Charmaine Craig - Heather Haines

Charmaine Craig plays Heather Haines in a couple of Northern Exposure Episodes (6.2, 6.17 and 6.19). She also is an author and her first book "The Good Men" has recently been released. The following article is from the New York Times:

January 20, 2002

'The Good Men': A Sexually Obsessed Priest and the Inquisition


THE GOOD MEN A Novel of Heresy.
By Charmaine Craig. 400 pp.
New York: Riverhead Books. $24.95.
First Chapter: 'The Good Men' (January 20, 2002)

In 1308, Bernard Gui, Inquisitor of Heretical Depravity for the Province of Toulouse, rounded up the population of Montaillou, a sheepherding village in the French Pyrenees. Everyone over the age of 14 was interrogated. Some of the prisoners were released; others were held to await sentencing; some were executed. Convinced of its holy innocence -- its mandate to purge the faith of corruption -- the Roman Catholic Church kept transcripts of these inquisitorial processes, providing an intimate, almost voyeuristic window into the affairs of men and women who lived seven centuries ago. These documents continue to fascinate both historians and fiction writers. Among other sources, they provide inspiration for an ambitious first novel, ''The Good Men,'' by Charmaine Craig.

Set in Montaillou between 1265 and 1322, ''The Good Men'' uses the village priest from the historical record, Pierre Clergue, as the hub of a large cast of invented and partly invented characters. ''Gravely slight of stature,'' Pierre is also lame, and his diseased hip causes him pain and humiliation. Envious of his brothers' vigor and determined to ''abandon the misery of his body for the mercies of his soul,'' he becomes a priest, but having never succumbed to temptation he lacks the sympathy to be a comforting confessor to his parishioners.

''The Good Men'' may be set in the Middle Ages, but it has a contemporary horror of psychological ambiguity, let alone mystery. As if in answer to his vocational challenge, Pierre conceives a passion for Marquise, the mistress of his brother Guillaume, who refuses to marry her even when she becomes pregnant. This sexual obsession persists for decades and eventually leaves Pierre susceptible to the advances of the town's aging chatelaine, the wife of the Comte de Foix's military agent, whose servant, Fabrisse, happens to be the illegitimate daughter of Marquise and Guillaume.

One day, when Pierre is praying in the chapel, Fabrisse comes to fetch him on behalf of her mistress. Expecting an emergency, he brings what he needs to deliver the last rites. Instead, the chatelaine ''leaned her mouth against his, and . . . it was as if everything familiar to him had vanished, and the world were beginning again in one breath.'' Pierre continues his dangerous carnal education, both with the chatelaine and with other women, but it is Marquise who beckons: every transgression grows out of that first, denied lust. Using the power of his position in the community, Pierre soon finds abundant occasion to feed his erotic appetite.

There's guilt, of course. The priest battles with himself for years, sometimes abstaining, other times falling so low as to buy the favors of an 11-year-old prostitute. His crises of self-loathing make him vulnerable to the ''good men'' of the novel's title, itinerant Cathar heretics who believe the material world is evil and despise the flesh. Christ, according to their preaching, was never incarnate, so there will be no resurrection of the body; bread and wine cannot become God's flesh and blood.

Secretly, the ''good men'' administer their own rites. In a crucial twist of the plot, they preside over the marriage of Fabrisse to one of their disciples, Pons Rives, who finds that her beauty offers ''too much temptation'' for someone aspiring to holy abstinence. Intent on suicide, Pons eats ground glass and dies vomiting blood, saving the inquisitors the trouble of torturing him.

But in the world of ''The Good Men,'' eluding official persecution is no guarantee of happiness or safety. Another villager, Arnaud Lizier, whose mother perished in childbirth and who ''did not want to live without the woman whose life he had taken,'' understands himself to be ''a nonborn,'' someone ''dragged into life against every force of nature.'' At school, he finds solace in the arms of another boy and is so brutally punished by the schoolmaster that he runs away, falling into a life of vagrant homosexuality.

At the center of the Inquisition is a friar named Bernard, who as a child was left on a riverbank ''wrapped in a mat of straw'' and thus considers himself an heir to Moses. Raised by the Dominicans, he pursues the Cathars in order to purge the faith of false gods. Modeled on the historical Bernard Gui, this fictional counterpart satisfies his thwarted appetites by sifting through the misadventures of his victims.

If sex has its price, so does abstinence. Without the consoling presence of a husband, Fabrisse plucks ''herself calm hair by hair'' until she has destroyed her unappreciated beauty. She wants Pierre, but by now he has turned his attentions toward her daughter, Grazida, known as Echo. This grandchild of Marquise is the untainted incarnation of his primordial lust. Although he is many years her senior, a debauched and disappointed man, he cannot help seeing goodness, even God, in the loveliness of a girl who (despite allusions to ''The Metamorphoses'') recalls not so much Ovid's nymph as Nathaniel Hawthorne's. A perhaps unintended echo of Hester Prynne's Pearl, Fabrisse's daughter flees, whenever she can, to the forest, to ''the dark green of vines melting up the trunks of trees.'' Like Pearl, Echo is nature's incorruptible spirit, a creature outside the limited and perverse morality of men.

Time after time, Pierre makes love to Echo in the forest, that fairy-tale realm of risk and transformation, and when she becomes pregnant he marries her to the homosexual Arnaud. It's an arrangement that Pierre, Echo, Arnaud and Fabrisse all find tolerable, but it results in their betrayal to the inquisitor. As any confessor might attest, these villagers are bound together by culpability as tightly as they are by love. Faced with losing the only person he wants, Pierre betrays the entire town to Bernard.

For the inquisitor, Pierre represents the ultimate conquest. If Bernard can destroy the corrupt priest, he can free himself from his own sexuality, from the appetites he experiences through Pierre's transgressions. By now it's clear that freedom is what each of the novel's characters wants: freedom to be allowed to fulfill -- or to escape -- individual desire. In an afterword, Craig tells us that she initially envisioned the novel as a spare book of ''ecstasies'' amplifying the historical testimony of the woman on whom the character of Echo is based. But Craig found herself increasingly ''duty-bound,'' she says, to be faithful to her multiplying historical sources.

One of the tricks of pulling off a novel set in the past is to elude the burden of research, to allow the work to be fiction -- to be evocative rather than thorough. There is much to admire in ''The Good Men,'' especially its deft juggling of complex intersecting story lines, yet the text, while filled with sex, is short on ecstasy. ''The Good Men'' might well stand up to an academic inquisition, but it lacks the essential freedom for which its characters yearn.

Kathryn Harrison's new novel, ''The Seal Wife,'' will be published in May.

Created 2/12/02
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