Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Random Thoughts on Doubt: The Director/Writer's Commentary

It was fun and informative. However, as I was discussing the commentary with a friend,I wondered just how autobiographical it actually was. Shanley says that it is in large part autobiographical. Shanley himself says that if any one of the boys were him, it would have been a student called Johnny Langdon (I think that was the name) who got into all sorts of trouble. And it was this boy's reaction to Father Flynn touching him on the arm that made Sister Aloysius first wonder about Father Flynn. He tells the story about how he drank the sacristy wine and was kicked out as an altar boy - a story that is brought into the play. Just wondering.

It reminded me of Sylvia Fraser, a Canadian writer, who wrote a book in 1985 called My Father's House. She wrote how, although she had completely repressed her father's sexual abuse of her when she was a child, it seeped out, not only in her life, but in the sexual violence in her novels.

It also reminds me of Dean R. Koontz, the horror writer. Some years ago, a friend asked him why all of his stories contained the same three people: a single man, a young boy in trouble, and a woman who becomes a friend (really obvious to anyone who has read his books). He denied it, then went back and started to reread his books. Lo and behold, it was true. He went into therapy to find out why. [as an aside, you can actually tell when he was having problems - the books (Hideaway, Mr. Murder, for example) during that period just weren't up to his usual compelling style - the solutions felt way too contrived] - he seems to be back on target again (although he has dropped the R. from his name). Then there's James Ellroy whose memoir, My Dark Places, tells his story.

An interesting review of the play when it was on Broadway: Weighing Doubt: One Playwright's Measured Look at the Crisis in the Catholic Church. Now I will have to get the script of the play. Reading (and listening to Shanley talk about the same period and thinking back to my Catholic friends over the years) about how Catholics viewed the 60s and 70s as a time of change, openness and hope always reminds me how different it is for people inside the belief system and people like me, who have had their run-in with the Catholic belief system, but stood outside it. Vatican II seemed to me, when I was studying it at university, to be about changing the trivialities or the externals - it never made any serious change to the core doctrines and dogma of the church - for example, the theology of the sacramental priesthood.

According to the previous review, he (the author, John Patrick Shanley) is not related to Paul Shanley (one of my questions). Well that's not exactly what he says in an interview just before the play opened off Broadway in 2004. What he says is "And the other biggest predator priest is named Paul Shanley, which, frankly, I don’t like. I’d like to take back the family name. I looked us up in a book of heraldry once. Shanley had two lines: “A small group of excessively quarrelsome, excessively religious people.” Whether he is related, even at a distance is not clear.

Just random thoughts.

Doubt

I just finished watching the film, Doubt. What a good film it was. It lays out just how the system worked. The complexities of the boy's relationship at home were well handled and bringing up an issue that is seldom talked about - the fact that young boys who are gay are particularly vulnerable to the abuses of predators simply because they already feel like they don't belong.

The performances were nuanced. The writing was superb.

Now I am wondering how many people think that the nun had doubts about her accusation, when she says that she has doubts at the end. It is clear that the title is meant to have a dual meaning. I know that one of my students told me about the film and how the guilt of the priest wasn't clear at the end and the nun had doubts about his guilt. Guess what I will be discussing in class at some point in the winter term?

I will watch the film again with the commentary by the director. I will also go and look at the reviews of the film and some of what other people have written about it. Maybe everyone got it - that the nun's doubts had to do with her faith, not the priest's guilt.

Stay tuned

Addendum 1 (4:40pm): I have been thinking about the film and thinking that probably the writer does want us to think that the nun has doubts about everything including the priest's guilt. Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman did such a good job and is so familiar that I can't imagine who would doubt that he was grooming the boy. In fact, his performance was downright creepily accurate. However, if she does have doubts about the priest's guilt - which Meryl Streep's performance at that point doesn't seem to indicate, then does that speak to the power of the belief system - not just the institution but the belief system. I would love to see the next step in the nun's journey through doubt - could be quite interesting.

