Tessa Dahl looks out from a page of the Daily Mail online. I had never heard of her until a few days ago when someone drew my attention to the story headed, “Why I’m leaving a life of addiction behind and becoming a nun…”, but most Britons probably know her as the daughter of the famous story writer Roald Dahl and Hollywood star Patricia Neal, a novelist in her own right, mother of cookery show personality and former model Sophie Dahl — and a woman with a very chequered past.
The 53-year-old shows added signs of wear and tear from the alcoholism and cocaine habit she seems to have beaten, but you can see in the structure of her face the “sharp-cheeked beauty” the Mail refers to, and indeed, you can see her in her prime in another photo (right) taken with her father, who died in 1990. In those days she was a prominent London socialite with a couple of marriages behind her, but recently she has been living in the north-eastern United States where she set up house, near her mother, with some stray animals she rescued.
In the recent photo they have her posed with a Rosary in her hand outside a church. But for the past month or so she has been living at the Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut, home of the Benedictine order that she is the process of entering. Helping the Lady Abbess clean the chapel with a mop and pail, making butter, spinning yarn, keeping to a daily schedule of prayer is a far cry from hobnobbing with the rich and famous as she has done for much of her life, but, she says, “It is saving my life.”
It is an extraordinary turnaround, and it is not surprising that some of those who know her are sceptical. After all, her third marriage broke up because she came under the spell of a charismatic female Indian guru. All the same, there is something about the way she speaks in this interview that suggests this woman has found the answer to her lifelong search for inner peace.
‘They want to be sure that I am becoming a nun because I really, really, really love God, and they want me to prove that I can contribute to the abbey, that it isn’t just an escape.
‘Of course it isn’t,’ she adds, citing a moment of divine inspiration. ‘I had an enormous God experience as the nuns sang Vespers.
I felt as if a boulder had been pushed off my heart and it was open to joy.’
“If I wanted to escape,” she says, “I could do coke. But I don’t want to escape. I want redemption.”
Let’s just say, it’s hopeful.
Why her life has been so chaotic can be partly explained by a few biographical facts. As a child she saw her baby brother Theo hit by a taxi and left brain-damaged. Two years later her youngest sister Olivia caught measles and died. When she was nine, her mother had a stroke and the next few years revolved around her recovery. At 14 she discovered her father was conducting an affair with her mother’s best friend. She kept their secret for four years, and when she finally told Patricia, “she went insane.” They gave her bad advice:
‘I was 15 when Mummy encouraged me to become an actress. I was allowed to leave school to make a thoroughly unfitting film, Run Stranger, Run. I played a nymphomaniac murderess.
‘I started going out with older men. Dad had told me there was no point in having affairs unless it was with someone who was very famous and talented.’
In fact, at the time of her first marriage Tessa was 19 and her husband was 37.
Her father was unhelpful in another way too. She says that he “had no belief. He was frightened of feelings, of emotions, of God,” whereas she has always had a spiritual side (hence the Indian guru). But it was her mother who first found her way to Regina Laudis, after her marriage with Roald finally broke up in 1983. Patricia did not enter the order but spent more and more time at the abbey, underwent a religious conversion (presumably to the Catholic faith) and was cared for there in the final months before she died of lung cancer in August this year. Both the loss of her mother and a breach with daughter Sophie have propelled Tessa towards the monastic life.
She has a lot to regret in her life: the broken marriages, the rough ride she has given her four children, the alcohol and drug abuse that has made her a liability for her family, and her estrangement from them. In 1999 she made a suicide attempt and still has depression to battle. She currently depends on nine prescription drugs, AA meetings and intensive counselling for sanity and sobriety.
But she has hope, and I can’t help comparing her good fortune with dark despair that drove Mark Madoff to take his own life recently. The disgrace that has enveloped the prominent New York family over the Madoff business Ponzi scheme and the father’s imprisonment, as well as the possibility of criminal charges against other members of the family, must be among the hardest things in the world to bear.
Retirement to a monastery was not among Mark Madoff’s options, nor is it for the vast majority of people looking for inner peace. But what the monastery stands for — faith and redemption — is available to everyone. That is the meaning of Christmas, if people could only see it. And as Tessa Dahl has discovered, there really isn’t anything else solid enough to base your life on. Good luck to her.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet