Essays Fiction Issue

“The Love Between the Two Women is Not Normal”

Are good books bad for you?

My friends from New York offered to go with me to South Carolina, expecting a gladiator match I would surely win. My friends from home read drafts of my speech and howled over the ever-growing stack of newspaper clippings. My friend from Mississippi told me not to go. “Cancel,” she said. “Cancel, cancel, cancel.” Mississippians tend not to be cavalier about the dangers of bigotry in the Deep South.

“I never cancel.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

Over at Clemson a hue and cry was being raised from a quickly gathering organization of concerned parents, who had read all the juicy highlights on the Internet. Not only were they calling to have the assignment rescinded, or, at the very least, to have a more appropriate book like To Kill a Mockingbird serve as an alternate choice, but they also appeared to want me barred from campus.

“At a minimum,” an alumnus wrote the president, Jim Barker, “I trust that the current assignment will be pulled immediately and that the author’s visit to Clemson will be cancelled. If not, shame on you and shame on Clemson University.”

In an article published in the Anderson Independent-Mail, headlined “Protesters: Little beauty in ‘Truth and Beauty,” Charmaine Smith writes, “In the book, there is an implied lesbian relationship between Ms. Patchett and Ms. Grealy.” The article goes on to quote Amanda See, a 17-year-old Clemson freshman who joined in the protest. “The friendship and the love portrayed in the book are not exemplary,” Ms. See said. “The love between the two women is not normal.”* Ms. Smith had finally come out and said the thing that no one else had the nerve to mention: Lucy and I must have been having sex with each other. That was the only possible explanation for our loyalty, love, and devotion. Sex was the payoff for a difficult relationship, and without sex the whole thing made no sense.

*CORRECTION: In the original version of the article, Ann Patchett misquoted Ms. See's statement to the Anderson Independent-Mail... Click here for more

I drove to Spartanburg and picked up my sister on the way to Clemson. “If it had been a couple of guys who met in college and saw each other through sex and drugs and illness, it would have been Brian’s Song,” she said to me in the car. “They would have made a Movie of the Week out of it and named the football stadium after you.”

We had been hoping that the controversy would have spun itself out like a summer storm before my arrival. No such luck. Mr. Wingate managed to keep his disgust and disappointment in the papers, culminating his efforts with an on-campus news conference the day before my arrival. Excerpts of all the bad reviews of Truth & Beauty that had been posted on Amazon.com were assembled into a flyer and distributed to passersby, but if anyone missed them, they were also listed on the Web site of a faith-based organization called the Palmetto Family Council, under the heading “Praise Not Universal.” The site also provided a Bible-study guide for the book (www.palmettofamily.org). The local paper claimed that seven students joined about 40 parents, grandparents, and alumni to protest.

“It wasn’t that many,” a dean told me as I was whisked into an office upon arrival. “And he brought most of them with him.” Still, the people in the dean’s office, the people who had worked so hard to get me there, looked nervous. They looked really nervous.

“He took out a full-page ad in the paper.” An assistant woefully passed over the morning’s edition of The Greenville News. It had been paid for by Upstate Alive, an organization I had never heard of. The Greenville News asked in big orange letters, “Is CLEMSON trying to educate students or socialize them?”

The freshman reading project at Clemson University is:

(1) A violation of academic freedom of choice because it’s REQUIRED reading.

It’s not optional and denies students a choice, which violates the “marketplace of ideas” ideal of the University …

(2) A violation of the University’s own sexual harassment policy, which states that sexual harassment of university faculty, staff, or students is prohibited.

Yet these freshmen are required to join in group discussions about virginity, pornography, masturbation and seduction …

(3) Not in harmony with the values of South Carolina or the Clemson community.

… Forcing this book on Clemson students now is particularly inappropriate and insensitive given the recent rape and murder of a Clemson student.

(4) Not supported by a majority of Clemson’s faculty and staff.

A small number of instructors chose this book without advice or consent from the majority of faculty and staff.

(5) A squandering of University, taxpayer, and student resources.

In a time of record tuition increases, when many students must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to pay for college, the estimated $50,000 to cover the cost of nearly 3,000 books, author’s speaker fee and travel expenses is a gross misuse of taxpayer and student funds.

I was now somehow connected to rape, murder, and sexual harassment, and charged with participation in a $50,000 swindle. The ad also included a copy of Mr. Wingate’s original letter to the president of the university, with a suggestion that he “pull the plug” on the author’s lecture. I stood in the dean’s office wishing that someone had been able to do exactly that. Then I went off to meet with 75 honors students.

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