Why I’m leaving a life of addiction behind and becoming a nun – by Tessa Dahl
4th December 2010
It is 1.50am. A bell is ringing in the darkness while shadowy groups of women in long black robes step quickly through the wooded grounds.
It is time for Matins at the Abbey of Regina Laudis – the nuns of St Benedict are about to start their day.
The same bell rings at 6.15am with the first light of morning, again at 8am for Mass and then at regular intervals, calling the sisters to a never-ending ritual of prayer and contemplation far removed from the more familiar din beyond the abbey gates.
Prayers: Tessa with her mother's rosary at the Catholic church in Concord, Massachusetts
It is a world away from anything you might associate with Tessa Dahl, a figure who has long combined glamour and chaos in equal parts.
The 53-year-old is known for many things: her sharp-cheeked beauty, her talent as a novelist, her famous father Roald and her daughter Sophie, the wide-eyed model who recently married jazz singer Jamie Cullum.
There is plenty more besides, including depression, drugs and alcoholism.
It has been a colourful life packed with drama, emotion and surprising twists, but few would imagine Tessa Dahl as a Bride of Christ.
But she has been living at Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, for more than a month now. Despite an exotic past, Tessa is already following the Benedictine strictures, or some of them at least.
She is learning to make butter, spin yarn and is generally preparing herself for what she describes as a complete commitment to God.
There are sceptics, naturally – they recall the years Tessa spent at the feet of an Indian guru, accompanied by her young daughter.
But today, as Tessa explains why she wishes to enter a closed community of nuns, there is a different, more compelling logic than mere attention-seeking.
There is, for example, her estrangement from Sophie, apparently caused when Tessa made some unguarded comments to the Press.
More pertinently, Tessa’s mother, the actress Patricia Neal, to whom she was so close, has recently died, leaving her bereft.
A woman who has spent her adult life struggling with herself and those around her seems finally to have found the one place ready to embrace her confusing world – Regina Laudis, the very institution that cared for her late mother as she entered her declining years.
‘I feel my whole family has ganged up on me,’ she says sadly. ‘The claim is that I am using drugs again. It is totally untrue. I’m the only one in this family who goes to therapy, the only one who does tests twice a week proving I am clean and sober.
‘The most terrible thing is that I’m terrified I have lost Sophie. She was always my closest child. She is angry that I spoke about her wedding date to the Press.
'It never occurred to me what a big deal it was. I miss her terribly.
‘After I lost Mummy, Sophie contacted my doctors. She has not spoken to me since. I am the family scapegoat. When Old Testament villagers can’t deal with their pain, they take out all their fury on a goat.
'They whip it and hurl abuse at it and then they leave it to die. The Prioress, Mother Dolores, says our family’s pain and anger is being taken out on me.’
To those who remember Tessa in her prime, this new-found holiness is almost inconceivable.
Her house in London had been filled with party-goers and expensive art, as might befit the daughter of a leading writer and a Hollywood star.
Magazines included Tessa on their lists of great beauties. She was a byword for glamorous, even voracious, sexuality.
Tessa was just 19 when a fling with the actor Julian Holloway produced Sophie.
She then married a wealthy entrepreneur, James Kelly, with whom she had two more children, Clover and Luke. A much later marriage to financier Patrick Donovan produced her youngest child, Ned, who is still at boarding school.
She smokes furiously when we meet, but claims that cigarettes are her one remaining addiction and that she is quite prepared to take a vow of celibacy.
Her past, she says, will be no bar to a contemplative life.
‘Several of the nuns have been married and had children. There are former doctors and lawyers. One of them was even a politician. These are pretty funky nuns,’ she explains.
‘They want to be sure that I am becoming a nun because I really, really, really love God, and they want me to prove that I can contribute to the abbey, that it isn’t just an escape.
‘Of course it isn’t,’ she adds, citing a moment of divine inspiration. ‘I had an enormous God experience as the nuns sang Vespers.
I felt as if a boulder had been pushed off my heart and it was open to joy.’
She continues: ‘If I wanted to escape, I could do coke. But I don’t want to escape. I want redemption. I have so much guilt about all the pain I have caused the people I love. My cocaine habit was huge and I was probably drinking a bottle of vodka
Whether the sisters are ‘funky’ enough for Tessa Dahl remains to be seen. She rattles off a list of ex-lovers, which is longer than generally imagined. ‘They are all dead,’ she says, suddenly serious. ‘Nearly all of them were alcoholics.’
The Benedictines at Regina Laudis are uncomfortable with intrusions from the outside world.
So when we meet, it is at the latest of Tessa’s temporary homes, a cramped cottage on the edge of Concord, near Boston. She divides her time between the abbey and her menagerie of cats and dogs.
Tessa confesses that she moved to Concord – the home of 19th Century American literary giants Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne – not because of its literary associations but because it is near the McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution.
Her younger sister Ophelia, 46, persuaded her to attend McLean and, it transpires, paid the bills.
Even here, thousands of miles away from the Home Counties, the shadow of her family looms large.
She was still a young girl when she discovered that her father was conducting an affair with her mother’s best friend, Felicity ‘Liccy’ Crosland. Roald and Liccy swore her to secrecy, which proved a terrible burden.
‘The next day, I confronted them,’ she recalls. ‘Liccy said, ‘‘If you think we should split up, we will, but it would devastate your father. He will love you so much more if you keep our secret.’’
‘From the age of 14 to 18 I did keep their secret but it was just a living hell. Finally, I told Mummy. And she went insane.’
Patricia, it should be said, was hardly a saint. The actress, who starred in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and won an Oscar opposite Paul Newman in Hud, had her own struggles with alcohol. She met Dahl on the rebound, after conducting an affair with the married actor Gary Cooper.
