This Gorgeous Game (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), Donna Freitas's new work of young adult fiction, is a first-person narrative of being stalked. Most stories that have emerged from the Catholic Church's abuse scandal detail the horrors of pedophilia and assault. Freitas's novel, about a bright teenager named Olivia Peters, demonstrates that being fawned over and called incessantly can be as terrifying as what are considered more "harmful" crimes. Especially if you are a junior in high school, and the person fawning over you is a Catholic priest.
Freitas, a religion scholar at Boston University, is best known for Sex and the Soul, her 2008 study of young adults' attitudes on spirituality and sexuality. She identifies as a "stubborn Catholic," writing for The Washington Post amid recent media coverage of the scandal, "I am still here despite my struggles to remain a Catholic and despite my scars, too …. My faith and place in this tradition is much bigger than one single priest and some terrible church officials. It transcends victimization and unspent anger."
The scars, as readers might guess by now, are from Freitas's own experience of being stalked by a priest for over two years. She makes clear that Olivia is not her stand-in, that the narrative does not mimic her own. But she says that "I never could have conveyed the first-person emotion of what happens to Olivia or known how to get into the mind of a priest who would do such a thing as stalk a young woman."
As such, This Gorgeous Game is a work of deep empathy and disturbing believability. Readers spend their time inside the mind and heart of Peters, a cradle Catholic who has recently landed a prestigious writing prize from a local Catholic university. The prize includes enrollment in a summer writing program led by Mark Brendan, a priest and writer esteemed in church and intellectual circles. Olivia's father has been out of the picture for some time, she tells us early on—"but my older sister, Greenie, and I have had plenty of dads over the years, it's just that everyone calls them Fathers instead of Dads and they are married to the Catholic Church …. Now another one, another Father walks into my life. What luck."
Luck, readers learn quickly, is not the right word here. We watch the red flags of boundary-breaking and obsession go up as Father Mark fosters a mentoring relationship with Olivia. Flag #1: For their first writing session, he asks Olivia to meet him in a bar, where he sips scotch liberally, telling her, "I probably shouldn't say this ["then don't!" we say], but the moment I first saw you, I wondered to myself: how did so much talent, such insight and imagination, come from a girl so young, and with such startling beauty? … I am astounded by you, to be quite honest."
He begins calling frequently to schedule private writing sessions, showing up in coffee shops and on instant messenger when Olivia begins avoiding his constant demands. In one telling scene, Father Mark snaps and bristles when Olivia mentions a male student in the program. Yet in true fashion of a young woman caught in a power play like Father Mark's, Olivia blames herself. "Guilt thunders through me at the possibility that I have somehow violated this man's generosity, profaned his charitable impulses by introducing something as base and vulgar as a crush …. Everything, me, suddenly, I am all wrong."
Readers know, of course, that Olivia is not wrong—that she has never been culpable for Father Mark's behavior, that she is, purely, a victim. This Gorgeous Game helpfully demonstrates that, when inappropriate relationships between adults and children arise, the onus always falls on the adult, who inherently has more power and awareness, to stop what has started. At the same time, Freitas portrays Father Mark not as evil incarnate (though by the end, some readers may think he is) but as a confused, immature man who uses his smarts and eminence to get what he wants. When Father Mark hands Olivia a poem in his seminar that includes the lines, "I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul," we see him as pathetic and pitiable and totally in the wrong, but not cartoonishly villainous.
This poem, actually, was penned by the monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1966, in the throes of a passionate (and later regretted) romance with his significantly younger nurse, "M." Merton detailed that experience in Learning to Love, released posthumously in 1998, and Freitas uses excerpts from it to frame the novel. (Freitas wrote recently that she cannot forgive Merton for treating his vow of celibacy—and M. herself—so flippantly.)
Merton wrote, "I simply have no business being [in] love and playing around with a girl, however innocently. After all I am supposed to be a monk with a vow of chastity and though I have kept my vow—I wonder if I can keep it indefinitely and still play this gorgeous game!" Consider This Gorgeous Game the other, lesser-known side of the story: the side of a young woman for whom an older man's game has become a private nightmare.