Jennifer Haigh’s Novel “Faith”: Viewing Characters and Narrative Through the Perspective of Psychology, Research Paper Example

In her novel Faith author Jennifer Haigh explores the circumstances surrounding a priest who is accused of sexually abusing a young boy. The story is set primarily in and around the year 2002, as the real-world Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church was being rocked by a seemingly-endless stream of accusations, allegations, and scandals regarding the abuse of children by priests. While the central character in Haigh’s novel, Father Art Brennan, is eventually vindicated, such vindication comes too late to change the circumstances of his life, and of his death. The drama related to the accusations against Father Brennan has significant repercussions not only for him, but also for his family. Faith provides an intimate psychological portrait of both Father Brenner and the members of his dysfunctional family. This paper will discuss a number of stages of development pertinent to Father Brenner; concomitant with that discussion consideration will be given to how such issues might be explored with the character in the context of psychological counseling.

Attachment Issues

The story told in Faith begins with a brief prologue about Father Breen –or simply “Art” or “Arthur,” as he was named at birth. In this prologue Art is an infant, and is being held and nursed by his mother as she receives the news that Art’s father has simply vanished. The specific details of the father’s disappearance are not spelled out; what is implied is that Art’s father has run afoul of a loanshark or some other local criminal, and this leads to his sudden disappearance. Subsequent discussions about this scenario are scant; the story of Art’s mother’s brief marriage –later annulled by the Church- is told infrequently in the family. Although Mary, Art’s mother, eventually remarries, Art keeps his biological father’s surname, which remains his sole connection to the father he never really knew.

Haigh frames Art’s issues regarding his father both explicitly and implicitly, and makes it clear that Art did not develop particularly strong ties of affection to his stepfather. Mary’s second marriage is to a man named Ted McGann; Ted and Mary produce two children together, a daughter named Sheila and a son named Mike. Sheila is the narrator of the story; she recounts the tale of her family history and Art’s eventual unwarranted disgrace as a means of setting the record straight about the true nature of Art’s supposed transgressions. This narrative device affords Haigh the opportunity to explore the psychology of her family’s history and interactions from the perspective of someone who actually lived through the experiences and is now trying to make sense of them both for herself and for her readers.

Art grown up with a strong interest in the Church, and he seems to know by the time of his early adolescence that he will enter the priesthood. Although Art is too young, as a teenager, to understand or even consider the psychological underpinnings of his desire to become a priest, Sheila’s literary post-mortem makes it clear that, at least from her perspective, the absence of Art’s biological father, coupled with the absence of a true emotional connection to his stepfather, is at the core of his intent to become a priest. It was not just Art’s father’s absence that kept Arft at arm’s length in terms of his emotional relationship to Ted; it was also Ted’s temperament that drove it: “(Ted’s) anger was a factor in Art’s choices: my brother’s place in the family and the reasons he left us, the sad trajectory of his priesthood. A factor, even, in his recent actions, ending in the events I’ll get to soon” (Haigh, 2011). As a boy, Art turned to the Church for the emotional sustenance he was not able to find in his own family.

The absence of Art’s biological father and his tenuous relationship with his stepfather meant, in essence, that “Art never had a father” (Haigh). Once he entered the seminary, however, “he had more fathers than he knew what to do with” (Haigh). Although Art could not have made such a connection at the time, he seemed to be searching for the emotional attachments that had previously been unattainable or even possible. Viewed through the lens of attachment theory, it is easy to understand why art developed as he did, displaying difficulties with typical familial relationships and friendships from an age where he was old enough for the requisite self-reflection on such matters (Shaver, 2010). Art always considers himself an outsider, a fact that is responsible, at least in large part, for his interest in the priesthood. Rather than consider ways in which he could surmount the emotional obstacles with which he is presented in life, Art chooses a path that allows him to remain a perennial outsider while still functioning as a member of society.

