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Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  1,428 ratings  ·  155 reviews
This unique autobiography begins with McCarthy’s recollections of an indulgent, idyllic childhood tragically altered by the death of her parents in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Paperback, 208 pages
Published 2006 by Index Books Limited (first published 1946)
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 ·  1,428 ratings  ·  155 reviews

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May 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing

I first read this book in the early ‘80s in a university course on autobiography. We read works that traced the history of the genre and ended with this book. I remember reading Rousseau and enjoying him immensely, but I remember this most of all, perhaps because I was young and it spoke to some of my own experiences. The only paper we wrote for the class was our own ‘autobiography’. Though I no longer have the paper (that’s another story), I remember it distinctly. Each of my siblings (I
Oct 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood presents interesting snapshots of a child, then young adult's life being raised by relatives after the death of her parents. An odd upbringing, but obviously, the only one she has to compare to in her life. Mary McCarthy was only six years old when her parents decided to move from Seattle (home of her mother's parents) to Minneapolis (home of her father's). On the train trip, the entire family became ill with the flu and Mary's parents died. This began he ...more
Nov 04, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: united-states, 2009
(2.5 stars!)

The essays that make up Memories of a Catholic Girlhood are not particularly memorable, despite being written in McCarthy's wonderful, smart, smart prose. The earlier vignettes - about the loss of her parents to the 1918 flu pandemic, and her awful life in Minneapolis under the guardianship of a ham-fisted aunt and uncle - are fascinating, but once McCarthy moves back to the sheltered, quiet, rarified care of her grandparents in Seattle, her essays become less interesting and animate
Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)

Better to deposit the children in a Catholic household where they are severely abused and neglected than to let the Protestants get their hands on them. That was the philosophy of Mary McCarthy's grandparents after both her parents died, one day apart, in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Fortunately, when she was eleven years old she was shipped off to her Protestant grandparents in Seattle. While they weren't exactly warm and loving, they were kind and generous and never abusive.

A childhood like t
May 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Mary McCarthy was such a delightful writer that I could read her writing about just about anything. But what’s most wonderful about this memoir of McCarthy’s early life is the richness afforded by its structure. In this volume McCarthy collected a set of autobiographical essays that she wrote in the late 40s and 50s, and knit them together with some connective tissue, notes to the reader in which she comments on the content and ruminates on the imprecise and unreliable nature of memory. As such, ...more
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
I admit that I wasn't sure I would like this book. I put it on my To Read list after someone else gave it a good review, and I am not too sure I actually read the description before I did so.

About 10 pages into it I realized that this book had the possibility to offend and anger me as a practicing Catholic. I made a promise to myself that if I found myself getting upset I would drop it and move on.

I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very good autobiography that tackles the issue of "losing fai
Sep 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-lit
I first read this in a house Mary McCarthy visited, her Vassar '33 classmate's at Westport Harbor, a grand house with glazed bookshelves containing classics--and McCarthy's Group, which included the hostess as one of the characters. This autobiography appalled and delighted me, a collection of humans almost like a zoo. I read it in a grand corner room above the library, with a few books like Lenin's Lettres à sa famille, and with Cambodian bow (for the hunt) over the fireplace, bow windows over ...more
What's most interesting about this memoir is how McCarthy takes all the choices she makes as a memoirist and subjects them to scrutiny. She talks about the temptation to fictionalise, the dubious reliability of memory, the reasons to include or exclude information, the implications for truthtelling of shaping life events and memories into a coherent narrative, the compromises and failures inherent in the form. Quite fascinating. ...more
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Upon finishing 'The Group', my bud Dan Leo recommended several other books by Mary McCarthy. Since I found McCarthy's writing extraordinary, I did a little exploring of her work and settled on this one - with a somewhat misleading title that soon more accurately reveals itself as 'Bad Memories of a Catholic Girlhood'.

Early on in their lives, the author and her three younger, male siblings lost their parents to a flu epidemic. They were taken in by relatives; 'taken in' took on a dual meaning. W
Dec 18, 2006 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, memoir
Mary McCarthy lost both of her parents to influenza within a week of each other as they were traveling to Minnesota to begin a new life. She was shipped off at age 6 to live with her draconian aunt and uncle. At 11, she was finally "saved" by wealthy grandparents in Seattle.

