Thanks to my colleague Roger Salisbury for the tip off on this article. I’ve not read any of Patricia Cornwell’s crime novels, but after reading this article in the last but one Sunday Times magazine, I’m not completely sure that they’re my cup of tea. Hers is a detailed, macabre curiosity about the cruel, violent and seedy, an exposure of the necessary horrors of autopsies and forensic investigations. So by the sound of things, strong stomachs are required for her readers. