me there.  My mother had already had no affection for
     me; I was always the black sheep.  When she saw this she practically
     broke the door, tore me away from the man, screamed at him and going
     home screaming, pulling me by the hand and kept telling me I was a pig,
     I was the worst pig in the world and I should be ashamed of myself.
     Then she imprisoned me in the kitchen, she told me I had to go to
     confession and that I was going to hell and all that I knew was I
     wanted to die.  My mother called me daily, dirt of a pig, or dirt of a
     beast.  I suffered so much that by the time I was twenty when she said
     it to me one more time I screamed, and 55 years later I still can feel
     in my whole being the scream which started from the bottom of my inner,
     inner self, it welled up and I screamed. Probably the whole
     neighborhood must have heard. I said to her, that's it, I cannot kneel
     before you and beg forgiveness every day, I had been doing it for five
     or six years.

  This background plus being brought up in a private Catholic school Ursula claims was the reason for her always connecting sexuality with fear and guilt.  “Sex, you just wouldn't speak of sex and to my mother of course it was absolutely taboo.”  Ursula responded to one of the questions regarding Catholic education affecting your sexuality negatively or positively, she said

     I should circle this one with red blood.  Ah boy! And so many are still twisted
     because of that stinky education, I still feel the anger!  When I got my period I was 13.
     I was petrified of my mother, I was even afraid to ask my mother anything.
     So I was bleeding, I didn't know where the blood was coming from, I
     had no idea of my anatomy.  I told my mother that I was bleeding, once more she
     found a good occasion to beat me and scream at me to lock me in my room and
     say “you hypocrite, you know damn well what this is,” I'd known nothing.  At
     13 I believed this was another mark on me, instead of my mother explaining
     to me what was happening she beat me and I was sobbing like a fool, this was also
     after the second incident, the second molestation.  She locked me in my bedroom
     with the shutters locked, I hated that room.  It marked me so much that every time
     I had my period, (I stopped having them when I was 52), every time I went
     through a crisis of despair.  I was ashamed anyway; my mother had a regimen of
     fear and of shame.

  I asked Ursula why her father had not interceded for her against her mother's abuses, she avoided telling me why she thought he did not defend her in her young years and instead answered

     I had a very tender affection for my father, and when I was 15 or
     16 I didn't pass the official exam in France and my father rejected me
     and put me in the same boat as my sister who spent her whole time
     flirting and got pregnant at 15.  My mother had always hated me, now my
     father rejected me.  I wanted to go to the monastery at 20, but my
     father said for a Protestant this was not normal, so he made me go to
     the city.  I know he meant me to meet a man and get married.  He told
     me if I still wanted to go to the monastery after one year then I
     could.  After one year he denied saying that and would not give me a
     dowry, also the war was on and the Carmelite monastery I wanted to join
     had its Mother House in Italy and we couldn't cross the border, so I
     gave up the thought of it for many years.

  Ursula said her experience of God throughout her life was “like a rope leading up to the hands of Jesus.”  She was “always loved and lovable to God.”  However when at the age of 26 she had her first sexual relationship with a woman she felt she had lost God's love that she was truly “dirt of a pig,” as her mother had accused her.  All through her life she has never stopped attending mass and the Sacraments.

  Ione's was also an Irish Catholic family, with several very specific differences.

