Only Patricia Lockwood Could Get Away with Priestdaddy

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You’re going to read Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy—we both know that already. You’re going to read it because you loved “The Rape Joke,” and because you loved the collection in which it lives, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals, and because you loved all the irreverent weirdness in those pages (Walt Whitman’s tit-pics, especially), you were thrilled to hear Lockwood sold a memoir—a memoir! over 300 pages of rollicking Lockwood prose—and you’ve whiled away the wait by following Lockwood on Twitter, where she is one of the few people who makes you feel better about being on Twitter.

Lockwood’s memoir is that classic tale of a writer and her husband—a man she met on the internet before it was acceptable to do so, now recovering from a major eye surgery crowd-funded by mostly strangers—moving into the Midwest rectory of the writer’s Catholic priest father and Psychopath Test-failing mother. Also living with the happy foursome is a seminarian with whom Lockwood shares her profane knowledge (while also becoming friends, in a unique sense of the word).

Unsure of what, precisely, constitutes a seminarian? Fortunately, Lockwood’s explanations of all things Catholic to her unflappable and equally irreverent husband serve as a glossary for readers as well:

“Okay. A seminarian is an unborn priest who floats for nine years in the womb of education, and then is finally born between the bishop’s legs in a set of exquisite robes.”

“You can’t say things like that anymore, Tricia,” he warns me. “God will hear you.”

“That’s not God, that’s Mom,” I say, raising my voice and pointing at the closed door. Outraged silence. Then a soft rodent shuffling and footsteps retreating down the stairs.

Interactions like these are scattered throughout the book, punctuated by howls from Father Lockwood’s electric guitar and his ALL CAPS EXCLAMATIONS, like “WHAT ARE YOU FEMMES DOING” directed at the writer and her mother. Lockwood explains this one too, less for its Catholic-ness than for its Fr. Lockwood-ness:

He always calls us femmes. It is, believe it or not, a term of affection. When he’s angry, he calls you a feminazi. When he first encountered that epithet, on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show in the early nineties, he hugged it to himself as wholeheartedly as a second wife. Nuns are feminazis, Democrats are feminazis, the secretary who asks him please not to call her “dollface” is a feminazi. It goes without saying that I am a feminazi.

It also goes without saying that Lockwood will have you snickering on the train, trying to relay her jokes to friends and strangers alike but receiving confused (and possibly horrified) looks in exchange. Only Patricia Lockwood can get away with a chapter titled “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Place” or recounting the day she lost her virginity to the swimming pool while her father applauded (and critiqued her form).

But as we know from her poetry, Lockwood’s humor can shape-shift into something else entirely, something quite moving. I found myself quieted while she twisted and wound through the story of her childhood youth group, called God’s Gang, in North County, St. Louis, a place where children disappeared and the landfill held 8,700 tons of radioactive waste, a fact meticulously hidden and ruinous to the families living there, including her own. The knowledge gave her a distinct context during the riots following the non-indictment of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in the summer of 2014:

And when I see that strong, surging flux of teenagers in the streets, kerchiefs tied over their faces to protect them from tear gas and lit by flares against the backdrop of American flags, I will fill at once with thudding dread and think, I wonder if they are sick too. They must have fished and waded in the creeks and played pickup games on those dirt lots. Their basements must have flooded in the springtime. As they march against a swarm of more imminent dangers, I will wonder if they know, because we did not.

It might come as a surprise that the memoir is not a takedown of the Catholic Church. Lockwood resists that narrative, while also remaining deeply thoughtful and critical of the archaic stances on which her father’s worldview is built. It’s clear she is wrestling with this in the prose: how a life built between such constrictive walls can transform into something freer, though never free.

Priestdaddy is a book necessary for 2017—a meditation on living in the house of an unabashed patriarch, of asserting one’s humanity and continuing to take up space. While her father is ostensibly the focal character, Lockwood’s flashbacks often center on the women who orbited her childhood: her mother, simultaneously scrappy and submissive; the procreating church ladies who philosophized over abortion while their children listened from the corners; the young women, talked out of abortions themselves, who lived in the Lockwoods’ home with their babies until, suddenly, they didn’t. I imagine crowds of women reading Priestdaddy on their morning commutes and rallying for reproductive rights over their lunch breaks. I imagine Pope Francis receiving a thousand Amazon Prime envelopes on his doorstep.

At times, the writing turns meta. Lockwood’s parents know she is writing about them, and they perform and underperform for her in turn. In the final chapter, Lockwood’s anguish over her father’s portrayal comes through at its clearest:

Please give me something, anything: a crumb of the bread that you stand in front of the people and change, a word of the absolution that flows out of you toward anyone who needs it. Forget your gold sunburst and come downstairs, I think, but whole Bibles have been written about the man who wasn’t there, who appeared for some and never others, who was thunder in a cloud.

Lockwood is often referred to as an “outsider”—having taken neither the MFA nor NYC route, in fact not attending college at all—but reading this book made me wonder if perhaps we are the outsiders: we being the unlucky rest of us who do not reside in Lockwood’s poetic, unpredictable brain.

Eliza Smith is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University and serves as associate online editor for The Journal. She completed her MA at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she was editor-in-chief of Vox Magazine. More from this author →