Since its founding in 1997, Nashville’s Magdalene House, a two-year residential program for the recovery of women trapped in addiction and prostitution, has inspired almost countless news stories and magazine articles, capturing the hearts and imaginations of people in Nashville, across the South, and all the way to the White House, where founder Becca Stevens was named a “Champion of Change.” In Magdalene House: A Place about Mercy, social scientist Sarah VanHooser Suiter investigates what draws residents, donors and community support to its unique model and ethos.
The story of Magdalene as a place of recovery and healing has been told by its residents and by its founder, Becca Stevens, in books, sermons and even a recent NPR documentary. What inspired you to tell the story again from your own perspective?
I think there are several things. First, people who have told the story in the past have, for the most part, either been insiders (Becca, the women from Magdalene who speak) or outsiders (journalists who come for a day or two or three and gather information for their stories). I was somewhere in between.
I was an outsider in the sense that I was doing research — I was gathering data about a community using a systematic process (qualitative research) that is governed by its own set of methods, rules and norms, which when done well, allows its users to stand behind the credibility and validity of the information they gather and the conclusions at which they arrive.
On the other hand, I consider myself something of an insider in the sense that I spent two or three days a week for two years working at Thistle Farms, talking with Magdalene community members, attending events, conducting interviews, and the like. There are things that you learn from being a part of a community for two years that I do not think you can learn in two or three days or even six months.
You argue for the value of personal storytelling to combat the myths that many cultures have promulgated about women throughout history. Why do such myths have so much power over us? How can one story in one lifetime compete with a myth that has persisted over generations?
We make sense of our lives by telling stories about them and mapping them onto other, existing stories. When those stories are demoralizing or marginalizing (as they often are in the case of addiction, mental illness, sex work, homelessness), we start to believe those things about ourselves. Every woman I interviewed had heard someone — a clinician, a police officer, a family member, a friend — say, “You’ll always be an addict” or “You’ll never recover,” or “You’re not worth anything more than what you can do for me.”
A part of the recovery process at Magdalene is community members giving each other the space and the support to create a new story. Individual stories are stories that have all of those things — details, a face, nuance — they’re raw and gritty, and that’s what makes them powerful. They’re authentic.
While your book grew out of your doctoral research, the book glitters with the details of individual stories told in the vivid language of those who lived them. Is there a particular story that struck you most deeply?
This is hard to answer. Every single story was powerful, and so many of the women at Magdalene are such beautiful storytellers. Every time I interviewed a Magdalene resident or graduate, I was bowled over by the things she had experienced, amazed at the strength and courage it took to heal from those things.
Chapter Three of the book is the story of one woman, Marion (not her real name), told in her own words. I probably read the transcript of her interview 30 times while I was working on Chapter Three, and every time I read it, I got tears in my eyes when she described getting out of jail and going to Magdalene. When she arrived, the women who were already living in the community (only four of them at that time) rushed out the front door and into the front yard to meet her. They hugged her and laughed with her and said, “Welcome home.” There is something about that type of hospitality — the embrace of a loving community — that sums up so much of what I think women experience at Magdalene.
You describe one goal of the book as seeking “a full definition of healing” through a multi-faceted understanding of suffering. What are some aspects of healing and/or suffering that you feel have been overlooked in the past by society? How does Magdalene bring them into focus?
Addiction and mental illness are huge, expensive problems that no one really seems to know how to address. I think one of the most important things about Magdalene is that they are willing to take on and embrace women with really severe problems — drug addiction, co-morbid mental illnesses, physical illnesses, histories of involvement in sex work, experiences with abuse, and the like — that a lot of treatment facilities are not willing or able to take on.
Beyond that, they understand healing in such a way that recovery is never a quick fix. Staff, residents, graduates and volunteers at Magdalene are aware that healing is messy, so they allow enough individual, personalized attention and resources that each woman can figure out what works for her. They know that healing requires relationship-building and reconciliation, so the community is designed to facilitate those things.
Sarah VanHooser Suiter will discuss Magdalene House at the 24th annual Southern Festival of Books, held October 12-14 at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. All events are free and open to the public.