Game Change

Donna Freitas' novel This Gorgeous Game looks at priestly sex abuse through the eyes of a teenage girl


Donna Freitas is best known for her provocative nonfiction book Sex and the Soul, which was based on scores of interviews she conducted with college-age students about “sexuality, spirituality, romance and religion on America’s college campuses.” Beyond her work as a scholar and college religion professor, however, Frietas has forged a parallel career as a novelist. Her first novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood earned accolades in the Young Adult fiction genre back in 2008. Her most recent novel This Gorgeous Game tackles an unusual theme: a Catholic priest stalking a teenage girl. In the midst of a new wave of accusations of sexual abuse coming from Europe, Freitas’ work tragically resonates beyond the lives of her characters.

Sr. Bernadette: Being a previously published author of nonfiction, did fiction writing flow out of your work on Sex and the Soul, or was that something that you had always wanted to do?

Donna Freitas: One of the typical questions that I get when I’m on a panel is, “So when did you know that you wanted to write novels?” And half the time the people are saying, “When I was 5,” or, “When I was in seventh grade,” and I’m like, “I don’t know — when I was 30?” I never thought that I’d write fiction. I mostly started it one day for fun because I thought of a character. I’m a huge reader, so I’m constantly reading novels. But it never occurred to me that I was capable of writing a novel. It was when my mother died and I was really, really sad for a really long time after she died. That’s when I started writing fiction. I thought of this funny character and she was amusing me. Her voice was really strong in my head and I just thought to start writing her story because it made me happy in a really sad time, and it turned into a novel.

Sr. B: But the joy of being a Catholic, the theme of your first novel The Possibilities of Sainthood, is quite different from the sex scandal in This Gorgeous Game, which is one that hasn’t really been explored in popular culture. What made you decide to write about this?

DF: Well, it’s not like I made a plan to take on the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. For me, writing fiction has been more about voice and following the voice of the character that shows up when it shows up, and telling their story. And so, I was planning on writing something totally different after The Possibilities of Sainthood, and then the voice of Olivia Peters, who is the protagonist in This Gorgeous Game, showed up. It was more like her voice and the first line of the book showed up in my head, and they were very particular. I have a very strong sense of how the characters speak when I write.

“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.”

That’s what compels me to write. And so Olivia’s voice, when it showed up, was filled with anxiety, there’s a lot of repetition in it, and a lot of insecurity. She’s sort of trying to convince herself that everything is okay all the time. That’s the voice that showed up in my head and I recognized it. I realized, “Oh, this is the voice of a girl who is being stalked.”

And I don’t want to talk too much about this, but I was stalked a really long time ago, and it’s something that has really haunted my life in a lot of ways that I’ve tried to let go of. What was interesting to me when Olivia’s voice showed up, and why I recognized it, was that I had finally gotten far enough away from my own personal experience. When I was looking at her voice I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s the voice that used to be in my head. That’s the voice of a girl who’s being tormented by something.” I thought that someday I would write about this topic, but I had no plans of writing about it when I did. I remember when I was writing Olivia’s story I thought it just isn’t timely anymore because no one was talking about what happened in the Catholic Church at this point — this is several years ago when I first started writing it. The first wave of scandal had broken in 2002, and so it had been a year essentially since people had been talking about it regularly. And so it was strange timing that the book happened to be coming out this spring when the second wave sort of hit. Ultimately, this is a story about unwanted attention — and unwanted attention from someone who has a lot of power, a lot of power over someone young. I think that that’s more universally applicable than just what’s going on in the Catholic Church. People experience that kind of abuse of power in all sorts of relationships.

Sr. B: Right, and especially women. To be honest with you, I read the book with my own personal experiences of having been stalked as well. So I very much resonated with your character. Given that much of the scandal was focused on males, how do you think people will take the fact that the object of the inappropriate attention in your book is a female?

DF: Well, I think we all know that women were victims. Women have been victims of priests as long as this has been going on. We just don’t seem to talk about it much. I think it’s important to talk about. There are different dynamics going on. I thought a lot about it. I was reading Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother, which is one of her memoirs about her family and one of the chapters I think is called “My Mother and Her Priest” or something like that. In that chapter she talks about how there was this tradition of sort of relationships between married women — or friendships between married women — and priests that are pretty eroticized in the sense that there’s this strange dynamic that can go on or that the women and priests will foster between them. And no one really talks about what’s really going explicitly — that there’s this sort of intimacy that’s there; and this is sort of the way that a lot of Catholic married women navigated these priestly men in their lives.

“It’s much harder to punish love in the sense that, what do you do when an older man sends you a bunch of letters? You can’t really go to the police. You know, it’s much harder to unpack that kind of a relationship. So I was interested in exploring that aspect of manipulation, when it wasn’t sex — when it’s attention.”

It’s a really interesting chapter in the book, given This Gorgeous Game, in terms of me thinking about this issue and of a priest abusing a girl as opposed to a boy. And I remember thinking, “Wow, the thought of it being kind of trickish that priests would be able to kind of carry on this sort of inappropriate intimacy with women ” or that it was somehow like a faith relationship they could be in really struck me as, I don’t know, as connected to what Olivia is going through.

I’ve wondered a lot — what is it about the priesthood and celibacy, the vow of celibacy within the priesthood that has fostered an epidemic of inappropriate relationships with young people ? And what is it about girls in particular that makes it distinct. And with Fr. Mark and Olivia, it’s not about sex. He’s in love with her — as much as I hate to sort of say it out loud; I feel horrible. But he’s in love with her, and he’s courting her, and he wants her to be in love with him. It’s not a sexual relationship in the book. And so, I was really interested in exploring that dynamic, and what happens when that love is unwanted. But it’s much harder to punish love in the sense that, what do you do when an older man sends you a bunch of letters? You can’t really go to the police. You know, it’s much harder to unpack that kind of a relationship. So I was interested in exploring that aspect of manipulation, when it wasn’t sex — when it’s attention, and misappropriated love. I’m not sure if that is the right word.