Like many contemporary memoirs, Cloistered opens in medias res, giving the reader a taste of the narrative intensity that belongs, chronologically, to the book’s climax. The first paragraph plunges us into a cinematic escape scene—a young nun is bolting through the English countryside, fleeing a monastery under the cover of night:

In my mind I am still running. Running toward the road. Running. Running. Running. The darkness is fresh around me, the air slicing across my face in wild, clean shafts. The rush of oxygen is fizzing, moonlit, completely unexpected. I’d forgotten what night tasted like, the great dome of it, just as I’d forgotten what it was—after ten years cloistered—to run cold and wild and wet, beyond enclosure. I’d forgotten what it was to stand under the sky and feel the far stretching of infinity.

Eventually the nun stops, catches her breath, and realizes with amazement that she is safe. She looks back at the monastery, a fortress looming against the sky. “I see it for what I now think it is,” Catherine Coldstream recalls, “a place of danger and of dishonest murmurings.”

The passage raises a number of questions—Who is pursuing her? Are nuns really not allowed outdoors at night? Can oxygen be moonlit?—that have no immediate answers; the curious reader must wait until she has, thus baited, slogged through the chapters of backstory and building action. Needless to say, anyone who’s had even a passing encounter with the “nun content” produced over the past century has a decent idea of what’s coming. This will be a story of religious corruption and tyrannical subjugation. There will be theological psyops, the twisting of Scripture to serve human power structures, furtive sapphic exploits, and women acting as accomplices to the dictates of patriarchy. But the opening fireworks are decoy flares; they are not quite representative of the story contained in these pages.

All religious autobiography hinges on a drama of escape. The convert speaks from a vantage of liberation, having been freed from the shackles of sin, looking back on the years he lived in bondage, a “prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness,” as Thomas Merton puts it in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), his celebrated memoir about becoming a Trappist monk. The deconversion narrative relies on the same arc, but in reverse. The apostate wins her freedom by fleeing the prison of institutional religion. Each narrative is, of course, a lie. The believer, even after he has glimpsed eternity, must continue to live in the world with other fallen humans and his own wayward flesh. Anyone who has left the church finds, inevitably, that secular life has plenty of constraints and disappointments of its own. What drives the narrative impulse is that first, ecstatic taste of freedom—of having borne witness to something as formless and vast as the night sky.

Coldstream was raised in North London by two artists. Her father was the British painter William Coldstream, who served for years as the head of the Slade School of Fine Art. In the brief account of her childhood, she describes him as a kind of ascetic, one who observed “his morning vigils at the easel,” as though they were a sacred liturgy. Her mother was an actress and Pre-Raphaelite beauty who served as William’s model and muse, and was, by the time Coldstream reached adolescence, creatively frustrated, bitterly unhappy with her fate as a mother. She was always running off on tours, abandoning the family for the stage, shipping the children off to boarding schools. There’s an echo here of Merton, also raised by artists who had the temperament of monastics. His mother and father longed after aesthetic perfection, but they too remained “captives” of the world and its limitations, a tension the artist shares with the saint. “The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it,” he writes.

Coldstream was an artist of sorts herself, a violist and choral singer. In her mid-twenties she was living in Paris and writing scores for a music publisher when her father died, a trauma that hit with seismic force. Although she and her siblings had not been raised religious—neither parent was a churchgoer—her grief succeeded in convincing her that she had (so to speak) a father in heaven. “If a universe without my father was inconceivable, and he was no longer in his mortal body, it followed (less the product of deductive reasoning than what seemed a lightning-flash of numinously tinged intuition) that he must be somewhere else, as disembodied spirit,” she writes. “Overnight…I had become a believer in the afterlife.”

She returned to London and began searching for a structure to hold her new faith in immortality. She read C.S. Lewis, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard, plus select books of the Bible. She worked at a soup kitchen in Kilburn and had a chance meeting on a train with a Dominican nun. Her hours of solitary prayer began to suggest the contours of a life given over to God, in a convent. All of this takes place in a matter of paragraphs. “The Life claimed me then, and I was happy of it,” she writes.


