Donna Freitas' novel This Gorgeous Game looks at priestly sex abuse through the eyes of a teenage girl
Sr. B: I thought it was an interesting image of the priest that you decided to portray where he has really identified himself more as a professional. Is there a particular reason why you chose that image?
DF: I wanted him to be a very public figure. I was trying to figure out what would bring Olivia and Father together for this to happen. And so I thought he could be a writer, and they come into contact over a contest that he’s offered. But also I think I wanted to look at priests who have all sorts of roles in our society — t hey’re not just priests, they often have all these different professional careers that they engage in — and what happens when a person in that career is able to sort of operate as if they are holier than thou, as if they are also untouchable, like a politician for example, and not just any writer, but a priest and a writer, which really distinguishes them. But I also was thinking of Thomas Merton when I was working on this. I knew his life and his story, and his affair with “M.” — the young woman that he had an affair with before he died — was a part of this story. That was related.
Sr. B: This image of Fr. Mark is very different; he never figures into her life as a Catholic per se. So it’s a very different image of the priesthood that was interesting for me to see — that almost complete disconnect between himself as a priest. I just wonder if that may have been an unconscious way of bringing out what our experience at times may be of the priesthood at this time.
DF: When I was editing the manuscript I did cut out an interaction where he offered to say a Mass for her family — a very big important Mass . So he stepped into her family’s priest’s role in a way that’s inappropriate. And I cut that in the end. I think that at least for me when I was growing up, priests were everywhere. They were on the altar on Sundays in Church, but they were part of life all over the place: they were in your school, they were at your house for coffee, you ran into them in the supermarket, they were on the soccer field, you know, coaching. And so, for me when I was growing up, it was normal to see priests in all different roles. And I do think that is where that access comes in. It’s in those places that, you know those lapses of appropriate behavior happen.
Sr. B: There’s another element in your book that I really enjoyed. That was the tension between the “super-Catholics,” if you might want to call them that — Olivia’s sister and the college she’s going to — and then Olivia who is really struggling with her Catholic identity. I thought that was interesting that you would bring that very real tension into your work.
DF: Well, I’m glad you liked it. Part of that came from all my travels for Sex and the Soul and being so aware of how young adults can be different in their faith and how some can be so devout and some are really confused and searching or kind of in a different place, and sort of seeing that all together at once. I also wanted readers to be able to understand how powerful someone’s faith can be in their life. Even if Olivia was struggling, I wanted readers to be able to understand the role of the priest in a Catholic community and part of that was showing her sister and her sister’s friend and Olivia’s mother and how devout their faith was. In my own life I have quite a mixture, quite a range of friends who are devout and others who are off the grid at this point. So I feel that that’s pretty accurate.
Sr. B: I was also interested in the lack of tension around the resolution of Olivia’s experience of the unwanted attention from Fr. Mark. The ending is pretty positive for Olivia and it resolves so neatly as opposed to reflecting more tension .
DF: The one criticism if it gets a criticism from people it’s that they feel like the end is not enough. They want him to be in jail, or they want him to be killed. I actually had someone wish for castration. So there’ve been some very, very powerful feelings about the end. I was writing this post-sex-abuse-scandal and so that was a huge factor. I think you’re right, the believability is a factor for Olivia through the whole book. The whole reason it takes her so long to say anything to anyone is because she is terrified no one’s going to believe her. She’s like, “This man is a pillar of the community in a million different ways,” and she can’t believe that anything is wrong. And she’s terrified to say it out loud. So she covers for him and meanwhile endures all of this unwanted attention — grossly unwanted attention. So I think the issue is about believability the whole time.
But the ending I originally wrote was the ending I needed to write just to have it out of my system. And it was much more of a revenge fantasy. I wanted Olivia to get revenge. I didn’t just want her to tell. I needed to write that, but I knew it wasn’t the right end for the story because I actually feel that the end of the story is very open-ended. But I do feel that that’s more realistic. I feel like the act of telling and the hint of something being done is far more realistic than actually getting justice.
Sr. B: When you wrote This Gorgeous Game did you also have in mind, while you were writing, the audience of young men and women who are stalked by someone important and who has a role of power in their lives? Did you have a specific message for them?
DF: You know, writing fiction feels really different. It’s not that I don’t have the audience in mind but it’s more that I’m so compelled by the character. So I feel like I spent a lot of time thinking what do I owe Olivia and then once I got past the last page I began to revise it. And that’s when it occurrs to me that this was a story about a topic, you know, that people have had happen to them. And I wonder if it will resonate with the audience or if this book will be able to generate conversations that will maybe help people figure out, or help young people in particular, figure out how to recognize when it’s okay to stop, or that if you feel uncomfortable with someone’s attention that you should say something.
I hope that this book is a book that parents can talk about with their kids. I feel that we talk a lot about sex; we talk a lot about sexual assault. We almost never talk about unwanted attention. And there have been so many women especially who’ve read the book, who’ve come out and said, like, “I had a college professor act like that with me at one point and I never knew what to do, I never knew what to call it or if I should say something.” And so I hope it generates those conversations.
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