Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan (a well-named pair) have assembled the testimonies of a lot of naughty American nuns and ex-nuns who chafed under the restrictions of convent life. One restriction in particular galled them all: the embargo on sexual activity. Few nuns, it seems, are natural celibates. Fewer still are heterosexual. An attraction to girls and women propelled them in droves into convents all over America, and out again when they found their inclinations didn’t tally with the requirements of the Church. As in the schoolgirl stories of Angela Brazil – who innocently named one of her heroines Lesbia – many of the friendships described in Breaking silence ‘flamed to red heat’. Angela Brazil perhaps didn’t understand the implications of the ardour she evoked. Neither did another children’s author, Elsie Oxenham, take full cognisance of the impulse that carried her characters, cheery adolescents all, into one another’s bedrooms and beds. You aren’t, with the Oxenham stories, invited to attribute anything but cosiness to the set-piece cocoa-drinking session which typically takes place at midnight with a special friend. Nuns, too, gaily visit one another’s rooms ‘to chat and hug’, or crawl through the window of a dormitory in which some irresistible confrère is sleeping. Indeed, the world of postulants and novitiates is very like the world of school and bosom friendships c. 1930, with young nuns arranging assignations in the convent broom cupboard or tub room. Delectable silliness and excitements are there in plenty. But the knowing modern nuns of Breaking silence are fully aware of what they’re up to – and once their passions are aroused, there is really no holding them: ‘Grope and fumble just would not do.’
Their stories are curiously similar. First an infatuation with a nun or schoolfellow, then intimations of a vocation. The joyful entry into a convent, heady alliance with a fellow nun (in defiance of the edict against ‘particular friendships’ to which everyone alludes), defloration in the dorm (‘I took to it like a fish to water’), guilt over incontinent behaviour, fearful struggles with one’s conscience, acknowledgement of lesbianism and eventual departure from convent – these follow in due course. At least, this is the typical pattern; a number of Curb and Manahan’s contributors have stayed in the cloister, letting the vow of chastity go to pot altogether, or sticking to it whenever they can. Some have redefined it to their own satisfaction. The liberal attitudes of the Sixties have helped in this respect. Chastity, some nuns now claim, doesn’t exclude sexuality. For others, though, the old dilemma persists. Dalliance and damnation, or perpetual frustration – these are the alternatives. Small wonder that some renounced the whole caboodle and took up belly-dancing instead.
Putative nuns are aware of some peculiarity in themselves. ‘I always felt different from what I thought was expected’; ‘I instinctively knew that I wasn’t like other little girls my age’; ‘I was uncomfortable with boys because they wanted me to behave and dress differently than I felt.’ One has a special prayer: that Bernadette of Lourdes should appear in person to douse her with holy water as a means of effecting a psychological change. There’s an element of earnestness in all this – earnestness expressed in pretty awful prose. Apostasy has enabled a lot of one-time nuns to get in touch with who they are, as they will keep putting it. Before this attunement is attained, they feel – as one has it – split from themselves. Or suffer emptiness inside. Or sprout ulcers and develop hyperventilation. These are the effects of squelching – ‘squelch’ is the word they choose, in preference to ‘quench’ – squelching the passionate desire they’ve conceived for some holy sister or other; that, or not squelching it, and attendant guilt. One reports that, in spite of every effort to keep it down, her sexuality kept sticking out. (This is the phrase that occurs to her.) Another had the odd experience, in a corridor, of meeting a libidinous sister ‘with a look in her eye that nailed me to the wall’. An episode of osculation in an alcove followed. Others confined themselves to holding hands underneath a table, and, when that small transgression was noticed and stopped, resourcefully went on to ‘hold feet’.
Some nuns are brisk about sex: ‘I’ve never been able to fathom why [it] causes such a fuss.’ Others resort to the language of wishy-washy romance: ‘The night we first kissed was a full moon in September.’ The names of the participants in this moonlit embrace, incidentally, are Coriander and Gnome, the first a one-time Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who’s substituted for God a little elfin creature that came to her in a dream. The lives of recanting nuns are apt to take strange turns. Coriander’s next romantic encounter is with a woman who calls herself Tree (a dryad perhaps?). Other apostates merely record an impulse to go around hugging trees. One experiences acute happiness while listening to opera in the woods. All this smacks somewhat of the Camp Fire movement founded in America in 1911 by a Dr and Mrs Guilick to raise the spiritual consciousness of adolescent girls specially dressed for the open in middies and bloomers. Mysticism out-of-doors seems a common extension of nunhood. We find one contributor to Breaking silence acting ecstatically on a hill (‘In that moment all the Earth was saying yes to my Lesbian identity’). Witchcraft (as a form of feminist spirituality) has claimed the allegiance of a lapsed nun or two. The transfer of spiritual loyalties is never an easy matter. One unfortunate female, the author of a dissertation on ‘humour and transformation’, at one point felt the vulnerable areas of her soul being chewed by a lot of hungry ghosts – the ghosts, she tells us, of her novitiate training. Thus, soul-searching may be followed by soul-chewing.
Before the 1960s, flagellation and hairshirts weren’t uncommon in convents; you had to sleep lying flat on your back, without sheets or pillows, and with blankets that went to the laundry once a year. You spent a lot of time on your knees, often with arms outstretched. The Rule of St Benedict prohibited you from making jokes. Side chapels would contain some gruesome relics – the body of a nun, for example, partly reconstructed in plaster, but also showing some actual bones. You were enjoined to keep custody of the senses – as the conventional expression had it – eyes modestly lowered, lips firmly closed (except when talking was allowed). Breaking silence was a culpable act. Given that such convents housed a lot of shaven-headed women wearing chest-flatteners (if necessary), and submitting, more or less willingly, to these and other disciplines, it’s hard to envisage their inmates actually getting around to ripping the habits off one another.
Some nuns go in for inner turbulence (the emotional kind) – ‘I was being ripped apart’ – while others have a jollier time playfully catching hold of one another’s cinctures or responding in a heartfelt way to the sound of religious chanting: ‘I thought I would burst.’ Reforms enacted in the wake of the Vatican Council give nuns the freedom to fall upon The Hite Report. What happens after they’ve cast off Catholicism? Lesbian ex-nuns, feminists to a man, are soon involved in various colourful schemes to promote social justice and to foster spirituality – civil disobedience, antiracist movements, goddess imagery, tarot, dreamwork and so on. Life, it turns out, has a lot to offer – ‘a sexual/emotional/social relationship’ with a woman on your softball team, for one thing. One past nun regrets that certain of her former associates, not lesbian by nature, relinquished their sisterhood only to ‘get marred’ (as the word is splendidly misprinted on one page). They all regard themselves as truth-tellers, opponents of hypocrisy, brave about celling an undertaking that went wrong, and vigorous in asserting their right to their own peculiarities.