Patricia Lockwood’s new memoir Priestdaddy is part origin story, part narrative of her time in the wilderness. Except here the wilderness is actually a homecoming, a regression from low-rent provincial American hipster paradise back to the crucifix-appointed parental home — in fact a rectory, because through a loophole in Catholic doctrine Lockwood’s father Greg is that rare animal, a priest with a wife and five children — in the un-bohemian heartland.
This isn’t the story of entitled millennials moving back to mommy and daddy because the big bad world was too hard. Lockwood and her husband Jason Kendell, neither of them college graduates, had spent an itinerant decade as committed bohemians. She was the house genius and he was her “Leonard Woolf figure,” the breadwinner who allowed her the freedom to write poetry full time. They were living in gorgeous and gothic Savannah, Georgia, where he had a job at a local newspaper. They were skating by with a joint bank account hovering in the three figures. He liked his job, and she’d broken into the pages of The New Yorker. But then his eyes started to go. He needed immediate surgery to remove cataracts if he was going to keep his vision. Their insurance covered only a fraction of the cost, but they were able to raise the funds — around $10,000 — by seeking donations online from their community of “internet addicts,” as Lockwood’s mother Karen called them, actually a mix of Weird Twitter and Poetry Twitter, zones in which Lockwood was amassing cult-like celebrity for her pithy, profane, absurd, obscene, hilarious sayings. As she writes, “connections forged in filth and nonsense are strong.” They were lucky but not too lucky — after two surgeries Kendall’s condition “was like waking up in the morning to find that English had rearranged itself, or that all pretty women had been scrambled into Picassos.” He quit his job because he could no longer read headlines, and they moved in with her parents in Kansas City.
Lockwood is the author of two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black (2012) and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014), and she is famous for her poem “Rape Joke,” originally published on the Awl in 2013 and generally considered the most viral poem of all time. In the Guardian Viv Groskop wrote that it “casually reawakened a generation’s interest in poetry.” The one wrong word there might be “casually”: The poem relies on the venerable formal device of anaphora — most lines begin, “The rape joke is” — to animate and render unstable Lockwood’s survivor testimony. “Rape Joke” also demonstrated her singular talent for transforming trauma into art as beautiful as it is painful, and doing so without compromising her incandescent wit. That talent is on display throughout Priestdaddy, though the book is hardly all about pain. It’s mostly the story of a very loving and eccentric family, full of American contradictions and dense with brilliant sentences that Lockwood seems to toss off as if she were brushing lint from her sweater. One of the lines in “Rape Joke” goes: “The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.” (Note the subtle deployment of “asking for it.”) Priestdaddy ensures it won’t be the only thing.
Most American discussions of religion begin with the word “faith,” but it’s not a word that comes up much in Lockwood’s book, and as a fellow lapsed Catholic I can relate. The word I think of is “church,” not the institution looking over the mountains to the Vatican but the place I went every week to recite the creed whose every line began “We believe” (more anaphora). What followed those words was for a child more real than your own life. “Does God exist, was never a question for me then,” Lockwood writes. “Do I exist took up the whole of my mind.” Church stopped when you stopped going to the building and stopped repeating “We believe.” For me, a longtime altar boy, it happened after I was confirmed (confirmation name: Job). For Lockwood, it happened around the same time, age 12 or 13, when she told her father she wasn’t going anymore, he asked her, “Well, if it isn’t true, why would so many people have died for it?” She replied, “Dad, people have died for every religion.” The “checkmate look on his face” vanished and he was quiet. She calls Catholicism a language she spoke a long time and then repurposed in her poetry, in lines like, “God has so many abs that he look like a corncob.” The departure doesn’t prevent a form of permanence: “The word ‘God’ does not fall out of the vocabulary, as the sun does not fall out of the sky. The shapes of the stories remain as do their revelations.”
Moving back in with her parents is an initially infantilizing experience for Lockwood and Kendall. “I shrink inch by inch,” she writes, “until I am no longer an adult but a baby toddling along in a comically oversized business suit.” At night she pats her husband on the back, he belches and says, “You burped me!” But for all its awkwardness, the homecoming is a soft landing. Lockwood’s teenage years hadn’t been without strife, suffering, and sadness, and she and her parents are surprised how pleasant it is to live together again. “I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home,” Greg says. “It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.