Addendum 2 (5:31): When I first looked at who the film was written and directed by, John Patrick Shanley, I wondered offhandedly whether or not he could be a relative of Paul Shanley, one of the figures in the Boston "problem" for years. I didn't bother checking it out and still haven't. However, I think that I will. The more I think about the film, the more I see the Paul Shanley excuses, although quite skillfully understated. Paul Shanley always said that he was being persecuted because he was openly gay - notwithstanding his endorsement of, and membership in (I stand to be corrected here because it is a few years since doing research on that area), NAMBLA (John Stewart's favourite target - look it up if you don't know what the acronym stands for, I just can't write it out). He argued that all he was doing was helping the poor underprivileged children, that the church needed to be modernized, etc. No wonder I am reminded of Paul Shanley when thinking about the film. Shanley's case is interesting in that, even David France, author of Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in the Age of Scandal, ends up sitting on the fence about Shanley (this could have been for legal reasons, we will never know). Even if Shanley didn't sexual assault young boys, his life is so unsavoury, that one still has to wonder why he remained a priest and protected for so long. Well, not really - that was a rhetorical point, only. We shall see.

Monday, 21 December 2009

So Where's the Contrition?

What is contrition?

Concise Oxford English Dictionary definition
Def. 1: the act of being contrite (contrite: feeling or expressing remorse)
Def. 2: (in the Roman Catholic Church) the repentance of past sins during or after confession

Review
Frank MacDonald, "Confession is good for the soul". The Globe and Mail, Aug. 7, 2009.

The review itself is basic, covers the material and I have only one major problem. I don't understand see how "Father MacAskill's life takes on a sense of horror". I may be wrong, but it really is unclear that the Bishop's Man (as I prefer to call him) feels a sense of horror that might, just might, lead to contrition in the Roman Catholic sense. I think that the writing implies that that is what is happening, but nowhere does The Bishop's Man ever state that that is the problem. We are supposed to imply it from his descent into drunkenness, his searching for Bell, and his erratic behaviour. Even before Danny's suicide, he had some inkling that sexual abuse might be the problem, but he never tries to address it with anything other than "call me" to the boy.

I wonder if the author thinks that the Bishop's Man should feel a sense of horror and therefore assumes that he does.

Is this a realistic "confession" from Father MacAskill? I listened to the author discussing how he went about finding whether or not his portrayal of the Bishop's Man was authentic/realistic. He gave it to priests he knew and others who said that it was. If this is truly a valid portrayal of a Roman Catholic priest, no wonder the church is in trouble.

This leads to my question - confession, the book may be, but where is the contrition (def. 2) - where is the repentance?

Feminist theologians like to talk about just what repentance means. The term they focus on is metanoia, which means "a turning around". That turning around means making a change in your life. It is more than saying, "I'm sorry." and then getting on with your life. It is more than, "I won't do that again". It should include some form of restitution. What does the Bishop's Man do in the end? He submits his resignation to the Bishop, has a big fight with the Bishop, tells his story to the lady friend (aunt to Danny) with whom he has become close, has a really good sit down with Father Bell, goes off for a month's vacation in the Dominican Republic (I think that's where the lady friend has her holiday home). BUT most of all, he still keeps, not only all the secrets that he kept before, but some new ones. Doesn't look like he's learned a whole lot. Seems that he's doing more running than he is facing up to who is and what he did. But maybe that's just me!

Commentaries on "The Bishop's Man": Reviews & Blogs

I will be looking at the reviews and the blogs of the book. They have different takes on the book. However, there is a general overall tendency that will be the subject of the last blog on the book.

"Lord Almighty, this has got to be a comforting book for a lot of people."

What I want to do in the next few blogs is do a running commentary on whatever strikes me as relevant, important, angering or downright idiotic.

Last night, I finally had the emotional reaction to the book that was bound to come. Does it affect everything that I analyze? Of course. But nobody can accusing me of hiding my specific point of view!

