Trigger warnings: priests, rape, suicide.
First disclaimer: I was not sexually assaulted by a priest. That is not the story I’m about to tell.
Second: If you were raised Catholic and your experience was not like mine, I am relieved for you and glad. I respect your different story. I only ask that you respect my story, realize that I am not an isolated example, and believe me.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a grand jury report listing 300 Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children across the course of seven decades while a hierarchy of Catholic Church leaders covered it up. Since the report was released, hundreds more people have called Pennsylvania’s clergy abuse hotline.
I grew up in Pennsylvania. My kindergarten, my grade school, my high school, and the high school to which most of my friends matriculated are all represented on that list of predator priests. The bishop who confirmed me, James Timlin of the Diocese of Scranton, a man I was taught to admire, turns out to have had a talent for protecting child rapists while destroying the lives of the children whose safety was entrusted to him. I have a photo of myself with Bishop Timlin from grade school. I look excited standing beside him, like I’m getting my picture taken with a celebrity. It turns out that the allowance money I was putting into the collection plate every Sunday was funding the protection of rapists.
Was I surprised when this list was released last week? Hell, no. I spent my entire adolescence trying to get the adults in my life to see that some of the religious leaders around me were bad people, and that the Catholic institution—misogynistic, homophobic, sexually repressed, and tyrannical in its power structure—supported their abuse. My peers did too. We were never believed. We are largely still not believed. The men on this list are just a few bad apples, you know? A few bad men in one great big, wonderful Catholic Church. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if “the baby” is one of the world’s most powerful institutions with one of the world’s most horrific human rights records, and also one of the world’s most renowned upholders of misogyny and homophobia.
Do I sound angry? To be angry is bad. I know this because priests told me so, repeatedly.
My fantasy novels have a recurring theme: a kind of evil, embodied in powerful men, that allows them to magically manipulate innocent people into believing lies. The innocent people, stuck in their mental fog of lies, are then convinced to perform acts of self-damage and damage to others. The mental fog makes it impossible for the victims to see the truth of who the bad people actually are and what is actually going on.
For years, people have asked me what inspired my villains. For years, I’ve hemmed and hawed, afraid of causing offense. With the release of this Pennsylvania report, I’m less afraid. Finally, I’m ready to admit that my villains and their evil were inspired by my own experience of a Catholic upbringing and education.
Because I know that the readers of this post may otherwise jump to this conclusion, let me be clear that I was never sexually assaulted by a priest. But it should also be abundantly clear by now that many people were, and I’d like to point out that the setup that allows for that kind of physical and sexual abuse inevitably allows for many other kinds of emotional and psychological abuse too. We’re not talking about a few bad apples; we’re talking about a bad system. I know. I lived it. Until I grew up, I was not allowed to leave it. And I was screaming from inside it for people to see, for people to protect me and my peers, for anyone to believe that we were being damaged. No one would listen.
Can you understand how King Leck and Cansrel grew from this? And where Bitterblue’s need for healing comes from? Let me try to explain it better. Please be patient with me; it’s hard. I’m trying to protect the privacy of a lot of people; I’m trying not to offend loved ones any more than I have to; I’m so angry, and have been so angry for so many decades, that it’s hard to maintain coherence.
I grew up in a culture in which my peers and I were taught to respect people, and to be kind, compassionate, generous, selfless, sacrificing, forgiving Catholic kids. Unfortunately, it was also a culture in which we were regularly humiliated, taught that our natural impulses were sinful, taught that we were essentially bad, taught to obey unthinkingly, taught not to question anything we were told, taught that if we misbehaved we would be punished severely, taught to debase ourselves, taught that anger is wrong, and taught to “turn the other cheek” if someone was hurting us. In this culture, everyone was humiliated, but girls disproportionately so, because in this culture, girls were, and still are, believed to be inferior. The power structure was inhabited entirely by men, men who supposedly had a direct line to God, men whom I was told to admire and believe.
My peers and I could see the problems inherent in the institution. We saw the problems manifesting all the time. Why were only some of us supposed to respect other people? Why weren’t the priests held to that standard too? Why was it okay for me to be humiliated on a regular basis because I was a girl? Why was this system of abuse allowed to continue?
But when we brought vivid stories of humiliation and disrespect to adults, we were never taken seriously. Our complaints were treated as marks of our adolescent immaturity. We were told to stop confusing these minor experiences with actual injustice. We were told that we were not in fact seeing what we thought we were seeing. We told to look for the good in the priests who were hurting us. We were told that our anger was wrong. We were also told to do what we were told.
