How St. Thomas navigated Heaven's coast

Common text created tricky currents for a Catholic university

Just before his three-day visit to the St. Thomas last fall, writer Mark Doty — a man who pays the bills by paying attention to metaphor — had a disturbing dream. He was walking across a campus, looked up in a tree and saw two people who were hanged.

"I’ll admit I was nervous coming here," Doty said later. As he described it to an overflow crowd in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium on Nov. 3, "When I arrived it was like I was wearing a sign that said I’m a visiting homosexual. Usually, I arrive on a campus as a visiting author."

Doty had reason to be apprehensive. News that his 1996 memoir Heaven’s Coast would be used by the St. Thomas English Department for its 1999 fall semester common text unleashed a stinging barrage of public criticism.

In Heaven’s Coast, Doty writes about the loss of his partner Wally Roberts to AIDS and of his close friend Lynda Hull in a car accident within two months of each other. The book’s selection as a "common text" meant that it would be taught in all sections of freshman English during the same week or two of the fall semester.

The spotlight heightened awareness of the university’s common text program and its goal of exploring diverse cultures. As they began studying Heaven’s Coast, many students either were apprehensive about the book or curious as to why it had become the focus of such controversy.

In the end, they learned something about dealing with grief. They learned what life might be like for gay people in America. They learned what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality. And they learned to appreciate the deft literary skills of an honored contemporary American writer.

Katherine Kersten, senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a Star Tribune guest columnist, rebuked both Doty and St. Thomas in her May 5 editorial, "St. Thomas stoops far too low in its next ‘common text.’" The university, she concluded, "can best promote academic pluralism by rededicating itself to becoming an institution of a kind all too rare these days — one that deals with morally serious topics in morally serious ways."

It was the first time, Doty said, his character had been so attacked in a column or book review.

Kersten’s criticisms of the book, and of the university for choosing it, were echoed in dozens of telephone calls, letters to the president, newspaper letters to the editor and talk radio programs.

One caller to the university said the book was "highly inappropriate" for college freshmen, and the comments went downhill from there. Others said the book "promotes the homosexual agenda and is used to recruit young people to a gay life" and is "nothing but filth, filth and more filth."

The letters to the president, while more polite in tone, hit on similar themes: "When our Catholic university does not stand up for the Gospels, it is lacking moral leadership" and "I would detest having such reading material in my home, and would hate to be forced to read it."

When Doty took the auditorium podium on the evening of his common text week keynote address, he looked out at nearly 900 students, staff and faculty. Many in the audience were freshmen in the midst of reading and studying Heaven’s Coast. Every seat was taken; those who didn’t come early parked in the aisles and some watched via closed-circuit television next door.

Before he got out his first sentence, a polite applause began. And it grew. A few students stood and soon the entire audience rose to its feet and presented Doty with a spontaneous, sustained ovation. And they did it again when the talk was over.

The path from that column May 5 in the Star Tribune to the welcome Doty received Nov. 3 was not an easy one for the university. It was a path filled with questions about academic freedom and church teaching, about the role of a university and especially a Catholic university, and about the difference between teaching students what to think and how to think.

The controversy also told the university something about itself. What happens in its classrooms does matter to the wider community.

Many who called the university to protest the book were surprised to learn that St. Thomas actually sanctions open discussion of controversial topics. A policy adopted by the university’s board of trustees in 1994 states, in part: "The university exists as an environment which not only allows, but encourages, members of its community to ask questions and openly explore challenging ideas in their personal search for truth."

That pretty much nails down the way the English Department runs its common text program. Each year since 1986, the department has selected one common text based on literary merit and its portrayal of racial, cultural, economic and ethnic diversity. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning Beloved was a common text. Heaven’s Coast was the first common text to deal with issues of sexual orientation.

The common text is just one of many books or reading assignments in freshman English classes. The other books vary, depending on the course and its faculty member.

The common text also is the subject of several days of campuswide seminars and programs. Last fall, St. Thomas made Doty work for his visiting-scholar fee. In addition to his main evening address, he visited classes and student and faculty workshops, participated in a campuswide panel sponsored by Faculty Develop-ment, and read poetry as part of the annual Sacred Arts Festival.

Other programs that week included an AIDS quilt display; a presentation by the Rev. Jeff Huard, director of Campus Ministry, on "Understanding Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Diversity"; a lunch with members of the campus’ gay and lesbian student group; and a program by Personal Counseling on "Dealing with Grief and Loss."

Although prepared for public criticism about the text, the university was still surprised by its intensity. It also was a little surprised, given the public commotion in the spring, that things were downright calm during the week of Doty’s campus visit.

