Dallas native explores trauma and religion in new thriller

Grace Cowger | Mercury Staff

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“The Magdalenes” by Jeanne Skartsiaris takes readers along a roller coaster of secrets and a quest for justice. Beyond the thriller element, the book encourages readers to reflect on the darkness that lies beneath the surface of seemingly polished lives.

Skartsiaris, who grew up in Dallas, utilizes her experience as a medical-legal photographer of a law firm to craft a heart-tugging thriller. First-place winner for fiction in the San Antonio Writers Guild with a five-star review at Reader’s Favorites Awards, “The Magdalenes” follows Jude Madigan, a successful plaintiff attorney with a dark past. Madigan’s character is tested when she is tasked with a case focusing on the estate of a mysterious benefactor who wants her to oversee the construction of The Magdalene Home, a Catholic halfway house for prostitutes. Despite the job bringing up memories of abuse and religious trauma, Madigan persevered in the job. Skartsiaris weaves together a gripping narrative that delves into the complexities of healing, a compelling read that resonates long after the final page is turned.

“I honestly didn’t think it was going to go anywhere because [the book] dealt with a tough subject,” Skartsiaris said. “I thought they’re [the publishers] not going to want it. But when I took [the draft] out and read it again, after 10, maybe eight years … I thought, oh, this is good.”

Skartsiaris is a UTD alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in photography. Initially discouraged by her struggle to finish high school, Skartsiaris found her footing through non-credit classes and encouragement from instructors. Recalling her time at UTD’s former Art Barn, now the Physics building, Skartsiaris said UTD made her more resilient, drawing parallels to Madigan’s journey of overcoming obstacles.

“It’s a process … this is from somebody who wasn’t going to go to college, and it was just one class at a time, one day at a time,” Skartsiaris said. “… I didn’t think I had the confidence to do it, and I did, I managed to do it.”

Madigan’s journey shows a survivor’s struggle to regain their sense of self-worth after facing abuse. Skartsiaris excels in creating relatable characters that feel real and multi-dimensional. Madigan is a mysterious character, shying away from meaningful relationships and focusing on career ambitions, compelling readers to delve into her world to find the roots of her suffering.

“Characters pull this story,” Skartsiaris said. “It’s an interesting process because I’m not an organized writer. I don’t sit down and outline and do, ok, this chapter they’re going to do this, this chapter they’re going to do that. No, I just sit down. I’m like, ok, start talking. And I start typing.”

The narrative peels back layers of Madigan’s life, with her past in New York and her present in Dallas. Revealing her haunting rape at the age of fourteen by the priest of Madigan’s church and setting the story around a rehabilitation home for prostitutes, Skartsiaris said she wanted to shed light on the prevalence of sexual abuse. According to RAINN, every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and female college students are three times more likely than women in general to be victims of rape.

“[There is] a need for people to be aware … Jude was just trying to stay strong [and] thought she was strong, but she wasn’t, Skartsiaris said. “She was faking all the time. And you lose yourself, you lose your esteem, your own self-worth when stuff like that happens.”

“The Magdalenes” also explores questions of faith through Madigan’s estrangement from the Catholic Church, engaging with religious themes without being preachy. Skartsiaris said her Catholic upbringing led her to approach her faith by acknowledging the flaws within its doctrine, hoping readers will glean a message of inner strength and autonomy in faith. To Madigan, The Magdalene home, run by Catholic nuns, houses enigmatic characters who drive the plot and allow her to confront her fears. Sister Elizabeth, a nun who defies Madigan’s image of the church, befriends her, becoming a flicker of light in the solemn life Madigan has gotten used to.

“I really connect with Jude … people think she’s an ass because she’s arrogant, but she’s not, she’s just broken on the inside,” Skartsiaris said. “Same with the nuns. People think nuns are mother superior with a ruler. They’re not … mostly they’re compassionate. And that’s what I wanted to portray in the story.”

Skartsiaris balances moments of introspection with dynamic dialogue, creating a narrative that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. “The Magdalenes” by Jeanne Skartsiaris offers a touching reminder of the hidden struggles we all carry and the power of empathy and connection as we discover ourselves and grow.

“I’m not looking to change the world [but] I do hope with “The Magdalenes” that it will give some women confidence to overcome sexual abuse,” Skartsiaris said. “That abuse stays with you … the whole point of the story is overcoming that and realizing it’s not your fault.”


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