Born in Far Rockaway, Long Island, in 1949, Mary Catherine Gordon, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant, David Gordon, and a woman of Italian Irish descent, Anna Gagliano, grew up in Valley Stream, a working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood. Her father, who had converted from Judaism to orthodox Catholicism before she was born, raised her to be educated and devout: he taught her to read when she was three, and introduced her to Latin, Greek, and literature. Due to illness, he stayed home with young Mary while her mother, despite the effects of polio, worked full time. He founded a number of unsuccessful right-wing Catholic magazines before he died in 1957, when Mary was eight. After her father’s death, Mary and her mother lived with Mary’s Irish grandmother and aunt. Gordon describes this time as painful: she was sent to an academically weak Catholic school, and was rarely given the opportunity to discuss the literature, art, and ideas that her father had sparked within her. As Gordon wrote in her memoir about her father, The Shadow Man (1996), whenever she did something that the cloistered sisters at the school did not like, they would say to her, “That’s the Jew in you” (p. 20).
In the late 1960s, Gordon escaped to Barnard College, where she had won a scholarship, in order to experience the non-Catholic world. She promptly lost her virginity, her political naiveté, and her Catholic faith. Although she has since compromised with Catholicism, she was very disturbed by the sexual puritanism of the Church that she faced during college: “I think that the tragedy of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is that it has put so much energy into forbidding sexual freedom. It turned itself into a kind of very perverse sexual policeman, and it’s eroded its own moral authority for that reason,” she has stated (Lee, p. 221).
After Barnard, Gordon attended graduate school and drafted her dissertation on Virginia Woolf while also publishing poems and short stories. While researching her dissertation in London, Gordon wrote her first novel, Final