"Did he call me a sewer?” Ann Patchett asked her sister after the clip of a local news story had finished streaming across her computer.
“I think he’s saying the book is a sewer,” her sister replied. “Or the circumstances are sewerlike. I don’t think you yourself are a sewer.”
The speaker in question was Ken Wingate, a South Carolina lawyer and local also-ran for the state senate and governorship. The sewer he claimed to have waded into involved Patchett’s book, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, which had been assigned to the incoming Clemson University freshman class of 2006 as mandatory summer reading. Modeled after the ever-popular book club, the idea was to bring classmates together through a common reading experience. There would be discussion groups, writing assignments, and, as a final treat, a reading and talk from the author herself. But soon after the text was assigned, a handful of parents began voicing concerns that the book was inappropriate reading material. Led by Wingate, they pointed out that the book included pornography, fetish, masturbation, multiple sex partners, and antireligious sentiments—and claimed that all of this served one purpose, and one purpose only: “The explicit message this that sends to students is that they are encouraged to find themselves sexually.”
In fact, Truth & Beauty is Patchett’s account of her friendship with her best friend and fellow writer, Lucy Grealy, who had died three years prior at the age of 39. Author of her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, Grealy endured 30 years of pain and suffering as she underwent 38 reconstructive surgeries in an attempt to fix her jaw, which had been disfigured by childhood cancer. Patchett and Grealy had met in college but became close in graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop where they studied creative writing. “[Truth & Beauty] was a story of a Herculean effort to endure hardship, and to be a friend,” Patchett writes in the Fiction issue of The Atlantic. “Even when the details of our lives became sordid, it was not the stuff of sewers.”
In the face of provocative television news segments, an inflammatory full-page ad in The Greenville News, and an outpouring of letters from angry parents and alumni calling for the cancellation of the author’s scheduled appearance on Clemson’s campus, Patchett decided to speak to the Clemson class of ’06 anyway—even though that meant accepting protection from a bodyguard. On stage in Littlejohn Coliseum, she spoke of the right to read and the importance of drawing one’s own conclusions. She made note of all the great works of literature that had, at one point or another, been similarly criticized as morally unsuitable, and she wondered aloud what purpose higher education served if not to acquaint oneself with the complex, real world:
If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades, all represent such staggering acts of human depravity and perversion that I could see the virtue of never looking at them at all.
The speech and visit won substantial support and applause, though not from all young members of the audience—some of whom took it as a public opportunity to question Patchett’s own morals to her face. From her home in Nashville, Patchett talked about her experience at Clemson, her writing process, and her friendship with Lucy Grealy. We spoke by phone on May 30th.
In your essay and in other interviews, you’ve described how writing Truth & Beauty was part of your mourning process, that it helped heal you after Lucy died. Do you think going to Clemson had any place in that process?
Absolutely not. My experience at Clemson was so much about me catching up with what was going on. And while I shouldn’t have been blindsided by what happened there—as it had been clearly laid out for me well in advance—I just never thought things were going to be as bad as they were. My emotional energy was really spent trying to get up to speed with what their criticism was all about.
At Clemson (and during the aftermath) I was thinking about myself, not about my dear, dead friend. If the Clemson experience had come earlier, closer to when Lucy died, it might have been more detrimental to my grieving process—it might have made me feel sad or defensive of her. But by the time I went to Clemson, enough time had passed. I had already grieved for her. I felt at peace with what happened and didn’t feel vulnerable in terms of her. I did, however, feel vulnerable in terms me—of being personally attacked.
When I think about how my experience there related to Lucy, I try very hard not to ever say, “Oh Lucy would have loved that,” or, “Lucy would have done this.” I try not to speak for the dead. And people do put me in that position all the time—they ask, “Wouldn’t Lucy have loved this?”
Do they ask, “What would Lucy have said?”
Yes, exactly. What Would Lucy Do—WWLD? And it’s true: Lucy would have torn them to kibble. And with such articulate glee. Lucy was just always up for a scrap. And she was so good at that. I would have loved to see her take them apart. Thinking about that, actually, was helpful. When I was feeling sorry for myself afterwards—and I did feel sorry for myself—I finally stopped and thought, you know, why exactly does this hurt so much? Who is being attacked here? I ultimately realized those people at Clemson weren’t judging Lucy; they were judging me. I think that also helped me feel like I wasn’t dragging her and her memory into something bad. One of the kids asked that question—“You talk about how so many people judged Lucy, but aren’t you just heaping more judgment onto her?”—which is such a funny way of thinking about things. As if it were better not to bring things up for fear she might only be further judged.
You mention that Ken Wingate’s criticism of your book left you completely blindsided. Had you ever before come across anything that resembled it?
