The Chicago Tribune
"The Real Story Behind the Habit"
By Julia Keller
March 28, 2010

The sweet-faced gatekeepers at convents, it turns out, share at least one crucial attribute with slit-eyed, cigar-chomping Hollywood producers: Both are obsessed with youth.

That's one of the surprising facts in "Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns" by Cheryl L. Reed, a 2004 book that was recently republished by Berkely Books.

"There's a whole new generation of women interested in nuns," says Reed, who now works in public affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center after two decades in journalism, including top editorial posts at the Chicago Sun-Times. Her husband is a Tribune business editor.

Reed spent several years visiting various orders, interviewing nuns and observing their rituals. For non-Catholics whose only acquaintance with nuns comes from repeated viewings of "The Sound of Music" (1965) or, more substantially, novels such as Rumer Godden's "In This House of Brede" (1969), Reed's book is a godsend: It's written with quiet clarity and impressive thoroughness.

And the surprises, like nuns themselves, come in multiples. Concerned about the cost of caring for older nuns, most orders refuse admittance to anyone "over fifty, disabled or (who) has had health problems," Reed writes. "Despite the lack of entrants, becoming a nun these days is more restrictive than ever." No one over 50 need apply? Sounds like a casting call for "Gossip Girl."

Nuns are wildly varied: Some are prim and solemn, some are feisty and gregarious. There are officially designated "hermit nuns" (although the one Reed profiles seems to have a busier social life than I do).

The author weaves cameos of individual nuns and separate orders into a larger inquiry about the role of women in an age sometimes referred to as post-feminist. "My standard was truth," says Reed, who was raised Protestant and who had always seen nuns as "these strange, mysterious creatures."

She adds, "I had thought nuns would have lives of incredible loneliness. … They have full lives. Many are highly educated. These are not women you can disregard."



© 2009 Unveiled, by Cheryl L. Reed. All rights reserved.