“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.

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.

“This is a very good group of kids,” my escort assured me. “Only one of them refused to read the book on the grounds that it was morally offensive.”

I wondered if, as a student, I could have opted out of French or math on similar grounds.

The honors students were easy. Perhaps that was because their numbers were small, or because the room was open and bright, or because they were served cookies, or because they were simply smarter than the other kids. I didn’t know. They asked straightforward questions about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, the reliability of memory, how I felt about the protests. They lingered at the door to shake my hand and have me sign their books.

Maybe my visit wasn’t going to be so bad. That’s what I believed. The voice of an unpleasant minority had taken center stage. After all, who ever took out a full-page ad to say how thrilled they were about a freshman summer-reading program?

Next we were off to a luncheon at the president’s house. The faculty and trustees who were in attendance, as well as the president himself, were in full support of my visit. They had spent the last six weeks on the front line of criticism serving as my tireless defenders. At the long dining-room table, everyone seemed more than pleased that I was there to fight the good fight for higher education.

“If any problem develops during your speech,” the president told me, “just step away from the podium. Someone will be there to take you off the stage.”

“A problem?” I asked.

Over a salad of sliced chicken and fat berries, I was assured that problems were unlikely. Parents and protesters would be watching my speech as it was broadcast to them in an auditorium across campus. Only students would be allowed in the coliseum. And if a problem arose, I’d have a bodyguard.

I was to address the incoming freshman class of nearly 3,000 in the Littlejohn Coliseum. When I arrived, the place had the bristling energy of a rock concert waiting to happen. Littlejohn had been cut in half by a series of high black drapes so that the students would fill every seat, shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the nosebleed section, four stories up. In the middle of the basketball court, near the toe pads of the giant orange tiger’s paw print that marked the floor, was a boxlike stage, a temporary affair decked out with a few potted palms and a podium with a microphone. Behind it was a projection screen that would have been a reasonable size in any suburban cineplex. The screen would show a giant movie of my face that could be clearly seen by both the children in the rafters and the angry mob on the other side of campus.

After the president had made his remarks about all the wonderful things the next four years of a Clemson education would bring, I walked through the pitch-black darkness, climbed the stairs, and stepped into the klieg lights. I received a very healthy round of applause. After all, only seven of the nearly 3,000 students present had bothered to show up at the protest. I never thought that Mr. Wingate and his people spoke for Clemson. I only believed they spoke loudly enough to drown out all the voices around them.

I put a ridiculous amount of effort into that speech. I made an impassioned plea for the right to read, for the importance of going to the primary source to form one’s opinion and not relying on secondary sources to make the decision for you. These students were, for the most part, old enough to vote and go to war. They had seen cable television, visited MySpace, listened to rap music. To say that a book could be so potentially corrupting was to say we had no faith in their ability to make decisions for themselves.

“The people who oppose the assignment of Truth & Beauty, and oppose my presence here on campus today, do not do so for themselves,” I called out into the blinding light. “After all, nobody’s making them read my book. They are opposing on your behalf. They want to protect you from me. And since you’re just starting out as freshmen, let’s take a minute to think of all the other things you’re going to need to be protected from. Now, I used all possible restraint in making this list, because the fact is I could go on for the whole four years that you have to spend in college. You don’t want to pay good money to read about immoral behavior, friends, so Anna Karenina is out. It’s about adultery, a married woman’s affair with another man, and there’s a suicide. It’s scandalous, but you know, it’s also really long. Now, The Great Gatsby is going to have to go because it has more adultery and more scandal, in addition to alcoholism and murder, so that definitely has to go. It might be harder to let go of that one though, because it’s short and you may have already read it in high school. In One Hundred Years of Solitude you’ve got incest, which is a shame, because it is a spectacular novel. My personal uncontested pick for the best novel of the 20th century is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and I want to tell you, if I start talking about Lolita I feel certain the National Guard will come and remove me from this stage. Faulkner is gone. Hemingway is gone. Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Philip Roth, our three greatest living American authors, are strictly off-limits to you. Their books contain so much sex and filthy language it’s amazing I have mentioned their names on this stage.

