Welcome back to the Literary Helpdesk. In an ordinary week I would begin this column by saying that we are contemplating the image of Mary Magdalene, because we are, but I have other things on my mind as well, and they are what led in the first place to the meditation on the Magdalene, the archetype of the sinful woman.
Lisa Montgomery is the only woman on US federal death row. She is there because she committed an incomprehensibly brutal crime: she killed 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and then cut the baby out of her stomach and took it for herself, treating the infant as her own. Lisa has admitted this crime. Her execution is scheduled for 12th December, 2020 (originally for the 8th, but the US Dept. of Justice rescheduled it after her lawyers tested positive for Covid 19 following a prison visit with Montgomery).
St Mary Magdalene is a woman whose story is told in many different and incompatible ways. She has been called a prostitute, a penitent, a wealthy widow, a feminist icon, proof of a female priesthood in the early Church, even the wife of Jesus. What is actually said of her in Scripture is: Jesus cast out of her seven demons (Luke 8:2); she stood at the foot of the Cross alongside the Blessed Mother, Mary the mother of Clopas, and the beloved apostle (John 19:25); she saw Jesus laid in the tomb (Mark 15:47); when she brought spices for his body she witnessed the empty tomb (Mark 16:5); as she stood there weeping Jesus appeared before her in his gloriously resurrected body, whereafter she announced to the disciples “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:11-18).
In art the Magdalene is typically painted with her head uncovered, her gleaming hair streaming over her often-exposed shoulders, a symbol of sensuality and temptation. Nudes abound in art, but there aren’t many saints artists have presumed to draw bare breasted as Mary Magdalene frequently is. Our Lady is depicted suckling the infant Christ, and St Agatha is shown stripped to the waist in preparation for, or in the midst of, torture — or else modestly clothed and carrying her severed breasts on a plate — but no other saint is routinely drawn with the carnality of St Mary Magdalene, the proto-evangelist.
In the frankly odd treatment of Mary Magdalene we see something of the Church’s struggle to understand women as sinners: how and why they are drawn into sin. Certainly Mary Magdalene was a sinner– all men and women are — and we can suppose that she struggled given that she needed seven demons exorcised. Why these demons have been historically understood in terms of sins of the flesh is puzzling.
Indeed, the association of female sensuality with prostitution is curious altogether, as the sex trade is more typically an expression of male lust. If there are women who become prostitutes to satisfy some prodigious appetite for sex, they must be a vanishingly small percentage of the untold numbers of women who have prostituted themselves. Most have done so out of desperation, dearth of options, or as a result of abuse, manipulation or force. Whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, how odd that the woman who stood beside Our Lady at the foot of the cross — when all but one of the apostles has fled — and who was the first to greet the risen Lord, is still drawn bare headed and bare breasted, as though her profound penitence never took.
Sin is one issue that we can often trust fiction to illuminate where theology is left fumbling, because sin haunts the wild reaches of the soul that pull against reason. Rumer Godden in particular, is deft at exploring the sinfulness of women in a way that preserves the complexity and dignity of her characters, and leaves room for the action of grace. A striking example of this skill is her 1979 novel, Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy.
Godden was often assumed to be Catholic* due to her many stories about nuns and her understanding of Catholic liturgical and devotional life. She entered the Church in 1968, but she was an Anglican much of her life, as were many of the religious women she wrote about — including the ones that go a bit loopy in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus, arguably her best known novel. The religious order in Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy, however, is definitely Roman Catholic, for it still exists: the Dominican Third Order of the Congregation of Saint Mary Magdalene. Also known as the Dominicaines de Béthanie, the group had its genesis in the 1860s under the spiritual guidance of Pére Marie Jean Joseph Lataste, OP.
Bound by obedience to his superior, Pére Lataste reluctantly went to preach a retreat at a women’s prison. Arriving in the evening, after the inmates had completed the 14 daily hours of hard labour required of them, he was surprised to find over 400 women in attendance at the night retreat. He greeted this congregation, as he believed Christ would, with the words “my dear sisters,” and many of the women began to weep. It had been so long since they had been addressed with civility, let alone tenderness. The priest preached to them about the unconditional love and forgiveness Mary Magdalene found in Christ.