There had been earlier tragic episodes for Tessa and her mother, too. Tessa saw her baby brother Theo hit by a taxi in Madison Avenue and left brain-damaged.
Two years later, Tessa’s youngest sister, seven-year-old Olivia, caught measles and died. It is perhaps little wonder that she started to lose her bearings.
‘I was 15 when Mummy encouraged me to become an actress. I was allowed to leave school to make a thoroughly unfitting film, Run Stranger, Run.I played a nymphomaniac murderess.
‘I started going out with older men. Dad had told me there was no point in having affairs unless it was with someone who was very famous and talented.’
Her first husband was 18 years older than her, almost a generation apart. ‘We had a glamorous life,’ she recalls, ‘but I wouldn’t say I was happy. He couldn’t cope with me because my mood swings were so erratic.’
Even if her feelings were hard to control, Tessa says she has always had a spiritual side, in contrast to her father.
‘Daddy had no belief. He was frightened of feelings, of emotion, of God. When Olivia died, he went to see Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been his headmaster at Repton.
‘Olivia had a favourite dog and Daddy said, “Where do dogs go when they die?”
‘When the Archbishop said dogs don’t go to heaven, Daddy replied, “Then there is no heaven”. But I didn’t believe Daddy.’
She says she had her first direct experience of God while engaged to Angus Gibson, a successful businessman.
Angus was a vicar’s son, but the focus of Tessa’s interest was a charismatic female swami, or spiritual guru, called Gurumayi, who ran ashrams, or retreats, in India and the Catskill Mountains.
Her devotees included Diana Ross, actress Melanie Griffith and many thousands of well-heeled Americans.
Tessa says: ‘I really loved Angus but I split up with him because I didn’t want to be apart from the guru.’
Her interest in the ashram ended when Gurumayi was accused of financial impropriety.
Tessa’s parents finally split up in 1983 when it emerged that, despite her father’s solemn protestations – including a claim he had given up sex – he and Liccy were still lovers.
For Tessa’s mother, the abbey seemed an increasingly attractive choice. She summoned up the courage to leave the marriage and, at the invitation of Mother Dolores, spent ever more time at Regina Laudis.
Close: Author Roald Dahl with his daughter Tessa
For Tessa, it is as if she has inherited a legacy of broken relationships. She claims that her sisters and even her own children are emotionally distant.
‘Meanwhile,’ she continues, ‘I have to turn to Ophelia to sort out my finances. I live on an allowance of $600 a week.
‘I used to be the alpha dog in my family. Now I have no power.
‘Sibling rivalry does not die. Many years ago, Time magazine named me as one of the five most beautiful women in the world. It never occurred to me that my little tiny sisters had any issues with it. I’m afraid there are unresolved jealousies.’
However, she shows a degree of caution when it comes to Sophie, the one who might naturally have replaced Tessa’s mother as confidante. ‘I was so young when Sophie was born, so we almost grew up together,’ says Tessa, who has admitted that she rather ‘let down’ her daughter.
Sophie’s early years were certainly disrupted, thanks to her mother’s restless search for inner peace.
They moved house 17 times, she attended ten different schools and was bridesmaid to her mother twice.
'In 1999, after a suicide attempt, it was Sophie who rescued Tessa from a London B&B and loaned her a house'
At 14, Sophie was anorexic. Yet, as Tessa’s addictions span out of control, it was the daughter who came to the rescue. In 1999, after a suicide attempt, it was Sophie who rescued Tessa from a London B&B and loaned her a house.
What Tessa views as her redemption began with her own mother’s final decline when, last winter, Patricia was diagnosed with lung cancer.
‘A priest visited her at her bedside and, finally, she underwent her conversion. She went to stay in her room at the abbey and the nuns did her hair and her nails.
Mother Dolores told her she could be buried there and I went with her when she chose the site. We had a public funeral service on Martha’s Vineyard. I missed Mummy so much and I just couldn’t stop crying,’ Tessa says.
‘Mother Dolores tried to cheer me up. She said, “What fun we would have if you became a nun!” She invited me to stay in Mummy’s room. There was a single bed, a
crucifix on the wall, a painting of a guardian angel and photos of us as children.
'There were three shelves with Mummy’s books. There was a suitcase on top of the wardrobe. When I lifted it down, it was full of her divorce papers.
She had her own epiphany. ‘I decided I wasn’t going to be like Mummy. I am not going to leave making my promises to God to the last minute. My entire life had been lived in a war zone yet at the abbey I had never felt so much peace.’
Taking holy orders will not be easy. It requires a five-and-a-half-year apprenticeship and women over 50 are not generally accepted – let alone women as complicated as Tessa.
For sanity and sobriety she depends on nine prescription drugs, twice-weekly ‘12-step meetings’ and intensive counselling. She has been told, however, that she might be successful if she becomes a monastic scholar, an ancient title for intellectuals associated with the order.
‘Monastic life is about discipline. I am excused Matins, but each time the bell rings during the day, I join them, starting with Mass at 8am. I have to show up for everything on time, including meals.
'For someone like me, it can be quite frightening to have a schedule but I don’t want to screw up.
‘I’m not up to working in the fields because I have two herniated discs and I suffer from colitis. But I help the Lady Abbess clean the chapel with a mop and a pail. This is saving my life.’
What matters to her most, however, is that when she attends services this Christmas she will be following in the footsteps of her mother.
In the last few days, she has put the finishing touches to a new children’s book, The Graveyard Circus.
‘It is about a little girl whose mother is dying so she takes her to the abbey and asks the nuns to look after her,’ she says. ‘Of course, the little girl is me.’