Essays Fiction Issue

“The Love Between the Two Women is Not Normal”

Are good books bad for you?

My sister, Heather, first broke the news about my pornography in the middle of last July. She lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she was able to get her information from a few newspapers, including TheGreenville News and the Spartanburg Herald Journal. My sister doesn’t watch television, but a friend e-mailed her the link and she watched it on her computer. She then sent it on to me.

Also see:

Interviews: "My Pornography" (July 16, 2007)
Ann Patchett talks about writing, friendship, and defending her work against censorious detractors.

This is the story: Clemson University, located in the button-sized hamlet of Clemson, South Carolina, had assigned the incoming freshman class of 2006 to read Truth & Beauty, a memoir I had written about my friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy. Such reading programs are popular nowadays. The idea is born of the book club, a social activity in which the book is often nothing more than a beard for getting together. Once Oprah took the book club national, entire cities decided to read a single book, high schools and colleges picked one book as a way of bringing students together. Discussion groups are organized, papers are assigned, and then, if all goes well, the author is brought in to give a talk, do a signing, meet and greet.

I know this drill. I have been the all-city read and the freshman read and the radio-book-club read, as both a novelist and a memoirist. It’s good work for an author; lots of books are sold, and an audience that might otherwise never have thought of you starts searching out your backlist. My extensive prior experience with one-book programs, both civic and academic, had been uniformly positive, so when a panel of Clemson administrators and faculty voted to assign Truth & Beauty some 10 months in advance of the engagement, I agreed to attend in late August, marked it on my calendar, and forgot about it.

I went back to my computer and watched the news clip again. The reporter, Kisha Foster, shook my paperback at the camera as if it were a bloodied knife. “This is the book,” Kisha Foster said. “And for at least one parent, there’s nothing beautiful about it.”

That parent turned out to be Ken Wingate, a Clemson alum, a lawyer, a member of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. His own children were not members of the Clemson incoming class of 2006, but his two nieces and a nephew were. On the news, he outlined his problems with the summer-reading committee’s selection. “The book talks in graphic terms about pornography, about fetish, about masturbation, about multiple sex partners … The book contains a very extensive list of over-the-top sexual and antireligious references. The explicit message that this sends to students is that they are encouraged to find themselves sexually.”

Then the screen was taken over by a sleepy-looking coed who seemed to have been stopped and questioned on her way to class. She was a Clemson junior but her little brother was a freshman. “I’ve heard that there’s girls that are doing drugs and having sex at early ages,” she said in heavy South Carolinese, “and it’s just not good for people to have to read.”

In the Greenville paper, Mr. Wingate furthered his views. “I’m certainly not anti-Clemson,” he said. “In fact, I love Clemson, which is why I’ve waded into this sewer, both in terms of reading the book and being an outspoken advocate for an alternative book, because this is inappropriate to shove down the throats of incoming freshmen.”

“Did he call me a sewer?” I asked my sister.

“I think he’s saying the book is a sewer,” Heather said. “Or the circumstances are sewerlike. I don’t think you yourself are a sewer.”

Either way, the battle had been launched to keep the youth of Clemson and, I imagine, other citizens of South Carolina safe. Ken Wingate had lost his bids for both the state senate and the governor’s seat (for which in 2002 he garnered a total vote of 4 percent in the primary) and had now turned his attention to me. To save the parents of freshmen and other concerned citizens the trip through the sewer that he himself had endured, he posted excerpts from my book on a Web site: Every instance of profanity, every reference to body parts and their usage, or to pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs that appeared within my pages was listed. That way the citizenry could be fully informed without having to go to the bother of reading the book for themselves.

Nothing about this seemed especially shocking to me. I live in Tennessee. We’re the people who brought you the Scopes Monkey Trial. I never did meet Ken Wingate, but I have been meeting people like him all my life. Still, his attention grated. To be charged with a crime you’ve committed is one thing, but a special kind of bewilderment comes of being wrongly accused, and I believed I had been wrongly accused.

Where Truth & Beauty errs, it errs frankly on the side of sweetness. It is a book that appeals to high-school girls. It won an award in 2005 from the American Library Association for being one of 10 adult books most suitable for teenage readers. It is my own story, the story of Lucy and me meeting in college, becoming friends in graduate school, and trying to find our way in the world as writers. Lucy, who had lost part of her jaw to cancer at the age of 9, had endured years of chemotherapy and radiation. She had 38 reconstructive surgeries over the course of her lifetime. She was a spectacular person, brilliant and difficult, demanding and talented. She was capable of great love and tenderness, as well as great suffering. She was my best friend for 17 years. After her death, at the age of 39, I wrote a book about us. I wrote it as a way to memorialize her and mourn her, and as a way of keeping her own important memoir, Autobiography of a Face, alive, even as I had not been able to keep her alive. This was a story of a Herculean effort to endure hardship, and to be a friend. Even when the details of our lives became sordid, it was not the stuff of sewers.

Presented by

Ann Patchett was the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006. Her new novel, Run, will be published by HarperCollins in September.

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