‘The Devoted’ Wrestles With Sexual Abuse in the Spiritual World

Author Blair Hurley discusses writing a “transgressive spiritual quest” novel and finding peace in Zen Buddhism

I read The Devoted over the course of one wet weekend in Woodstock, New York. I was staying in a low-ceilinged ranch house, the property of a friend of a friend, where the the medicine cabinet mirror was spotty with age, and the electric burners on the stove had two temperatures: hot and off. On the front lawn, while a stone Buddha sat serene in the center of a circle of lush ivy, rain dripping from his nose, I sat by the window and read, rapt, for hours.

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Woodstock — the motherland of a certain brand of unfocused, hippie-inflected, white American Zen — was a perfect environment in which to read Blair Hurley’s debut novel. It’s the story of 32-year-old Nicole, a good Boston Catholic turned Zen Buddhist, who, in the process of attempting to escape from a years-long, sometimes sexual relationship with her Zen Master, becomes a kind of master herself.

I spoke with Hurley about her relationship with religion, sexual abuse in the spiritual world, and the process of writing a woman’s transgressive spiritual quest story.

Rachel Lyon: Nicole’s journey from Boston to New York is interspersed with a series of flashbacks that track her past, from the very beginning, growing up in a well-to-do Catholic family outside of Boston, to her teen years, converting to Buddhism and running away from home, through her 20s, to the present. Before we get into the how of this book, I’m curious about the what. What brought you to this subject matter? Do you have a personal relationship to the Boston Catholic community? To Buddhism?

Blair Hurley: My interest in religion, and Catholicism and Buddhism in particular, began at a young age. My family had Boston Irish Catholic roots going back generations, but I was actually raised entirely secular; my parents had both had bad experiences with organized religion and they wanted to give me and my sister freedom to explore and choose our own spirituality. I was always curious, though, about the rituals and the doctrines that gave people around me such meaning and fulfillment in their lives. Somehow I knew all about the rules and traditions and prayers of Catholicism, even without being Catholic. It’s a religion that casts a long shadow over the generations.

As for my interest in Buddhism, a close family friend is a converted Zen Buddhist. We had long, freewheeling discussions about spirituality, the divine, and her own ecstatic experience of what she called the energy of the universe, dancing. She gave me books about Buddhism, but also about radical Catholic nuns, Muslim Sufi mystics — pretty much any faith that has a mystical tradition was something she was interested in, and she got me interested too. She had an expansive knowledge and curiosity about all religions and I was completely sucked in. I took a lot of classes in college, visited Zen and Tibetan Centers, and started researching Buddhism’s arrival in America, which is a fascinating story itself, with bright spots and dark corners.

Once I started writing about Buddhism, I realized I needed to know about my own religious roots, too. Conversion is a messy experience, and you always tend to bring along the stories and songs and superstitions of your original faith with you. I started doing more research into the Catholic communities of Boston. I was only one generation removed from a very tightly knit tribe; my father remembers Sunday school and fish on Fridays, and my grandfather was nearly disowned for marrying an Episcopalian. Those cultural currents run deep.

I wanted to write a girl’s spiritual quest story that was transgressive and wild and crazy and brave.

RL: Western characters experimenting with Eastern religious practices is not exactly a new theme in literature — and you have a little fun with that: Nicole reads Kerouac’s On the Road when she’s a teenager (as so many of us did) and finds it lacking: “She read about the girls in these books, simpering, foolish, half-naked. The girls were there for spice, Kerouac wrote. Where were the girl wanderers? Where were the girl lunatics?”

How has the American experiment with Zen Buddhism — and its representation in literature — grown and changed in the sixty years since On the Road? To what extent were you thinking of Nicole as your own “girl lunatic,” your answer to Kerouac’s (very male) heroes?

BH: I’m so glad you asked that! At its heart, I think The Devoted is a spiritual quest story, and just as you say, the fundamental driving impulse while I was writing was that I wanted to write a girl-spiritual-quest story. I wanted to write a girl’s story that was transgressive and wild and crazy and brave. I grew up reading and loving stories like On the Road and The Dharma Bums, in which men are allowed to cut ties with their families and go off into the wilderness and have spiritual revelations. But any woman who makes the same choice is still judged so harshly; she’s seen as betraying her family, and abandoning her responsibilities, if she tries to find herself. As a young reader searching for female heroes in the books I read, I often felt puzzled and angry by women’s invisibility in these kinds of stories. I wanted Nicole to have the chance to break free and to make mistakes the same way male characters seemed permitted to do.

As for Westerners looking to the East for answers, I definitely wanted to acknowledge the fraught nature of this, and the way Buddhism was (and still is) treated as an exotic, exciting alternative to Judeo-Christian beliefs in America. I’m prone to it as much as Nicole is, and wanted the novel to acknowledge that she’s an outsider, with no connection to the cultures and languages and histories of Buddhism. She’s young and dumb at first, and her understanding of Buddhism is pretty rudimentary. I hope that as she grows and studies, her claim to Buddhism becomes more meaningful. That religious identity is hard-fought and earned.

I grew up reading and loving stories where men are allowed to cut ties with their families and go off into the wilderness and have spiritual revelations. But a woman who makes the same choice is still judged so harshly; she’s seen as betraying her family, and abandoning her responsibilities, if she tries to find herself.

RL: Nicole is a fascinating, almost spooky character. She’s full of contradictions; you say at some point that she contains “two selves.” As a teenager she’s both “good girl” and “bad girl.” As an adult she cuts an unassuming figure, yet she can be a charismatic leader. Her brother says she both “wise” and “a screw-up,” and in a parable she recognizes herself as both “young girl” and “grown woman.” Can you talk a bit about the process of writing her? How did you find her?

BH: I’m definitely a character-oriented writer. I have to really inhabit a character, feel her feelings, and understand her contradictions before I’m ready to tell the story. Nicole has a lot of the confusion and longing that I experienced growing up, but she’s also a lot more wild and assertive than I am! She wants things very strongly, and she often blends the ecstasy of spiritual experience with the ecstasy of sensual pleasure. Nicole is actually named for one of my favorite characters in literature, Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. In that book, Nicole Diver is a deeply troubled woman who loves deeply, but has also experienced terrible trauma. There’s a moment when as a young woman, she holds up a basket of flowers to the man she loves, and it’s like she’s offering herself, all her life, to him, so hopeful that his love and acceptance will heal her somehow. I felt my Nicole had the same intense mixture of longing and desire — she believes that if she offers herself fully to someone, usually a man, then she’ll be saved by him. Once I understood that about her, I understood why she would stay with her manipulative Zen Master long past the point of no return.

Just the pleasure of being alive can feel so good it hurts for her. There’s the promise of the divine in every moment, and she’s always lusting after it, looking in all the wrong places.

When Fighting Stops Being Fun

RL: You give us an impression of the Master’s size — an impression that actually changes radically, depending on context — and a word, here and there, about his expression or the warmth of his hands, but his physical appearance is left mysterious. He doesn’t even have a name. What was behind that artistic decision?

BH: Early on I wanted the Master to be a deeply chilling character, someone unsettling and well, creepy. I knew he couldn’t have a name, or exist beyond carefully orchestrated setups; in direct sunlight, I think he’d seem small and grasping and pathetic. But in Nicole’s mind, he looms very large, and dominates her inner life. The mystery around the Master had to be built up carefully, and I wanted to show that it’s something he orchestrates himself. All of his power over his students comes from the exploitation of this exotic, strange, enticing persona. Zen itself often relies on mystery and secrecy; the nature of true existence cannot be spoken in words, and we must achieve a state of no-mind and no-self. The texts of Zen, known as koans, are often like riddles with no clear answer. The Master is himself a kind of koan. Nicole thinks he can be cracked like a puzzle or a code. And once I realized he would pursue her, and continue trying to control her, the mystery needed to be wrapped up with menace as well.

I wanted Sean and the Master to stand in stark contrast to each other, almost as paths that Nicole might choose to take in her life. I originally imagined Sean as a Buddhist’s worst nightmare — someone who is deeply, almost pathologically attached to worldly possessions, unable to disentangle his memories with his stuff. In contrast, the Master is almost disembodied, more of a phantom than a physical, worldly person.

RL: Nicole’s Master may be fictional, but he is not unlikely. Andrea Winn, who grew up in a Shambhala community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, published a report in 2017 that detailed rampant sexual abuse and associated cover-ups. Last month amidst multiple accusations, head of Shambhala International Mipham Rinpoche went on leave, and the entire governing council of his organization resigned en masse. The New York Times covered several other cases of abuses by Buddhist spiritual leaders recently.

