Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SEMINARY BOY by John Cornwell


A Memoir

by John Cornwell

Pub Date: June 13th, 2006
ISBN: 0-385-51486-7
Publisher: Doubleday

An English writer now in his 60s recalls his wild boyhood and his experiences in “minor seminary,” a secondary school for boys preparing to become Roman Catholic priests.

Cornwell has written previously on religious matters (Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, 2001, etc.), and here he follows a somewhat familiar itinerary on his spiritual/religious journey: As an impoverished, troubled child, he seems slated for hell, then finds faith, loses it and later recovers it. Before leaving his family, his father bounced one low-paying job to another, as did irascible Mom. The author is well on his way to becoming a criminal (he fights, lies, fails at school), and then, most traumatically, is sexually assaulted by a stranger in a public restroom—an incident he reports only to a priest. In a waking dream, he sees Satan (“an ageless dark being”), who seems interested in the boy. Frightened, he becomes more involved in his church, and on a field trip to a priory begins to feel the call; then Jesus talks to him directly. Off he goes to Cotton Seminary (a boarding school), where he meets some classmates and at least one priest who wants to have sex with him. The boys kiss him (he likes it); the priest offers a manual inspection of his penis (he declines). But Cornwell finds a life-long friend, too, a priest who teaches English. The author battles his awakening sexual feelings throughout his school years. After graduation, he attends seminary briefly, hates it, quits, reads Darwin, becomes agnostic, heads off for undergraduate and graduate degrees at, respectively, Oxford and Cambridge. Cornwell, who says he based his memoir on “unaided personal recollections” (no diaries, etc.), remembers with remarkable clarity the daily events and conversations of a half-century ago.

Capably written, but cynical readers may raise an occasional eyebrow.