What We’re Reading: Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

By Melissa Wiley

The more time I spend trying to write the truth of my own life, the more elusive that truth becomes. Not just elusive but deeper, softer, making the process of trying to put it into words all the more daunting and complex. If you’re as honest with yourself as Patricia Lockwood seems to be, however, that effort also involves some raucous hilarity. I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered writing that combines such crystalline, poetic precision with the hardcore humor that comes with relentless, even savage, appraisal of details of a life left unforgotten. For my time and money, Priestdaddy is that rare book whose truth-telling made life itself into a desirable enterprise again. This may sound dramatic, especially for something as literary and irreverent as this, but this book helped me renew my efforts not only to plunder my own life for words worthy of being read by others but to keep trying to live it well. It also made me aware of how often I go about my daily business not fully engaged with my business, not paying the kind of gimlet-eyed attention that Lockwood has brought to her own.

I simply haven’t loved a book this much in a while, by which I mean I found myself reading not just for love of language or story but for all the effort it takes to be fully, vulnerably human. I normally take my time to finish a book, going back and forth between four or five at a time, but I closed this memoir within two days of starting it. Afterward, I found myself wanting to become as open to life as I felt Lockwood must have been while converting her own lived experience into a book that I want to loan to friends but also want to make sure they return when they’re finished.

When Lockwood and her husband, amid mounting financial and health challenges, have to move back into her father’s rectory—yes, her father is a priest, by special dispensation of the pope—she finds herself immersed in both a religion and a culture that she has long since rejected. Through it all, she writes with a clear compassion for the people who still subscribe to dogma that she cannot endorse, for all the reasons that many of us raised in and rejecting similarly traditional belief systems have found for ourselves. In fact, the only people whom I can imagine not appreciating her artistry and insight would be religious fundamentalists—or maybe even standard Catholics, those who might have a hard time digesting the many instances of child abuse that she personally observed among priests, for example, well before the horror made it into national headlines.

But lived truth is always at odds with the truth we’re handed by authority, be it ecclesiastical, parental, or political. Lived truth always requires its share of bravery, and the bravery here had me laughing out loud when I remembered certain passages days later. Too often, depth is a heavy thing, but here it’s as light as air—as well as likely something else that Lockwood would describe with far more originality and prettiness. In every sentence, her poet’s sensibility and aptitude for imagery never go missing. Have I given you enough reasons to read this yet? I hope so.