Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Title:  The Spiral Staircase:  My Climb Out of Darkness
Author:  Karen Armstrong
Publication Information:  Anchor Books. 2005. 305 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book arrived as a paperback edition.

Favorite Quote:  "We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter."

Karen Armstrong grew up Catholic and joined a convent at age 17 in 1962. She spent 7 years training to be a nun and then made the difficult decision to leave the convent in 1969. The ensuing years brought trials and a whole a new life, ultimately leading to her world-renowned work as a comparative theologian.

This memoir is the story of her decision to leave the convent and what came after. It includes reflections on what brought her to become a nun, her life at the convent, what caused her to leave, her adjustment to life outside the convent, and her long struggle with an unidentified illness (ultimately diagnosed as epilepsy).

The title, The Spiral Staircase, is a reference to a T. S. Eliot sequence of poems that speaks about the journey of spiritual recovery. It speaks about one who has lacked faith but who find his or her way towards God. The spiral is the lack of a clear path, the seeming repetition of choices and mistakes, the seeming lack of movement at times, but at the end of it all, a progress upwards. Karen Armstrong uses the poem and the image of the spiral staircase as symbols of her own journey.

What comes through clearly in the book are many of the negative aspects of convent life that caused Karen Armstrong to leave the convent life and also the turmoil that the decision entailed. The "outside" world was not what she expected. The life she found was not the one she expected. Positive and negative emotions intermingle throughout the book. The confusion and the questions come through ranging from the spiritual ones to the physical ones of her illness.  The struggles sometimes lend the book a sad and negative tone. The reader is ultimately left with the idea that each person must travel his or her own individual path. There are no easy answers.

Prior to reading this book, I did not realize that this is the third memoir that Karen Armstrong has written. The first, Through the Narrow Gate, describes her years in the convent and was originally published in 1982 about twelve years after she left the convent. The second, Beginning the World, talks about her transition out of the convent and was originally published in 1983. According to the author herself, "It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print." This book, The Spiral Staircase was originally published in 2004 and is essentially another look at the the same time period covered in Beginning the World. A do-over, if you will.

In the preface to this book, Karen Armstrong explains why she felt the book Beginning the World needed re-writing. "It was not a truthful account. This was not because the events I recounted did not happen, but because the book did not tell the whole story ... It was an exercise in wish fulfillment, and predictably, the result was quite awful."

I completely understand that our view of the world and our own past changes with time, age, maturity and distance. However, the statement in the introduction to a memoir raises for a question of credibility. If  the books reflect a different outlook at a different point in time, what gives one greater credibility over the other. What makes one "awful" and the other more reflective of the truth other than a change in perspective?

I have enormous respect for Karen Armstrong's knowledge and her work in promoting a world of mutual understanding and respect between different faiths. That is the main reason I wanted to read the memoir. That respect remains unchanged after reading this book, but the inspiration I was hoping to find in her personal story was not there for me.

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