To what extent was the novel a response to incidents like these? How do you see your book now in the context of newer allegations? Have recent developments altered your relationship with your work?

BH: Incidents like these were definitely on my mind as the story started taking shape. When I first started getting interested in Buddhism, my Zen Buddhist friend warned me that Buddhism’s introduction to America had been complicated and fraught. She told me about the terrible offers that had been dangled before trusting, hopeful students seeking enlightenment: do this for me if you want enlightenment. Don’t tell anyone, or you’ll lose your one shot at inner healing and peace. I learned that sexual abuse had been perpetrated by Zen and Tibetan priests and teachers for decades.

Buddhism is not unique in having this problem, but the traditional teacher-student relationship is particularly vulnerable to abuse. In Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, students swear vows of loyalty to their teachers, and the teachers’ judgement is unquestionable and absolute. Once women began studying under men in large numbers, the dynamic was ripe for abuses of power.

It seems especially devastating to me to encounter sexual harassment or abuse in a spiritual context: a place that is supposed to be sacred has been violated by a deeply dehumanizing form of violence. I wanted to write about how this comingling of sexual and spiritual desire could happen — how a person badly wanting enlightenment could become subsumed by a manipulative teacher.

Now that the #MeToo movement has broken wide open in the workplace, I’m hopeful that more attention will be brought to spiritual spaces as well, and it really does seem like there’s more attention to this issue. It’s awful to have a boss dangle advancement over your head, or threaten the loss of a job, in exchange for sex. It’s another kind of hell to discover that your spiritual teacher, who holds your soul in his hands, does not really see you as a person after all, but only a body.

Another really heartening aspect of Buddhism’s transformation in the West has been the breaking down of traditional male and female hierarchies in the religion. Whereas women were subordinate to men in most Buddhist traditions, now many of the most powerful Zen and Tibetan Centers in the country are run by women. That transformation from subservient student to teacher was something I wanted for Nicole.

It’s another kind of hell to discover that your spiritual teacher, who holds your soul in his hands, does not really see you as a person after all, but only a body.

RL: Sexual abuse can be peculiarly intense, I imagine, for students of Buddhism, because their vows of allegiance bind them to their masters across lifetimes. But any abuse of spiritual power is devastating. You draw a parallel in the context of Nicole’s lifetime between the revelations of misconduct among Catholic priests in Boston in the 1990s, which resulted in many Boston cathedrals closing their doors, and the behavior of her Master. How do you see the relationship between these two crises, both on the page and in the world?

BH: I was in high school in Boston when the first sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church first broke, and I remember the outrage, shock, and citywide heartbreak in the wake of these revelations. What was surprising, though, was that there was more outcry in the face of the Archdiocese of Boston’s choice to close many churches due to lack of funds and decreasing membership. People didn’t want to talk about the abuse of children; there was a powerful urge to look away and cover up those stories. There’s a cloud of silence and shame around abuse like this that can be truly devastating for survivors. I was struck by how for decades, survivors didn’t even have the language to describe what had happened to them. People abused in Buddhism have a similar problem today. We’re still struggling to classify and give a name to what has happened, and it’s important, because naming it and speaking it aloud is the beginning of ending it.

The more I worked on the novel, the more I saw parallels between these two situations. The Buddhist sexual scandals are quite different, in that no abuses of minors or children have come to light; it’s a far more gray area of consent and harm. But I couldn’t help seeing how the abuses of power and authority were similar. In both cases, a trusted spiritual advisor preyed upon vulnerable people, and used the dignity and holiness of his office to protect himself from the consequences. I’ve read interviews with victims in both the Catholic Church and Buddhist organizations, and in both situations, people have spoken of how impossible it is to say no to God when He asks something of you. Catholic priests and Buddhist teachers both acted as a doorway to the divine, and as a barrier to it.

I wanted to show how abuse could occur in both of these traditions — but also how deeply meaningful both traditions could be for different characters in my story. Ultimately, Nicole feels that Buddhism saves her life. That’s something she shares with her mother, who needs her Catholic beliefs in order to survive. The language with which we pray, or reach out for the divine, is deep-seated, and doesn’t leave us easily. Nicole has to make her peace with that, and find a way to reconcile her upbringing with her personal spiritual transformation.

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