I intended to read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood for many years, but for some reason never got around to it. I had read and admired much of her fiction and criticism, but was hesitant to tackle the celebrated memoir, fearing, I suspect, that it would be yet another dreary indictment of pre–Vatican II Catholic obscurantism. But now that I have finally read it, I’m happy to report that it is no such thing, although the story of McCarthy’s childhood is harrowing for other reasons. She was in fact grateful for her Catholic upbringing, convent education, and especially for the aesthetic elements of Catholic ritual and belief.
McCarthy (1912–1989) was a literary star from the 1940s until the end of her life. Her bestselling 1963 novel, The Group—a roman à clef about her years at Vassar College and early writing career in New York City—was heralded for its sexual candor, as was McCarthy herself. Involved in many cultural and political controversies, she was often criticized for the transparently autobiographical content of her fiction. A political leftist, in her early years she was associated with the Trotskyist Partisan Review. Much of her subsequent work appeared in the New Yorker, as did most of the chapters in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Exactly how Catholic her girlhood was might be debated, since she writes of losing her faith as a precious, vain, and captious twelve-year-old. Her father, Roy McCarthy, was Catholic, while her mother, Therese (Tess) Preston, was the child of a Protestant-Jewish couple. Tess converted to Catholicism to marry the handsome, charming, and spendthrift McCarthy, a decision her elegant mother had serious reservations about. There was money on both sides of the family, and both sides were skeptical of the marriage. Mary’s paternal grandfather was heir to a grain fortune in Minneapolis, while Harold Preston, her maternal grandfather, was a prominent lawyer in Seattle, where the McCarthy children were all born.
Roy McCarthy was an unsteadily employed lawyer, but he mostly supported his family with a stipend from his father. When Roy’s unreliable way with money became a problem, he and his family were summoned to Minneapolis for an accounting of sorts. That was when tragedy struck. It was 1918 and the influenza pandemic that would kill 700,000 Americans and millions across the world was raging. Roy and Tess exhibited some symptoms of the illness before boarding the train in Seattle. Soon the entire family was sick. Mary, the oldest of four children, was six. She adored her parents, especially her whimsical, handsome father, “a romancer.” Both parents died shortly after arriving in Minneapolis. Orphaned, Mary and her three younger brothers had only the dimmest notion of what had happened or why. In some ways, things got worse from that point on, with Mary and her brother Kevin often fantasizing about running away from their McCarthy relatives and seeking refuge in an orphanage. Life with the grasping, unimaginative, and rigidly Irish Catholic McCarthys turned Mary and Kevin into rebellious and deceitful children. Routine beatings with a razor strop only deepened Mary’s stubborn and defiant nature. Those struggles also inculcated a life-long hatred of injustice and distrust of authority.
For reasons that seem inexplicable until the end of her memoir, Mary and her brothers were left in the care of the McCarthys. Her paternal grandmother’s sister and her husband became their guardians. Expenses were covered by her paternal grandfather, although it eventually became clear that much of the money meant for food, clothing, and childhood activities was embezzled. The house Mary and her siblings lived in was rundown, and because it was thought they had been spoiled by a profligate father, amusements were few and punishments constant. Discipline was the order of every day, especially if her guardians regarded behavior as “stuck up.” “Dickensian” is not too strong a word to describe the circumstances. Adhesive tape was stuck to their lips at night to prevent what her guardians considered to be the undisciplined habit of “mouth breathing.”
Luckily, Mary excelled at school. “Looking back, I see that it was religion that saved me,” she writes. “Our ugly church and parochial school provided me with my only aesthetic outlets, in the words of the Mass and the litanies and the old Latin hymns, in the Easter lilies around the altar, rosaries, ornamented prayer books, votive lamps, holy cards stamped in gold and decorated with flower wreaths and a saint’s picture. This side of Catholicism, much of it cheapened and debased by mass production, was for me, nevertheless, the equivalent of Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts and mystery plays. I threw myself into it with ardor, this sensuous life.” She also welcomed the intensely competitive nature of her parochial school education. “Everything was a contest,” she writes. “To win, to skip a grade, to get ahead—the nuns’ methods were well adapted to the place and time, for most of the little Catholics of our neighborhood were children of poor immigrants, bent on bettering themselves and also on surpassing the Protestants.” This competitive zeal would later mark her professional writing, especially her often acerbic criticism.
But there was another, more important aspect of her Catholic education that left a lasting mark on the future novelist. Counterintuitively for a writer who was known for her strict respect for facts and truth, this aspect had to do with Catholicism’s focus on the otherworldly. “Nothing is more boring to a child than the principle of utility,” she writes. “The final usefulness of my Catholic training was to teach me, together with much that proved to be practical, a conception of something prior to and beyond utility (‘Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spring’), an idea of sheer wastefulnesss that is always shocking to non-Catholics…. What I recall with gratitude, was the sense of mystery and wonder.”
The squalid conditions and abusive treatment in Minneapolis continued for four years, until a visit from Harold Preston led to an intervention. Mary was taken back to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents, while her brothers remained in Minneapolis, though they, too, were removed from their great aunt’s home. Respectful of his own daughter’s conversion, Harold Preston enrolled his granddaughter as a five-day border in a Convent of the Sacred Heart and made sure she attended Sunday Mass. The Ladies of the Sacred Heart were well educated, intellectually sophisticated, and often came from aristocratic families. The convents were strictly organized and run, with both high academic standards and demanding religious disciplines. The atmosphere was intense, but also thrilling—a “tumult of emotion,” McCarthy remembers fondly. Mary, whose first ambition was to become an actress, was enamored of the glamorous older girls, and determined to make a social impression. Her memories of these early adolescent years are especially vivid, and reminded me of how the novelist Antonia White writes about her Sacred Heart Convent experience in her masterpiece, Frost in May. As usual, McCarthy excelled in the classroom, but never received a ribbon for religious rectitude. Her quest to impress her classmates resulted in a dramatic pronouncement in her second year that she had lost her faith. “I was going to make myself recognized at whatever price,” she confesses. Her apostasy made her the object of great attention, even fascination, which was precisely her goal, especially when she remained in her pew during Communion. Summoned to a meeting with the convent’s Jesuit chaplain, she stuck to her doubts. The standard Catholic “proofs” of the existence of God fell short. “Why, Father,” she asked, “does everything have to have a cause? Why couldn’t the universe just be there, causing itself?” And that, apparently, was that. She became an atheist at twelve, and remained one the rest of her life.
After leaving the convent and spending a “boy crazy” year in public school, McCarthy was enrolled in an Episcopal boarding school. She did well academically and socially, and after a year at a drama school, enrolled at Vassar, where she would eventually learn she had no talent for the theater. The long last chapter of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is about her relationship with her maternal grandmother, Augusta Morganstern Preston, whose rigid daily routines, ritualistic shopping trips, long silences, and hours of isolation are described in meticulous detail. What is gradually and brilliantly revealed is how haunted Mary’s grandparents were by the death of her mother, their beautiful young daughter, and how emotionally paralyzed they were when it came to the fate of their grandchildren. It is a grief that is dramatically revived when one of Augusta’s sisters dies, and her shrieks of despair seem to express not only immediate loss but decades of longing for a beloved daughter. McCarthy suggests that at that moment the revelation of her grandmother’s despair helped her to understand, if not excuse, the neglect that she and her brothers had suffered and longed to make sense of.