Jeanne Rossi: A Life Story Interview
This interview took place on two successive Tuesdays in October, 1992. The original transcript was 47 pages long. Three dots ( … ) indicate where material from the taped interview has been left out. I attempted to delete only material which was not directly related to Jeanne’s life,
or was repetitious. However, I highly recommend listening to the entire 2 hour interview for a full sense of the flavor of this woman’s life.
Let’s see. My background? My father and mother? My father, his background: his mother is English, born in New Brunswick, Canada. My father’s father is Swiss‑Italian, born in a little town in the Swiss Italian Alps…
I’m the oldest of two: my sister is three years younger than I. I was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in what later became a convent. My father had left Lowell Textile. He was a student at the time and was an iceman carrying ice on his back. I think he was probably still finishing college too.
My mother did not go to college but she was a bookkeeper. She took some courses as a businesswoman. I was born at home. She didn’t even know where I was going to come from. That was the good old Irish background, thinking I was going to come out of her navel! Not realizing how I got in there! I was born in 1926, July 19, 1926. I was told I was a month early, but I don’t know about that. My parents were married on October 1st in 1925.
They were married at the Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale. My father was not a Catholic. My mother comes from an Irish ‑‑‑ her name is Hennessy ‑‑‑ comes from Irish background.‑ My grandmother Rossi, my father’s mother, was very prejudiced. She was high Episcopal and typical, fighting the north of Ireland and the Irish. She was always fighting that battle. She hated anything that was Catholic, anything that was Irish, and anything that was Democrat.
Anyway, my mother’s family came from Irish and hated anything that was Protestant and anything that was especially Italian. At one time I heard my uncle say, “Isn’t it too bad that she couldn’t have married a white man?” That’s how they felt about Italians! …
I don’t know much about that early part because my mother has never really talked about, but I’ve asked her, before she became unable to answer me.
My grandfather died the 20th of August, 1926 and he never knew he had a granddaughter. My family would not let my mother tell him that she had a child. They didn’t approve of the marriage. They were married in the rectory of the church because they couldn’t get married in the Church and my father agreed to that. I don’t know if my mother was pregnant with me before they got married, but it seems as though he‑‑it might have happened. All I know is that my mother’s family would not let her tell her father, who was dying, and she was his oldest daughter and his favorite, that he had a granddaughter. They were upset. I don’t know about my grandfather…
So, but anyway, I have Irish, English, and Italian in my back‑ground. I like to think that the Latin takes a little precedence over the other parts! The Latin from Manhattan! …
My father was 21 and my mother was 22 when I was born. There were no problems with me. My mother had a forceps delivery at Boston City Hospital with my sister. But with me, no. There wasn’t any problem. I was a popper. Because her water broke and I came right after and she didn’t know what was happening. I was delivered by a woman physician, Dr. Nesbitt. She came to the house and my father was holding me back. So I was ready. I was popping. Even then! …
My mother was an athlete, my father was an athlete too… I did basketball, I played baseball, I was active in the Girl Scouts. They basically called us tomboys. I climbed trees. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go up on the chicken house roof and pee like the boys. You know, every time I tried, it went down my leg and I didn’t understand why.. That kind of thing. Then everybody said, well, she should have been little Lawrence. I don’t want to be a man, but in those days that’s what everybody said, she should have been a Lawrence, because I could do‑‑‑ all kinds of things and in those days, in the 1920’s and early 1930’s particularly, a woman’s place was in the home and you didn’t climb trees and they didn’t play baseball and they didn’t do the things that men did…
As a matter of fast my family was rather proud of me being different. Like when company would come, and we had a big stand of birches in the field next door. I would go up and get on top of the birch tree and let it bend down and jump off. My family thought that was wonderful. You know, that kind of thing.
I started piano lessons when I was five and was an accomplished pianist by the time I was ten. I had won national honors and state honors at the competition at the New England Conservatory…
We moved from Randolph, Mass. where I was brought up, when I was going into the 7th grade because my family thought we’d get a better education in Boston. My mother did, and that was the main reason I know of. My father worked in the wool business for a year and then sold insurance, and then went to work with Walter Backer’s Chocolate in the shipping department. He never really did too much as far as professional goes. We were relatively poor. My mother worked also. My mother worked all the time I was growing up. My mother was a bookkeeper
and a good one but they‑‑we had a lovely little bungalow in Randolph and the bank wanted to sell it to my family for $2400, and they couldn’t get $2400 together to buy it. Besides I don’t think that they would have risked it, you know what I mean? In my family there was that element of “no risk”, particularly financially.
My grandfather Rossi was a waiter at Lockeover Cafe, a famous cafe in Boston, as a matter of fact … I remember as a little girl being taken in there and ‑‑you know they had this high seat with a mirror behind it and the hooks where you hung your coats‑‑all that kind of old fashioned thing. I remember my mother sitting me up there and my grandfather bringing me a big piece of lemon meringue pie, you know, like when I was a little girl.
