In the honor of St. Patrick’s Day I am hosting Kenneth Weene, the author of Widow'sWalk, a novel exploring Irish-American identity, spirituality and sexuality.
The novel tells the story of Mary Flanagan, a woman who has come to America from Ireland, married a bus driver, and had two children. Mary's husband died of a stroke. Their daughter Kathleen married, miscarried, and was divorced by her husband. Because of Mary's traditional Catholic beliefs, she saw her daughter as still married. Kathleen, smothered in guilt and expectations, became a caregiver in a church hospice, where she met the enigmatic Max, a defrocked, gay priest, who is dying of AIDS. Mary's son, Sean Jr., went to Vietnam, where he was involved in an accident resulting in his becoming a quadriplegic.
Mary has been devoting her life to caring for her son, but he decides to go to a rehab center, which means our heroine has to restart her life. Part of that renewal is meeting and falling in love with Arnie Berger, a professor at Northeastern University.
Sean, too, falls in love, with Karen, an aide from the rehab. They marry and have a child, Robert.
In addition to Arnie, Mary meets Amelia, a woman who has little use for men, and Pat Michaels, a Protestant minister who believes life should be a celebration.
Given the experiences of her mother and brother and the urgings of Max, Kathleen finds a boyfriend, Danny, who has serious problems. She is eventually raped and descends into a cataleptic despair.
How does all this come together and resolve? For that you will want to read the book, which is available in print, Kindle, and Nook formats.
MJN: Sexual repression as part of Irish culture in De Valera's era has been explored in novels and film. The characters in your book are first and second generation American citizens, yet they still abide by the moral code of their Irish ancestors. For instance, Mary's health prohibits her from bearing more children, so her husband stoically abstains. Kathleen was abandoned by her husband after a late term miscarriage, yet she is repeatedly told by her mother that the marriage is still valid in God's eyes. One of the characters is, literally, a 40-year old virgin - or so it's implied.
KW: Of course, Mary was born in Ireland and represents the most traditional and repressive of the old country's traditional sexual mores. Her son Sean rebels against those sexual mores starting in high school. It is a reflection of my sense of irony that his injuries come not from battle but from a trip to a whorehouse in Vietnam.
Did Sean Senior stoically abstain once Mary could have no more children? We are told he does, but does the narrator or Mary actually know? What we do know is that he appeared to abstain; that is he didn't have sex with her. On the other hand, he certainly didn't express much love in that abstention—not that he had expressed much previously. We also know that he died of a stroke and have to wonder if the repression of his needs and desires helped produce that cataclysmic event.
As for Kathleen, her abstention after her divorce is filled with rage both at her mother and at the Church. It is only when the combination of her mother's renewed life, her brother's finding love, and Max's influence that she allows herself to return to sexuality.
Yes, the repression runs deep and painful in the Flanagan family.
MJN: In certain segments you use language that the characters would hesitate using, namely reference to certain anatomy parts. Hell, even I would hesitate using it in print, and you know I'm not prudish. Did you intend to stress the contrast between the narrator and the characters? I'm talking about their comfort level with their bodies.
KW: The story is set in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, AIDS is just appearing. Sex is not a closeted subject for all of Mary's repressed thinking. It is not simply the honesty of the narrator but also the honesty of certain characters that we find revealed in certain parts of the book. We must never forget that Max is integral to the story as is Mary's man-hating friend Amelia. Both have had very explicit experiences which they share and discuss.
While there isn't much explicit sexuality in the book, for example I don't go into the details of Sean and Karen's sex life or into the actual events of the rape, we cannot and must not ignore the reality that sex is the underlying topic of the novel. Widow's Walk is a clear indictment of those who would hide the facts of the flesh under the claimed robes of the spirit. In fact, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy makes it quite clear in a little but painful story she tells that there has been far too much suppression of that reality in the Church. In the end, Widow's Walk is very much about the need for sexual freedom. If there is a criticism of religion to be found in this book, it is the tendency to stop people from celebrating the capacity for physical love which God has given us.
MJN: After years of abstinence, Kathleen, Mary's daughter, finally starts dating again and ends up getting involved with a guy who is a violent psycho. There are some warning signs, little bells going off, but she is not sure what to make of them, given her limited experience with men. Do you believe that people who were denied freedom to date are more likely to find themselves in abusive relationships?
KW: Women who have been taught to suppress not only their sexuality but their sense of personal worth are prone to find men who treat them not as people but as possessions to be controlled and used. Certainly, the young man Kathleen Flanagan finds has great flaws. However, Danny is also a victim of sexual repression. He has been forced into the mother's boy role and eventually explodes in rage. While I certainly think Kathleen's limited experience is a factor in her eventual very poor choice in men, we must not forget that it isn't just women but men as well who pay great psychological, physical, and social costs for growing up in repressive environments.
MJN: The man who becomes Mary's lover is Jewish. Jews have been traditionally associated with liberalism in this country. Was your choice of Arnie's religion intentional? Do you think the story would've been different if you made him a WASP? What a nice twist that would've been?
KW: Arnie is to some degree based on a friend of mine who taught Foundations of Education at Northeastern University when I was also teaching in that department. It was not my original intent to have Arnie be Mary's lover. In fact, I had expected him to take the role the night school teacher play in the novel, the person who gets her thinking. We mustn't forget that Widow's Walk involves not just a life journey but an exploration of intellectual ideas. I hope it evokes some serious thought about life and values.
As I say, I wanted Arnie to play that intellectual questioner role, but the two of them fell in love. Sometimes you just have to let characters have their own heads.
So, who would Mary's lover have been if not Arnie? At the time my choice was actually a person from a very liberal church tradition. Pat Michaels, the minister who christens Sean and Karen's son, is the spinoff from that plan. If Mary was going to have Arnie as her lover, then the liberal Protestant role had to go elsewhere. It was, in my opinion, a very fortuitous trade-off.
MJN: In your novel, Sean, Mary's quadriplegic son, enjoys a very vibrant sex life with his aide Karen who goes on to become his wife and mother of his child. I'm not a doctor, so I don't know the technical details, but I did some research and learned that it was quite possible for a man who had no use of his limbs to still be able to use other parts of his anatomy. I was surprised that Karen had no reservations about starting an affair with a patient. Nowadays, a patient/nurse relationship would be frowned upon. It could lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit. Yet Kim has no qualms getting involved with her patient. Have times really changed that much?
KW: Karen is not a nurse but an aide. Still the relationship is somewhat ethically questionable. On the other hand since she is not licensed or board certified, who is there to say anything. Perhaps the facility for which she works and in which Sean is "rehabilitated" might object, but what could they do? Fire her? She leaves to marry him.
More importantly, I wanted Sean and Karen's marriage and the birth of their son to inform my readers about the reality that physical handicaps need not be handicaps to sexuality or—perhaps more importantly—to love.
By the way, Jem, who is the unsung heroine of the book, is modeled after my own role with a family. My intervention—as a psychologist—led to a young man who was a quadriplegic going into a rehab. And, yes, he did marry an aide from that facility and they did have children.