Re-reading Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy planned to write a three-volume autobiography late in her life, but only finished the first, How I Grew (1987), before she died at the age of seventy-seven in 1989. It was politely received, as due the “First Lady of American Letters … our Joan of Arc”, as Norman Mailer referred to her, but the praise was generally tepid, largely because it was a twice-told tale. McCarthy had covered roughly the same years of her life in an earlier book, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Published in 1957, it is considered by some to be the best of her two dozen books, including eight novels and several volumes of essays, reportage and criticism. Its superiority derives not only from the passionate sense of justice that imbues the depiction of her ghastly Cinderella childhood, but also the singular circumstances of its composition.

Between 1944 and 1957, McCarthy wrote and published the memoir’s eight chapters separately in magazines, during which time she also published six other books. Each chapter was built around a character or cluster of incidents from her childhood. At first, she had no plans to shape them into a continuous whole, and as a result, the usual anticipations and retrospections are missing. When she did gather them into a roughly chronological narrative of her life up to the moment of entering Vassar College at the age of seventeen, she added cohesive foreshadowing and backward glances. More importantly, she also added an italic reconsideration after each chapter, except the last, a portrait of her Jewish grandmother, Augusta Morganstern Preston. These afterwords further knitted the chapters, but they also raised questions about McCarthy’s veracity and motives.

Re-reading McCarthy’s memoir in the present situation is a portentous experience. McCarthy does not cite mortality figures or the massive economic dislocations caused by the 1918 influenza pandemic. The immediate jewel of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is its moving depiction of the gaping holes in family life and memory wrought by cataclysmic plagues, wars and other disasters. Her memoir is a valiant attempt to repair the breaches.

When she was six, McCarthy’s young parents died in the pandemic. She and her three younger brothers, and all four grandparents survived (one of the hallmarks of the 1918 pandemic, unlike the current one, is that a disproportionate percentage of its victims were young adults). She lived beneath the overhang of their early, sudden deaths for the rest of her life, more so than Kevin, Preston and Sheridan, who were four, two and one, respectively, at the time. Roy McCarthy and his wife Tess (née Preston) died shortly after arriving in Minneapolis, where the McCarthy clan lived, following a train journey from Seattle in October 1918, the height of the pandemic. In the prologue to Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, McCarthy writes that her father drew a revolver when the conductor tried to put the family, all sick with the flu, off the train in North Dakota. Unlike her brothers, she had sharp memories of her fun-loving, indulgent parents and missed them desperately. The separation was made immeasurably worse by the relatives that her McCarthy grandparents assigned to raise the orphans. As the oldest, she suffered more under these keepers, the fiendish Uncle Myers and his wife Aunt Margaret (grandmother McCarthy’s sister), a sour martinet who prescribed castor oil, stewed prunes, root vegetables and long after-breakfast sessions on “the throne”. But in another way, McCarthy wrote, “I was less affected because I had another standard. I remember my parents. My uncle couldn’t get to me mentally; I feared him physically”. She had a permanent footprint in the past, the lost Eden. Recollections of happy days in Seattle with her doting parents contrasted with her existence under the thumb of Myers, a figure right out of Oliver Twist. (Dickens was one of McCarthy’s favourite authors.)

The first two chapters detail the five years that the children spent living with Myers and Margaret, who was thirteen years older than her husband. There were no books, no movies, no friends, and only a few battered toys. The children recalled “sitting for hours in their cold, dark cellar, pungent with the odour of stored potatoes, peeling the raw peanuts Myers used for his candy”, but none of them remember being given a single piece. They were beaten regularly, often for no apparent reason. A hairbrush was used for venial sins and a razor strop for “special occasions”. When Mary was ten, she won the $25 first prize in a statewide contest for her essay, “The Irish in American History”. Her aunt was in the audience for the presentation and looked “for once, proud and happy”.

But when we came to our ugly house, my uncle silently rose from his chair, led me into the dark downstairs lavatory, which always smelled of shaving cream, and furiously beat me with the razor strop – to teach me a lesson, he said, lest I become stuck-up. Aunt Margaret did not intervene. After her first look of discomfiture, her face settled into folds of approval; she had been too soft. This was the usual tribute she paid Myers’ greater discernment – she was afraid of losing his love by weakness. The money taken was “to keep for me”. And that, of course, was the end of it. Such was the fate of anything considered “much too good for her”, a category rivaled only by its pendant, “plenty good enough”.

The whippings had little effect on her and her siblings, as Myers provided no inducements to behave. Like Kevin, Mary ran away several times, once hiding all day in the confessional of a Catholic church, and another behind a statue in the Art Institute (the church and art would be her twin passions over the next decade). The children’s goal was to escape to a nearby orphanage, on the assumption that things couldn’t be worse there. The random enforcement of Myers’s regimen, the docility he sought, and his sadistic punishments led, McCarthy said, to her adopting “a policy of lying and concealment”. Recalling her mistreatment in 1978, she said: “It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t going to be punished for something I had or had not done”.

