WEBEXCLUSIVE INCONVERSATION

BLAIR HURLEY with Olivia Kate Cerrone

Blair Hurley
The Devoted (W.W. Norton, 2018)

The Devoted, Blair Hurley’s stunning literary debut, pushes the boundaries of the traditional coming-of-age novel, offering instead a haunting, provocative tale of self-discovery and transformation in the fallout of exploitation and devastating loss. On the road to spiritual belonging emerges a story that examines the complicated terrain of family, identity, and sexual entanglement, one that speaks to the complicated dynamics of abuse within religious communities. Hurley is a gifted author who writes with startling beauty and tenderness, one heightened by a fierce, unwavering clarity. Educated at Princeton University, Hurley earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Her fiction has appeared in many distinguished journals, including The Georgia Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize for her work, among many literary honors and awards, including scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. W.W. Norton & Company just released her first novel The Devoted. I recently had the privilege to speak with Hurley about her stunning literary debut.

Olivia Kate Cerrone (Rail): In writing The Devoted, you describe on your website that the book “is about those small rituals that give us a sense of identity and bind us to our community; and it’s also about what we choose to take and what we choose to leave behind when we set out on our own paths.” Shadowed by tragic loss, drug abuse, and a difficult past as a teen runaway, Nicole Hennessy struggles to navigate her current sense of belonging in the world. What drew you to examine her transformation through the specific lens of religion and spirituality? 

Blair Hurley: I’ve always had an interest in religion, even though I wasn’t raised in a religious family. I saw from a young age how religious belief offered two powerful things: a strong sense of identity, and a sense of belonging, both to a community and to something larger than the self. For people who are religious, some might say “I’m a Christian” or “I’m Jewish” or “I’m a Buddhist” the same way they’d say “I’m a woman.” It’s that fundamental to many people’s sense of self; it defines everything about what language they use to navigate the world. I imagined that to leave that identity would be crushingly difficult. It might even feel like a death of the self. Yet people leave the religions of their birth all the time and try on new faiths. I always saw that as a daring choice. In Nicole’s story, I saw her quest for self-determination was intimately bound up with her feelings about her family and about her sexuality. When we discover sexual attraction, it’s a part of growing up, and it’s about discovering new depths to ourselves that we didn’t realize we had. It’s also the first time in her life that Nicole discovers romantic love, which offers another kind of belonging. Religious communities offer acceptance to their members, but so does romantic love. I was interested in the parallels between those experiences.

Rail: The danger is that such relationships can also quickly turn predatory. Nicole’s vulnerability, her desperate need for healing and belonging, soon leads her into a complicated relationship with a local Zen Master, who takes her under his wing in promise of helping her reach enlightenment. Their relationship becomes sexual, abusive, and addicting, one that takes a lasting hold on her psyche, even after she attempts to escape him by fleeing to New York City. Nicole also reveals through her tragic relationship with Jules, a former lover, that she is drawn to abusive men until meeting her current lover Sean. What enables these toxic dynamics, even at the expense of her own sense of self and identity?

Hurley: I’m glad you asked because while I was writing this story, I also felt a lot of anger on behalf of people like Nicole, who sought spiritual experiences and were taken advantage of by powerful, authoritative figures in both Catholicism and Buddhism. In Nicole’s case, I saw her as experiencing the divine in a very sensual way. The awareness of the pleasure and pain of living in a body is a spiritual experience for her. But she conflates sexuality and the rapture of the divine in a dangerous way too. She’s drawn to anyone who can give her an ecstatic experience; and she confuses insight and authority for love. In many spiritual traditions, we’re expected to humble ourselves at the feet of a religious leader, to ask humbly for wisdom and salvation. The trouble comes when you ask your lover to save you, to make you spiritually worthy. The teachings of Buddhism can be misinterpreted in harmful ways. Buddhism teaches that we have no permanent self, and the goal of meditation practice is to realize that the self is an illusion. In an abusive environment, though, that lesson can start to sound like a call to erase yourself. When we meet Nicole at the beginning of the book, her powerful, charismatic Master has almost subsumed her entirely.

Rail: Nicole’s transformation from this disempowered place is certainly a powerful thing to witness as a reader, especially regarding the way in which her sense of sexual agency and control unfolds. She overcomes the presence of guilt and shame that so often surrounds sex, especially among both active and former Catholics. Though Nicole converted to Buddhism as a teenager, she is still strongly rooted in a Catholic identity, one that continues to exert influence over her relationships. Could you speak to what influenced these choices in the development of Nicole's identity, particularly regarding her sexual agency?

Hurley: I’m glad you noticed Nicole’s sexual agency and desire to take control of her sexual relationships! That was something that I felt passionately about from early on in the novel-writing process. I wanted to write a spiritual quest story in which a woman was able to explore sensuality and the feeling of ecstasy in the same freewheeling way that so many male characters have done in quest novels or road-trip novels. I loved books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road, for example, growing up, but only as an adult did I notice how passive or invisible women were in these stories. They usually pop up just as window dressing or temptation or spice for the men’s stories. For The Devoted, I wanted to write about Nicole’s journey and the men she encounters in a similar way—how men provide temptation, pleasure, ecstasy or intimacy, but the story is ultimately about her own self-discovery. As a Catholic girl, she’s been raised with a powerful sense of shame about sex. But when other parts of Catholic doctrine break down and fall apart for her, the teachings about sex and sin also start to ring false, and she’s eager to rebel against that model. Regarding the connection between spirituality and sexuality, there’s a lot of overlap for me in how we talk about spiritual and sexual ecstasy. Communion with the divine is described among both Christian and Buddhist mystics as a powerfully ecstatic experience. Nicole is a very sensual person who finds pleasure and joy in many facets of life, and she’s struggling to discover how sex fits into that experience. Sex can be such a problematic experience because it requires submission or intimacy with a partner. The emotional experience of intimacy can seem like the opposite of freedom—that’s why it’s so frightening. I saw Nicole as a very sensual person even if she seems very contained and quiet on the outside. She’s someone who wants things very badly, and has put more demands on the world to be miraculous than most people have. She’s bursting with life and desire but has no idea how to express it. When I was writing her, I thought about the Walt Whitman quotation, “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” With Nicole’s strict Catholic upbringing though, there’s a lot of shame around sex and desire. Every time she reaches out for what she wants, whether it’s pleasure, acceptance, or love, she’s punished for the sin of wanting. At some point, she feels she can’t contain herself any longer and tries to break free. As with many teenagers, that desire to rebel against limits and constraints sends her spiraling out of control. Nicole is seeking enlightenment but she’s also burdened by tremendous guilt for abandoning her family and for the sins of her adolescence. That guilt keeps her seeking forgiveness from every man she meets—her brother, her boyfriend, her Zen Master. She thinks that if she can perfect herself, she’ll somehow be forgiven. She’s still bound up in the Catholic ideas of sin and absolution, even as a Buddhist.

Rail: The presence of Catholicism certainly maintains an ongoing influence on Nicole’s relationships with others, particularly her mother, a deeply complex and volatile figure, who wrestles with an intense religious devotion bordering on mania. Nicole’s mother remains stubbornly devoted to her faith despite the widespread sex scandals that have shut down many Boston churches over the years. Her rejection of Nicole is heartbreaking. Could you speak to the influence of female relationships, especially this mother-daughter bond that affects Nicole so intensely?

