The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 306 pages, 2004

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I’ve had a couple of Armstrong’s books on my to-be-read list for a while now, but I somehow ended up reading this brand-new one first. And, I won’t lie to you, it looked much less intimidating than the 500 pages of A History of God.

Synopsis: This is an autobiography that focuses on Armstrong’s life when she left her convent after seven years, at the age of 23. She expresses her confusion, disoriention and fear of the ‘real world’ after being a secluded nun, battles depression and seizures, and tries to come to terms with her changing ideas of God. Armstrong maps the long journey driven by both love for and hatred of religion that brought her to writing her popular books on a wide variety of religions.

Why you should read this book: You may scoff at the idea of relating to a former nun, but The Spiral Staircase may actually appeal to a wide variety of readers. Beyond religion, Armstrong chronicles her struggles to find her place in the world after becoming disillusioned by her first passion, a universal difficulty. A good read for anyone who’s ever ventured down the path less chosen in some aspect of their life. Armstrong does a great job of expressing a lot of strong emotions in a way that feels honest and not overboard. Her unorthodox life makes for a very interesting autobiography, bringing together faith, religion, illness, and the academic world in a look at the 1960s and 1970s, a period of time that was turning away from Armstrong’s original beliefs.

Why you should avoid this book: The last seventy pages or so get a bit muddled when Armstrong tries to explain why she wrote her other books. It’s hard to par down three or four major religions into such a small chunk of the book, never mind the fact that Armstrong is trying to impose her own thoughts and feelings into the same space. Still interesting, if a bit heavy in comparison to the rest of the book.

Opening paragraph:

I was late. That in itself was a novelty. It was a dark, gusty evening in February 1969, only a few weeks after I had left the religious life, where we had practiced the most stringent punctuality. At the first sound of the convent bell announcing the next meal or a period of meditation in the chapel, we had to lay down our work immediately, stopping a conversation in the middle of a word or leaving the sentence we were writing half finished. The rule which governed our lives down to the smallest detail taught us that the bell should be regarded as the voice of God, calling each one of us to a fresh encounter, no matter how trivial or menial the task at hand. Each moment of our day was therefore a sacrament, because it was ordained by the religious order, which was in turn sanctioned by the church, the Body of Christ on earth. So for years it had become second nature for me to jump to attention whenever the bell tolled, because it really was tolling for me. If I obeyed the rule of punctuality, I kept telling myself, one day I would develop an interior attitude of waiting permanently on God, perpetually conscious of his loving presence. But that had never happened to me.

Fabulous quotes:

‘You look stunned.’ Mark, a tall, solemn young man with the regular good looks of a male model, bent toward me solicitously. He had to shout above the dan of a jangled crashing that I was trying to identify as music. Amplified male voices screamed, guitars thrummed, cymbals clashed, and beneath it all, a drum beat a primitive, disturbing pulse.
‘No. No, not at all,’ I yelled back, politely. It would have been so much easier, I now realize, if I had admitted how strange this new world appeared to me, had shared my confusion and dismay and let people in. But I seemed quite unable to do this. In my own way, I was quite as impenetrable as Miss Franklin or any virgin martyr. I wanted people to believe that I was taking it all in my stride and that leaving the convent was as easy as falling off a log. I didn’t want to be the object of pity or curiosity, and the convent habit of reticence was now almost reflective. I tried to take an intelligent interest. ‘Who are the singers?’
With a unanimity that was almost comical, Jane and Mark both did a double take. ‘The Beatles, of course!’ Jane exclaimed. And then, as I continued to look blank, she added, a little more tentatively: ‘You have heard of the Beatles, haven’t you?’

These were not bouts of forgetfulness but lapses into a form of unconsciousness, when I was quite compos mentis enough to boil a kettle or cross a road safely, but seemed unaware of what I was doing. This must, surely, be a symptom of something sinister. And yet a part of me longed to believe Dr. Piet. It would be so wonderful if I really were simply behaving like a regular scholar. It would be such a relief to be typical for a change, instead of a freak. And Dr. Piet seemed to have no doubts at all; maybe he really did see a lot of this.
‘And in any case,’ he was saying, taking off his glasses and leaning seriously across the desk, ‘all these symptoms that you’re producing are just a smoke screen. They’re distractions from the real issue: the problems that drove you into the convent in the first place. You’re taking refuge in the dramatic and the exotic because they make you feel important, whereas, in truth, there is nothing very special about your difficulties. They all spring from identity issues, gender problems, and parental conflicts that are very common indeed. Shared by half the population, in fact. But you can’t bear to be so banal. No, you have to turn it all into some kind of Gothic trauma: convents, visions, voices, satanic terror – and now sleepwalking! Anything rather than be ordinary.’

Also recommended: Testament by Nino Ricci; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon.

Also by this author: The Bible: A Biography; The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah; A Short History of Myth; Through the Narrow Gate; Beginning the World; The First Christian; Tongues of Fire; The Gospel According to Woman; Holy War; The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century; Muhammad; A History of God; Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths; In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis; The Battle for God; Islam: A Short History; Buddha.

Fun tidbit: After September 11, 2001, Armstrong has contributed to panels, newspapers, and various forms of media in an effort to educate people about Islam.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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