“It all started when I was 38…I was a full-time writer, spending many hours immersed in books. I lived in a nice house with a man I’d been married to for 18 years, and we had 2 children…both in early adolescence. I went to church regularly and was involved in the social life of the small, Southern town where we lived. The last thing I expected was an encounter with feminist spirituality” (p. 10). So Sue Monk Kidd begins her recollection of her unforeseen journey to “take back [her] soul”.
Throughout the pages of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine Monk Kidd chronicles her deeply unnerving and personal sojourn “from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine.” Her writing style is thoughtful, self-aware and courageous. She balks at neither entering into dark and uncertain emotional places nor from taking the reader with her. While each woman’s journey of this sort is different (should she embark upon it), past, present and future pilgrims may gain comfort and confidence from Monk Kidd’s testimony.
The book and Monk Kidd’s experience begin in what she calls a “Deep Sleep.” This is an utter lack of apprehension of patriarchy and how pervasive it is. So much do women internalize patriarchy, she says, that they are unconsciously numb. Deep Sleeping women do not know that how culture defines womanhood and femininity; how women “should” think, talk and behave; and how our children “should” be shaped is centered around the power and privilege of men. Furthermore these sleeping beauties are unaware or unfazed by the truth about their female lives and about women in general — that they are devalued and limited within culture, churches and families. A deeply sleeping woman cannot see the wound or feel the pain. But when the wake up call comes, and a woman answers it, her eyes are opened and she is blind no more.
From there the reader is privy to Monk Kidd’s boundless journey, which is a feminist awakening, yes, but is primarily spiritual . I found myself wanting in three ways. First, as a “Christian writer” and life-long member of a Southern Baptist church, Monk Kidd’s first post-awakening encounter, appropriately, is with her faith. She expresses feelings of dismay and betrayal as she chronicles her increasingly luminescent enlightenment regarding her congregation’s, denomination’s and religion’s treatment of women and disdain for feminine spirituality. This brings her to question and eventually leave traditional Christianity in phases — first struggling at her own church, next leaving her Baptist church for an Episcopal one and finally moving beyond Christianity altogether. I would have liked to have read more about this process than she offers, particularly her early days, as this is a massive spiritual shift. I was left wanting more windows into her soul as she embarked upon the painful process of finally seeing and beginning to shed partiarchal religious doctrine. What did the world look and feel like to her at first and during the immediate months that followed? Did her eyes hurt, as did Neo’s in The Matrix, seeing the world as it truly is for the first time?
Monk Kidd provides brief look-sees into her marriage as she moves through the four aspects of her experience, awakening, initiation, grounding and empowerment. Perhaps it’s selfish for me to desire more from this part of her life, as it is not only hers. Monk Kidd is not only right, but respectful to her husband to sequester him and his story. I must confess, though, as a married woman who continues her own journey, I desired less of the tour and more of the behind-the-scenes. I wanted a benchmark for my own marriage and for the matrimony of other wed dancing dissident daughters. Alas, each woman’s journey is her own.
Finally, it felt as if Monk Kidd merely scratched the surface of the wealth of research, poetry, liturgy, and reconstructed history of the pre-Judaism Goddess. Pagan religions, such as Wicca, that worship the Goddess and revere the person, leadership and spirituality of women have not only survived through the centuries, but are alive and well today. A glance of her end notes reveals Monk Kidd indeed swam in these waters, and her language suggests that she dove deeper into the Goddess than she records. I kept wanting to descend with her further into the ancient feminine mystery. This desire was partly satisfied.
Nevertheless, Dissident Daughter (Monk Kidd’s own shorthand title for the book) is itself a signifier for what happened in Monk Kidd’s life. She heard the call of her buried, feminine self. At this point she had a choice. To proceed meant uncertainty and great, multi-faceted risk — personal, relational, professional, financial and, of course, spiritual. Assuming she saw the process through, when she arrived on the other side, nothing would be the same. Plenty of quality females have understandably turned a shoulder. To Monk Kidd’s credit and the boon of womankind, she awoke and followed the voice within her down the winding road towards true selfhood. Somewhere in the midst of her sojourn, a truth burgeoned and over time she reluctantly yet courageously named it. As a consequence of reclaiming her soul, Monk Kidd would be unable to return to the career as a “Christian” writer that she had painstakingly built. Scary as this was, it opened space for her long forgotten desire to be a novelist. Henceforth from Monk Kidd’s dissident dance came The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, both highly celebrated New York Times bestsellers and fruits of her labor.
“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,” says a common proverb. Dissident Daughter may be written by a woman about her journey to find herself and the Sacred Feminine, but it is not a book for women only. It is a book for anyone who senses a deeper self and truth within themselves, the person God created (my words). Far from providing a map or a step-by-step how to, Monk Kidd provides encouragement, if not assurance, for those who dare the dance. Yes, such a wandering is full of uncertainty; yes, it will most likely cause personal (marital, familial) emotional unrest; and no, it does not all resolve overnight. But, as Monk Kidd’s experience exemplifies, if you remain true to the sacred voice within that beckons and true to yourself, you will not only make it through, but you will come out more alive than you have ever been. In reading Dissident Daughter and in experiencing a soul reclaiming journey of my own, I can say that both the book and the tumultuous travel it narrates are well worth one’s while.