Mary McCarthy (1912-1984), satirist, critic, and award-winning fiction writer (two Guggenheim Fellowships and a National Medal for Literature), was placed in the Sacred Heart convent school in Seattle at the age of eleven. She recounted the difficulties of her early life in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1972), a memoir that has been called one of the “best of the genre.” It is warm and witty, sharp-tongued and polished, and still in print.
In the following excerpt she doesn’t tell us how it felt she shows us what it’s like to be one of the wretches.
The beauty and poise of the middling and older girls were like nothing I had seen on earth. If not like angels, they were like the kings’ paramours I had read about in history or like Olympian goddesses, tall and swift of tread. Each of these paragons moved in an aureole of mysterious self-sufficiency, each had her pledged admirers among the younger and plainer girls, and disputes about them raged among us as though someone had thrown the apple of discord. In the intensity of the convent light, even a rather ordinary girl could acquire this penumbra of beauty, by gravity and dignity of person; it was a sort of calling, a still hearkening to inward voices, which brought a secret, cool smile to the lips of the one elected.
From the first, of course, I longed to become a member of this exquisite company, if only as a favored satellite or maid-in-waiting. But instead I stepped straight into that fatality that in every school awaits the newcomer who has not learned the first law of social dynamics: be suspicious of tenders of assistance. Around me, from the very first day, as I arranged my books on my desk, circled the rusty rejects of the system, hungry crows for friendship, copious with invitations, pointers, and sweets from home to be shared. Every school, every college, every factory has its complement of these miserable creatures, of whom I was soon to be one. No doubt they exist in Heaven, just inside the gate, peering over St. Peter’s shoulder for the advent of a new spirit, whom they can show the ropes; Hell must have them too, and if I were Dante, for example, knowing what I know today, I would have been a little bit more leery of Vergil and that guided tour. In any case I fell; I accepted with thanks those offers of aid and companionship. I learned the way to the refectory, how to fold my papers properly, how to stitch my collars and cuffs, how to pin my veil, and, in return, I found myself the doomed companion of girls with broad, flat faces and huge collections of freckles, girls with dandruff on their uniforms, with spots and gaping seams, wrinkled black stockings, chilblains, owllike glasses, carrot-colored hair– damp, confidential souls with quantities of younger brothers and sisters just like themselves. And I was one of them, too.
Have you ever been shut out from the in-group? How did it make you feel? How would you put it into words and show it to us?