Next to Godliness is a completed manuscript of approximately 98,000 words.
What if you believed that most of your thoughts and actions were sinful?
A chance remark by a high school nun about purity causes Grace McNeil to develop religious scruples, an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Grace worries constantly about cleanliness, profanity, and perfect prayers. She changes from a teenager who gardens, loves sports, and organizes church bake sales, to a moody girl who judges her friends, avoids dirt, and sneaks to confession every Saturday.
Frustrated by their inability to understand and “cure” their daughter, Grace’s parents send her to a mental health clinic, but keep the treatment secret from their neighbors. Grace’s mother, Eleanor, begins to question her own position in her family after she takes a paying job during Grace’s absence, much to the annoyance of Eleanor’s more traditional husband.
Grace’s struggles to understand her illness and the meaning of holiness, and her mother’s challenge to accepted norms, are set against the backdrop of the late 1960s, as the students, nuns and parents at St. Margaret’s cope with the Vietnam War, social unrest, and the changes affecting women in society.
Grace McNeil, the heroine in Next to Godliness, is an avid reader. Many of the books she read are “classics.” Some were required for school, and others were part of her self-improvement program. Here’s a list of the books mentioned and what they’re about.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. I list this first because every schoolchild in the fictional town of Hamlet where Grace lives has read this masterpiece about the Danish prince who struggles to avenge his father’s death. You’ll find quotes from and references to Hamlet sprinkled throughout Next to Godliness.
Eighth Moon, by Bette Bao Lord. The book’s feisty heroine, Sansan, lives with her aunt and uncle during the communist takeover of China and survives the privations and the political terror campaigns of the Cultural Revolution before being reunited with her American parents. This book is a real find. It describes Sansan’s everyday teenage life – school, parties, conflicts with the older generation, at a time when China was in economic and political chaos.
Hi There, High School, by Gay Head. Written by a then-popular advice columnist for teenagers, this Dale Carnegie-type advice manual explains the secrets to a perfect high school experience, at least in the 1960s. It’s a classic and fun to read but (obviously) a bit dated.
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. One of the most popular self-help books ever. Women may find parts a bit offensive, but much of the advice is still timely, if not often followed these days.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. A nonfiction account of Frankl’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps and his psychological analysis of the types of attitudes that are likely to result in personal survival.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. We all know the story of the five Bennett sisters in Regency England who need to find husbands.
Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plan for Physical Fitness. Popular in the 1960s, this book contains a series of 10 exercises for men and women that become progressively harder as the number and intensity increase. No yoga, Pilates, or kickboxing, simply basic leg lifts, squats, pushups, and running in place.
The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme, is about a Belgian girl who wants to be a missionary and joins a convent. She eventually goes to Africa (after a temporary sojourn in a mental asylum) and meets a handsome doctor and falls in love. Audrey Hepburn starred in the movie based on the book.
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The classic story of a young woman accused of adultery and the Puritan community that sought to punish her.
West Point Plebe, by Colonel Red Reeder. This book follows the freshman year of Cadet Clint Lane, a good looking, athletic young man with leadership potential but poor math skills. There is a bit of romance and military maneuvers lurking among Reeder’s descriptions of Clint’s football and baseball prowess. Reeder wrote five other books about Clint Lane – three set at West Point, and two others, Clint Lane in Korea and Clint Lane in Berlin. Unfortunately, they are not always easy to find. I had to buy Clint Lane in Berlin for a hefty price on eBay!
A scrupulous person generally believes that almost everything they do or think is a sin or violates religious or moral doctrine. The word scruples was coined in the fourteenth century, from the Latin term scrupulum, a sharp stone, signifying the pain of a stabbing conscience.
Scruples or “scrupulosity,” is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that can take a number of forms. An obsessive concern with one's own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion is sometimes called “religious OCD,” and is not limited to any one religion. St. Teresa of Lisieux, Martin Luther, and Paul Bunyan are believed to have suffered from scruples.
Individuals with the type of scruples that Grace suffered in Next to Godliness often focus on insignificant area of religious practice (for example, Grace worried about nodding her head at the name of “Jesus”). Other typical behaviors include excessive praying or fear of blasphemy or uncleanliness. Some individuals with scruples actually fear that they themselves, rather than their actions, are evil.
Like any form of OCD, scrupulosity can significantly affect social functioning. In some cases it can be severe enough to cause people to take their own lives.
It is difficult to determine what triggers scruples in an individual. Most experts think that, like obsessive-compulsive disorders, scruples is triggered by both biological and environmental factors. Many believe that genetics may play a role. Environment can create or exacerbate scruples. Certain practices and modes of thought that are learned during childhood, such as fear, avoidance, and excessive punishment.
Treatment for religious scruples is similar to that for other forms of OCD, and may include exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP is based on the idea that deliberate repeated exposure to one’s obsessions lowers anxiety, and includes coping techniques to reduce the urge to behave compulsively.
For more information on scruples, see scrupulosity.com.