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Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Paperback – March 15, 1972
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A perhaps misleadingly restrictive title for a folio of some eight autobiographical pieces dealing with Mary McCarthy's past when as the eldest of "poor Roy's children"- her parents died during the influenza epidemic of 1918- she shuttled between two sets of grandparents and three religions- Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Under the monitory supervision of the Catholic McCarthys in Minneapolis, the four young ones were turned over to a blood relative, Aunt Margaret- a "well-aged quince of 45" whose regimen of prunes and parsnips, no toys or books was supplemented by the capricious brutality of her husband Myers. Removed by "the Protestants", her grandfather Preston and his Jewish wife, to Scattle, there followed a period of quieter discipline in a Catholic convent where she lost her faith; the transfer to an Episcopalian boarding school and infractions of another nature; a summer in Montana and her introduction to whisky under the tutelage of a married druggist; and the pieces conclude with an unforgettable portrait of her grandmother Augusta Morgenstern and the elaborate ritual of her days.... Time has not dulled the sharpness of the image and incident here, and the portraiture has an exceptional definition to which the polished prose- there is never a flubbed phrase- is certainly contributory. There is also a warmth, and an often gamine charm, absent from her fiction, which may attract others beyond her anticipated audience (although Catholic readers have already been aroused on the initial publication of these pieces.) (Kirkus Reviews)
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McCarthy's allergy to lying is well-drawn in these early notes of her life. She was the author who criticized Lillian Hellman as having no truth, "I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including `and' and `the.' " You can see in this memoir how a powerless and parentless child becomes sensitive to the lies that surround her circumstances. She confesses the disguising of names and rearranging of events.
The only thing I found annoying in this book was the long introduction printed in italics. No need for that. And it made it hard to read.
The events that occurred in McCarthy's childhood were both tragic and dramatic: the death of her parents in the flu epidemic of 1918, the subsequent neglect and maltreatment by her great uncle and aunt, and the separation of McCarthy from her siblings. The author is at her best when she loses herself in the poignant depictions of childhood grief and confusion, for example in her depiction of the missing butterfly trinket and the unjustified beating that resulted from the trinket's recovery.
Understandably, when a writer gathers information regarding early childhood experiences, there will be inconsistencies and gaps of one's own knowledge as well as the misremembering and warped perceptions common to childhood imagination; integrate all of that with the input from friends and family members, who contribute their own distortions and biases, and factual accuracy seems unlikely. In her initial essay, McCarthy can be credited with explaining the concept of creative nonfiction before it existed as a genre, yet she apologizes (it seems) that despite her resolve to be as accurate as possible, her memories are often clouded and have since been disputed by the recollections of others: "Then there are cases where I am not sure myself whether I am making something up. I think I remember but I am not positive." It had been said, for example, that her father drank, but she never recalled smelling liquor on him and wouldn't a child notice? Disputes of who did what and when are retold along with the stories themselves: was it Roy (her father) or Uncle Harry who pulled a gun on the conductor? Or did that even happen?? McCarthy is tortured over getting even the minor facts right. Did Grandmother Preston's house really have a bell under the dining room carpet that was used to summon the maid? McCarthy thought she remembered it from her early childhood but years later doubted its existence. However, at age eleven, when she returned to the house to live, the first thing she did was crawl under the table: "I had the great joy, the vindication, of finding the bell just where I thought it should be." If there were supposed facts related by others that refute McCarthy's perceptions - such as her Jewish grandmother's refusal to allow a priest to enter the house - she still tells the story but qualifies: "I do not believe this story, which is contradicted by other accounts."
Other minor departures from fact are deliberate, acknowledges the narrator, as in changing the names of classmates, nuns, and priests to avoid any hard feelings and legal backlash. Additionally, as a writer of fiction, McCarthy allows that, at times, she merely rearranged "actual events" for the sake of a better story, referring to these tweaks as "semi-fictional touches." The italicized section that follows the essay "The Blackguard" actually begins: "This account is highly fictionalized." Obviously troubled that this particular essay as well as the one that immediately follows strayed too far from reality, the author justifies to the reader that "...the conversations...are mostly fictional, but their tone and tenor are right."
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood would be an engrossing, compelling memoir but for its interruptions of apology and attempts to set the record straight. Perhaps, for its time (preceding the understanding of what creative nonfiction entails) McCarthy felt it necessary to hammer home to her "dear reader" the innocence of her intent, but unfortunately, her method of doing so detracts from the quality of the work.
but her writing skill comes through and the book has a lasting impact on the reader.
The influences on her as a child were in such stark contrast. The intensity of her
Catholic grandmother vs. the liberal outlook of the other side of her family were probably
not uncommon in that day and time.