Mother Teresa and the ‘me, me, me’ culture

The new book Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? shows that the nun was as ruthless as any other celeb in protecting her public image.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?, Gezim Alpion, Select Books, British edition 2007.

Mother Teresa is arguably the most famous religious icon of the late twentieth century. Her legacy and work continue to generate huge levels of debate and interest. Gezim Alpion’s book Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?, which seeks to address the nature of her fame, celebrity and devotion to faith, is unique in locating the appeal of Mother Teresa within today’s broader celebrity culture. He also provides previously unknown and quite striking information about her personal life.

For Alpion, celebrity culture is a modern form of religion and Mother Teresa was the ultimate religious celebrity of the modern era. Unlike the many saints recognised by the Catholic Church, Mother Teresa’s apparent sanctity took root and flourished during her lifetime. Her beatification in 2003, just six years after her death, propelled her further towards actual sainthood. Alpion points out that the beatification of such a contemporary figure was as much a consequence of her growing stardom as it was of her devoted religious practice.

The Indian media took an interest in Mother Teresa from the early 1950s, not long after she had set up her mission within the slums of Calcutta. Here was a white, Western, Roman Catholic nun showing compassion and providing support for those typically impoverished and abandoned by the old class-conscious and caste-ridden Indian society. Mother Teresa was used to highlight the new, tolerant and welcoming India that was imagined to be born from independence and the separation from Pakistan in 1947.

Mother Teresa was noticed by the American Catholic media apparatus towards the end of the 1950s, and her usefulness to political campaigns was also gradually exported around the world. By the 1980s she was a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan’s attempts to curb abortion, and she also urged the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Bhopal disaster of 1984 to forgive Union Carbide, which was widely held to be responsible for the disaster.

It was Mother Teresa’s encounter with British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in the late 1960s which brought her to the attention of a global mass audience. Muggeridge first interviewed her by telephone in 1968 and subsequently shot a documentary of her life in Calcutta in 1969. His book, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, was published in 1971. Muggeridge was originally sceptical towards Mother Teresa, yet when he returned from filming he was zealous in his promotion of her, amply demonstrated by his efforts to spread the news of the ‘miracle’ that occurred while making the documentary. Muggeridge says in his book that filming inside the Home for the Dying Destitute, which Mother Teresa had founded in Kalighat in 1952, was problematic because of poor light. The film crew shot some footage but expected it to be useless. When the footage was processed in London, however, they were pleasantly surprised that the film was impressively well lit. While the cameraman put it down to the performance of the new Kodak film he had used that day, Muggeridge offered an entirely different explanation: ‘It’s divine light! It’s Mother Teresa. You’ll find that it’s divine light, old boy.’

Muggeridge did his best to spread news of this ‘miracle’, much to the tireless amusement of his and Mother Teresa’s critics. But Muggeridge was perhaps not simply ‘under the spell’ of Mother Teresa, as it is usually explained. He was, at least partly, playing the role he had been handed by Mother Teresa herself. His early tele-conversation with Mother Teresa had provoked global interest and had given new impetus to his journalistic and writing career. He had every reason to be grateful to Mother Teresa and to maintain her saintly image.

Like other celebrities, Mother Teresa was remarkably keen to keep her private life private, rarely ever saying anything about her childhood and her immediate family. In his book, Muggeridge honours her wish to say nothing of her early years or to provide any true biographical details. This is a peculiar agreement from an investigative journalist. He justified the lack of biographical detail by suggesting Mother Teresa had no biography; she merely lived within and for others.

Muggeridge was one of many would-be biographers who were denied access to Mother Teresa’s early years. Her efforts at safeguarding her past and her private details from investigation were ruthless. She studiously avoided discussing any such details with her many aspiring biographers, and maintained editorial control over almost all the written material. Those who wrote about her life endorsed this censorship, either because they didn’t want to jeopardise the obvious career benefits of writing about Mother Teresa or because they had a painfully sycophantic attachment to their subject.

