The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
2003. Knopf. Hardcover. 336 pages.
Two years ago, I read Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life as part of an interfaith book discussion. Although I’m aware of Armstrong’s impressive bibliography of books on the major world religions, I have not yet read any of them. Twelve Steps was recently published and is kind of the book incarnation of Armstrong’s work toward a global compassion movement. The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong’s memoir that starts from her departure from the convent to the time of the memoir’s writing (it was published in 2003). There also exists a memoir about her time in the convent called Through the Narrow Gate, and I was surprised to learn from The Spiral Staircase, that Armstrong had published a memoir about her post-convent life before, in 1983, under the title Beginning the World. She seems to disavow the 1983 version of her story now.
The title of the book is a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday”. The first part of the poem prefaces The Spiral Staircase: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn . . .” The poem and the title evoke a gradual climb that doesn’t always feel like progress.
For those who, like me, didn’t read her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, Armstrong provides enough background to understand how life in the convent damaged her. The Spiral Staircase begins with Armstrong as a student in Oxford, unable to emotionally connect to art and slowly giving up on God, whose presence had always eluded her. She has a formidable intellect, but still struggles to find her place in academia. Disappointment after disappointment seem to dog her life, though friends and her landlord’s family provide bright spots that pierce through her internal darkness. Armstrong’s voice in The Spiral Staircase is very frank but also generous toward her past self and toward others.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects to Armstrong’s story is her long-undiagnosed epilepsy. During her life in the convent, Armstrong experienced several attacks that looked like fainting to others’ eyes. Her superiors accused her of being dramatic. Outside of the convent, her episodes – which often included hallucinations, disorientation, terror and sometimes amnesia – became even more frightening. Psychiatrists thought it was mental illness and addressed it accordingly, and of course this failed to actually help her. When she was finally diagnosed, the doctor expressed exasperation at how all these psychiatrists failed to recognize her textbook case of epilepsy. Even today, Armstrong writes, there are some people in her life who refuse to accept that her epilepsy is a medical problem, not a mental illness.
The memoir grows brighter and brighter as Karen describes discovering her passion for comparative religion. She travels to Jerusalem as part of a TV production, and also learns more about Islam and Judaism while looking again at Christianity. It’s a pleasure to read of someone finding their calling, and even better, reading Armstrong’s insightful analysis and enthusiasm for her topic. I copied out two quotes, one of which I included in my end-of-year blog post, but which I’ll quote again (I also enjoy the allusion to Lewis Carroll):
Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you.
And the second quote:
Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary.
The Spiral Staircase was a difficult read at first, because her life was difficult then, but I think that is necessary in order to feel the joy as Karen finds her place in the world. I’m glad to have read this memoir before diving into her backlist, as I think it will add to the reading experience to know how she came to be interested in writing about the world religions.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
The Book Brothel – “Armstrong does a great job of expressing a lot of strong emotions in a way that feels honest and not overboard. Her unorthodox life makes for a very interesting autobiography, bringing together faith, religion, illness, and the academic world in a look at the 1960s and 1970s, a period of time that was turning away from Armstrong’s original beliefs.”
Shelf Love (Teresa) – “It’s a beautiful story that shows the value of always seeking, even when the answers seem hidden in the darkness.”