The Spiral Staircase, My Climb Out of Darkness

Karen Armstrong
Alfred A Knopf, 2004

I was taken by the first paragraph of The Spiral Staircase, though I was wondering what had overtaken me to loan the memoir from the library. Only two days before I had told myself, “Enough of the serious books, get something light.” Then I heard Armstrong talking on the radio about the Charter for Compassion she is involved with, and her Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life. I had read her book Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, so with near zombie-like compliance I just went to the library and checked it out.

Not a page turner because of story, The Spiral Staircase is a thoughtful recitation of steps taken as an adult that led her to her unusual and exclusive niche of writing about religion to the popular market. After leaving a nun’s life at age twenty-three, her life is a series of steps and missteps that only slowly took form, and when it did, it happened with quiet day-to-day living, not drama-laden, tabloid fodder.

It is a studious peek into a woman’s life who made her way to success not by planning it, but by picking her way through adjustment to life that repeatedly closes options behind her. She left the convent because she did not find God there, had an eating disorder, and her master’s thesis failed after years of work. Nor did she find success with teaching, journalism or filmmaking. She had deep fears of not being normal that were discounted by a psychiatrist for years until she finally discovered she did suffer from a form of delusional epilepsy.

Strewn throughout and initially unobserved by her, were small events that turned her life with sleight-of-hand movement. It took friends to point out her talent for writing she was unable to see. During her drifting employment she learned piece by piece what would be important to know when she finally began writing her books in earnest.

Armstrong has great capacity for research and a mind that sees similarities through differences that she believes should bring people to more peaceful community living. Toward the end she gives her insights into the “Abrahamic” religions of Jews, Christians and Muslims, mixing it with myth and bits of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is her gift to hold the strings of each one and offer ideas that could make sharing this planet earth a bit easier.

Her life is a quiet one attuned to silence and study, and with that capacity she is able to sprinkle thoughts throughout her writing to encourage thoughtful page turning.

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