We know the power of story has no limits. We believe that both fiction and nonfiction can shape the world, change minds and open doors. In Carl Sever’s recent release, Alphonse, the deeply painful and shrouded topic of sexual abuse is at the core of the conflict. The essay below explores Carl’s intentions with the heavy subject matter and the unrelenting importance of bringing this conversation to light.
Alphonse is available for purchase now at all major online retailers.
How does something as natural and universal as sex destroy so many things?
When I was a teenager in the late 1950s, the topic of sex was sealed behind pursed lips and locked bedroom doors. The closest we came to actual discussion was whispered exchanges among adults and schoolyard snickers among my teenaged friends, well out of earshot from those same adults. Sex was all about secrecy, shame, and guilt.
All these decades later, nothing seems to have changed, despite our apparent openness in popular entertainment and news media. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, sex remains a topic mentioned cautiously and then only briefly, usually with touches of humor. A news flash screaming the latest scandal may raise the topic in a more serious vein for a short time, but no matter how horrific or shocking the scandal, these stories are told at a distance. They have a peculiar mix of prurience and admonition, as if they’re an impersonal and isolating addendum to our everyday lives: not quite real, faintly shameful, unactionable, something others do, or did, elsewhere.
In my novel, Alphonse, I wanted to explore the story of the sexual predation by a Roman Catholic monsignor on a thirteen-year-old boy. This type of crime isn’t new; records at least as far back as the middle ages cite concerns about it within the Roman Catholic church. The story isn’t autobiographical, beyond the fact that I was born and raised as a Catholic in the same part of the country where my story takes place. I wanted to create a story that shows how imbuing sex with shame and secrecy, whether it’s sex between two loving adults in a stable relationship or the most depraved of acts between a predator and victim, leads to deep, insidious consequences that may last for years, decades, a life-time. These consequences aren’t merely single-person consequences; they have cultural and social significances that affect our ability and willingness to take action, too.
The most obvious consequences—those to the child, and how the child copes with the aftermath—are not the only consequences. How adults respond, or fail to respond, are part of this picture, too. Despite our profound focus on the victim, the questions of whom to consult, whom to trust, and what to do remain silent and hidden. This useless, shame-based legacy reinforces itself; we continue to turn away.
Why do husbands and wives stuff their own sexual victimization out of sight? Why do they set aside their suspicions and intuitive sense of wrongness in their own families and communities? It is part of the same question, and, I am convinced, shares the same answer, with why fewer than half of rapes are reported and why the rates of incest and childhood sexual abuse do not decrease. The fear that drives us to talk in hushed tones, eyes averted and heads down, is the fear of many things: fear of shame, of vulnerability or weakness; fear of being found out; fear of crossing an ill-defined border separating innocence from guilt. The “openness” that we like to proclaim is part of our world today is more about sensationalism than dragging fear into the bright light of day. Sensationalism, from comedy sketches to presidential improprieties and horrific crimes, drives the fear further underground; sex becomes obliterated of any inherent goodness.
Instead, we need to cultivate a new kind of conversation, one that lets the bright light of our compassion, empathy, and understanding burn away the shadows where secrets fester.