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November 1, 2005

Book Notes - Peter Manseau ("Vows")

Peter Manseau has written an expansive and heartfelt memoir, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, one that stays with you long after you have finished the book. The story of a nun and priest who fall in love and marry, Vows explores the larger issues like Catholicism and its place in today's society within its well-wrought tale without being preachy or overbearing.

In his own words, here is Peter Manseau's Book Notes submission for his memoir, Vows : The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son:

1. "The Celibate Life" by The Shins

At first listen, this pop song doesn’t seem to have much to do with book about the last fifty years of the Catholic Church in America, but it’s hard to imagine a better fit than the title. In Vows the celibate life is complicated. It’s not merely a life without sex; it is a life in which sex is alternately hidden and exposed, sublimated and examined, explored and denied. While I must admit I never understood the song’s lyrics before looking them up to write make this list, I now see there may be some thematic connections after all. I especially like this line: "You'll learn to live like a mouse / Searching the cracks in the floor to remember.." That’s something like how I approached writing a memoir about my family’s sometimes secret history: to tell family stories involving sex and celibacy I had to get close enough to the ground to see patterns I never imagined.


2. "All I Have To Do Is Dream" by The Everly Brothers

After a bit of thematic set up, Vows proceeds by telling the parallel stories of my parents’ childhoods. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, they were both very active in their church youth groups before leaving home to enter the religious life. As teenagers they did their dancing at church basement sock hops. "All I Have to Do is Dream" was a hit song during my mother’s senior year of high school; she sang along to it when she was 16 years old, preparing to enter the convent. The song makes me wonder what she dreamed of then; what she hoped her life would be on the eve of becoming a nun.


3. "Whitey on the Moon" by Gil Scott Heron

From the homogenous 1950s of my parents’ youth and their similarly placid religious formations, Vows follows the young priest and nun into the chaos and violence of urban life in the 1960s. My parents met in the Roxbury section of Boston at a time when race riots nearly burned the city to the ground. Caught up in the righteous fervor of the civil rights movement, Father Bill and Sister Mary came to believe that the world, and their church, could change. They have no idea who Gil Scott Heron is, but while in Roxbury they did cross paths with Black Panthers, Black Muslims, and other radical groups. "Whitey on Moon" is a classic that lays bare the racial divide that my parents and many others were just beginning to become aware of. "A rat done bit my sister Nell / and Whitey’s on the moon. / Her face and arms begin to swell / and Whitey’s on the moon." Gil Scott Heron was prophetic and disturbing in a way that strikes me as nothing so much as biblical; a wild desert prophet of America’s burning cities.


4. "The Priest" by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell captures perfectly the awkwardness of a priest venturing forth from the celibate, solitary life. From the first line --"The priest sat in the airport bar / he was wearing his father’s tie" -– she nails the permanent boyishness of these men who have given themselves to the church. I think there was something of that in the early years of my parents’ courtship and marriage. Our family was baptized in the ambiguities of being in the faith but not of it – a circumstance well expressed a few lines later: "Then he took his contradictions out / And he splashed them on my brow."


5. "Heaven On Their Minds" sung by Judas Iscariot, Jesus Christ Superstar

Raised in the 1970s as part of a dissident Catholic family headed by a priest and former nun, it was inevitable that I would find my way to Jesus Christ Superstar. I can remember my older brother convincing our neighbors (who had a very early model video cassette recorder) to tape the movie version of JC Superstar when it was broadcast on television one year. A year later, when we finally had a VCR ourselves, we watched the opening scene again and again on the grainy tape: Judas, played by the fabulous Carl Anderson, stares out over an empty first century Palestine landscape, and then sings calmly his declaration of spiritual independence from his teacher:

My mind is clearer now
At last , all too well,
I can see where we all
Soon will be

If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see where we all
Soon will be

Next comes a wailing pronouncement of his master’s name – JEEEEEsuuuuus! – the passion and hurt of which set the tone for all that follows. All of that aside, it totally rocks. Judas made betraying the messiah and breaking with the faith seem so cool – and not just cool, in fact, but necessary. My father was called a Judas more than once when he decided to defy the Vatican by becoming a married Catholic priest. He didn’t see it this way, but I think it’s a great compliment. Without Judas, where would we be?


Other Book Notes submissions:

Marcy Dermansky
Laila Lalami
Gideon Defoe
Tara McCarthy
Beth Lisick
Emily Flake
Bret Easton Ellis
Tom Piazza
Alix Ohlin
Steve Amick
Colleen Curran
Chuck Klosterman
Quinn Dalton
Lee Martin
Dallas Hudgens
George Pelecanos
Tom Bissell


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