     It's kind of weird, because the only way religion came into our
     home was that we had to go to Catholic schools.  My Mom tried to get us
     to go to Mass on Sundays but my parents didn't participate.  I'm the
     most religious of the bunch, I'm the only one still connected to the
     Church.  I was sexually abused by my father.  My Dad is mentally ill,
     he's now institutionalized.  As a child I was pretty close to my Dad
     which was opposed to my mother.  I never felt very close to my mother,
     so I was very close to my Dad and then when I was about in third grade
     he started shutting down emotionally.  He was pretty much unavailable
     because of his depression and his diagnosis of schizophrenia.  When I
     was in the convent he would call me up and make inappropriate comments
     to me so I had to stop them and I haven't seen him in eight years.  My
     mother was an alcoholic when I was growing up, those years were very
     chaotic.  I think the abuse started pretty early and stopped when I was
     about ten.  I don't really know when it started but it went on a long
     time, it was just sealed off.  My mother even asked me once when I was
     in college if my father had ever touched me inappropriately and I said
     “no.”  She had noticed that my father and I had a very close
     relationship, that my father spent a lot of time with me.  Because of
     the abuse my sexual life was pretty shut down, the memories were really
     repressed and I didn't remember about it until about two months in the
     convent.  I was on retreat and the memories started to come up when I was
     praying.  After the retreat I just slammed the door but about six
     months later they started to come up again and it was awful, I thought
     I was losing my mind, I had two years of intensive therapy.  I had a
     teacher who was a nun in the eighth grade, she became very much the
     parental figure for me all the way through college.  I started to
     admire the Sisters and found them strong women and having a strong
     sense of self, doing more than housework that was the experience of the
     women in my neighborhood.  I think my interest in God and the spiritual
     life probably started in the sixth or seventh grade.  I found going to
     Mass really comforting because my home life certainly wasn't.  I would
     help this Sister with class work and stuff and through her, I met other
     nuns.  I don't think I was in love with her or anything; it was more an
     emotional attachment on a motherly basis.  I would go to her with my
     problems and she would take the time to help me with them.  An interest
     in the spiritual life developed as I went through high school, also
     because it was a community of women I think unconsciously I was
     attracted to having relationships with women.  Therapists have asked
     me.  I think it's complex.  Maybe I went into the convent because of a
     fear of sex, I think it was also because it was a women's environment.
     They were different from any women I'd ever met and then also the
     interest in the spiritual life also attracted me.  Some of the most
     amazing women I've ever met I met in the convent.  Women of vision
     working for justice, who will go into Africa, into El Salvador, or
     Peru, with all the violence.  The most courageous females I've ever met
     were nuns.  I think if my only reason for going in was sexual I
     wouldn't continue a relationship with them now.  I continue to be
     interested in the spiritual life.  I'm a very liberal Catholic, but I
     would say my interest in the spiritual life continues.

  I met Ann at a political meeting of sex workers in a large city. When I mentioned my study subject she very kindly offered to participate.  Her story was particularly different from all of the others because of the conflicts and contrasts in her life.  Her “innocent” opening gambit belies the staggering amount of trauma that befell her in her young life, she said,

