Something Other Than God – A Book Review

I love a good conversion story. One of my favorite books (as you know because I’ve mentioned it repeatedly) is Rome Sweet Home. It’s a story about the conversion of an anti-Catholic, Evangelical Protestant minister to Catholicism. It’s an excellent book, but not really the type of conversion that I could identify with in many ways. As I’ve written about quite a bit, I was certainly not an evangelical anything when I began my process of conversion to Catholicism.

The first conversion story I began reading about when I thought maybe I wasn’t an atheist anymore was Jennifer Fulwiler’s. She writes the blog I mention all the time, Conversion Diary. I kind of feel a kinship with Jennifer, because she too used to be an atheist. Reading her posts helped me begin to recognize, long before I read Rome Sweet Home, that I really didn’t understand Catholicism, or Christianity in general. I realized that my (mostly negative) beliefs about the teachings of the Catholic Church were way off base after reading lots of her posts on various topics, like Natural Family Planning/contraception and confession.

When I heard Jennifer was writing a book, I was thrilled and I couldn’t wait for it to come out. In fact, I contacted her publisher and asked if they’d let me do a review of it so I might be able to read it before it came out. I actually didn’t really think they’d let me. But they did! I’ve read it twice. It’s that good.


The first thing I want to say about the book is that it is not a reprinting of various posts from the blog Conversion Diary. I have read a lot of Jennifer’s blog. I read it regularly now as new posts come out, and in the early days I combed through her site and read lots of her older posts as I was trying to learn as much as possible about the Catholic Faith. Even still, this book was filled with stuff I’ve never read before. I have purchased other memoirs written by popular bloggers before, and though I found them good, I have at times been disappointed that the books mostly consisted of various blog posts, slightly edited for the book version. Jennifer’s book is a story, not a collection of essays or posts. And it’s a darn good one.

The book has a wonderful balance of serious and funny. It is real and authentic. One of my favorite parts was her writing about her uncertainties about prayer and how to act at Mass during her early days of conversion. I often found myself laughing out loud and thinking, “Oh! Her too?” Like when she shut herself into a bathroom stall to have some privacy to read her Bible:

“I looked down at the toilet seat and hesitated. It would be nice to have somewhere to sit, but . . . what the heck. I wiped it off with toilet paper and sat down in my slacks. Listen, God, I said silently. Then I realized I was addressing the Almighty from a toilet. Surely there were rules about that. I stood up and continued . . .”

I haven’t exactly done that before, but if I had a dollar for all the times I wondered if I was breaking some sort of “rule” about how or when to pray or what to do at Mass . . . well I could probably at least buy a cute new pair of shoes or something.

On the more serious side, there were two threads to the plot (is it called a “plot” when it’s a true story?) that particularly resonated with me, and I’d like to focus my review on my thoughts about these.

The first is how Jennifer writes about her struggle with reconciling the idea that there could be a loving God who would let horrible things happen. For many years I was of the belief that when people said things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” it was a load of hooey. In response to this mindset I would think something like, “Whatever. There’s a lot of awful stuff that happens in this world, and there’s no way I’m believing that there’s some grand cosmic Godly purpose for it.”

Through her book, Jennifer weaves a compelling story of tragedy and grief to convey her inability to reconcile the idea of an all-good God with the sadness and losses in life. She writes,

“I fed the [rosary] beads through my fingertips until I held only the pewter crucifix. There was the familiar figure of Jesus, bleeding and dying. This image supposedly answered the question of human suffering. I just didn’t understand how.”

She goes on to describe her struggles in this area and finally, the beautiful realizations she reaches that bring her to a place of peace and understanding of how Jesus’s suffering and sacrifice do answer the question of human suffering, perfectly. As someone who went through similar questions and doubts myself, and sometimes still has trouble understanding, I loved this part of the book. She makes it all make sense.

The second thread in the book that spoke strongly to me was Jennifer’s description of her journey from being firmly, staunchly, absolutely pro-choice to becoming pro-life. I had a big struggle with this issue too for many months. In fact, one of the first things that got me questioning my formerly-held position on this issue was this post she wrote about how she became pro-life.

But even having read that post didn’t provide the full story of the internal (and sometimes external) conflict she went through around this issue. In the book, she writes about her early beliefs that abortion is a matter of freedom for women and that “An all-good God wouldn’t oppose freedom.” She writes about how, even after learning some very disturbing facts about the way abortion is sometimes practiced, she was reluctant to give up her pro-choice stance,

“As much as what I just read called into question the moral footing of the pro-choice position, there remained within me an unmovable resentment toward Catholicism for opposing abortion and therefore making women slaves to their bodies. . . . Within me there was a conviction with roots a mile deep that said that to oppose abortion would be unfair to women in the direst sense of the word.”

Not long ago I had this same dilemma. Jennifer’s story about how she came to resolve her inner battle about abortion is perfectly written. You can feel the tension in her progression through this conflict. It hit home with me because it echoed in many ways my own struggle with this hot-button issue. But as Jennifer details, and I have learned myself, it is when you make a point to really learn the reasons behind the Church’s stance on an issue, you can see it more clearly and move beyond emotional, knee-jerk reactions and reliance on the popular opinion that the Church is simply “anti-woman.” Also, I appreciate that she presents this issue in a way that isn’t judgmental of women who have faced this difficulty.

This is a wonderful book for so many reasons. It is obviously a story of religious conversion, but more than that it is a beautifully woven tapestry of many threads of a life’s struggles and doubts and growth. I love reading about people who allow themselves to evolve and flourish because of being open to something new. Something that may seem weird or foreign or scary.

Jennifer’s book is a must-read.

**Something Other Than God was released today! You can order the book from Amazon, Ignatius Press, or Barnes and Noble, or wherever you like to buy books. And Jennifer is having an online release party for the book and giving away lots of prizes. Buy the book. Enter the giveaways.

It’s a wonderful book with chances to win stuff! You can’t beat that.

Special thanks to Ignatius Press and Jennifer for letting me do this review.

“The Other Mother” – Read this Book

I love to read a good book. To me a truly good book is one that tells a great story in a beautiful way. One that speaks to you and keeps you thinking, even after you’re done reading. I just finished reading such a book.

I was asked recently to review a book called “The Other Mother: A Rememoir” by Teresa Bruce.

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In it, the author tells the story of her own young self and the woman she came to call her “other mother.” This woman, Byrne Miller, came of age during the depression. She was a dancer and dance instructor, a wife to a struggling author, and a mother to two biological daughters, one of which was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age five, the other killed in a car accident in adulthood. Teresa brings Byrne to life in her book and showcases the amazing spirit of the woman who “collected” children wherever she went, remarking, “If the family you’re given cannot make you happy, or vice versa, collect another.”

Teresa was one of Byrne’s collected daughters and she tells Byrne’s story with compelling honesty and insight. She refers to Byrne’s colorful comments and bits of advice as “womenisms,” and these are peppered throughout the book. As I read, I found myself captivated, experiencing a strong sense of connection with the unique and gutsy character of Byrne, in spite of the fact that she was of another generation and lived a life vastly different from mine.

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I really loved this book, but I struggled with figuring out how to write a review because of one major aspect of Byrne’s life. Not long after their daughter’s diagnosis with schizophrenia, Byrne catches her husband Duncan having a secret affair, and upon confronting him, learns that he wants to have an “open” marriage.

He wanted an arrangement,” Teresa writes, “an escape hatch from the broken child he could not fix.” Byrne accommodates him, stipulating that they must always at least be honest about it. One of the womenisms attributed to Byrne is, “Monogamy is overrated. Honesty is imperative.” Another is, “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence.

I vehemently disagree with both of these statements (except the second part of the first one). So much so that I had a hard time reconciling my dislike of statements like these with my love of the book and with the character of Byrne.

There is so much more to this book and to Byrne than this piece of the story, but it was hard for me to figure out how to write about it because of that one part that I feel so uncomfortable with. Obviously, the book and the author are not advocating having affairs or open marriages. But… I got stuck on this issue when trying to find a way to formulate my review.

For one thing, I could not connect with the character of Duncan, in spite of feeling empathy about his having Alzheimer’s and the inclusion in the book of several moving passages about his love for Byrne. For another, I couldn’t get on board with the portrayal at points in the book of Byrne and Duncan’s relationship as being so amazing and wonderful. A few times in the book, Teresa writes about one of Byrne’s daughters “finding her Duncan” as a metaphor for finding the perfect man. Knowing that he cheated on Byrne throughout their marriage, I could not understand why anyone would want to “find a Duncan.”

