Anne Rice, Knopf, 256 pages, $24
A decade ago, Anne Rice — the best-selling author of gothic tales of nocturnal bloodsuckers — found herself “Christ-haunted.” Statues of the saints, half-ruined Catholic churches, and the crucified Christ reignited the long dormant piety that suffused her New Orleans childhood.
Flannery O’Connor could not have chosen a more unlikely candidate for conversion. A card-carrying atheist who couldn’t name the sitting pope, Rice had devoted her novelistic arts to the creation of a parallel universe where vampires transcended gender boundaries and howled in existential despair.
Rice was, and remains, a tough nut. In both interesting and disturbing ways, Called Out of Darkness departs from the set conversion story, with its happily-ever-after denouement.
On the one hand, Rice has marked her dramatic leap of faith with the publication of two devoutly rendered novels — Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. But in this memoir, Rice acknowledges a deep resistance to commencing perhaps the most difficult phase of her spiritual housecleaning — a repudiation of the transgressive values that fired her creative world.
This recalcitrance actually reinforces, rather than subverts, her story’s power. Here is evidence of the turmoil that grips every soul faced with the radical demands of faith. For the moment, Rice emphasizes her fidelity to Christ — as opposed to the Church — to justify her respectful critique of Catholic moral teaching. The author is on a pilgrimage, and the reader anticipates — or, at least, hopes — her passionate intellectual honesty will carry her over such hurdles.
The second daughter of devout Irish Catholic parents with intellectual pretensions, she was named Howard O’Brien for her father, a one-time seminarian. In first grade, she changed her name to “Anne.”
The O’Briens grew up on the social sidelines of New Orleans’s graceful Garden District. Mrs. O’Brien believed that both daughters were future “geniuses” requiring creative stimulation and steady support; the author recalls many contented hours listening to her mother read classic stories.
The sisters were encouraged to “get up and go” to daily Mass and participate in the religious devotions that characterized city life. This was a time when Mardi Gras was not a drunken revelry, but a relatively austere cultural ritual infused with reverent anticipation.
A dyslexic who struggled to read until early adulthood, Rice feasted on the splendor of Catholic churches, savoring finely wrought stained-glass windows and religious statues. She prayed that she would be worthy of receiving the stigmata. “I remember my early childhood as fully of beauty and no ugly moment from that time has any reality for me. The beauty is the song of those days,” she writes.
Ideally, the grace-filled memories should have inoculated this sensitive child from the temptations of unbelief and despair. But there was a dark subtext to her lace-curtain upbringing: The author was barely a teenager when her mother died after a long battle with alcoholism. And strangely, though many pages are devoted to descriptions of favorite chapels and devotional objects, this memoir contains almost nothing about the experience of dealing with an alcoholic mother.
It is hard to know what to make of this omission. It may be a very proper sign of loyalty and respect for a mother’s memory — in contrast to the horrific descriptions of parental alcoholism found in such memoirs as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But as Rice’s story progresses, the reader begins to wonder if her childhood devotions constituted an unhealthy refuge from a bitter truth. If so, her subsequent repudiation of Catholicism makes considerable sense.
But Rice proffers a different explanation for the collapse of her faith at college. Though her parents were well-educated, they subscribed to the narrow moral guidance of an immigrant Catholic Church at a time when the Legion of Decency held sway. The author hungered for a more robust life of the mind and left the Church in search of intellectual challenge. This, at least, is Rice’s official explanation for her flight from Catholicism. In fact, this strange memoir offers conflicting signals on this point, impelling the reader to play detective, and even therapist.
Rice soon married her college sweetheart, Stan Rice, a poet, and established a new life as a writer in California, and then New Orleans. The couple had two children: Michele, the oldest, died at five of leukemia. Some fans believe that Rice began her vampire stories in an effort to work through her grief. If so, the immortal existence of her protagonists would serve as her next refuge from personal loss. Fortunately, the subsequent birth of Christopher gave the couple strength to end a pattern of hard-drinking.
Stan Rice died in 2002, following a diagnosis of brain cancer. In her memoir, Rice, rather self-consciously, reveals that her husband was her only lover. Her decision to settle this question may appear strange, but it touches on another element of her complex personality: a deep preoccupation with transgressive sexual identity and practices.
As a child, she resisted the boundaries and expectations imposed by gender roles, though this struggle apparently remained a hidden one. When she expressed a desire to become a priest, she was stunned to learn that Holy Orders were beyond her reach. She immediately rejected the notion of an all-male priesthood, but found the casual assumption of her female gender even more unsettling. Rice didn’t think of herself as a “girl.”
As an adult, the author injected this transgressive sensibility into vampire tales that explored romantic love beyond traditional gender and age limitations: the “Vampire Lestat, the genderless giant who lived in me, was always the voice of my soul.” Under various pseudonyms, Rice also wrote erotic and even sadomasochistic works. Later, as she commenced her reconciliation with the Church — returning to New Orleans and the warm embrace of Catholic relatives, and visiting Rome — the reader expects the inevitable repudiation of vampire revelries.
And with some regret, Rice does bring her beloved Vampire Chronicles to a close. Lestat, the protagonist of countless adventures rife with sensuous delights and angst-filled meditations, finally admits there can be no real substitute for God. Looking back, Rice perceives that her oeuvre actually charted the twists and turns of her path to Christ.
Given Rice’s idiosyncratic approach to the world, her journey to Rome was unusual, to say the least. Sacred objects and buildings once again attracted her passionate appreciation; her new-found wealth facilitated the purchase of countless statues, abandoned churches, and even her old convent school.
Rice also embarked on an intensive exploration of Jewish and Catholic history and theology. By the time her studies reached some point of completion, she was prepared to embrace the Church and, ultimately, to dedicate the remainder of her writer’s life to Christ.
Initially, Rice knew little of the moral controversies that roiled the Church during her long absence. That ignorance was a blessing, she writes, for her mind clung to the essentials of the Faith. Yet in the final chapter of her memoir, the prodigal daughter confides her own rather substantial doubts about received moral teaching.
She never identifies the precise source of the problem, but she acknowledges that her love and respect for her “gay son” have complicated her full acceptance of Catholic teaching. Further, her tangled sexual identity has strengthened her reservations. In essence, Scripture and Catholic doctrine affirm the great good and mysterious importance of sexual complementarity. This truth has moved to the heart of the Magisterium through Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. But while this teaching has healed countless wounds inflicted by an exploitive and dualistic understanding of the human body and sexuality, it poses a direct challenge to Rice’s own experience.
Of equal importance to the author, this new theological current may even threaten her artistic gifts. In the Vampire Chronicles, she revealed an impressive capacity to straddle both a masculine and feminine sensibility. Even after her conversion, Rice’s unique perspective guided her bold decision to write a first-person account of Jesus Christ’s childhood.
Whether a gift or a cross, the author’s “genderless” sexual identity poses a significant impediment to her full reconciliation with the Church. She is capable of heartbreaking insights into Revelation; the reader experiences her delight in an omnipotent God reducing Himself to the form of a vulnerable infant. But pages later, she argues for a reversal of Catholic teaching on abortion. Rice reignites our sense of wonder in creation, and then testifies to her blindness regarding fundamental truths.
The beautiful “idea” of Christ is one thing, but a fully integrated life that witnesses to His saving word confounds every believer. For this author, the next challenge lies ahead: a full excavation of her own fertile and dangerous imagination by the light of her chosen faith.