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Island profile: Carol Galligan, a writer’s life

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Carol Galligan at home on Shelter Island, where she wrote her new book, “Collision Course: The Vatican, the Nuns of America and the Meaning of Obedience.”
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Carol Galligan at home on Shelter Island, where she wrote her new book, “Collision Course: The Vatican, the Nuns of America and the Meaning of Obedience.”

In the 1970s, Carol Galligan was a working, divorced mother of two teen-age kids. Once they made their way from Manhattan to Shelter Island on Friday nights she looked forward to a few moments of bliss.

“The kids would go off and do stuff and I would sit on the back lawn and look at the water and the city melted away,” she said. “It was a Manhattan antidote.”

A full-time resident of Shelter Island, Carol is a psychologist, playwright, journalist and author of the forthcoming “Collision Course: The Vatican, the Nuns of America and the Meaning of Obedience.” Her book is an account of the Vatican’s two-year standoff with a large leadership group of American nuns. Spoiler alert — the nuns prevailed.

Carol’s maiden name is Wolfe, born and raised on the West Side of Manhattan, where her family had lived since their 1847 arrival in the wake of the Irish potato famine.

Arthur Galligan, a friend of Carol’s older brother, began having dinner with the family when she was 13. When she turned 18, they married. “Boys at school were of no interest to me,” said Carol. “I was already engaged.”

She went to Barnard, got a doctorate at NYU and opened a practice in clinical psychology in 1963.

“I stumbled into being a psychologist and it captured me,” she said. “It was the religion I was looking for.”

Arthur was practicing law and became a founding partner of a prominent law firm. Their daughter, Jessica Galligan Goldsmith, is an attorney in New York. Their son, Zach Galligan, is an actor who played the role of Billy Peltzer in the movie “Gremlins” and lives in Atlanta.

Arthur Galligan’s work was demanding. He insisted his family spend weekends no farther than 45 minutes from Grand Central Station. When the marriage ended after 20 years, Carol said her summers were suddenly her own.

One day a friend called her from Shelter Island to say she was debating which of two pieces of land to buy. Carol impulsively told her friend, “Tell the broker I’ll take the other one.”

Frank Hallock, the broker, said he wouldn’t agree to sell land to someone who had not seen it. “I told my friend to put him on the phone,” Carol said. “I said, ‘Mr. Hallock, I know that land well, and I want it.’ I lied. I knew that if I made a mistake I would suck it up.”

After buying the land, Carol came out to see what she had done. Her deception was exposed when she had to ask Hallock to show her where it was.

“I thought it would be an adventure,” she said. “I was on my own for the first time in my life. I didn’t have to ask anyone if I could do it, so I did.”

She built a home for herself and her children in 1969 and after more than four decades of spending weekends and summers, she went full-time in 2004 when her daughter built her own house and invited Carol to live there.

It was about this time that Carol answered an ad seeking a proofreader for this newspaper and became a journalist, going from proofreader to garden columnist to feature writer.

She was well into her 50s when she completed a program in playwriting at Columbia University and began getting her plays and screenplays produced. In 1993, when her play “Out of Purgatory” was performed at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage of Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theatre, the critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “the surprise of ‘Out of Purgatory’ is the unobtrusive wit, truthfulness and tenderness of the writing.”

Carol has a new play under way and is holding first readings in her living room.

“Collision Course” tells the story of the Vatican’s struggle, starting in 2012, to control the activities of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that includes 80 percent of the nuns in America. Many American Catholics were outraged at the Vatican’s belief that the nuns had strayed from Catholic doctrine, and the decision to put them under the control of an archbishop whose permission was required for any action.

“I wrote the book because I have a thing about bullies, and I think the Vatican is the biggest bully on the face of the planet,” Carol said. “They have all the power. They answer to nobody.” Although raised Catholic, by the time she was 17 she’d often go to the local coffee shop instead of Mass. “I’ve always had a dim view of the Catholic church,” she said.

Carol got to know a number of nuns in the course of researching her book and was particularly inspired by their reaction at attempts to control their actions. “They never asked permission. They did what they needed to do,” she said. In the end, the nuns were cleared, and the Vatican backed down. Carol’s book describes how the nuns resisted and also attempts an explanation.

The book will soon be distributed by Amazon.

Active in the Democratic party, Carol is a keen observer of Island politics. “I like the intimacy of the political process here,” she said. “You could tell how it was going to go 10 days before the last election. You could feel it in the air.”

She’s also a member of the Executive Committee for Shelter Island’s collegiate league baseball team, the Bucks, and can be found sitting behind third base at every game. Anyone with a spare room should participate by housing a member of the team, she said. “I think the Bucks are one of the best things that ever happened on the Island,” she said.

The constraints of religion, marriage and societal expectations controlled the early part of her life, but when she came to Shelter Island she began to create a life on her own terms. “I love the city, but I’m a Shelter Islander now,” Carol said. “Just don’t interrupt me when I’m reading on the treadmill at Project FIT.”

Lightning Round

Favorite place on Shelter Island? A table outside at the Ram’s Head Inn during the first week of June.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? In New York, when I went running, my route was along Central Park South, and at the end, I’d walk through the enormous lobby of the Plaza Hotel to cool off in the summer and warm up in the winter.

When was the last time you were elated? The play I am writing is doing it for me.

What exasperates you? The waste of people not being honored, not being heard.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The day after Thanksgiving. Everything wonderful is in front of you, the tree to be bought, the lights to be hung. The parties to give and to go to.

Favorite movie or book? “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” It meant the world to me when I was 10.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? My best friend, Elizabeth. She’s smarter than I am and she’s also something I am not — balanced, not impulsive.

Most respected elected official? Franklin D. Roosevelt.