The decision to select Heaven’s Coast as a common text was not done lightly nor easily. It was debated by the English Department faculty, who select the text each year; the decision to read Doty’s book was not unanimous. And their decision, in one regard, had no precedent. While Heaven’s Coast has been studied in college classrooms across the country, and even used as the text for a Franciscan retreat, this was the first time it had been selected as the required text for an entire freshman class.

One issue faculty members discussed was the literary sophistication of the book; it’s not an easy read, especially the metaphor-rich first half. Another issue was its hit-you-in-the-gut depiction of grief and loss. Were St. Thomas freshmen ready for that? Doty wrote the book in the throes of grief following Wally’s death, and it shows. As one student wrote for her English class, "Heaven’s Coast isn’t just a story; it’s a real-life journey of torturing grief that no person should have to experience alone."

And then there’s the matter of homosexuality. Based on the controversy it sparked, one would think Heaven’s Coast must be dripping with sleaze and racy passages of gay sex. It’s simply not there.

More than a year before Heaven’s Coast would be read on campus, the English Department informed St. Thomas’ president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, who in turn informed Archbishop Harry Flynn, who chairs the St. Thomas board. (Both priests read the book and supported the way the English Department used it.)

Once the decision was made to read Heaven’s Coast, the university took seriously the preparations for navigating controversial waters.

• Members of the English Department gathered for an intensive seminar last summer where they not only studied the book as literature, they studied issues raised by the book: Catholic teaching on homosexuality, gay life in America and on campus, and dealing with grief.

• Staff members from three St. Thomas departments not usually involved in the work of teaching —University Relations, Development and Admissions — read and discussed the book. University Relations staffers, for example, studied the book and Catholic doctrine at an off-campus retreat with the help of English professors, archdiocesan church officials, and members of the university’s gay community.

• The English Department, at the start of fall semester, mailed to freshmen a collection of documents dealing with Catholic teaching on homosexuality — the page dealing with the topic in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and two pastoral letters issued by the U.S. bishops, "Called to Compassion and Responsibility" and "Always Our Children."

In a letter that accompanied the documents, English Department Chair Dr. Michael Mikolajczak explained that "with no other book has my department had to take these extraordinary measures. But the best way, I believe, to fight misunderstanding is not the clenched fist but the open hand."

The department also created a common text Web site for all to use. It includes background information on Doty and copies of church documents. You can reach the site at

Church teaching on homosexuality is a complicated matter for learned theologians, much less college freshmen. Homosexual acts, the Catechism states, "are contrary to the natural law" and "under no circumstances can they be approved." But the Catechism also teaches that gay people "do not choose their homosexual condition" and "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."

In his 1986 letter on "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, "The phenomenon of homosexuality, complex as it is and with its many consequences for society and ecclesial life, is a proper focus for the Church’s pastoral care. It thus requires of her ministers attentive study, active concern and honest, theologically well-balanced counsel."

The University of St. Thomas agrees wholeheartedly with Cardinal Ratzinger," Dease said in a letter he wrote in response to critics of the Heaven’s Coast selection. "I believe that our Department of English is responding to his message in a theologically responsible and scholarly manner."

Many critics asked the university why students were required to read Heaven’s Coast in particular. Couldn’t they have read another book, or simply read the church documents?

Dease explained that in their pastoral letter "Called to Compassion and Responsibility," the U.S. bishops write that "compassion is much more than sympathy. … The Latin word misericordia expressed the basic idea: The compassionate person has a heart for those in misery. This is not simply the desire to be kind."

"A powerful way to gain this kind of experience," Dease wrote, "is to listen to another’s story — to read, in other words, a memoir such as Heaven’s Coast."

Doty touched on that notion several times during his St. Thomas visit. "It is odd and unnerving to know that almost everyone here knows me and has participated in my experience," he told the 900 strangers who attended his evening address. "I come to you as an artist, not an activist, though both are worthy endeavors. Activists try to persuade. Artists try to represent what it’s like to be a human being. I hope that when you read Heaven’s Coast, you aren’t thinking about my life, but about your life."

The next afternoon, at the Faculty Development seminar, he told 200 students, staff and faculty that "I don’t think writers care if they are agreed with. But I do care profoundly about your willingness to read, to entertain possibilities, to step into another’s skin … literature provides a meeting ground, a place to imagine what it would be like to have been someone else in some other time."

Even without the help of Heaven’s Coast, the university last fall had the painful and ironic opportunity to consider what life sometimes holds for gay people. For several weeks, starting with move-in weekend, a series of anti-gay hate messages appeared in Ireland Residence Hall.