This began Pére Lataste’s ministry to female inmates. He preached, said Mass for them, received their confessions, witnessed their conversions, and developed a spirituality that allowed them to treat prison as a convent. This led to a Dominican congregation that acted as a halfway house for women leaving prison. Many of them stayed and took the habit. The spiritual transformation wrought by a life lived in and for Christ often made it impossible to tell which members of the congregation had been criminals.
There was a tradition in the community from the beginning regarding the identity of Mary Magdalene: as well as having been a prostitute cleansed of seven demons, she was also thought to be Mary the sister of Martha at Bethany; the woman who anointed the feet of Christ at the house of Simon the Pharisee, washing him with her tears and drying him with her hair; and the same who anointed him with spikenard soon before his death, affronting Judas Iscariot with her extravagance. As Rumer Godden wrote in her note preceding Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy, many contest this identification, but she maintains it is at odds with neither Scripture nor Tradition. Whatever one’s view of the portrayal of the Magdalene as a prostitute, the characterisation is not a simple one: she was, on this reading, also a penitent, a contemplative, generous in giving to God, and a passionately devoted disciple who followed Jesus to the foot of the Cross. Women can, after all, be more than one thing.
The protagonist of Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire, née Elizabeth Fanshawe, aka Madame Lise Ambard, aka Le Balafrée has been many things: an orphan, an army driver, a French pimp’s mistress, a prostitute, a battered woman, madame of a brothel, a murderer, a prisoner, a penitent, a convert, and now a Bethany Dominican. After having served 15 years for killing her former lover, the pimp Patrice Ambard, Lise’s recollections gradually reveal how a nominally Protestant English girl raised by her maiden aunt became a Parisienne prostitute, committed murder, and entered a Roman Catholic convent.
The plot has been described as a melodrama, and there are certainly lurid elements, but these are not there for their own sake, nor to spice up a spiritual tale. What Rumer Godden presents is an exploration of several ways that women find themselves ensnared in serious sin.
Lise almost stumbles in. Coming from a place where everyone she knew operated from motives that were more or less simple and benevolent, she arrives in Paris following its liberation by allied forces and is swept away by the celebration, never suspecting that there could be evil lurking now the War is over. She later tells the Bethany sisters who visit the prisons what an easy mark she was for a man like Patrice when he saw her soaked and dancing in a fountain with the other revelers.
Grooming, we now call it. When he took her home with him she accepted it at face value as kindness. When he took her to bed — she had never so much as kissed a man before — she thought the delight of it to be a part of the love they shared. And for her part it was a true and durable love. As she tells Soeur Marie Alcide, even if you love the wrong man it is still love. Lise’s love withstands Patrice’s violent temper and beatings, his insistence that she earn her keep in the brothel he owns, and his eventual rejection of her in favour of Vivi.
Lise’s love is tragic. Even when she kills Patrice it is not out of wild sexual jealousy, but a sort of desperate care for Vivi, and even for him. In Shakespearean archetypes she is a Desdemona figure, “one that loved not wisely, but too well,” but Godden is not writing in a Shakespearean frame. Grace has a role here that it doesn’t in Othello.
“If Monsieur Patrice were alive, when you come out of Vesoul [prison] would you feel compelled to go to him instead of to us?” Soeur Marie Alcide had asked with her accustomed directness, and Lise had stared at her in genuine astonishment. “But — I couldn’t — with what I know now.”
“What do you know now?” and Lise could only answer, “Le Seigneur, Our Lord,” but she added, “Poor Patrice.”
Even amongst Christians today there is a tendency to subscribe to and idolize “a simple ethic of love.” This is the Gospel: Love. Isn’t that what scripture says? Surely nothing else is required. Except this did not work for Lise. Love she had in abundance, but it was no inoculation against sin. Even in one as innocent as Lise, love without God turns monstrous.
