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(Warning: this post contains Doubt "spoilers" and brief, non-graphic discussion of child abuse in the Catholic church.)

I fretted over “Recompense Delight”* more than any other fanfic I’ve ever posted. Writing it was a giddy, stay-up-far-too-late-typing style of FUN, but still I fretted.

For one, there was a relatively significant issue of historical accuracy:

Doubt is set in 1964, and “Recompense Delight” is set in ’64 and ’65. I realized—somewhat embarrassingly late in the writing process—that the NIV Bible I own and was using for the story came out in 1973. I tried to research which translations would've been favored by English-speaking Catholics in the '60s, and ultimately decided to use the King James version in spite of uncertainty as to which Bible would've been the pew Bible, so to speak. The language of the King James Bible is so intricate, and I like the sound of it.

The only part that really hurt was having to get rid of the NIV translation of Song of Songs 8:13. It was exactly what I wanted Sister Aloysius to say, and exactly the way I wanted her to say it:

13You who dwell in the gardens
with friends in attendance,
let me hear your voice!

I think it was the exclamation point that got me. Sister Aloysius has plenty of impassioned speeches in the movie, but there's a difference between passion and enthusiasm. She's subtle, and dry, and a lot of times she's the only one onscreen who understands her humor. In my story, her decision to quote from Song of Songs is a huge turning point. The line she chooses, coming at the end of a long and almost desperate dialogue between the Lover, the Beloved, and onlookers, is enthusiastic. She wouldn't talk that way on her own, but her quoting is another kind of communication.

In addition to the unabashed tone, the NIV translation leaves less ambiguity as to who wants to hear the Beloved's voice. (In King James, the "companions hearken to thy voice", and the request from the lover re: the voice is "Cause me to hear it.") It also suggests the situation of addressing someone who is a part of a group (such as James being a member of an order of nuns) and setting them apart.

Still, it wouldn't have done to quote from NIV when it wouldn't be around for another 8 or 9 years.

Another major issue was the subject matter itself. I didn't bend over backward trying to insert my own perspective into the story, but I did need to figure out two things: how do I feel about nuns having sex? How do the nuns in question feel about having sex?

For better or for worse (marriage pun intended), vows impact the function of our society. Human beings like to make promises. We decide what is right--committing ourselves to a church, to a lifestyle, to a legal arrangement with one person, to a contract of a particular duration at work, to a financial obligation during a pledge drive--and we try, with varied levels of success, to stick to it. A lot of good things get accomplished because people assign value to commitment. On the other hand, people experience a great deal of angst and fear and stress when they change their minds about these vows, or have trouble sticking to self- or outwardly-imposed expectations.

In "Recompense Delight," Aloysius and James watch--no, take an active part in--the way that an institution that shapes every aspect of their lives fails a child. From Aloysius' initial dismay at James' suspicions, it is obvious that many children have been failed in a similar way, in other parishes if not their own. No matter what has happened to Donald Miller, and no matter how successful he eventually becomes, he has been scrutinized by his peers and the school staff, singled out by the priest, and has been failed. James doesn't want to believe that the atrocity of child abuse could be happening, while Aloysius becomes absorbed in her certainty in just that. What they have in common, I think, is that they both abhor the idea of a priest taking advantage of a child's innocence and trust. At the end of the film, when Aloysius expresses her doubts (which, in my mind, are not doubts about Father Flynn's guilt but doubts about the functionality of the Church as a system of governing her own life and the lives of many others) James is compassionate even though I read her as a character who wants to cling to her trust in the Church.

