The Other I

February 9, 2008

A short life of an ex-nun

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

I left the convent with what, in retrospect, was a sense of vindicating victory.  I’d won.  I’d been accepted, and it was I who had decided to reject the convent, not the superiors who decided I wasn’t good enough.  So I didn’t have to deal with the bitterness of having been rejected.  On the contrary, my sense of self was that I possessed a superior moral vision.  I thought of myself as leaving Maryknoll because it was Maryknoll that had lost sight of its mission.  I, on the other hand, thought that I could best carry on my lofty purpose outside the convent enclosure.  In fact, I had no idea how much I needed to learn – fast.

I left Maryknoll and moved into New York City in the upheaval of the 1960’s when the younger generation was taking over the universities, dying for civil rights, and marching against the war in VietNam.  Hippies and flower children had begun to live in communes, experimenting with drugs, music, and sex.  We all thought we knew how to transform the world into a place of peace and love.

Into this caldron I came at the technical age of 27.  I did not suspect just how naive I was.  I’d left the farm where I grew up in the midwest at the age of 18.  I’d had no sexual experience whatsoever for nine years.  I knew little about using make-up, buying appropriate clothes, or styling my hair.  I presented myself with what I later came to recognize as an “ex-nun look,” more evident on the streets today on actual nuns wearing civilian clothes. 

Nor had I any idea how tantalizing I was, a young, innocent, frighteningly trusting, not unattractive virgin in New York.  Professors, priests, men from the TV studios where we’d broadcast the Maryknoll Sisters weekly program, fellow students, lawyers, workers from Summer in the City, friends and mere acquaintances vied to relieve me of this burden.  And I missed all the signals.  I rode the crowded New York subway in skirts that were too short and tops that were too revealing, and did not understand why men grabbed my bottom.  I ended up in parked cars and hotel rooms, truly mistaking the purpose my male companion had for our being there.   On one occasion a man followed me to my apartment where he stood outside the door for two hours trying every strategy he could to get inside, including a request to use the bathroom.  His last attempt was to disappear and reappear with what he claimed was dinner for us both.  Secure behind my locked door I did not relent.  I was too inexperienced at the time to fear he might develop into a stalker.  If he had, I would not have had any idea how to deal with him effectively. 

In truth, I was fortunate never to have been raped.  Well, in part it was good fortune.  In part it was because I didn’t always say no when that is what I would have preferred.  But my socialization in which I’d learn to believe that it was a virtue in a woman to strive to please was critically distorted and left me with a grave weakness – I’d never learned to say no effectively. 

Initially, I had moved into an apartment near Broadway on 86th Street with three other ex-Maryknollers.  It is a racially mixed apartment block that was fairly inexpensive but safe.  A middle-aged Black couple invited us over for drinks one evening.  It was years before the obvious occurred to me.  We were being interviewed to make sure we were not four street workers.  What else were three young women doing with a single older woman along? 

It was a short transition period, though, and within months, all of us had moved into our separate apartments, moving away from the security of our convent acquaintances and into our new lives. 

Gradually I began to stop telling people I was an ex-nun.  Because gradually that was no longer how I saw myself. 


  1. I come from a family of priest manques, so I can relate (as we still say in New York). Believe it or not, I can also identify with your sexual naivete, despite being a male.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 21, 2011 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you. It really is a delight to know that experiences like this – which feel so private at the time – really are shared.

    I can believe what you say about yourself. As I look back at those years, I thought everyone else was so experienced, so sophisticated. That’s not at all the way I see it now. I was innocent and naive in my own way. Others were struggling in a different way. But very few of us were mature or rooted in ourselves.

    But I think we were fortunate to have had those years. In any decade, it is almost impossible to be young and at the same time to have the slightest idea of how much we don’t know. Perhaps that is the benefit of youth. If we knew then what we know now, how very little we would dare hope to achieve.


    Comment by theotheri — October 21, 2011 @ 3:29 pm | Reply

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