I remember those things with great happiness. My mother used to take us to Boston and she used to take us to the Essex Delicatessen and we’d have a pastrami sandwich and that was the highlight of the trip. It was really nice. Those things I remember with great joy. And I remember the piano particularly. I liked it and I was good at it. My mother and father were paying $1.75 at that time for a half hour lesson for me … It was a real tradition in my family…
I was like my Uncle Gene, my father’s Oldest brother, an alkie, who went to New York and was a pool shark, probably with the mafia. In New York‑‑we don’t know‑‑he worked at the smoke’s counter of Walgreen’s Drugstore for years. But drank his breakfast, his lunch, and his supper, so I guess I got that ‑‑‑ my grandpa Rossi was also an alcoholic…
My grandmother Hennessy I was very close to. We moved to Roslindale one street away from my mother’s mother…My youngest uncle was ‑‑‑ worked for his middle brother who had a meat market. So we always had food. My Uncle Walter provided us with chops and meat from the time I can remember. My mom and dad, we would go every Saturday and Uncle Dick would bring home the groceries. And he sold us S.S. Pierce cans of goods and so you know, I got kind of a snob value growing up. That’s where I probably ‑‑‑ I’ve never known where my family got me because I’ve always been a little different than they are. I didn’t aspire for things that wealthy people had, but I did do the things wealthy people did. Sure, I always felt different. And proud of it, and still am.
I can remember when people began coming out of the closet, you know, when any of the homosexuals, any of the lesbians or gay fellows came out of the closet and people began to know what our words were, our secret words. And I know that any of us lesbians who are my age kind of revolted against that because gee, that was kind of breaking down the secret society. I came out at the time when I had boyfriends who were gay, in order to cover up because it had to be a cover‑up at that time. ‘Cuz nobody was out in my early twenties. I knew that I was gay probably from the time I was, I don’t know, maybe ten or twelve. I didn’t think much about it before. And really it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I was sexual, I was sexually aroused by things. Up until that point I was a very busy woman learning and reading. I’m a very avid reader. I couldn’t wait for Christmas. We got books all the time for Christmas. And the piano. And other musical pursuits. When my father and mother said I couldn’t any longer take piano lessons, I started to study the clarinet and after the clarinet I went to the bass fiddle. They couldn’t afford it (piano lessons). So I said, the heck with it, I’ll take clarinet at school for 25 cents and get the clarinet from school. And I did.
And so, yeah, I had a therapist once who said to me that it’s amazing that I have the facility to change the negatives to positives. And I’ve had that since I was a little girl, I never let any of the negatives affect me very much. And that’s a gift. It has nothing to do with me, it’s just always the way I’ve been. And I still have that facility. I’m very grateful for that.
I was a good student and I liked to study but I had some feelings of inadequacy as I developed into puberty because ‑‑‑ all my girl friends were beginning to be interested in boys and I wasn’t. When we would practice kissing, it would be practicing kissing to get yourself ready to be able to kiss a boy, and for me it wasn’t. For me it was for real! So that was, and I think a little bit of fear came in then. Fear of being found out. I didn’t know what I was going to be found out about, but I knew there was something different… I had all kinds of wonderful positive things going for me. The only thing that was not positive was, as far as my inadequacies go, I began to become self‑conscious about who I was because I was developing as a woman but I wasn’t attracted to boys the way the rest of the kids were. And that kind of threw me because I didn’t dare to say anything to my mother.
Part of the mistrust that I had with my mother happened when I was 15. That was that she read my diary. I never forgave her for that. I don’t know, probably in my teens, or even a shorter time, I don’t know. She also burned my dungarees because I was wearing tight dungarees,and thought I was the cat’s meow. I would get in the dungarees and sit in the bathtub, you know, so they would fit tight. It was in the days when I had a figure where it counted!
I wanted to be a Girl Scout and that was a big dilemma in my family because at that time in the Catholic Church you could not be a Girl Scout because meetings were held in Protestant churches, and I couldn’t go into a Protestant church. But I went … Then what happened was they began Catholic Girl Scouts and so I went up to where they met in the hall at the Catholic church and I got the first campership. It was the only way I could have gone to camp. So I got the first campership at Camp Treasure Island. I went to camp for two years. I suppose my lesbianism began to develop then. I was at camp, I was with all women, they were athletic and there were other tomboys and I think that’s where it began. The next year I washed dishes in the kitchen for the whole summer. The next year I went on the waterfront as assistant Director. And then I was on the waterfront for two years or, three years, and then I went to nurse’s training.
Now by that time I was really turned on to ‑‑‑ well Chips was my first counselor and I was really turned on to Chips. Chips was wonderful. And I think I had alot of heavy petting sessions with some of the girls. But I have to tell you, I didn’t know what the hell to do other than that! I would have been afraid, you know? I remember the first time I probably became really aroused, and I had a prayer book down on the beach the morning after that day. Because I felt guilty. And then began the guilt feelings. I probably was around 16 at the time. Or 17. And the guilt came from the Church. The guilt did not come from anything else except of course the fear of, I didn’t want my mother to find out. I didn’t think much about whether my father found out, it was my mother at that time for me. And again it had to do with Catholicism.
I had a grandmother Hennessy, and when I was a little girl, from the time I was a little girl I used to bring flowers to the Blessed Lady at my grandmother’s house. And I spent New Year’s Eves with my grandmother. I learned how to make cakes and pies and bread with my grandmother. I used to make breads at my grandmother’s house on Sunday mornings and my aunt would give me 25 cents. And I spent a great amount of time with my maternal grandmother. I loved her…We were very, very close and I really loved her. I loved her, but as soon as the Bottle came into my life, that was the end of any other consideration. Except my own pursuit of happiness.
Let’s see. I went to Junior High, I played in the Holy Name band, I played in the Boston Public School Symphony, I played in the school orchestra and I played in a thirteen piece girls jazz band. This was World War II now. And I played slap bass in that. I would carry my bass in the subway to go to Chelsea to practice. I was 17. It was war time.
