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A Conversation with Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson sat down to discuss An Unquenchable Thirst with her longtime friend Mira Bartók, author of The Memory Palace, winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Mira Bartók: I’ve often thought of the writing process as a kind of monastic experience. You spend long stretches of time alone, wrestling with the angel of creation and sometimes with your demons. Writing also requires an immense amount of discipline and sacrifice, not unlike being a sister with the Missionaries of Charity. I couldn’t help wonder, while I was reading your book, whether or not you found some similarities between these two dissimilar vocations.
Mary Johnson: I do find some similarities. As a nun I had to censor myself all the time, and as a writer I get to speak my mind, but the ritual of writing and the introspection that it requires are familiar to me from my time as a sister. I usually write first thing in the morning, just as I used to pray first thing. To get to the best writing, I need to enter a space deep within myself, and I’m sure that years of meditation and confession prepared me to access that sort of naked honesty. I like that now I can eat more dark chocolate, the elixir of many a good writer.
MB: Is there anything that you miss about life as a nun?
MJ: I miss my sisters. I miss the shared purpose that comes from living so intensely in community. Sometimes I miss the simplicity of having only two sets of clothes, but most days I love having choices.
MB: Speaking of choices, before I began my memoir, The Memory Palace, I kept trying to write other things, but I eventually realized that my mother’s story needed to be told. I’m curious to know if you started with the intent of writing An Unquenchable Thirst or if you tried to write something else but your memories of life with Mother Teresa got in the way.
MJ: I knew I wanted to write about the Missionaries of Charity, but I didn’t start out telling my story. Marilynne Robinson read one of my early pieces, an essay about my experience as a sister, which was an immense privilege. More than a decade later Marilynne told me that she’d never forgotten that essay because it was the only piece of autobiographical writing that she’d ever read that abstained from the use of the first person singular pronoun. As a good sister, I had obliterated the word “I” from my piece. I wrote about Mother, about the life of a sister, about the poor. It took a long time before I realized that I needed to write about me.
MB: Since your book came out, have you heard from anyone you knew before you left the order? If so, what has their response been?
MJ: I don’t imagine that sisters are encouraged to contact me, but those who have written are mostly concerned that I’ve lost my faith. Father Joseph phoned me when I was still working on An Unquenchable Thirst. We had several long, beautiful conversations. He died shortly before my book was published, and I feel that loss very keenly. Sister Prema, the current Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, told a journalist that my book was an opportunity for the sisters to examine themselves—probably the best reaction I could have hoped for. Sister Priscilla died two weeks after the book came out—when I heard, I worried that my not-always flattering portrait of her might have killed her. Several former sis ters and brothers told me my book has helped them come to terms with their own experiences, and that their friends and families understand them better after having read my story.
MB: If you could go back and give your nineteen-year-old self advice, what would you say?
MJ: If I could, I’d tell my nineteen-year-old self, “Mary, I know you think God wants you to do this, but isn’t it a rather strange God who would give you a mind and a will and the ability to connect deeply with others, then ask you to renounce these gifts? Is that the sort of God you want to dedicate your life to?” I would hope that teenage Mary might reconsider, but I have my doubts.
MB: If I had known you back then, I would have suggested you start keeping a journal to help prepare you for becoming the writer you are now. I’m so thankful that I kept all my old journals because I constantly referred to them while working on my memoir, particularly because, as you know, I suffer some memory loss from a past brain injury. Was it difficult for you to remember your past, given your limited access to writing materials with the Missionaries of Charity?
MJ: In the convent we didn’t have journals, but neither did we have distractions—no TV, radio, newspapers, novels—just our own little lives. As sisters we reviewed those lives all the time: examination of conscience twice a day, confession every week, general confession at the annual retreat. I had plenty of opportunities to commit my experiences and thoughts to memory. Also, my parents had kept my letters to them—imagine how excited I was to discover twenty years of letters in old shoeboxes and files! As I wrote my book, I was also able to tag events in my life to the public records on Mother Teresa, which helped me work out the chronology. My memory had a lot of help.
MB: Mary, rumor has it that one early version of An Unquenchable Thirst was around a thousand pages! I read part of an earlier draft of your book and when I read the final version, I was struck by how many amazing scenes you had cut. How did you decide what to cut? Did you have help along the way?
MJ: My MFA advisor Sarah Schulman told me to write everything down before I forgot it, so I did, during my MFA work and for several years after that. My other MFA advisor, Kenny Fries, kept insisting that my manuscript be no longer than 250 pages, but, de spite his advice, I ended up with this behemoth of a first draft, mostly dialogue, because that’s what comes to me first. My husband and I read through everything—yes, all thousand pages—then marked what each of us thought could stay and what could go. I called this Mary’s Unquenchable Thirst Fat-Reduction Plan. My editor, Julie Grau, and her assistant, Laura Van der Veer, helped make it even leaner, and my agent, Dan Conaway, was a huge support al ways. I’ve got enough outtakes on file to fill another book, if I wanted to.
