As an Emmy Award-winning producer for CNN and “Good Morning America,” Mary Pflum Peterson has covered her share of interesting, drama-filled stories. But the most dramatic, perhaps, is the story about her own family that she shares in her new book “White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters.”
One of those secrets had to do with her mother Anne’s past. When she was a teenager, Mary discovered her mother had once been a nun, but that she’d left the convent because of the cruelty she endured from her superiors. In addition, Mary’s father was a closeted gay man when he married Anne, which took even more of a mental and emotional toll on her.
Yet in spite of all these challenges, Anne remained a devout Catholic all her life and passed on her faith to her daughter, who is herself now a wife and mother of four young children. I recently discussed White Dresses” with Mary Pflum Peterson on “Christopher Closeup.” Here is an edited version of our interview:
Tony Rossi: One of my initial reactions when reading “White Dresses” was that it’s a moving book, but it’s also an emotionally raw book. What prompted you to literally make your life and your family’s life an open book?
Mary Pflum Peterson: I had taken a writing class at my kids’ preschool thinking I was going to polish off a chick lit novel. But my mother had died about a year-and-a-half prior, so I was still grieving her loss pretty mightily. An in-class writing essay asked me to write about how I got my name. I was named in large part [after Jesus’s mother Mary] because my mother had been in the convent for almost 10 years. A couple of people [in my class] were moved to tears and they said, ‘Your novel is lovely, but why don’t you put that on the side? We want to hear more about you and your mom and your really interesting sounding family. This really resonates and strikes a chord.’
That is how it evolved and I think that’s why it came across so raw: because I didn’t intend for the whole world to see it. Especially as a journalist, I know how people can judge. It was my writing instructor and my husband who gently nudged me. And I really consulted with him because his life would be, to a degree, laid bare. It’s mostly about my mother and me, but we’re married and this is the kids’ grandmother that I’m talking a lot about. But we ultimately felt like it might make other families feel less alone. And in this age of Facebook nation, there’s so much pressure for families to feel they want to have a perfect image. The thinking was, ‘This is how it was. This is how it is. There’s still a lot of love there even though there’s some messiness in our rather complicated family and maybe we can do some good by putting that out there.
TR: Much of your mom Anne’s story includes sad and tragic elements. Yet you opted to go with the more hopeful image and title of “White Dresses.” Why that choice?
Mary Pflum Peterson: That was who my mother was. There was sadness, but my mother always found the light. This is not only as a result of her deep and abiding sense of faith, but it was how she viewed life. There was a lot of love amidst the darkness, and I wanted that to come across.
We had a great love, as mother and daughter, of white dresses. My mother believed that white – and specifically white dresses – were this nice starting over point and that no matter how dark things had been in our family, there was still hope. It was a means of starting over, new beginnings and endless possibilities. She passed that faith and optimism on to me. And I think honestly, that’s the way it is in a lot of families: you’ve got to keep going.
TR: You mentioned your mom in the convent. Unfortunately when she joined the convent, she didn’t find a good atmosphere. This was not Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music’s convent.
Mary Pflum Peterson: No, I wish it was. In fact, my mother knew some of the nuns that sang in that choir in “The Sound of Music.” There were real nuns in that choir when Maria gets married. She loved the movie, but that unfortunately was not her experience.
My mother sustained a lot of emotional abuse – some family members believe physical abuse as well – in the convent. I’ve heard other accounts from many other families and other former nuns that they too experienced a lot of emotional abuse, which is what prompted some of the nuns I spoke with to leave. But I don’t want at all to seem like I’m pointing the finger at the sisterhood in general.
My mother was a university graduate, she went into the convent in the 1950s. The order she entered, she thought it was going to be one in which she would be able to be in the classroom, which initially she was. But she and a number of her classmates, when they wanted to do things a little bit differently in a bid to help people, they were met with a lot of resistance. In her case, she was removed from the classroom and punished with having to do additional chores in silence. It just kind of devolved. There were a lot of privileges that she knew she was going to have to give up as a nun, but she didn’t count on all her mail being taken away. Not only do you give up your name, but I think in her case she felt like she gave up her sense of identity.
It got to the point that when she was very ill, and she knew there was something physically very wrong and wanted to see a doctor, she was denied that opportunity for months and told to “Pray it off.” [Her superiors said] she wasn’t praying hard enough. Eventually when she was taken to the doctor, the doctor said she could have died. One of her fellow nuns was not so lucky. A nun that was in with her had complained of a headache for months and was also told to pray it off. By the time she finally got medical treatment, the cancer was everywhere.
So this was a very different time. Nuns, unlike priests, gave up their identities. Literally, they had to give up their names, give up all their worldly possessions. Priests got to keep their names. They had cars. They had homes. They had a space of their own. For my mother, it was a time that was going to be so fulfilling and enable her to save the world, but I think in the end it was she who needed saving.
TR: It brings up another good point. As a lifelong Catholic myself – and this is especially true in the age of Facebook – just because someone who’s Catholic says something doesn’t necessarily mean they’re representing the Church’s teaching. And I don’t think that attitude of “pray it off” was a church thing. That was more from the person.