My mother was following my father. A very traumatic time for me. I understand it now, but I didn’t then. I heard somebody ask, my mother if she had to make a choice between her children and her husband, who would she choose? And she said her husband. I was devastated… She went with him and she lived in Berkeley before he went overseas. We stayed with her sister and brother‑in‑law. They took care of us in our apartment. That was terrible for us…
And yet, you know it’s funny, my mother was extremely jealous of the relationship that my sister and, I tried to have with my father. She wouldn’t allow it. Terribly jealous. My mother is an alcoholic and has all the things exacerbated as every alcoholic does unless they’re in recovery and even then. And so I could have a relationship with my mother and my sister could have a relationship with my mother, but we were never really allowed to have much of a relationship with my father until many years later. And so I grew up hearing my mother say, “don’t say anything to disturb your father.”
I watched my mother and father have an argument about something and they wouldn’t speak for days. So I grew up in a family where there would be ten days or so in a period where the house was in total silence. The other thing in my family‑‑‑we were never allowed to really bring many friends in. I don’t know why that was.
And then for alot of years we had somebody take care of us when my mother was working. My mother was the head of the family. My father was very passive. When my mother was carrying my sister, my father stopped drinking. He was a heavy hitter in the early days. .And he had a blackout once and missed a party and he decided, if this is what booze is, I don’t want any. So essentially he was dry. I don’t think he did anything to change. But he was a wonderful man. He was gentle, he was kind, he was loving. He was totally dominated by my mother…
I also didn’t know my mother had alcoholism for a number of years. I didn’t know why my father was, so vehemently angry with mother about booze. I know now it was because his own father had a drinking problem and he had a very traumatic upbringing by his grandfather in many ways, you know, there was this father in abstensia. It wasn’t a question of any abuse except that terrible abuse of not receiving the kind of nurturing that you want from your dad. I never really felt that, and yet I can’t say that I wasn’t loved because I know that I was.
What I got from my mother is best characterized by the fact that when I was a “probie” in nurses training I made a mistake in a medication and I told the supervisor about it. Nobody knew about it, but I did. I told them and I was suspended for three days. When I came home my mother said, “well, I was waiting for you to make a mistake.” So that’s the message my mother gave me.
I feel very fortunate to have shucked the whole family and said screw you and lived my life ‑‑‑ for instance, as so many lesbians do, to get married, have children and a husband and then get divorced. And suffer the trauma, and their children and their husband suffer the trauma of you trying, finding out who the hell you are. And the only reason you got married in the first place was to please Mommy and Daddy and society. And I feel really, really grateful for that.
That never happened to me. Because I had alot of friends who did. They’ve been burdened with alot of guilt. And who haven’t had the experience of being in a community of women. Which of course is a wonderful experience.
Honest to God I don’t think it was a choice that I made … My choice, for me, was to be celibate or be actively gay. It was never for me to be straight. It never ever interested me…When I was nineteen and was in nurses training I went out for a little while with a guy name Norm Silverstone. He was a physician in Boston. And I went out with him only for a few months but I never went to bed with him. We did some necking but I had to drink before I could do that. I really wasn’t interested in him, but that was the only time in my life that I ever thought well, maybe I’ll give it a shot. But it wasn’t for me, you know?…
I’ve never been interested in marriage and I’ve never been interested in having children. It’s not anything that’s ever interested me. I love little babies but I really don’t like children. I still don’t. It doesn’t do anything for me. Except maybe take away from my self‑centeredness. I think it could be that!
I wanted to be an airplane pilot, when I was in high school. I used to paint piper cub models and all that stuff. At that time you could buy a piper cub for $999. But you know, there wasn’t any way that I could have been an airplane pilot because I didn’t know how to become an airplane pilot. And I never got any encouragement for that. So I decided I would be a stewardess. But in order to be a stewardess you had to be a nurse, in those days. So that’s how I came on the course to be a nurse. I wanted to be a pilot. And I thought if I could at least get into the aeronautics field ‑‑‑ so I set my course to be a nurse.
As I progressed in my studies of music, I became a very good double bass player. I studied with Basil Prangoulies who was the concert master in the Boston Symphony orchestra, the first viola player. And I was good. I was going to go to the New England Conservatory. But my mother said a musician’s life is no life for a woman, so. And in those days you didn’t do what your mom didn’t want you to do.
So I applied to Faulkner School of Nursing in Massachusetts and was rejected because I was a Catholic. I was getting all kinds of messages about Catholics and Protestants. You understand I was brought up in Boston. And this was the tone in 1940.
My uncle had a butchershop in Woburn, Mass. and there was a small hospital out there called the Choate Memorial Hospital. So I applied to Choate. Miss Olive Moody was the one who interviewed me. Olive A.F. Moody, who I know now is a lesbian…
It was World War II, I was dealing with my sexuality in some manner, I was preoccupied with it, and of course, I never masturbated‑‑ I mean, Jesus Christ, I would have gone to hell for that one! So my ovaries were very congested! …
And so I was interviewed by Miss Moody… I got into Choate Memorial and became a cadet nurse and I was third in my class ‑‑‑ an 86 student. I did very well. I had a crush on the operating room supervisor and I wanted to work in the operating room ‑‑‑ I did for the last six months.
Then I wanted to go to Columbia where you could be an O.R. Technician. I was accepted and, two months before I was to go into the course, they cut it out. So I went to Miss Milner and said what do I do, and she said, “well, you know, Robbie and I went down to Jersey City Medical Center and we worked down there for nine months and we got as much out of that as if we’d gone to Columbia. We didn’t get a certificate, but it didn’t make any difference.” So that’s what I did. I went to New York.
