"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.”