In writing the story, I wanted to question the value of James' and Aloysius' upholding their vows of celibacy, vows made to an institution that--on the side of the patriarchy, at least--is neither flawlessly celibate nor committed to the integrity such vows suggest. If James and Aloysius love each other (in canon and in my story, they do) and have been let down by the institution within which they work (in canon and in my story, they have), why shouldn't they engage in a consensual relationship? At the same time, I struggled to communicate that nuns having sex is not the same thing as nuns abandoning Catholicism. James is so convinced that Aloysius is losing her faith in God and in the Church, but I didn't see that as the case. Yes, Aloysius becomes more critical of the Church, and I don't think she would have pursued a relationship with James had she not been so disillusioned by the events of the film. James grows to understand her critiques even if she's less apt to criticize, and she makes a decision that would certainly not have been upheld by the institution. Still, I think the idea that loving, consensual sex could ruin a person's ability to lead a faithful, virtuous life is about as ludicrous as ignoring all historical context when reading Leviticus 18:22 and using it to condemn homosexuality.

Of course, that's what a lot of people do. They find all the parts of the Bible labeled by a concordance as relevant to "homosexuality," and use those passages to justify their hatefulness and homophobia. Does Sister Aloysius do that, with her initial "love letters," even though she knows she wants to escalate her relationship with Sister James? Even while I was writing those scenes, I was torn. Aloysius believes in Hell--rhetorically, at least--in both the film and in my story. She and James both take intiative in heightening the terms of their relationship, but I do feel strongly that they both feel that they have chosen to sin.

There's pleasure in transgression, though, and I don't put it past Aloysius to enjoy (the consensual, carefully considered) transgressive quality of their relationship. The passages about "homosexuality" warn Sister James of a sort of worst-case scenario, but they also give them the space to address homosexuality. If James hadn't been reading Wilde, and if Aloysius hadn't thought to copy down the scriptures, there might not have been room in their lives for the topic of same-sex love to come up. Likewise, Psalm 125--and Esther, the book Aloysius loves--address the battle against evil in a way that James, being an intelligent but impressionable woman, can understand better than the confusingly immediate "battle against evil" going on right in their parish in the Bronx. And although the nitty-gritty specifics of Song of Songs might not be stuff a nun or their contemporaries--or me!--would find especially titillating in their own right, it is undeniably the "hot" book of the Bible. It would be a thrill to have that chapter personally recommended.

After all those unspeakable things are in the room with them, Aloysius asks "Do you want to go to Hell with me?" (Worst pick-up line EVER!) Hell, for her, is a possibility, but bringing it up in that moment is also a transgressive act of solidarity. She can't say "Want to go out?" like they're going to meet up for dinner and a movie this Friday night. If they want to be together, they don't have a lot of options. They can spend time secretly-more-together-than-they-look in common spaces, like the blue room. They can make love on a tiny bed, and confront the possibility that they are dooming each other.

I believe in God but I don't believe in Hell. Still, I imagine that Hell is somewhere, because I've heard so much about it. Does that make sense--not believing in something, but still operating under the notion that it's there? I have a lot of trouble imagining myself damned to Hell, and my biggest hope for these characters is that they, in spite of all the transgression and doubt and difficult decisions they have to make, can't truly picture themselves there either. They've been let down by an institution, by a priest, by a network of men, and to some extent by each other (because they had trouble communicating, and understanding each other's motives) they have each other, and maybe that will restore some of what they've lost. Faith dies without joy, I think. There's more to joy than pleasure, but pleasure has its place.

*After the fact, I kind of think “Recompense Delight” sounds funny. What I meant by the title was that love and sex and the sharing of oneself with another are delightful things, and that just as the sinners in Romans “receiv[e] in themselves that recompense of their error,” it is possible to compensate another person for lovely things, too. Unfortunately, it kind of sounds like a dessert, like Marshmallow Pineapple Delight, or something. Oh well.

Date: 2009-08-19 12:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*gnaws on your brain*

Despite thirteen years in Catholic school, I have never found anything beautiful in the Bible. I'm not exactly envious of people who do, but I sometimes wonder at the comfort it brings some people.

Aloysius feels like a person who was religious always, but went to the Church because life had nothing left for her. In the context of your story, it makes perfect sense that she would be a person who identifies with the characters in the Bible -it's filled with sinners who are saved or smite by God-, even as she takes herself away from the teachings of the Church itself.