Mother and father are wacky right-wing baby-boomers bedeviled by internet memes that tell them China has unleashed secretly satanic rosaries on the world and a new form of diarrhea is killing the elderly. For her father, the world has been going to hell since the advent of communism and modern art eroded gender roles and ruined architecture, especially church architecture. “Architecture requires an equal balance of the male and female in order to be beautiful,” he says. “According to those standards,” his daughter writes, “the perfect cathedral would be a gigantic Prince symbol people could pray inside.” Though parents and child occupy opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrums, the trait unifying boomer and millennial Lockwoods is a gently perverse imagination. The family dog is named Whimsy.
Greg married Karen, an Irish Catholic, in high school, joined the Navy an atheist, and flipped to Christianity after repeated viewings of The Exorcist while serving on a submarine called The Flying Fish. Back on shore he became a Lutheran minister, then converted to Catholicism, remaining both clergyman and family man through an obscure Vatican-endorsed exception for ministers converting from other denominations. At home he wears a cassock when he’s not simply sitting around in his boxers cleaning his handgun or shredding his guitar atonally with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly providing backing vocals. Lockwood expresses some anxiety about her ability to capture her father on the page: “‘I can only write down what you say,’ I tell my father silently, tired of editing him with such childlike vigilance, of choosing only the quotes that show his brightest side. ‘Please give me something. Be a human being.’” But he emerges with a vividity that will be familiar to the lapsed children of religious men given to reactionary grunting and voting for Donald Trump. (Lockwood’s campaign dispatch for the New Republic from Trump’s victory night in New Hampshire was a model of cutting observation and oppositional sympathy.) It’s useful to keep in mind that the man watching Schwarzenegger movies in his underwear at home spends many of his days baptizing babies, conducting marriages, delivering sermons, and administering last rites to the dying.
Lockwood’s chronicle of her homecoming at times lacks dramatic tension, but it’s consistently charming, particularly her interactions with an Italian seminarian staying with the family until his ordination will make it all but impossible for him to have the sort of chummy friendship with a woman he enjoys with her. More than the return, the retrospective chapters of Priestdaddy lodge themselves in your mind, especially the stories with redemptive Catholic shapes. Some of these are lightly comic — her online courtship with Kendell while living alone in a nun-less convent after her resigned acceptance that her parents can’t afford to send her to college at St. John’s in Annapolis, or a family hunting trip involving blessings of doe urine to conceal the hunters’ human presence. Others creep into painful territory in a manner similar to “Rape Joke” and address her ambient awareness of criminal sex abuse by priests in her father’s diocese; the family’s participation in anti-abortion-rights actions, including her father’s arrest; and illnesses among children in her St. Louis suburb that probably resulted from toxic residue from uranium secretly refined there in the 1940s for the Manhattan Project.
In a chapter called “Voice,” Lockwood writes of having to get over her love of music in order to become a writer. She begins in praise of her sister’s singing: She “was born with a musical instrument lodged halfway down her throat”; “when she opened her mouth the forward curves of doves came out.” Patricia wasn’t so fortunate: “Let me be honest: my voice sounded like the final cry of someone killed by a falling piano.” From here she narrates her love of singing, her failure to do it well, and the predicament of an unhappy teenage misfit in a house full of other misfits (parents included), a house that seemed “made of screaming.” She attempts suicide with a hundred Tylenol but is saved with a trip to the hospital. After much barfing, “I was astonished to still find myself in possession of a sense of humor.” Her father appears the next day at her bedside: “My father came too, and sat in an unyielding metal chair against the wall and talked, his voice quieter and more targeted at me than I had ever heard it. He said, ‘The last time I tried to do it …’ and the rest floated away. The gentleness of the words was so lovely, the tone, the undulations, the caress. He sounded like a wave in a woodcut.” Moving from a place of light into darkness and then returning to light is something very rare indeed. It has the shape of salvation.