One of the more endearing details we learn about Susan Bassler Pickford is that she really liked Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On." She would have been about 15 years old when the song with the monster boogie beat was released. Against the backdrop of a United States during the Cold War as it faces domestic political assassinations, the Vietnam War, space missions, race riots, civil rights movements, the rise of feminism, sexual liberty, rock and roll and Vatican II, REMOVING THE HABIT OF GOD by Susan Bassler Pickford offers a candid personal narrative of how she decided to enter the Ursulines Convent at the age of 17, where she would be re-christened as Sister Christine and given the number 55 as her identification number. For nine years she would move through the ranks, renew her vows, and follow through on her apostolic mission to teach. All that changed when she renounced her vows and left the convent. This well-crafted memoir unfolds through a generous mix of letters, personal reflections and photographs that trace the author's life from childhood through her years in the convent.
While there was a lot praying and chanting in the convent, the author also depicts disturbing details about discipline. Imagine lying face down on the floor before an assembly and publicly accusing yourself for reading the snippet of newspaper used to line the garbage pail. But this is not a narrative about survival. Rather, this is a coming of age story about a woman's search to strike the balance between her religious fervor and her desire to be part of the world. It is a search for her humanity and her dignity as a woman.
In 1959, when the author entered the convent , Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" and Elvis Presley's "Hunk a Burning Love" were included among Billboard Magazine's top 100 pop tunes. Also in that same year Audrey Hepburn delivered an incandescent screen performance as a conflicted nun in THE NUN'S STORY directed by Fred Zinnemann. In the film Sister Luke is a beautiful and privileged young woman who enters the convent with a desire to practice tropical medicine in the Belgian Congo. She struggles to remain faithful to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the end it is her inability to submit completely and obey that causes her to leave the convent. There's a famous line in the film when the Mother Superior admonishes the young postulants eager to take up the religious life. She says: "You can cheat your sisters, but you cannot cheat God or yourself." The same line is repeated years later by Sister Luke when she explains to the Reverend Mother why she cannot reconsider her decision to leave her religious community. The author saw this film prior to entering the convent. One of her spiritual mentors, who was also a nun, confirmed for her that the details portrayed in the film about a nun's life were not exaggerated. But the author was undeterred and entered the convent anyway.
As easy as it might be to condemn the austerity of Sister's Christine's religious life, it was she, after all, who chose this particular life at a time when the Church itself was embracing change. There were other less rigid orders, but she chose one of the more "challenging" ones. "If I were going to sacrifice my life to God," she writes in her memoir, "then I would make the grand gesture." The memoir allows the reader to time travel and retrace the author's journey from grand gesture to self-knowledge.
The memoir ends at the moment Sister Christine leaves the convent in 1968. She stands in the subway in a regular dress. Her hair had grown long enough so that the good sisters were able to set it on rollers for her the night before her departure. It was their parting gift. The memoir does not discuss what becomes of the author's religious faith in the secular world. However, if there is any doubt about whether she made the right decision to both enter the convent and then to eventually leave, we need only look at the photograph included in the author's biography at the end of the book. In it Susan Bassler Pickford is pictured as she is today with a wonderful smile on her face, surrounded by her husband, her children and infant granddaughter. There is a look of serenity in her eyes, hinting at a life fully lived, that leaves the reader to conclude she found her way after all.
For a student of sociology or anyone who is curious about young women and the religious life in the United States, I highly recommend this narrative. It is well written, concise and provides good information as a primary source.