Grooming in The Thorn Birds

CN: spoilers; child grooming; physical abuse; sexual assault; and menstruation in fiction

Photo: Young Meggie (Sydney Penny) and Fr. Ralph (Richard Chamberlain) in The Thorn Birds. He hugs her, looks into her eyes, and places a finger on her chin.

Today on Book Riot, I published an essay about The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. As usual, I suggest reading my BR essay before this one. In both novels, adults do not sexually abuse children, but they manipulate and have unclear boundaries with children, and then have sex with them once they become adults. For Meggie and Clare, the confusing boundaries begin long before they understand sex or romance. Meggie and Clare’s burgeoning impressions of sex, marriage, and masculinity form around Ralph and Henry. The Thorn Birds and The Time Traveler’s Wife gloss over inappropriate relationships, depicting them as unique, romantic, and enduring.

The Thorn Birds is so long, emotionally fraught, and complicated that I’ll focus on it here. Many reviews and other media, including this podcast episode, have used the word “grooming” to describe Ralph’s treatment of Meggie throughout her childhood. The central “romance” of The Thorn Birds actually depicts a form of long-term grooming. Father Ralph de Bricassart, an adult for the entire story, manipulates Meggie Cleary from her childhood for an eventual sexual relationship once both are adults.

Books like these rely on readers to view coincidences and adults’ manipulation of children as the romantic workings of fate. The Thorn Birds’ appeal also works best if readers or viewers idealize Catholic clergy. Today, many people would find the central romance unthinkable, horrifying, or dangerous — but for different reasons now than in the 1970s and ’80s. The novel and miniseries focus on Ralph’s vow of celibacy as a priest, romanticizing Ralph and Meggie’s relationship as taboo and tragic. To quote the show’s tagline: “Love. Unattainable. Forbidden. Forever.” Nowadays, public knowledge of sex abuse cases, particularly in the Catholic Church, and of the impact of grooming makes many readers, like me, resist such an idealized interpretation.

The Thorn Birds

Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds has terrible boundaries with Meggie Cleary. He is the first person who explains menstruation and sex to her. For Meggie in 1920s Australia, menarche (her first period) would be traumatic. Meggie thinks she’s dying. Ironically, in the book, he tells her not to talk to men about her period!

He even theologically links menstruation to Eve’s sin in the Bible: “In the days before the Fall, it is said Eve didn’t menstruate. […] But when Adam and Eve fell, God punished the woman more than He did the man, because it was really her fault they fell. She tempted the man.” For readers not to find Ralph’s boundaries creepy here, they’d almost need to view priests as polymaths: experts on everything, even gender, sexuality, and menstruation.

At their Catholic convent school, Ralph gives Meggie a bedroom next to his in the rectory. He protects her by stopping a nun who is beating her. But I don’t want to gloss over that by saying he’s “protective” of her. I’m sure he feels that way, but grooming is the opposite of protecting. He’s always obsessed with Meggie and overbearingly affectionate with her.

I linked to a 2015 blog post titled “The Fetishization Of Meggie.” The author points out that Meggie incorrectly assumes she and Ralph are together romantically when she’s a child, long before she understands sex or romance. In this miniseries scene, Ralph even jokes and teases her about this. Later, after starting puberty, Meggie still assumes she’ll marry Ralph someday. So, apparently, she doesn’t understand he’s joking here:

Ralph (rejecting a woman flirting with him): I mustn’t make my best girl jealous (plays with Meggie’s braid). . .

Meggie (to Mary): Father Ralph gave me my very own room — right next to his!

Mary: I wouldn’t want to disturb all your little. . . arrangements.

Another scene, years later:

When you were a little girl, you were like my own child to me… I could have you then.
— Ralph to an adult Meggie in the miniseries

I don’t think Ralph sexually abused Meggie when she was a child; nor is he implying this. However, it’s impossible for me to hear this line without creepy double entendres. Meggie replies, “You can have me now!” — clearly taking the sexual interpretation. Whether he was attracted to her all along or developed sexual feelings for someone he previously loved in a fatherly way, he’s using her childhood trust and bond with him to cross a big ethical barrier. Relationships like Ralph and Meggie’s raise the question of grooming and predatory motives.

Ralph’s relationship with Meggie becomes sexual in her adulthood, but he seems attracted to her even when she’s a child. In the miniseries, young Meggie watches as he kneels, prays, and shouts in distress, “I’ll never have what I want!” He calms down when she stares into his eyes and touches his face. Keeping secrets with children and venting to them about adult problems are red flags of adults having bad boundaries with children. Implicitly, Ralph vents to Meggie about his own attraction to her. Even the show’s trailers make it sound like “love at first sight” for Meggie on Ralph’s part. From 0:30 in the official trailer here: “From the moment he saw her, he knew…he would love her forever!”

