By Jean C. MacPhail
Xlibris Corporation, 2010
507 pgs. $23.99 (list)
Review by Steven F. Walker
Spiritual confessions—personal accounts of spiritual struggle—have a long history, going back to the Confessions of St. Augustine. If the apostle Paul had been reticent about discussing what he cryptically called his “thorn in the flesh,” Augustine, by contrast, wrote a lengthy and vivid account of his conflicted and tortured youth, thus making what we might today call “transparency and openness” a hallmark of the genre. And now Jean MacPhail, a Vedantist of long standing, has come forward with an autobiography recognizably written in the wake of Augustine, that is, a spiritual self-portrait, warts and all, which does not attempt to downplay the troubles and travails that are bound to accompany any journey towards self-realization.
Vividly written from a psychological as well as a spiritual perspective, A Spiral Life solves the problem that every autobiography faces: how to make the details of one particular individual’s life interesting for others. Fiction can do this through the creation of imaginary characters who are exemplary, both for better and for worse, and who are to some degree larger than life, and have a certain mythological grandeur even in their misery—think of Oliver Twist or Madame Bovary. Yet, for the rest of us non-fictional carbon based bipeds, however interesting our life may have been for us, making it interesting for others is no easy trick.
The trick, I believe, is the magic of style, and Jean MacPhail writes beautifully! I am usually daunted and put off by long autobiographical narratives, but this one kept my interest from the first page to the last. Fusing thought, feeling and emotion into the narrative of a life, A Spiral Life has a specifically feminine tone that many will relish and appreciate. However much the author may have at one point decided to regard her life “as a scientific experiment [she] was conducting, looking at [herself] as an object and gathering facts like any scientist, so that [she] could get to the bottom of what was going on” (494), her book is anything but cool and unemotional . The author eschews reticence and cool stoic reserve in favor of a vividly evoked emotional engagement with the pangs of “the huge vat of darkness and pain” inside her memories of the past. In so doing she provides compelling reading for anyone interested in the twistings and turnings—the “spiral” nature—of a life of spiritual struggle. “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,” as Swami Sarvagatananda, one of MacPhail’s favorite people, used to say. (The Swami was, of course, quoting Oscar Wilde.) A Spiral Life provides a wonderfully instructive example of this ultimately hopeful spiritual perspective on life.
The portraits in her book of those who mentored her spiritual journey are fascinating in themselves—first of all, that of her grandmother Mary Anne, who, MacPhail writes, “laid the whole foundation of my spiritual life.” (409) And then that of her beloved Swami Pavitrananda, with whom she had a relationship fraught with tension that she seeks to understand years after his death—to ‘get to the bottom of what was going on.’ In one of the striking moments of lucidity that illumine the shadows of her uncertainty and travail, she writes that “as time went by, I began to glimpse through the suffocating darkness that what was going on was the replay of my responses to my father” (383). Her father had been a troubled man, shell shocked in World War II and subsequently alcoholic, and his abusive verbal outbursts had had a demoralizing effect on his young daughter, all the more so because her mother had recently committed suicide. “I had let his diatribes unnerve me, frighten me, cow me down and undermine my self-confidence,” she writes. “My father had had dark, inchoate and highly emotional motives for his behavior, which I would never fathom—but destructive they were, beyond doubt.” (383-4) Once, in a kind of waking vision, she saw “clearly and distinctly, first Swami standing before me smiling affectionately, and then my father, standing beside him. My father was sneering, showing his “fangs” — his prominent dog teeth, of which he was very proud—and slashing at me with cruel words, which I could not understand. As this was going on, my father moved in front of Swami and completely obscured him. It was like a big, black cloud covering the sun and obliterating its light.” (385)
In her frequently problematic relationship with Swami Pavitrananda, she comes to realize that she was “superimposing my father’s darkness and cruelty on to Swami and then beating up on Swami to punish him for it.” (383)
The point of this story should be comforting to all who have had problems dealing with their guru or other inspirational spiritual figures—and who has not, at one time or another? “I began to see,” MacPhail writes, “that I was resisting, with all the power at my command, the authority that Swami so patently wielded.” She finally dares to ask her teacher about what is really meant by “obedience to the guru,” and receives a surprising answer from him:
Swami smiled in recognition; I felt as if he had had some personal experience of this problem and that he was very empathetic to me. “It is very good to have a will of your own!” he said. “You are lucky to have such a strong will. Rely on it and do not let what others say affect you.” (383)
This is just a sample of what awaits the reader of this engaging and compelling spiritual autobiography—a work in progress, since it only takes the reader through the first forty years or so of the author’s life, itself a work in progress. I look forward greatly to the sequel!
STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston
and New York for more than 40 years. He teaches comparative literature
at Rutgers University.