Anne Rice is the highly successful author of the Vampire Chronicles; beginning with Interview with the Vampire they have bought her fame, fortune and a cult following. I must confess that I had not heard of her or her writings until this autobiographical volume, subtitled “A Spiritual Confession” appeared on my desk. I do not think this is a disadvantage to understanding her story, which is told with painful and painstaking honesty; yet such is the power of her narrative that I think I will make a retrospective journey into the art to discover for myself the link between it and her life, which she describes so well.
She was born in 1941 into the colourful Catholic world of New Orleans. I say “colourful” but this hardly does justice to the vivid and sensuous landscape of her childhood, evoked with reverent intensity. Unlike Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood or Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, to mention two famous books in this genre, Rice does not recall her Catholic childhood with scorn. What she remembers is beauty: the beauty of the lavishly ornate churches where her family worshipped, the beauty of a child’s trusting belief in the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, the beauty of processions, feasts, carnivals, statues and saints. “We lived and breathed our religion and our religion was interesting and vast and immensely satisfying.”
Yet, like Mary McCarthy, her childhood was unhappy in certain respects; her mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death as Rice entered her teens and the family was also somewhat bohemian, which created its own tensions. Rice was given the name “Howard” (which she quickly changed to “Anne” on arrival in primary school), fed a diet of poetry and never treated as a child; consequently, despite the loving nuns who educated her, she found school excruciatingly boring and was never able to fit in with her peers.
Going to college in Texas in the early 1960s Rice left the safe and comprehensive world of her childhood faith and was pitched into the modern, secular world. She read Camus and found the secular humanism of writers like him “vigorous and brave”; for the first time she also met good people outside the Church, people who strove for justice without the need for faith; and there was the problem of the Church’s strict teaching on sexuality, which no one around her took seriously. Yet it was the modern world itself, more than sexuality, which “eventually caused me to leave the church.” She quit for the next 38 years.
The second part of the book describes how she came out of the “darkness” of unbelief. Easily as absorbing as the first part and told with honesty and irony, it will be familiar to all those who have made a similar spiritual journey. Atheism became an alternative religion, to which she adhered rigorously. There was no God and in the imaginary supernatural universe of her Vampire series Rice “poured out the darkness and despair of an atheist struggling to establish…hope in a godless world.” The good and evil of her childhood faith was carried over into a bleak milieu in which she secretly mourned what she had lost but could see no way back. During those years of “catastrophe of the mind and heart” she clung to two films, “Scrooge” (with Alastair Sim) and “It’s a Wonderful Life”; shown every Christmas, which had been emptied for Rice of its theological significance, they came to seem as good fairy-tales that nourished her starved imagination.
Then, after a long period in which Rice went through the motions of being a conscientious atheist, drinking heavily and suffering the death of her young daughter, she “began losing my faith in the non-existence of God”. She finally came back to the Catholic Church in 1998. Returning to live in New Orleans helped, as did the loving acceptance of her numerous Catholic relations, who had never attempted to argue her out of her devout disbelief. A trip to Rio de Janeiro and seeing the colossal statue of Christ above the bay with his arms outstretched was a further precipitating experience. Christ, she realised, was Love -– and Love was God.
There were struggles: how to go back to a religion that her sophisticated friends “despised and denigrated and regarded with blatant contempt” and how to respond to the contemporary scandals, divisions and arguments within the Church. The only possibility was to stop asking questions and to surrender that same mind and heart which she had carried away with her in youth; here Francis Thompson’s famous poem of flight and pursuit, “The Hound of Heaven”, is often quoted. Finally, “broken, flawed, committed”, Rice stopped writing about vampires and put her considerable gift for writing at the service of God.
This is in no way a sentimental journey or a surrender to simple nostalgia; though intensely personal it will strike a chord with anyone born in the same era whose faith was wrecked in a like fashion, yet for whom the person of Christ, refusing to be submerged, still rises above the reefs. The questions Rice raises about the human hunger for beauty, for potent symbols, for hope, for consolation, for truth, refuse to be dismissed; and atheism, for her at least, has been a thin and impoverished substitute.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.