I just released my most recent novel, Howard Be Thy Name, based on a true story and parts of my own life. Howard Be Thy Name is the story of how two working class families become entangled in the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal. It’s a story of poverty, violence, resilience, redemption, immigration, and love. It’s an exploration of childhood and the process of growing up under a corrupt moral compass. It’s about the complicated ways we fail our children in spite of our best intentions; and how we stay loyal to family even when it suffocates. My hope is that this story offers a perspective that could help to heal the tremendous pain that families have endured due to the failure of the Catholic Church to protect our children. My other hope is to show the cultural framework and the systemic violence that has led to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
The children in this novel suffer from dangers that are unfortunately prevalent in today’s America. Research by Jeremy Sammut, Ph.D., a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and the Director of the CIS Healthcare Innovations Program provides overwhelming evidence that girls living in non-traditional families are sexually abused by ''stepfathers'' - partners of their single, remarried or repartnered mothers.
I had originally written the story as a memoir, but decided I could do more with the topic as a novel. The novel is very different from the memoir; more of a family drama, like James Agee’s A Death in the Family. My inspiration to turn the memoir into a novel came from reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. Something Conroy said in an interview struck me: "…what I want to do is go back and try to tell what happened. What was real that I have disguised in these novels, you know, the actual circumstances that made some of these scenes come alive … I wanted to, at least in my own words, tell the story I think my family lived while I was here on Earth.”
I was surprised to find that writing this novel was a more cathartic exercise than writing the memoir. There was a lot more freedom to imagine the events and the conversations to shape the narrative and to blend characters in a way that didn’t feel possible in the memoir. I was also able to use my research from the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, which has dedicated a whole volume to clergy child sexual abuse. I feel that this novel brings my family story to light in a way that will leave readers with a lot to discuss and think about; my aim is to portray the characters with grace, compassion, and without judgement.
The New Silence: Family Breakdown and Child Sexual Abuse Jeremy Sammut, Issues Analysis, Executive Summary No. 142 • 30 January 2014