This will make me sound biased (and of course I am) but Heretics Anonymous was exactly what I expected: a hilarious little contemporary romance with interesting themes and terrible, terrible Catholic rep.
“Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.
But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.”
I will do my best not to turn this review into a 10-page rant, but I have some FEELINGS about this book.
Let’s start with the good, because this is quite a good YA contemporary.
The hype promises humor. Check. This was a sharp, witty little book with just enough cynicism for teenage humor without losing its heart. This was a giggle-out-loud book.
The premise promises a diverse, lovable little group of amateur rebels. Check. I love it.
It also promises an interesting story about faith. Very rare is the YA that actually addresses themes related to religion in the theological sense. (We have a lot of books like Love, Hate, and Other Filters that focus on religion exclusively as an identity, which is also important, but neglects the reality of actual religious belief as a factor.) That’s why I was so excited for Heretics Anonymous. And the book delivers–there are some great scenes of teenagers directly discussing their relationship with faith. The book is at its best when it is facing these questions head-on, accepting that they are messy and uncomfortable and complicated.
Yes, I do have some problems with the story, namely that Henry took focus off of this diverse, engaging group to center the book on this less-interesting straight white boy and his problems with his father, for reasons I don’t understand. But that aside, this might have been a five-star read… if the Catholic representation had been anything other than dismal.
When I say the rep is bad, I don’t mean that Catholics were represented unfavorably. (I mean, they were, but that’s not the problem.) I mean that they were represented inauthentically and stereotypically by someone who (1) isn’t Catholic and (2) doesn’t appear to have done her homework.
Let’s start with the school, St. Clare’s. Setting plays an important role in the story–it’s all about Michael and his new friends chafing against the constraints of their school–so it matters that there’s some thought behind it.
St. Clare’s seems to be an amalgom of old movie portrayals of convent schools and viral stories of Southern politicians out-of-context saying ignorant things about birth control. And that can be fun and all, but when you’re presuming to write about actual people that exist in the real world, it’s not so cute to dismiss reality.
I’m not going to say no schools like St. Clare’s exist, because I haven’t been to every single Catholic high school, but if it did exist, all the other Catholic schools would think it was weird. It would be incredibly unusual. I grew up in an area with a lot of Catholic high schools. I went to one and spent a lot of time at others, and… that’s just not what they’re like, at all.
If you’re not willing to take my word for it, here are some quick facts from the USCCB, which collects data from US schools:
- More than 97% of teachers at Catholic high schools are lay people. (That means for every 100 teachers, more than most schools even have, only THREE are priests or nuns.) Compare that with St. Clare’s, which is inexplicably populated with clergy everywhere.
- US Catholic schools are 21% (and rising) students of color.
- 18% of students were raised in a non-Christian religious tradition or no religion.
And this all rings true with my experience. Practicing Catholics were a minority of my high school class. Let me say that again–if you were a Catholic in faith and pratice, you were the unusual one.
I’m sure the atheists and other non-Catholics in my class faced difficulties and discrimination that I’m not aware of. I can’t know what it’s like to be one of those students, but I can tell you that nobody would be suprised to see them… at all. This idea that “atheist walks into a Catholic school” is some sort of wacky fish-out-of-water situation really bothers me.
And accuracy matters. When you’re writing about a community outside your experience, representing a very unusual experience as normal is grossly irresponsible (especially when representing a group that is generally portrayed negatively and stereotypically in media).
I’m being so harsh about the author’s neglect of authenticity because Katie Henry does seem to have done research… just the wrong kind.
Let’s look at the other main rep problem: the character of Lucy, the manic pixie proto-feminist of Michael’s dreams.
I wasn’t exactly like Lucy in high school, but we’d have had a lot in common. She might be closer to my high school self than any character I’ve seen in YA… ever. Which is why she was such a let-down.
In the synopsis, we learn that Lucy “is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.” (Cue gasps and breaking glass and old women fainting.)
That one line in the synopsis gives you the same amount of information about this element of Lucy’s character that the entire book does. As someone who knows… anything about the Church’s recent history with this issue, I have a lot of follow-up questions. I’d want to know what her perspective is. Does she believe she’s been called to the priesthood, or does she want it as a job? What about it attracts her? Where does she break with Catholic teachings about gender? Does she reject complementarity? Does she reject male apostolic lineage? Really basic questions. And then… what are her plans? Does she want to advocate for this within the Church? Does she want to break from the Church and be ordained? What does she see as her relationship to this whole thing?
I’d be fine if these questions were left messy. They can’t always be wrapped up with little bows. But it was striking that these questions are never even asked by the book or the characters.
Lucy is very bright and well-educated. She’s a thoughtful and opinionated girl. She would have thought about all this. She would know exactly where she broke with the Church theologically, and she would be able to articulate it.
Instead, Lucy is heartbreakingly unable to articulate thoughts on any matter of theology… not as a character choice, but because Henry doesn’t seem to have done the legwork and discussed these questions with actual Catholics.
Lucy, like the book itself, has a “wikipedia understanding” of Catholicism. She can name obscure thirteenth-century saints and list random facts of early Church history… but she doesn’t seem to understand the basics of Catholic culture or teaching. This is the very definition of bad rep: using flashy set dressing to distract from how superficial your depictions are.
I could continue ranting for days about the million straw-man arguments and silly inaccuracies in the book, but I’m going to end it here because I’ve already written too much. I’m going to end on this note: none of us should have to settle for lazy, hurtful, or false rep because there isn’t enough rep out there. The best thing to do is hold authors to account and demand better.