Where the book (and so far, just about everything that I have read other people say) fails, is in not giving true voice to the real devastation that religious sexual abuse causes over a lifetime. Certainly, the Bishop's Man and the Bishop don't get it. My reaction last night was just to everything that was lost over the years - two marriages that didn't really have a chance at working; an educational choice driven by the need to know; the relationships with male and female friends; the relationships within my family; the loss of a place to belong; the loss of the security that faith in a benevolent deity can bring. It wasn't a major crisis (I don't really have those anymore), but it did include new flashbacks that will integrate themselves over time.

I have been avoiding writing for the last week or so. The one thing the flashbacks and the emotions do, is get me writing.

The book didn't have to be from the victim's point of view - but somehow, I do believe it fails because the victims are just a hinge for story telling. There will more on this in future blogs. Suicide may be the ultimate sin for a Roman Catholic, but living life after the complete loss of everything that ever mattered is very difficult and at times unbearable. Without support, we don't get thought it, just as Danny (the victim "hinge" in the book) didn't. I wish everyone would go and see Deliver Us From Evil, and then read The Bishop's Man. It might give them a slightly different perspective on just how much the Bishop's Man has to answer for.

Friday, 11 December 2009

An unflinching look at evil??????

I have started to flip through reviews of The Bishop's Man on the Internet.

I am not sure that people actually understand what evil is - and this evil in particular. On a surface scan, looks like a few people have problems with the book. However, my gut feeling that this was going to be a comfort to people is probably not far from the truth.

I'll write comments as I read the reviews and the comments on the reviews.

I wonder if David Clohessey (nat. dir. of SNAP) has read the book. He commented on the NYT's short blurb on the Giller Prize winner. It was relatively generic - good when people write about these things

I am going to watch Doubt next week - I'll write a review of that as well.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Bishop's Man - Spoiler Alert!

He pulled "a Kazantzakis".

Well, I finished The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre. When it comes out in paperback, I will add it to my bookshelf. The book has a long waiting is at my public library so I brought it back as soon as I was finished reading. No one else that I know has read it yet, so these are my thoughts.

If MacIntyre sounded befuddled about how these things could happen (see previous blog, August 30, 2009), that befuddlement is at the heart of the problems that I have with the book. I was mildy dissatisfied when I came to the end. As I started writing the blog, I must say that I became extremely dissatisfied with the novel.

First, the book is not a bad read. I wouldn't say that the protagonist is a filled out character. In fact, the construction of the story is such that it is a bit confusing rather than compelling. As a novel, its plot is highly contrived. Some of the mysteries were solved, but too much of it left a bad taste in my mouth.

If the author can be said to have had an agenda, it was to explain that a) life wasn't easy for the bishop's man and by extension for all priests; b) it is the institution rather than its members that is to blame for the sexual scandals of the church; c) good priests are being ruined by the sins of a few; and d) celibacy isn't easy. Oh, and priests were abused as children too. Oh, and when children are abused, it's usually by family members. Lord Almighty, this has got to be a comforting book for a lot of people.

In the final analysis, this is a "whodunnit" of child molestation. In my opinion, the book trivializes the problem, although I don't think that was the author's intention. I have heard him being interviewed. However, I do think that it all started with "this would be a good idea"; how will we do this? Oh, I have a good idea. Let's make it a mystery. Let's make it look like the priest did it, but it was really the uncle." Like most of us, MacIntyre is bothered by the problem of priest who sexually abuse children. As a Roman Catholic, I suspect that he would be unable to actually delve very far into the issue without hitting his own brick walls - but that is just my opinion.

In some ways, the book reads like an over-the-top melodrama: a series of bizarre "Three's Companyesque" not so hilarious misunderstandings! The three main examples are:

  1. the boy who became the Bishop's Man misunderstood his father's being in his sister's bedroom late at night - we are supposed to think that the father had sexually abused the sister, but really he was having a PTSD moment of something bad that had happened to him in WW2. The Bishop's Man feels guilty about this his whole life until he found out that his sister wasn't an incest survivor. He finally asked her. Except that it is not quite spelled out in the novel exactly what happened.
  2. the priest (I think his last name was Bell) whom the Bishop's Man had hidden away with Father Mullins after an unsavory drunken single incident of sexual abuse of a minor in Newfoundland, hadn't abused that boy who commits suicide. However, all the way through the novel, we are led to believe that was what had happened and what was eating away at the Bishop's Man (not that he did anything about it). Whew!!!!!!!!!! It turns out that it wasn't Bell (in fact, the priest, Bell, had been abused as a boy himself and that's why the boy who committed suicide was talking so much with him - victims recognize other victims). The Bishop's Man had spent all that time worrying about it for nothing.
  3. then there's the story of what happened in the Caribbean. Another case of mistaken identity This time, the Bishop's Man was having an affair with Jacinta, a good friend of his priest pal, Alfonso. One night Alfonso is murdered by a man sent by Jacinta's ex-husband. However, he was supposed to murder the Bishop's Man. He had been told to kill the "red" one. He thought it meant someone who was a communist (or communist-like). But really, he was supposed to kill the Bishop's Man who had flaming red hair. He was the intended target. Need I mention that the Bishop's Man has also been carrying around that guilt.
Then there are the moral issues.

  1. MacIntyre wants us to understand that this issue is a problem of an institution that is too big; that it is wrong to place so much faith and time into making sure that an institution is not sullied by scandal. The Bishop is the person who articulates this answer to the question, "Why?". Well at least to the question, "Why the coverup?" MacIntyre needs to go back an take a basic course in Roman Catholic dogma, starting with the Fourth Lateran Council. The Church is Mother; the Church is Father (see B5 for Strazinski's critique on the Roman Catholic church - the Psych Corps: the Corps is Mother; the Corps is Father). The church is also the imago on earth of the heavenly city of God. The Church can do no wrong; the Church has, is and always will be right. Maybe most people in the pew no longer believe that, but I'll wager any money that Pope Benedict XVIth does.
  2. Then there is Father Roddy, the priest who teaches philosophy and has been the Bishop's Man's mentor. The Bishop's Man caught him with a young boy. He reported him to the Bishop and that led to th Bishop's Man being sent to the Caribbean (see above for what happened there). Nowhere in the book do we really see the Bishop's Man break ranks - even after he realizes that the Bishop has know all along that Father Roddy has been seuxally abusing young boys for decades. Father Roddy was a close friend of the Bishop. Even after there is a suicide (not THE suicide) and law suits, the Bishop's Man doesn't come forward with what he knew. He just has a fight with the Bishop. In fact, for all those years, he constantly questioned whether or not he had actually seen what he saw.
  3. MacIntyre also wants us to understand that the priest's life is a lonely one. They have no one to share their lives with. This is why they drink too much, for example or, I guess, why they sexually abuse children - they need the comfort?
  4. Nowhere in the story does anyone try to intervene with the boy, Danny (let's use that name) who commits suicide. Everyone know that there is something wrong. Even in the 90s, this boy is exhibiting behaviours congruent with a sexually abused boy. His parents & family figure he'll grow out of it; his fiancee doesn't understand it. But the priest doesn't seem to suspect it either - sort of. It is not cear when he thinks that maybe that is the problem. The thing of it is that he thinks that maybe it is the priest Bell, whom he placed in that small town. So rather that spend any time really trying to find out what is wrong with the boy, the Bishop's Man hides behind the idea that the boy will eventually come to him. However, he makes it fairly clear that he really doesn't want to talk about it. Besides if Bell had sexually abused Danny, then it was the Bishop's Man's fault and he is unwilling to have that known. Even when he keeps trying to contact Bell, it is not really clear why, except to salve his own conscience? This is a shallow, shallow self-absorbed man. Now it may be that this is what MacIntyre intended, but from the interviews, I don't get that feeling. I think that we are supposed to understand and feel sorry for the Bishop's Man, or at least have some empathy for his difficult life.
The book feels like a whitewash. No institution stands without the men and women who make up that institution. The institution only works if the people in it make it work. It is people like the Bishop's Man who let the church get away with the coverup for years and years - centuries actually (but that is a book in itself).

