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VINE VOICEon January 9, 2004
This is a deeply personal story of a very bright girl growing up with a mother who would die young. The mother was sensitive, intelligent and exquisitely beautiful (beautiful enough to go to Hollywood, which she did indeed for a time); in the end though, she was also unable to escape from the constrictions of her working class life and a debilitating disease which took her when her daughter was seventeen. The growing girl also adored her grandmother, a more down to earth woman, who provided much needed stability, but the girl was caught between the two women who often quarreled. "I went from mother to grandmother as if I carried two passports" writes Sandra Scofield, but in the end it is from these two strong feminine forces pushing and pulling that the girl will form years later into a much acclaimed novelist and teacher.
Sandra Scofield writes perceptively of the ways in which each person's individuality presses against those closest to them, how we press back, and how from these forces we eventually emerge in our own shape and way of being, claiming the memories of our journey and becoming our own force in the world. A beautiful book. The mother's fate is heartbreaking, the grandmother stalwart and though exasperating at times always faithful, and the memoir of them both unforgettable.
Particularly recommended for women who loved their mothers but did not always have an easy time with them, and that includes many women I know for certain.
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on April 2, 2004
I was first introduced to Scofield's bright and tight prose last summer, and read two of her novels before coming to her memoir. For writers and readers interested in the cross-fertilization between fiction and reality, reading her latest novel, Plain Seeing, and then reading Occasions of Sin provides a great object lesson in the entwining of the two. Events that might appear resolved in the novel are unraveled in the memoir, only to be reknit in a different pattern. And what permeates most strongly from Occasions of Sin is the mature and forgiving voice of the narrator/author, who cuts a slice of life, observes it with compassion, humor, and a healthy distance, and shares it with the world. It is at once a testimony and a quiet, unsentimental celebration of a particular family, whose members endure through poverty and illness, adapt, and move on.
I am now reading Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage, which is also a memoir about a young woman coming to age in a family life and culture governed by religion. While Scofield's story takes place mostly in Texas, and is structured around her mother's adoption of Catholicism, Ahmed's privileged childhood was spent in Cairo and Alexandria, and was governed by Islam. Still, I found some interesting and powerful threads running through the two works.
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on April 15, 2008
Sandra Scofield has written a beautifully evocative memoir that captures the essence of that most mysterious relationship--the one we have with the being that carried us in her body and brought us into the world, our mother. Is there anyone who knows her mother's secrets? Who understands what she felt and experienced, what fears she faced, what triumphs she claimed as her own? Ms. Scofield's memoir drew me deeply into reflections of my relationship with my own mother, set me to wondering about all the unknowns, made me wish I had asked more questions of her.

Occasions of Sin tells of a young girl growing up Catholic in West Texas in the fifties with a chronically ill mother, a devoted, opinionated grandmother, and a vague, absentee father. Without blinking or flinching, she records the agony, the ennui, and the unintentional cruelty of being a teenager. She touches that primordial collective chord that leads directly back into our own experiences, so that each incident, each emotional upheaval connects with the reader at a visceral level. Though my Pagan-Protestant/public school upbringing couldn't have been more different than Ms. Scofield's devout Catholic/convent school life, her emotional honesty and attention to detail brought me right into her experience and allowed me to see and feel things along with her. She writes about her first boyfriend:

"There were only a few things to do on a date, but they were new to me. I loved getting ready. I put together outfits and ran in to see what Mother thought. I took some hems up, let others down. She tugged and adjusted and picked off lint. She gave me money to buy mascara and new lipstick. Friday nights Larry and I usually went to the teen center. The last dance was always romantic and I anticipated his suggestion that we go somewhere to park. Maybe he would say, 'Want to take a drive?' My friend Rita had said I shouldn't agree to go past the city limits. Girls who did that went all the way in more ways than one. We could park by the football field, or at the construction site of the new high school--places everyone knew. There would be other couples in other cars, and the sense of someone nearby was like a phantom chaperone. Sometimes a police car might drive slowly by, but if things were quiet, the cops never bothered anyone."

The women's relationships in this memoir are deep and complex. A long-held secret colors and confuses Sandra's family life. She puzzles over her father's detachment, her beloved grandmother's harsh judgmental attitudes, her mother's rebellious anger. Her struggles to be holy, to be lovable, and to make her mother proud, echo poignantly through everyone's childhood. Her grief, anger and yearning are palpable when her world is turned upside-down at her mother's death. She says, "When I think of being a little girl, it always ends that day, a blip of fool's innocence all out of place in my fifteenth year, the day after Christmas 1959; that was the last time I thought the people I loved could rescue me from anything."

This is a rich story, full of love, anger, grief, mistakes, forgiveness and wisdom. It is written with almost shocking honesty but without bitterness or excuses. It left me feeling deeply connected to my own childhood and teen years, grateful to have been reminded.

by Carolyn Blankenship
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
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on February 14, 2004
Sandra Scofield has written a moving description of her life as a Catholic convert growing up in northwest Texas in the early '50s. Her experiences at the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Wichita Falls recall the year I spent there in 1953-54 before moving to the Catholic school across town. This is a world where girls align stones on the ground at recess to outline the rooms of an "abbey" (or "home," in my case) in which they play. Sandra is not the only young girl to have made an altar at home or to have knelt at a neighbor's house for the weekly Rosary and I was excited to revive these memories through her prose.

