A story of nuns turned radical lesbians

Evidently, psychology is powerful.

As mentioned briefly in “The Century of Self” documentary, found in our Reading List.

From this article:
As the church was struggling with its new modernity, it instructed the nuns to “be open to their feelings” in the encounter groups–a reasonable enough sounding instruction. However, some of these feelings were inevitably sexual, and as the order no longer prohibited certain friendships, they flourished.

Within a year, over 300 nuns petitioned the Vatican to be released from their vows. One nun, Sister Genevieve, began a sexual relationship with one of the therapists named Harry, who soon divorced his wife and had the former nun move in with him. With over half the nuns gone, the remaining nuns became radical lesbian activists. The convent soon closed…

And this blog (I recommend reading the whole blog post, it is really good – I only show a portion of it in case the link dies):
IN 1966, Pope Paul VI urged all Catholics who had taken religious vows to “to examine and renew their way of life and towards that end to engage in wide-ranging experimentation.” The wide-ranging experimentation that ensued was a full-blown disaster.

Thousands of nuns picked up and left. Many more who might have taken vows, never did. Over the course of the next four decades, the total number of women religious dropped by more than two thirds. With the abandonment of the traditional habit, the mystical threads fell away. Shorn of their ceremonial dress, nuns became distinguishable by their manly haircuts and bustling efficiency. They became social workers and political activists. Lesbianism and feminism swept through convents. These led, after interminable delay, to recent disciplinary measures by the Vatican against the largest organization of women religious, as discussed in the previous post.

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow were the leading proponents of “third force psychology” in the 60s. Maslow said in 1949, “I can report empirically the healthiest persons in our culture … are most (not least) pagan, most (not least) instinctive, most (not least ) accepting of their animal nature.” In his book Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Poltical Control, E. Michael Jones describes the role of the self-actualizing theories of Rogers, Maslow and others on women religious.

Jones writes:

In 1965, Carl Rogers began circulating a paper entitled “The Process of the Basic Encounter Group” to some religious orders in the Los Angeles area. One group which found his ideas intriguing was the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This should not be surprising because the California-based IHM nuns had already established the reputation of being “innovative.” In the early ‘60s, Sister Aloyse, the order’s superior, had brought in the Dutch psychologist-priest Adrian van Kaam for retreat exercises during which “all community rules were suspended” (Weber, p. 419). The results of this sort of innovation were predictable. After allowing the psychologists in, the nuns became aware of “how dictatorial superiors were and in turn how dependent, submissive and helpless nuns were when it came to working with the outside world” (Weber, p. 419).

…. By the time the experiment was over, the order would cease to exist, leaving subsequent generations to puzzle over an incident which had become a classic instance of renewal gone wrong in the aftermath of Vatican II.

And this website:

Actually, if Sister Mary had been reading Wilhelm Reich, she would have realized that once she started act ing on her illicit sexual impulses her break with the Church was more fate than choice. Once she began acting out her lesbian impulses, her break with the Church was inevitable.

And this absolutely amazing interview transcript:

It works, you know; one tumbles pretty easily into this. We corrupted a
whole raft of religious orders on the west coast in the ’60s by getting
the nuns and priests to talk about their distress.

COULSON: ’66 and ’67. There’s a tragic book called Lesbian Nuns,
Breaking Silence, which documents part of our effect on the IHMs and
other orders that engaged in similar experiments in what we called
“sensitivity” or “encounter.” In a chapter of Lesbian Nuns, one former
Immaculate Heart nun describes the summer of 1966, when we did the pilot
study in her order-

TLM: “We” being you and Rogers?

COULSON: Rogers and I and eventually 58 others: we had 60 facilitators. We
inundated that system with humanistic psychology. We called it Therapy for
Normals, TFN. The IHMs had some 60 schools when we started; at the end,
they had one. There were some 615 nuns when we began. Within a year after
our first interventions, 300 of them were petitioning Rome to get out of
their vows. They did not want to be under anyone’s authority, except the
authority of their imperial inner selves.

Maslow did warn us about this. Maslow believed in evil, and we didn’t. He
said our problem was our total confusion about evil. (This is quoting from
Maslow’s journals, which came out too late to stop us. His journals came
out in ’79, and we had done our damage by then.) Maslow said there was
danger in our thinking and acting as if their were no paranoids or
psychopaths or SOBs in the world to mess things up.

We created a miniature utopian society, the encounter group. As long as
Rogers and those who feared Rogers’ judgment were present it was okay,
because nobody fooled around in the presence of Carl Rogers. He kept
people in line; he was a moral force. People did in fact consult their
consciences, and it looked like good things were happening.

TLM: But once you had those 600 nuns broken down into their encounter
groups, how long did it take for the damage to set in?

COULSON: Well, in the summer of ’67 the IHMs were having their chapter.
They had been called, as all religious orders were, to reevaluate their
mode of living, and to bring it more in line with the charisms of their
founder. So they were ready for us. They were ready for an intensive look
at themselves with the help of humanistic psychologists. We overcame their
traditions, we overcame their faith. Bud Kaiser, Father Elwood Kaiser, a
Paulist priest, producer of “Insight,” I think you may know him-

COULSON: Okay. He wrote a book last year called . He’s
got a chapter in there about his romantic involvement with one of our
nuns, with one of the IHMs. Father Kaiser explains that as “Genevieve,” as
he calls her, got in the spirit of Rogerian nondirective encounter, she
propositioned him sexually. He refused her, because he didn’t see how he
could have something going with her and still be a good priest; but she
got sexually involved with her Rogerian therapist. We were referring the
nuns who opened up too much in our encounter groups to therapists who were
on the periphery.

TLM: At least this was a male therapist.

