The Spiral Staircase:
My Climb Out of Darkness

by Karen Armstrong


Knopf, 2004. ISBN 0375413189.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 10/22/2004

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Body Language

The Spiral Staircase is an honest and insightful account of Karen Armstrong's spiritual journey of painful self-discovery from the age of seventeen until she was, at long last, led to her true purpose.

At seventeen, Armstrong decided to devote her life to God and entered the Roman Catholic Church. She became a conscientious novitiate but over time began to question the rigid tenets of her faith. In addition, the strictness and seemingly uncaring attitude of the nuns caused her health and mental state to spiral downward. She experienced sudden, frightening panic attacks and seizures which the nuns ascribed to her overly sensitive nature and childish histrionics.

After seven years in the convent, distraught and deeply wounded, she accepted defeat and left a world she had cherished for many years. Not used to the outside world, she entered academia, another cloistered existence, and worked toward her doctorate. But, after years of hard work, her thesis was rejected.

Armstrong is a writer of such skill and emotional depth that in reading her story I suffered with her. It was almost as though I had known and loved her from childhood and needed to know that her health had improved, that she had finally found what she was searching for. I turned page after page with a heavy heart as I read of her continued frustrations with all that she tried... her failed doctorate, a string of televsion documentaries that also led nowhere, her terrifying seizures.

The life the author describes reminds me of my own past struggles to find myself, how I too poured my heart and soul into various jobs and relationships that did not work out, and to which I reacted with feelings of hopelessness, confusion, and a severe loss of self-confidence.

But Armstrong had a problem far greater than any of mine. She was ultimately diagnosed with epilepsy. Though her symptoms were the classic symptoms of this illness, they were not taken seriously by the nuns; nor were they recognized by the psychiatrist she was seeing for many years. During a hospital stay many years later, a doctor diagnosed her illness correctly, and she received the medication that stablized her and enabled her to begin her writing career.

Karen Armstrong has written numerous books on the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her work has been translated into forty languages. In The Spiral Staircase, she shares how she came to the understanding that living a spiritual life is not merely about the rigors of following the tenets of any religious order but about living with an open, loving heart. Her engaging personality coupled with the wisdom she has gained places this book among the most moving, inspiring and entertaining memoirs I have had the pleasure to read.


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