Now, I had one job before I went there. It was in the operating room at the University Hospital. And I was working in a small hospital which they had taken over and they were doing some operations for hypertension. And I was doing real well. But that hospital ‑‑‑ I met a woman by the name of Sarah Wood who could drink like a fish. I was on call every fourth night and I learned to drink with her…
On May 30th I went on a bicycle trip to New Hampshire and I came back and I continued to work. And this is 1948 now, and got a ruptured disk. I was at camp. I went to camp to work with the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund. I finished up at University Hospital and I wanted to go to camp again. Again, I was attracted to go where women were and camp was safe for me. I could wear shorts. I could carry my hatchet. I could do all those things and so I went to work for camp and I collapsed. And they brought me home thinking I’d be paralyzed. Paralyzed my eye! I had my driver’s license. I’d been driving a truck at camp. I was really in my element! Anyway, I had a ruptured disc and I went into the hospital and this was August 22, 1948. I was out of the hospital in about 6 weeks and in October I went down to Jersey City Medical Center to work.
I had had one traumatic experience vis‑a‑vis my lesbianism. When I was in my last year of Girl Scout camp, I met a woman named Joy Flanders and I was, I really was, enflamed with this woman. And she and her boyfriend ‑‑‑ he came up to see her on his last weekend ‑‑‑ World War II ‑‑‑ and they took me out in the row boat with them. He had a fifth of Southern Comfort. And that was the first time I ever got drunk. I was 17 years old. And I got drunk, and I drank that way because I was jealous of her relationship with this man. And I didn’t know how to deal with that. And I didn’t know that I was an alcoholic and so I was using booze to escape. But that was when my alcoholism started ‑‑‑ the catalyst.
From that first drink, I went into a blackout. I ended up on the bottom of the rowboat looking up at the sky, And the next thing I remember I was back in my bunk, and I didn’t know how I got there. That was my first experience with what booze was going to do for me. I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with that. I thought that was fine. I was 17.
So what happened to me over the ensuing years was, yes indeed, I finally found out I had the disease of alcoholism. As one guy says, “I found out I had the disease of alcoholism when I came into AA. And now I don’t even drink!” Anyway that was the first time ‑‑‑ I used booze to escape, I used booze to perform, and then passed out… I finished nurses training and I had the operation and I went to work in Jersey City Medical Center. I was 22. I landed there the 1st of October and I was coming up on the elevator on the 4th of October back in 1948, and I met a bunch of gay gals and that was the beginning of my, that’s how I came out. I somehow recognized that they were gay and they recognized that I was…
I met a gal who was a dietician there by the name of Marion… and that was when I started to come out. I was 22. That began a round of wild exploration. That was the beginning of my dealing with my sexuality … I don’t know how long I went with Marion but we had alot of friends and we went places and we did things and I met all kinds of people. Alot of it’s kind of a blank because by that time I had started to drink pretty heavily.
Were we living together? No, because we both lived at the Nurses Home. I never lived with Marion outside of it. And you see I had the idea that two women couldn’t live together. I never knew you could be a family other than a mother and a father and kids. And so, that didn’t come about for many years for me. Because I didn’t equate a relationship with a woman as anything but sex. But I never knew, that’s all, I don’t know how else to say it, that you could be a family. I never knew that I could love from the depths of my soul, I didn’t know that. I thought that was reserved for special man‑woman stuff.
Now, you understand, I was brought up a Catholic under great stress because my father was as anti‑Catholic as his mother. And so when I made my first Holy Communion … I couldn’t even dress in my white dress, but I had to get dressed in the sacristy of the church. And all the little kids were marching in and I was being dressed. ‘Cus I had some traumas in my family. It was always the Protestant side on the one side, and the Catholic side on the other. So there was always a strain. And always a pull…
I spent alot of time at my grandmother’s. So that any of the narrow minded Irish Catholicism there was, I got it. For me to be gay was, I was an abomination as far as the Church was concerned. But I threw that all off when I went to Jersey City. I went to Mass that Christmas and I was with Marion at her family’s house. The priest was preaching about birth control and 1 walked out of the church. Me, who didn’t give two shits about babies or having children or anything. But I cared about the life of man and woman to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it without having restrictions from the Church.
In 1949 I walked out of the Church, and I didn’t go to church after‑‑‑until I began being very dissatisfied with the life that I was leading. I went down to New York to live and I was working in the operating room and ‑‑‑ at Woman’s Hospital‑‑‑and I was doing some private duty at Mt. Sinai, and I lived in the Village and then I lived on 76th St. and Wester End Ave. and I was running around with a crowd of gals who drank heavily, there was alot of promiscuity, and I said, “I don’t want this!”
So, I said I need to get some stability in my life so I think I’ll become a nurse anesthetist. I applied to the schools of anesthesia, but there weren’t any of those schools except in Jamaica, Long Island, and I wanted to stay in New York. So I applied to that school and wouldn’t you know, a Catholic Hospital, run by nuns, and I went to live in Immaculata Hall. Imagine what this did to my psyche!
I was there about three weeks, and I decided I would go to confession. So I drove all the way to Pompton Lakes to that priest where I had left the church … and I told him I was gay, that the straight life wasn’t for me and I just didn’t know what to do about this whole thing.
So that began ‑‑‑ I went to the hospital and in a very short time I met Charlotte who worked in the hospital as a physical therapist, and we had an affair. I was active sexually for a year, and then I decided I was going to go into the convent. We lived together for nine months after that, but I was not active sexually.
But I, in the meantime, I went to the Bishop’s Charity Ball with Dr. Frank and Dr. Sullivan who were the two women who headed the anesthesia department, I was studying anesthesia at the time and they directed the school. Don’t ask me how all this happens but I was drinking, I was hooked on ether and at the same time I was playing around with all these women… all these people and all these things that were happening to me ‑‑‑ I went to that ball, and Peggy Sullivan and I had a really hot and heavy affair for that summer.
