I obviously like to tell stories. It would be pretty sad if I didn’t like to tell stories being that I am a novelist. I also like to listen to people tell the stories about their own lives.
When I realized I needed to talk to a nun about her life in order to flesh in my character, Margaret, in my new novel, Scags at 30, I asked friends for recommendations. I wanted to fill in what I could about a real nun’s life rather than try and make it up from the books, movies and essays I had read.
As a writer, I knew what I needed to do was listen to a nun talk about her life. It would be comparable to preparing for a role. There were missing pieces to the character, Margaret, that I needed to understand. I figured even nuns like to talk about themselves. So, I found a way to meet with Sr. Marion Defeis and it led to some incredible insights about Margaret as well as to meeting a truly remarkable person.
I had two opportunities to observe Sr. Marion. The first was at a panel discussion on solitary confinement at The Oratory of Saint Boniface in Brooklyn. She led an evening’s discussion that featured three other women involved in the ongoing work to end solitary confinement in New York State. Watching her was my job that night; yet my attention was often diverted by the emotional talks each of these other women gave.
I approached Sr. Marion at the end of the evening to make an appointment to talk to her privately. I thus got on the subway to meet Sr. Marion where she lived– at Providence House in Coney Island. The subway ride from Queens to Coney Island is one of the longest in the system. It was long enough for me to use to prepare for my talk with Sr. Marion. Fortunately, I found in me what I needed to be able to listen closely to Sr. Marion in order to find out who Margaret is.
Sr. Marion and I sat on the porch of Providence House for over an hour. It was an overcast and chilly day but it was comfortably quiet. This is what I heard as we talked that afternoon. She began by telling me of her life before Rikers. Her sentences were short, crisp but as she approached her tenure as a chaplain at Rikers, they filled out, grew long and more involved and required me to ask more questions because there was so much more of that life for me to understand.
Before Sr. Marion could work at Rikers, nuns were more confined to one profession–teaching. When she was able to work at Rikers, she worked part-time. She therefore had time to do other work related to her chaplaincy, like going to Albany to lobby the legislature to end the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws and to meet with the Archbishop of New York to get his support. She gleefully told me he wrote a very good op-ed in support of it too. She also went into great detail about the work she did with the Queens DA’s office to help drug mules get better treatment in the courts and so forth.
As she spoke, I realized I had never expected to hear a nun speak about “drug mules.” At first, I wanted to laugh but then came a different response.
Margaret became a real person to me. By listening to Sr. Marion, Margaret grew out of an idea and into actuality. I could now have conversations with Margaret I knew her so well.
I wasn’t fully aware of that in the moment but I was so thrilled to have found Margaret that I asked Sr. Marion what I could do to repay her for her time. From that question, another part of this adventure with Sr. Marion began. Stay tuned for that report next.
(More to come on Sr. Marion in my next blog. In the meantime, please help Sullivan St Press pay its bills by donating here: GoFundMe.com/yw769w)