When readers are first introduced to Art in his infancy, his mother seems to be a fairly warm and emotionally-available woman. The sudden disappearance of her husband, and the subsequent emotional response to the surrounding scandal and gossip among her small community drives Mary to become less emotionally responsive to Art and later to her other children. This change in Mary’s mood and demeanor comes at a critical time in Art’s development; just as his bonds of attachment to his parents should be solidifying his capacity to develop his capacity to form appropriate or normal emotional bonds, he loses one parent figuratively and the other literally (Shaver and Norman, 1995). As Art’s emotional support system suddenly shifts under his feet it seems to calcify him on an emotional level; his development at this stage ensures that he will spend a lifetime feeling like an outsider, quite aware of his inability to cultivate the sorts of emotional bonds that form between family, friends, or lovers.

Self-Esteem and Self-Concept

While Art’s –and later, Father Breen’s- concept of self and his relative measure of self-esteem are both predicated by and reflective of his detachment from his family and of society, he is also driven to overcome, or at least work around, his detachment through his involvement in the priesthood. From a very young age, Art is unnerved by nearly everyone in his peer group; as he measures himself against his peers he nearly always determines that he comes up short. He is fearful of typical social interaction in a manner which supersedes typical adolescent angst and insecurity. His involvement in the seminary, with its rigid constructs, offers a respite from his anxieties: “St. John’s was a haven from all that frightened him, the alarming interplay of male and female, that intricate and wild dance. Like many boys he feared the opposite sex. But even more intensely, he feared his own.” Art is intimidated by nearly everyone in his peer group, his sense of self-esteem having been sharply stunted by the experiences of his youth .

Any adequate discussion or examination of Art’s self-esteem in terms of his developmental stages must take into account both the function and machinations of his immediate family and the larger social and cultural context in which he grew up (Cast and Burke, 2002). At the time of his death he was in his early 50s, which meant that his childhood and adolescence were spent in a time when then-contemporary social mores were quite different than were those that existed by the time he reached middle age. The culture of the Boston neighborhoods of the 1950s and 1960s in which Art grew up was, for many, centered on the Catholic Church. It was during Art’s childhood that Vatican pronouncements about modernizing the organizational culture of the Church were made; such pronouncements were largely ignored by the priests at Art’s church, and those pronouncements that were not ignored were often held in contempt by local church officials. The ossified culture of the Church manifested in a variety of ways, many of which would have made life difficult for stigmatized groups or individuals (Crocker and Major, 1989).

Research into the relationship between stigma and self-esteem has sometimes produced surprising, or at least unexpected results. Predictions that being a part of a stigmatized social group, for example, would have a direct correlation with low self-esteem for members of such a group, have not been borne out to a significant extent (Crocker and Major). Results of some research into this area have determined that being part of a socially-stigmatized group does not necessarily mean that members of such groups will have low self-esteem (Crocker and Major). Analysis of such results has concluded that inclusion in the stigmatized group, and the attendant emotional connections and support systems provided by group membership, may “protect the self-concept” (Crocker and Major) underpinning self-esteem. Further elucidation of this idea posits that group membership may allow individuals within that group to transfer the emotional weight of social stigma to other causes or reasons; for example, members of a stigmatized group may blame the stigma not on their own qualities, but instead may attribute them to prejudice against their group (Crocker and Major). Individuals in stigmatized groups may also weigh their individual outcomes against those of other group members, rather than against those outside the group (Crocker and Major).

For Art, the protection potentially offered by group membership would have been largely unavailable, or more to the point, simply inapplicable. Coming up in the heavily-Catholic culture of the 1950s and 1960s in and around Boston would have meant that a fatherless boy was not part of a stigmatized group, but was more likely somewhat of an anomaly. Art’s stigma would have been compounded by the scandal surrounding his father’s absence, just as his mother’s emotional well-being was negatively affected by such scandal. Art’s self-concept was, from a very young age, shaped almost entirely by the vacuum left by his father’s disappearance. As Sheila describes it, Art was always painfully aware of the differences between himself and the world around him. This sense of being different from others, coupled with the stigma of being, for all intents and purposes, born out of wedlock, manifested as a poor self-concept and low self-esteem that would remain with Art for the entirety of his life.