MB: I always tell aspiring writers to cultivate a supportive artistic community, otherwise you run the risk of writing in a vacuum. I think it’s also crucial to champion others, especially emerging writ ers. Would you mind talking about the community of writers at AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation), the nonprofit organization that you helped found to support women writers? How significant a role do AROHO women play in your writing process?
MJ: I think you and I are especially supportive of other writers— you through the tremendous resources of your Mira’s List blog and I through AROHO—because we’ve each experienced our own need for support. Darlene Chandler Bassett originally founded AROHO to help me write An Unquenchable Thirst. That she believed in my story meant everything to me. That women at AROHO retreats leaned forward in their seats whenever I read, that they gave me feedback on early drafts, that I found a group of local women writers unconnected with AROHO who read draft after draft of my book proposal—all of this was essential, not only to the quality of my work, but to keep me motivated during those ten long years of writing.
MB: Obviously, the name of your organization, A Room of Her Own Foundation, comes from the much-loved seminal essay by Virginia Woolf. At AROHO retreats one can feel Virginia’s vibrant spirit just about everywhere. I’d love to know which other writers, living or dead, inspire you the most.
MJ: When I need to be urged toward raw honesty, I read Meredith Hall and Toni Morrison. When my imagination needs to be shaken loose I read Jeanette Winterson and Marguerite Duras and Gabriel García Márquez. To make my language more robust I read Rebecca Brown. For elegance and honesty, I read Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Natalia Ginzburg, Kate Gale, Kathryn Harrison, Ruth Kluger, and Marilynne Robinson. For life guidance I read Alice Walker, Kathleen Norris, Viktor Frankl, Pema Chödrön, Karen Armstrong, and Joan Chittister. When I need to remember why I write, I go to an open mic of beginning writers with the courage to put their hearts out there. When I need a laugh I read Christopher Moore and Christopher Buckley and Caitlin Moran. For poetry in my prose I read Alessandro Baricco (in Italian). There was a time when I read St. Augustine’s Confessions every year, but now I’m more likely to turn to Sam Harris to provoke thoughts about life’s important questions.
MB: That transition from Augustine to Harris describes your spiritual journey fairly well, but I don’t sense any bitterness in you.
MJ: Life is too short to waste in bitterness. I just want to live and to love well. I keep growing toward honesty, toward living without illusion—it’s a great life!
MB: So, Mary, here’s my million-dollar question: What’s your next project? I’m dying to read more of your work.
MJ: I’m working on a follow-up memoir about life outside the convent walls—navigating the guilt and doubt, learning to pump gas and use a microwave, falling in love, gaining a sense of inner freedom, and building new communities. Like so many other people, I’ve abandoned organized religion, but the yearnings for meaning and purpose, strength and connection remain. I hope that my continuing journey can be a gift to folks hungry for an honest, fulfilling life beyond religion. And it won’t take me ten years to write this time, I promise!
1. An Unquenchable Thirst is a spiritual memoir, but it is also a coming-of-age story. How does the book mirror the traditional story of a feminist awakening? Do you consider Mary Johnson a feminist?
2. The narrative of An Unquenchable Thirst pulls the reader through extreme situations, intense emotions, and quietly fought battles. When did you empathize most with Sister Donata? What experiences in your life allowed you to understand some of what Sister Donata went through? Were there also times when you found her hard to relate to?
3. Discuss the book’s title. What do you think Mary Johnson was really thirsting for all along? Does she succeed in finding what she was looking for, or is her thirst inherently “unquenchable”?
4. Mary Johnson believed, as a teenager, that she was “too ugly to have a boyfriend,” then goes through a sexual awakening during her years with the MCs. Discuss the trajectory of each of her affairs, the motivating force behind them, and how they represented different aspects of romance, lust, and mature love. Can you relate to her experiences?
5. Mary Johnson chooses to join the Missionaries of Charity—and stays even when she experiences doubts—because she believes it is her calling. Discuss the concept of a having a “calling” in life. Do you believe there is such a thing? Is there a secular equivalent? Is experiencing a “calling” freeing, or can it inhibit growth? Discuss the implications of the concept as it relates to Mary’s story and to your own experiences.
6. For Mary, the lack of stimulating reading material and the lack of value placed on scholarship was one of the most challenging constraints of being an MC, and she seizes any opportunity for intellectual development and creativity. Discuss the different outlets for intellectual stimulation that Mary encounters. What does she learn from each of them, and which had the greatest effect on her personal development?
7. Mary Johnson’s trip to Sweden with Mother Teresa is a turning point in Mary’s development. How does that trip change Mary’s perspective? What does she learn about Mother Teresa, and what does she learn about herself?
8. Among the reasons for Mary’s decision to leave the MCs is her desire for intimacy and connection. Are those feelings universal? Do you think the other sisters were suppressing similar desires?
9. Mary has doubts about the way the MCs minister to the poor, questioning whether the order makes the best use of their resources and funds. What do you think the best way of giving is?