Nicole Henessey, the protagonist in Blair Hurley’s debut novel The Devoted, has abandoned her religious upbringing in Boston, America’s “most Catholic city,” during her turbulent teenage years. Taking refuge instead, she embarks on a drug-fueled, Dharma Bums-inspired road trip in hopes of meeting the 16th Karmapa in Colorado. But after a year on the road, she returns to her hometown and later finds her teacher at a local Zen center. When the book begins, Hennessy is 32 and just realizing that she needs to distance herself from the Zen master, who has corrected her posture in the zendo and challenged her in koan study, and who has been having sex with her for a decade. As the book unfolds, the reader follows Hennessy to a new city and circle of friends as she tirelessly works to create physical and emotional distance from her teacher, rebuild family relationships, pursue a partnership beyond the shadows of the dharma center, and finally come to terms with what happened during that long ride to Boulder. Here, Hurley talks about the very timely topic of teachers betraying their students and what survivors may learn from Buddhist women, both fictional and real.
What is your connection to Buddhism, and how did it become a major theme in your writing? I was raised in a very secular family with Irish Catholic roots. A close family friend who would often babysit me and had also grown up Catholic had converted to Zen Buddhism. Even when I was very young, we would have great conversations about how spiritual experience shapes us at crisis points in our lives. Through her I became very interested in Buddhism and started reading a lot and studying it in college. I never officially became a practitioner; I’m more of an interested and respectful outsider. As a fiction writer, I’m drawn to this great trove of old Buddhist literature and poetry—featuring Buddhist women in particular—that dates back to the time of the historical Buddha.
Which stories did you find inspiring? Kisagotami, the folk tale about a woman who has lost her child and is driven mad with grief. The Buddha tells her to knock on the doors in her village until she finds a family that has not lost someone. And she cannot find a single house. In that moment she has a burst of insight and decides to become a nun. It’s so powerful to discover that we’re not alone in our sorrow. I also really love the stories of former prostitutes. These women are rejected by every aspect of polite society and yet find acceptance and equal treatment when they become Buddhists. There’s something revolutionary about that. When I was writing, I wanted to create a character who was sexually transgressive, who had desires and wanted sex, and still had spiritual worth.
Why did you want to take on something as controversial and complicated as student-teacher relationships? In all of my writing, I’m interested in power and authority and how these things can become twisted.
Can survivors learn anything from a character like Nicole, who finally does sever ties with her master, despite his efforts? I hope so. It would mean so much to me if survivors found something meaningful in this book. I did my best to put myself into that space and think about how it could be to pour your spiritual life into someone else’s hands, hoping they could heal you, save you, or give you insight. This is deeper than in the workplace where a promotion is being dangled before you. Your spiritual worth is at stake, and it’s devastating to have someone that you trust only seeing you for your body. I also wanted to give Nicole a chance to move past this and find a way to grow, and what helped me write those scenes were biographies of other Buddhist women. In Vicki Mackenzie’s biography of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Cave in the Snow, Tenzin Palmo describes Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche putting his hand up her skirt at their first meeting, and his frequent “suggestions” that she sleep with him. Later, after being subjected to various instances of male chauvinism in the monastery, Tenzin Palmo vows to achieve enlightenment in a female body. That was so inspiring to me: to think that our bodies are not an obstacle to enlightenment and that—absolutely—we can achieve it.
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