Kathleen McGowan: Is this woman the living ‘Code’?

Kathleen McGowan’s novel, The Expected One, is based on what she says are her own visions of Mary Magdalene. McGowan says she has proof she is from the “sacred bloodline” made famous in The Da Vinci Code.

Is the world ready for a book and an author more controversial than Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code?

Meet Kathleen McGowan, novelist and self-proclaimed descendant of a union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. McGowan, who says she is from the “sacred bloodline” Brown made famous in his mega-selling novel, says she’s ready to cope with people who think she’s crazy or a heretic.

But among believers are her powerful literary agent and the editors at New York publisher Simon & Schuster, who are throwing their weight behind her autobiographical religious thriller The Expected One, out July 25, with a sizable first printing of 250,000 copies.

“I certainly expect there to be a backlash,” says McGowan, 43, a Little League mom from Los Angeles who with her husband, Peter, has three sons: Patrick, 16, Conor, 12, and Shane, 4. “But I have the support of my family and friends and that’s what I draw from.”

Think of McGowan as an Americanized Sophie Neveu come to life. In Da Vinci Code, Sophie (played by Audrey Tautou in this summer’s movie adaptation) is a French woman who discovers she is a descendant of Jesus and Mary – a concept many Christians reject.

The Expected One (Touchstone, $25.95) is being published at a time when religious thrillers are a hot commodity for publishers and fans of Brown, who hunger for suspenseful novels that mix religion, history and conspiracy.

McGowan says her book is not a Da Vinci Code knockoff.

“Everyone’s going to think I’m on The Da Vinci Code bandwagon, but I’m not,” says McGowan, who began working on her book in 1989. The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003.

McGowan originally self-published her novel last year and it sold only 2,500 copies. Now it’s getting a second chance. If the book becomes a best seller, she will join an exclusive group of authors who self-published their books and then were picked up by major publishers. They include John Grisham (A Time to Kill), Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box) and James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy).

Simon & Schuster is spending $275,000 to promote The Expected One and is sending the author on a cross-country tour beginning Aug. 3 in Los Angeles. But when it comes to McGowan’s claims about her own bloodline (which she mentions in the novel’s afterword), the publisher is treading lightly, with no plans to promote the author’s personal story.

“It’s an interesting back story, but we’re marketing this fabulous novel,” says Trish Todd, editor in chief at Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Todd says she has no problem believing McGowan’s claim that she descends from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “Yes, I believe her. Her passion and her mission are so strong, how can she not be?”

McGowan’s novel, like The Da Vinci Code, is replete with conspiracies, hidden documents and a Vatican hierarchy that keeps close watch on individuals searching for secrets hidden for 2,000 years.

But that’s where the similarities end. The Expected One is the story of Maureen Paschal, a woman who begins to have visions of Mary Magdalene, discovers she is a descendant of Mary and Jesus and undergoes a dramatic search for a gospel written by Mary that is hidden in southwestern France. In a parallel plot, McGowan tells what she says is the actual story of the marriage and children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

The title of the book, she explains, is taken from an ancient prophecy that tells of a woman chosen by divine providence to bring the real story of Mary Magdalene’s life to the world.

McGowan calls this a novel but says it mirrors her own life. Maureen’s visions, she says, are “verbatim” accounts of her own visions of Mary Magdalene. “Maureen is a fictional character,” she says, “but there is a lot of me in Maureen. I know it will be hard for people to accept this, but it’s true.”

Though McGowan says she is descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, she won’t say whether she, like the fictional Maureen, is “The Expected One.”

“I’m not grandiose about this, and it concerns me a lot that I could be portrayed that way,” McGowan says. “I don’t want it to appear that I’m standing up and saying I’m the expected one. That’s a dangerous, ego-driven kind of thing.”

McGowan says she became immersed in the story of Mary Magdalene while researching a non-fiction book on notorious women she believes were “maligned and misunderstood” in traditional accounts written by “the patriarchy that preserves history.”

McGowan, a journalist and a third-generation Hollywood native who has worked for various film studios including The Walt Disney Co., says her first vision of Mary Magdalene took place during a visit to Jerusalem in 1997. She experienced vertigo and saw a blinding flash. She then saw Mary Magdalene, surrounded by an angry mob, walking toward the mount where Jesus would be crucified.

It was that vision, McGowan says, that changed her life forever.

“It was so real and so powerful. It was the moment when I knew I would never be able to turn back, when I knew what I was seeing was real and it was true and I was being shown it for a reason and that I had to keep going.”

The reason, she believes, is to tell the world the truth about Mary Magdalene, long portrayed by the church as a prostitute.

So far, McGowan is offering only her word about her lineage and only hints at her proof. In addition to the visions, she says, she has discovered that her family is related to an ancient French lineage that traces its roots to Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s descendants. Legend holds that Mary Magdalene settled in France after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “That’s all I’m prepared to say right now,” McGowan says. Some members of her family, she explains, want her to respect their privacy and not discuss it.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, McGowan’s supporters include her literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, who left his position as CEO of Time Warner Books in December to start his own literary agency. McGowan was one of his first clients and he helped her get a seven-figure, three-book deal with Simon & Schuster. (Her next two books pick up where The Expected One leaves off.)

Kirshbaum believes McGowan when she says she is a descendant of Mary Magdalene. “I feel she’s entirely credible,” says Kirshbaum, who read The Expected One after McGowan self-published it last year. “She spent 20 years of her life researching this subject. You have to give her any benefit of the doubt because she’s totally rational. I believe her absolutely. She had total credibility with me from the very beginning.”

But historians and academics who were skeptical of Dan Brown’s presentation of a sacred bloodline are just as wary of McGowan’s claims that descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene live today.

“A historian simply has to look at what evidence there is,” says Bart Ehrman, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (Oxford University, $25). “You can survey anyone who is a scholar of early Christianity and they will all tell you the same thing. It’s completely bogus.”

McGowan says evidence of her ancient French lineage and connections to the sacred bloodline have been passed down through many generations of her family but admits “there are certainly holes in it.” Much ancestral documentation, she says, was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Ehrman is doubtful. “People didn’t keep genealogies like that in the ancient world. There are no records. We have no account of Mary Magdalene even going to France until the Middle Ages, and the legend about her going to France sprang up because there was a cult to Mary Magdalene in southern France and they used the story about her going there as a way to explain the origins of the cult.”

McGowan originally planned to write The Expected One as non-fiction but says she couldn’t make public the sources she developed while researching and writing her book. Without incontrovertible proof, McGowan may have problems with her credibility.

“I’m always a little suspicious when people say, ‘I’ve got all this information but I just can’t tell you. If you only knew, then you’d believe it, too. So just take my word for it.’ That’s not how scholarship works,” says Marvin Meyer, a professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He’s a recognized authority on the Gnostic gospels and author of The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Companion of Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, $12.95).

Meyer says he finds McGowan’s claims “to be intriguing pieces of speculation, but in my opinion there is no historical evidence that would suggest that Jesus and Mary had any children or that a child or children grew up in France and then moved throughout Europe. It’s a good story, it’s a wonderful legend. I don’t see any history to it.”

McGowan has heard no comments from the Catholic Church about her book or her claims about her lineage since she self-published the book.

“Of course, then I was self-published and not a big fish and not threatening,” she says. “It will be very interesting to see if they treat me in the same way now that the book is coming out internationally in 25 countries.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
July 18, 2006
Carol Memmott, USA TODAY

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 19, 2006.
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