Revisiting the “Sisters” with Colleen Carroll Campbell

This weekend after Mass I was speaking with a friend who has a close family member suffering from dementia, a condition which began to accelerate recently following a death in their family.  Whether or not you know someone who is currently experiencing the loss of their faculties, chances are that, like my friend from the parish, one day you will.  The best advice that I could give, in addition to prayer, was for her to find out about the experiences of others.  And to that end, I recommended that she pick up a copy of My Sisters the Saints, a superb book by Colleen Carroll Campbell.

Regular readers will recall that I reviewed this book a few months ago, but I have two reasons for bringing it to the attention of those of you who might have missed it the first time.  Colleen’s book, which is now in its 7th printing, has just been released in paperback today.  In addition, it just so happens that September is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  These are two very good reasons why you should consider picking up a copy.

“My Sisters the Saints” is essentially a memoir, but not quite the sort you might expect from a media personality.  For in writing about her own personal and spiritual journey, along with reflecting on the lives of those saints who have meant something special to her at different points in her life, Colleen also chronicles the decline of her father as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.  His illness is not treated as a completely separate chapter topic, to be observed, addressed, and then put to one side.  Rather, she addresses it as something that recurs like ocean waves, now stronger in their intensity, now more subdued, with quiet patches between, but endlessly crashing onto shore all the same.

In a passage from the book, Carroll Campbell notes a lesson that she learned as she grew stronger in her spirituality, even as she watched her father becoming physically and mentally weaker.  “[O]ur culture has it exactly backward when treating such people as expendable,” she writes, speaking of those suffering from debilitating diseases like dementia, or the unborn, or the disabled, or the elderly, or the otherwise unwanted.  “If productivity, efficiency, and rationality are not the ways God gauges a human person’s value,” she argues, “then they are not the ways I should measure it either.  If childlike dependence on God is the mark of a great soul, then there are great souls hidden in all sorts of places where the world sees only disability, decay, and despair.”

Chances are that someday, someone you know is going to go down this same long, dark tunnel of unknowing.  Whether the condition is brought on by a specific trigger, or whether it arises out of pure chance, the end result is inevitably the same.  Dementia, in all its forms, is more often than not a bloody, smelly, heart-wrenching mess.  We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it and say that it’s anything but.

However, we do need to learn how to see debilitating diseases or conditions in a way that brings us closer to God, rather than making us turn away from Him.  We also need to look at these moments as pathways to becoming better imitators of Christ.  And finally, we need the experiences of others who have experienced such redemptive suffering to give us at least some sense of how to go about attempting the task.

So whether for yourself, or for someone you know who might benefit from it, please do consider reading this vivid testament of one woman’s very powerful and deeply personal experience, shared through the prism of her Faith.

Detail of "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velázquez (1618) National Gallery, London

Detail of “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Diego Velázquez (1618)
National Gallery, London

Tonight in Old Town: Colleen Carroll Campbell, “My Sisters the Saints”

When the first chapter of a memoir contains a passage such as the following, the reader is put on immediate notice that they are in for something rather different from the usual self-promotional autobiography:

I lingered there for fifteen minutes, allowing myself to feel the full force of that hollowness I had been trying to paper over and outrun for more than a year.  So this is it, I thought, as the tears ran down my cheeks.  This is a life without God.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is someone whose name and face are probably familiar to you.  A journalist, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, news commentator, talk show host, public speaker, and author, her latest book “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” features endorsements from people like New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, and Harvard Law professor Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon.  With passages such as the above giving a hint of what this book contains, it’s not hard to understand why.

Tonight Colleen will be presenting a talk on her book at the Pauline Sisters’ bookstore on King Street in historic Old Town Alexandria, just outside of Washington DC.  If you happen to be in the area I urge you to attend, even if you’re not Catholic.  Not only is Colleen’s life story something which many of us will be able to relate to, particularly here in career-centered Washington, where so few of us end up having meaningful personal lives outside of work, but also because this is a deeply challenging, brave piece of writing, worthy of a wide readership.

