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.



They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950’s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)







On Museums, Vandals, and Idolatry

You may have spotted news reports yesterday, gentle reader, regarding vandalism which took place over the weekend at the National Gallery in London. For those who missed it, two works by the 17th century French old master, Nicolas Poussin, were attacked on Sunday for reasons which still remain unknown. A man took a can of red spray-paint to Poussin’s paintings “The Worship of the Golden Calf” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which portray these events from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of St. Luke, respectively. The man was subsequently arrested, though as of this writing there have been no reports on what any charges would be. Fortunately, the conservation department of the museum managed to remove all of the red paint and no permanent damage was done to the paintings.

Reading about this event quite literally made me sick to my stomach, as I am sure it did many in the art world. A proposed solution which seems to be gaining traction among journalists and the commentariat is that there ought to provide greater security and screening, as well as an admission charge, both at the National Gallery and other British institutions where there are currently no such barriers to free entry. However these methods, while the intent behind them may be at least somewhat laudable, will ultimately prove ineffective at stopping those determined to engage in vandalism. They also reflect, ironically, how like the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, sometimes museums can forget that they are meant to serve others, not to worship idols.

Art history is full of examples of people who try to destroy works of art, whether because they are mentally ill, or politically motivated, or both. Pieces like Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example, have been attacked by individuals who are not quite compos mentis. Large-scale, politically motivated instances range from Savonarola ordering a bonfire of the vanities in Renaissance Florence, to Chairman Mao and the violent iconoclasm of his so-called Cultural Revolution, to the Taliban blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.  However as it happens, perhaps one of the most famous of all acts of art vandalism ever committed took place at the National Gallery in London almost a century ago.

On March 10, 1914, Suffragette Mary Richardson approached the “Rokeby Venus” of 1614-1615 by the great Spanish old master painter Diego Velázquez, which is the only one of his female nudes known to still be in existence, and smashed the glass that covered it. She then hacked at the canvas at least seven times with a meat cleaver before she was pulled off by a docent and by a policeman who happened to be in the museum. Ms. Richardson claimed that she took this action because one of her suffragette colleagues, Emmeline Pankhurst, had been arrested the previous day.

Subsequently in court, Ms. Richardson explained that

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.

Ms. Richardson subsequently spent six months in prison as a result of her act of vandalism, which was the maximum sentence at the time. Richardson later went on to join the Labor Party and run unsuccessfully several times for Parliament. Later still, in the 1930’s, she left the Labor Party and went on to head the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where I am sure she felt very much at home.

One of the unfortunate fallout results of Ms. Richardson’s actions, and copycat attacks by colleagues of hers at the National Portrait Gallery and other British museums, was that for a time, women were actually barred from visiting public museums. They would only be permitted to enter a museum if they were accompanied by an adult male, who could also vouch for their trustworthiness, i.e. that they would not try to vandalize any of the art on display. This humiliating and deeply insulting result was the only way people at the time, nearly a century ago now, felt that they could protect works of art from the more radical elements of the feminist movement. The powers that be at the time determined that it was more important to protect the art in public collections than it was to protect the dignity of those who sought to visit and study those collections.

In the wake of the Poussin attacks over the weekend, there is practical fallout for the National Gallery regarding future exhibitions. The planned lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery for an upcoming exhibition was going to be a sensation, as one of the few paintings by da Vinci comes from Krakow to London. The Polish foundation which owns the painting has expressed concern that the work may be vandalized or worse, given recent events at the National Gallery, and that there will be meetings to debate what to do, and whether the planned lending should proceed. No doubt other public collections and private collectors are going to do the same, before they will confirm that the lending of their pieces to the National Gallery will proceed.

However a more personal concern for those who visit public collections ought to be the question of whether, because of the bad acts of one person, they ought to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. Putting in greater security at public museums is not a bad idea, of course – particularly if you have borrowed someone else’s property for a show, and you do not want to be held liable for any damage it may suffer while in your care. Yet ultimately, greater security will do nothing to deter those who are determined to deface or destroy a work of art.

At the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, bag checks have been the norm for years. The guards look through your packages at the various entrances, and you are directed to a cloak room where you must leave your items. Yet despite these measures, quite recently a deranged woman still managed to attack one of the paintings at the Gauguin exhibition, by trying to pry it off the wall.

Ironically, when a work of art is placed into public hands, it often runs a greater risk of being damaged or destroyed, unless of course the work in question happens to be by Goya and finds its way into the hands of the repulsive Chapman brothers. The more people who have access to a painting like a Poussin, for example, the greater the chance that some crackpot will – ahem – take a crack at it. The best a museum can hope for is to reduce the risk that a work of art will be damaged or destroyed by certain methods of preventing disaster, such as through the use of bag checks and mandatory cloakrooms.

A public institution cannot, for the sake of protecting a work of art, forget that its mandate is one of public service rather than the adoration of idols, in the form of art objects. Art is fragile because it cannot fight back or run away when it is physically attacked; no matter its size or the composition of its materials, because of its static nature art relies on human beings to protect it from time, the elements, and indeed other human beings. Yet it is important for the museum to remember that, although works of art must be protected, the museum is losing sight of its purpose as a public institution if it views and treats everyone who comes to see a work of art as a potential criminal.

The National Gallery is fortunate that no lasting damage was done to the Poussin paintings, and the adoption of policies such as bag-checking would certainly be prudent.  However, no matter how good its security, vandalism cannot be completely prevented in a public institution. Rather than taking a misanthropic view of human nature, it would be more logical for the National Gallery to accept the fact that this type of crime will happen again at some point, since prevention is not a panacea for the preservation of objects in public collections. Taking that into consideration, hopefully the practical solutions which the museum adopts as a result of this event will be tempered by reason, keeping foremost in consideration its role as a public institution, and the end result will not cause the public to abandon a National Gallery which becomes as unpleasant a place to visit as a TSA checkpoint.

Detail of damage to “The Worship of the Golden Calf” by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1633-34)
National Gallery, London