By Mary Vespa
February 11, 1980 12:00 PM

In April 1976 the affluent Rochester, N.Y. suburb of Brighton was shocked to learn that a young nun at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent had been accused of murdering her newborn son. Police found Sister Maureen lying bloodstained on her bedroom floor in critical condition from shock. Her baby had been thrust into a wastebasket hidden behind a bookcase.

Journalist Catherine Breslin covered the trial, at which the nun was found not guilty, for Ms. magazine. Experts testified that she was mentally impaired because of blood loss. From the sensational case Breslin has now spun a novel, Unholy Child (Dial, $12.95). “My imagination was seized by the idea as soon as I finished the article,” says Breslin. “I had been a convent schoolgirl myself.” Almost as bizarre as the events which inspired the novel was the personality change that overtook Breslin while writing it. “I gave up sex for 10 months and gained 25 pounds,” the author confesses. “I became the pregnant nun. I walked the floor with birth pangs. The analogy between writing and giving birth is obvious. It was a strange, strange experience.”

It was also a lucrative one. Subsidiary rights for Unholy Child, already in its second printing, earned Breslin $882,500. Oddly, when the financial news reached her, she became depressed, although she had spent two years writing three drafts of the book. “It was one of the most miserable days of my life,” she later said. “There was something about success that bothered me—for some inexplicable reason I still can’t understand.” Breslin, who is 43 and not related to syndicated columnist Jimmy, has more than recovered—after thinking back on 20 lean years as a free-lance magazine writer. In one of them she earned only $680.

In her book, Breslin does not follow the actual case with precision. “I wanted Unholy Child to be about madness through sexual repression,” she explains. Although the author never met Sister Maureen, who reportedly is now living in the Midwest, she did interview eight former nuns who helped her capture the feeling of convent life. “Every one of them went through pain,” she says, “and had difficulty adjusting sexually.” Breslin, who describes herself as “a happy ex-Catholic,” also spoke with lawyers, gynecologists and psychiatrists in her research.

The daughter of a pediatrician, she grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., the second of three sisters. “We were upwardly mobile Irish,” she says. Her first strong taste of religion came at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Albany, N.Y., where she went to high school. “I was considering becoming a nun then,” she recalls. Instead she entered the University of Toronto, where she wrote a column for her school paper. Graduating in 1957 as a history and philosophy major, Breslin tried to land a job on Canadian newspapers, but found them “an absolute sexual ghetto. You’re flung onto the women’s pages.” She chose to free-lance and roamed Southeast Asia from 1961 to 1963. “The war at that time was almost fun,” she recalls. “I was doing jungle doctor stuff. Vietnam wasn’t really cranked up yet.”

When Breslin returned to Manhattan in 1964, she supported herself largely on rent checks from a brownstone she bought with a $15,000 inheritance. Her first big splash was a New York magazine article on sexual impotence among paraplegic Vietnam veterans. In 1976 she published her first book, The Mistress Condition: New Options in Sex, Love & Other Female Pleasures. It was a commercial flop. “I am anti-marriage,” she is quick to explain. “The number of my ex-lovers is legion.” Such bravado does not fool older sister Danna who says, “I think her best relationships are with my five children. She’s a terrific aunt, devoted to the kids.” Unholy Child is dedicated to them.

Besides making her rich, Unholy Child gave Breslin the courage to change her name to “Cate.” “My real name is Mary Catherine,” she says. “When I went away to convent school I asked to be called Cathy. Cathy is a teenager with pimples. When I came out of the novel, I wasn’t Cathy anymore. I was Cate.”