By conservative estimate I have read 20 books about Dorothy Day, one of my heroes. Almost 30 years ago, while working as a Jesuit novice at the Nativity Mission Center, a school for poor boys on the Lower East Side of New York, I picked up The Long Loneliness, her justly famous autobiography. The book was forced on me (albeit in a nice way) by another novice after he discovered that I had no idea who Dorothy Day was.
A few chapters in, I realized that much of the story took place just a few blocks from where I was living, at the nearby Catholic Worker house. I mentioned that to a Jesuit in my community who laughed. “Didn’t you know that? You’re living in her world!”
Since then I have plowed through numerous biographies and, recently, through her judiciously edited letters and diaries, edited by her friend Robert Ellsberg, himself the author of several books on the saints. Those two hefty volumes brought me closer to her than ever. Her daily jottings exposed the enormous day-to-day challenges of running the Catholic Worker movement. And for the first time I got a glimpse of Dorothy Day the parent and grandparent.
Dorothy’s letters and journals reveal her involvement in, and concern for, the life of her daughter Tamar, and Tamar’s children. That filled in some important blank spots for me, since most biographies of the great woman focus on the Worker, not the daughter. Another revelation was Dorothy’s selfless care for her former lover, Forster (Tamar’s father), and his wife, Nanette, as she lay dying from cancer. To me, her nursing her former lover’s wife was nothing short of heroic.
In some early chapters “imperfect” may be the most charitable word you could use. “Indifferent” might be more accurate.
But now a new book, Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessey, her granddaughter, has upended my conception of the woman that Pope Francis singled out as a “great American” during his visit to the United States in 2014. The beautifully written book, which offers new insights into her life with Forster and her work with the Worker, is also a searingly honest look at Dorothy Day the mother. And it shows her as very much an imperfect parent, particularly when Tamar was a child.
In some early chapters “imperfect” may be the most charitable word you could use. “Indifferent” might be more accurate. With the Catholic Worker consuming Dorothy’s time, she sometimes forgot about her child. “She would let me stay up late while she was talking,” Tamar told Hennessey, “and I’d be forgotten while playing in the bath.” Another word to describe her mothering skills, with a small child and even with her adult daughter, would be—and it is ironic to use this word in connection with Dorothy Day—“poor.” At one point, when Tamar was struggling to eke out a living with her husband on a dirt-poor farm in West Virginia, Dorothy wrote a letter castigating her daughter for her situation, which deeply wounded Tamar for years.
Rafts of books have been written about the imperfections of the saints. As we know, they are not divine. And they continued sinning all the way until their deaths. But it is especially bracing to read about the failings of a contemporary saint through the eyes of a family member. Of course, Dorothy and Tamar loved each other. That’s obvious. But sometimes they seemed not to know how.
Far from discouraging me, the book inspired me. Edified me. Dorothy was imperfect at times. So am I. She’s on her way to sainthood. I’m not, but I can try, even if I sin. Thank you, Dorothy. Thank you, Kate.
Most of all, thank you, Tamar.