Wednesday 23 August 2017

In the name of the Father

Memoir: Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood, Allen Lane, hdbk, 321 pages, €20.99

Daddy's girl: Lockwood's father took advantage of the papal dispensation allowing Christian clerics with wives and children to convert to Catholicism
Daddy's girl: Lockwood's father took advantage of the papal dispensation allowing Christian clerics with wives and children to convert to Catholicism
Priestdaddy

Peter Stanford

A poet's sharp memoir of life as the daughter of a Catholic priest is both funny and freighted with insight.

The ranks of those who grew up as children of a clergy man are densely packed - from Dorothy L Sayers to Christopher Wren, Jane Austen to Theresa May, Carl Jung to Gordon Brown. But products of the Catholic church are inevitably thinner on the ground because of the rule of priestly celibacy. Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI is one; but in years to come, another name might spring to mind: that of the American poet Patricia Lockwood, whose memoir of growing up a priest's daughter in Kansas City gives a rare glimpse of life behind the presbytery doors.

Her father, Greg, became a priest after taking advantage of a special papal dispensation that, since the 1980s, has allowed ministers in other Christian churches to convert to Catholicism and keep their place on the altar, even if they are married and have children - in his case, five.

"Like all contrarians," she writes of his decision to change ships, "he felt a secret longing to live with rules and to love them. He wanted to sleep tucked into a rule book, where he would feel safe."

So, in his newly denominated home, he upholds to the letter the church's rules, even if he doesn't conform to them himself. But that is the least of Father Greg's eccentricities. There is his dislike of trousers, for example, which Patricia labels his "second religion". Save when saying Mass or visiting the sick, he is much happier in his underwear.

She pictures him in his pants fondling his collection of guns; or drinking cream liqueurs in secret ("his way of dealing with grief"); or playing his electric guitar, originally made for Paul McCartney and bought by Father Greg straight after telling Patricia that he couldn't afford to pay for her to go to university.

Lockwood has a sharp eye for detail and a way with words when conveying it. When her future husband challenges her to sum up Catholicism, she writes: "I'd been preparing my whole life for this question. First of all, blood. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he's also dead, and he's also immortal, but he's also made of clouds and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he also always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you're causing him so much suffering whenever you cuss."

As befits a poet called "The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas" by The New York Times, she has a memorable turn of phrase. One of my favourites was her description of an open-shirted comedian she encounters - "his chest hair looked like three otters engaging in a leisurely orgy while floating up the river of his torso".

But this memoir isn't just about making readers laugh. She also uses her privileged vantage point to get under the skin of contemporary Catholicism. Some of her most enlightening passages about life in a presbytery concern a trainee priest, sent to learn on the job amid Father Greg's unruly brood: "Like many seminarians, he was born at the age of 65, with a pipe in his mouth and a glass of port in his hand. He is tall but hunches slightly under the weight of tradition."

The young Patricia delights in teasing him. It was the only power she had, she explains, in the all-male world of the institutional church. "It was men who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, I would have to do it."

Of her father's more senior priest colleagues, she recalls: "I had learnt to recognise the ones who hated women from the way they treated my mother."

As the scandal of clerical abuse takes hold of the church, conversation over the family dinner table turns to local priests who have been removed from their parishes. As she watches and listens on the inside, Lockwood concludes that the church's strongest instinct is self-protection, to "close its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape".

It comes as no surprise, then, that when she leaves home, she also leaves the church, but this memoir is no angry farewell. Its writing was prompted by her decision, with her husband, to return to live under the presbytery roof to repair their ruined finances. Now that she has an adult perspective on it, she is able to appreciate some of what her father has been doing in what she calls his "life-and-death job, middle-of-the-night job, edge-of-the-cliff job".

She recalls how, after Mass, she would walk as a young girl through the presbytery and see her father with "shadowy figures with their backs turned to me. They were in need... Sunday after Sunday in our living room sat the unthinkable and spoke to my father." It took its toll. Afterwards, when he came back to his wife and children, "there was nothing left except a desire to be alone with himself, so he could regenerate the language he needed to speak universally".

When she told her father she was writing the book, he was outraged.

"I'll murder you," he said, only half in jest. She doesn't record his reaction to the finished text, but unflinching as it is, Lockwood has produced from her peculiar childhood something that is exceptional - exquisitely written, funny, disturbing and freighted with insight, lightly worn. Father Greg should be proud.

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