I spent over four years researching friendship patterns of people from all ages in order to write Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations through Friendship. I traveled across the U.S. facilitating numerous focus groups; designed, executed and analyzed a survey on friendship; conducted interviews with several professionals; and read just about every journal article and book on related topics. As a researcher of racial identity development, I became an expert on why we don't cross racial lines in friendship and why we don't socialize across racial lines. I studied the personality traits and life circumstances of those who actually did cross racial lines in friendship and in their social lives and came to the conclusion that crossing racial lines in friendship required a spiritual perspective . I still receive many invitations to speak on this topic and have found that uniformly my audiences have been most interested in one fact -- that I used to be a nun. Although it has been almost thirty years since I was a nun, those thirteen years that I spent in religious life remain the most fascinating aspect of my biography for a lot of people. Most individual's knowledge of nuns is limited to Mother Theresa, Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and Sally Field as The Singing Nun. As a result, they are particularly fascinated about what it was like being a nun and especially a Black nun, for the two concepts don't seem to naturally go together.
I have been encouraged to write a memoir about those thirteen years and have resisted doing so. Racing Across the Lines is already somewhat of a memoir. I wrote about my experiences as a Black nun in a white religious community in service of exploring the thesis of cross-racial socializing, but for most readers it doesn't touch on any of what might be deemed "the juicy parts." Audiences are generally politely interested in the cross-racial socializing thesis, but are obviously more curious about the nun part. What was it like to live a vowed life of poverty, chastity and obedience with hundreds of other women? Why did you wear a habit? Were you married to God? Did you get a divorce from God when you left? How did you live without sex? Why would you want to live without sex? Did the nuns "do it" with the priests? Was it like being in jail only with good people?
I have found an outlet addressing these questions in writing cozy mysteries. Writing fiction was never on my radar until I was encouraged to do so by my friend Janette Louard. She told me that I might find writing fiction rewarding and instructed that if I wrote a page a day I would have a novel in a year's time. Although writing They Still Call Me Sister took much longer that a year to write (my day job kept getting in the way), I did find writing this cozy mystery about a black psychologist and former nun rewarding. I am continually grateful to the religious community of sisters with whom I spent thirteen great and challenging years growing up personally, professionally and spiritually. My journals, dating back to 1970, shaped the main character's reflections and experiences. My fictional character, Kathy Carpenter, is also a psychologist and former nun. When a troubled patient in her Cleveland-based psychology practice is found dead, it's ruled a suicide, but Kathy can't believe it. She suspects murder, but others believe she is just being obsessive. She enlists the help of her pastor and best friend, along with her gregarious sister Tina, to prove there was foul play. Unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life, Kathy finds herself in the middle of a political sex scandal in Atlanta and her own life is put in jeopardy.
I really enjoyed writing They Still Call Me Sister. Unlike writing non-fiction and professional journal articles, I could make up all kinds of answers to the questions I repeatedly get about what it is like to be a Black nun. I could fabricate and embellish stories and my readers are left to wonder what aspects, if any, might be true. They can be entertained while gaining knowledge about the convent experience and I am...well. let's just say, liberated.