By that time I went on my first retreat, if you can believe. So mixed up. Trying to find out who you are and going here and doing this ‑‑‑ I was driving sports cars, I was smoking a pipe, I was drinking top drawer scotch, I was going to all the best plays in New York, I was spending the weekend dancing in the Village. And thinking about getting into the convent because I had to get out of this awful life. All this happening in the ’40’s. Late ’40’s, early ‘50’s…Alot of guilt. Alot of terrible struggles. Horrible.
Anyway, I went on this retreat … it was a Dominican retreat, with the nuns there in the hospital and by the end of the retreat I said to the woman, “how do you become a third order?” And she said, “What do you want to go half way for?” And that appealed to me! So I decided
I’d be a missionary. That was the beginning of my pursuit, trying to find myself, and to get away from being a homosexual. I wanted to get away from it all.
I was accepted at 29 and I went to Philadelphia and I was there 17 months. Peggy and Charlotte drove me ‑‑‑ my two ex‑lovers. I was drunk the night before, making love to Peggy and I was smoking. They stopped and let me go to confession on the way down so they wouldn’t know I was gay at‑the convent. I put the cigarette out in the manure pile in the barnyard of the convent, and that’s how I entered the Medical Mission Sisters and became a missionary. Mother Dengel’s famous group‑‑.‑they go to India. She was a physician. I did very well, except when I got into the novitiate. I got into the novitiate, I was named Sister Mary Eugene…
END OF SIDE II OF TAPE 1
I loved being in the convent because for the first time in my life I felt a part of something. And the fear was gone because I knew that I was in a very disciplined environment and that my chances of falling into a relationship with somebody and being able to explore that relationship was not allowable. But I did well as a postulant and then I did go into my canonical novitiate and I finished my canonical novitiate which is the first year. I got my habit and I was there for 17 months. Then I was sent home.
I was sent home as an example to the other sisters. There were three of us. They don’t have to tell you why they send you home but Sister Ignatia the novice mistress had been in India for a long time and she was used to dealing with Indian girls who were very passive and very submissive and most of whom had been in a convent school from the time they were little kids, So they weren’t rebellious like a 29 year old who was director of the school of anesthesia and going in. Also … because it was a missionary order and medical, there were alot of us who were older and Sister Ignatia, she had a tough time dealing with me.
I was very vivacious and filled with life, as always, and she would give me penances and I would love them because she would give me penances like shoveling snow, and not being able to go to recreation‑‑‑ who wanted to be able to go to recreation anyway, sitting around with a bunch of nuns sewing. That was not my idea of recreation. I built a beautiful shrine to St. Francis way down in the woods in my spare time. You know, all these innovative things, and I wasn’t supposed to. Because I wasn’t a part of the ‘flock” …
Oh, and you know, funny things happened, like I did fall for this one gal who was Sister Maria Goretti and I really liked her. And she was in the novitiate too. There was an old saxophone around and I took it ‑‑‑ would go out with her into one of the sheds and play all these blues things … you know, blues stuff from Chicago and all that stuff…
But anyway, I was sent home. And it was interesting, you know, I accepted that just like everything else. Well, I just said, so what, what’s the next stage of my life? It didn’t devastate me, no. I went home, I had a cigarette and some booze on the plane, my father who had disowned me, met me ‑‑‑ it was the first time in all those years that I was home for awhile.
I looked like hell, only weighed 113 pounds or so. So it had taken its toll on me in many ways. But I liked the life and I feel as though I’m alive because of that. Because I think if I had continued to live in New York and live the life I was living that something very bad would have happened. You know, because I was settling for less and less and associating with people that I ordinarily wouldn’t associate with…
I stopped drinking the whole time I was there ‑‑‑ I got drunk once and that was at a feast day and there was wine. I was working in the kitchen and alot of the sisters didn’t drink. I drank the wine as it came in ‑‑‑ took it off the trays. And I was smashed! They had to put me to bed and then get me up for Vespers and walk me. And I went through ‑‑‑ the next day I saw Sister Ignatia and she said, “Sister, what would have happened if those were cigarettes?” And I said, “I wouldn’t have been interested in the least, but I always did like a cup of tea!” But I didn’t know I had alcoholism, you know?
So anyway, one thing led to another and they asked me to go home. And I came home and I really didn’t want too much to do with anything with the church, and then I thought, well you know this is stupid, I can still go to church. I wouldn’t be happy going to a convent, though. However that began 18 years of celibacy. I did go to Mass and there was a whole group of sisters in the community who lived up, the street from me. I didn’t want anything to do with sisters but I was still attracted to the life. Until about 6 weeks later I met Mother Esther. And that began a relationship which she and I had from 1957 until she died in 1968.
These sisters did social work in the community. It was a very small group, it was Franciscan. After a while I lived with them, but I didn’t in the beginning. I lived home for awhile and then I got an apartment and then I finally moved in with them ‑‑‑ but I was not a part of them… I was very attracted to the “horem et laborum” ‑‑‑ work and pray kind of life. What we do now actually. So I became friendly with them and I began to work with them. In the middle of the whole thing I still wanted more.
By hook or by crook, in my middle 30’s, late ’30’s, I entered the Trappestines. I was only there three months and then I got drunk‑‑‑ 17th of March. They gave us a shot of Irish whiskey from behind our curtain in our cell and the compulsion started. I left 10 days later. By that time the disease was progressing but I was there for three months. It was a wonderful three months.
