Monday, August 31, 2009

The Spiral Staircase - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. Unsure of her faith, she decided to leave the convent and reenter mainstream society as a graduate student. Despite obvious aptitude for her studies, she is plagued by panic attacks and an inability to assimilate back into the culture from which she once sought refuge. As she struggles to find her place, she battles debilitating bouts of depression and suffers disconcerting memory loss. At one point, her despair becomes so great that she attempts suicide. With nowhere to turn, she goes back to the convent and asks for help. Yet, once she reveals her suicide attempt, she is turned away and left with nothing. Armstrong's battle with mental illness is almost nothing compared to her battle with her faith - and her inability to understand the people she once thought she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Eventually, Armstrong is diagnosed with epilepsy, and this medical understanding helps bring her back to the world of the living. In doing so, she confronts her questions of faith, and delves into not only Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. Armstrong's intense personality lends itself to deep study, and she becomes consumed with religion. Given Armstrong's education and obvious talent for writing, I expected more self-reflection or a better understanding of how she became who she is once she learned of her diagnosis. Instead, I felt like she almost went completely off the deep end with her research. Her thoughts on religion became almost inaccesible, except perhaps to other scholars of religion, and it was unclear to me what audience she was trying to reach with this book. By the end, instead of being amazed by her religious aptitude, I wondered whether the epilepsy affected her brain in such as a way as to make her more suscpetible to religious rantings (it has been noted that many epileptics exhibit hyper-religiosity as a result of their condition). Armstrong has since published a number of books about religion and is widely revered as a religious scholar - so this is not to say that her writings in this book are nonsense or simply the rantings of a crazy person. Just that I did not quite understand the point of her memoir.

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