Conversion experiences are always the least convincing part of a faith narrative. It would be easy to chalk this up to secularization, our loss of faith in the reality of faith itself, but the problem, I think, is broader than that. (“And then I realized—” the poet Robert Haas once observed, is “the part of stories one never quite believes.”) Epiphanies, those watermarks of shifting internal states, consist of pure, untested potentiality. Coldstream’s passages about her contact with the divine during those early years of prayer are, fittingly, vague to the point of meaninglessness:

The afterlife is vital…and is both buoyant and serene. It has an overarching mind and a kind heart. And because it is not just an “after” but a “life,” the afterlife is everywhere and always. It is alongside, all-encompassing and indivisible, which is why we nuns call it quite simply “The Life.”

At the age of twenty-seven, shortly after her baptism, Coldstream entered Akenside, the (pseudonymous) Carmelite order in Northumberland where she spent the next twelve years. The vocation required “reconceiving your identity…as one of the group,” and during her early days as a postulate, and later as a novice, she happily melted into that holy protoplasm, the Body of Christ. She recalls the deep satisfaction of hearing her voice merge with those of the other nuns in the choir, “to form a single monophonic stream,” and the comfortable anonymity of the habit, in which she “floated around in a more or less safe and sexless haze.” (Although Coldstream is modest enough not to mention it, her publicists have not been shy about flaunting her intense, otherworldly beauty. The photos of her from the late 1980s and 1990s make it clear that whoever adapts Cloistered will have a hard time finding an actress who is so perfectly, stunningly suited for the role.) Alone in her cell, Coldstream is visited by the “unseen spouse,” who comes as a blinding light. She longs for her final vows, when she will at last be married to this divine abstraction: “On the farthest horizon was the beatific vision, the delightful union of the soul with God, and the happy basking in his presence for all eternity…”

The best passages in Cloistered, however, are those that capture the texture of monastic life: the wooden choir stalls that smell of wax and linseed oil, scattered with stray pencils, pairs of spectacles, and tuning forks. The double-diluted powdered milk set out in jugs each morning, along with blocks of cheese, eggs, and homemade yogurt. These still lifes bear the attention of a painter’s daughter, though they are also the outgrowth of a theology that holds every crumb to be sacred. “Every least detail of our lives carried not only material but spiritual importance,” Coldstream writes. “No mote of dust on a windowpane was without its significance…” There are some delightful digressions in these early chapters about the quirks of the Life and its adorable idioms (breakfast is called “Little Jug,” crafts are dubbed “little works,” the lavatory is the “humble office”) and a fantastic passage about the difficulties of “tucking up,” the elaborate task of securing the folds of one’s habit in order to go to the toilet.

The nuns themselves are more hastily sketched, though one stands out among the mass of interchangeable habits: Elizabeth, the long-standing novice mistress who soon becomes Mother Superior. She is fifty when Coldstream enters Akenside, and is glamorous and charismatic, with a “voice like a fine reed with just enough husk in it to make it viscerally compelling. (Slightly sexy, in truth, although we never would have used the term.)” She also has what passes in the nunnery for style. Her habit is of a slightly softer shade of brown, and she wears lace-up shoes and eyeglasses with sparkly frames. Elizabeth is a believer in the therapeutic effects of exercise and the spiritual rejuvenations of community life. She keeps the novitiate stocked with rubber balls and skipping ropes. She brings party poppers and chocolates to celebrations and encourages everyone to dance to popular tunes—luxuries that will be forgiven, she insists, because the sisters are “only human.”

The reader intuits, thanks to the dramatic opening—with its allusions to “danger and dishonest murmurings”—that this leniency is obscuring a nest of corruption, and I was for a time convinced that Elizabeth was a truly masterful villain, one whose sinister side was softened (or perhaps even humanized) by these kind indulgences. But it turns out that for Coldstream, the indulgences are the corruption. She had come to Akenside to punish her flesh and pray in solitude only to discover that the nuns care more about maintaining a robust social life and relaxing after a day of singing and prayer. She’s outraged by “the sheer excess and lack of balance” when it comes to pleasure and fun. She tirelessly lists the rules that Elizabeth breaks: calling off chores on a whim, allowing some nuns to phone their families during the Great Silence, secretly feeding feral cats that are not supposed to be let inside.