     I was just your basic little Catholic girl, Irish Catholic. We all
     went to the little neighborhood Catholic school.  I was quite religious
     when I was a kid.  Part of it was because being religious was
     associated with school and I loved school. Everything was religion.  I
     didn't go to Church until I went to grade school.  My mother was
     religious and always went to Church.  She was more pious than devoted.
     My father was not religious at all.  They both grew up in the same
     neighborhood.  My father's families weren't very Catholic whereas my
     mother's family were very devoted.  My grandparents had eight children,
     four of the girls became nuns and one of the boys was a priest.  I was
     the only one in my family to go to the convent.  I grew up in a very
     abusive home, probably why I loved school so much was because it got me
     out of there.  There was emotional, physical and sexual abuse the whole
     thing.  Emotional and physical by my mother, everything by my father.
     She was probably more emotionally abusive than he was.  It was so bad
     apparently our parish priest had told my mother she should get a
     divorce.  Now in ‘53 a Catholic priest did not say things like that.
     They stayed together and ended up having seven children.  I was the
     oldest girl and to my knowledge the only one my father abused.  My
     mother had to know about it, but to this day she doesn't admit anything
     could have happened.  The abuse started when I was very young and it
     lasted until--well I got pregnant when I was 15 and she arranged the
     abortion, but she will deny it.  The two of them would beat me up so
     often I have permanent hearing loss. She also denies that I have
     hearing aids.  As he got more violent with my mother she became more
     violent with me because I think her whole thing was to blame me, so of
     course I'm the target, I'm sleeping with her husband.  You know it was
     a really sick view.  Even as an old lady when I confronted her recently
     and told her what happened, she absolutely denied it could have
     happened.  Because, she said, she didn't leave us alone with him long
     enough for it to happen; not that he was incapable of doing such a
     thing, only that she didn't leave us alone long enough for it to
     happen.  What kind of response is that from a mother?  The only time my
     mother even semi approved of me was when I went to the convent.  I
     remember one time he was so drunk and really violent I took all the
     other kids upstairs to my grandparents and called the cops.  All the
     cops did was take him to the firehouse where he worked to sober up.  In
     a way it was good, if they'd taken him to the jail he could have lost
     his job.  That was the time I was pregnant [by the father]. That was a
     strange year.  At that time there were very few child protection laws.
     They may have done something about the incest, but the abuse, there
     weren't that many laws against that.  I remember Mom talking about
     getting a divorce and preparing us older kids to go to court.  It was
     all around, him hitting her, hitting her was grounds for divorce,
     hitting us wasn't grounds for anything. We were his children he was
     allowed to discipline us.  She ended up not divorcing and taking him
     back.  That was the most dangerous part of my mother, she knew the man
     was a maniac but you know, he'd be in an okay mood, so it was okay if
     he was disciplining us, because he'd be okay with her that day.  We had
     a very weird childhood.  I told one of the nuns at school that my
     father was touching me, she called my mother and my mother told her I
     was crazy.  They wanted me to see a therapist because I was so
     unhappy.  It was right after the abortion, even after that my mother
     ignored it.  After the abortion-- now consciously if you'd asked me I
     wouldn't have said I'd had an abortion, I didn't know the word, my
     mother was allowing my father to come back into the house. He'd been
     gone for five or six months and I was outraged at her for letting him
     back.  So I really thought if I could be a prostitute and make a lot of
     money I could take my sisters and get out of here, at least the little
     ones, because I didn't want to leave them.  So I started hooking at
     night.  I'd go out and do a baby sitting job at night and then turn a
     few tricks and then go home.  I did it for six to eight months and then
     got busted.  The cop who arrested me took me down to jail and I wouldn't
     tell them my name and kept insisting that I was 18, now I looked
     like a little boy, in fact I sometimes dressed up like a little boy and
     do gay men.  After he caught me I had to sit in the jail all night
     because I wouldn't identify myself.  They brought in cops from the
     district and one of them knew me.  He was supposed to take me to the
     juvenile facility and on the way he pulled over.  I, of course, thought
     he wanted a blow job, but he said “I know your family and you shouldn't
     be doing this.”  He took me home and let me go.  I stopped doing it
     after that, I was too afraid of being caught again.  If they caught me
     again they wouldn't be so lenient with me; also if my parents had got a
     call from the cops saying I was a prostitute they would have seriously,
     seriously injured me between the two of them.

  I wondered what had given Ann the idea of being a nun? She said

     Senior year in high school we had to go on retreat and this was
     very down to earth.  I got to talk to the priests about what I really
     thought and they were cool with it.  I thought, I'm having my religious
     experience and I thought I'm not an atheist anymore, I decided to be a
     nun later.  By that time I'd already been a prostitute, and given it up.

  I asked Ann, how did she make the transition between being a prostitute to being a nun? Did she understand the vow of chastity that she would be expected to follow? She responded,

     Yes, oh yes.  It was just sort of right it made sense to me.  It
     allows you to be less encumbered, therefore you could do more work for
     society if you're not tied down to one person and have all the
     emotional investment.  Part of it was that I was so attracted to
     liberation theology and the radical work of the Church in those days,
     because a few years later I went back to hooking.  Part of it was that
     I always thought people were so hypocritical about sex.  It didn't make
     sense to me.  I wasn't sexual when I was in the convent except for
     auto-sexuality.  It didn't seem important one way or another.  I went
     to a Catholic high school and was about to graduate in 1968 and decided
     to be a nun.  My real thing was that I was a real little radical and I
     thought I could make the revolution through the Church.  Some of the
     nuns were in the forefront of change.  It was the order of nuns who
     were quite politically radical, they tended to end up radicalizing a
     lot of their young nuns because that's who they sent down to their
     missions in Latin America.  It was a weird time to get involved in the
     convent because so many people were leaving.

