Why did you pick this topic, or specifically this case, for your first book?
It was a story that needed to be told. I’m not sure that I picked this story so much as it picked me. I was fascinated by this lawsuit. I had heard about the Scott case, but I really didn’t have any reason to write about it. And yet, it kept coming up somehow. There’s a certain chemistry a writer feels with a story and this one just stuck with me. I couldn’t let it go. Eventually I went up north and dug around a little bit. By the end of the trip, I was completely fascinated. After I entered a graduate writing program, I looked at it again and that’s really when I began to see it as a book.
What appealed to you about the story?
Because it showed how a serial predator managed to work his way through a major religious institution for 20 years. But this isn’t just Brother Curtis inside the Mormon Church. This is a sex abuse lawsuit that became a giant Constitutional fight. This court case was so complex it stretched into courtrooms in three states. It went to two state Supreme Courts. The law is very often made in individual court cases that lead to appeals and decisions. We’re interpreting the laws here, we’re making the law with these individual court cases. It was the story of the dogged perseverance of the attorneys, and the survivors. They were outmanned and outgunned, but everyone who lived this thing kept on fighting.
Tell us about your research. How many states did you visit, depositions did you read, transcripts did you study, victims did you interview?
Six states, from California up to Washington and over to Michigan. The civil court file in Oregon alone is about 28 volumes long, and I’ve probably read the entire thing at least three times. I read the transcripts of more than eight court hearings and about 35 depositions. I interviewed dozens of people, and logged plenty of miles in airplanes and rental cars.
Before you started the book you already knew plenty about this case yet there were so many curveballs the more you dug. What surprised you the most?
The sheer amount of abuse. The number of victims, states, years –- I began to grasp the real extent of the situation and it was astounding. Everyone thinks it’s only him. Working on the book, I also soon realized that several victims thought they were the only one.
How might the church culture have played a role in Brother Curtis’s acts?
Sexual abuse certainly is not exclusive to the Mormon Church. But insular communities, especially where there are many children, can be susceptible to predators. They function with the assumption that if you’re one of us, you must be okay; they have blind trust. You also have lay people in positions of authority who have no idea how to handle matters like this, yet feel they have to. And there is a natural tendency to trust people more when they’re standing inside a church building, and I too have felt that.
This is not exactly a feel-good story. Did you have to put it down and walk away for a bit to get some space?
There were absolutely times when I had to walk away. Journalists face a lot of disturbing things. You get used to it. There is a certain shell that you develop that’s a necessary part of the reporting process. The interesting thing was that my own life changed, which in turn changed my perspective. When I first started looking at the story I was a new parent; now I have children the same ages as many of the victims. I was heartbroken, horrified, and angry by a lot of what I learned. On my best days, being possessed of powerful emotion made me a better writer. And sometimes, yes, I just stepped back for awhile.
Are you, or have you been, a member of the Mormon Church?
Were you molested or abused as a child?
As a parent, how has this book changed you? Have you made changes in raising your young children because of what you discovered in writing this book?
I’m not sure that it changed my parenting so much as it informed my parenting. Perpetrators are most often people you know. It’s fair to say that caution can spill into paranoia pretty easily after working on this book, though, so I try to keep my fear in check.
You’re a wife, mom, university teacher, freelance writer –- and author of a national book with a major publisher. How did you create the time to take on such an ambitious project?
I discovered early on that I had to leave the house in order to get any productive writing done, and I did most of my best work at the library. But, honestly, I also wrote this book in a lot of cafés, on the bleachers during swim practice, or in the car while I waited for my children. In all, it took eight years, not by design.
The book examines in detail how the Mormon Church went to great lengths to stall the court cases. The Church has stalwartly denied any wrongdoing. Is there any indication that the church is starting to look more seriously at red flags and disciplinary reports involving possible sex crimes in the church?
It’s hard to say. I think there is likely more awareness about sexual abuse among the average citizens, which would include Mormons. The Church now requires that potential scout leaders be vetted by the Boy Scouts of America. And there’s the hotline for bishops to call for help. But child molestation is a crime and safety requires calling the police and actively keeping a molester away from children.
You have a book tour coming up in Oregon, California, and Arizona. What do you hope people will take away from either the book or your discussion?
Keep children safe. Realize that most sexual abusers are not strangers. Insular communities can be quite dangerous if people are reluctant to seek help from “outsiders” like the police. As a society, we still haven’t figured out how to navigate through the intersection of religion and law.
If you had the many victims of Brother Curtis sitting with you here now, what would you say to them?
It wasn’t your fault.
If you could ask Brother Curtis three questions what would they be?
What would have stopped you from hurting children? What happened to you as a child? Did you find spiritual comfort in the church?
After all of the reporting for this book, what is left unanswered?
Was Frank Curtis merely using the church as a way to further his sexual abuse or was he wrestling with his own demons and trying to find spiritual help? These questions will bug me forever.