“Or maybe those books aren’t the problem. Those are all fiction. Maybe what’s upsetting about my book is that it’s true, it really happened. So let’s make a pact today not to read any nonfiction that could be upsetting. 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.”

I went on, a marvel of civility and common sense, while behind me the giant projection of my head kept pace. There in that blackened arena I raised a mighty cry for the right to read, and implored the students to never let anyone take their books away from them.

At the basketball court, we were experiencing technical difficulties. The question-and-answer portion of the event was falling apart. The microphones weren’t initially working, and soon students were shouting out questions in the dark: Was there anything I regretted about my friendship with Miss Grealy? Did I feel differently about other friends because they’d never measure up to Lucy? Some of the questions had a nasty edge: Lots of people have friends and lots of people have cancer, so why should we care about what you have to say? Some of the questions were sweetly goofy: Did I have any advice for finding true love? One kid found a microphone that was working. He wanted to know how long I’d known my husband.

“Twelve years,” I told him.

“Well, after reading your book and hearing you talk, I just wanted to ask you, how many times have you cheated on him?”

I raised my hands up against the blinding lights. I had no idea where the voice was coming from. What 18-year-old asks this kind of question when the lights are up, when you can see him and know his name? I asked what made him think I would cheat on my husband.

“Well, you seem to be OK with all that after writing your book.”

I gave some decent enough answer about compassion and not judging other people, the kind of answer you rescript a thousand times later in your head, but I didn’t actually understand what he was talking about, not while I was leaving the stage, not during the ridiculous press conference that followed. I didn’t understand him when my bodyguard put my sister and me in a van that had been driven up under the coliseum to speed us to the other side of campus and to my car so that we could get away before anyone figured out where we had gone. The rain, which had started at some point during my talk, was coming down in blinding sheets now, rendering the campus a muddy pit as we made our mad dash for the car. In three steps we were soaked through. We drove away as fast as the weather would allow, and still I didn’t understand him. Not until the middle of the night, when I was back safely in my sister’s guest bed, did I realize that he wasn’t saying I was immoral for not judging Lucy, he was saying I was immoral for the things I had done myself.

Clemson was kind to provide me with all the documents I needed. They not only sent me copies of all the newspaper articles but they also sent me letters that had been written to the president, cries of outrage and revulsion at the thought of my work and my person:

■ If Clemson continues to offer pornographic material such as Patchett’s book, my daughter, and my money, will go elsewhere … I cannot fathom what led Clemson to build a class around this drivel.
■ For reasons I know you are aware of, it was an inappropriate selection. I’ve not read the book, nor do I intend to.
■ I guess I have grown accustomed to hearing about cases like this at liberal havens like Harvard, or even Chapel Hill, but I am shocked that Clemson has now stooped to this. No matter what the supposed motive behind this assignment, it is nothing more than another attempt by liberal academicians, given over to depraved minds, to force a deviant sexual agenda on young students.
■ In 2002, right after 9/11, the University of North Carolina assigned a book composed of selections (or suras) from the Koran for its incoming freshmen to read. UNC followed several years later with a socialist tome (Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich). Now Clemson is getting into the act. But instead of religion or politics, Clemson has chosen sex.

It was this last letter that made me realize the extent to which I had never understood the rules of engagement: If Nickel and Dimed was a socialist tome (albeit a slim one) then Truth & Beauty was pornography. Like beauty itself, pornography turned out to be in the eye of the beholder.

The letter I kept was one written in pencil on a sheet of notebook paper. A student had slipped it to my bodyguard, who had given it to me. “Dear Mrs. Patchett, On behalf of the entire state of South Carolina, I am sorry for what happened.”

In my better moments, I tell myself what happened was a noble battle between freedom and oppression, but I know it is equally possible that nothing so lofty occurred. Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women an unpalatable subject matter, and seeing this book bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try to stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment. If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.