Where Art may have differed from the typical person with low self-esteem was in his capacity to develop a clear identity. His decision to join the priesthood may have been driven in large part by a number of negative circumstance and his emotional responses to those circumstances, but he did manage to channel those negatives into some sort of purposeful self-concept. Campbell (1990) suggests “that LSE people have more poorly articulated notions of who or what they are.” Art, who became Father Breen, developed a sense of “who or what he was” at a fairly early age, and maintained that sense of self and personal identity throughout adulthood. He may have been seeking the refuge of one of the few opportunities for social inclusion available to him within the context of the society and culture where he developed (Campbell, 1990), but given the constraints placed on him by outside factors, this decision at the very least afforded him some sense of emotional protection.

Sibling and Family Relationships

Much of Art’s life, at least as described by Sheila, is characterized by his ability –or lack of ability- to form normal relationships with others. Sheila does not spend an inordinate amount of time describing to the reader what psychological forces may have specifically shaped his relative inadequacy where forming such relationships is concerned, but she does provide enough details about his upbringing and his life as an adult for readers to reach their own conclusions. Art’s lack of solid attachment to his mother, coupled with the absence of his biological father and his strained relationship with his stepfather, aligned to ensure that Art would always have difficulty forming strong familial bonds and forging solid friendships (Hazan and Shaver, 1990). As Sheila recounts the story of Art’s life it become clear that despite his the interactions with other people that come with the role of being a priest Art had few real friends both in childhood and as an adult. The relationships he had with his siblings in childhood were marred by the circumstances proffered by his father’s absence, his mother’s emotional unavailability, and his stepfather’s abusive nature (Darling and Steinberg, 1993; Shaver, 2010).

As portrayed by Sheila, Art may lack the capacity to form strong interpersonal bonds, but he does have an awareness of his own shortcomings. His decision to become a priest accomplishes two things for Art; first, it allows him an escape from the social context in which he feels so out of sorts and misplaced, and second, it places him in a context where his emotional state and his developmental shortcomings are not the hindrances they had been in the outside world. Art is acutely aware of the admonitions of his priestly overseers against forming strong, individualized friendships with other acolytes, even if he lacks the sophistication to be fully cognizant of the sexual undertones coded into such admonitions.

The Church of Art’s day frowned on such close friendships and associations ostensibly because they detracted from the focus on spiritual development and the overarching concerns of the Church that each student needed to maintain. The primary form of human interaction that was promulgated by Art’s educators was to take place in groups. In one scene in the book, Art is pondering the nature of these associations, noting that when the students stepped outside for cigarette breaks it was expected that they would congregate in groups; if two young men paired off in conversation, their interaction was suspect. Art did not fully understand why such behavior was suspect; he just recognized that it was somehow inherently wrong by Church standards. Later in the book, both literally and chronologically, the reader becomes aware that Art has spent most of his life feeling devoid of, or at least detached from, a sense of his own sexuality. This lack of self-awareness in that regard meant that he was largely unaware of how others perceived the potential for sexual feelings inherent in many forms of human interaction.

As Young (2007) describes it, sibling relationships are where “children practice identity.” Sheila does not delve very deeply into the day-to-day details of her sibling-related interactions with Art or Mike; she spends more time discussing her impressions and conclusions about their psychological makeup and their motives for various decisions and actions. Extending Young’s thought to its logical conclusion, Art’s relative lack of strong sibling and familial binds was, in effect, his method of practicing the identity he would assume as an adult. Sheila professes that she held a measure of affection for Art when they were children, but she also makes it clear that she drew a distinction between her relationship with Art –who was fathered by another man- and her relationship with Mike. Sheila claims to have always had the capacity to read Mike’s emotions and motivations very easily, while she found Art to be rather inscrutable and even secretive, both as a child and later as an adult.