I was taken as a choir sister and sang plainsong. I loved working in the garden. But I found the silence very difficult … It was an order where you never see the public. I mean there were grills,
you were separated from the world, totally. You don’t speak ever except to the Superior. And we worked on a farm or made bread or made fudge. And you pray the Hours of the Office. With the Breviary. Only you do it in chant. I was thrilled with it, it was wonderful, I loved it.
All the sisters called Reverend Mother “Mama”‑.‑‑I was a little too old for that stuff and I told her… You were real separated‑‑‑ psychologically it’s a very abnormal life. Not to be able to communicate. They don’t do that anymore because too many people got sick. It was hard for me when I became angry. Like for instance I was cleaning the sink and then some twit would come and throw something, and one time ‑‑‑ this was the final blow ‑‑‑ I had just finished doing what I
was doing to the sink and this young postulant ‑‑‑ I didn’t like her anyway I guess ‑‑‑ she did something to mess up the sink and I just picked up the wet rag and threw it at her and hit her in the face. But there was no way to express anything…
And I left. I asked three times to leave and she wouldn’t let me go and she finally let me go. I had $1000 dowry and she wanted to call my parents and let them know I was coming home and I said, “I don’t need anybody. There’s nobody who needs to know I’m coming home.” I said, “get me a cab,.” And she did. And I came home. And I was really sick as far as my physique goes. I was really way down, again, to like 110 pounds. I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t that emotionally upset, because I liked the life, but it was not natural. And I don’t believe that you can ‑‑‑ grace builds on nature, not nature on grace. And if you’re not healthy, you certainly won’t have a healthy spiritual life… I probably was around 36 or 37.
I was excited. Where the hell am I going next? I never felt like a failure. I had the nursing profession. I could always do something. So that was a real positive aspect of my life. Besides, I had 1000 bucks and guess what I did with it? I bought an Austin Healy sports car! Put on my beret and got out my red pipe and started all over again!
(AFTER FORMAL SESSION, JEANNE TALKS ABOUT JUNG, ALCOHOLISM, HERSELF)
END OF FIRST INTERVIEW, TAPE A LITTLE OVER HALF GONE ON SIDE I TAPE 2.
After I left the Trappestines, I went back to the sisters, the Italian sisters with whom I had become friendly. And I worked with them over the next, probably twelve years. And in that time I was celibate and still having my great romance with God. At that time I was totally enmeshed in Catholicism. But beginning to feel some pulling back to having a partner in my life. Not feeling complete. But I still continued to be involved in the church. I went back to live with Mother Esther and the sisters… I had already written my family off a long time ago. I would have told you that they had written me off, but in actual fact I did it. ‘Cus I wanted to do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it… Self will run riot! Whatever I wanted to do I wanted to do and nobody was going to stop me. And so I steamrolled my family. Oh, I was nice on the surface and everything, but I was going to do what I had to do. And though my father and mother‑‑father mostly‑‑opposed my life, they were very, he was very gracious and very nice to me and to the sisters. And that was, I felt good about that. But anyway, I worked with them for about 12 years and I was doing social work with them in the community and helping people, washing floors, doing shopping, and doing all that type of thing…
In the interim, when I was in the Trappestines, Mother Esther had a breast removed and the thing was malignant and she was beginning to lose ground. She was 40 years old when I left the Trappestines, 45 when she died. It was because of Mother Esther that I was involved with the sisters so I suppose vicariously, I was having a love affair with her, but there was no physical stuff. And she was my mentor. I learned alot from her. She was a great intellectual…
I found out that Mother Esther had been hooked on dexidrine for two years, but it was the only thing that kept her alive because she had a brain metastasis. When she was admitted to the hospital, I went with her in the ambulance for her last ride and they resuscitated her because her‑‑respiratory center was gone. And I made them pull the plug. I said, this is not helping her, she needs to get on with what she needs to get on with and we can’t stand this. So they pulled the plug.
It’s interesting because Sister Mary … accused me of killing her. But I didn’t give a damn because Mary was a nurse and I was a nurse but, you know, you don’t do those things to people and it keeps them from going where they’re going. That’s my opinion anyway. My conviction…
It was a very hasty departure on my part from the sisters and from the house. I really had put alot of sweat and tears and blood‑‑ and Father Valenti needed some emotional support from me at the loss of Mother Esther, never thinking that I needed some too … He told me that I could stay with them if I stayed in Roslindale and didn’t go to Princeton … and just worked in the neighborhood. And essentially I said, screw you, Father, and left in three days. Had all my things out ‑‑‑ you know, I don’t remember where I went.
My drinking had escalated by this time. It was escalating more and more. And the interesting thing is, the woman who I became involved with had been in Alcoholics Anonymous for a long time and never said a word to me about my drinking. For a long time. I think she had been sober about five or six years by that time.
END OF SIDE I OF TAPE 2
I was beginning to get interested in alcoholism because I had a couple of people in the neighborhood in Roslindale ‑‑‑ when I was working with the sisters, just to go back for a minute… I would direct them to places I knew where they could go to get help. But other than that I didn’t know very much. And I was drinking. I always drank scotch… I was drinking pretty heavily. I’m trying to put a date to this and it’s somewhere in the early ‘70’s. I was 42.
At this time too, right after Mother Esther died, which was 1967 I decided I needed some more intellectual stimuli … at Northeastern University … they had a course called “Spontaneously Oriented Art Therapy…
I enrolled for that course and that’s how I began painting. And I worked with Professor Lukus for 5 1/2 years … and we started a group therapy group, four of us, with her in art therapy… and I worked out alot of issues I had around my mother. My mother had a great deal of control over me. My father was very passive and a wonderful guy, but my mother ‑‑‑ and alcoholic which I didn’t know until 1969… I figured I learned alot of things about myself. But I was drinking and it was toward the end of my drinking … In the interim my dad became very sick and he died and we buried him in 1974.