St. Thomas learned as a community two years ago how to deal with these crimes. When hate messages appeared in Brady Hall in October 1998, the campus responded with a student-led onslaught of posters, prayers and town meetings. That response was noted by the John Templeton Foundation in November when it named St. Thomas to its national honor roll of 100 character-building colleges and universities.

St. Thomas’ response last fall was similar: forums, posters and prayers again were used and again they worked. The anti-gay messages stopped when it became clear they weren’t welcome.

In an interview at the end of his St. Thomas visit, Doty shared some thoughts on hate, and making judgments about others. "When I spoke about my dream (about the two people hanged in a tree) at my evening lecture, I suppose people were startled. A consequence of judgment can be hurt; it can make people afraid. One thing I hoped students learned from the book is to put a face on difference. We are not just talking about ideas, but people’s lives, and hearts."

From faculty and student accounts, classroom sessions devoted to Heaven’s Coast treated the text as a solid piece of contemporary literature. Discussions were lively and learned, not contentious debates about gay life or church dogma.

As one freshman said at the end of common text week: "I know a lot of students who just can’t understand what all the commotion has been about, and I’m one of them."

One of the most celebrated writers ever to visit St. Thomas, Doty is a professor at the University of Houston and has a stack of top national and international writing awards: the T.S. Eliot Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, Whiting Writers Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

"My past experience as a teacher is that when our students are given difficult material, they rise to the challenge," Mikolajczak said. "This certainly was true with Heaven’s Coast. The feedback I received from other members of the department is that while issues of sexuality and church teaching were part of class discussions, they were not at all the dominant topics."

On the second day that Dr. Lon Otto’s Critical Reading and Writing class discussed Heaven’s Coast, he told students that part of understanding a book is understanding why it is difficult. "If you don’t have questions, crank up your reading; if it’s not challenging, you’re not paying attention."

Sounding as much like a coach as a professor, Otto encouraged his students to "read not to pass some test, but because it has to do with your life."

Using a combination of journals, writing assignments, lectures and discussion circles, Otto led his students on an exploration of the book’s shifting time frames; its discussions of love, death, passion, spirituality, religion and heaven; why the first half of the book was so much more difficult than the second half, and why Doty chose to write it that way; and most often about metaphors that used images of trees, dogs, seals and the ever-shifting coastline.

Doty found time to visit several English classes during his visit. Often asked about the craft of writing, he talked about getting started as a writer, differences between writing poems and novels, if creative writing can be taught, and even how a big pot of coffee fits into his daily writing routine.

In another Critical Reading and Writing class, taught by Dr. Mary Rose O’Reilley and Dr. Robert Miller, honors-level students led Doty through a wide-ranging discussion of love and loss ("the darkest and brightest things we experience," he remarked, "live so close together"), spirituality, belief in God, promiscuity, monogamy, desire, judgment, shame, life’s contradictions, and even the correct term for committed gay companions.

At one point he complimented the students by saying, "Your questions are becoming too good to be answerable." When the class was over, a student leaving the room said simply, "Awesome." Another told a friend, "That was the best class I’ve ever attended." When asked why, he replied, "You don’t always hear those kinds of things talked about so honestly and with respect."

"Mark Doty was incredibly kind and unflagging in his energy; he was wonderful to have on campus," noted Heid Erdrich, chair of the Common Text Committee and a member of the English faculty who taught Heaven’s Coast in both graduate and undergraduate courses last fall.

"I do know that students came to understand Heaven’s Coast as art, and Doty as an artist," she said.

When her students began studying the book, "they weren’t quite sure what to think," Erdrich said. "At first, I think some students approached the book with skepticism, as they have with other common texts. With Heaven’s Coast, we had students who were initially uncomfortable with the subject matter as well as the political situation that surrounded it.

"But Mark made them comfortable on both counts — through his writing and his courage in the face of criticism," she said. "They came to see that he wasn’t trying to push his beliefs, he wasn’t trying to persuade them about anything. He was trying to share his humanity. They came to understand that, and in the end, I’ve never seen students respond so warmly. I don’t regret a second of all the controversy."

"I certainly helped to complicate your conversations," Doty said at the end of his visit. "And while I was nervous when I first came here, I’m just fine now. I had a great time.

"I was moved by your students’ openness and willingness to think deeply about Heaven’s Coast. I was moved by the great care that your English faculty took to present the book. And I was moved by St. Thomas’ willingness to say yes, this will be a controversy, and an opportunity for a great conversation."