Date: 2009-08-20 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
In large part, I don't find it especially comforting beyond the parts I find beautiful. I get wrapped up in the wording more so than in the teachings (and did even as a kid in Sunday School...unless I found something troubling and had to argue with the teacher. The year I started consciously identifying as a feminist was an interesting year for my Sunday School teacher, I'm sure. Hmm. Now I want to write about that! My parents are both church-going feminists and that fact has influenced who I am more than almost anything else.) I love that the Bible has changed form and translation so much, but has still somehow survived and influenced centuries. It's scary (when it leads to hateful acts) and gorgeous (when it provides comfort or strength) all at once.

Date: 2009-08-21 06:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
unless I found something troubling and had to argue with the teacher

*Snickers at own childhood memories*

Date: 2009-08-21 12:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
As always, you've left me a lot to think about.

Hmm. Okay. I will say that while I thoroughly enjoyed "Recompense Delight" and I hope you write a lot more Doubt fic (or any fic), I'm still honestly not sure how I feel about Aloysius inviting James into a relationship in which they knowingly break their vows. Question: did the fact that they are are part of the Sisters of Charity, and have thus only taken temporary vows, enter into your conception of the story?

As to the rest, I agree with you in that I also believe in God and am not sure about hell, although I do believe in eternal consequences. I'm just not sure what they are, precisely, and I'm very glad I'm not in charge of them. I suppose the idea that resonates most with me is the idea in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle,* in which the dwarves, along with everybody else, end up in the "true" Narnia (which we may assume to be heaven), but keep their eyes closed and maintain that they are still below ground where everything is dark and smelly and horrible. The other characters tell them all about their beautiful, glorious surroundings, but it's no use: the dwarves, surrounded by evidence of grace and life abundant, refuse to open their eyes and see it, and are thus by their own choice in hell. So they're not thrown into a fiery pit by a supposedly all-merciful God, but are rather limited by their own prejudices and unable to look beyond their own interests. They can't see any way to exist that frees them from their own unhappiness and self-loathing. In other words, Miranda Priestly is going straight to hell.

*Note: it's been a while since I've read TLB, so I might be kind of fuzzy on the details. I need to find it again!

Date: 2009-08-30 09:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow, I had no idea when I wrote this entry that it would take me such a long time to get back to the people who commented. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. It's kind of exciting, actually, to get a response that expresses mixed or uncertain feelings over the subject matter--and it's very gratifying to know that this didn't ruin the reading experience for you. Not to sound like a snot or anything, but--numbers wise, at least--I got less of a response to this story than I typically do. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that not a lot of people are reading or writing "Doubt" stories, certainly not in comparison to the oddly ever-growing DWP community. I cherished all the comments I did receive. But I couldn't help but think that I made people uncomfortable with this story, and that it can be really difficult to comment on uncomfortable things. That's part of why I wanted to write this follow-up entry. I really, really wanted these characters to break their vows, and for the sake of my story I'm glad I wrote about them doing so. But it was an uncomfortable thing for me to write, and provoked a lot of thinking about why vows and promises are important, and what it means to sacrifice them.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know much about the Sisters of Charity of New York or the exact nature of their vows: that's probably something I should've researched more while writing "Recompense Delight." I did look into it more after getting your comment. I suppose there would be a different mindset for people who renew their vows annually, but I like to think that if a person was really serious about being a nun they would throw themselves into the lifestyle with the same amount of zeal as a person who's taken a perpetual vow. This is all completely outside of my life experience, but I see even a perpetual vow as being made temporary by the fact that the part of our lives we can control--our earthly lives--are finite. In a strange way, the choice of renewing one's vows might make the relationship between James and Aloysius even more stressful: they've both got a big decision to make, and there's always the chance that they wouldn't make the same one.

My personal take on it is that vows please humans a lot more than they please God. We've got to corral ourselves into some kind of order somehow, and vows are a great way to do that. But if they lose their potency or power, or simply stop feeling "right," I like the idea that a person can opt out. Whether they opt out officially or unofficially makes less of a difference to me than I thought it did before writing this story. The problem, of course, is that I think James really likes being a nun. I can't tell about Aloysius.

