Saint Mary’s hosts Alice McDermott in annual Christian Culture Lecture
Marirose Osborne | Friday, September 20, 2019
The Saint Mary’s Humanistic Studies department hosted author Alice McDermott for the annual Christian Culture Lecture on Thursday. The topic of the lecture was McDermott’s eighth novel “The Ninth Hour,” followed by a question and answer session with the Saint Mary’s community.
Professor Laura Williamson Ambrose, chair of the Humanistic Studies department, opened the lecture, and Saint Mary’s President Nancy Nekvasil introduced McDermott.
Nekvasil said McDermott’s journey as a writer began in a college non-fiction writing class.
“A professor from her college called her to his office one day after class,” Nekvasil said. “He told her, ‘I’ve got bad news for you kid. You’re a writer and you’re never going to shake it.’”
McDermott spoke about her inspiration for The Ninth Hour and the faith that guides her writing. She discussed her process and the beginning thoughts of the novel.
“The Genesis of every novel is unique,” McDermott said. “But this one began very pleasantly during an after dinner conversation with a friend. He mentioned that he had a vague childhood memory of a very old man who lived in his great-aunt’s house in upstate New York. This man was not a family member, but, my friend was told, had served as a substitute for this great-aunt’s brother. When the war ended the man returned and was taken in by the family as a gesture of gratitude, and he lived with them for the rest of his life.”
McDermott said this anecdote set off a curiosity and a desire to explore the nature and practice of substitution in the Civil War.
“In the days that followed, I found myself returning again and again to that notion of a substitute of one man who served as substitute for another, so that the other could avoid military service and remain safe,” McDermott said.
McDermott said musing over the concept of substitution led to contemplating the selflessness that derives from it.
“The metaphorical implications of the term a substitute — one who puts himself in harm’s way, offers his life so that another may stay safe, so that another may live,” McDermott said.
This also inspired McDermott to consider what selflessness means in the 21st-century, long after the Civil War, she said.
“It brought me to think about selflessness, self-sacrifice, the value we place, here in the 21st century, on anyone who offers his or her life for another,” McDermott said. “Anyone who says I will put myself, my life, at risk, so that you may live and thrive, you and your children and their children. I wondered if we even trust such a notion anymore. If we don’t tend to see selflessness as akin to fanaticism, or more mildly as an awkward lack of self-esteem.”
McDermott also addressed the consequences of that selflessness.
“And what about the burden of gratitude?” she said. “How long then, I wondered, does gratitude last? When does another’s selflessness become a burden as much as a blessing? What do we owe the selfless among us? Why are they selfless in the first place?”
These were the thoughts that guided McDermott through the beginning ideas of the story, but she said other ideas began to surface as she continued her research.
“All interesting notions, but none of it yet contained a story,” McDermott said.
McDermott said her research on Civil War substitutes led her to their obituaries.
“As I looked at these [obituaries], I found my eye was also drawn to small items, often featured on the same pages, a number of them, reports of recent suicides,” she said.
These self-inflicted deaths led McDermott to think about the people left behind after suicide, and thus inspired her novel “The Ninth Hour.”
“Options for the poor, poor women with children especially, were so limited,” McDermott said. “Who would be there to serve as a substitute for the husband and father that was lost? Well of course the answer was the Catholic nursing sisters in the neighborhood.”
This led McDermott to the Catholic concepts that shaped her story, she said.
“I realized I had found my story of selflessness,” McDermott said. “Not a heroic story of plucky sidewalk saints, certainly not a history of religious women’s role in healthcare and education and service to the poor, but a story that would allow me to explore the very notion of selflessness, the motive for it, the burden of it, the value we place on it in any era, our own or another.”
McDermott also said she wanted her sisters to be as real as possible — she didn’t want to gloss over the harsh realities of life for them.
“The concrete would be my medium, and any depiction of their lives, their selflessness, would involve their daily, vivid, inescapable encounter with the physical,” she said. “The physical reality of human suffering and death. Not to prove the truth of my faith or the existence of the supernatural, but simply to make you hear, to make you feel, and before all to make you see, look, it is there.”
McDermott also discussed her own relationship and frustrations with the Church and how it shaped her writing.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m halfway out the door of the institutional church, some days more than halfway,” she said. “For me, especially over this year, hope has given way to impatience. Institutional corruption has seeped into my spiritual life so that even the effort to forgive the clergy, or to reform it, begins to feel more like complicity than compassion.”