And then maybe one of my peers would try to kill herself, not for the first time. I mean, I’m not talking about small stakes here. I’m talking about teenagers who were really struggling, kids in real danger, kids who’d learned that their only culturally acceptable means of expression was self-destruction. Do what you’re told: erase yourself. Yet in the minds of the adults, the connection between a culture that was systematically dehumanizing us and us trying to kill ourselves was never made. Why? Why couldn’t they see? Why wouldn’t they help us? Because the adults had been lied to too, and they chose to trust the powerful leaders, instead of the vulnerable ones who were crying. Oh, my lord. And we were crying so hard. And there were consequences. Not everyone made it out okay.
The adults we brought our stories to were well-intentioned, and generally committed to justice in the world. I understand that. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about us or our welfare; it was that no matter how we explained it, they just couldn’t see that there was evil there. Gaslighting, humiliation, and psychological manipulation are often sneaky and subtle, especially when they are coming from a control center that has, in fact, been a force for good in the life of any given person; especially when that control center is all the person has ever known, and is woven into the fabric of every part of that person’s viewpoint. But I could see. And I could see them not seeing. I could see them accidentally and well-intentioned-ly failing to protect us from terrible things. Not just failing to protect us; making things worse. The experience left me with an incredulous helplessness that at times in my life has led to a kind of despair.
It also, eventually, led to artistic expression. I created Leck, I created Cansrel, and then I created girls who killed them dead. With each book, I explored those girls more fully. With each book, I let myself get closer to the grief, the anger, the feelings of betrayal, the losses, the relationships that may never improve, and the wounds that may never fully heal.
I want to add an aside here, as a writer and a reader. A writer’s inspiration for a book exists separately from the reader’s experience. If a book is done well, it reaches beyond the original inspiration and becomes something more universal. So you don’t have to bring my explanations into your understanding of my books if they’re not relevant to you. The sort of tyranny / psychological manipulation / neglect I experienced exists, and has existed, in countless forms across our world, against all types of people, on massive scales, and on scales as small as a relationship between two people.
However, if your experience was like mine in any way, through any means and on any scale—and I know that many of yours were—then I hope you will welcome my books as a (hopefully healing) gift from me, given with all my heart. I see you, and I believe you. I hope you feel better.
Also, if you identify as Catholic and your experience was not like mine, I am relieved for you and glad. I respect your different story. But please, please start believing us. Consider reading this compassionate opinion piece in the New York Times by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a Catholic and a historian of Catholicism, who argues that the time has come for dramatic change.
I would also guard, very strongly, against any messages you may be receiving that things are different now. That the Catholic Church is being held accountable; that these abuses happened in the past; that the Catholic Church is moving past this tragedy. Read “Vatican’s new sex education guidelines sell women short,” by Celia Wexler at the Huffington Post. Nothing has changed in the underlying structure that caused these abuses to arise in the first place. The Catholic Church is still misogynistic, homophobic, sex-repressing, and tyrannical. It is still an organization which mandates that all the real power sits with men. How much is it possible for an organization like that to change? How far can it move toward justice? Personally, I believe that until married men and women are allowed to be priests; until the church starts teaching parishioners about self-care rather than self-abasement; until questioning is not just allowed, but encouraged; and until church leaders are educated enough about sex and sexuality to be able to have mature and responsible thoughts and conversations about it, nothing will ever get much better.
It breaks my heart to say this, but I’m pretty sure I know how this will go. Too many of the people who couldn’t see it then won’t see it now. The power will remain with the corrupt.
The day after the Pennsylvania report was released, I was standing in the kitchen, glaring into the middle distance. Kevin walked in, gave me a hug, and said, “How are you feeling?”
I said, “I’m so angry.”
He hugged me harder and said, “It’s okay to be angry.”
Oh my god. What if I’d ever heard those words once, from anyone whose job it was to protect me, when I was young? What if anyone had ever said any words that indicated that they believed me? That they held my feelings gently in their hands and trusted and cherished them, because they trusted and cherished me? And then helped me, instead of leaving me alone with it?
I’m in a different, much better place now. I’ve had the help of a lot of people to get myself here, people who have their own stories, and who believe mine. If I have any religion these days, it’s the religion of striving to see clearly. Others and myself; the systems I live in and support; the points of view, mine and others’, that we should constantly continue to question and test. Like Katsa or Jane, lies make me furious. Like Fire or Bitterblue, I’m determined to do everything I can in order to see what’s in front of my face, and try not to hurt anyone with it.
I’ve got some scars, some wounds, and some permanent losses. But I’m not trapped in a fog anymore.
And now I hope you’ll excuse me, because I’m very busy, trying to write another book about some girls who are reaching for the light.