It’s a frigid fall day when, enveloped in tundra-worthy accoutrements, I sit down with Brendan Kiely at a cozy Greenwich Village café. We’re meeting to discuss his debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, which tackles the touchy subject of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals as they pertain to a posh, Connecticut town. Gospel centers on 16-year-old Aidan Donovan, a privileged young man living at the height of wealth and social dominance. His disastrous relationship with Adderall, booze and weed are easy to chalk off as angst-ridden ennui or despondence from his powerhouse father having recently left him and his mother. But the root of his depression is eventually revealed as the repeat abuse he suffered at the hands of a popular priest. Kiely’s warm, cheerful demeanor isn’t the kind one might equate with grave fiction focused on the aftermath of abuse, but his enthusiastic reasoning for breaching the topic dispels any notion of typecasting I might have had.
“I wanted to make sure that I found people who wanted to read the story that I thought I had written and not only focus on the salacious end of this,” says Kiely. “I think that’s the easy part when people are talking about the book, to go straight to abuse, abuse, abuse. And like many stories in the news, they focus on the abusers themselves. I thought it was appropriate and necessary to have a story about the kids and the kids reclaiming their humanity, finding their capacity to love again and to be loved again."
Because the abuse is not immediately divulged, Aidan’s chemical dependencies and disgust for carefully constructed social masks have the potential to seem maudlin. He’s just another poor little rich kid unable to digest the decadent fruits of his family’s wealth, right? Yet through this deliberate reluctance to directly reveal the abuse as a more bawdy incarnation of the story would, Kiely is able to avoid the pitfalls of a protagonist whose development would otherwise seem abbreviated. Sure, the kid is loaded, but he has been manipulated to think that sexual and mental abuse were forms of love and as a result can’t seem to deliver himself from the ensuing torment.
“I feel like so often when we hear stories about abuse, specifically within the Catholic Church, most often those stories are about families that are underprivileged,” says Kiely. “So it was specifically my intention to write about a family that wasn’t, that was instead the pinnacle of wealth. So Aidan seemingly has everything but in fact doesn’t….Instead of it being about angst, he’s injuring himself as his mode of self-identification because of the trauma that he has experienced…I wanted to show the human being first, the one who is struggling to figure out who the hell he is before getting straight to that trauma.”
Teens relying on drug-induced escape, priests sloughing off their main principles to avoid scandal and families disintegrating with every page turn are individually terrible. In Gospel, they are all united as the elements in a single drama. Kiely augments this dramatic weight by iterating the backdrop of raw, post 9/11 fears (the book takes place in 2001-2002). “The inability to deal with conflict in a way other than some kind of subversive violence I think is inherent in terrorism,” says Kiely. “And in my mind the institution [of the Church] trying to protect itself perpetuated violence. So I very consciously tried to draw a parallel there. Not that the Catholic Church are ‘a bunch of terrorists,’ I think that is cheapening the idea of a parallel—but…that violence boils under that surface.”
In 2001, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Catholic Church cover-up and anthrax scares at the forefront of the media, violence and anger were at a full boil and rapidly overflowing. Such colossal discord was enough to shatter the nerves of adults, let alone 16-year-olds who had heretofore lived a reasonably sheltered life. Optimistically, teenagers would have at least one watchful parent who cares that their child has plunged into an emotional abyss while a once-familiar world crumbles. Not so in the town that Kiely has constructed. Aidan and his contemporaries are regarded as extensions of their parents’ financial prowess and a chance for elevated social standing to endure—nothing more, nothing less.
This sort of mentality doesn’t lend itself to chocolate chip cookie coddling and heartfelt embraces. Aidan’s mother, a former ballerina and current grande dame of glitzy parties, has fleeting moments of diluted maternal instinct, at best. She’s terrified of embarrassment, a paralyzing fear that leaves no room for genuine concern for her own progeny. In short: a shallow, selfish woman.
“When kids are narcissistic to each other that’s one thing, but when the caretaker is too narcissistic and is really protecting herself instead of her own child, to me it just felt like another one of the ripples that was around Aidan,” says Kiely. “The institution of the Church is protecting itself instead actually dealing with things head-on. The family institution was protecting itself. One might be bold to make a political argument about our nation at the time, similarly acting in a way that was narcissistic and protecting oneself without recognizing the ramifications it has for those who need the most help.”
A narcissistic mother unable to address her son’s emotional landslide as he trudges through the grimmest territory he’s ever known? Sounds familiar. Like 1980-Mary-Tyler-Moore familiar.
Kiely smiles knowingly at this comparison. “My agent was very conscious of using that as his pitch: this is a contemporary Ordinary People. Somewhere between Ordinary People and The Ice Storm.” Regardless of the comparison, this is a lingering drama about trauma, tragedy, recovery and forgiveness whose mindful gospel is without season.
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and is at work on his own YA novel.