Her outrage peaks when she overhears Elizabeth telling another novice that she needn’t bother reading Saint John of the Cross. (“Wasn’t John one of the foundational teachers of the order?” Coldstream wonders. “Wasn’t it simply required reading?”) She is disappointed that none of the sisters wants to discuss theology, and comes to dread the mandated recreation, which “was ultimately not a relaxation but an exercise in restraint, listening to oft-repeated anecdotes, laughing at other people’s jokes, and taking an interest in their crochet.” When a sister notices that she seems to be finding the life “insufficiently radical,” she has to hold her tongue to avoid speaking an unkind word.

Any bookish person can sympathize with the tyranny of leisure, and few things are more disappointing to the new convert than religious laxity. But Coldstream makes little effort to put these complaints in perspective, to see them as the follies of youthful purity, or to consider why her aloofness and superiority are so alienating to the other nuns, most of whom are cradle Catholics. Recalling how she was often chided for her “convert’s enthusiasm,” she writes: “You’d think they’d have been glad of it, given the order’s motto—‘With Zeal Have I Been Zealous of the Lord God of Hosts.’” She had hoped to discover in the convent “a gathering of the like-minded or of the sympathetically attuned,” but instead found “a motley crew.” Elizabeth strives to correct this prejudice, reminding Coldstream that motley crews were favored by Christ himself: “Fishermen, Mother had once said. Fishermen. Remember the people Jesus chose as his first disciples.”

There is more than a tinge of class tension behind this rebuke. In addition to being part of a minority of converts, Coldstream is also one of the few Akenside nuns who come from a “posh” family, another reason why, she claims, she has trouble fitting in. (She silently endures the playful jibes the other nuns make about “southerners” and London elites.) But more often she insists that she’s disliked for her artistic temperament. The sisters chide her for how easily she cries and become visibly uneasy when she plays the viola and loses herself in ecstatic rapture. Elizabeth’s catchphrase, “only human,” didn’t seem to apply, she laments, to those who tended toward passionate self-expression and intellectual engagement:

The reality was that only certain people were allowed to be themselves, and only certain characteristics counted as “human enough” in Mother’s book. Being sensitive, introspective, “artistic,” emotional, creative, questioning or philosophically inclined, just didn’t count.

Art and religion are callings so kindred, Coldstream suggests, that one might easily be mistaken for the other. As a young woman she’d believed that the monastic life could be as perfect as a work of artistic genius: “The lover of logic and symmetry in me, the lover of Bach, enjoyed the thought that my whole life could now become as integrated, as united and directed to one final cadence as the Musical Offering.” Instead, she is forced to sing “Danny Boy” and dance the “hokey-cokey.”

Cloistered has been widely characterized as a drama of venality and suspense, one that “reads like a thriller” (The Financial Times)—or a “spiritual thriller,” as The Guardian has it, a memoir “in which the experience of being a nun unravels into a nightmare as the monastery’s internal politics sour.” That juxtaposition of the salacious (“a nightmare”) and the banal (“internal politics”) is telling, and aptly distills the underlying dissonance between the book’s tone and its content. In Coldstream’s mind, Elizabeth’s indulgences are driven by a nefarious desire to manipulate the nuns and secure her own power. She holds secret tea parties, which are used “to foster cliques.” She has favorites, preferring the nuns who have simple faith to zealots like Coldstream, and develops an inner circle that becomes known in the cloister as “the gang.” Coldstream regards this as a cult of personality, though the putative abuses of power, at this point in the story, feel less like religious corruption than the popularity contests and sororal statecraft of an English boarding school.

Finding herself excluded from this coterie, Coldstream becomes convinced that she is being singled out and punished. Elizabeth pushes her vows back another year, claiming that the other novice she came in with is not yet ready and that it would be unfair to separate them. (The other novice is mentally ill.) When Elizabeth is reelected as prioress—a (seemingly common) violation of the order’s protocol, which encourages rotation—Coldstream begins to fashion herself as a crusader, an outlier who is shunned because she alone is capable of speaking the truth. She is not merely an artist, but a “rebel and philosopher,” and, crucially, a “prophet,” someone chosen as the actual mouthpiece of God:

Religious people tend either to be of the “club-minded” or the “heavenly-minded” sort, and a study of scripture and the history of the Church gives us exemplars of both. The prophets—literally a “mouthpiece for God”—are those concerned with the big-picture stuff, and building blocks like “eternity” and “transcendence,” and are conscious of being called to speak for God. A prophet is concerned with uttering truth…and has the courage of their convictions, is prepared to speak truth to power. Many of the originators of and reformers within the great religions had a prophetic stance, which is why so few were popular with the higher-ups. The club-minded, on the other hand, speak primarily as approved by the human collective of which they are part. They may repeat truths learned or heard elsewhere, but there is always a cap on how far they can go in saying what they really think.

