“Too Big to Fail?”–the tension between institutions and individuals in The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely

I love novels like Brendan Kiely’s The Gospel of Winter. Besides being an engaging read, it thoughtfully examines wide-ranging and important issues in society—indeed, the questions that Kiely explores imply issues well beyond the novel’s premise of a young man who begins to fall apart as he realizes that his relationship with the parish priest was abusive. The novel considers the dialectical tension between individuals and institutions and what it means when an institution intended to help and heal protects predators and/or those who seek only to advance themselves and their baser desires. So, as per my usual impetus, I had to talk to Brendan Kiely about his book. Enjoy! He has some good things to say.

1. Can you talk about why you chose to lead the book off with a Soren Kierkegaard epigraph—”The question is not what am I to believe, but what am I to do?”

Kiely:  The Gospel of Winter is a novel about secrets, courage and friendship: the secrets we think we need to hide the most are often the ones that will harm us the most, and it takes an enormous amount of courage to admit the reality of what we are keeping secret to ourselves, and then share that reality to others, and in order to muster that courage, and this is especially true for young people, but also true for adults, that courage can be found and nurtured in meaningful relationships with others (i.e. real friends). The story that unfolds and addresses these ideas follows 16-year-old Aidan Donovan, who has been abused by his local parish priest and the gang of friends Aidan rallies around him as he struggles with whether or not to tell his story.

I first read the quote while reading through my father-in-law’s philosophy textbook, shortly after I’d finished the first draft of The Gospel of Winter, a novel, I realized, I hoped, could be an answer to Kierkegaard’s question. The novel is not an attack on Catholicism, but it is a more existential book, in that I want to talk about the effect people’s actions have on each other—what we purport to believe and what we tell people we believe is less meaningful than what we actually do.

My inspiration comes from the courage and actions of the brave young people and others who told the world they had been abused—and who, despite the obstacles and the pain, acted courageously. They did not confess (they were not the perpetrators of a crime); they spoke truth to power, and those declarations, those acts, made restorative and healing impacts on the world. Aidan is no saint. He is a typical 16-year-old who grapples with pressures many teens face (school, his future ambitions, dating, his parents and their imminent divorce) and he doesn’t deal with them without making some poor choices, but Aidan also suffers from being abused by the one person he trusted most in his life. This is devastating, and yet, he holds within him the hope, the belief, that, as he says after wishing for an apocalyptic flood, “we might emerge from the muck and bloom.” This hope, this belief in a better tomorrow, is necessary, but it is nothing more than an ineffectual fantasy if he locks that hope within him and does not allow it to motivate and inspire him into action. This is Aidan’s journey in the book, and it is why I think the Kierkegaard quote is so important—hope lives within him, and Aidan (as so many of those brave survivors have done) eventually decides what he must do to make it bloom.
2. Aidan is acutely aware of the way that the adults and other teens in his life put on a “face” that they show the world. It annoys him, but he plays the game too. Aidan’s experience of this is a very upper-middle class or upper-class version—early on, he talks about the way other teens acted confident, as though that confidence was a “birthright” and could sustain them forever. But this is a common human problem that occurs in all cultures and all socioeconomic levels. Why are we so terrified to be real, to be genuine? Can you think of some current public figures and/or historic figures who let their guard down and allow themselves to be fully human, people we can look to as role models?

Kiely:  Holden Caufield called it “phony.” Both he and Aidan fear the consequences of a society that encourages the erosion of earnestness and genuineness. Aidan describes what he sees as the masks people wear, and he fears what happens when we forget we are wearing a mask and believe it is our face. Aidan is part of the “one percent,” and I very consciously wanted Aidan to come from extreme wealth because I wanted to show that all the cultural shorthand signs of stability, access, and privilege did not serve as a protection—Aidan is easy prey for Father Greg in part because he is looking for something genuine in the grand performance around him, and Father Greg’s charm is that he presents as genuine, his entire act is that of the most genuine and caring person in the room, when in fact, that is only the mask he wears. But despite his awareness that people are wearing masks, Aidan feels lonely, ignored, and frightened, and he wonders if adopting his own mask is the only way to survive. Aidan’s language and mannerisms come from his own “one percent” world, but the problems he articulates and his struggle to cope with them are evident in many different socio-economic and cultural communities.

The paradox is that there is real strength in allowing oneself to be vulnerable and not construct a protective (i.e “fake”) mask. Allowing children to fail, showing them that it is not the end of the world if they do, encouraging curiosity and risk taking, and not stopping them but, instead, remaining only a net for them to fall back on, not crutches that prevent them from developing on their own: these are practices that help children become more comfortable feeling vulnerable and developing healthy means to live with that vulnerability, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist or thinking that feeling vulnerable is too risky or weak. Children learn this best in the way they learn so many other things—by watching adults. If they don’t witness adults who model “strong vulnerability” how will they learn the value of this quality?

