An introspective, decidedly un-cheery work that seeks to set the author’s record straight.
After Armstrong wrote an account of her seven years as a Catholic nun (Through the Narrow Gate, 1981), she followed it up with a cheery but admittedly untruthful memoir depicting her new life outside the convent (Beginning the World, 1983). Now, to describe the turnings her life took as she struggled to find her way in a secular world, Armstrong (Islam, 2000, etc.) adopts the image of a spiral staircase as a symbol of spiritual progress in T.S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday. First as a student at Oxford, where she earned a B.A. and M. Litt., but failed to obtain a doctorate, and then as a teacher in a private girls’ school in London, a position from which she was dismissed after a few years, she was what can best be described as an emotional wreck. Fainting spells while still in the convent progressed to episodes of amnesia and panic attacks, which led to years of useless sessions with psychiatrists, anorexia, even a suicide attempt and hospitalizations. Finally, in 1976, a physician recognized her epileptic seizures for what they were and put her on appropriate medication. At a loss as to how to make a living after losing her teaching job, Armstrong was in despair when publicity surrounding her first book brought her TV work. An early disastrous appearance convinced her that she could not make a career out of being an ex-nun, and when a chance to write a low-budget documentary on the early Christians came along, she grabbed it. By 1983 she was in Israel researching her subject. Exposure to Judaism and Islam while in the Middle East set her on a new course: writing about the historical development of the three great Abrahamic faiths, and in doing so examining her own ideas about religion, spirituality, and God. From her teenage search for God in a convent and her subsequent attempts to debunk religion, Armstrong struggled to clarify her own beliefs. What matters, she concludes at last, is not dogma, or right belief, but right action—in a nutshell, the Golden Rule.
Well-written and relentlessly self-aware.