I haven't read much C.S. Lewis, but I like that idea you describe--that God doesn't send people (well, creatures of any sort) to hell, but that we can send ourselves there. I think that happens a lot right here on earth--I don't mean the old "hell is other people" saying, but I do think that people damn themselves while they're still alive quite a bit, and live in that misery. My hope is that heaven--whatever and wherever and however it turns out to be--is a place where all that vanishes.

I guess it's the eternal part of "eternal consequences" that gets me. I find the concept of "forever" impossible to comprehend, and it bothers me to think that anything I do on earth could lock me into a certain path forever, when, as a creature of earth, I can't even grasp how long that really is. The concept of an eternal afterlife is beautiful to me, and I'm very curious about it, but I think a lot of the fear mongering that happens in religious communities comes about when people spend too much time thinking about "forever" and not enough about the here and now. Would The Last Battle make any sense at all if I am a virtual stranger to the other Narnia books? (My 3rd grade teacher read us The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and, shamefully, that's about the extent of my exposure.)

Thanks again for the lovely comment. It really made me think.

From: [identity profile]
Interesting. I loved your selection of Songs 8:13 because it seemed to me that Aloysius was showing a reluctance to set things in motion. As the older party, it makes sense to me that she'd feel a certain heavier culpability here for leading someone younger astray. It reads almost like a dare: "Start something," she's saying to James. "Tell me what you want, make your choice so I don't feel I've made it for you, so I'm not the sole party responsible for what we're about to do wrong."

I don't think I mentioned in my comment on the fic proper how much I liked that Aloysius had clearly spent a great deal of time studying what the text has to say about homosexuality and lesbians in particular. Her literacy about this spoke volumes to how long she's been thinking about the subject of her own desires. More than anything else in the fic, it made me curious about her state of mind, in ways that are fertile rather than unsatisfying. There's a lot to explore in her and in how she thinks about all this. "See how messy this is?" I would agree with you that she seems to feel torn, and that interested me, because in your fic it felt very much like all her reading and soul-searching hadn't led her to any definite conclusions. She was disillusioned about the moral authority of the Church, it's true, but on the level of her own personal faith she seemed to be still searching for answers.

I really respect that you chose to stick to the KJV for accuracy's sake. I sort of wonder what Aloysius and James thought (in the world of their fictional universe) of the NIV when it came out, though. I was actually lucky enough to grow up in a church that had both of those versions in its pews, and our pastor's sermons weren't really the liveliest or most stimulating things to listen to, so that was how I spent my Sundays. There really is a world of difference between the translations, and that King James is what these characters have been mostly dealing with gives me a lot of information about how they think.

Like Telanu, I did wonder if your choice to give them the room to be sexual together had anything to do with the impermanence of their vows. (Of course, I tend to take the view that the vows themselves were misguided and based in a culture that irrationally fears sex as something immoral, which I don't, so their transgression doesn't make me wince too hard.) I also wonder if James will choose to stay in the Church, now that she's broken them, because she doesn't really seem to be someone who's used to lying. How uncomfortable does she find the guilt of what they've done?

As to the more "ground-level" question of whether there is some sort of divine punishment awaiting sinners in the afterlife: I'm not saying I know anything about this, because I don't. But doesn't the concept seem a little... I don't know, too convenient? It's too like fiction, and I can't help but think that it's more likely something people invented for their own comfort and to serve their own ends. If it exists (which in my eyes is a completely open question) I doubt we have a clear notion of what it's like. Where would we get one? The same could be said of my views of God, in fact. But I love playing with this stuff because of the "meta" level of it -- the ways it reflects on the people who create and sustain it, those who find it fulfilling and those who subscribe to it in spite of the pain it gives them.

Just in case I haven't babbled long enough here, check out Meryl's take on Aloysius' character in an interview with Nightline. The beginning of the interview is about other things, but they start discussing Doubt around 3:15.