Sheila offers little evidence of sibling rivalry among the three, though she does at one point comment about Art being Mary’s favorite son. The context of that comment hints more at Mary’s limited capacity to show emotion than it does at any significant divergence between the way Mary treated Art and the way she treated Mike and Sheila. To the extent that she could show much affection at all, even the smallest amount offered to her “favorite son” would have been markedly notable.

Sibling relationships can and do have significant implications for how children form and maintain relationships with others in adulthood (Lam, Solmeyer, and McHale, 2012). A wide range of emotional capacities can be developed through sibling interaction. The development of empathy, for example, may take place in the context of sibling relationships and interactions (Lam, Solmeyer, and McHale); Art’s relationship with his siblings, defined as it was by his personal sense of being an outsider or different, meant that he did not develop a typical capacity for empathy. He was not devoid of feelings or emotions for other people, of course, but his ability to empathize with the plights or circumstances of other people’s lives was limited to a great extent by his lack of experience or awareness of how other people lived. Art spent virtually his entire life walled up by the literal and figurative confines of the Church, and had little understanding of what it meant to be a father or a son or even a sibling. While he gladly offered sympathy to those in distress, he lacked the ability to offer an equal measure of empathy.

Researchers have noted a protective effect offered by sibling relationships and affection. (Gass, Jenkins, and Dunn, 2006). This protection manifests as an ability to moderate the impact of stressful life events through the benefits of sibling affection. When Father Breen was accused of abusing a young boy, his instinct was to retreat psychologically, rather than to reach out to his siblings for support. Given what Sheila tells readers of Art as a young man and father Breen as an adult, this is hardly surprising. Based on the psychological profile of Father Breen/Art offered by Sheila, he experienced precisely the sort of emotional distress and trauma that would possibly have been ameliorated had he developed a stronger capacity for sibling affection (Lam, Solmeyer, and McHale). Even when Father Breen breaks his vows and has sexual relations with a young woman –the mother of the boy whom he is later accused of molesting- the emotional impact for him is not so much about the act of having sex as it is the sudden realization of what it means to have any sort of real emotional connection with another person.

Parenting Styles

When considering the issue of parenting styles in the context of the story, they can be considered applicable in several ways. First among these are the contrast between Mary’s parenting style when Art is an infant and the effect her sudden emotional shift in the wake of her husband’s disappearance had on her parenting style. The second is the parenting styles of Mary and Ted and how they affected Art, Mike, and Sheila as they were growing up and later when they were adults. The third manner in which the idea of parenting style can be considered applicable to Art’s life –though perhaps more loosely ascribed than in the first two cases- is in his relationship with Aidan, the eight-year-old boy whom he befriends, and is later accused of molesting. Art/Father Breen has virtually no requisite experience with, or examples of, positive manifestations of paternal parenting (Darling and Steinberg, 1993). His mother, though she clearly loved Art, was also lacking as a parent in a number of ways, both in specific circumstances and in a larger sense.

The most acute and noteworthy of the specific circumstances would be that she turned a blind eye, either out of ignorance or fear- to the fact that Art was being molested by a priest and family member when he was a young boy. As Sheila notes, Ted may have been a less-than-ideal stepfather for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he was a heavy drinker with a bad temper, but he did one thing for Art that nearly redeemed him of all his transgressions: by marrying Mary he put an end to the molestation. Sheila is unsure whether Mary was ever aware of the fact that Art had been molested, but Ted knew, or at least suspected, and admonished Father Ferguson to stay away from Art.