When I began reading this book I must confess, I was concerned that this was going to be a work directed largely at women, something which as a man I would find difficult to relate to.  Yet the more I read, the more I realized that Colleen’s experiences in a number of respects mirror my own.  As a fellow Gen-X’er, Colleen describes her party life as a college student at nominally Catholic Marquette back in the ’90’s, not all that different from what I experienced at nominally Catholic Georgetown at exactly the same time.  Her gradual realization that she needed to challenge the status quo of a culture focused exclusively on the pursuit of materialistic pleasures, the slow development of a more mature faith tempered by suffering and disappointment, and her often frustrating attempts to find some balance between a career and a personal life are things which I suspect will resonate with many of us from the MTV generation.

Growing up in a culture that insisted happiness depends on resume-building and material security, in order to achieve that personal fulfillment which pop-psychology gurus and fluffy magazine articles assure us is the solution to all of life’s troubles – i.e., be your own god –  over the fifteen-year period covered in her book, Colleen’s life changed radically, but not instantaneously.  It took her time to move from half-hearted, practicing but lazy Catholic, thinking only of pleasure and worldly success, to someone who made choices which the outside world would not understand.  She walked away from meaningless relationships; she left a coveted job at the White House, not knowing how things would work out; she took time away from her career to care for an ailing parent; and she went through a very painful, lengthy period of being unable to conceive children, all of which she bravely recounts in her book.

Along the way, and woven into the fabric of the text and indeed her own life, Colleen comes to know and appreciate the lives of several women, the “sister saints” of the book’s title.  Each one, including St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Faustina, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, among others, comes into her life at a point when she needs that sister’s example.  What is particularly well-done in the book is that Colleen pauses in her narrative and treats these women, not merely as historical figures with biographical details, but rather as women she can learn from and emulate.  These are not sweet-faced, plaster images standing on a bookshelf but real women, all very different from one another, whose strength and wisdom can be drawn upon by anyone, regardless of their sex.

In looking back over all of the little pink post-it “flags” I stuck in my copy of “My Sisters the Saints” as I went along, I find that many of these are affixed to passages on Colleen’s relationship with her father.  Early on in the book, Colleen mentions the work of French writer Simone de Beauvoir, and her influence on feminist theory.  However it is also worth noting that de Beauvoir shared a similar experience to Colleen’s, as she cared for her elderly mother, which she recounted in her lesser-known book, “Une mort très douce”.  Although their experiences were not dissimilar, in de Beauvoir’s case the fading of her mother reaffirmed her sense of life having no meaning, whereas Colleen finds meaning even in situations so horrible that at times she would rather have run and hide, instead of having to deal with them.

The gradual deterioration of Colleen’s father from Alzheimer’s, and how she dealt with that slow fall of a man full of energy and health into dementia and helplessness, proves to be both heartbreaking reading and a witness to the awakening of her faith, as well as a respect for all life.  In one passage, Colleen recalls riding on a St. Patrick’s Day float through St. Louis along with her parents.  Like the Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, the participants are supposed to be distributing beaded necklaces to the noisiest onlookers – except Colleen suddenly realizes that the marginalized people in attendance are the ones who should be getting her attention.  As she looks back at her ailing father on the parade float, she realizes “Those outsiders and least ones, in all their forms, reminded me of Dad.”

There is much to learn from and appreciate in this book.  It is not the type of work that Colleen herself might have written earlier in her career, when she was, as she describes it, all “fake smiles and feigned peppiness”.  It is the work of a woman who has been to some very dark places, come out the better for it, and bravely chooses to share those experiences with her readers.

Again, I encourage those of you in the DC area to come along tonight to hear Colleen’s presentation on her book, and for those who cannot make it, to get yourself a copy: you will not be disappointed.