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Teresa was very open to discussing the book with me and answering questions through email, so I expressed my feelings about this to her. She noted that she didn’t think Byrne’s advice to have affairs was meant to be taken literally (though Byrne did have at least two affairs herself in her open marriage, as described in the book). Teresa also commented that she knew the open marriage thing would probably be a hard part of the story for many women to swallow. In an email to me she wrote, “As a ‘daughter’ of Byrne I kind of wanted to protect that part of her story, but as a writer, I thought I had to include it because it was part of my journey of going from thinking [Byrne and Duncan] had a perfect, fairy-tale life and marriage to realizing the truth.

That last statement was a great way to sum up the progression of the book around this topic. It reminded me that saying that someone had found “her Duncan” wasn’t so much saying she had found the perfect man, but that she had found the perfect man for her. And though their marriage was far from ideal, Duncan seemed to be the perfect mate for Byrne, and she for him. They seemed to understand and complement each other and to truly love each other in a way that worked for them. Teresa also pointed out her own dedication of the book to her husband, “For Gary, the man Byrne always knew was out there for me.” NOT, “For Gary – my Duncan.”

As Teresa reveals poignantly, Byrne’s life was anything but a fairy tale. Her older (biological) daughter Alison was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age five, and her younger daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Her husband had Alzheimer’s. And there was much more, but I don’t want to spoil some twists in the story.

For me the most haunting chapter in the book was the one in which Teresa describes the time when Alison was diagnosed, and Byrne reluctantly agreed to allow her to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Byrne was devastated, feeling she had betrayed her daughter by allowing this treatment. But also,  in 1943, she was shouldering the blame for her daughter’s illness, as it was still thought at that time that schizophrenia was caused by a “schizophrenogenic mother.”

After the ECT failed to produce desired results, the doctors suggested Alison be institutionalized. My favorite line of the book follows this, “‘Speak again of taking my child away from me,’ [Byrne] threatened, a cobra about to strike, ‘and I will attach those ECT wires to your testicles.’” I wanted to cheer when I read this. And I wanted to cry. I could absolutely see myself saying something similar if I felt one of my children was being threatened. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine being in that position.

As a mother, I devoured the parts of the book about Byrne’s efforts to “cure” Alison herself. She was like a one-woman army, going into battle with a mysterious and elusive enemy to save her daughter’s mind. As a psychologist, I cannot imagine that struggle. Obviously no one (not even the most dedicated mother) can cure schizophrenia through hard work and sheer force of will, but Byrne did help Alison to be able to attend regular schools and function throughout her life mostly independently.

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One of the womenisms Teresa attributes to Byrne is, “When what is painful can’t be fixed, close the door behind you and walk into another room. The brain has more chambers than the heart.” Byrne seemed to me the perfect example of the saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” She did not dwell on hardship, but made the most of whatever situation life handed her.

Reading about why she made the choices she did, how she made them work, and what she learned from them was something I really loved about the book. I especially enjoyed reading about some of Byrne’s unorthodox parenting choices, which I found both amusing and challenging.

For example, when Duncan quit a job and suggested they leave New York for someplace quieter so he could write, they went to Byrne’s aunt’s old country home, only to find that the actual house was gone and all that was left was a chicken coop and a tree house. Byrne allowed her daughters to live in the treehouse, while putting a tent around the chicken coop for herself and Duncan. Yes, you read that right. She allowed her two young daughters to live in a treehouse.

This cracked me up at the same time it kind of horrified me. I would never allow my girls to live in a treehouse (entertaining as it was to read about someone who did), but reading about Byrne’s way of finding unconventional solutions challenged me and spoke to the part of me that knows I need to lighten up about many things with my own girls.

And therein lies the beauty of this book. If you are a woman, it speaks to you. It speaks to mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and friends. It speaks to anyone who finds joy in self expression and art and movement. It speaks to those who have lost loved ones, whether through death or descent into psychosis and/or dementia. It speaks to anyone who has made bad decisions and to everyone who would do anything for her family, biological or “collected.”

The parts of the story that I felt most connected to, naturally, had to do with Byrne’s struggles and triumphs as a young mother. But I also appreciated the grit and spirit of this woman who fought for her children and for her marriage, even if it was often in unusual ways.

The relationship between Teresa and Byrne is one I find to be a model of how women can and should always have a support system of other women, whether that comes from blood relatives or others. I have written before about how everyone should have a Super Friend. I guess I could even refer to Super Friend as my “Other Sister.” But Teresa brings up another relationship that is critically important also, that of a mother. She reminds us that we can have this relationship even when our own mother does not or cannot provide it.

