January 2022 WATERtalk with Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
“What She Will Become”
with Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
Wednesday, January 19, 2022, 1:00 pm EDT
Video recording available here.
WATER is grateful to Susan Books Thistlethwaite for her return to our circles to discuss her latest mystery book, What She Will Become, Resource Publications, 2021.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is no stranger to WATER. She was with us in April 2016 to discuss her very powerful book Women’s Bodies As Battlefield. She returned in September 2020 in her new capacity as a mystery writer, exploring feminist theo-ethical concerns through fiction. The book that time was When Demons Float, part of a series about a feminist detective turned philosophy professor whose daring do and smarts combine to address contemporary issues on campus—racism, poverty, ethnic oppression, and many others.
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 Ph.D. Center for five years. She’s a graduate of Smith College, as is her heroine in this new book, with a Ph.D. from Duke.
An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author or editor of at least 16 books. Susan 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 Thistlethwaite edited with Mary Potter Engel. It is one of the most widely used textbooks in the U.S. to teach theology.
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 is also consulted for the Carter Center “Scholars in Action” and the Women, Religion, Violence, and Power program.
She maintains an active presence as a writer especially in her local Colorado newspaper and as the author of the Kristen Ginelli Mystery series.
Susan is not new to any of the issues she explores in the book. In fact, she brings a world of experience and a wealth of analysis. 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. Susan 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.
This new book combines many of the perennial themes with a special focus on the dirty dealing of governments and how the greatest impact of their activities is always on those who live on the margins because of race, sexual orientation/gender identity, and poverty.
Here is my brief blurb from the back cover of the book:
“Susan Thistlethwaite’s fourth mystery novel leaves the reader reeling, breathless, and aching for more. Heroine Alex Bell is tougher than J. Edgar Hoover’s agents, smarter than seasoned D.C. operatives, and as principled as ministers and journalists who step up to moral challenges. Scapegoating women, queer people, and people of color has deep and intertwined roots in American society that the author explores with panache. Delve into this complex read about the ancestors of the dark web and the violent Right to see contemporary social dynamics in sharp relief.”
Here is Susan’s summary of the book: “What She Will Become: An Alex Bell Mystery”
Resource Publications 2021:
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and nowhere is that truer than in Washington D.C. in 1961. Alexandra Zsófia Bel, a young congressional staffer, discovers just how dangerous working in government can be as the new Kennedy administration assumes power and runs headlong into the conflicts of the country’s past. Her own past keeps catching up with her, especially her family’s Hungarian immigrant and socialist connections. Alex has added an “l” to her last name to change it from the Hungarian “Bel” to the British “Bell,” and she has dyed her brown hair blond. That may not be not enough to keep her identity secret. When her roommate’s brother, a “Negro” lawyer at the State Department, is murdered for trying to disclose a terrible plot, Alex and her little dog, Miss Bea, a cynical beagle and Jack Russell Terrier mix, must risk their lives to find his murderer and reveal the conspiracy. Miss Bea’s beagle nose can sniff out a lot of the stink in Washington, from the sewage dumped in the Potomac River to the flow of illicit drugs from New York ports into the nation’s capital. The worst corruption, however, is buried too deep even for a dog to dig up. Alex finds she has to use new Washington contacts as well as her family’s socialist connections to find the murderer. She had hoped to keep her past a secret in her new life in Washington, but she risks exposure to catch the murderer before J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. catches her first.”
Susan introduced the book by underscoring her commitment to deal with today’s social issues through an historical novel set in the 1960s. She said that it is semi-autobiographical in that her own Hungarian roots parallel some of those ascribed to the protagonist, and some of Alex’s relatives are reminiscent of her own.
“Performative theology” is how Susan described the kind of work she does, using the arts as a vehicle for dismantling white hetero patriarchy. At issue in this book is who controls the boundaries of bodies and nations, especially the bodies of those who are most marginalized and vulnerable.
As Alex finds her way in ‘official Washington’ in the 1960s, she learns the signal importance of cocktail parties and other elitist institutions that make the wheels of state turn. Then, like now, there are at least two if not more distinct Americas, one in control and one controlled. The problems of racism, heterosexism, transphobia, capitalism, colonialism, and the like spelled out in this story seem all too much like what we are dealing with in the Covid years.
Of special note in this book is the central and constant role of Miss Bea, Alex’s dog, whose commentary and savvy add luster. This reader was fascinated with the vivid details of food and clothing, down to the buttons on the fat men’s jackets. Including such seemingly small matters is what brings the scenes alive and the characters to fullness. The reader smells the Hungarian food and worries that the guy will pop his buttons, not usual fare in dry theo-ethical treatises that this book replaces without losing a bit of the tough analysis.
Questions and Discussion with WATER attendees
- One person commented on Susan’s important role as a public theologian.
- Another person wondered how a mystery writer knows what to reveal when and how much to provide by way of clues in the text. Susan affirmed that clues have to be delicate but present. Her strategy is that by writing novels she gets a broader audience including those who might be intimidated by a theological text.
- Many mystery stories, someone mused, involve the death of women. Not so in Susan’s where victims are diverse like everything else.
- A pastor noted that she is in a ‘purple’ parish in which a book like this might be a good choice to accommodate both ‘red’ and ‘blue’ people and stimulate conversation.
- Police violence has revealed that rich, mostly white people think the police are their private security guards while economically disadvantaged people, many of them Black and Brown, are rightly wary of the police. Susan talked about immigrant whiteness. For some people who arrive in the U.S., especially from Eastern Europe, there is a fair amount of trying to fit in, whiten skin, dye hair lighter, and more that underscore the struggle to achieve white privilege because it is real and it ‘spends’ in the world. At the same time, the lack of success of antiracism efforts can be tied directly to white privilege, white people able to walk away from the fray once the initial demonstrations for Crime X are over and go back to a life of white privilege. This accounts for some of the lack of progress on anti-racism.
- The murder victim in this mystery is a gay Black man who was found (or maybe made to be) cross-dressed. The complexities of trans people’s lives, especially for trans people of color, and the need to understand how trans people do everyone a favor by disrupting the gender binaries are areas of ongoing study for Susan.
The book is available from Susan’s Amazon page https://www.amazon.com/Susan-Brooks-Thistlethwaite/e/B001K8N1VG%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share as well as from booksellers like Alibris and Goodreads.
Cheryl Nichols suggests checking out The Marshall Project firstname.lastname@example.org to understand more about criminal justice in a racist society.
WATER thanks Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite for her time and expertise. We highly recommend What She Will Become.