Armstrong grew up in Birmingham, England in a nominally Catholic family, and attended a parochial school. As a teenager, Karen was shy and studious. Her parents were horrified when she suggested that she did not want to go to university, believing herself to have a vocation. Karen insisted in the face of their practical objections and in 1962, at the age of seventeen, she entered a convent.
Through the Narrow Gate is the story of her seven years as a nun. First she is a postulant, living with ten other girls and learning the rules of her Order--one which has been scarcely touched by the reforms of the Vatican II. She is shocked to learn that they only get one pair of underwear a week and that they are not allowed to speak except during two brief recreation periods a day. After nine months, she becomes a Bride of Christ and is inducted into the Novitiate. The novices lead an even more isolated and abstemious existence under the stern eye of dictatorial Mother Walter, who intends to weed out those not strong enough for the religious life. The novices must wake every morning at 5:30 for prayers, yet are given a broken clock that wakes them at 2am or not at all. Karen is a hopeless seamstress and is made to practice endlessly on a machine that has no needle. She is constantly told that her pride is preventing her from accepting God and that she must allow her self to die, as Christ did, to serve God. She desperately wants to do this, but does not know how. When she suffers fainting spells, her superiors criticize what they call her hysteria and give her a whip for self-flagellation.
Despite her difficulties, she is allowed to make her five-year vows during a ceremony which she and the other novices spend lying face down by the altar, arms in the shape of a cross, with a black pall spread over them to symbolize their death. "Sister Martha" is sent to Oxford, where she and Sister Rebecca ride to their classes on bicycles. Their schedule combines all the domestic work and worship time as the rest of the nuns' with a full university schedule. Although they are the only two students in the Order and are always together, they are forbidden to form a "particular friendship" which might threaten their relationship with God. Often they must skip meals or eat on the run; Karen's fainting spells worsen and her mental weakness is further criticized. Both students develop a then unheard-of "nervous disease," anorexia. Karen eventually makes the decision she had long been dreading--to leave the order. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot set aside her feelings of loneliness and intellectual curiosity, and so must face the fact that she has no vocation, after all. "Needless to say," she writes, "the convent was not what I expected. I entered in 1962 as an ardent, idealistic, untidy, unrealistic, and immature teenager, and left seven years later, having suffered a mild breakdown, obscurely broken and damaged. This was nobody's fault, even though I assumed that the failure was entirely my own doing."
The Spiral Staircase tells of what happened after she left in 1969--utterly unaware of world events and the rise of youth culture. She cannot believe that her fellow students wear such short skirts and want to institute co-ed colleges. She has never heard of the Beatles and finds their lyrics transparently, alarmingly sexual. She is depressed by her failure to live as a nun and cannot shake herself into wanting to join the world. Her health problems continue--she is beset by devastating panic attacks and seizures, only to learn in 1976 that she suffers from epilepsy. Suddenly, all of her problems come into focus.
"I don't think you need to waste any more of your time with these psychiatrists." [The neurologist] made the word sound like an obscenity. "No amount of talking about your problems will make the smallest impression on your condition, and I'm very sorry indeed that you have had to wait for so long before getting adequate medical help. By the way," he added, as I reached for the door, "it's interesting that you were once a nun. People with temporal lobe epilepsy are often religious!"Armstrong's story of being a "teenage nun" (as a friend later jokes) and missing the 1960s is surely unique. She writes with a talkative spark that I associate with the British; even when writing about the most depressing topics, she remains vivacious. Because of her natural curiosity, she is an ideal guide to the strange world of the convent--she explains everything about the rule, taking nothing as a given. She conveys both the urgency and the immaturity of her desire to enter the convent and movingly details her slow collapse. In the second volume, she manages to overcome the fact that the revolutions of the '60s are now old hat and makes the 21st century reader feel the disorientation she experienced upon her re-entry into secular life. I find most memoirs to be self-indulgent, but this one is clear-eyed and informative, a perfect marriage of author and topic.