Book Review: 'Amen: The Autobiography Of A Nun'

This post comes after a long break. Partly because I was busy with 'home affairs' and partly because the Muse was playing truant. Well, she's back now. And a book review it will be.

I had planned to review 'Aruna' Story' - a non-fiction account of the rape of staff nurse Aruna Shanbaug written by Pinki Virani. But when I trawled the net, I found several reviews already in place. And since most of the opinions expressed were similar to mine, I canned the idea. Instead, I am, reviewing - 'AMEN: The Autobiography Of A Nun'. Originally published in Malayalam, it was translated into English and published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

At the outset, I should clarify, that I still have one chapter to go before I complete reading the book. However, my opinion on the book is already formed and I doubt that the last chapter will do much to alter it.

Synopsis:

The book is a personal account, rendered by Sister Jesme, of thirty three years spent in a convent. Sister Jesme is a nun belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Carmel. She holds a doctorate in English literature and has served as Vice Principal and Principal in two Catholic Colleges in Kerala. In August 2008, she left the Congregation.

In her book, Sister Jesme, writes an anguished account of her experiences as a nun. She raises the very important issue of the status of women within the Catholic Church. She questions why nuns are treated different from priests particularly in the matter of the Vow of Poverty.

Then there is the issue sexuality which has caused a lot of public outrage against the book. According to her, homosexuality and lesbianism are realities within the convent. Though never spoken of, it happens and is known by myraid names like 'special love'. The book also hints at sexual exploitation through an incident where Sister Jesme has to deal with the advances of a priest.

The book also highlights petty politics and groupism which were faced by the author. It also hints at class based discrimination between nuns hailing from affluent and those from poor families. Being set in the mileu of college life and academia, the book includes in its chapters the author's opinions on poor administrative practices and bending of rules being practiced by the colleges where she served.

The Verdict:

The book is a brave attempt by Sister Jesme, who seems to be a lone crusader. It takes a lot of guts and gumption to go against the establishment, particularly one as powerful and revered as the Catholic Church. All the issues raised by her in the book are important and deserve to be brought into the public domain. Sadly, the Church has closed ranks against her. It maybe a long time before it will be ready to bring these skeletons out of the cupboard.

At the same time, I find many parts of the book confusing. For eg. There is a chapter where, during a retreat, some nuns complain to Sister Jesme that the priest they confessed to had asked their permission and kissed them. The same priest asks to kiss her too when she goes for confession. She refuses and informs him that the other nuns had found his act distasteful. He replies by saying that he did it with permission and quotes passages from the Bible. She counter quotes. At the end of all this quoting, I'm left feeling baffled. So? Did he make a mistake or didn't he?

Without sounding like I'm belittling her problems, I must say that at times, it feels like Sister Jesme suffers from a persecution complex. One feels empathy with her trials and tribulations. But at some point, it seems like the whole world is her enemy and she is the only blameless one. This is particularly true when she is describing the problems she faced during her tenure as lecturer, then Vice Principal and then Principal of a college. In fact, when I discussed the Malayalam version of the book with some Malayali Catholic colleagues, one of them remarked, that the book was all 'I'm OK. You're not OK'.

Finally, the book could do with some tight editing. It rambles in places and events do not seem to be well connected. The language is heavy and gets tedious to read. But I would not blame the author for this. A first time writer and writing on so bold a theme, she should have been provided with better editorial support by Penguin.

As regular, serious and practiced readers, I would recommend that we put aside the flaws in the book and read it, to get an insight into the issues raised by Sister Jesme. Judge for yourself whether her story is real or imagined (as you can see, mine is not an unbiaised opinon). And think of the lives of women in religious life, belonging to other religions also. I'm sure there will be many similarities.

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10 Responses to Book Review: 'Amen: The Autobiography Of A Nun'

  1. A great review... as usual :)

    Women... are discriminated against by society and by religions... irrespective of the faith they belong to.

    I have had my schooling... right from nursery to standard XII in a Convent school... and can identify with the issues mentioned in this book.

    The Church is notorious for condoning these things/activities... esp. those of the priests. People are 'forced' to join the order, to become priests/nuns... and we can pretty much decipher the outcome.

    When I was at school... the sisters would ask us to donate stuffs for the poor. During every festival/occasion etc. A list would be given... and this was compulsory. Else...

    But, everything we donated would be given out in the name of the Church. Tribals are being converted... on a huge scale. I understand that each diocese is given a target which trickles down to group/individual targets among the priests/nuns.

    People... the Indian Constitution calls 'tribals' have their own customs/culture... etc. Infact their knowledge of nature, medicine, etc... even mythology is vast. Instead of tapping into this huge reserve, we branded them as 'tribals' - lesser people who have to be 'civilised'. You know, 'civilising the already civilised'. And 'others' including the Church have found a foothold.

    The role of the Church throughout history is suspect. In a myriad of events. There must be some truth about a secret society protecting Christ's bloodline... even to this day.

    btw... some scholars refer to Jesus Christ as the 'spiritual son of Lord Shri Krishna'.

