Crimes of the Father — Thomas Keneally at his Best

Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s.  Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare.  The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time.  The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.

Several things stand out.  From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church.  And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church.  The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn.   Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.

Fortunately all clerics are not villains.  In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad.  This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it.  He thinks the Church needs to change.  Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest.  One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action.  It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs.   And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.

One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character.  Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity?  Why do some people act with courage and against self interest?  These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should.  This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews.  There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision.  In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie.  Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.

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Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

Wonderstruck is a movie you really need to see!

We just saw the amazing movie Wonderstruck, which is based on a novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.  This is a marvelously New York movie starring Julianne Moore and three amazing child actors.  Millicent Simmons, who is deaf, gives a strong and compelling performance as a deaf girl who refuses to settle for a constricted life.  It is such a pleasure to watch a strong, young actress who doesn’t play a “sweet child” or a “conniving temptress.”  A number of other deaf actors were incorporated in the cast.  I was so caught up in the story that I only occasionally noticed that much of the movie has no dialogue.  The action is enough, and by foregoing dialogue, the movie draws you into the world of the deaf.  Oakes Fegley, who plays an orphan on the run, and Jordan Michael, the local boy who befriends him, also given strong and unaffected performances.  

And then there is New York  —  a very realistic bustling city that can seem overwhelming.  The Museum of Natural History figures strongly as does a real-life used and rare bookstore on the Upper West Side and the Queens Museum of all places.  Wonderstruck is a period piece with two periods —  the time of silent movies and then fifty years later.  It all works, and New York shown off to perfection.

This movie’s reviews were mixed, but I thought it was one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year.