  Margaret's story was different from most of the others in that she was the victim of incest. The perpetrators in this case were her older brothers and friends of theirs.  She said,

     We had six kids in our family, the first four were only two years
     apart and then the last two were five years and five years so the last
     two weren't as close a part of the family as the first four.  We were a
     middle class family, my Dad had a good job, my Mom stayed home but she
     was sick a lot, which is probably why the incest thing was allowed to
     go on.  That was with my two older brothers.  My oldest brother was
     eight years older than me, and then my next brother was only two years
     older than me.  The older brother had a lot of power in that family
     because my Dad was gone to work and if my Mom didn't feel well it was
     “listen to your brother and do what he says.”  I never really figured
     why this started with him except it may have been the kid down the street
     who was a few years older than him who wanted to do this, and I was
     a good target.  I was about four. Some therapists say they think I was
     younger than that, but I think it was around that time. So he started
     that and he showed my younger brother and he showed his friend up the
     street who told another friend so at one time there could have been
     five different guys who wanted to do this at any one time, until I was
     about 12. This was intercourse, oral sex whatever they wanted, the whole
     thing. My older brother was mostly into intercourse, the boy around the
     corner liked oral sex a lot, but he also liked intercourse.  Sex was
     wrong, it was dirty, we just didn't talk about sex. I think I was
     around seven before my older brother said “well don't you know that's
     where kids come from, that they [the parents] did that.”  I was angry
     that he should say my parents did that, that they would do something
     bad, because to me it was just bad.  So I never felt good about it.
     You know at school when the other kids would talk about it, I would
     just pretend I didn't know anything.  I thought if I said anything
     they'd know I know too much.  We moved house when I was 10 years old so
     that cut out all of those kids but my brothers still wanted to do it.
     Then my older brother moved on but my younger brother and I still
     continued.  I'm not sure it wasn't because we were just so used to it,
     it didn't seem that awful any more.  Then we just seem to grow out of
     it.  With my older brother it never felt like it ended, like if he came
     back at any time, even though I'd say no, it felt like I should still
     do it and he'd want it.  I remember when I was 15 or 16 years old
     saying out loud, “I am never going to let any guy, ever, do that to me
     again, it's never going to happen again.”  I mean I just hated it, the
     whole idea of it was just disgusting.  I liked boys, I wanted to be
     around them, we had a great time in high school, but I would never date
     anybody unless there were at least 10 of us, we were just having fun.
     I went to a convent High school and met my algebra teacher who was this
     wonderful person who made it all look like a wonderful place to be.  So
     I went with the idea that now I could be a good person; plus I think at
     the back of my mind I went with the feeling, I don't even want to deal
     with the sexual thing.  I can get away from it I don't have to think
     about it.

  As I continue Margaret's story in subsequent chapters, the childhood trauma she suffered will be re-visited.

  Josephine was from a prominent family in their Catholic diocese.  She at first portrayed them to be a perfect family.  Later she told me how unhappy she was due to the frequent moves her family made because of her father's job.  She felt emotionally isolated because she saw her parents as lacking in affection toward her, and due to the loneliness of her life she ate to compensate and thus developed a bad body image.  It was almost at the conclusion of my interview with Josephine that she quietly said to me

     This seems quite important to me.  When I was four or five, my
     mother's father molested me.  There were two or three incidences of
     fondling, making me touch him.  I worked on it at various times, but I
     don't think it's had an enormous impact on my life.  I told my mother.
     She stopped it.  I always knew.  I never repressed it. I rarely said
     anything but if anyone ever asked I could remember.

  This experience was to impact her life in the future when she had a meeting with a priest whom she described as extremely sexist, having worked with him for five years.  She was about to leave the parish to attend graduate school but was called to this man's office.  He was “a divide and conquer type of boss” whom she claims

     Evoked the penises, right up to the Pope.  He said, “I'm
     responsible to the Archbishop and the Archbishop's responsible to the
     Cardinal and the Cardinal's responsible to the Pope.”  I had this image
     of all these penises wearing their various hats, up to the Pope with
     his miter.

  Basically Josephine with her feminist issues did not fit into this man's ideal view of what a nun should be thinking and let her know it.  The effect of this story on Josephine was that she was very upset by the priest's pressure upon her and the day after began to have flashbacks of the molestation by her grandfather.  These lasted for three days. She had never had flashbacks of this in the preceding years.

     I couldn't figure it out why I was having these flashbacks and
     then I finally put it together, that this had been experienced as a
     sexual assault.  It was evoking a prior sexual assault, it was clear
     then that this was like a rape.  That my beliefs about women and the
     sexism in the Church was so challenged by the way he did this that I
     felt it like that and it triggered a similar experience.