Now church wiser and how I was feeling spiritually, well I wasn’t feeling. I was drinking so I wouldn’t feel. I did not feel terribly guilty about my homosexuality. I did in the years previous to that but in those years I didn’t. Again I had worked it out a little bit, but I was working it out by not participating in anything. And so I was not going to church. If I went to church I felt I just wasn’t being true, you know, truthful. I guess I was beginning not to believe in what the church supported anyway…
I decided I needed to do something to socialize. So I joined D.O.B., Daughters of Bilitis in Boston. At D.O.B. I met alot of women and we used to go afterwards to a place, the Saints ‑‑‑ it was a bar, a lesbian bar. And I met Carol and Celina. Carol and Celina were in Dignity which was the Catholic organization for gay men and women who wanted to worship but weren’t really accepted in the Church. And so on October 22 I went with them, 1973… I will never forget the first time I went to Mass there. I sat with probably 60 men and women, all gay, participating in the sacrifice of the Mass and receiving communion with all these people. It was, it blew me away. Absolutely blew me away. And I felt a real part of it. But I wasn’t really feeling a real part of anything because of my alcoholism. By that time I was, you know, I’d always felt a little bit different, most alkies do. I never really felt like I fit unless I was drinking.
I met Fidelis that day. Fidelis had been out of the convent‑‑‑ she’d been in the convent for 20 years. And she’d been out of the convent and she’d had a relationship with a woman and the woman with whom she shared her house, a friend of hers from the convent was so ‑‑‑ not gay ‑‑‑ was so upset with Fidelis’ having a relationship with a woman that she went to Fidelis’ sister and told her and her sister Bobbi confronted Fidelis and said she should go see a psychiatrist, which she did. And the psychiatrist said, “All you need to do is to get involved with the gay community … and she did.
So she used to go to mass on Sunday at Dignity and also to get involved with the gay community. Now, I had been to Mass in the morning. Don’t ask me why, and I had received communion and then I was there in the afternoon (at Dignity). I wanted to receive communion with these people, but I didn’t think I could do it twice. You know, here we go back to the old tradition, so I turned to her and said, “Do you think I can go twice?” And Fidelis said to me, “Suit yourself.”
And I thought, you son‑of‑a‑bitch, you’re a broken down nun! Who do you think you are? ‑‑‑ pardon my language, ladies! And I was furious with her, but I was very attracted to her! I never saw her again. Dignity was celebrating its first anniversary on the 2nd of December and they were having a Mass and all these concelebrants and a procession and everything … and so I went. Fidelis was in the procession. She was carrying a cross or something ‑‑‑ little gold earrings, in her white alb. But I was too shy to stay for dinner afterwards.
In the meantime, Carol and Celina are keeping me posted on what is happening in Fidelis’ life! And so February 16, 1974 ‑‑‑ by this time my father was in and out of the hospital all the time and he was really dying … I was really upset about my father, my drinking was really escalating and so Carol and Celina invited me down for lunch and we were supposed to go to a bean supper that night, that Dignity was putting on, and Fidelis was going to be there.
Well, anyway I got drunk and so I called Fidelis and asked her to come by after supper. So she did. She came down and I told her I’d be there. So,she came after supper and I was loaded. In my life I had probably vomited three times and that was one of them! Anyway, I woke up in the morning and said, “Who the hell is this redhead?”
We were snowed in … And that was February 16, 1974. And this is what, October 19, 1992, and we’re still together, and have been together since that day. An incredible experience. An astrologer we went to said that we had been together in another life so that when we came together it was perfectly natural. Interesting… We did lots of things to the house in Walpole, we had a beautiful home and we put in a swimming pool and we put on a new room and did all kinds of things and had a very happy life together. Many, many friends, we did lots of partying.
In 1976 in April was our Easter vacation. Fidelis went to England with her niece to visit her aunt and I went haywire that weekend. My drinking was terrible by that time. Now, Fidelis never noticed my drinking. The only thing she noticed about it was that she would have to drive home sometimes from parties. And that I was very magnanimous. I would give away anything. All the antiques in the house, paintings, pictures, anything. Somebody said well, I admired something on the wall and I got it. She was distressed by that.
So, anyway, the morning after this long Easter weekend. I had visited friends and I drank with my friends the way I always drank but I got into some awful emotional stuff inside and I almost cracked my car up a couple of times. So Monday morning when I got up to go to work I walked into our bathroom which had a long mirror and I looked into the mirror and I said, “Jesus what am I doing to myself.” And I stopped drinking…
Big denial. I mean I never thought I had alcoholism. I never equated any of my inside problems with alcoholism. And I, see I never was depressed and I never got sick. Now there are alot of things that happened to me and it would take hours to tell you the things that happened to me in my drinking days. And the troubles that I got into. But I always was successful … somehow alcoholism laid back in order for me to be successful in many ways. You know alkies have a high, high rate of success even drinking. It’s an incredible disease, incredible disease.
