Jazz singer, author, triathlete Liz Kelly has packed an awful lot of living into 37 short years. The Minnesota native has traveled and lived all around the globe but now calls Boston home. Over the course of BustedHalo’s interview with Kelly she spoke very candidly on topics ranging from her upbringing and current position at Harvard University to her spiritual journey back to her faith–including her harrowing experience as a rape victim in her mid 20s.
BustedHalo: From what I understand your family plays an important part in your life. Do you come from a big family?
Liz Kelly (shown with her father, left): Yes, I have six brother and sisters–five girls and two boys–and I am sixth of seven, or as my parents refer to me, N6. (laughs)
BH: What was it like growing up in that kind of household? Was it a bit chaotic?
LK: Sure, probably pretty chaotic, as any household with seven kids would be. The rosary was a big part of our family, particularly my mom’s faith, and she was always trotting off to church for adoration or a prayer meeting or whatever. It was very much a part of our everyday life. Praying before and after every meal. We always went to mass together as a family. As much as was possible until people started going off to college and things like that. I think that as my parents’ faith deepened, ours did too, and they were on their own journey, and I think that it moved over the years from being something kind of perfunctory.
And I think, honestly, when you have a lot of little kids–my mom had five children under the age of five in the first five years of marriage–the fact that she’s not just bananas is a miracle in and of itself. But I think that you kind of go through the motions sometimes because you have to.
But I think my parents are praying parents. They have always been praying parents.
Before we went to bed at night our parents would pray for us. They also made it very clear that our family was under the mantle of Mary. And the fact that they preached specifically the Sacred Heart Prayers, and Immaculate Heart Prayers over…I always felt covered all the time.
BH: In the sense of where your faith journey’s taken you are you the black sheep in the family?
LK: Well I’m a black sheep with regards to my skill set. All of my siblings are either attorneys, married to attorneys, or both, and I think, too, that my faith journey has been deeper and more earnest in some ways than initially some of my other brothers’ or sisters’, although they’ve had their own experiences. I think that mine’s probably been the most profound.
BH: It sounds as though before college you had a pretty strong sense of your faith, but after leaving your parents’ nest, you struggled with that for a while. Can you talk about how that came about?
LK: It’s a pretty typical story. I went to Kansas University and my roommates next door were very Bible belt kind of girls. They could quote scripture off the top of their heads left and right, and that was not the education that I had had. There was a lot of pressure in terms of you’re not a Christian if you’re Catholic. You know you’ve got some whacky stuff going on. I was drawn in by their interest in Bible study and how well they knew scripture. You can’t help to be attracted to it. It’s just presented in the Mass, for example, in a different capacity than in the Protestant setting. I started exploring some protestant churches where it was like going to school, you went there, you cracked open a book, you studied a passage for 45 minutes and then you sang a few songs. But that was really attractive to me, and I was always a good student. I think that I had had weak Catholic education in terms of what the meaning of the mass really was. Couldn’t really explain what transubstantiation was in such a way that I could explain it to someone who was Protestant. So there was some failing on that part of my Catholic education. And so…I did sort of wander off into that for a while. It was very good for me. It taught me that appreciation for scripture, but at the same time, I missed the sacraments.
BH: You were still struggling even after college, right? You were still questioning things a lot?
LK: One family tradition we had was our parents would send all the kids on a pilgrimage, and we could choose where we wanted to go. When I was finished with undergrad, I went Medjugorje with the intention of praying about where to go to graduate school. I went on that pilgrimage really out of deference to my parents, with a lot of skepticism. I went on this thing and, clearly, God was moving things around at a very deep level. I knew something had happened but I couldn’t have even told you what it was at the time. But I really think that that was in some ways one of the beginnings of the reentry back into embracing my faith. I came back, and there was a message on my answering machine from a long distance operator. The director of the creative writing department at the University of Alaska asked her to leave me a message, because he didn’t have my phone number he only had my writing samples. So that was pretty clear direction.
Just out of graduate school, I worked part time for a software development company. They did a lot of research software, where you can plug in one word and it tracks every time that word appears. They had purchased the early church fathers on CD Rom, which had been scanned in another country. It needed to be cleaned up. Words that had gotten jumbled needed to be replaced. My boss sort of threw it on my desk and said “you need to do this.” So I was given 37 Volumes of early Church history to go through and so that was another big push. I had started going to a number of conferences like in Steubenville and there were lots of other little bread crumbs leading me back. Some of them were like loaves of bread, and some of them were sort of like crumbs, back toward the Eucharist.
BH: You talk pretty openly in your book about being the victim of rape during that time. That must have been extraordinarily difficult for you.
LK: I was one of those people who wanted to wait until I got married
before I had sex. It wasn’t even a dogmatic decision; it was something that I knew in my deepest interior would be the best choice for me. So to have that kind of a violation in my late 20s was horrible. I’m trying to remember how old I was, 26 or 27; it’s been a good 10 years it’s happened. I was very naïve; I didn’t have a lot of dating experience. I was a pretty shy kid. At the time I had a very typical response for rape victims, especially when it was someone you know: ‘did I bring this on? I did something wrong. I did something to give him this message. Somehow it was my fault.’ I speak about it very often at women’s groups,
so it’s a very comfortable topic, and it’s been many years now, so a lot of healing has come from that.