At age 13, Karen Larson is abused by a 44-year-old priest. That series of events shapes the rest of her life, forcing her to run away, change her name and her identity to find comfort.
Colleen Passard’s 2004 novel opens with a phone ringing in the middle of the night, an ominous sign in any circumstances. On the other end of the line, when Karen answers, is Detective Mark Ryan, saying that a woman has filed sexual abuse charges against Father Michael McCoy - the same man who molested Karen as an adolescent.
“Why was this happening after all these years? I had crossed oceans and changed my name and yet this blot on the landscape of my life had followed me. I couldn’t hide anymore.” (8)
This novel is about personal struggle, coming to terms with the past and ultimately, justice.
Just after her father’s death, Karen chooses to pursue the charges against McCoy. In recalling her history, Karen is reminded not only of Brenda O’Donnell, the woman who has filed the complaint, but also of others, other youths she had known who had also been victims.
For Karen, the story of abuse begins prior to Father McCoy. At 13, she is chosen to star in a movie and, as one of the cast members, spends a summer on location throughout the state. In several separate incidents, director Eric Hazlett takes advantage of her innocence and trust. First, he takes her into the woods and kisses her, attempts more and gives up, then goes to her room the next morning and tells her not to say anything. Just before she is supposed to return home, he drives into the woods and rapes her.
In the following passages, readers learn a bit more about Karen and her naïveté.
The only thing my mother ever told me about sex was that if someone touched you ‘there’, then it means that they love you….I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror of my motel room. Somebody loves me. Somebody loves me! Half smiling in the dull reflection in the glass, I wondered if I was going to have a baby.
In her youthful ignorance, she confuses this act of violence with an act of love, and this colors the rest of her life. Soon after she tells Father McCoy, he kisses her, masturbates against her, and tells her he loves her and that he wants to marry her. A week later, he rapes her.
McCoy is an equal opportunity predator, preying on boys and girls alike. Later, as McCoy is confronted, he blames alcohol for his actions, failing to take responsibility. A claim that he is a homosexual is hard to believe, knowing as a reader that he abused adolescents of both genders.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart, and with its controversial subject matter is not for everyone. Considering the climate of the past several years and the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, this novel is a strong one.
The action can be hard to follow, as Karen’s flashbacks of her abuse are interspersed in the telling of her present-day life, but the format seems to work. Karen is drawn into an investigation, not of what happened to her but what happened to others, including one girl, Susan Miller, who was killed. Following a meeting with Detective Ryan, she calls Larry Steinberg, a private investigator. Larry becomes a love interest, or a passing fling - depends on how you interpret the tension.
Karen’s investigation takes her into prison, posing as a photographer for a reporter friend of hers to interview an inmate who claims that he was also abused by Father McCoy. Following the interview, Marco, that inmate, is killed, and Karen feels responsible. She sneaks into the Bishop’s office and later goes to a mob-connected meatpacker to clean out a safe with evidence of the Church’s cover-up the incidents, and the action doesn’t slow.
By the end of the novel, readers see Karen transform from the scared adolescent met in flashbacks to a strong woman who faces her abuser and stands up for herself. As I’ve said, this story is not for the faint of heart, but it is a good read. Passard’s thriller deserves five stars.