WATERtalk Follow-Up
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on MALICE
October 4, 2023
Wednesday, 1:00 pm–2:00 pm EDT

The Video of this presentation can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t02CPscQ9F8

WATER thanks Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite for showing a creative way to  to reach a wide audience for conversations about ethics in a society that is increasingly diverse. Her growing list of feminist mystery books would make a marvelous curriculum for an ethics course. Malice: An Alex Bell Mystery (Resource Publications, 2023) is simply the latest offering, set in the 1960’s with the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Freedom Rides as the bookends of political options. We know which one bore abundant fruit and which one was a fiasco.


Susan is Professor Emerita and President Emerita at Chicago Theological Seminary where she taught for twenty years before serving as the 11th president from 1998-2008. Prior to the Presidency, she was also director of the PhD Center for five years. She is a graduate of Smith College with a PhD from Duke.

An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author or editor of at least 16 books. In retirement, she has a busy and productive writing schedule between mystery books and her interventions in the local and national press, always pushing a justice agenda.

She is the editor and a contributing author of the popular resource Interfaith JustPeacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). She has also published #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power. In 1999, Orbis Press published the tenth-anniversary edition of Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, a work Susan  edited with Mary Potter Engel that is a widely used ethics textbook.

Susan is one of the founders and a former trustee of Faith in Public Life. She has been on the Advisory Committee of the American Academy of Religion Section on Religion and Politics, a section she helped found. She has also consulted for the Carter Center “Scholars in Action” and their Women, Religion, Violence, and Power program.

She has been working as a white woman on anti-racism and against white supremacy before many of us knew what it was. She has explored violence against women from every ghastly angle. She has taught theology and ethics with a deep commitment to remaking the world—environment, social relations, the relation between religion and politics—a task she continues through literature.

Here is Mary E. Hunt’s brief blurb from the back cover of the book:

“Abraham Lincoln might as well have said, ‘With malice toward many with charity for few…’ as the Cuban missile debacle and the bloody Freedom Rides played out… Protagonists Alex and Gwen, in their respective efforts to effect change, learn chillingly familiar lessons. Their actions remind readers that structural change and real justice remain elusive while solidarity and advocacy remain our best hope.”

Several other great feminist theologians including Judy Ress in Chile and Ivonne Gebara in Brasil have turned their attention to writing novels: Judy on the 4 American nuns killed in El Salvador decades ago, and Ivone a fictionalized account of her Lebanese ancestors who emigrated to Brasil. Like Susan, they write instructive, not pedantic books. They teach history and ethics as they go, and spark conversations that would lie dormant if all we had were dusty philosophical approaches.

Susan’s Remarks:

Susan opened the conversation with reflections on her writing process. After she retired, she studied fiction writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She learned that good writing is a way to show not tell, to describe and detail not just lay out the bare bones. Embodiment of theology and ethics is emblematic of feminist and womanist work.

She chose as her context the 1960’s, specifically 1961 in this book, with the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion and the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel as part of the civil rights efforts. Her two protagonists, roommates Alex and Gwen, carry out their social justice work, Alex in Congress and Gwen on a bus ride that ends in a bloodbath. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was covert, violent, ill-prepared with foreign policy problems accruing, and unsuccessful. The Freedom Rides were overt, non-violent, and, despite the vicious attacks on people, key to civil rights success. Non-violent strategies make a difference, functioning as a new paradigm that works.

Of course there is a mystery here, or at least a thriller: a Cuban man has been killed, several people including a dear friend of Alex are attacked, and the dear dog Miss Bea has her own views on all of it which she is not the least bit reticent to express. Feminist/womanist concepts are conveyed in fiction in this performative way. To do so in the contemporary context of polarization is a stark reminder of how far we have not come. Susan’s goal is to educate people about what really took place in a particular event, and to learn from the truth.

Susan is writing two series of books. This novel is part of the historical line, and the second one includes the adventures and feats of detective/professor Kristin Ginelli. (Editor’s Note: It is easy to get hooked on these and learn a lot!)