It wasn’t just her early years that were protected; Mother Teresa successfully guarded almost all controversial aspects of her life from public discussion. Between 1946 and 1948, for example, she entered into a protracted argument with her convent over her proposal to leave the convent and work on her own in Calcutta. During this time she kept a diary and a long correspondence with Father Van Exem. When she later achieved her aims she destroyed her diary and pursued Van Exam for several years in an effort to have him return her letters. Eventually he conceded, and Mother Teresa destroyed the letters, too.

It is not entirely clear why she did this. One possibility is that she wanted to protect the myth that she had set up the order of the Missionaries of Charity entirely alone, and the diary and letters would have revealed critical help from many priests and from her convent. Another possibility is that she wanted to protect the image of the church and her relationship with it. Whatever the reason, her actions expose a remarkable single-minded focus to protect her growing international reputation and image.

Alpion laments that a proper biography of Mother Teresa is still to be written: ‘Thus far…in spite of some serious attempts to offer an informed and impartial picture of this famous woman, attempts which have intensified especially after her death in 1997, it would be impossible to claim that any book has succeeded in giving us the “complete” and the “real” Mother Teresa. Perhaps, such a book will never be written. Perhaps, such a book cannot be written. And there are people who obviously believe that such a book should not be written.’

Since Mother Teresa often had the final say on what should and should not go into the numerous books devoted to her, and since she routinely avoided any discussion of her early life and motivations, the many ‘biographies’ of her life routinely fail to provide any true insights into what made her tick. There is nothing that reveals her character, her life. Also, past biographies have been shamefully lax with regard to those factual details of her early life that are publicly available. Several biographies, for example, misquote her birthday and according to various different biographers Mother Teresa was born in Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. In part, these misidentifications of her birthplace reflect various attempts by several Balkan states to appropriate Mother Teresa into their history and folklore. There is still considerable competition over the legacy of Mother Teresa within the Balkans.

But the lax attitude towards biographical facts also reflects a sycophantic approach to Mother Teresa, an indulgence of the myth that she was born into the hands of religion by a purely, other-worldly religious calling. Alpion argues that allowing this view to propagate is the biggest failing of past biographies, and perhaps the biggest victory of Mother Teresa in her ceaseless attempts at controlling and protecting her celebrity image.

Alpion’s important contribution to the literature on Mother Teresa is to reveal that she was almost certainly motivated to enter the mission by the death of her father, Nikolle Bojaxhiu. He died at the age of 45 in mysterious circumstances. A known and vocal supporter of Albanian independence, he was almost certainly poisoned by Serbian opponents. Mother Teresa, then known by her Christian name of Agnes, was nine years old and she struggled to cope with the loss. Rather than any religious teaching as a child or a calling as an adult, it was this loss that turned Agnes Bojaxhiu into Mother Teresa. Unable to reconcile the loss of her father, Agnes turned to Jesus as a father figure who would never abandon her. This childish retreat into religious certainty stayed with her throughout her life, yet, partly to protect the image of Mother Teresa and partly to protect Agnes from the pain, the details surrounding her early life were walled off from public scrutiny.

This kind of revelation has the power to change the popular image of Mother Teresa, and Alpion intends his investigation to be accessible by a broad audience. Unfortunately, the first part of the book has a finger-waving quality to it as Alpion laments the ‘tabloid journalism’ of other Teresa scholars and the lack of understanding of the Balkans. It’s all a bit grinding, especially as Alpion provides standard-issue prejudice against the Serbs as the creators of every modern problem in the Balkans.

Nevertheless, readers who can get past the somewhat pompous and turgid start will find some striking information with quite uncomfortable implications for supporters of Mother Teresa. Her devotion to Jesus was a personal attempt to deal with grief, and her dedication to the poor of Calcutta part of her effort towards self-salvation. Similar to many celebrity figures, it was all about me, me, me. This puts her work into a whole new and rather less flattering light.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, England.

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