In the book, during their first time having sex, Ralph admits to himself that he groomed or “molded” Meggie all along, ableit unconsciously. “Truly she was made for him, for he had made her; for sixteen years he had shaped and molded her without knowing that he did, let alone why he did. And he forgot that he had ever given her away, that another man had shown her the end of what he had begun for himself, had always intended for himself, for she was his downfall, his rose; his creation.”

This passage implies Ralph’s unarticulated attraction for Meggie, even when she was nine or ten years old. Despite his past attempts to deny or repress it, he always desired an eventual sexual and romantic relationship with Meggie. He also has an almost god-like power in influencing or “making” her. Paradoxically, the novel tries to have it both ways with Ralph: all-consuming attraction, which drove his treatment of her from the beginning, but no inappropriate feelings for her before her adulthood. Both can’t really be true.

I wrote on BR: “Ralph agonizes over his infatuation with Meggie, but not because they were close when she was a child. His guilt is primarily about breaking his vow of celibacy as a Catholic priest.” He says to her in the miniseries: “Of all the wrong I’ve done…the worst is that I never made a choice for love. Half-given to you, half-given to God…but really given to my own ambition” (because Ralph is a cardinal by this point). Both the novel and the miniseries view Ralph’s biggest sin as ambivalence. This is not really a sin at all, but glosses over his inappropriate behavior towards Meggie since she was a child.

Mary Carson, Meggie’s wealthy aunt, is sexually predatory towards Ralph. She hates Meggie and Ralph’s close relationship — not because it seems inappropriate to her, but because she’s jealous of Ralph’s affection for Meggie. The story correctly condemns her behavior, but it also pushes the idea of priests as alluring and forbidden — and Ralph in particular as an ideal sexual partner. In the book, Mary thinks when she sees Ralph: “Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?…he was perfect. Yes, he had to be conscious of what he was.”

On some level, the story fetishizes Catholic priests — particularly cardinals. It’s almost apotheosis, or viewing them as god-like. As Ralph’s power in the Church grows, so does his appeal to other characters and unavailability to Meggie. He also thinks his attraction to Meggie makes him a man, but says he’d wanted to be a God. I often say that fetishization paradoxically objectifies, idealizes, and desexualizes people simultaneously.

Ariel Swartley’s 1998 NYT article links The Thorn Birds to the tradition of medieval European romance. The article describes the objectification of Ralph as a priest uncritically or at least lightheartedly: “The ankle-length robe that Father Ralph de Bricassart favors is as effective in its way as knightly armor in both protecting and advertising the wearer’s virtues. And, like armor, the robe, as worn by Richard Chamberlain, parts in strategic places to reveal glimpses of the man within.” Ironically, this was written just a few years before The Boston Globe broke the news of the Church’s sex abuse scandal. This article also implies a disabled character, Anne Mueller, can’t possibly be Meggie’s sexual rival. For several reasons, this NYT essay aged quickly, but it’s a great explanation of pop culture fetishizing Ralph as a fictional priest.

Why would a book, or character like Mary or Meggie, fetishize a Catholic priest? It may seem unfathomable to us today, but possibly: as a powerful authority figure; lonely or unattainable “forbidden fruit;” or as an ego boost: “Would he betray his God for me?” Meggie has all of these fantasies, largely because of Ralph’s grooming. I’ve never agreed with the argument that Ralph compartmentalizes his love for Meggie or sees her almost as a different person from when she was a child. The text contradicts this, and their passion as adults is entirely based in their emotional bond from her childhood.

The Thorn Birds also works best if fans put priests on a pedestal morally, thinking they’re pure, irreproachable, and incapable of harm. Today, that interpretation is impossible, so I can’t see Ralph as a romantic love interest. In real life, trust and reverence towards authority figures, especially Catholic priests, helped enable them to sexually abuse children for decades without being prosecuted or even defrocked. After the decades of sex abuse revealed in the 2000s, cultural stereotypes of Catholic priests are now the polar opposites of those implicit in The Thorn Birds.

Finally, most of the characters in The Thorn Birds are terrible people. Meggie’s mother, Fiona (“Fee”), has so much internalized misogyny that she openly prefers her sons and ignores her only daughter. As a young adult, Meggie pursues Ralph, who had inappropriate boundaries with her when she was a child. Meggie and her husband, Luke, sexually assault each other during their marriage. Luke rapes her on their wedding night, and Meggie later stealths him. As an adult, Meggie is responsible for her own actions. Her parents and Ralph are also to blame for shaping her dangerous ideas of gender and relationships since she was a child.

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