Current role models: I find it hard to think of specific public figures because the nature of being a highly public figure is so highly stylized that it is hard to know what is “real” or presentation. But I would circle back to the survivors of priest abuse who have shared their story with the world, or rape victims, or when I hear of models who ask that they please not be airbrushed and photoshopped—I find all of these people brave, empowering and genuine, and, again, conscious of one’s effect in the world. I also think of a few of my teaching colleagues who I admire very much and from whom I’ve learned a tremendous amount.
3. Echoing the Catholic Church’s original argument for why they covered up the cases of rape and sexual abuse perpetrated by priests against boys, Father Dooley suggests that the institution is too important and must be protected at all costs. What are the problems with that argument?

Kiely: The “too big to fail” argument? The first problem is that when an institution (like the Church, or a school, or a law enforcement institution, or maybe even a network of financial institutions) begins to protect itself and puts the needs of its own survival ahead of the very people it claims to serve and protect, it undermines its purpose—it becomes like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey—it becomes dangerous to the individuals in society. The second problem is that “the institution” is really a misnomer. It isn’t a question of “what” is being protected—it is a question of “who” is being protected. And when we say we must protect an institution at all costs, I think what we are really saying is we must protect the people who benefit from it the most. What we are saying is that we can sacrifice some for the sake of others. Maybe that is a reasonable line of logic on the battlefield or the chessboard, but I find it morally reprehensible to think about the number of children harmed when too many individuals within the hierarchy and structural management of the Catholic Church used this line of logic, or when individuals in any of the other institutions I mentioned used the same line of logic.

Large numbers of people are in danger. So, again, it is not what I believe, or think, or feel that ultimately matters—it is what I do. Do I pretend the problem doesn’t exist? Do I encourage the problem to continue? Do I do something to disrupt the perpetuation of the problem?


Brendan Kiely

Brendan Kiely

4. Of course, we’ve made this same argument in other contexts. This was the reasoning behind bailing out the banks a few years ago—the idea that the institution was too important to fail. I think this is how we’re treating the institution of public education as well. There are thousands and thousands of creative, hard-working, loving and caring teachers within an institution that is absolutely failing millions of children. Is that an institution that must be protected at all costs? Why or why not?

Kiely: I’ll further clarify what I mentioned above. Often when I hear the phrase “too big to fail” or I read or hear the argument Father Dooley uses regarding the protection of the Church, I also hear, “we can’t change the way things are.” But that is part of the insidious speciousness of the argument. They can change; they should adapt; they must evolve.

Regarding the current public educational system, again, who benefits from maintaining a system that looks very much like the way it does now? I have worked for ten years in a private school, so I am very far removed from the day-to-day reality of public school teachers, and I can’t pretend to know their experience, but I know there are role model teachers just as there are role model priests, police officers, and middle management employees of financial institutions, all of whom address their work-related responsibilities seriously and diligently and who are cognizant and conscientious of their effects on others as it relates to their jobs. I think there are those kinds of people in nearly every institution just as there are very different people, people who have the opposite qualities, in nearly every institution. Why is the institution failing so many children? What we must protect is free access to education for all children, and more equitable educational resources, practices and opportunities for all children. If the current institution can’t do that, or isn’t doing that, despite the great work of some great individuals, than I think the more honest thing to do is radically restructure the institution so that it better meets its mission. To not change it is to protect the individuals who benefit most from the way it is now; to change it is to protect all the children around the country who grow up within the public educational system.

To make the right changes the institution needs to be examined with complete transparency because, again, if someone is threatened by transparency, as Father Dooley is in the novel, what (or who?) is he protecting? This is what makes Aidan’s story so meaningful to me—it’s like a David and Goliath story—even though Aidan is only one, small, 16-year-old boy, if he tells his story, he cracks a hole in the deep, dark walls of the Catholic Church and makes more transparent how and why the institution must change. This is why I applaud all the real life survivors who have come forward. Their acts are heroic.

5.The Gospel of Winter also reminded me of the many ways we as adults in this society fail children because we refuse to take them seriously. I mean this in a very profound sense. Children/teenagers have the capacity to come up with amazing, creative solutions to society’s problems. I know a young man, 10 years old, who is trying to raise 27,000 to create an entire library in northern Ethiopia. He managed to get dozens of artists to donate illustrations that people are now bidding on, and all the money will go to this library. He is exceptional in one sense, but I think he is exceptional because his parents take him seriously and encourage him and support him in his dreams. Most children don’t have that level of respect offered to them from day 1. And as a society, we regularly refuse to give children the self-respect we demand from others. Aidan is failed by every single adult in his life. I think there is less of a question here than a desire to have you comment about this point I’m making, from your perspective as a novelist but also as a high school teacher. What are ways we can get beyond the slogans–children first, children are the future–to actually putting this into practice? How would a person like that have made a difference for Aidan?

