The Sermon was about me being the bad pig-keeping son who runs away from home and then has to oink back on all fours when his money runs out. At the time my reaction alternated between embarrassment and amusement, but now I see it must have been prophetic. All these years I have been tending to the pigs of liberalism, agnosticism, poetry, fornication, cussing, salad-eating, and wanting to visit Europe…
——– Patrica Lockwood, PriestDaddy
I grew up in the church the same way many ministers’ kids do – Sundays spent at the church, weeknight bible studies, Psalty the Psalm Book tapes playing in the car. My school friends, none of them religious, imagined my family to be identical to the Flanders – perpetually cheery, chaste and not a curse word in sight. They were right about the swearing, but like many children of the church, my family is one of contradictions and complexities that make it, like so many families, beautiful and difficult.
I’m 28 now, and still close with my family, and I’m on the phone, gushing to Patricia Lockwood as she sits in the Adelaide sunshine (she was recently in Australia for Adelaide Writers’ Week) about how much I related to her book PriestDaddy: A Memoir (2017, Allen Lane). I saw a lot of my own father (a former Evangelical minister and current sometimes-preacher) and life in the book. Like Lockwood’s dad, my Priest Daddy hates cats, but loves rock music and owns a gun; he hoots and hollers along to violent movies while my mum looks on, bemused and probably absorbed in thoughts of her children, as she often is.
Lockwood left the rectory she lived in with her parents when she was 19, having gotten engaged to a poet she met on the internet. Her father was incensed at the time, yelling at Jason, ‘Gimme your license. I got cop friends.’ Her new fiancé marvelled at the family’s Catholic tradition after having been raised in a Baptist home; PriestDaddy’s rendition of which, having spent a not-insignificant amount of time in the Baptist Church myself, made me cackle with its accuracy:
His father was a Baptist preacher who was saved after a dream about flying an airplane over a landscape of erupting volcanoes. A wall of flame appeared in front of him, and he opened the door and jumped. He felt himself drifting softly, safely, toward earth and he looked up and saw that Jesus had him by the hands and was using his own sacred body to parachute him down. This seems like a specifically Baptist dream.
Lockwood’s dad converted to Catholicism after watching The Excorcist eight times on a submarine.
Reading PriestDaddy you certainly get the sense that Lockwood’s father is an intense character that was destined for some kind of public profile, of someone writing a book about his life – I’m just not sure PriestDaddy is what he had in mind. Lockwood agrees. ‘My dad [already] feels famous,’ she says. ‘He was one of these people who was born feeling famous. So, I think that he thinks it’s only appropriate that there is a book about him. I think he might even be outraged that there hasn’t been one sooner.’
Lockwood’s father is an intense character that seems destined for a book about his life – I’m just not sure PriestDaddy is what he had in mind.
I mention that I grew up seeing my own dad as a kind of celebrity in my own life. ‘I think that people who go into the ministry maybe do have that feeling. That they are celebs,’ she says. ‘It’s like, you walk up the stairs into the pulpit, you know, you are above the people, you are elevated. And especially in the Catholic tradition, the priest is really treated as a celebrity. But I think if it hadn’t been for his conversion experience I think he probably would have tried to be a musician or something like that.’
PriestDaddy has been a wild success, with the New York Times naming it one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 – but Lockwood says it was first borne out of necessity, with her husband Jason urging that ‘This is the story you have, that people might actually care about. And that caring might actually translate into dollars that we can live on.’ When Lockwood’s husband got the devastating news that he needed sight-saving eye surgery, the couple were truly at a loss for how they’d pay for the medical bills. Lockwood possessed a certain level of obscure internet fame – her jokes and absurd, lusty poems making her an early star of Weird Twitter, and to her surprise, her followers responded to her predicament with financial support for Jason’s surgery. Despite this, the couple were still in dire financial straits and found themselves called home to the rectory, to move back in with her parents. What ensues is covered in PriestDaddy, a story not just about Lockwood and her father, but about family and the complexities of being raised in religion. ‘When I began to write it,’ she says, ‘I found that I couldn’t, I couldn’t cash it in. I couldn’t sell out. I wanted to write a really good book’.
