A Review of Sunday Will Never Be the Same by Dawn Eden Goldstein (Catholic Answers Press, 2019, 255pp)
In this age of truncated attention spans, it’s easier than ever to be misled by labels and appearances. That’s a risk run by the latest book from Dawn Eden Goldstein, an adult convert to Protestantism and then Catholicism, who is Jewish by birth and upbringing. Its publisher is a company whose main product is Catholic apologetics, and whose book-publishing arm has lately centered on conventional devotional spirituality. Titled after a 1960s pop song—a fitting pun, given the author’s early career as a rock journalist and then headline writer—this book doesn’t fit into either genre. It’s a spiritual autobiography written as a journal. As such, it is even more realistic than I had expected. For that very reason, however, it could serve the aims of each genre more effectively than either, if only it could land in the hands of people who would otherwise not consume the publisher’s products.
People have always loved stories, which this book certainly is, and today prize authenticity above most other virtues. Goldstein serves up authenticity aplenty, and not primarily because it sells, which wouldn’t be authentic if that were her chief motive. Catholic books rarely make their authors much money, and in this book her personal struggles and foibles come through clearly, come what may.
Thus the first sentence of the short introductory chapter reads: “I don’t recommend living in a fantasy world, but there were times during my college career when a good daydream was the only thing preventing me from jumping off the roof.” That pretty much sets the tone, which is nonetheless not self-pitying, even if it isn’t self-congratulatory either. Fortunately it’s not the exclusive tone, which gradually becomes more joyful toward the end as some spiritual and emotional “loose ends” in her life are tied up.
One should keep two things in mind about Goldstein if one is to understand her at all. The first is that she experienced sexual abuse in childhood: some from a school janitor, some from one of her then-divorced mother’s boyfriends. She discusses that rather sparingly in this book, perhaps because her worthy previous book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, was motivated in large part by that experience as well as her desire to help others who underwent similar experiences. The second, unsurprisingly, is that in her adolescence and young adulthood, much of which she spent in and around New York City, she felt unloved and perhaps even unlovable. She regularly grappled with bouts of depression, suicidal ideation, and a desire for lesser forms of self-harm. She continued feeling that way despite achieving some career success as “Dawn Eden” and making some friends—just not a steady boyfriend, or at least not one who loved her. Aside from the genuine if flawed love of her parents for her, what enabled her to overcome that was coming to believe, deeply and not just formulaically, that God loves her.
To me, that’s the main thread of the book. But before I get to the details of Goldstein’s conversion story, I should explain why I am so struck by the part that comes mostly before the main event. The backstory makes the main event fully intelligible, even if it doesn’t resonate with you as much as it did with me.
Conversion Through Experiences
My own coming-of-age was like Goldstein’s in a few key respects. We were both bright, ambitious young people in Manhattan who had experienced sexual abuse and felt unloved partly for that reason. We were both absorbed by our main interests—hers was rock music, mine was philosophy—yet felt alienated in the big city even as we pursued those interests. Since my emotional challenges were largely the same as hers, I very much “get it,” and I expect that readers of this site would too. Also, even though that period of her life took place a decade or so after my similar one, its New York flavor is very evocative for me. I can almost smell the smells, inhabit the spaces, and know the people she describes, because it’s all so New York.
Such is the time of Goldstein’s life that takes up the largest part of the book. I was able to follow it with great interest even though I have no direct acquaintance with the musical world she moved in, and indeed sometimes got lost in the copious details about it that she provides. I’m still a bit mystified by her admiration for Curt Boettcher, a figure in 1960s “sunshine pop” who wrote lyrics and liner notes for others, composed and played music of his own, died prematurely in 1987, and retained a small cult following as late as five years ago. Somehow he meant something to her that she needed to latch onto at that time of her life. But even if you are relatively unacquainted with New York and/or old rock, be assured that it all rings true—including the part about her mostly-prospective boyfriends, personalities that seem familiar to me even though I’ve never met any of the men in question. So I can even understand Goldstein’s romantic frustration in those days.
Indeed, Goldstein’s conversion process is all the more interesting for how it was woven into the fabric of the rest of her life. That process differed from my reversion process in a way that, I suspect, makes hers more common. Mine was almost exclusively intellectual; hers, at least as I read it, was primarily experiential. She seems at first to have been a fairly conventional American Jew: mildly observant, and while not completely unbelieving, skeptical almost to the point of agnosticism. While always faithful to some sort of daily prayer—more from a sense of obligation than anything else–she otherwise had no felt relationship with God. All that was me as well when I entered college, except that I was a cradle Catholic. As she gradually came to read the New Testament, the young Goldstein liked Jesus but couldn’t believe he is divine. If he were, she thought, the world wouldn’t remain such a bad place. Ham-handed efforts by Christians to convert her didn’t help, and sometimes made her rightly indignant.
Several events overcome that and propelled the change. There were a few cases of answered prayers. One was that two men in the rock world who mattered to her reconciled. Others concerned the circumstances of losing and gaining jobs, which certainly seemed providential. More important, though, was the fact that her mother converted to Christianity even before she, the daughter, was out in the world on her own: at first to Catholicism, which didn’t give Mom much of a sense of community, then to a Protestant-evangelical kind of Hebrew Christianity, which did. Mom got remarried to a man named Rob, who was from that community. After initial lack of success in converting his stepdaughter, which I understood because his approach was intellectually weak and almost flim-flammy, Rob reached Dawn in a key moment. I won’t spoil the story by quoting her account of it.
All Roads Lead to Rome
But that was only her conversion to Protestant Christianity. As a Catholic myself, I was even more intrigued by Goldstein’s subsequent move into Catholicism. It had something to do with her being pro-life in a city and profession that were, and are, anything but. It had something to do with her having come upon the work of G.K. Chesterton almost at random, when Catholicism was not on her radar, and being impressed with it. But perhaps a more pivotal moment came when she had occasion to read about St. Maximilian Kolbe. Given her Jewish background, she naturally admired him greatly because he gave his life at Auschwitz to save a family man. She also felt moved to seek his intercession for the next stage of her career, which by that time was with major New York newspapers. That seems to have paid off.
I also feel an affinity with how Goldstein came to integrate into the life of the Catholic Church. She was received into the Church at the same parish church where I had returned to the Church three decades prior: the Church of Notre Dame on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. She came to know some of the same prominent Catholic laity and clergy I had come to know before I left New York in 1990. She even got involved with Dale Ahlquist’s Chesterton Society, of which my niece’s husband is one of the local leaders. The world of orthodox Catholicism in America isn’t that big after all.
As she acknowledges, Goldstein’s journey is far from over. She has had to continue learning how to heal from the wounds of the past. Amid that, she went on to earn a doctorate in theology and teach online at a Catholic institution. Knowing how that world works, I’m sure that’s a temporary career stage for her as well. But certain things beyond her religion will always stay with her—things that will serve God as well as herself well.
One is what I’ve implied already: her authenticity. Goldstein is surely one of the few people who could have come out of such worlds as pop music and journalism with that quality intact. Then there is her memory for detail. I wish I had that, because if I did and wrote well enough, I would produce rich stories about my experiences that could appeal to a wide audience. Her writing merits such appeal. But chances are it won’t, exactly. That’s because her main audience is going to be Catholics who like conversion stories. Still, it’s quite possible that the book ends up being read by some questing young people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about conversion stories. I hope and pray that it does.