Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul — In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan covers new ground for many of us. Nordberg, a Swedish author now based in New York, was interviewing a woman politician in Afghanistan when she more or less stumbled upon the practice of bacha posh. Bacha posh is the practice of raising girls as boys during all or part of their childhood. Nordberg was so surprised about the existence of this practice, that she started to investigate.
Even getting women to speak with her through her interpreters was a major challenge, but gradually Nordberg learned that bacha posh wasn’t particularly unusual or disfavored in male-dominated societies where having a boy in the family was considered absolutely crucial. The Underground Girls of Kabul explores these reasons but it also devotes considerable attention to the girls who were or are being raised as boys. As children, most of the girls seemed pretty happy about it because of the freedom and status they gained as boys. Switching back to being a female around the time of puberty was often more problematic, and Nordberg talk to some very unhappy and defiant women who rebelled against the notion of going back to being female.
All of this makes for a very interesting book that has a reach far behind the individual stories of the individuals who are interviewed. I recommend it.
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.
Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men. Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York. After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields. More importantly they are all interesting and likable men. With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal. Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing. Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.
Jude commands most of the attention. Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character. I kept wanting to fix his life. (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative. We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do. Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.
This is a long, rich book. I just had to keep reading. The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest. The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period was intriguing.
Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters. I wanted more for them. Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient. If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…
For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it. (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.) Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time. I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.
Michael D’Antonio has written a profoundly depressing and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s failure to recognize and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Mortal Sins — Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, was published in 2014, over a year before the release of the recent movie Spotlight, which focuses on Boston’s clerical abuse scandals over many years. Spotlight is an excellent movie and does a tremendous job of showing how difficult it was to uncover the vast scope of the problem and to recognize the church hierarchy’s willful obstruction and tacit perpetuation of the problem.
While Spotlight was focused on the particularly sordid Boston experience and coverage provided by the Boston Globe, Mortal Sins follows the scandal trail all over the country and ultimately around the globe. Mortal Sins also gets into the nitty gritty of the legal actions that compelled the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for what had happened and to begin to take steps to prevent future atrocities. As a lawyer who had some acquaintance with this issue years ago, I found the legal discussions particularly interesting. While it would be nice to think that the church decided to do the right thing because that was its ethical obligation, in reality the church was often reluctant to do anything other than sweep the problem under the rug until it faced horrific public exposure and crippling financial losses. It is a good question whether the church would have taken any action at all, but for the financial ruin it faced. But for the legal actions, it is unclear when if ever the church would have stepped up to the plate on this issue.
How and why the abuse happened, as well as the campaign to stop it, makes for a compelling story. Fortunately Mortal Sins also focuses on the damage done to the individual victims. The pain, betrayal and hopelessness they endured should always be the centerpiece of this saga. Some victims were emotionally wrecked for life, while others seemed better able to move on with their lives. Many children never told anyone or, if they did try to tell, were punished for it. Even when children’s parents believed them and confronted the church hierarchy, they were frequently given the utterly false promise that the abusive priest would be kept away from children.
D’Antonio doesn’t shy away from looking at the structure of the priesthood and the types of candidates it attracted. While acknowledging that other religions have faced abuse issues, D’Antonio’s position is that the structure of the priesthood made it particularly attractive to troubled priests and that the church was programmed to look the other way, rather than fix the problem. Anytime you get in a situation where the primary focus is on helping and shielding the perpetrators to the detriment of their victims, you know something is rotten.
I highly recommend this book. While steps have been taken to stop sexual abuse of children by priests, this problem has not gone away. And, as Spotlight brutally reminded us, we all have a responsibility to confront the problem and protect our children.