Kiely: First of all, this young man you know sounds amazing! I’d love to help his cause (but I’d like to learn more about it and hear what connections he has made to the folks in Ethiopia and what they want and how they feel about the project). I love to share examples like these with my own students! [Ed. note: You can find out more at http://weehopes.wordpress.com/.]

I’m enthusiastic about supporting children/teens, and I agree that we adults too often fail our young people because we don’t respect them enough or value enough the contributions they can make to our society. The reservations I mention in the paragraph above (again, not know anything about the project) merely come from a place of hoping to inspire more work closer to home, not from a place of wanting to dampen his energy, ingenuity, or industrious spirit. In fact, as an educator, I think we will do our young people a greater service if more of their education is spent outside the classroom, in the real world, working on projects and problems with other people. Smaller classes, more projects and varied assessment models, and more time spent in the real world all seem like ways we can offer real, meaningful opportunity to young people and respect their talent, creativity and ingenuity.

The problem for Aidan is that he is not taken seriously—and eventually he believes Father Greg is the only one who does take him seriously. The adults in the book want him (and his friends) to meet their expectations for who he “should” be and who he “should” become, instead of encouraging him to discover his own unique self. If Father Greg had, in fact, been the genuine man he pretended to be, he might have been the support Aidan needed to cope with his family disintegration. But as much as I want to support and inspire for my own students, I recognize that I can only do so much. I think their peer relationships are essential and necessary. Students should be provided as much opportunity to learn from each other—and this too demands that teachers and adults respect young people as scholars and creative, critical thinkers—and young people need to learn through experience how to love and support each other and care for each other. If adults are always hovering around telling them what to do and protecting them from other kids, children and teens won’t develop their own strong interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. All the best learning is learning by doing and learning collaboratively, and we need to respect young people and give them time, space, tools, resources, and love to do this.


6. Towards the end, as Aidan begins to emotionally drown under the weight of what he’s carrying, the river becomes a startling focal point of drama for Aidan and other characters. I loved the symbolism and the way I as a reader felt transported along this river of emotions within Aidan that made ME feel like I was drowning. Was this a deliberate literary technique or was it subconscious?

Kiely: I love this question because I think it speaks to the power of trust. I wrote a scene with Mark and Aidan and Father Greg and Father Dooley all on the bridge over the river at night speaking to each other from a distance as the headlights from the parish car blind Aidan and Mark, so they can’t see the priests, they can only hear their voices. I loved the scene for all its atmosphere and imagery, but ultimately it had to get cut. Still, I suddenly had a bridge and a river at the foot of the country club, and I knew that I wanted to come back to that river. Mark and Aidan do spend time on the bridge, they do spend time down by the bank of the river, Aidan comes back it alone, as does Mark, and while it became a symbol as you mention it above (which thrills me!), it was not my intention at all. In my own life I am always drawn to water, be it a river, the ocean, a lake, or a fountain in a public square, and I think that internal and subconscious rhythm and instinct influenced the story. As a writer, I have to trust these weird instincts and go with them, having no idea where they will lead me, and I also have to trust that readers will add meaning and depth to the story as they make the reading of the novel their own personal experience. I love that—that your experience with the novel is your own, that the reader retains some agency and control in the experience.
7. You teach high school. What burdens do you see kids carrying—placed on them by both family and society—that are too much for them? That are making them drown?

Kiely: What might be an unhealthy pressure for one kid might be a healthy motivator for another, and that’s why I think it is more important to focus on teaching kids how to support each other, instead of trying to address each and every pressure. Understanding how to better love each other and be better friends to each other are the central themes underlying all my teaching. It’s fundamental to how my parents raised me and it lies at the heart of my own Catholic education I received as a child. I wanted to write The Gospel of Winter because despite my outrage at the institution of the Church, what mattered to me—and what continues to matter to me—was to tell a story that still prized the fundamental principles I learned from my culturally Catholic upbringing: love and compassion. This is why I made the friendships between Aidan and his peers central to the book, because the heart of friendship is that very love and compassion I had grown up thinking were paramount. Meaningful friendship is an act of extending ourselves beyond our own experiences and saying to another person, “I am here for you; I am here with you; I want to know what is true for you.”

As an educator, I want to empower young people to use their voices, to speak up and speak truth to power. As I see it, however, this doesn’t have to be one individual, one David, always facing the Goliath. This is why the friendships in the book are so important to me. I want to inspire young people to be better friends to each other and for each other, so that when they need to muster the strength to do the right thing, they have the support they need to do it.

Forming meaningful relationships, sharing our worst secrets, speaking truth to power: all of these acts require an enormous amount of courage. By writing a novel about a boy’s attempt to reconstruct his definition of love after he has been abused by an adult, I hope to create a safe space in which young people and adults can discuss these difficult questions.

Isn’t this why we turn to fiction? It allows us to look beyond ourselves, to engage in meaningful conversations about the questions that are the hardest to discuss but also the most important.

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