We each of us have a throne in our hearts upon which sits that which governs our thoughts and actions. As Lise discovers, if we place anything there but God we are governed badly — tyrannically, corruptly — no matter how purely or fervently we love.
This is simple Thomism, really: the belief that sin grows up from disordered love. We tend, though, to think of it in the abstract: sexual sin comes from loving pleasure more than God; greed comes from loving money more than God; corruption comes from loving power more than God; pride comes from loving oneself more than God. This template sums up sin very nicely, but what is often missing from it is the disordered love that is the root of so many stories of the sins of women: to love another person deeply without loving God yet more.
Seen in this light, Lise is a very ordinary character, who commits extraordinary sins in an ordinary and understandable way. This is not the only window into female psychology that Godden gives us, however. From early in the novel it is clear that a large part of Lise’s story is formed by her reactions to people, and this is how Vivi comes to have such a tragic impact.
Vivi is quite probably the most broken person you will ever read about. She can indeed appear as the temptress, the hot-blooded wanton, or indeed the most sweetly innocent and beautiful child, but she will lie, steal, hurt, even kill without need, motive, or even a semblance of moral consideration or conscience. From the outside she is the incarnation of evil–malice wrapped in irresistible beauty. The reader is allowed more nuance: pages of Vivi’s internal monologue (always in italics) where we learn not only how truly disturbed she is, but also something of why. Vivi recalls how she and her older sister, Claudine, were “chased” by Papa — a child’s terms for being raped by her father from a young age.
She was in the shed with Claudine, who was bent double in agony, when to both girls’ shock Claudine gives birth. Vivi wants to keep the the child and love him, but in the end she and her father murder it to cover up his crimes. It is the only thing about which Vivi ever expresses remorse. The memory of her father, of the baby’s cries, or being handed a baby doll or a real child, sets Vivi shrieking. No one in the Hôtel Dieu that has taken her in can comfort her in those hysterical moments, nor form any connection with her at any other time.
Early in the book Vivi has the fantasy of being “a real little girl”, having a family and going to school. But no one will take on such a disturbed child, and by the time Vivi is found by Lise, drunk, filthy and homeless at the age of 14 (at most), that fantasy is dead and Vivi’s thoughts and actions — which in time include theft, child abuse and murder — are driven purely by negative emotions: anger, fear, hate, vengeance.
Godden doesn’t write anything that can make us like Vivi, or even excuse her, but she does demand that we view her with pity rather than hatred. Vivi was first broken through the sins of others, not her own. Despising her for it is like blaming a porcelain figurine for being deformed after it was dashed against the rocks by a strong man and glued back together by a child.
This brings us back to the story of Lisa Montgomery, whose crime and death sentence I mentioned above. While Rumer Godden wrote Vivi in a way that suggests mental illness, Lisa has been diagnosed by qualified psychiatric specialists with multiple mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, a dissociative disorder that causes her to have difficulty accurately perceiving her body or physical states, and also Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), a species of PTSD that afflicts people who have experienced overwhelming threats to their physical safety. She requires heavy medication to prevent complete psychotic breaks of the type she was experiencing whilst committing murder and kidnap. There is nothing to suggest she is without conscience like Vivi, but her brokenness has a common cause: sadistic childhood sexual abuse.
You can read a detailed account of Lisa’s story here, but be aware it is distressing, potentially triggering. The most toned-down version I can give is this: born with brain damage due to her mother’s alcoholism, Lisa Montgomery suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child, particularly from mother, Judy, and her stepfather, Jack, who also began to rape her from the age of 11. From the age of about 15, her mother trafficked her to her male friends for cash and services, allowing her to be repeatedly gang raped and tortured.
Lisa’s grades dropped so much when the sexual abuse began that she was put in special education classes. Her teachers suspected abuse and did not report it. Social workers documented the squalid living conditions of the family, but nothing happened. When Jack and Judy were divorcing, Lisa testified about the rape and abuse in open court, and Judy’s testimony corroborated her account. But nothing was done to rescue Lisa. As a teenager, Lisa told her cousin, who was a police officer, about the repeated gang rapes she had suffered. Still nothing happened.