And she has. Memoir is powerful for transporting us into the lives of others, but PriestDaddy is largely affecting to me as a woman whose religious upbringing is sometimes at odds with my work and the life I find myself living:
The story of family is always a story of complicity. It’s about not being able to choose the secrets you’ve been let in on. The question, for someone who was raised in a close circle and then leaves it, is what is the us, and what is the them, and how do you ever move from one to the other?
‘When I began to write it, I found that I couldn’t cash it in. I couldn’t sell out. I wanted to write a really good book’.
I read the chapter titled ‘Abortion Barbie’ on my way to work. In the chapter, Lockwood writes about being taken to pickets outside abortion clinics, about her parent’s pro-life stance, and speaks obliquely to why they have them, and what their views mean to her. I get off my train at Jolimont station, where each morning a cadre of Catholics camps out with anti-abortion signs, clutching rosary beads and quietly praying. There must be a clinic nearby; I know I’m supposed to hate them but I feel a deranged, conflicted kind of sympathy.
I see a nun driving a Toyota Camry, and a monk with an iPhone, and I wonder if I will ever be one or the other – or will I always be in the middle, laughing at obscene jokes while wearing a crucifix and trying to remove offensive words from my vocabulary?
What is it to have a father who you love but who voted No, when your life is saturated with people who demand you disown opposition on issues of morality and justice? How do you retain the love and support of a man with whom you’ve had tearful foot-stomping arguments about abortion, and whose face you’ve seen crumple with disappointment when you tell him that no, your new boyfriend is not religious? How can you be true to yourself as a writer without shaming the people who shaped and loved you, and to whom you feel such intense adoration and pride?
I ask Lockwood if she feels this strain too, of trying to be both, of writing honestly about the family you love. ‘What writing does, is you extend your empathy to the point where it obviously becomes uncomfortable for you. And that’s a religious exercise,’ she says. ‘So, I’m sitting there considering my parents who have, you know, shaped my life, shaped my choices, they shaped the things that I had the ability to do in this world, and that was sometimes very limited. So, I had to sit down and look at them as people, and extend God’s empathy towards them, you know.
‘How did God see these people, what is his idea of justice, like how do they scale? So I was exercising what was essentially a religious practice of thought in this way that I was considering them. So, while I’m not a God-fearing Catholic, I don’t attend Mass on Sundays, writing the book is probably the most religious I’ve felt in a long time, because I was attempting to be kind to them in that way, according to a religious framework, according to what I’ve been raised with.’
‘What writing does, is you extend your empathy to the point where it obviously becomes uncomfortable for you. And that’s a religious exercise.’
We talk about other things, like Twitter, and whether it’s bad (‘I’m going to come out and say it, it’s bad. That is the final word, it’s bad.’), her collaboration with Lisa Hanawalt, who designed the covers of both her poetry collections and of whose work I am a huge fan (‘She has a lot of synchronicity, or a lot of like, harmoniousness with what I do. Where it’s tremendously nude and obscene, but it’s also very innocent…We exist in a time where there’s these fantastic illustrators, and I don’t feel like poets and writers are as much in conversation with them, they are not working as collaboratively on stuff. And they should be.’).
I close with the typical, ‘So, what’s next for you?’, partly because I can’t wait to be absorbed in whatever comes out of Lockwood’s head next, but also because I don’t know how to finish a conversation with someone to whom I am a stranger but feel such affinity.
‘I am definitely working on a poetry collection and also working on a novel, which is always fun. I have talked in interviews a little bit about my first novel, that I wrote when I was in my early 20s. It was basically like a sister incest novel.’
I don’t want to hang up, but I say thank you and I do. I spend the rest of the weekend thinking about my dad at pro-life rallies, about my mother and how she would feel about having a book written about her. I read the passage from PriestDaddy out loud to my Dad about feeling complicit in the cloistered ‘we’ of the church, and he cries while discussing the work of missionaries who have lost their lives for their faith. He then drives me home, drumming on the steering wheel to The Angels and demanding to know where other motorists got their licences from, and I feel how very lucky I am to have the Priest Daddy I have.
PriestDaddy: A Memoir is available now at Readings.