Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

The story of a family is always a story of complicity.

As always, I struggle to review books that I loved unequivocally. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood is such a book.

Lockwood’s memoir focuses on her father, Greg, who, despite being married with five children became a Catholic priest (there’s a loophole in the Vatican rules). As Lockwood describes, after years of being a Lutheran pastor, “…he was tired of grape juice. He wanted wine.”

She creates a striking portrait of Greg – a guitar-toting, gun-cleaning man, who has a penchant for cream liqueurs and struts around in his underwear, making bullish demands of his family.

He plays the guitar like he’s trying to take off women’s jeans, or like he’s standing nude in the middle of a thunderstorm and calling down lightning to strike his pecs.

Whenever he didn’t like people, he cleaned his guns in front of them. Part of me found this habit appalling, but the other part of me respected his flair for high theater.

Equally significant is Lockwood’s mother, Karen, and I finished the book wishing above all else that I could meet her.

If my father is best described in terms of his nudity, my mother is best described in terms of her Danger Face, which is organised around the information that somewhere in America, a house is on fire.

But Karen is not anxious or meek. In fact, she’s fearless, and quietly and efficiently manages the people around her. Lockwood describes her as “…the person you wanted with you in a crisis. She was someone who willingly went down into the underworld and came up again as pure levity.

Denied a college education (Greg deemed it a waste of money), Lockwood was trapped at home until age 19 when she connected with a guy, Jason, at an online poetry forum. They eventually met in person and immediately become engaged, despite Greg’s protestations that Jason was likely a murderer (Lockwood’s sister dryly points out, “…we are the ones who are not normal”.)

After a decade of marriage, dire financial circumstances force Lockwood and Jason to the rectory, to live with her parents for nine months.

The first glimpse I get of my father he’s spread out on a leather couch in a pair of tighty-whities, which reassures me that nothing significant has changed since my departure twelve years ago. “I know so much about him,” Jason whispers over my shoulder. “Every time I’m in a room with your father, I feel like I’m supposed to be stretching his thighs.”

Lockwood’s story has a darker element, and the prominence of the Catholic Church creeps in around the edges of the family anecdotes –

We knew things the way you know about that one high school teacher or that one babysitter or that one coach or that one scout leader, except our neighborhood spanned the whole country.

Ultimately, her story focuses on the broader problem of abuse within the Church and the conservative men who control women –

…all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency.

References to her own traumatic experiences (including a rape and a suicide attempt) are fleeting but gut-wrenching –

When you cannot pinpoint a pain in your body, the whole world seems to throb with it. Trees in pain, lit windows in pain, Wednesday nights in pain. Pianos flaming with pain, and the scale sliding up into a cry.

Lockwood is a poet, and her particular way with words is evident in every paragraph. I’m not sure how she manages to be both concise, descriptive, poignant and funny all at the same time but that is exactly what she does. Her writing is breathtaking and I could have quoted a thousand passages from this book (so it feels an achievement to have narrowed it down to four) –

The beach house is very near the ocean, and decorated in all the shades of feminine hygiene.

One of them is decorated with much more lace than the others, gouts and gouts of it, frothing all over him like pony sweat.

She smiles her thinking-of-babies smile.

The dining room looks like a dog just opened a birthday present in it.

Lockwood comes across as an observer of her own life, ever-so-slightly detached from all that happens around her. Coupled with the humour, it saves the book from any sense of despair, and instead allows her to write about very difficult subjects. And despite what you might expect, there is no malice in descriptions of her family or childhood. Instead, there’s affection and camaraderie, and above all else, love.

5/5 A memoir with everything.

A row of priests, with the bishop at the center, is sitting just parallel to us, so that I’m making eye contact with at least one man of God wherever I turn… “Our salvation has arrived,” Jon tells us on the way back from a trip to the bathroom. “The alcohol is free.” He is carrying an armful of Mountain Vodka Dews, a sophisticated yellow cocktail he invented two minutes ago, and he distributes them with the efficiency of a nurse passing out pills in paper cups. “Keep them coming,” we instruct him…

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