Almost fifty years ago, when I was a very young man, I heard firsthand about the rape of a young girl who was a resident of the state-operated institution where I worked at the time. She’d run away from the facility and wasn’t found until the next morning. The girl lacked the intellectual and verbal capacity to describe her nightmarish ordeal. Her attacker would never be known.
That incident haunted me, and I often wondered about the nature of the perpetrator. It was easy to imagine him as uneducated human filth, stinking of alcohol, or a smarmy rich kid with well-honed predatory instincts. But decades later, when the incident served as the definitive moment for my novel, Art of Absolution, I wondered if I could construct a perpetrator who’d be neither of those stereotypes. I wanted to write a character that would challenge women readers’ self-perception of their charitable nature, and make good men uncomfortable with how easily their gender could do the unforgivable.
I knew I had my work cut out for me after I surveyed female friends and family members with two questions.
What if, I asked, your loving and reliable husband of twenty years discovered he’d fathered a child years before meeting you—could you forgive him?
The responses were similar: Assuming their husband knew nothing about the child, of course they’d forgive him.
I complicated the scenario by adding what if your spouse later admitted that the sex was not consensual—could you still forgive him?
Their answers were again comparable: They were horrified, saying it would be nearly impossible to forgive and forget such brutality, regardless of the man’s otherwise exemplary life. One respondent, however, gave me an expanded answer. She was a woman whose Catholicism was integral to her life. She said, “If my husband asked my forgiveness, then my faith compels me to forgive him.”
That response gave me some insight into how I might craft the character and the probable parameters of human forgiveness.
Art of Absolution begins in a straightforward and familiar way. A mother and recent widow, Bailey, has kept her twenty-year-old son Teddy’s adoption a secret for all his life. Not so much because she’s feared how he might react to not being her biological child, but to protect him from learning the appalling backstories of his birth parents. As the first third of the book ends, Teddy has confirmed his suspicions and is now on a mission to find his birth father and mother.
Upon turning the page at that point in the story, the reader meets the man responsible for half of Teddy’s DNA. His name is Michael, a reputable small-town businessman with an adoring wife, Kate, and a precocious teenage daughter.
My first step in building Michael into an empathetic character was to introduce him as a profoundly humble man. His charitable acts are generous and given anonymously. He’s sincerely embarrassed when receiving accolades and community recognition. As a religious convert, he’s received the sacrament of penance, yet he is never in denial, waking up every morning in the shadow of his one horrible act.
To further humanize Michael, I gave him a terrible childhood. He’s suffered the full gamut of woes from an abusive father and emotionally crippled mother, to living on the streets at sixteen. For good measure, he’s also a recovering alcoholic, two decades sober.
Kate knows about Michael’s past and has been instrumental in his rehabilitation and spiritual nourishment. He’s been honest and transparent with her ever since she agreed to marry him, although his confessions at the time left out his most grievous sin.
Late in the story, when Michael and Teddy finally meet, I gave Michael the opportunity for further redemption. Rather than accept Bailey’s insistence that he not have a relationship with Teddy, Michael pushes back. Teddy’s dad has recently died, and Michael thinks that serving as a father-figure to the young man will further pay down his spiritual debt.
Would all those contributing factors to Michael’s character be enough to generate reader empathy for him? Had I built up a large enough reserve of reader goodwill to withstand the last chapters that reveal the details of Michael’s secret?
As Michael once cries out, “One monstrous act doesn’t make me a monster.”
Or does it?
Certain stories do more than entertain; they make us uncomfortable. They’re what you might call good Book Club reads, novels that engage the reader by presenting difficult situations that lead to introspection and discussion.
I suspect most readers will have a difficult time building enduring empathy for Michael, regardless of his backstory and efforts to make amends. More likely, the connection will be when Kate has her faith severely tested. Or, they’ll cheer Bailey and her son as they unmask the long-ago perpetrator.
But an argument might be made that Michael is both a victim (of his unrelenting guilt and a cruel childhood) and a pursuer of justice (as he struggles to pay the price for absolution). Of course, he is neither innocent prey nor a stellar defender of righteousness. The challenge for me as a writer was to create the ambiguity that would inspire my readers to see the humanity in a character they’d otherwise impulsively despise. Then it would be up to them to decide whether Michael deserves any degree of absolution.
William Ade is a member of Sisters in Crime (Chesapeake Chapter). His short stories have appeared in the 2018 and 2019 editions of Best New England Crime Stories. Other anthologies include Mindscapes Unimagined, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Classics Remixed, and Transcend Literary Magazine. His short story collection, No Time for His Nonsense, was released in March 2020. His novel, Art of Absolution, was published in June 2020.