If I'm not mistaken, the cover photo is of the local public swimming pool called "Sandy Beach," a concrete "beach" surrounded by a chain link fence. Perhaps this is a metaphor for her dying mother - a woman of great promise but few resources to adequately nurture either herself or her daughter. Fortunately, the Catholic schools valued academic achievement and provided Sandra with the only stable home she had, but only in the context of a religious ecstasy cultivated initially by her mother. Since I shared that alternate reality, perhaps it was not the exclusive purview of her and her mother, but rather a more general effect of Red River Valley Catholic culture of the '50s.
The lack of nuturing and loss of her mother take their toll, and the maturing Sandra endures devastating humiliation. This memoir and her previous works attest to her survival, but this book ends long before these accomplishments. I would highly recommend this book based on the compelling nature of its elegantly simple and straightforward prose, but I wonder how much of my pleasure in reading this came from the memories evoked by Sandra's earlier experiences at AMI and in Wichita Falls.
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Scofield's memoir deals almost exclusively with her childhood years, when, as a young child, she develops only a vague sense of the boundaries between her mother and herself. The mother, Edith Hupp, has no such clear perspective, her malleable young daughter almost more a companion than a child. Because of Edith's manipulation, Sandra sees herself differently than others, not bound by the same rules. Years later, after Edith's death, Scofield describes her life as "navigating chaos without any reliable compass."
The whole family lives with the maternal grandmother during the earliest years of Edith's illness, when she still has her looks and occasional periods of health. Conversion to Catholicism creates another strong bond between Edith and Sandra, as the legends and rituals of her new religion captivate the child, who claims it with innocent zeal. Thereafter, Sandra dedicates her young life to emulating the saints. The tragedy of Edith's long journey toward death has a profound affect on the child, who develops nervous habits, praying incessantly. In her childish naiveté, Sandra fervently prays that her mother won't die.
Little girls are given to excessive drama, with their impressionable minds, especially fed on a steady diet of religious fervor. I was one of these little girls. I recall the same distorted thought process when praying, as if God was mine alone: a basic misunderstanding of the nature of prayer. I used this flawed perspective, as does Scofield, where God becomes Prince Charming, to "rescue you not from death, but from anonymity". Also of note, is the particular innocence of the 1950's, the perfect breeding ground for Catholic girls.
Most of Scofield's formative years are solitary, hours of thorough convent education, along with intermittent visits to an ever more sickly mother. Through this distorted framework, a distant father and a grandmother often at odds with her daughter do little to alleviate the child's loneliness. Edith finally dies from chronic nephritis, after years of hospital stays and shock treatments, but Scofield has no basis for structuring a life to serve her best interests.
Soon after the death, Scofield suffers a traumatic incident that strips away her innocence, an already shaky persona shattered... and so ends the memoir. Although this memoir is decidedly purgative, there is no way to ascertain the author's approach to adulthood. Confused by a dysfunctional home life and excessive religious instruction, the sheltered existence has only served to cripple Sandra in her dealings with the world at large.
Original Sin is a portrayal of Scofield's life, Part One, but the memoir begs completion. Scofield has survived, but is she emotionally crippled by her early years? I am, after all, unsatisfied. There is closure to the past, but what of the present? Luan Gaines/2004.
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on March 27, 2004
A new book by Sandra Scofield is always an occasion for pleasure and this memoir, which has been long awaited,delivers great satisfaction. Faithful readers of Scofield's many wonderful and personal novels have been waiting to hear the personal stories of her life to see how everything comes together. As always the writing is evocative and nostalgic,and the mother-daughter relationship here is rendered with such care. This puts into a clearer light all the other memorable mother-daughter pairs in the other novels. If you've ever read Scofield before, you will want to read this memoir now. If you haven't read Scofield before, this is a great place to start. I recommend it highly. Having reviewed her books (and many others)professionally, I can truthfully say that this is a gem.
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on November 21, 2012
This is flat out one of the best memoirs I have read. Partly, I think this is because Sandra Scofield not only explores her relationship with her mother but also wants to better understand her mother as a person. Like Cheryl Strayed's book, Wild, Occasions of Sin is told without sentimentality but rather seeks understanding about how her early life unfolded. Her mother loves her, but motherhood is hard. Her mother saw herself occupying a broader world than the one west Texas can provide in the 40's and 50's. Sandra loves her mother's attention, and when her mother becomes interested in Catholicism, it becomes another way the two can connect. Sandra Scofield explores the path this set her on with regard to her mother, to education, to morality, and to her sense of herself.
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on May 31, 2008
Some sections of the book were very good and some were only fair. The author really made her growing up seem like it went on forever (and ever) But there were some sections that were very painful to read and they were very well written, but those sections were not the majority of this book. Read it only if you have a long time to plod through it..which I am pleased to say I have finished it and I am moving on to my next memoir.
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on February 5, 2016
Recommended read! I greatly enjoyed this memoir.
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