Updated: Mar 30, 2020
I frequently discuss my love of memoirs, particularly ones written by women who have overcome hardships and share their truths with the world. There is something incredibly powerful reading the words memoirists are brave enough to put onto paper. I always reflect on the amount of strength it must have taken to overcome the fears and write a memoir. I have discussed it before, but I am currently writing a memoir. I have about 20 pages of typed stories, but it is a labor of love that I think will take years to write and perfect. Patricia Walsh Chadwick shares her childhood story in Little Sister, a memoir about a young girl who at the tender age of 18 was exposed to the real world after living her entire life in a strict religious sect, never having talked on the telephone, watched television, or read a newspaper. Her story is heartbreaking, but inspiring. Chadwick bravely shares her and her family's stories and does so in a way that is graceful and endearing. She shares what she went through and how she overcame the obstacles that set her back in life. I absolutely loved this memoir and compare it to the likes of Educated, The Glass Castle, and The Sound of Gravel.
Little Sister by Patricia Walsh Chadwick is about a religious community called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Leonard Feeney. Many of the members of this religious group were educated Harvard and Radcliffe graduates, who decided to follow Father Feeney's instructions by ditching their earthly possessions and many aspects of their life to follow in his teachings. They lived together in a community and followed all of the rules that were set forth by Father Feeney and his right hand, Sister Catherine. They created an extreme Catholic cult that enforced rules that separated families, abused the children, and created an atmosphere of fear and shame.
Sister Catherine convinced the families to separate from their young children, forcing the adults to live in one house and the children to live in another. The children rarely saw their parents and were watched over by strict nuns who enforced every rule. Sister Catherine believed that the members of their church should dedicate every aspect of their lives to God and that the connection between a parent and their child, or a husband and a wife, gets in the way of living a godly life. Chadwick lived in constant fear of Sister Catherine, who picked her out from all of the other girls and was abusive to her, eventually kicking her out at the age of eighteen. Sister Catherine forced everyone in the sect to change their name to a saints name. Chadwick, who for years had the name she so gratefully earned at birth, now had to go by a different name, as well as call her parents by different names, rather than mom and dad.
Chadwick's story is one of complete perseverance. Against all odds, she set out on her own and discovered the world for herself. Her drive and strength helped her excel in the world, eventually growing accustomed to the real world and realizing that her childhood was anything but normal. Her leaving the sect eventually lead to her parents and siblings joining her, though that took many, many years. The underlying theme to Chadwick's story is that of the deep love between a family. In the end, they eventually came back together and Chadwick holds a special relationship with her mother and father. One that she did not envision was possible when she was under the constant watch of Sister Catherine.
I identified with several aspects of Chadwick's story. Having come from a strict religious family, I experienced similar feelings of shame and guilt. Religion was used as a tool to make myself and my siblings conform to certain beliefs and we were brought up not to question anything and believe what we were told. Eventually, as adults, we have each come to our own conclusions about what we were taught, but as a child, you have no choice. In order to survive, you do as you are told and you believe what you are told. Chadwick had no choice but to conform, but the one thing no one could control were her thoughts. She always dreamed of a different life, one where having a crush on a boy was acceptable, not ungodly, one where life was not regimented and scheduled out every minute of the day, one where you could speak freely and not live in silence like Sister Catherine forced her and the others to do. She knew that life was out there and eventually she found it.
I absolutely adored this book and connected with Chadwick's story. I gave it ★★★★★ and highly recommend this book if you enjoyed memoirs, such as Educated, The Glass Castle, and The Sound of Gravel. The religious cult aspect is what drew me to it, but Chadwick's honesty and beautiful writing brought the story to life.