  Chibnall et al. (1997) estimate 9% of religious women report sexual harassment in the work place, mostly by priests.

  The concluding story in this chapter was in many ways a most inspiring one.  It was narrated by a courageous woman named Marian who spoke to me in the terminal stage of leukemia.  Her story was all the more profound for being told in the final chapter of her life

     I grew up in a family that's nominally Catholic, of a Catholic
     culture.  I'm first generation Italian and Portuguese.  I had a
     grandmother who was very Catholic, but my parents were Christmas,
     Easter church goers.  My father was a night club owner and my mother
     was really more his mistress than his wife.  There was 21 years
     difference in their age.  He had had an unsuccessful marriage because a
     child had died of syphilis, and my father, being a traditional Italian
     man, believed the problem was his and it was not.  So before my father
     was willing to marry again, it was important for him to know that the
     woman would bear him children; so my mother was pregnant before they
     married and I think they had a marriage of convenience.  She was from a
     poor family, very bright but poor and he was a moneyed man, with, I
     found out after he died, some Mafia connections.  I was 14 when he
     died.  I grew up in that milieu.  The home I grew up in was purchased
     when I was ten.  It had a fully stocked bar, it was like a nightclub
     with a lot of exit doors.  They had a lot of gambling there, as is not
     untypical of this kind of a family.  Part of why I paint this picture
     is, I had an older sister, 16 months older than myself and my mother
     really didn't like children. She just wanted this ticket into being
     with this man, so we, as really small children, maybe three or four
     years old, spent a lot of time in nightclubs, a real inappropriate way
     to raise children.  Naturally there was a lot of drinking going on.
     When I look back, it was almost like we were little prostitutes in that
     men gave us a lot of money and there was inappropriate behavior.  When
     I look back I remember one particular overt experience when a man was
     actually molesting my sister and I came in to kind of save her.  I also
     remember a sexual experience of my own when I was quite young.  My
     mother would have us go to the show [at the nightclub] on Saturdays
     unchaperoned.  I was sitting next to a man, then again I was young,
     maybe sixish; he exposed himself and ejaculated and put it all over me,
     over my hands and that sort of thing.  It just wasn't a healthy
     environment. There was a large party where my father, I believe, rented
     a resort.  We were the only kids. There was a band and lots of drinking
     and partying and dancing.  I remember the dress my mother had bought
     me, which had eyelets, it was just a see through top and a non see-
     through bottom. I was very developed at 12.  One of our friends brought
     this man as a date.  He was very old to me at that time, and I danced
     with him all night.  I felt like kids do somewhat, that I was coming on
     to him, but he had a hard on most of the night when we were dancing.
     My sister and I were in a room together downstairs and didn't know
     where the adults were. This man came in at night and said if I didn't
     come with him he would hurt my sister, and the hurt I got was a real
     physical kind of hurting her.  So I left with him.  There was this
     beautiful beach and he rapes me in the garbage part where the garbage
     cans are.  I blanked a lot of that for a long time but there is one
     sexual position I've not been really prone to and that is the puppy dog
     position.  I realize that's part of what happened there. When I started
     uncovering it and when people would share with me any kind of sexual
     trauma or even profound physical trauma, I started hurting in the back
     of my legs. That memory would block out and come and go depending on
     where I was.  I don't know quite how much went on sexually as I grew
     up, but way too much.  That is a backdrop to my growing up. I am
     conscious of twice saving my sister at my own expense. When I was 13, I
     had my first consensual sexual experience.  I was fairly wild, hanging
     around with motorcycle guys and that sort of thing.  We had a situation
     where there was an adult movie on TV.  Now we're talking about 1950-51,
     so I don't know what an adult movie would have meant in that period.
     Three couples were there and my sister was allowed to watch it because
     she was 16 months older than I.  That left me as a fully developed
     young girl with a 14 year old and a 15 year old boy in a huge house to
     hide in, left to our own designs.  We could out do any adult movie, it
     was my first sexual experience and it ends up being a menage-a-trois.
     It involved everything except genital intercourse, I mean finger
     fucking the whole bit.  At some point my father came back and found us,
     I know I came out of the room and I have a scar here [pointing to her
     face] where he actually hit me and his ring caught my face.  We had
     done the horrible thing.  So then news spread, you can get what you