Mary McCarthy, Paris, 1964

Finally, the many escape attempts led her maternal grandfather to intervene. Mary returned to Seattle with him, and the boys were sent to military school. At the Sacred Heart Convent School, she earned a reputation for fervent religiosity, academic brilliance, and dramatic flair verging on exhibitionism. A problem liar starved for attention, McCarthy renounced her faith to the Mother Superior, the prelude to her plan to dramatically regain it. The staged renunciation led to an examination by a priest who presented her with five arguments for the existence of God, the apparent flimsiness of which she immediately recognized. Consequently, just as she was announcing that she had recovered her faith and was returning to the fold, she was shocked to realize that she had actually lost it. She became a lifelong atheist at the age of fourteen. When she was rebellious in class one day, Madame Barclay, the prefect of studies, told her: “You’re just like Lord Byron, brilliant but unsound”. McCarthy, “simulating meekness”, did not look up, but “never felt so flattered in [her] life”. Her classmates gave her glances of wonder and congratulation, “as though I’d been suddenly struck by a remarkable disease, or been canonized, or transfigured”. Her time with the sophisticated, French-speaking, Voltaire and Byron-reading Sacred Heart nuns gave McCarthy the poise and assurance to select, over time, the lineaments of a new personality, not, as she later explained, “a Yeatsian mask”, but a deliberately chosen self.

The penultimate chapter in the memoir describes a hilarious summer trip to Montana she made with a high school friend, and the last is a brilliant, unflinching portrait of her raven-haired Seattle grandmother, reputed when younger to be the most beautiful woman in the city. Grandmother Preston sequestered herself in her own rooms most of the day, pampering herself with creams and ointments, and spending the rest of it shopping or in her flower garden. Although she could be a wonderful raconteuse, she was on the whole a slightly remote guardian whose beauty and mystery had the effect of “indescribable daring” on her granddaughter. She and her husband, a distinguished social justice lawyer who drafted one of the first worker compensation plans in the country, treated Mary generously, but most of her time at their house overlooking Lake Washington was spent alone. The commonest sounds in the elegant home were of the maid vacuuming and of the mail coming through the front door.

McCarthy writes in her prologue that “the chain of recollection, the collective memory of a family”, had been broken, and necessarily the first drafts of her chapters were written from memory, her only other resources being some photo albums (there are twenty-seven photographs of the family) and newspaper clippings about the pandemic. But in the first edition of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, more than a fifth of the total number of pages contain her later commentary on the now revised eight chapters. Some of these reconsiderations are based on conversations and correspondence with her eldest brother Kevin, a smaller number from Sheridan, her youngest brother, and some from Uncle Harry McCarthy, her father’s brother, who defended the way the clan handled the four orphans. These pages constitute an extraordinary layer of punctilious emendation that bolsters some interpretations, and undercuts or qualifies others, similar to the way the second novel of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Balthazar, the “great interlinear”, serves as a corrective to the first novel, Justine.

McCarthy opens her prologue by admitting that in writing it “the temptation to invent has been very strong, particularly where recollection is hazy and I remember the substance of an event but not the dates – the color of a dress, the pattern of a carpet, the placing of a picture. Sometimes I have yielded, as in the case of conversations”. She goes further, admitting that in some instances she “arranged actual events so as to make ‘a good story’ out of them. It is hard to overcome this temptation if you are in the habit of writing fiction: one does it almost automatically”. Perhaps the best instance of the mixture of fact and fiction concerns the train trip where McCarthy remembers seeing her father pull a revolver on the conductor as they approached “a small wooden platform in the middle of the North Dakota prairie”. She says in her prologue that it was her grandmother Preston – “no special partisan of my father” – who told her this story.

But my Uncle Harry, who was on the train, tells me that this never happened. My father, he says, was far too sick to draw a gun on anybody, and who would have told my grandmother except my Uncle Harry himself, since he and his wife were the only adult survivors of our party? Or did my grandmother hear it from some some other passenger, on his way east during the great flu epidemic?

McCarthy continues to worry the bone of the incident in another of the afterwords, saying that, if Harry was right, then she didn’t “see” the revolver, but rather – when she heard the story from her grandmother – “I had the feeling that I almost remembered it. That is, my mind supplied me with a picture of it”. To further complicate the matter, she concludes, “Actually, I do dimly recall some dispute with the conductor, who wanted to put us off the train”. Whom are we to believe? Mary, the grandmother, the uncle, or the suppositional “other passenger”? McCarthy’s method of revealing the past via a layered cross-hatch of memory, speculation, fictionalizing, reliable and unreliable testimony from multiple sources is the impressionistic way we know much of the past.

In a long essay on McCarthy’s memoir written in 1965, John W. Aldridge concluded that her afterwords are a reflection of her erstwhile Catholicism. He compared her to another apostate, James Joyce. Both writers demonstrate “the truth that when Catholicism ceases to be a matter of faith, it tends to linger on like radioactivity in the bones as a secret infection of the moral life”. The morality of the confessional, Aldridge says, taught McCarthy that “if you want to lie, do so, but remember always to confess you have lied”. Her hidden plan, he says, was

to have it both ways: she wanted the advantage of first presenting a partially false but presumably more dramatic account of her experience and getting all the literary mileage she could out of that; but she also wanted to square herself with her conscience or God or whomever by adding her palliating and expiating corrections. Not to put too delicate a point on it, she wanted simply to lie about her experience, then make things all right by confessing the lie, while at the same time capitalizing on the fact that the reader would come upon the life first, accept it as the truth, and be impressed by it before he would come upon the notes informing him that he had been duped.

All very neat, but the way Aldridge hammers this nail for the length of his thirty-seven-page attempt to demolish McCarthy’s reputation is too much for me. He overlooks the fact that she had no plan to consolidate the free-standing pieces when she first published them in the mid-1940s and early 50s. Calculation of the kind he avers was inimical to McCarthy as an adult.

Mary McCarthy was addicted to the truth, however painful. Towards the end of her life, when asked what kind of self-portrait she would provide in her two planned (but never written) volumes of autobiography, she said, “Not too favourable. But then it’d be awful if one formed too favourable a self-assessment of oneself ”.

Reprinted from the Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 2020.