‘As I Am,’ the final pages of the script

After reading most of the mainstream news media reporting on the life and times of screen legend Patricia Neal, I found myself fascinated with a very simple detail that was included in the tribute published by her hometown newspaper, The Knoxville News Sentinel. Here it is, with a sentence of introduction:

A celebration of her life and burial is planned for later in the week at the Abby of Regina Ludis, the Benedictine Cloistered Nunnery, in Connecticut, where the actress often spent time in a little house there both for solace and healing after converting to Catholicism.

It was there that she wrote her book, “As I Am.”

That just stuck in my mind. She wrote the book, which has been described as very blunt and confessional in nature, while living in a cloistered monastery. Surely there was a story there, a story that provided more information about the final chapters of her life — which news reports framed almost completely in terms of suffering, suffering, courage, triumph and then, ultimately, more suffering.

It was clear that many of the journalists who wrote the Neal obituaries were working with copies of “As I Am,” or with materials drawn from them. What I wanted to know was quite simple: Was everyone ignoring the ending of the book and her life story? Was there a column in there somewhere?

As it turns out, it was hard to find the book (especially after a weekend dash to New Hampshire on family business that ended with a broken down van in the suburbs of New York City). However, my wife is a reference librarian and hunted one down online. With the help of the kind and deadline-friendly staff of the inter-library desk at American University, I was able to obtain scanned copies of the climactic passage of the book.

Now I really want to know why journalists avoided the events that, for Neal, pulled together the events of her life. Here is a large chunk of what I wrote this week for the Scripps Howard News Service, starting about a third of the way into the piece:

… Neal’s story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in “As I Am” that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.

Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.

“Lady Abbess,” said Neal, “I don’t want to join up, you understand?”

The abbess sighed and said, “Believe me, we don’t want you to, either. I don’t think we could take it for more than a month.”

As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the “last cigarette I would ever smoke.”

A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, “I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. … I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. … I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best.”

The memoir is stunningly blunt, including her account of a session with her spiritual director in which the actress screamed so many f-bombs at the sister that she finally started screaming them right back at her — urging Neal to be more honest about her own sins, mistakes and self pity.

But here was the key for me: It is absolutely clear that this much-quoted memoir began as a journal that Neal wrote during the weeks she spent living in that cloister, a journal produced with the direct input of her spiritual director as part of — literally — the care of her soul. Yes, that meant dealing with decades of pain, including that decision to abort her love child with the married Gary Cooper. Yes, it meant struggling to forgive and to seek forgiveness from others (including Cooper’s widow, in the final “scene” in the book).

The book ends with healing, not with another wave of pain. Here is how I ended the column:

… Neal decided that, “God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making,” allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. “I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke — choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed.”

One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: “There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us.”

There is so much more that I could have included.

I know that Neal was an Academy Award winner and that the Greek tragedy that was her life was perfect for a painful news profile of a Hollywood survivor. But, you see, Neal honestly believed that her story did not end in tragedy. Is that part of the story? That is not how “As I Am” ends. Did anyone read all the way to the final act of this movie script?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://greenpasturepursuit.wordpress.com/ Tracy

    Thank you so much for digging above and beyond to unveil the full story of Patricia’s life. No doubt she is looking down with gratitude to see that someone pulled out the glimmer of love that she discovered amidst so much suffering!

  • Jerry

    Sigh. I too add my thanks. This situation is so sadly classic that it should be used in journalism 101 as an example of how to miss a story.

  • Julia

    Was that Abbess Dolores Hart?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JULIA:

    I was hoping someone would ask that. I didn’t have room to cover that in the column.

    She was never the abbess of that abbey. Instead, she rose to the level of prioress.

    Now, did some writers confuse the two terms? I could not confirm that one way or the other? Was she the spiritual director for Neal? I did not receive enough scanned pages to see that.

    Thus, I was forced — by a lack of length in my column and the vagueness of the info — to play it safe on that hook.

    http://www.abbeyofreginalaudis.com/sitelive/index.htm

    Mother Abbess David Serna O.S.B. is the second abbess of Regina Laudis. Mother Abbess David is assisted in her position by the Prioress, Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., well-known actress of stage and film, who has been the Abbey’s Dean of Education since 1972,and the Subprioress Mother Maria Immaculata Matarese, O.S.B. Mother Maria Immaculata practiced Law in Hartford, was elected to the State House of Representatives and spent seven years working in the Hartford Legislature.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Thanks for all the info and pointing out how much the religious “ghosts” of Ms. Neal were overlooked.
    Apparently Ms. Neal only wrote about her contact with the abbess. Yet I find it hard to believe that Ms. Neal just happened to pick a Benedictine Monastery to go to where the proress is a well-known former Hollywood actress. I think there is another religious “ghost” to be reported on.

  • Dan Crawford

    I am reading the book. In it, Neal makes clear that the person who urged her to go to Regina Laudis and who encouraged her frequently was Gary Cooper’s daughter. She also read one of the Scripture lessons at Ms. Neal’s funeral.

    By the way, the book is a “can’t put down” read.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    More fascinating “ghost” information about Patricia Neal’s Catholic religion in stories I googled about her burial at the Abbey. Apparently she helped start a theater there and was involved with the abbey for over 30 years. The priest who celebrated the funeral Mass there talked of the “divine dance” of faith that went on between Prioress Dolores Hart and Ms. Neal all those years. As I said before, that story gives evidence it could be quite a religious book. Apparently the famous actress Jennifer O’Neill was also involved in some way.


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