The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she’s less interested in differences than in commonalities.

As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead ‘practice’ and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties:

“Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel. We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”

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25 thoughts on “The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

  1. I read this book many years ago (I bought in hard cover after hearing her interviewed). I found her experience with epilepsy to be quite profound for me as a person who lived with an undiagnosed mood disorder for many years. The reading also drove me to dig up a copy of TS Eliot’s poetry. She is quite a remarkable woman with an interesting journey. It might be worthwhile for me to revisit it again.

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    • The neglect of the health and psychological problems of the young women by the nuns was atrocious, rather than seek medical attention, they attributed them to moral failings, wilfulness, or being “too sensitive”, Armstrong went for years and years with her particular epilepsy undiagnosed and what a relief when it was so specifically identified, when a doctor pinpointed exactly the symptoms she would have been experiencing. I too know that feeling, in relation to a child, living with an undiagnosed condition and then the flood of information and relief of knowing it has a name and there are others, and even a parent support group. She is remarkable indeed, I look forward to reading more of her work. Thank you for your comment.

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  2. I find her a remarkable woman and will add this particular book to my list. I’m always interested as well in how people who’ve had a convent education seem to bond together, as you seem to have done with KA to an extent (not an apt expression, as I imagine she hasn’t bonded with you!).

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    • It is intriguing to me that someone who entered the order so young, could not only come out of it but challenge it in the way Karen Armstrong does, especially having been so conditioned by it. I’m glad I didn’t spend my primary school years being taught by nuns, my mother’s generation were rapped across the knuckles as they learned piano and truly believed they were going to burn in the fires of hell for various insignificant misdemeanors. Our religious teachers taught us yoga and meditation and let us choose the subjects we were interested in, which was every other faith but Catholicism!

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  3. Thanks Claire. I read this book a long time ago, but enjoyed it and was fascinated by her life post-convent. I was not taught by nuns, though I have many friends who were. Have you read a book called The Guineveres? It is by a first time author and it is about four girls, all of whom are called Guinevere and live in a convent for abandoned girls. It was thoroughly enjoyable, if needing a bit of editing and perhaps being a bit implausible, and I was entertained by the nuns who ran the home. It’s worth a read.

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  4. A wise final sentence from Hyam Maccoby. A very thoughtful post, Claire. I’ve not read Armstrong although I’ve often felt that I should. Which book would you recommend as a place to start?

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    • I’ve read one of her books and it was because I was travelling there for a couple of months, I’d say any of them are good, but require an inherent interest or purpose for reading, my next reads of hers are to shed light on what rise in past couple thousand years, which also explains what was suppressed, in terms of old knowledge and also the feminine connection to the divine.

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    • It’s a symbolic title, and part of the story, happily she’s climbing it! Thanks for telling me it made you laugh, it did make me laugh too and kind of gape in horror, well unless I’d written the book, I hope Karen Armstrong would see the humour in it, I’m sure she’s had worse, with the subjects she covers and the controversial opinions its likely to and no doubt does attract.

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  5. Claire this was a really well-written post and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Here again you’ve introduced me to a new book that I’d like to read. I visited Israel as well for about 8 days. Those were the most informative 8 days on the country and its people. I can’t say I loved it. I guess the best way of describing it is “feeling like I was close to the beginning of something”, if that makes any sense. The culture, the history, and the religious tensions were heavy, but fascinating. Karen Armstrong’s book would definitely put some newness into what I saw back then. I commend you for having to put up with intensive commentary in the margins. That would get on my nerves. I hate when used books have those. It only comforts me in my thinking that most people don’t understand a thing about what they are reading. Well I was a little wordy here but I’m happy to see you’re having a great staycation and reading some fantastic books on the beach, with thigh gap and all. Oooh la la! Happy August and continued reading my friend! 🙂

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    • My visit was pretty extraordinary too, especially due to all the restrictions that come with travelling with a native Palestinian, not the same route as Europeans or Israelis, nor the same treatment, we travelled overland and took the scenic route, crossing the wall and queuing up at those barbed wire fences about four times, lugging suitcases and children.

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      • That’s awful! While I lived in Cairo I had heard so many horror stories about the terrible way the Israelis treat Arab descent people. As a matter a fact they treated us poorly when we were leaving to go back to France after living in Cairo for 3,5 years. They treated us as if we were spies. Smh.. 6 months pregnant with an 18 month old. 😦

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  6. Thanks for this post, which I really enjoyed. I’ve read several of Armstrong’s books, found them thought-provoking and helpful to my learning, so I shall certainly be seeking out the one on Jerusalem…

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  7. As usual, Claire, such an intriguing and interesting review… your convent wasn’t Baradene was it? It looks like the convent I sent my daughter to… not because we’re Catholics, and she was able to tell them about Quakerism, but because it seemed a kindly place at that point …
    I taught my grandson the positive statement of that thought… ‘Do as you would be done by’… quoting from The Water Babies, about Mrs Do -as -you- would- be- done- by, and Mrs Be- done- by- as- you- did. After considering this… at four – he said to me – I think I’m a bit of both Grannie…
    I love books with notes in the margins, they’re nearly always slightly eccentric like yours… I was reading a history of Europe from the cellars in the library, and when we came to the fall of the Hapsburgs there was a positive rain of such comments which included the heart-rending information that the poor ousted royalty were brought so low that they were forced to use Stainless Steel Cutlery!!!! What a martyrdom !!!!

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    • Yes, it was Baradene Valerie, you recognise it, although it was painted grey when I was there, it looks much better in the apricot, which makes it look like it belongs more in the south of France where many of the buildings are that colour, blending into the reddish landscape.

      Yes, I found it interesting to consider the origin of that thought, which is the inverse of how I knew it, it makes one pause to consider words, a comment or action as they are intended and to question that, rather than thinking of a kind act or, it seems more universal words to say. I like the original rule.

      Yes, the notes in the margins are rather intriguing, as are the turned down corners, quite distracting as they tend to get me wondering what caused the reader to turn that page down and which sentence provoked them, it can sometimes build a whole alternative narrative, one imagined by the current reader!

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