A Migrating Woman

Current Project

Why do people move from one religion, country, political party, condition, understanding (etc.) to another when it can cause so much loneliness and conflict, especially with loved ones? And if conflict comes, do we have to choose between our precious loved ones and our precious convictions, or are there ways to preserve them both?

One night at dinner, about ten years ago, a Belgian friend told a moving story about a woman with an unusual name who made me think hard about those questions again, just as I had earlier with my book Conversions. “Annaliese?” I interrupted, not sure I’d heard right. “No, Anaïse,” he corrected, slowly, saying it the Dutch way, Ah-nah-EEZ-uh. But even more unusual than her name, he promised, was her story.

He’d heard it first from another Belgian friend, who’d heard it from yet another, who said that when he was a boy in Antwerp in the late 1940s he heard about a Catholic nun who fell in love with a Mormon missionary, left her convent, then went to America and married him. My friend had heard many such dubious stories and didn’t believe it: classic missionary fantasy, he thought. But the teller swore it was true, and even remembered the missionary’s name. Well, the last name. Just in case there was something to it, my friend googled and emailed around the American West, asking people of that name whether they had ever heard such a thing. To his astonishment, one man answered within minutes and said, I think those are my parents. He wasn’t sure of the details, and his parents had since died, but his sister in Santa Barbara had the family papers, if my friend wanted to check with her.

There were a lot of papers, it turned out. And most, said the sister, were written by her mother, Anaïse, and mostly in Dutch, French, and Latin, which the sister didn’t read. My friend did though, so she scanned and sent him a few. From these alone, he could see that the version of the story he’d heard first was exaggerated, but that the truer version seemed even better. Yes, it involved convents and nuns and priests and missionaries but so much else, including broken and mended hearts and dramatic spiritual and physical migration, and it was more human than sensational. Still, to know for sure and to get the details, he’d have to go to Santa Barbara and see the rest of the papers in person, and with all the other projects he had going how would he find the time, he sighed?

That was my opening, I realize now, looking back. It was maybe even the main reason I’d been invited to dinner that night. My friend knew the sorts of stories I write and that I would find this one hard to resist. But he also knew why I might: I write about the Reformation, not the modern world. And like him, I had other projects going too. I even told myself those very things while listening to Anaïse’s story, because I loved it so much and was afraid I’d be drawn in. So when I left, I simply thanked my friend for another interesting evening. He smiled and promised to forward the scans to me anyway, just for fun.

After reading them, I was so moved I decided, just for more fun, to go to Santa Barbara and see the rest of the papers myself. If they were as good as these, then the least I could do would be to recommend the project to someone else, just as my friend had intended to do. But after 15 minutes of digging around in the many boxes that Anaïse’s daughter had set out for me around the dining room table, especially in Anaïse’s spiritual journal of 1941 to 1948, I found myself suddenly saying to her, I want to write about your mother. Myself. 

It should have felt rash, but it didn’t. Instead Anaïse’s story connected in so many ways with my own life—convents, nuns, priests, monks, missionaries, the heartbreak of conversion and migration, the Belgian and Dutch and Wild West settings—that it felt more like fate. It was even a Reformation story: the sort of spiritual and physical migrating Anaïse did in the twentieth century (and the conflict it caused) was practically invented in the sixteenth, and her 1930s and 40s Catholicism was more sixteenth-century (and thus more familiar to me) than modern.

But Anaïse’s story also felt bigger—and more urgent—than just me or the Reformation or even religion. Many other people today also sit in the intersection of a Venn diagram with Anaïse. Some of them migrate spiritually and physically just like she did, from one religion and place to another, while others migrate in the ways mentioned at the start of this page. But whatever sort of moving is involved, those leaving and those left behind behind face the same awful questions and choices that Anaïse (and people of the Reformation) did: their relationships or their convictions? It seemed to me that Anaïse could help address those questions as well as anyone, since her migration was so dramatic, and since she was so good herself (not perfect) at dealing with conflict and loneliness. She wouldn’t offer a five- or ten-step approach to such things, like many how-to books do nowadays, but just her story, including her innermost feelings, her heartbreaking and embarrassing struggles with family and friends, and her sometimes clumsy efforts to stay close to them all (and for such an intensely private person as she was, that much soul-baring would be a painful and even religious sort of offering indeed). Especially people with conflicts too painful to confront head-on right now might appreciate approaching their troubles indirectly, through a story, which lets you circle around, and look sideways and diagonally and obliquely, and get glimpses and hints, and prod and feel your way in as you please, but doesn’t ever tell you what to do.

There was one other attraction for me too to her story: the great pile of highly literate and personal documents she left behind, in six languages and in her beautiful hand. Surely that would reveal more on the subject of change and conflict than the far more modest pile I’d had for Conversions. So would the interviews I would be able to conduct (usually not possible for the Reformation) with her friends and family and various priests and nuns and missionaries. In fact it has taken years to sort through everything and start writing, but the great pile has indeed helped me come to know Anaïse better than anyone else I’ve ever studied, and offered another dramatic look into the difficulties of religious (and by extension, other) change. Still, I’ve also learned that not even the biggest pile can tell you everything. A dozen documents answer many questions but they raise a lot of others, and thousands…well. In the end, my story of her will, as always, be just my particular version. I hope to finish it by the end of 2024.