It’s true that Christianity has always renewed itself through such dissatisfaction. As I read page after page of schoolyard bullying and mean-girl snubs, I could not help but long for a different storyline, one in which Coldstream fully embraces her prophetic megalomania and does what so many saints have done—disappearing into the desert, climbing to the top of some ragged mountain, calling on a complacent church to find its way back to its pioneering ideals. Instead, she rarely voices her grievances aloud. More often than not she holds her tongue, keeps her eyes downcast, and represses the voice of her inner Elijah.

She was not alone in her idealistic fervor. At least one other nun, Lucy, also takes up the prophetic mantle, accusing a visiting bishop of failing to call the nuns to a higher level of religious commitment. A few days later, however, Lucy slides from her stall at lauds and begins thrashing on the floor. It’s attributed to psychosis, and she leaves Akenside soon after, having had a mental breakdown. “The Life had got to her, had worn down her defenses,” Coldstream explains.

Lucy is one of many nuns who over the years succumb to mental illness and are forced to leave the convent, a fact that Coldstream attributes to prolonged repression. The religious call to “self-immolation,” the tireless effort to conquer temptation and suppress one’s true feelings, is unnatural, she writes, because “the shadow side of the psyche…cannot be kept down for ever.” This is an odd about-face, given her original complaints about religious laxity. She was the one who wanted more self-immolation. But in trying to account for the growing tension she experienced—her attempts to suppress her artistic, solitary, and prophetic nature—and the array of personal dysfunction she witnessed at the convent, she ends up concluding that the problem is the unnatural discipline of monasticism itself. The ascetic life that survived two millennia of Christianity had finally, at the dawn of the third, become untenable. She asks, “For my generation, those born after 1960, let alone anyone younger, could the hermetically sealed interpretation of the Life not be counterproductive?”

The final arc of the book traces a schism that emerges after another nun is made prioress, succeeding Elizabeth. The gang turns against the new Mother and shuns those who voted against Elizabeth (including Coldstream). Over time, however, Elizabeth reestablishes control over the convent, and the dissenting faction returns to her authority—a development Coldstream attributes to “gaslighting” or “bullying.” It’s here, briefly, that we see the familiar tropes of institutional decadence and religious hysteria that were promised in the opening sequence. There are internal tribunals during which Coldstream and the other dissenters are forced to publicly apologize for casting their lot against Elizabeth—or as Coldstream puts it, for their “truthfulness.” “Especially for our truthfulness.” There is one scene of physical violence.

As tensions mount, Coldstream retreats further into hermitude, but the unseen spouse no longer comes to her rescue, and her disenchantment finally gives way to a full-blown faith crisis:

I’d come to Carmel to seek the highest things. What I was discovering now was that being “only human” didn’t just mean needing to laugh and play and let off steam, it meant having a shadow side, it meant everything I thought was the opposite of Christianity. I was having difficulty reining in my indignation.

The “shadow side of the psyche,” or what Jung called simply the shadow, emerges most violently when it has been adamantly repressed, a phenomenon known as enantiodromia. But it’s hard to see how this intense self-denial originates with Elizabeth’s lenient “only human” approach and not the more punishing standards Coldstream established for herself. This is the woman, after all, who admits that she “had always been drawn to strong solutions” and has a tendency to “take things to logical extremes,” who prefers to lock herself up in her room to read Saint John of the Cross when the others are jumping rope outside, and who acknowledges—in a moment of honesty that is, frankly, exceedingly rare in this book—that her “own efforts at self-effacement were taking their toll.”

It’s hard to say when, exactly, something as amorphous as faith dissolves. This is as true of belief in God as it is of that tenuous trust between a narrator and her reader. It’s clear that the spiritual conditions at Akenside were dismal and that Coldstream suffered unfair criticism and mistreatment from the nuns. But so many of the grievances she cites are obviously tinged with prejudice and persecution fantasies that by the time the more serious infractions emerge it’s hard to fully believe her account. It doesn’t help that the book contains long passages of direct dialogue, conversations that were clearly reconstructed with creative liberty, or that the members of “the gang” deliver an excessive number of sharp looks, cruel smiles, and smug, mocking glances that one can only picture on the faces of Disney villainesses.