Hurley: The mother-daughter bond that I write about in the novel is very important to me, probably because my own bond with my mother, who has now passed away, was so strong. Nicole’s mother has struggled through valleys of depression all her life, but the unchanging tradition, solemnity, and certainty of her faith is what keeps her stable. When that foundation starts to crumble, as Boston’s Catholic churches closed, she becomes unmoored in her life, and her children, who rely on her, suffer. I wanted to capture how all-encompassing the love between a mother and daughter can feel—and how that love can feel constricting and burdensome too. Love can sometimes take the form of ownership. Nicole’s mother expects her daughter to always be hers. When Nicole grows up and changes beyond the framework of a life that has been set up for her to follow, her mother sees that as a betrayal. There’s something so intimate about the mother-daughter bond that I always felt in my own relationship with my mother. She knew me better than I knew myself for so much of my life. Nicole, too, never wants to betray her mother, and is devastated by the fracturing of their relationship. It’s heartbreaking to disappoint our parents and to realize we can’t quite be what they want us to be.

Rail: At the heart of Nicole's journey is also the blossoming of her own sense of power in navigating the world and creating a more solid identity. The men in her life, be it her Zen Master or her brother, strive to shape Nicole into their own idea of what they want her to be rather than who she actually is. In light of the #metoo era, where gender-based power imbalances are now brought under even greater scrutiny and question, how might The Devoted speak to the current #metoo moment?

Hurley: I do feel strongly that The Devoted has a lot to say in our current #metoo moment — and I’m heartened by how much of the conversation around sex, power, and manipulation has opened up recently. Abuses of power happen in so many different ways and in so many contexts. We’ve started talking about these abuses in professional contexts, but the religious sphere still seems like a protected space, even after all the scandals that have broken in both the Catholic church and in different Buddhist organizations. I think girls are taught from a young age that it’s very important to please the men in power around them, not to be difficult, not to cause a scene or disrupt others' pleasant notions of what a nice girl you are. I felt this as a girl myself; when I had a male teacher in school I always felt this powerful desire to please. I wanted to be the best student, the most thoughtful and compliant, and to be seen as special. I’ve given Nicole that same powerful desire to please men in power. When she encounters The Master, she wants to prove her worth and excellence to him, the same way women in so many different spheres feel they must prove their worth and skill. As with many religions, Buddhism has a very strict hierarchal structure in which students swear vows of absolute loyalty to their teachers and must obey them without question. This enshrinement of the teacher puts Buddhist teachers in a position of power that is too frequently abused. But it’s not just that a woman will be fired for a job if she refuses her Master’s advances—the Master is dangling the prospect of spiritual enlightenment before her, and has the power to withhold spiritual fulfillment if she refuses. That’s an impossible bargain, and a relationship that’s ripe for corruption.

There are so many difficult grey areas to navigate in #metoo situations. Perhaps no law has been broken—the people in Buddhist organizations are generally adults, and are at least outwardly consenting to sex with their teachers. Nicole, too, isn’t the victim of a crime when she consents to sex with her Master. But that sort of sexual relationship can never truly be on equal terms. I think many Buddhist organizations in the West are facing a difficult re-evaluation of power, authority, and abuse, just as the Catholic church was finally forced to confront some of its most egregious crimes.

Rail: Absolutely. Do you plan to explore these themes of power, identity, and spirituality in future work?

Hurley: Most definitely. These themes continue to haunt me, and I imagine they’ll follow me throughout my writing career. My next book is also about religion, but in a more extreme environment. I’m still working on a very ragged draft and can’t say too much, but it’s about a fundamentalist cult and some children raised in this environment who have only known isolation and dogma all their lives. To free themselves from this dangerous organization, they have to take risks and completely re-imagine their lives. To be psychologically realistic, I’m beginning to realize that there are limits to what they’re capable of thinking and imagining. When one character steps outside that life, she’s still unable to let go of the cult’s prophesies of apocalypse. To grow up thinking the world is going to end, and then one day discover that it isn’t—well, I imagine that takes a little adjustment.

Contributor

Olivia Kate Cerrone

OLIVIA KATE CERRONE is the author of The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017), a historical novella about the child miners of Italy. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, New South, War, Literature and the Arts, among other publications. She currently resides in Boston, MA where she is at work on a novel called DISPLACED

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