Winning quote: "I think there's a reason that she feels vehemently about this subject. I think that she's had some experience that allows her to smell it when it enters the room." I honestly am not quite sure how to interpret this, but it interests me.
From: [identity profile]
To be clear: I was not in the least squeamish about their choice to break their vows on personal moral grounds, and anyway that isn’t at all how I evaluate fiction. As to the issue of whether or not it would be realistic that these two characters, who have both taken vows of chastity and who seem to have been raised as Christians, would be willing to break their vows together… I don’t really have a solid frame of reference to evaluate that. On the whole, it didn’t seem glaringly implausible to me, because a) humans often lack self-control, even those who choose a religious lifestyle (just look at Father Flynn!), and because b) I don’t really know that much about how hard either of them thought about the “chastity” part of the vow when they committed to it. Though I’m sure that at the time they both completely intended to follow that part of the agreement, to me it seems plausible that they might have never considered the possibility of the presence of any actual temptation within the convent itself. In religious societies which frown on it, queerness is often so well-hidden as to be nearly invisible, so it’s likely that they both have a very skewed idea of how many “women like them” there are in the faith community. In that case it makes total sense that they wouldn’t have expected to meet another woman of similar preferences, particularly in a convent, where the rules are (or so they believed when they signed up) a Much Bigger Deal than they are on the outside. So in their places, I would probably have expected the "chastity" part of the deal to be a total non-issue, given that I wouldn't be living with any men, if I liked those, or other women who are into women -- ie, there would really be no one close by with whom I'd be tempted to break the vow.

Finally sitting down to write a response!

Date: 2009-08-30 09:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Whew. It's taken me so long to get to this, that I'm just going to jump right in with my thoughts!

Thank you so much for such a detailed, thoughtful response. Please don't worry--I absolutely understood that you weren't squeamish about their breaking of their vows. When you wrote to me about how you write/read for charisma and complexity rather than morality, all I could think was and I'm so glad she does because it makes both your stories and your responses to my stories really, really interesting to read. Although I do take the morality of my characters more seriously (like they're real, truly!), I have no problem writing morally questionable things...well, maybe only a little bit of a problem. And I love getting to spend hours thinking about this stuff and trying to figure out where I stand.

After writing the story and this post and then thinking a lot about the comments I received, I've come to the conclusion that I'm pretty firmly in "my" characters' (not that I have any right to them!) camp in re: their actions and decisions. I outlined those reasons--and my take on the temporary vow issue--in the above comment I wrote to Telanu.

I do wonder about James' future in the church, much more so than I do about Aloysius'. I can't really imagine Aloysius leaving, and I think she's much more at home both in the parish and, in a figurative sense, with the idea that it's possible to lie and deviate from the codes of a particular institution without finding oneself completely at odds with the lifestyle. I'm not sure if it's in James' nature to reconcile secrecy--having something for herself, in a sense--with the intensely communal religious lifestyle she's chosen. Part of me kind of hopes she can take a page from Aloysius' book and do just that, because it seems like she really wants to be a good nun and a good teacher, and nothing she does in the story could prevent those things from being possible.

I'm really glad that it seemed to you that Aloysius had spent a lot of time pondering desire and its intersection with the Bible. Part of me wants to take the easy way out and believe that because she's really smart she absolutely understands that using the Bible to prove the sinfulness of homosexuality only works if you ignore historical context completely. Still, even if she can do that, it would be a lot easier for her to re-interpret those passages with a nice healthy dose of context than it would be to ignore Church teaching and how utterly dangerous a queer relationship could be for her--and, of course, for James. That's definitely why I wanted her to leave some of the decision-making up to James. Aloysius is the instigator for sure, but we know from the film that James is capable of standing up to her, and if she had been made so uncomfortable that she wanted the notes or the flirting to stop, she would've said something.

So, yes. No simple answers, for the characters or for me. But it's so fun to think about. Thanks again for the amazing comments--you've given me much to ponder. And thanks for the link to that interview. I hadn't seen it, and it was enlightening. (Aw, Meryl Streep. I love her.)


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