I'm a big fan of memoirs and have read many of them. Mary Johnson's An Unquenchable Thirst is one of my favorites. I liked it even more than I'd expected to. In fact, I could hardly put it down. As a non-Catholic, I've always been fascinated by nuns and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to be one. After reading this book, I still don't understand why any woman would choose to be a nun.
It shocked me to learn that a girl as young as 19—Mary's age when she entered the convent as a novice—would be accepted into an order. She'd never had a boyfriend, a date, a first kiss. She hadn't received a college education even though she was clearly very intelligent. She'd never had a full-time job or lived independently. How could such a girl really know what she wanted?
Mary offers a close view of her life inside a convent. I was disturbed to learn what a hard, cold life nuns live—at least in Mother Teresa's order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity. No possessions, absolutely no privacy, and no special friendships. No phone calls to or from home, few letters, dreadful food, and appallingly poor health care. The daily "discipline" that Mary learned to impose on herself reminded me of the self-flagellation scene in The Scarlet Letter. I was surprised, too, at the level of politics and unkindness. There seemed to be little love among the sisters, for themselves or each other.
Given such deprivation, no wonder a human touch on the skin set her skin on fire, stirred up urges never experienced and deeply repressed. How does one stop being fully human? I applaud Mary's courage in facing her yearnings and finally acknowledging that she could no longer deny them. What a lot of courage it must have taken, after 20 years, to decide to leave the convent and re-enter the world, a world that had gone on without her.
I felt relieved when Mary finally followed her heart and left the convent, when she found the inner strength to pursue the life she needed and deserved. A hard choice but the right choice. She then got an education and developed her skills as a writer. It took her 10 years to write this book. I am grateful to her for sharing such an intimate story and for writing it so beautifully and honestly, without condemnation but rather with compassion and often affection. I look forward to hearing more from Mary Johnson.
Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, Eve’s Red Dress, and Temptation by Water. She is also the author of a forthcoming craft book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013). Her poems have been published in several anthologies and in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. www.dianelockward.com