     want from Marian, so that was very difficult.  I was also very sexual,
     very aware of my sexuality.  I'll tell you one thing that was very
     sexual, being raised Catholic we get all those stories about the martyrs
     and whipping and all that.  There was a little place in our house that
     we would climb up to that nobody would ever find us.  My father had a
     whip and we wouldn't actually hurt each other but we would do all sorts
     of S-M kind of things and really enjoy it and getting all the
     permission psychologically from saying “well we're just playing
     saints.”  That was a little wild.  So by 13 I was pretty well fully
     sexual; luckily I never got pregnant.  I had a traumatic experience
     with my father's death; this plays in heavily.  I really loved my Dad,
     we were really good buddies and he was incredibly generous, he was
     primarily a man of the earth.  In many ways I was his son and we would
     cut trees and go fishing, and I knew he really loved me.  He didn't
     like my mother or my sister, we'll leave love out of it, he didn't like
     them as people, and I picked that up, their values were so different.
     My mother was quite a hypochondriac, but at 14 I couldn't differentiate
     between what was real and what was not.  She had had a surgery that she
     led me to believe was very serious; later I learned it wasn't serious
     at all.  My mother and father fought horrendously, and she told me that
     if he wasn't good to her that she'd have to go away and be in a
     sanitarium.  So I'm facing the abandonment of my mother and so at that
     time I decided I wouldn't show anger.  I did all this repression as a
     child, around family, always. My Dad had just built a summer home.  It
     was a way for him to get away.  So this was our first time up there.
     He brought my mother a tray at breakfast and they fought which was not
     untypical.  He came out of their room--I have this vision really
     clearly of him, wearing a white T-shirt and dark pants, and here is the
     person who is so significant to me--and I said, “I wish you were the
     one that was dying.”  And the next day he had a heart attack and I
     watched it and he died in two weeks.  I know for a long time I believed
     I was guilty of causing it.  But I think what I did believe was that if
     I loved someone, most particularly a man, I could kill them if I got
     angry.  Before my Dad died he made my Mom promise to send us to
     Catholic school for the education, and I was pissed because all my gang
     was certainly not going to Catholic school.  I had no way out of it.  I
     remember in my freshman year I ran for student president as a lark and
     I won it.  I turned my life around.  I went out a lot. Five boys asked
     me to marry them my senior year.  I knew that wasn't the route to go
     and I still had that lingering feeling of if I get too close I'm going
     to kill them.  That was more of a pervasive thing and probably why I
     went out with so many guys. The choice of going in the convent was a
     really good one, in the whole spectrum of things, very wise.  I was 18
     when I entered and I stayed in for 13 years.  I needed to get out of
     the house.  I think my mother was very jealous of me which was an
     interesting phenomenon because I was always heavy which just drove her
     crazy.  Her belief was that I couldn't be successful or happy and be
     heavy.  I ended up the most successful in terms of personal
     satisfaction than anyone in my family.  But she said if I ran for and
     got student body president she wouldn't pay for me to go to college,
     and there's tons of money.  I spent a lot of my life saying I'll show
     you, so I ran and won, and she refused to pay for me to go. I didn't
     have the humility to say I have no money and apply for scholarships, so
     I know part of my reason for going to the convent was to get the

  Ritter and O’Neill  (1996) in their book Righteous Religion. Unmasking the Illusions of Fundamentalism and Authoritarian Catholicism, refer to family of origin of  clergy.  However, I feel for many of the women in this study a similarity will be immediately apparent.  Ritter and O’Neill write,

     Individuals who are drawn toward ministry in righteous
     authoritarian religions are most often those who are compensating for
     low self-esteem.  As mentioned previously, many were reared in homes
     where they felt uncertain about their worth and lovability.  Thus such
     individuals gravitated toward the clerical state wherein they could
     enjoy the prestige and importance that automatically come with the role
     of minister or priest, [or in this case the role of the nun].

  In conclusion, the themes emerging from the narratives up to this point are, silence, fear, guilt and shame around sexual issues.  A variety of parental sexual and physical abuses, perceived emotional neglect, particularly by the mother, accompanied by the need for the women to “gloss over” these areas in some cases.  Alcoholism, where present, was usually apparent in the father but occasionally in both parents.

Continue to Chapter 5

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