Women can and should bring out the best in each other. This book provides such a beautiful portrait of one way this can occur. If you’re a woman, you should absolutely read this book. And then email me and tell me what you thought, because I am dying to talk to someone about it! Get a copy, or win it here!

Again I have an opportunity to give away a copy of this book. This time, I have in my possession an autographed hardcover copy that I can’t wait to send to someone who will enjoy it. So, like last time just leave a comment to enter. I’ll pick a winner (via on Monday, December 16th at 9pm Central time.

Have you ever had an “other mother” or another woman outside your family who meant as much to you as your biological relatives? Have you been an “other mother”?

** Disclosure – I was given a two signed copies of this book in exchange for writing a review of it.

Book Review and Giveaway – Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from My Six-Month-Old

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned From My Six-Month-Old: Awakening to Unconditional Self-Love in Motherhood by Kuwana Haulsey, is part memoir, part self-help book, part inspirational journey. It’s a story about a mother. A mother who is going through the trials of all new mothers and sharing them in a way we can all learn something from.

Kuwana Haulsey writes beautifully about the process of becoming a new mother, getting to know your baby, losing yourself, and then finding yourself again. This is, to my knowledge, a universal experience of new mothers.

New motherhood is something new and exhilarating and overwhelming. Beautiful and crushing. Kuwana Haulsey delves into this new stage of life with lovely insights into the process of becoming a mom.

It’s not the same for every mom, but I think the inevitable transformation after having a first baby often involves similar stages, such as Losing Self in Precious Baby, Losing Self in Deprivation (sleep, time, self-care), Losing Self in What? The? Hell? (i.e. how do I get dressed each day?, how do I stay an individual person when there is constantly a sweet yet oh-so-needy little person hanging from me?, how the heck does this carseat work?), then Finding Self in Purpose, Finding Self in Balance, Finding Self in Managing to Shower Every Day. And so on.

Kuwana Haulsey describes this process in a much more eloquent and in-depth way in her new book. She describes the Every-Mom process of losing-and-then-finding-self by documenting lessons she learned from her son. Each of the 15 chapters in her book consists of a lesson the author learned about herself and life from observing her newborn son through the first several months of his life. Lessons like:

“If You Are Irritated by Every Rub, How Will You Ever Be Polished?”: Choosing Harmony Over Resentment,

When It All Falls Apart: The Art of Joyous Failure, and

Love Is Like Musk – It Attracts Attention

Some of the observations she makes are just so “how-did-I-never-think-of-it-that-way?” wonderful. She writes with a beautiful mix of simplicity and complexity that leaves you pondering the lessons that our children have to teach us.

And that is the real point of this book. Over and over, Kuwana points out how her newborn son’s perspective on the world is an opportunity to learn to embrace life more fully, find the beauty in the hard moments, become open to change, and learn to love oneself for real.

A few of my favorite lines:

“A newborn baby is a living, breathing, screaming, pooping meditation.”

“This is how we evolve: by rubbing the sticks of truth and meaning together until something inside sparks.”

“In the adult world, thinking ahead makes us rational and responsible. You’re congratulated when you relinquish the art of being lost in the moment.”

This is a wonderfully written book. Although there are some parts where the dialogue gets a bit stilted, and I found myself feeling kind of jarred by it, the majority of the writing and the message of the book more than make up for these awkward passages.

The book provides many reminders of ways in which changing your perspective can change your heart. In the case of this book, the perspective taken is that of an infant. The journey is in realizing that so much of our world can be simplified and embraced by looking at it through the eyes of someone who hasn’t yet been burdened by the expectations and judgements of adulthood.

As a mom, I try to remember to look at things through my kids’ eyes and experience levels. I often fail in these attempts, but I do try. This book provided me with even more ways to do this and ways to think about bettering myself and appreciating myself more in the process. As the author says,

To embrace fear and anger and misgivings right along with my child allowed me to embrace myself too. Placing tender, nonjudgemental attention on the situation and staying in the moment . . . allowed something fresh and relevant to spring forth, what the old folks use to call mother’s intuition.

This is a recommended read for other moms or moms-to-be. It’s a highly enjoyable and even inspirational read.

Now, the best part of this post is that I get to tell you that I am able to give away one of these books to one of you. If you want a chance to win the book, simply leave a comment on this post and make sure you include a way to contact you. I will close the giveaway on Sunday night (12/8) at 9pm Central time. Good luck!

** I was given a free copy of this book (plus a copy to give to a reader) in exchange for my honest review**