The Red Skirt: Memoirs of an ex nun by Patricia O’Donnell-Gibson

Patrica O’Donnell-Gibson

Well I’ve gone for a total opposite this week. From the guy who began writing in prison, to the kid who decided to be a nun, and then made a fascinating journey out of the convent and into herself. I have to add that Facebook writers’ groups are marvellous for finding new things to read, especially since you know in advance that if the writer interests you, getting in touch will be easy.

I was immediately drawn to Pat’s book, since it promised to open up a closed world to me which I would like to be able to understand. I should maybe begin with my own religious leanings, which these days are zero. I grew up in a secular Jewish household and flirted briefly with evangelical Christianity in my teens. But it wasn’t hard to leave, when I realised that the things I was being expected to believe, share and do made no sense to me. So I have zero comprehension of what life must be like for a girl, brought up in a Catholic home, who at the age of 9 thought God might be calling her and worried about it until the age of 17 when she decided He probably was…and who became a nun because it was the ‘only way out’ of the fear that she might be letting Him down if she didn’t.

Beautifully written, this memoir takes us through every nuance of the gradual change from lively youngster, through the stages of being a postulant and a novitiate, eventually ‘taking the veil’. Pat’s prose is relatively dispassionate, and yet I felt with her every loss, every moment of confusion and doubt and every tiny joy. The biggest surprise the book held for me was how long it took for her to come to the conclusion that she needed to leave. This irrepressible personality was challenged on every page to be better, do more, suffer more, repress more, and her moments of soul searching really made me realise the effects of her early life on her thinking patterns. I wanted her to decide to leave at every turn of the page and got a little annoyed with her when she didn’t. I wished she were there in the room with me to hug, reassure and scold a little, “You’re a good person and this is outrageous!” And yet, her tales of friendship and support kept me there with her, understanding just how much she wanted to be all the right things. When she finally made the decision to leave, after surviving the early years, becoming a teacher and actually being all the right things (as far as I could see) I yelled at the book again, “What took you so long?” That’s when you know you’re engaged.

And now I know just how much I really don’t understand. Although maybe less than before. I was left with so many questions for Pat that I had to interview her for the blog next week, stand by for a fascinating podcast.

I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the human psyche and how long it can take us to ‘outgrow’ our early conditioning. It’s not just a window on the closed world of convent life, it’s the laying bare of a soul trying to feel right with the world. I would love to read a sequel and I’ll be asking Pat if that’s likely.

The purchase link is up on the right sidebar if you’d like to read it before next week!

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