The retrospective vantage is a great corrective to the insular subjectivity of memoir, but it is used sparingly, and when Coldstream does offer reflection or commentary from the writer’s desk, it’s only to marvel at the naiveté of her younger self. (“I was still so naive and deluded, expecting everyone to be as kind and gentle as my aunt, or as courteous and self-deprecating as my father,” she writes. And later: “There was no reciprocal courtesy in this place. I should have known better, but still these realizations came as shocks.”) More than anything, the memoir seems to bank on a readership who will recognize the outlines of a familiar story—Is there any trope more native to contemporary Catholicism than corruption?—and know instinctively which side to take and whose story to trust.

During her last night in the monastery, Coldstream cries out to the Lord, Mother Mary, Teresa, and Saint John of the Cross for help, but is met with silence. It’s only when she looks to her innermost heart that she finds “a loving presence that would not budge, or change, or ever let me down.” It’s here that the book comes full circle, returning to the night of her escape—though the finality promised by that sensational opening is misleading. After finding her sister in Newcastle and spending a few weeks in a Scottish abbey, she returns to the monastery. “I lived another two years at Akenside,” she writes, an acknowledgment so brief the inattentive reader might blink and miss it. One can only assume that those two years—before her final, official departure—were somewhat less dramatic than the ones preceding her escape.

Life after the convent is treated briefly, just as her life before it. She goes on to study theology at Oxford and devotes just one sentence to the end of her celibacy: “After years as a tutor and teacher, I made new vows, and am now something I never dreamed I would, or would ever want to be: a married woman.” She now lives in an old, terraced house, plays in string quartets, makes marmalade, and cooks dal. She only occasionally attends Mass. While she has not totally abandoned her faith, she appears to have deconstructed, the voguish alternative to deconversion. She has come to see God as the “Ground of Being,” not a deity who must be appeased and obeyed, but that internal voice she discovered the night before her escape—a concept that feels retroactively interpreted through the syncretic theology of Richard Rohr. It’s in these last pages that there emerges, quite abruptly, a more sympathetic view of her fellow nuns. Elizabeth and the other sisters had simply been brainwashed, she concludes:

They were just a group of people living a certain way by (perfect or imperfect) common consent…. I’d gone there blinded by my love affair with the divine…. I still had a lot to learn, especially about the diversity and fallibility of human nature.

It was a great disappointment to see this more balanced and humane narrator emerge only in the postscript, and for a few brief sentences. Where was this perspective throughout? Coldstream has said in interviews that she worked on the book for twenty years—at one point it was a novel—and it’s possible that the bulk of the story was written earlier, fresh out of the cloister, before she possessed the more expansive wisdom that comes with distance and age. Another possibility is that she (or some market-savvy editor) realized that a memoir about ordinary human failings and the familiar disenchantments of religious life does not make for the kind of book that is classed as a “spiritual thriller.”

While Coldstream acknowledges the mistake of seeking perfection in the convent, what she longs for today is an “Akenside of the imagination,” a paradise that persists as a “spiritual heartland,” and might even exist in “the pages of this book.” It’s a nice thought—institutional religion tends toward degeneracy, but the creative unconscious, the eternal Self, the deity within, will never let one down. Of course, anyone who’s spent time with those fickle gods will recognize this as wishful thinking. The voice of inner truth is just as elusive as the unseen spouse, and art surely equals religion as a means of self-deception. While the imagination occasionally grants divine visions, it cannot, ultimately, deliver the artist from the fallen world.

And yet who would risk creating anything were it not for the persistent, irrational faith that it can? Like the mystic vision of God as unadulterated light, the transcendent purity of the blank page or the empty canvas is an unrealizable promise, an invisible ladder stretching into the clouds, a glorious horizon that is perpetually out of reach. In the closing pages of Cloistered, Coldstream remembers leaving the monastery, this time for good, a moment when she allowed herself for the first time to envision her future as an artist: “The wide, wide canvas of potential, together with the actuality of creativity and experiences I’d barely dreamed of, all of that and more was there. Those vistas, that excitement, that happy reality.”