Where priests are concerned, we tend to make certain assumptions. Priests are holy. They are wise. They are serious, authoritative, committed. A priest’s occupation is less a job than a calling, and suggests he’s in command of an identity that’s clear and cohesive. On the surface, countering this reductive image is the task of the poet Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy—a book centered on her father, a married Catholic priest, and all that has built up around his roles in faith and family.

Twelve years after she first moved away from home, Lockwood and her husband Jason are buckling under the weight of intertwined financial and health in the Kansas City rectory where her parents now live. There, Lockwood is plunged back into the environment of her upbringing, one dominated by a larger-than-life father who is synonymous with the church and all the reasons she left it.

In his daughter’s telling, Father Greg Lockwood’s religious origin story has an air of myth. As a young man, he was an atheist. But soon after he married Lockwood’s Catholic mother and joined the Navy, he had an awakening. Stationed on a nuclear submarine, he came to Christianity after multiple undersea viewings of The Exorcist. Not content with being a mere believer, he later became a Lutheran minister before converting to Catholicism. The Vatican granted him a dispensation to become a priest.

Father Lockwood’s priestly persona seems to confirm as many stereotypes as it upends. Lockwood presents him as a mix of tradition and trouble who preaches staunch conservatism, opposition to gays and abortion, and strong endorsement of guns and red meat. He declares the movie Bambi “PROPAGANDA!” and any woman with an opinion a “feminazi.” When he’s not preaching, he’s lounging around the rectory in near-transparent boxer shorts, making loud pronouncements to his wife. He plays the electric guitar ineptly but loudly. He dotes on the dog and believes cats are as bad as Democrats. He showers with dish soap and scrubs his legs with washcloths that always seem to be hanging damply in the bathroom. He calls the daughter he’s sheltering “Bit” and antagonizes her, mostly with affection.

He’s a real person with dubious tastes and prejudices, embarrassing habits, and occasional moments of wisdom. In other words, he’s a dad. But even the realest of dads can remain enigmas, and this one surely is. Lockwood is mostly stuck describing her father’s antics and imagining her way into his experiences; for all his flamboyance, he’s not big on sharing his feelings. Lockwood’s mother is equally colorful, offering up bon mots on everything from Internet quizzes to Satanism in Italy, but her daughter gives her more dimension. She’s more generous, willing to talk to Lockwood and to listen, even to reflect on what she can sometimes recognize is the strange shape of her life—all in a way her husband seems constitutionally incapable of doing.

Pen in hand at the dinner table, Lockwood is keenly aware that her family is material, and she has claimed that material as her birthright. The seminarian temporarily living in the rectory, the walls bedecked with gory religious art, her father’s last rites kit sitting by the door: “All of this is unremarkable to me,” she writes. It is less so, she knows, to her husband. He was also raised with religion and renounced it, but there is no way to prepare for the fever pitch of Lockwood Catholicism, domesticated but not exactly housebroken. Here, Jason is a supportive and skeptical confidant, as well as a kind of proxy for the book’s readers, most of whom are also likely to find life in the rectory something other than normal.

For most of its first half, Priestdaddy is a hallucinatory account of this family funhouse with the prodigal daughter as winking narrator, casting a cutting but loving eye on those she’s closest to. It’s sharp and entertaining and a little exhausting. But as the narrative develops, it reveals more layers than the cheeky title and cover art would suggest. This is a story about all kinds of sacred things.

* * *

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about why a smart, artistic weirdo who can write like a demented angel would grow up and turn away from old school religion. For much of the book Lockwood lets us rest on those conclusions: describing herself simply as “long and fatally lapsed in the tradition,” she focuses more on her family’s exploits and the giddy horror they provoke in her than deep meditations on faith. But when she delves into her childhood for longer stretches, her still-unresolved questions bubble up with more insistence.

Lockwood explains that she was born curious, and that her conviction that she was a writer took hold early. She learned to like who she was on the page; her voice there was one she could believe in. Like her father, Lockwood believes she has a calling. “I was not made in his likeness,” she writes, “but I have chosen something of his same extremity, his willingness to be available for the questions that knock on the door in the middle of the night.” She describes her identity as a writer with matter-of-fact confidence and an unusual lack of either sentimentality or cynicism.

Being a writer means keeping your eyes open, and there’s plenty to witness in the world of the church: its treatment of women, alternately dismissive and hostile; its abuses of power, taken for granted and kept quiet. (Lockwood recalls her confusion in 2002, when the sex abuse scandals broke: “Didn’t everyone know?”) When she was sexually assaulted as a teenager—an experience that inspired her stunning poem “The Rape Joke”—Lockwood’s “pro-life” doctor was unsympathetic. “It must have been then I began to suspect that something is not right with the way these people have arranged the world, no matter what their intentions,” she writes.

