- Read the latest author interviews from our monthly newsletter
Photo credit: Karin Locke
North Melbourne Books: Lapsed examines your Catholicism, from devout childhood through to reconstructed adulthood, the journey articulated with an often comic commentary. While the book is playful in tone, there’s a serious struggle that happens throughout as you try to sort out what your Catholic past meant and how it affects you now.
What made you want to write such a book at this time in your life?
Monica Dux: Although I’d stopped believing in God back in my teens, and had long since rejected the Catholic Church, I always felt shadowed by my Catholicism. It was as if being brought up as a Catholic had imprinted something very deeply on my character. When I was researching Lapsed, I often heard people comment that Catholicism is like an ethnicity, or a blood group. Something that’s quite fundamental to your identity – even if you don’t believe a word of it. And that really resonated with me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. If you ask lapsed Catholics to describe their relationship to their former religion, you rarely get a straightforward answer. There are almost always loads of qualifications, and lingering, ambivalent feelings; feelings that people often struggle to clearly articulate.
It was on a family trip to Rome, when my 6-year-old daughter suddenly declared a desire to be baptised as a Catholic, that I realised just how unresolved my own feelings were. I’d been bringing up my children in a thoroughly secular family, and yet I felt quite confronted by her sudden religiosity, even if it was just a childish whim. My discomfort wasn’t about her wanting to believe in God, but about the Catholic Church itself.
And so I realised that a reckoning with my religious childhood was long overdue. I had a lot of unfinished business with the Church, a lot of anger, and a lot of mixed feelings, so I wanted to figure out exactly what it was all about, and what it means today to be a lapsed/former/recovering/ex Catholic.
NMB: The chapters to do with paedophilia in the church are quite impassioned. Do you see these crimes and their cover-up as making the institution irredeemable, for yourself at least?
MD: Yes, I do. I approached this book with an open heart. I wanted to look at the light and the dark of my Catholic childhood, and weigh it all up, but when I researched Church abuse, the darkness stained all the rest of it, spoiling all the good parts. For me, it became impossible to separate the crimes of the Church from everything else that comes with the Catholic institution. I started to realise how little effort the Church has made to rectify the profound trauma that has been inflicted, and how devastating and unspoken so much of that trauma is – both individually and collectively.
It struck me that all of us who were brought up in the Catholic Church are so closely connected to church abuse, even if we don’t have a personal experience of it. I didn’t want to write a book telling people what to think or believe, but I did want to explain my own journey and how I came to my conclusions. I think that, uncomfortable as it is, it’s important for lapsed Catholics to examine their relationship to their former religion in light of the Church’s history and response to child sexual abuse. Because it’s not enough, to simply pretend that it isn’t relevant to you, just because you’ve stopped going to mass.
NMB: Your close relationship with your brother Matt is lovely to read about. He came out as gay at about the same time you were claiming your own sexual independence. How much did the relationship help you when growing up?
MD: My brother was such a wonderful companion when I was a child. We used to sing at the piano together as kids, and I think those moments were among the happiest of my childhood.
He is a year older than me, and I completely adored him when we were growing up. And when it came to our relationship to the Church, we were both on a similar journey. Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality are especially constrictive, and we both felt that quite keenly, in our different ways.
I was very lucky to have his support while I was working on Lapsed. We share a lot of memories, but he was very clear in allowing me to own mine, to write my book, even though so much of it intersected with his life. Which isn’t an easy thing to do, when you’ve got your own story to tell.
NMB: There’s a hilarious episode in the book where you decide to scandalise your school. For a health presentation you dress up as a condom to instruct on the importance of safe-sex. Has the same trouble-making ethic followed you through life?
MD: My son thinks I am very embarrassing and that I am a habitual line crosser, doing extreme, provocative things, and advocating openness about matters of sex, in a way that horrifies a teenager, at least when it’s coming from his mum! So if you asked him, I’m sure he’d agree that the condom dress-up was an early manifestation of that.
You have to be prepared to be a bit of a trouble-maker if you want to write the kind of non-fiction that I’m attempting. Pulling punches, shying away from difficult subjects because you are scared of how it will be received, trying to sugar coat difficult ideas, none of that makes for good, honest writing.
It isn’t easy, of course. I spent a lot of time while I was writing this book, thinking about my responsibility as a writer, versus my fear of upsetting people. It can be a high wire act.
On many occasions I’ve woken in the middle of the night thinking, “oh dear, what have I done!”…but it’s too late to take it back now!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MD: I recently finished Hamnet, which I loved. Such a gentle, graceful rumination on grief. I adored the way Maggie O’Farrell has re-imagined Anne Hathaway. My last few years have been so consumed with reading about Church history, and theology and Jesus (occasionally very dry, but usually a lot of fun), it’s often felt like there wasn’t much time for anything else. But now I’m heading into a complete Jesus-Free zone. I’m especially looking forward to reading Kazuo Ishuguro’s Klara and the Sun, and Emily Maguire’s latest novel Love Objects.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April