  1. Mary E. Hunt—
    One thing I love about your writing is attention to detail which draws the reader in. I confess I could not read the section where one of our heroines was suturing the injured man who stalked her as the details were too vivid for me!  But I always perk up when a beautiful Channel suit is described, or ‘bespoke’ items of clothing are described.

    Likewise, the food lures me in. I can smell the goulash with and without paprika. I’ve drunk more coffee in my imagination reading these books—some weak like ‘water off an umbrella’ as Latin Americans say of American coffee, some lukewarm because the waitress forgot, some delicious.

    Help us understand why such details matter.

    Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (SBT)—
    Susan is trying to convey embodiment. She wants readers to feel the details—the fabric. Alex, like Susan, is a Hungarian immigrant whose family worked in the NYC Garment District. Susan is a good seamstress so she knew how to sew up the villain.

    Likewise, the food is important because what people put in their bodies, like what they put on their bodies convey this sense of embodiment.

  1. Sheila Curran—
    The role of truth-telling in an historical novel is of great interest.

    Performative truth is what is at play here. The intended audience is people who would not pick up straight prose on the 1960s events, but this fictionalized approach draws many people in.

  1. Carrie Roach—
    While ministering with persons who were dying, Carrie came upon an elderly Jewish man who had been a Freedom Rider. The Staff in predominantly Black community health care institution mourned his demise as one of their own. The chaplains had to help the community grieve a man they respected so deeply for his commitment to their freedom, which of course was linked to that of his family and to his own. Carrie is a Catholic woman with an unfulfilled priestly vocation. She said that through WATER connections among others, she found her way to her ministry. Lovely!

    Many of the Freedom Riders were immigrants, some of whom had lost family members in the Holocaust or elsewhere. They came to the US only to find segregation and had to stand up against it. Communities do not forget those who stood up for them.

  1. Mary E. Hunt—
    You do not use explicit Christian language and most characters in the book are not explicitly religious though Gwen used her Bible for a code, which still mystifies me. Nonetheless, given the drop of in religious practice. what are the implications of this method for sermons and teaching? How can these novels be used in the new kinds of postmodern interreligious work? I can imagine teaching an ethics course using these novels as the textbooks.

    In the first novel in this historical series, Gwen is a State Dept. employee. Her gay brother who worked there too was murdered. Her mother married a conservative Christian, all of which pushed Gwen beyond the church walls.

    Some people on the Freedom Ride were Jewish socialists, Christian clergy, and so many other different faiths or of no faith whatsoever. The point is that varied religious/nonreligious starting points lead people to justice work.

    Susan lifted up the example of the mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi Diaz, of blessed memory, who interviewed Latinx women to find out what they really believed rather than what they had been taught to say they believed. Lived religious experience can be quite different from what people say leading to charges of hypocrisy. The well documented drop off in religious participation can be traced to this disparity between what you see and what you get. Performative spirituality gets up and does something. Susan observed that the Sermon on the Mount is about doing things while the Council of Nicaea is about believing and not about doing.

  1. Diann Neu—
    Susan can replace Louise Penny as lead mystery writer! The cross- cultural dimensions of the characters like Black and white women who are best friends, the brilliant dog, the Hungarian culture all make the ethical issues at hand more accessible.

    SBT—Story characters Higgy and Brownie, a gay couple of journalists, a lesbian and a gay man, married at the end of WWII to protect each other against the violence that LGBTIQ+ people in DC experienced in the 1950’s.

  1. Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes—
    Mary Lou invited Susan to read a section of the book so as to hear her voice. Susan graciously obliged starting on p. 8. She read about why people chose to go on Freedom Rides which stories Gwen heard during her training for the Rides.
  1. Pamela Miller—
    As a person born outside of the US, Pamella has experienced “the hard hand of the CIA” in the attempted overthrow the Manley administration in her native Jamaica. Underhand things done in other places are not on most American’s  screens so they miss the dynamics when they happen in their own country. To have these facts in story form make them accessible to those who “have their ears blocked.”

WATER thanks Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite for her time and talent. Good luck with this and future books, and come back to talk with us.