    Between the ages of 13-30 nothing is known about him. Many say that he had spent this time in the Indian subcontinent.

    Still others including followers of the Islamic faith (some sects atleast) say that he was never crucified. That was a myth perpetuated by the Church... to consolidate its hold. And that Jesus was buried somewhere in Kashmir.

  2. btw... glad to see you back and active @ Bloggersville :)

  3. Sandhya says:

    You have reviewed the book nicely, Deepa. I remember vaguely reading the excerpts somewhere.

    As you said she has got guts to expose the inside story of the church. My children went to a convent school for 6-7 years. My friend's daughters were influenced by the sisters' opinion, but thank god my sons don't have any impact of the school.

    These types of stories are there in every religion, as you said, Deepa. But very rarely, christians speak about it so openly.

  4. Sudeshna says:

    kahan kahan se books dhhondh kar laati ho, padhti ho, jam kar review karti ho aur hamein bebas banati ho...ab bina padhe raha na jaye...but the is the reading really a tedious job? I am generally pro-thriller types...should I go for this one? Ki bolo? well done....

  5. Deepa says:

    Koi aisi durlabh jagah nahi. I got the book at Landmark. It was reviewed recently in The Hindu literary supplement.

    Language is an issue with the book - but you know me. I'm a stickler for good grammar and vocabulary. Read it and reflect on what you know from your time with CRS.

  6. Knock! Knock! [A gentle reminder... one week is up.]

    PS: I have responded to your Qs on my last post.

    There are four 'long' paragraphs... 2 before and 2 after Gyanban's comment.

    btw... here's a little quiz. Ummm.. food for thought. For you. Tell me... why have I included the 2nd video...

  7. Meera says:

    Hi Deepa

    I have been trying to "wade through" this book. While not discounting the issues raised by Sister Jesme I think the writing style is too confusing - at times like a personal diary- tenses are mixed up etc etc. This is a sorry state for a publication like Penguin because it detracts readers from these very serious issues that Siter Jesme raises.

    I have studied in a convent school and can identify with these issues. I dont know Why conversion issues have been raised in some of the other comments. - this book is not about that.

    Lets face it the nuns are responsible for the good education that people of my generation got - irrespective of whether or not they were catholic- I have never been asked to attend bible lessons etc . God was god and never Jesus.

    But coming back to the book- I think a better articulation of such issues can be seen in Somerset Maugham's book "Catalina" about a girl who is being forced to become a nun becuase she had a vision of Mary- but ofcourse she wants to get married- she runs away and has the mother superior chasing her becuase she wants to have a protege in her convent who would equal St. Teresa of Avila (whom she hates)- the book is all about the power issues within the church. Set during the period of the Spanish inquisition it offers a good commentary of society during those times - not much different from some of the issues that Sr. Jesme raises.

    It is sad that she has to constantly reiterate her love for Jesus (- i wonder if she was doing it because she is worried about being excommunicated.). Her expression of love for Jesus seems like my name sake from Rajsanthan...

    I think Penguin should be serious about good editing and structuring of such issue based work.

  8. Mahith says:

    Hi ,
    I am Mahith,

    Dont know much about religious stuff.I was thinking not only about nuns, but all the saints, priests, fakirs, and all the so called religious places. All of them have one common charge ie Sexual ABUSE and Sexual Misconduct. either with women, or men or children. cmon guys, sex is a physical need . get married or go to a prostitute satisfy your self somehow but why wear a white or safforn or green and hide your reality from it and force helpless women . I dont understand. People who support these religous people are certainly helping them grow.

  9. Mahith says:

    Why will someone become a nun after knowing they will be kissed and fondled by priests?

    Why will a girl get into nunhood if she is forced make love to another woman without her consent.

    Even the priests in temples or imams in mosques, ultimately they are humans and have humans desires. Atleast the future generation should drop getting into religious crap and think how best human life can be lived and not seclude oneself into a draped cloth. Today woman are capable of flying into space and else where.
    Cannot accuse any priests, becuase they have not kidnapped any woman and raped her, the girl became and nun and thought she would find happiness there instead she had sex mutiple times with both genders. Atleast the future generation should realise and stop getting into religious stuff .. Since more than 5000 years man has been preaching religion. Has anything changes apart from killing, ravaging and raping?

  10. Mahith says:

    Why will someone become a nun after knowing they will be kissed and fondled by priests?

    Why will a girl get into nunhood if she is forced make love to another woman without her consent.

    Even the priests in temples or imams in mosques, ultimately they are humans and have humans desires. Atleast the future generation should drop getting into religious crap and think how best human life can be lived and not seclude oneself into a draped cloth. Today woman are capable of flying into space and else where.
    Cannot accuse any priests, becuase they have not kidnapped any woman and raped her, the girl became and nun and thought she would find happiness there instead she had sex mutiple times with both genders. Atleast the future generation should realise and stop getting into religious stuff .. Since more than 5000 years man has been preaching religion. Has anything changes apart from killing, ravaging and raping?