After her destructive affairs with married men, after the death of her first child, after an accident left her infant son brain-damaged, after the near-fatal strokes that struck months after her 1964 Oscar win for "Hud," actress Patricia Neal faced yet another personal crisis that left her on the verge of collapse. While her marriage to British writer Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and Giant Peach," had long been troubled, Neal was shattered when she learned he was having an affair with one of her friends. They divorced in1983.
In her 1988 memoir, "As I Am," Neal admitted: "Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."
That quotation captured the tone of the tributes published after Neal passed away on Aug. 8 at the age of 84. Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of the Tony Award winner and critics sang the praises of one of Hollywood's ultimate survivors, an actress who literally learned to walk and talk again before returning to the screen to earn another Oscar nomination.
But Neal's story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in "As I Am" that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.
Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.
"Lady Abbess," said Neal, "I don't want to join up, you understand?"
The abbess sighed and said, "Believe me, we don't want you to, either. I don't think we could take it for more than a month."
As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the "last cigarette I would ever smoke."
A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, "I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. ... I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. ... I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best."
Neal went to church on time, followed the abbey's prayer regime, baked bread, remained silent during meals and, with the help of a spiritual director, began writing the journal that evolved into "As I Am."
Behind closed doors, she unleashed her fury. At one point she screamed so many curses at her counselor that the sister finally cursed right back, urging Neal to be honest about her own faults and mistakes.
The actress finally voiced her secret pain. Monsignor Jim Lisante of Diocese of Rockville Centre (New York) later discussed with Neal the tragedies of her life and asked if there was any one event that she would change.
"She said, 'Forty years ago I became involved with the actor Gary Cooper, and by him I became pregnant. As he was a married man and I was young in Hollywood and not wanting to ruin my career, we chose to have the baby aborted,' " wrote Lisante, at the Creative Minority Report website. "She said, 'Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby.' "
Several of the obituaries for Neal -- including the New York Times feature -- mentioned this episode in the context of her pain and regret. The Washington Post noted that late in life "she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert."
In the end, Neal decided that, "God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making" allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. "I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke -- choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed."
One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: "There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us."