Darling and Steinberg consider the issue of parenting styles in the context of, and as a reflection of, social and cultural constructs that they assert play significant roles in shaping parenting styles. This does not imply a rejection of individuality where patenting styles are concerned, but rather seeks to make meta-comparisons between and among parents in different cultures (Darling and Steinberg). Proper consideration of Mary’s parenting style and Ted’s parenting style can and should both be undertaken by viewing each through the lens of the culture imposed on them by the Church, and the effects of this imposition (Darling and Steinberg). Ted is not a churchgoer; this is as relevant to his parenting style as the fact of Mary’s obeisance to church doctrines is to hers. Ted is a vociferously authoritarian father, at least when he is younger; by the chronological conclusion of the story Ted’s neurological condition has left him rather mild-mannered. When the children are younger, however, he is, as Mary describes him, “mean,” and exerts control over the children irrespective of the sort of religious authority that informs Mary’s parenting style.

According to some research, Ted’s authoritarian parenting style, from a statistical perspective, could have had the effect of provoking anti-authoritarian behavior in the children (Piko and Balazs, 2012). In Mike’s instance this proved to be the case, at least when he was a young man. He drank to excess and often got into public brawls and other negative behavior. Upon meeting his future wife Abby, however, Mike altered his behavior, and even went so far as to become a police officer, a role that is notable for its authoritarian position in society. Mike eventually wearied of being a police officer, however, and began working as a real estate agent. As the father of young boys, Mike did not appear to duplicate his own father’s behavior; he is presented as a competent and positive model of fatherhood, despite his brief lapse into adultery.

Art rejected his stepfather’s authoritarian streak in a different way; he simply left the family and his father’ control at an early age, replacing it with the equally-strict yet still more benign authoritarianism of the Church. From a psychological perspective, Art appeared to have been seeking a sense of paternality that was unavailable –at least in a form Art found palatable- in Ted’s parenting style (Piko and Balazs). Mary’s parenting style was heavily shaped by the Church, as was her entire personality. In the wake of her first husband’s disappearance, Mary embraced Church doctrine fully, if somewhat mechanically. As Sheila describes it, Mary seems to act as if she offers enough penance it will absolve her of the shame she feels as a young unwed mother; despite remarrying, Mary appears permanently marked by this shame. Mary’s codependency on Ted affords him a willing facilitator for his poor behavior, a trait that clearly had repercussions for the children (Fischer and Crawford, 1992). Though the book is rife with examples of such repercussions, the most notable would be the manner in which Mike, as an adolescent and young adult seemed to reflect or duplicate his father’s unpleasant behavior.

Counseling Issues

Many of the choices and actions Art makes or undertakes in his life seem to arise as reactive responses to specific incidents or to the larger effect of his family circumstances. Though the subject receives rather scant coverage in the story, the fact of Art’s victimhood at the hands of a priest is enormously significant. Numerous studies have shown that many perpetrators of such abuse were themselves victims as children (Elliott, 1999); this possibility becomes all the more relevant in the context of the story, centering as it does on a series of child-molestation accusations that rock the local Catholic Church. Fortunately Art does not develop the capacity to be an abuser; if anything, the suffering he endured both at the literal hands off his abuser and the figurative hands of his temperamental stepfather instilled in him the latent capacity to offer pure and positive affection to young Aidan.

In the context of psychological counseling the most notable issues for discussion would clearly be those related to his biological father and to the fact that he was sexually abused. Although he did not become an abuser himself, it seems apparent that his decision to enter the priesthood was prompted at least in part as a reaction to his abuse. It is almost as if he was seeking redemption for the guilt that victims of abuse often feel (Elliott) and even perhaps redemptions for the idealized role of the priesthood itself, tarnished as it was by his abuser’s actions.

Art’s lack of ability to form strong emotional ties with his family members, or to form real, lasting friendships with other adults, would also be worthy of examination in the context of counseling. While Haigh presents a compelling narrative about guilt and betrayal, she also presents compelling psychological portraits of the story’s characters. What is important to Haigh –speaking through the voice of Sheila- is that readers do not just understand what happened, but that they also understand why it happened. This is, perhaps, where the story succeeds the most; by delineating the psychological drivers of the actions and decisions made by each character, Haigh crafts a story that rings true, leaving readers with a sense that the events of the story could have, or even did, actually happen.


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