Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
is a collection of essays by celebrated American author Mary McCarthy, first published in 1957 by Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Each of the eight biographical sketches provides a chapter from McCarthy's childhood and the evolving influence of religion on her life. The essays do not encompass a traditional story of a young person finding her place in religion but instead, focus on all the doubts and uncertainties of a girl on a rocky journey toward adulthood, meaning, and a shaky faith.
In the preface, McCarthy informs the reader of the fallibility of memory—of her memory, in particular—and that the stories collected here may undoubtedly be influenced by the writer's imagination. It is not humanly possible, she says, for any one person to remember fully and accurately whole swaths of conversations, minute details of faces, or names of people one met decades prior. Nevertheless, this does not deter from the fact that these essays are true, if not in precise specifics, then in meaning and intent. She expounds upon this idea further by including brief meditations after most of the essays, in which she grapples with what may or may not be 100 percent accurate and true, giving a glimpse of the writer debating her own memory and the limitations it naturally places on one's recollections of the past.
In the opening, McCarthy also sets the stage for the catalyst that propels her faith journey into motion. In the flu epidemic of 1918, McCarthy's Minneapolitan grandparents cut her father off financially, demanding he, his wife, and his young children move back to the Twin Cities from Seattle. At the height of the epidemic, they travel across the country, and shortly after their arrival, both McCarthy's mother and father succumb to the flu. Suddenly orphaned at the age of six, McCarthy, along with her three brothers, go from one relative to another in the hopes of some stability and nurturance. Really, the only continuity they find is different interpretations of faith with each new home.
Immediately, after their parents' death, the McCarthy children live with their very Catholic Aunt Margaret and Uncle Myers. Margaret believes in a strict utilitarian household and has no time for toys, books, or softness. She keeps the children alive on a diet of parsnips and prunes. However, this diet is nothing compared to Myers, who beats little Mary in the name of saving her soul.
Then, her maternal grandparents remove McCarthy from Margaret and Myers' home, and she returns to Seattle to live. Her three brothers remain behind in a Minneapolis boarding school. In Seattle, her Presbyterian grandfather, Harold Preston, and his Jewish wife, Augusta, offer an entirely different homelife. Harold proves to be a major influence on McCarthy, serving as her first introduction to liberal thought and politics. As an attorney, Harold even drafts one of the nation's first workers' compensation laws.
Nevertheless, life in the more permissive Preston household ends when McCarthy starts attending a Catholic boarding school. Here, the faith she had learned from her paternal grandparents and her Minneapolis relatives begins to falter. The discipline might be quieter in nature than what she endured at Aunt Margaret's house, but the rituals of life at a convent school dampen any spark McCarthy had previously felt with her religious beliefs.
Finally, she begs Harold to let her transfer to an Episcopalian boarding school. He agrees. However, this educational transition comes with complications of its own, coinciding as it does with a time in her life when McCarthy is learning about boys and her own desires. Gradually, her faith dissipates even more, and she essentially becomes a closeted atheist.
Then, McCarthy spends a summer in Yellowstone Park in Montana. It is here that she receives education of another kind. She meets a married pharmacist who introduces her to the joys of whiskey. On this trip, she also experiences a new type of religious ecstasy: She purchases her first book, a deluxe edition by fantasy writer James Branch Cabell.
The final essay in the volume is about her maternal grandmother, Augusta Morganstern. The essay is both tribute and investigation, an attempt to both celebrate her grandmother and try to explain their complex relationship. She details the rituals of her grandmother's days, giving voice to those things that made Augusta Morganstern both wonderful and complicated. Also wonderful and complicated are McCarthy's feelings for her, which often border on the worshipful—and, by extent, the religious.
Ultimately, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
is not so much an embrace of Catholicism but a reckoning with it. McCarthy harbors substantial doubt that there even is a God, which she discusses openly in the preface, but there are other elements in her young life that nourish her just as much. The kindness of her Grandfather Harold. The awakening relationship with her own body and her own wishes. Her passion for reading. Her introduction to booze on the open prairie. Her adoration of her Grandmother Augusta. All of these are a kind of faith, too.