COULSON: He got her involved in sex games, in therapy. Rogers didn’t get
people involved in sex games, but he couldn’t prevent his followers from
doing it, because all he could say was, “Well, I don’t do that.” Then his
followers would say, “Well, of course you don’t do that, because you grew
up in an earlier era; but we do, and it’s marvelous: you have set us free
to be ourselves and not carbon copies of you.”

TLM: Marvelous, indeed. How many years did it take to destroy this
Immaculate Heart order?

COULSON: It took about a year and a half.

COULSON: We did similar programs for the Jesuits, for the Franciscans, for
the Sisters of Providence, of Charity, and the Mercy Sisters. We did
dozens of Catholic religious organizations, because as you recall, in the
excitement following Vatican II, everybody wanted to update, everybody
wanted to renew; and we offered a way for people to renew, without having
to bother to study. We said, we’ll help you look within. After all, is not
God in your heart? Is it not sufficient to be yourself, and wouldn’t that
make you a good Catholic? And if it doesn’t, then perhaps you shouldn’t
have been a Catholic in the first place. Well, after a while there weren’t
many Catholics left.

Rogers came to call it, “this damned thing.” I’m going to quote him in a
tape that he and I made in ’76: “I left there feeling, Well, I started
this damned thing, and look where it’s taking us; I don’t even know where
it’s taking me. I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next. And I
woke up the next morning feeling so depressed, that I could hardly stand
it. And then I realized what was wrong. Yes, I started this thing, and now
look where it’s carrying us. Where is it going to carry us? And did I
start something that is in some fundamental way mistaken, and will lead us
off into paths that we will regret?”

TLM: That’s a credit to him, that he at least had pangs of conscience;
whereas these other orders, like the Jesuits, even when they saw that the
IHMs were almost extinct, nevertheless they invited the same team in.

We can certainly laugh at their mistakes, which freed women from at least one form of bondage. We can also laugh at the antifeminist, authoritarian fools who would rather these women stay nuns and see this experiment in humanistic psychology never happen. Not all the nuns became lesbians, which does cast doubt on the likelihood that sexual orientation doesn’t exist, in fact it is hard to find evidence that supports the hypothesis that any woman can be a lesbian — much to the disappointment of radical lesbians, including some members of us Black Flag Feminists. Nevertheless, those who were lesbians, were clearly released from the bonds of slavery to The Man in at least the sexual sense.

This leads us to ask the question: is there something truly subversive in becoming yourself? Radical feminists of the 60s and 70s certainly thought so. Perhaps these historical events had some influence on radical feminists’ choice to organize consciousness raising sessions with women, which freed woman from the man in her mind. There’s clearly a risk while people are in such a vulnerable state of becoming, so people would either have to take precautions or they would only be able to have encounter groups in the safest of places… Psychonauts tripping on psychedelics are pretty well adapted to the chaotic vulnerability of tapping into their repressed minds, making it customary to, for example, at least have someone there to look after them to prevent freakouts. But really, what place is safe, ever? Yet what is living, if not with one’s full being? As Rogers said: “It is a risky thing to live.”

Is dipping into the mysterious power of our minds the reason radical feminists became associated with insanity? From the outside, it can certainly seem like psychosis. But what women discover is a profound sense of inner liberation that only makes them want to break from their cages. This leads us to do and think strange things sometimes, leaving nothing unexamined, but a life unexamined is not a life worth living.

We here at Black Flag Feminists support breaking from cages, although it must be noted that these freed nuns (and still more women evading the Church) did not take down capitalism or the state and turn the country into an anarchist paradise, otherwise we would be covering the story of the glorious revolution. Instead, they most likely became liberal just like everyone else — too afraid to challenge the wider system. Perhaps this is because the experiments were limited in their scope, only focusing on these normal people as individual patients, rather than looking also at society. And this is where radical feminists have made great strides — taking the personal and extrapolating it to the political. Yet still, we require a critique of capitalism, the state, and further still, hierarchy in all its forms.

In fact, sadly, many of these soul-searching people ended up voting for Reagan (and supported Thatcher) who would then push Milton Friedman-style neoliberal policies that destroyed social welfare support systems. Without a critique of capitalism, we would see much the same types of people who support abolishing the state, but not capitalism’s private property, wage slavery, and so on. They became dependent upon capitalists to indulge their every satisfaction, fuck the wage slaves and actual slaves who would have to work to get by and only dream of buying their way to selfhood. Is there even any mention of them, or do workers, housewives, people of color swept under by Reagan’s war on drugs simply not exist…?

Through self-examination, honesty, and irreverence to authority, can even greater swaths of humanity be convinced to break their shackles of both mind and body? Perhaps, if some ideas are so powerful, then others can overtake them. The dominant voices in society — the mainstream media, who are the mouth of corporations, and the state, who is the arm of corporations, and then the corporations themselves — can afford to drown out dissenters and truth sayers, filling our tired minds with junk. If it is so effective on us, then it must work the other way around, unlike physical force. Ideas are not as limited in their reach. Are they enough to foment massive social change from below?

Or will the powers that be just wrest back control with yet another disinformation campaign? Perhaps the working class disconnected from social democracy because it wasn’t revolutionary. Perhaps, nothing less than total abolishment of hierarchy will bring this pendulum swing to a stop, bringing us full circle to true self-actualization in all forms, for everyone. Perhaps the lesson here is that none of us are free until all are free, none of us are fully ourselves until all of us are fully ourselves. We can’t flourish as individuals if we live in a society dominated by lies.

The only reason this hasn’t happened yet is because people are physically unable to challenge the sheer might of the state and capitalists. Women know well what it is to be outmuscled, and perhaps the world can learn from our ways.


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