Fantastic, beautifully written memoir with sharp characterizations and told with rapier-sharp wit.
May 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-from-1957

Mary McCarthy's autobiographical collection of essays originally appeared in "The New Yorker" and "Harper's Bazaar" between 1946 and 1955. For the book she wrote comments on her essays and addressed the perennial question of the veracity of memory. All of this was highly interesting to me since I am writing a memoir myself.

The McCarthy children, including Mary's three brothers, lost their parents in the flu epidemic of 1918 after an ill-advised move by train from Seattle to Minneapolis during
Josephine (Jo)
This was an interesting book about the sad loss of the author's parents during the influenza epidemic in 1918 and the circumstances that followed. The four children who survived the illness were parcelled out to various family members where they were treated as poor relations and in some cases mistreated and unloved. The book was very 'wordy', this is perhaps because it was published in 1946 but I don't really think that is the case as many of its contemporaries are far less so. I suppose this w ...more
Oct 31, 2012 added it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Going to the incomplete shelf. Too many interruptions. This is a classic-style memoir with some great lyrical prose by McCarthy. Her parents pass and the four children find themselves orphans. Their grand aunt takes them in and the grand uncle is an abusive fool. But throughout the book, Mary interrupts to explain scenes and her perception of what really did happen: imagination or reality? Huh? I keep waiting to get to the real story here but with the interruptions, seems like I'm reading two bo ...more
May 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
McCarthy is a good storyteller and this is an easy, absorbing read. Her relationships with women as she describe them here, especially her grandmothers and her schoolmates, are reflected in some of her later writings. She has this odd combination of snobbery/mean-girl-ism and sympathy/insight. She admits to her prejudices and failings, but doesn't really apologize for them, which is both annoying and refreshing. ...more
Vikk Simmons
Well, all I can say is thank heavens I am finished with this book. I'll be writing more later but I found this to be a difficult read with a confirmed unreliable narrator. It is difficult to keep going when you question everything. I quickly developed a lack of trust and that is not good when the book is a memoir. More later. ...more
Jul 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Very dramatic! Some reviewers have suggested - not very accurate.
Jul 18, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
McCarthy shares glimpses of a childhood marred by the catastrophic death of her parents in the last century's influenza epidemic. McCarthy was five or six, I believe, with three younger brothers. There's Dickensian cruelty here, but also humor and astonishing insight into character and human behavior-- all in McCarthy's gorgeous prose. I always am surprised this book is not discussed more often as a precursor to the memoir movement of the past twenty five years. Between each section, McCarthy in ...more
Oct 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
I do not believe this review of mine will convey most of what I think about this book.
My feeling is that MEMORIES OF A CATHOLIC GIRLHOOD is almost impossible to meet on its own terms almost sixty years after its publication. The first edition copy I borrowed from the public library has, as its copyright date, 1957. The copyright page indicates that several chapters were published in magazines more than ten years before. Inasmuch as McCarthy stresses throughout the book that she is an atheist, a
Sep 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing
(2016 review)

I think what unsettles people about the title is that they assume "Catholic" refers only to the religion. McCarthy's family was Catholic and she attended Catholic school for a few years. BUT (and this is significant), i also think McCarthy is referring to the adjective "catholic" (small c) here.

This time around my favorite chapter is the final, lengthy one about her grandmother. It's a detailed, beautifully descriptive tribute in which she tries to capture their complicated relati
Apr 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
Picked this one up on a whim while browsing. Imagine my surprise. It's great!

