I loved Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This when I read it last year, and that love led me to pick up her much-praised memoir Priestdaddy. It didn’t park itself in my brain and start transforming it the way No One Is Talking About This did. Sometimes it even got on my nerves. But there are also some lovely moments.
Lockwood builds her memoir around a period when she and her husband were having financial difficulties and had to move in with her parents. As the title indicates, Lockwood’s father is a priest, in this case a Roman Catholic priest. He converted to Catholicism after marrying and having children and because one of a just over 100 married Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. This meant that Lockwood and her siblings lived in a church rectory, surrounded by seminarians preparing to become priests.
Lockwood uses incidents from the period living with her parents as springboards to send her back into memories from her childhood. For the most part, she takes a humorous tone, leaving readers to decide for themselves just how messed up things like her father’s obsession with guns and tendency to wear only boxer shorts around the house actually were. And then, every now and then, some reference to darker incidents, including sexual assault, will pop up, startling the reader into recognizing that her story is not just wacky hijinks in an eccentric household.
I appreciated, though, that Lockwood mostly left readers to decide for themselves about her father. He’s clearly not great at being a dad, and some of his actions are outright cruel. But you get the sense that Lockwood never wants to deny his place as her dad, part of who she is. And this feeling seems to run parallel to her feelings about God, who she no longer believes in, but can’t wholly forget. Here, she writes about how her belief faded:
I did not forget so much as turn it inside out, repurpose it, and occasionally use it to tell jokes like “Jesus is SUCH a manger babe” and “God got so many abs that he look like a corncob.” People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It is my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be fine. The word “God” does not fall out of the vocabulary, as the sun does not fall out of the sky; the shapes of the stories remain, as do their revelations. I was never fluent in tongues when it mattered, but when I am left to myself, out come all the old worshipped words, those fondled verses tumbling on verses, onto the page which can hold and forgive them.
There’s a lot in this book that I liked, such as the passage above. Lockwood has a vivid voice. But I sometimes lost patience with the book as a whole. Her jokey voice is a little too much at times, and as much as I appreciated her non-judgmental stance and willingness to let readers read between the lines, I sometimes wanted just a little more explanation for what was happening. And it reads more like an essay collection than a narrative, which isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t something I expected, so it took me a while to fall into what the book is doing.