No. I felt completely taken aback by it, and completely unprepared to respond. It had been such a love fest up until that point; if anything, the criticisms of the book had erred on the side of, “It’s too sweet, too gentle.” That mattered to me. I felt slightly embarrassed to win that American Library Association award—I mean, of course I was grateful for the award, but they had conceived of the book as being “Most Suitable for Teens,” which made me think I had made a mistake, that the book didn’t effectively get its message across. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great book for kids and I don’t worry that they’d find anything especially surprising in it. I imagine kids know all sorts of dirty things that I don’t know the first thing about…
In my childhood, the quintessential naughty book for teens was Go Ask Alice. And I couldn’t put it down.
Yes! Go Ask Alice. I read that in my childhood, which suggests that as early as the ’70s, kids had much more scandalous memoirs to read than Truth & Beauty. I remember that book as so scandalous, but I loved it. I read it over and over again. And really, I’m not sure there has ever existed a better anti-drug message! I think I would have done worse things had I never read that book.
Watch an excerpt from Ann Patchett's speech
I watched the entire tape of your speech at Clemson. You were incredibly poised on that stage, even in the face of some pretty insensitive judgment and presumption. It’s hard for me to think you weren’t angry. Is there anything in retrospect that you wish you had thought to say or do—particularly in response to that one student’s question about your marital fidelity?
Sure, in retrospect, it’s tempting to wish I had said, “Hey kid—fuck you!” And after the event, so many of my friends told me I should have, but to tell you the truth, I was really proud of myself that I didn’t tread anywhere near that, that I didn’t respond with aggression. I like to think that my years of yoga kick in at precisely such moments—that they enable me to respond to aggression with peace, which I do think is the most disarming and irritating thing you can hand to someone who’s being really combative.
But no, I don’t really know what I would have said had I had my wits about me. I didn’t even understand his question for such a long time—not just seconds or minutes, but hours. It wasn’t until I was in bed at my sister’s house that I realized he wasn’t saying, “You’re a bad person for condoning Lucy’s bad actions,” but rather, “You’re a bad person for your own bad actions.” When I later listened and watched my response—I also watched the tape, which was excruciating beyond belief—I saw myself respond with this whole thing about how we shouldn’t judge others, because I thought he was judging her. But he wasn’t judging her—he was judging me. I might have responded differently had I realized that at the time. After all, it’s one thing to judge my cancer-ridden, disfigured best friend. But if they’re judging me, I can’t very well say, “Hey, it’s not cool to judge,” because it’s too easy an out. So, I completely missed the boat. But I can put myself back there a hundred times and say confidently that it wouldn’t matter. I still would have missed it.
Also, I don’t watch television. I haven’t for years. So never having seen what I understand to be the immediate slamming criticism in American Idol and the like—where people perform and then subject themselves to public humiliation, which seems to be the object aim in so many of these shows—I really didn’t know a thing about how one should go about responding in such a situation. Hands down, the most upsetting and distressing thing about the entire Clemson experience—more than Wingate, more than anything else—was seeing in action this idea that kids could be so rude to an adult, a guest of the university, on their very first day of school. That just blew my mind. I thought, “What kind of a society are we living in?” I have since spent a lot of time thinking about the physicality of that auditorium—thinking about the darkness, how the lights didn’t work, how no one could see one another. I do wonder whether the same thing would have happened had the lights been on, had that boy been able to see my face and I his.
Some reviews of the book express surprise at your ability or desire to remain friends with Lucy. It’s been suggested that you martyred yourself—in your relationship and in this book—and that there has to be more anger or resentment than you let on in your writing. What do you say to that?
That kind of reaction or response to the book, particularly from people who didn’t know Lucy or me, makes me feel that I didn’t do a good job as a writer, that I didn’t successfully convey Lucy’s wonderfulness and what made her worth it. But then I got so many letters from readers who expressed how amazing they thought she was, how they wished she had been their best friend, how lucky I was to have known her. It makes me think that drawing both those responses means I’ve actually created a pretty accurate portrait of Lucy. In fact, it’s true that a lot of people didn’t like her, but a whole lot of people worshipped her. She elicited that strong response—she was someone who could make you feel passionately, one way or another.
That was something that I found with Bel Canto—the book did so well, and I received so much praise and love, but I also got incredible hate mail about that book. Some unbelievably hateful reviews, some that displayed a viciousness of the kind I had never seen. It was so interesting to me—perhaps you can’t elicit such a strong response of love without also eliciting a strong sense of hate as well. And it blows my mind a little bit, because while I can think of books I really hated or objected to, I really can’t imagine feeling so strongly as to write the author a piece of hate mail.
Lucy was hard, she was a challenge. And she pushed us all to our limits. I remember being in New York after I’d chosen not to call her, the night before she died, with a friend, and I remember just railing on Lucy. I was really angry with her at that point. She was destroying herself and there was nothing I could do to stop it. But that’s exactly who Lucy was and who she wanted to be. She strove to draw out that passion in people. That’s how she lived her hard, fast life.