The thing I enjoyed so much about this book is that is doesn't attempt to portray the experience of living the memories it recalls, but presents them with hindsight and a sense of fair mindedness. McCarthy talks about the adults from her childhood more with a sense of pity than resentment, and with the forgiving air of a cultured intellectualism that is both over their capacity, and afforded her by the education their s
Aug 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Stories of McCarthy's childhood as an orphan raised by two different households. This is only partly "about" the author's experiences: she muffles her tragedy (the early death of lighthearted parents to the influenza pandemic in 1919) by draping it in a child's ignorance, and her bitterness (as a pauper relation, briefly) is lightened by an adult's ironic distance. The book is written at two (really many) points: first as articles published in magazines, and again as commentaries on the original ...more
Jun 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
McCarthy has the widest and most sophisticated vocabulary of any writer I've ever read. These stories are brilliant in her perceptions of what actually goes on compared to what is believed to go on. She's a truth-teller who cuts through the crap and shows things as they really are. She was not favored because she was such a rebel, but favored because she was so creative, which are both sides of the same coin.

It was interesting to me as a Minneapolitan, to read about her years in Minneapolis, eve
Roberta McDonnell
Dec 27, 2012 rated it liked it
Though I love Mary McCarthy's books, this is my least favourite. Interesting though it is to discover the facts of her traumatic childhood, I have a feeling she never really let go on this one. There is a melancholy throughout the text that actually has a depressive effect - never found this with her other books especially The Company She Keeps and The Group, both of which have just the right balance of humour and pathos. I do still delight in McCarthy's talent at pithy, yet unpretentious prose ...more
Jul 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always knew McCarthy's parents both died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. But I never knew what happened to her (and her 3 younger brothers) after that. McCarthy gives us the searing details: the horrid relatives who made them sleep with tape over their mouths to prevent "mouth breathing". (What is with that?) and the terrible food and no toys or friends. How unimportant children were is emphasized, both in the treatment by the aunt and uncle who were paid to raise them, and by the other rel ...more
Jen Wrenn
Aug 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Whew, what an upbringing she had -- absolutley Dickensian in that her guardians were abusive, unloving, and essentially horrid!

McCarthy has a laser-beam ability to cut to the heart of people and their motiviations; very interesting to read her thoughts on religion especially.

McCarthy is best known as the writer of the book "The Group." After reading her memoir, I'm interested in reading one of her fiction books.
Apr 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
McCarthy remembers and then fact checks. This memoir changed how I thought about memory and rememory. The idea that one can clearly recall something that is potentially not true at all is both terrifying and fascinating. McCarthy pushed me to consider the boundaries of memory and to accept that we do not always know the "truth" behind a memory. ...more
Took me a while to read this, in part because the openjng chapters tell a horrific story of McCarthy’s abuse at the hands of sadistic relatives. The story moves to her subsequent life with her grandparents and her occasionally comic brushes with Catholicism. Not clear that McCarthy ever made sense of her childhood, and book ends on a note of bewilderment.
James Lundy
Mar 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
I love biography. Especially when an author can get inside their long-ago mind. When they reveal unbelievably embarassing things about themselves. When I'm exposed to new worlds or history. This is a great book for all those reasons. ...more
Feb 02, 2013 rated it it was ok
Didn't really enjoy this - although a memoir by an established author of fiction, the author admitted in the introduction and in sections at the end of each 'chapter' or 'story' that things may not have happened exactly as she had just written about it! Not terribly impressed I'm afraid: 4.5/10. ...more
Lindsey Z
Jan 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
The title does not do justice to this charming autobiography about an atheist who grew up as a Catholic in a variety of households. I was simply laughing at multiple moments in this text.
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People note American writer Mary Therese McCarthy for her sharp literary criticism and satirical fiction, including the novels The Groves of Academe (1952) and The Group (1963).

McCarthy studied at Vassar college in Poughkeepsie, New York and graduated in 1933. McCarthy moved to city of New York and incisively wrote as a known contributor to publications such as the Nation, the New Republic

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“I really tried, or so I thought, to avoid lying, but it seemed to me that they forced it on me by the difference in their vision of things, so that I was always transposing reality for them into something they could understand.” 16 likes
“Luckily, I am writing a memoir and not a work of fiction, and therefore I do not have to account for my grandmother’s unpleasing character and look for the Oedipal fixation or the traumatic experience which would give her that clinical authenticity that is nowadays so desirable in portraiture.” 3 likes
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