Lockwood’s estrangement is born of intimacy, and she chronicles it with clear eyes. When she writes about her experience of faith and her departure from it, her prose sheds much of the eccentricity that characterizes the family-focused sections, and takes on a striking, clarifying calm. Returning to the subject of how women are sidelined and subjugated, and to examples of hidden or ignored abuse by priests, there’s a sense that these incidents break her heart even more than they boil her blood.

At the same time, the oddities of Lockwood’s upbringing bring her a kind of dizzy pleasure, playfulness and perversion cozied up together in ways that fuel her poetry (like in her heroically weird collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, published in 2014) as well as her prose. Her recollections and reckonings have a satisfying, meandering messiness; she presents bizarre little details breezily, then pirouettes back to suss them out. She observes “the citric humor of high school girls,” a figure of Jesus with “a childish roundness to his arms and legs that suggests he is made of endless breadsticks.” Of a gilded cathedral, she notes: “If you melted down all the gold in that place, it would be the size of one of God’s fillings, enormous.”

Amid this richness, there are some gaps. We don’t get a sense of what Lockwood’s parents’ unconventional marriage is like, or of who Father Greg is to his congregants, the people who believe in him. He can seem less like a fully fleshed-out man than a series of impressions and anecdotes, shouting from different corners of the house. It’s not clear how seriously we’re supposed to take him, or how seriously Lockwood herself takes him—or even how seriously she can, considering the fundamentals of their roles and relative positions.

How seriously can you take a person—someone with a public role like her father, who is called upon daily to perform good faith—when you’re also intimately acquainted with who he is off-duty? Does acquaintance with your father’s quirkier habits complicate your ability to trust and esteem him as a religious leader? Can a skeptical daughter make peace with such a literal embodiment of the patriarchy? What might it do to her to try?

* * *

Attending her father’s ordination when she was a child, Lockwood recalls, “My mother sat next to me, and I understood that she was what made him different from the other priests, and I understood that I was what made him different from the other priests. After it was all over, everyone had to call him Father, but I called him that anyway, so it made no difference to me. All fathers believe they are God, and I took for granted that my father especially believed it.” By the time Lockwood is writing this book, she has come to see her father as the walking, talking, yelling embodiment of the church. Having given up that church, she is left with a father who represents something she has rejected, and the task of figuring out what he means beyond it.

When you are close to someone, you know they are fallible. Still, maybe patriarchs who fit a more traditional mold as authority figures have an easier time synthesizing their more public roles with the ones they assume at home. Maybe they are better at hiding seemingly contradictory aspects of themselves, or harbor fewer contradictions to begin with. Most Catholic priests don’t have the complication of wives and kids to provoke these kinds of questions. They don’t have Father Greg’s audience. Maybe if they did, some things wouldn’t be so easy to hide.

My father isn’t a Catholic priest. He’s a reform rabbi. There are some radical differences between those two roles of course, but as a position—one he chose, and his family is in by proxy—there are plenty of parallels that made me shiver as I read Lockwood’s book. I know what it’s like to have a backstage view of religious observance; to see how other people’s burdens have weighed on my dad, how taxing this role is. I know that people struggle to see religious leaders as real people when they also need them to be moral guides. I know the awkward fame of being mentioned in a sermon, “shrunk to a symbol to illustrate some larger lesson, flattened out to give other people comfort or instruction or even a laugh.” I know what it feels like to be defined by my dad’s job and other people’s ideas of who I am in relation to it. And I know the feeling of owning a tradition and community regardless of your level of faith.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about the children of clergy, and wondered if it’s possible to generalize. Having been raised by parents for whom religion was a job as well as a belief system, are we more likely to embrace it when we have the choice? Or does our upbringing make us skeptical, apt to turn away from the values and beliefs that were modeled for us so expertly? Have we simply seen too much? In a family like Lockwood’s, with five children, I suspect there are at least that many answers. Among the kids of clergy I know, rates of uptake vary.

Lockwood has left the church, but there are no clean breaks. She’s learned to look at her father and her family without blinking, to own her place in their world while keeping her distance. In the process, she manages to disarm some of the anguished, au courant debate about empathy in These Divided Times: how to conjure it, when and where to practice it, how much of it is enough and too much. She can sit down for dinner with people she fundamentally disagrees with and whose views she finds laughable, even dangerous. She can let them appall and amuse her; she can identify with them and love and resent them. She can sleep under their roof for just as long as it takes her to save the money she needs to get away. She can write a book about them and make a point of wrestling with all of this. “[I]t is not blasphemy, it is my idiom,” she writes. “It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.”

Eryn Loeb

Eryn Loeb is deputy editor of Guernica. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesLongreads, Bookforum, Poets & WritersThe Awl, and other publications.

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