Anyway, so I found myself in front of that mirror and I stopped drinking. But I wouldn’t go to AA. I was too proud. I was working in the field and said, who needs it? … I didn’t know a thing about asking for help. I didn’t know anything about a power greater than I. I didn’t know any of that stuff. But I was taking a client to a halfway house and I went to check the halfway house out and there was a gal there, the director of the house, actually the foundress of the house and she asked me if I was an alcoholic and I said yes, very proud, as a matter of fact. And she asked me what meetings I went to and I told her I didn’t go. So I sat with Sandy for about an hour and a half, at which point she was explaining to me a little more about the disease and what I needed to do to get well. That’s Sandy Berig and Ruth Fichel who started the first women’s halfway house in Massachusetts … The house probably helped over 600 women at this point to get sober, a wonderful thing. They’re no longer doing it. Anyhow Sandy helped me alot. She saw me every week for about an hour and I started going to meetings immediately. Now my spiritual life began to kick in again. I had some conflict with the concept of higher power because of my Catholicism and I thought that I couldn’t be a part of AA really because it was religious. Until I began to understand more about spirituality. Now you understand, here I am, in and out of three convents having had to make meditation, having had to study some theology, having had to do all those things and I didn’t know one thing about spiritual life. You know? I didn’t know a thing about the spiritual life. And that’s after a number of years in the program when I began to work, I began to understand ‑‑‑ it took me 3 years to hear what I had to hear.
But it took me 7 1/2 years to get from knowledge of the disease, to acceptance. I’ve been sober 16 1/2 years now and I’m learning more about myself and more about my beliefs and where I am in life than I had my whole life. You know? It’s taken all these years to be able to be sane enough in my own opinions to be able to say‑‑‑I don’t believe Jesus is God. I believe God is within me. There’s a Universal Spirit ‑‑‑ I don’t know what that Universal Spirit is ‑‑‑ I don’t care what that Universal Spirit is. But there is some power which gives me the power to be able to make decisions that I have to make for my own life. And the more I concentrate on developing my spiritual life, the more content I am with my physical life and the more things happen to me that bring me closer to being content. I don’t really care alot about material things but I have alot of material things. I’m rich if I have 5 bucks in my pocket or a dollar in my pocket. That’s me. I don’t care…
Fidelis and I were together, 10 years in Walpole. We decided we wanted something different…I was always ready to do something new… The second year of my sobriety, I had a relapse of an old back injury… I have a degenerative spine anyway … and I finally had to retire. That was probably the job that I liked the best in my life ‑‑‑ was working for ambulatory community services at Cambridge Hospital. And then my caseload ‑‑‑ my clients had two primary diagnoses, one of alcoholism and one of some kind of schizophrenia, manic depressive, whatever. I loved it. That was really wonderful for me.
But you know, you can’t give what you haven’t got. And I was only sober two years and I couldn’t, I mean I was wiped out. I’m terribly fragile emotionally. I think I know my limitations now. I think I know what I can live with and what I can’t deal with. I really can only deal with one thing at a time. Because I become too wiped out. It’s part of my disease. It will never leave me. I’m strong emotionally and I’m stable, but I’m very fragile. There are some things I can do and some things I can’t do. If I were still working professionally I could not work in the field of alcoholism or mental health anymore. Two to three years is my limit, because it’s much too taxing and I’m too, I just can’t deal with it. It took alot of humility for me to admit that because I know for me, if I like something I like to be able to do it, and if I can’t do it, I feel like a failure. But I don’t feel that way about this. I know myself well enough now to know. Publicly you know, we don’t talk about being members of AA but I can tell you…if it wasn’t for the Program, I would be nowhere. Number one it’s because I wouldn’t be sober and number one on that same level is the fact that I’ve discovered a higher power in my life, and a power greater than myself who has stimulated me… Fidelis and I moved up here in 1984 and have worked very hard
at this business of owning a motel and managing it and running it. We have been successful. We bought it at a reasonable rate of exchange and we’re selling it for an enormous amount of money. And the books and the numbers say that that’s right to do. I have some difficulty with it. I can’t really deal with it. And so I don’t. Because if I do? I get sick. I become nasty and oppressive, sharp, and all those negative things.
Everybody has told us we have had a ministry since we’ve been here, by the way we treat people, by the way we love people, by the way we let people come in and out of our lives and try to do the best that we can to help them to go from “a” to “z”.
My work right now, there’s really three parts to it: First part is my own sobriety and working out my own salvation, and… my own spirituality and developing more spiritually. And Fidelis has worked on that too, so the two of us grow individually but grow together because of our spiritual life. And I have to be sober, so that’s the given, that’s really number one. Otherwise I really don’t have anything else. The second part of what I do is, I really try to be there for people suffering from the same disease that I have. And I believe that my way of life is to help the suffering alcoholic who’s still coming along, if I can. And the third thing for me is what I’m not doing now and what I have a great desire to do. I have a message to give and need to express it on canvas. And so painting is the thing that has been on hold, for all these years. Two years ago I took a course … in drawing and stuff. Drawing is not my thing but I enjoyed it and it was stimulating again. But I have things that I want to put on canvas, I have a message. It’s not a political message, it’s not anything, it’s emotions. It’s pulling them together and it’s negative space in art and it’s all kinds of things. And that’s the third thing that I want to do… And when we sell this place I’ll do the same. The art thing will come to be and I’m so looking forward to that. And I’m looking forward to having time to visit with friends and to learn from them and to experience from them, to be able to share with other women. What we really haven’t ‑‑‑ we’ve been able to do it here, but we haven’t been able to do it as much as we’d like … It’s kinda like we grab a little bit of pleasure where we can. And, you know, I’m tired of doing that.
And I’ve been doing that all my life. I m tired of that now. So is Fidelis. You know, you could work until you’re 70 or 75 but then you lost all the time ‑‑‑ and I don’t live with Fidelis because she’s my business partner, I live with her because I love her, and I’m in love with her and I want to be able to share more and we want to be able to share more of our time together, And we haven’t been able to do that.