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Becoming a nun, joining the CIA, writing about it

March 19, 2011

From Silence To Secrecy: a memoir
Martha E. Leiker
103 pages, iUniverse Publishing.
(Thanks to Renee Kenner of Smith Publicity for sending a copy)

A woman becomes a nun because she has wanted to go to Africa since she was a kid. She leaves her holy order to join the C.I.A. The concept of this book drew me in. I’m used to the idea of fierce, independent and intellectually driven nuns. My dad’s cousin Maureen was a nun before going to medical school to be a gerontologist in Las Vegas. I went to a Catholic high school, where Sister Clevie threw a heck of a fast ball coaching the softball team.

I was ready to love the idea of some kind of Sister Secret Agent, doing the Lord’s work and the government’s work. I read this expecting revealing, confessional tales of adventure, all the details that would help me imagine two life experiences of bravery I can’t even fathom. I was a little bit shocked at how slim the book was. At just about a hundred or so pages, it covers everything from Leiker’s early childhood to her retirement after a career that spanned 17 years in the sisterhood and 20 more working for the government, bouncing between African countries and Washington D.C.

Yes, it touches on her doubts, on her hardships of living far from anything she grew up with, the whole story felt entirely too restrained. Although there are a few stories here and there- the basement of her childhood house getting flooded; singing on the Ed Sullivan Show with her fellow sisters; going to a Game Reserve with members of her order; the bulk of the book feels remote, sketched in at best. This slim volume feels like journal entries and notes, just glimpses at a story that, if more specific scenes were developed, could be fascinating.

I’m not sure what’s going on to make Leiker’s writing feel so cautious, so disconnected from her own, surely fascinating story. Her struggles with rebelliousness and faith as her service in the Sisterhood turned out different than she imagined ring honest and true, and have an emotional backbone. The rest of the narrative, though, feels entirely too well-behaved in its prose I want more scenes, more immediacy of detail.
The only way I can account for the remote, stilted language Leiker returns to, is that years of writing for and about the CIA got under her skin. Sentences and word choices, relying on the passive voice, read as though Leiker hasn’t quite shaken off years of writing government reports.

I’m left feeling that there’s more to this story, more specifics to flesh out the narrative. And I’m wondering why Martha Leiker kept her distance so primly from her own story. I wonder whether sitting down with a ghost writer wouldn’t get Leiker, and the story to open up more.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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