Old ladies love me. Or at least they love my column. They always have. I know what you’re thinking, that only old people read newspapers any more anyway, which would explain neatly the demographic.
But this began as early as 1975. I was only 22, and back then everyone read newspapers, not just old people. That was the case, at least, in Monroe County, Ala., where I was working for the weekly.
I had written my first column for The Monroe Journal, published in Monroeville, where Harper Lee first learned it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. The essay was about race, a paean to the local head of the NAACP, enthusiastically rabble-rousing Ezra Cunningham, whom I adored at first sight.
A faithful Journal reader, an elderly white woman with a beauty shop coif and a patent leather pocketbook, came to tell me why I was wrong. She simply loved the way I wrote, she said, but I was mistaken to agree with Ezra’s racial politics. She even brought me a gift jar of preserves, which I remember well because the forgotten figs got knocked off my desk and spilled on the linoleum office floor. It remained sticky the remainder of the year I worked there.
Somehow 35 years have passed, and most of them I’ve been writing a column for one newspaper or another, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. I’ve collected a healthy following of readers who hate what I say but love the way I say it. I’ve swum against the mainstream on matters of race, politics, gun laws and a woman’s right to choose.
Somehow I’ve kept the column going, despite being in a Deep South minority on most philosophical matters. I always try to remember the Ralph McGill formula. The Atlanta editor once said he wrote about hound dogs and barbecue several times a week to soften his reading audience for harder-hitting editorials. One county fair column will get you credit to carry on politically for several weeks.
I’ve had my share of detractors through the years, of course. But if I had a dime for everyone who has said, “I love your writing, though I don’t agree with your politics,” I could retire today, wealthy.
I figure I’ve been in many Southern newspapers for so long that I fall into the Familiar Fixture category; comforting, at least, because I’m the Devil You Know. Or think you know.
The one belief I never revealed in three decades-plus was my disbelief. I figured that straw for a Bible Belt columnist would be the last. I never said I did believe. But I never said I did not. It was a sin of omission.
Then, my second husband died. And, for a while, at least, I grew fearless. I no longer cared whether anyone read the column or not. I didn’t care if newspapers kept or dropped my weekly syndicated essays. I didn’t care about much.
If ever I’d had the slightest belief in a hereafter, Don’s death ended all internal debate. He was gone. Is gone. I’m happy for others if they can take comfort in believing otherwise, in accepting on faith that there’ll be some future reunion in the sky, but I cannot.
The year of my husband’s death, I somehow finished a memoir I’d already begun for NewSouth Books, a Montgomery, Ala., publishing house. Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming for the first time made clear my position on faith and religion. No bones. No hedges. I finished the manuscript in September, 2009, and waited a little nervously for its release in March of 2010. How would my regular readers, the ones who for so long had indulged my liberal politics and feminist rants, react to this ultimate departure from Southern mores?
It has been an interesting year, pardon the understatement. Many of those I feared would be shocked and appalled have been supportive. Many I thought would be supportive have been shocked and appalled. Dozens of elderly readers who profess profound and lifelong religious beliefs have written me long letters saying they loved the book and understood all about doubts. They had overcome theirs, I would, too.
More interesting than the qualified support was the way reviewers and readers who love the column pretty much ignored the subject of my agnosticism altogether. A few writers mentioned my revelation, but most did not. It felt almost as if my fellow journalists were being protective of me, accentuating the “positive,” if you will. One reporter asked me in a tentative way, “What in the book do you think will come as the biggest surprise to longtime readers of the column?”
She knew the answer to that.
As for me, I’ve learned a lesson about tolerance. Not all religious readers are intolerant and myopic. If only newspapers could understand that. My fears all these years about “outing” myself as a non-believer probably were unfounded, if faithful readers had the final say.
I’m still not so sure about editors, who pander to the lowest common denominators on most things that might affect circulation. Even the most courageous editors I’ve known hesitate to “offend” on matters of religion. That’s how infamous charlatans like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker get away with so much for so long.
Intelligent readers, on the other hand, already know that the range of religion is as deep and varied as the deep blue sea. And that the scope of human beliefs includes those of people like myself who wish they did but don’t.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is syndicated by King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of Poor Man’s Provence. Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana, Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz and America’s Faces.