Mary Pflum Peterson: My mother remained extremely devout after she left. She was still attending Mass daily. She very much made the distinction that these Sisters who were cruel, she did not take that to be that these were people of the Church. Of course, they wore the habit, but she separated out what these individuals did from what she really believed in, which was the sacraments and the Mass. And that was also a wonderful upbringing for me to grow up with, to help me make that distinction early.
TR: Talk a little bit about your own faith because in the book you say you had a religious awakening of sorts while working for CNN in Turkey.
Mary Pflum Peterson: When I was there, I learned what it was to be an American…and what makes us who we are: our freedoms, our liberties, and so much more. The same with being Catholic. I was raised Catholic, but for me I think it was more a cultural thing. When I went to Turkey I really came to understand much more about my faith. When you’re in the minority, it causes you to take a deep look at your beliefs.
I loved living in Turkey and around the region. It’s where so much of Christianity has its roots. My Turkish friends were so excited to take me to the home of one of the Three Kings or to take me to the pool of Abraham. It was a really beautiful experience. I credit that with cementing [my faith].
When you’re saying the prayers in Catholic Mass, I think so often it becomes a routine and you don’t necessarily think about what you’re saying. I credit the people that do every time. But for me, I moved over to Turkey in my 20s at that stage where you kind of think you know it all, and I realized, ‘Hey, I don’t know it all.’ And for the first time, [I really thought] about Biblical verses and the prayers that I grew up with in such a different and special way.
TR: Another thing you write about in the book is your mother had a problem with – I guess we call it today, hoarding. I don’t know that it had that name back then.
Mary Pflum Peterson: There wasn’t a word for hoarding when I was growing up. We just knew something was wrong. It started with unopened mail. It devolved into newspapers and magazines she didn’t want to part with, appliances that were broken didn’t get fixed.
I also want to [dispute the idea] that hoarding doesn’t happen in good homes with intelligent, hard-working people. My mother was brilliant, a decorated teacher, a leader in the community, she did so much volunteer work. She had us to church on time every week. Something was broken within. She had battled depression for quite some time. And then between leaving the convent and when the marriage to my father collapsed, it was more than she could take. So when she broke, the manifestation was the hoarding, but it never stopped her from loving. No day started or ended without an ‘I love you’ and a hug, an embrace.
I credit her also with being so compassionate to others and teaching me to be that way. It wasn’t a stretch to be compassionate because she had taught me that’s one of the most important things in life: life is short, we’re all in this together and we need to be good to each other.
TR: Have you found that the TV show “Hoarders” has enlightened people about the problem or does it almost make people look down on it?
Mary Pflum Peterson: It’s a great question. Initially when those shows came out, I thought for a millisecond, ‘Hey, I’m not alone anymore.’ Then I thought, ‘Okay, now there’s a name for it and in the true American spirit, we’re gonna fix it.’ I underestimated what people would glom onto. I think what’s happened is that people look at it and think a couple of things: 1) that this is just something that happens to people in the backwoods, that it’s a situation of ignorance or laziness; 2) It becomes a situation of armchair quarterbacking. People think, ‘Oh, if that was my loved one, I would just take in a bulldozer and a cleaning crew and Bam! I’d clean out the house and it’s fixed.’ And that’s not the case.
The mess is just the symptom; it’s not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is something is broken within that person. By the time things had gotten bad with my mom, I was already an established journalist. I thought, ‘I’m going to use my wonderful contacts in the medical community that I have interviewed over the years and I’m going to [fix] this.’ And my wonderful, compassionate, kind, lovely husband, who’s an attorney, thought that together, we’re going to lick this. We were stunned to find there are not a lot of resources available. So these reality shows make it look so easy to clean it up when in fact it’s a much bigger problem.
The other issue for anyone out there listening who is affected by this – my mother was functioning otherwise okay. She was living on her own. She had a job. So what do you do? Do you seize power of attorney? How do you get control so you can clean things up? And if you do seize that control, are you severing your relationship? Is that something you want to do? Are you hurting them more in the process? It’s a delicate balance of trying to figure out how to fix the problem, which again, is not the mess. So it’s overwhelming. Cleaning out my mother’s house [after she died] was something that took literally over a year and a lot of work. It’s a difficult thing those hoarding reality shows don’t go into.
TR: My final question – and this goes back to something you said at the beginning about finding the light in the darkness. The motto of The Christophers is, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” It sounds like your mom tried to do that in her life. How do you try to do that now? When you hit times of darkness, how do you light that metaphorical candle to move toward a brighter future?
Mary Pflum Peterson: It goes back to the faith that my mother gave me and what she always told me. She taught me that when life gets at its darkest, that’s always good because since life is always changing, it’s not going to be that way for much longer. That means if it’s at its darkest, it’s about to get lighter – maybe the lightest yet. She really believed that in her heart and soul, and I’ve taken that from her. When life gets tough, you just hang on. I mention in the book that sometimes we thought long and hard about why is there suffering, why is there pain. But she always found the light.
(To listen to my full interview with Mary Pflum Peterson, click on the podcast link):