What really bothers me is that at the end of the book everything is still a secret. Nobody, but nobody spoke for the boy who had committed suicide. So is it enough that Uncle Willy is dead - possibly killed by the Bishop's Man? Is it enough that the Bishop's Man hands in his resignation to the Bishop (at least I think that is what happened)? I haven't even mentioned the reporter who is chasing the different stories and the Bishop's Man lies to him. He may resign but is he going to call up that reporter and tell him the truth? Wouldn't bet a plug nickel or a million$$$ on that!

The book barely scratches the surface of the problem. Could we call it a whitewash? I don't think that Linden MacIntyre did that on purpose. I think that he just doesn't get it. He creates a world where everyone is idolated. In the end, everyone is a victim so you don't have to feel really, really, really angry at the poor priests who are just trying to do their job.

Just once, I'd like to see a priest, bishop, whatever, turn state's evidence - blow the whistle on the whole bunch of them. There are priests like Father Thomas Doyle, but they are few and far between.

Obviously, the author doesn't know any abusing priests (or if he does, I have a hard time understanding why the Bishop's Man's crisis is so muted), nor I suspect is he familiar with the abused (perhaps as reporter with the Fifth Estate), at least not on a close personal level. The objectivity of the reporter just didn't work for explaining a personal crisis that the protaganist was supposed to be undergoing. I really wonder if he sat down and watched Deliver Us From Evil, if only to get a sense of just what an abuser is really like and how the coverup really works. Would the book have been the same if he had?

Why is it important? Many people are going to read this book. It won the Giller Prize, which means that in Canada, at least, a lot more people are going to be comforted by the message of this book, rather than be discomfitted.

The question is why did it win The Giller Prize? The following is the blurb on the Giller website. It reads like a synopsis of the book, not a reason why it won - unless the reason is just that it was written at all.

The Bishop’s Man centres on a sensitive topic - the sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests on the innocent children in their care. Father Duncan, the first person narrator, has been his bishop's dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and, crucially, to suppress the evidence. But as events veer out of control, he is forced into painful self-knowledge as family, community and friendship are torn apart under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding.”

Did we read the same book??? Maybe my personal and professional experience has made me way too cynical.

I am now going to track down as many reviews of the book as I can. I will analyze them in the next blog. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A "Kazantzakis" (Spoiler Alert)

What is a "Kazantzakis"?

This is a term that I started using after reading Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. This refers to authors, film directors, tv writers and others who "cop out" from pushing their stories where they should really go. In other words, they don't want to deal with the tough issues that their stories often entail.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, we start off with Jesus surviving the crucifixion, meeting with his disciples (including, if I remember correctly, Paul), getting married, being involved in the movement of his message into the larger Greco-Roman world. Kazantzakis is a strong writer and I enjoyed the whole novel until I got to the end & IT WAS ALL A DREAM (foreshadowing of Dallas??) - the Devil's last attempt to keep Jesus from dying "for the greater good". I felt cheated. It was such a bold envisioning of what might have happened if Jesus had actually survived the cross (& this was one of the issues right from the beginning). The discussions on whether or not Paul should be allowed to change the message to take it to the Gentiles were fascinating. The world that Kazantzakis builds on the limited outline in the Acts of the Apostles was brilliant. Then it ends with actual death. I have often suspected that this may not have been what he wanted to do, but it was his way of avoiding the problem of being accused of heresy.


One of the greatest recent example of a Kazantzakis is the introduction of a character in Star Trek Voyageur (played once more by Brad Dourif), who is a murderer because of uncontrollable anger and impulses. Rather than deal with the issues that this brings up in a society that has all but wiped out this type of behaviour, the writers decided to kill him off "heroically" by having him save the ship & its crew. However, the truly more interesting, logical but complex story would have been to kept him on the ship working with the Vulcan to control the murderous impulses. Another lost opportunity for Voyageur - my least favourite of the Star Trek franchise.

Two writers who haven't pulled the Kazantzakis are J. Michael Strazinski (in Bablylon 5 - the Forgiveness episode discussed in blog, May 8, 2009), Josh Whedon (so far in Dollhouse).


Why am I writing this? See the next blog, which is a review of Linden MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man.