Author Draws Lessons Growing Up as a Catholic Girl

Times Staff Writer

In 1955, when author Caryl Rivers was growing up, "the thought that you would see nuns' hair was incomprehensible, much less see them out taking jobs in government, being activists and wearing normal clothes. And challenging doctrine."

In 1985, Caryl Rivers is reflecting on the changes since she played girls' basketball for the Academy of the Holy Names in Silver Spring, Md., and was schooled by the nuns in the taboos affecting all Good Catholic Girls. Twice she has used her Catholic girlhood as the core of irreverent looks at adolescence. The first was an evocative memoir, "Aphrodite at Mid-Century." The second, just published, is a novel, "Virgins" (St. Martin's Press: $12.95), soon to be a major (she hopes) motion picture.

Self-Imposed Limits

Rivers, who teaches journalism at Boston University, remembers too well the self-imposed limits within the church in the 1950s. "We were urged to have Catholic friends, to attend none other than Catholic schools, to date Catholic boys, and if we married one, to live in Catholic neighborhoods." Except for a few who somehow remained spontaneous, the nuns who taught Rivers and her friends walked stiffly, spoke as though they had taken elocution lessons, and seemed cut off from the world and its emotions.

How does she account for today's changes?

The transition for women in the Catholic Church began with Vatican II, the historic conference called by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s, Rivers said during a recent visit to Beverly Hills. "Vatican II opened all those windows. Once you start that process of giving people intellectual freedom, you're not going to get them back into the box again.

"Feminism has also had an enormous impact. Women looked at the church and said, 'Hey, this is a male political structure; women's concerns have been totally ignored at the top level.' "

The nuns who taught Rivers--and who appear in her books--"were subservient to the priests and to the hierarchy. They had their own little power arena, which was the school. But I wouldn't see too many of them making that jump to higher power or feeling they could challenge (that power). Certainly the nuns today have made that leap." Many of the activist nuns want the opportunity to serve their church in all roles--not just as nuns--and seek flexibility in doctrine on issues such as abortion.

Fine Political Line

The American bishops may understand the ferment among religious women but not the Pope, Rivers said. "He comes from a totally different and atypical society. The church in Poland is like the church almost nowhere else. I don't think he has a clue." The men in the American hierarchy are walking a "very fine political line" with a conservative boss on one side and pressures from women and their allies on the other, she added.

The emerging militance of some Catholic women has changed the role models for girls growing up Catholic today, Rivers said. "You look at the nuns, you look at Geraldine Ferraro, you look at the women lay people in the church. You just see a totally different spectrum." In her youth, men had all the power but "what younger women are seeing today is that that situation is not necessarily eternal."

The church of the 1940s and 1950s so dominates "Virgins" and "Aphrodite" that one wonders if readers not of that generation or that upbringing can appreciate it. "The funny thing is that teen-agers adore 'Virgins,' " Rivers said. The pranks (setting a field on fire in a campaign to get Mother Marie Claire sainted or helping a boyfriend destined for the seminary get roaring drunk), the childhood heroes, the sexual challenges, are universal. And in Rivers' hands, exceptionally funny.

Yet Rivers, an ebullient woman of 47, insists she can't tell anyone how to "write funny." Her husband, Alan Lupo, a writer, could be a stand-up comic, Rivers said, but "if someone said to me, 'Go on the stage and be funny for 10 minutes,' I wouldn't have the foggiest notion how. If you look at the silliness of life, it helps."

She doesn't plot her books intri cately. "I just sort of dive in and things happen. I'm not sure if that's how you're supposed to write a novel. I get so absorbed in these characters that I call my kids by the wrong names. I'm typing away at 1 in the morning and they're yelling down, 'Stop that typing, ma, we can't sleep.' "

Rivers, a graduate of Trinity College in Washington and Columbia Journalism School, worked for several years in a small Washington bureau for papers in seven or eight states. Teaching now for 10 years, she first wrote "the world's most depressing short stories. . . . Everybody either died, got cancer or was killed in Vietnam. Everybody was miserable. Nobody wants to read those kind of stories. They may be good stories but that's not really my genre because I'm not that miserable."

She likes telling longer stories. "Don't you hate the trend where the whole story can be told in five paragraphs? I have a friend at USA Today who says that if they ever win the Pulitzer, they'll have to have a new category: Best Investigative Paragraph."

What's ahead? There's the film of "Virgins" with George Litto, an independent producer, putting together the deal. Rivers has done a screenplay. And a sequel in which grown-up Peggy and Con, Rivers' heroines, try to determine how women should act in a man's world.

Rivers herself went in to journalism because she wanted to do exciting things and figured journalism might be one of the few spots where women would be let into an exciting world.

And what's ahead for the Catholic Church she's watched so closely?

"Over the far term, I think it's got to change. Over the near term, if the Pope digs in his heels and if the American bishops don't respond to this pressure, I can just see the church beginning to lose more and more of its best and its brightest. If they go, then you've really got problems. If you lose your future leaders, then who's going to hold the whole thing together?

"That's why it's so key what happens to the nuns right now. If the message comes down that people are just going to be tromped on with a heavy foot, these women will simply leave. The hierarchy will have in the short term won this Pyrrhic victory by finding their convents empty."

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