When she was eighteen she married her stepbrother at her mother’s instigation. He too abused her and even filmed himself torturing her sexually. She had four children during this time, and after this her mother insisted Lisa undergo sterilisation against her own desires.
Lisa had divorced her stepbrother and was remarried when the crucial event occurred: her ex-husband/stepbrother, who had abused and tortured her for years, informed her that he was petitioning for custody of their children. He also said that he knew Lisa had told her current husband she was pregnant, which was impossible, and threatened to use this lie (or delusion) in court to obtain custody. Soon after this threat, which her defense alleges caused a psychotic break, Lisa murdered Bobbi Jo Stinett and took her baby to care for as if she herself had given birth after all.
Even knowing the history of Lisa’s abuse, it can be difficult to know how to respond to the story. Lisa’s is clearly not a crime of cold calculation, and only in part one of passion. It is as though her past trauma vomited up the most evil thing it could conjure, horror begetting horror, chaos breeding chaos. No one can make an argument that the murder was justified. Lisa herself has taken responsibility for her actions and expressed deep remorse, but it is still hard to see her as fully responsible.
Casting Lisa Montgomery as a killer deserving to be executed feels like painting St Mary Magdalene as a half-naked, lustful harlot, not because Lisa is necessarily saintly, but because the sin is painted all wrong. A prostitute sins because of someone else’s lust, and in a morally-significant way, it appears that Lisa murdered because of the malice of others.
Despite the failure of her all-male defense team to present significant mitigating evidence at her trial, Lisa was sentenced to death for her crime, the sole capital sentence handed to a woman for this type of crime in the US.
Despite the serious repeated failings of the State and society to rescue or safeguard Lisa, negligence that contributed to her suffering, mental instability, and arguably her incapacity, her sentence has withstood appeal.
Lisa Montgomery’s execution was originally scheduled for 8th December, 2020: the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception—the title under which the United States was first consecrated to Our Lady in 1792. It is difficult to say whether the execution of a mentally-ill woman on that great feast of the Mother of God, which should sanctify the nation, would have compounded the abomination and sacrilege, or constituted discrete offenses.
In any case, we should weep for shame.
Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy is framed by the Rosary both in a figurative sense — the title is a reference to the five sorrowful mysteries and ten joyful and glorious mysteries — and a literal one. There is a set of little pink Rosary beads that return again and again in the story in different ways: stolen, lost, found, broken, rejected, thrown away, restored, mended. It is this set of beads that calls to Lise to rescue Vivi when she first sees her, imagining that the little waif clutching them must have some redeeming devotion:
“There is a little church in England,” she told Soeur Marie Alcide, “at Southleigh in Oxfordshire, which has an old old mural painting showing a winged Saint Michael holding the scales of justice. The poor soul awaiting judgement is quailing because the right-hand scale is coming heavily down with its load of sins: but on the left Our Lady is quietly putting her rosary beads in the other scale to make them even. I saw it long ago, but in a way I suppose something like that happened to me…How did Vivi come to have those beads?”
Lise struggles with the prayer. She had wanted to be called Soeur Marie Lise de la Croix (of the Cross, not Marie Lise du Rosaire (of the Rosary). She cannot bring herself to touch the Rosary that hangs at her waist when she and the sisters are praying in chapel. She has no objection to intercessory prayer, nor to Our Lady, but becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire would require her to embrace not only the sorrow that comes with grace, but the two-fold joy as well. Lise’s apotheosis is when she can pray the Rosary with devotion for Vivi, a sinner beyond all help but grace.
If the President grants clemency Lisa Montgomery can still escape execution. Both justice and mercy demand that we pray for this, beseeching the intercession of Mary Immaculate for a poor sinner beyond all help but that of grace. Offer Our Lady more beads to pile on the scale for Lisa: five for sorrow, ten for joy. The Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons; Our Lady never sinned. Yet the two Marys stood side by side at the foot of the Cross. Together, may they plead mercy for Lisa.
*An earlier version of this piece failed to mention that Rumer Godden became a Catholic in 1968.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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