Spring 2001. I’m a mostly closeted secular humanist on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s Friday afternoon, so I’m sitting with a small, sad knot of St. Kate’s faculty men at The Dubliner, a pub in St. Paul. Guinness in and bile out.
A sociology prof and good friend named Brian Fogarty tells about seeing two students on the quad earlier that day, having a pitched argument. No contact, but plenty of heat. As Brian slunk by the two, another student leapt out from behind a column and thrust a slip of paper at him:
WHAT DID YOU DO ABOUT IT??
“You know,” he sighed after describing it, “if I did stick my nose in, it would have been ‘a male thing to do.’ You just can’t win.”
He was right about that. The campus was laced with these double-binds. “Somebody has to write a satirical novel about this place,” I said.
“Yeah yeah, you always say that. So write it.”
“Wha…me? I was actually thinking of a writer.”
“Write one scene,” he said. “See what happens.”
That night I wrote an eight-page scene in which a faculty committee discusses what to do about the school song. The meeting is called to order by Jack Kassel, who is, by the most extraordinary coincidence, a closeted secular humanist male professor at a Catholic women’s college:
Well then, we meet again to discuss changes to the college fight song.” Audible gasps around the table. Jack’s eyes inflate as he realizes his mistake. “I mean, the college song,” he sputters in a rush. “The song. The Hymn to Saint Bernadette.”
Oh goody, he thinks. Now I get to start in a hole. Shit on a stick.
The next day I laid out the storyline. Jack is already at the end of his rope when his oldest partner in disbelief shows up — as the campus priest, no less — and he finally plunges over the edge when his ex-wife enrolls their brilliant young son in a Lutheran school and the boy begins quoting Scripture in response to Jack’s questions. Back against the wall, Jack starts to come out as a nonbeliever at what turns out to be the worst possible time — as visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing on campus.
I wrote for ten weeks straight, a fun and feverish thing, finishing up ten years ago this month. After months of refining, I published it through Xlibris, and in January 2002, just seven months after Brian’s taunt, Calling Bernadette’s Bluff went public.
The book was stocked in the college bookstore and sold out repeatedly. The local paper did a nice feature, and reviews have been good. The resemblance of “St. Bernie’s” to St. Kate’s (and the presence of characters said to resemble actual carbon-based people on campus, including the president, the dean of faculty, and half a dozen profs) was duly noted. The dean of faculty even asked for a signed copy. What fun.
The next year…not so much. That’s when my slow-burning conflict with the administration began over free expression on campus, leading eventually to my disgusted resignation in ’06.
Hard to believe how much has happened in ten years. Along the way, in addition to the parenting books, I wrote Good Thunder, which picks up three days after Bernadette ends. But I didn’t release that one until last year for various reasons, then didn’t announce the release to anyone until now. There’s just been too much going on.
And even now, I’m mentioning it only in the context of Bernadette’s Bluff because Good Thunder would be incomprehensible without reading Bernadette first. Don’t even think about trying.
I’m really surprised at how well both books hold up for me as a reader after all these years. I usually hate who I was and what I did over nine minutes ago, but these still say what I wanted to say.
It helped that so many characters are based on real people. The deeply nutty aspects of Catholicism are on display, but (as several reviewers have noted) the strongest and most likable character is Genevieve Martin, the Catholic dean, who was based on the actual dean at the time. So when Dean Martin butts heads with spineless Jack, it’s hard even for nontheists to entirely know who to root for. Likewise Leslie, the militant feminist with the blinding Grin, manages to make sense and nonsense and to convince and infuriate at the same time. I don’t think I could have written that character convincingly from scratch. Fortunately I’d known her in person, and been convinced and infuriated by her for years. She was one of several people at St. Kate’s who helped turn me from a passive feminist to a deeply committed one. But she also showed me, quite unintentionally, just how silly it could get at times, resting as it does in human hands.
The weirdest thing about Bernadette is the fact that several things in the story ended up happening on campus the next year. My favorite: A construction project on the fictional St. Bernie’s campus unearthed bones, and the Lakota Sioux claimed they were sacred and halted the project. A year after publication, a construction project on the non-fictional St. Kate’s campus unearthed an underground spring. The Lakota Sioux claimed it was sacred and halted the project.
Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up.