The Tracy Flick of Catholicism
Where are the girls? Where are the drugs?
That's what I kept wondering as I plodded through My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Campbell is a Catholic journalist and television host. She has written a very boring memoir.
Reading it, I kept thinking of something I heard a rock and roll musician say in a club once. Two male members of his band, the singer and the drummer, had fallen in love and were in the bathroom having a quarrel. The musician ruefully shook his head. "This isn't why I joined a band," he said. "Where are the girls? Where are the drugs?"
Indeed. The main problem with My Sisters the Saints is a serious case of First World Problems. First World Problems is a term for problems western people have, like the failure of cell phone service, that don't really register with people in the rest of the world -- or even with most people in the United States.
Here are the basics: Colleen Carol Campbell was born and raised in the St Louis area, the daughter of devout Catholics who worked for the Church. From the beginning she was a popular and good looking girl. She wrote her first resume in sixth grade. She got a scholarship to Marquette university, married a doctor (while on a $50,000 fellowship for a conservative organization), and went to work as a speechwriter for the George W. Bush administration. She has her own television show and has won many awards for her journalism.
In short: Tommy Lee this ain't. If anything, Campbell is Tracy Flick, the iron willed social climber and politician in the film Election. Spiritual memoirs are supposed to be journeys from darkness to light, but the lack of depravity in My Sisters the Saints is boring.
In the first chapter, "Party Girl," Campbell describes a post-party scene in her college dorm. She and her roommates are hungover. Still, there is a beacon in the darkness: "I was a scholarship student carrying a near-perfect GPA, on track to land a prestigious summer internship in Washington, D.C., and serving as editor-in-chief of the campus magazine. I had a resume packed with honor society memberships....I attended Mass every Sunday. When it came to sex, I abided by the letter of the law I had been taught in my Catholic home -- no sex outside marriage -- thought not its spirit."
After college, Campbell goes from success to success. She gets a newspaper job at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where at 24 she became the youngest ever member of the paper's editorial board. Then comes the Phillips Journalism Fellowship, $50,000 to write about "the new faithful," young people who are embracing religious orthodoxy. In the course of her research, she meets her doctor husband John.
Campbell writes as if all of this just kind of happens, and expresses surprise at her success, but her type is well known. She's the ruthless overachiever (she dispatches her first college boyfriend with Terminator-like efficiency). The sections of My Sisters the Saints where Campbell complains about how understanding her husband is, and how stressful are the rigors of life at the top of Washington food chain, are particularly galling.
Of course, there was never any chance of failure, any more than there was a chance that Tracy Flick would lose the election. After the White House Campbell is picked up by a conservative think tank in D.C. Like all too many in Washington, she'll probably be coasting there for many decades.
Of course, Campbell has problems. There always are in life. Campbell feels unfulfilled by college party life. She admits to suffering from some vanity. Her father suffers from Alzheimer's, and she and her husband get the terrible news that she may be infertile. Dealing with the more serious of her trials constitute the best and most powerful parts of the My Sisters the Saints. To cope, Campbell turns to female saints -- St. Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein, Sister Faustina of Poland, Mother Teresa, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their wisdom and writings provide peace.
Sadly, Campbell seems to not have picked up any writing tips from Teresa of Avila, who is my favorite saint. It was dispiriting to see how many journalism awards Campbell has won. Her prose is lifeless and full of cliches. Her writing sometimes reads like a police report, and doesn't show any skill building suspense, even when she does eventually have children (of course she would have them -- failure is not an option!). It's not surprising that Campbell wrote for a president. They all are cliche geysers, and George W. Bush was no exception.
Catholics, of which I am one, tend to give people like Campbell a pass. After all, Campbell is spreading the faith. She's an attractive spokesperson. But for years I've watched the Catholic Church -- not to mention the conservative conservative movement, which supports Campbell -- promote a lot of mediocre teachers, artists and writers, and at the expense of people will real talent and vision.
We are the church that produced Augustine, Dietrich von Hildebrand and, yes, the female powerhouses who are the subjects of Campbell's memoir. If we want more of them, we need to demand a little less perfection.