Books: A book that changed me - Wendy Perriam

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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? Probably in my pram, but certainly before the age of reason, which for Catholics means seven. It shaped my whole world view.

Why did it strike you so much? It promised such certainty, yet promoted such fear. Profound questions which occupy philosophers for a lifetime were settled in a couple of brisk lines: "Who made you?" "God made me." "Why did God make you?" "God made me to know Him, love Him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." (I still know it by heart!) Even the $64,000 question "What is God?" was tackled with the same unassailable authority. Yet despite this foolproof Deity, the Catechism's stress on sin and punishment changed me from a rebellious, hedonistic child into an anxious obsessive, forever examining my conscience and accusing myself of sins I barely understood. The ninth commandment, for example, forbids "all wilful pleasure in the irregular motions of the flesh", which I innocently assumed must be something to do with constipation or diarrhoea.

The Catechism also warns against "gluttony, drunkenness and intemperance". Meals were sparse at my convent boarding school, our sole beverage mid- morning milk, yet I was convinced by the age of 12 that I was an intemperate soak destined for hellfire. Hell was more or less inevitable. I had an A-Level in self-denial: pebbles in my shoes, pepper on my apple pies, second helpings of tapioca - yet even constant penance was no safeguard when the devil prowled the world, hungry for the souls of little girls. "What do you mean by the devil?" "By the devil I mean Satan and all his wicked angels who are ever seeking to draw us into sin, that we may be damned with them." Is it any wonder that many Catholics are paralysed with guilt and terrified of death?

Have you re-read it? Yes, frequently, for the purposes of my fiction. If I'm creating Catholic characters born before, say, 1950, the Catechism will be branded into their brain like letters through a stick of rock.

Do you recommend it? Absolutely not. Forget Salman Rushdie. If any "Satanic Verses" should be consigned to the pyre, this is the version. And I'll light the match!

Wendy Perriam's latest novel, 'Second Skin', is published by Flamingo on 16 Feb at pounds 16.99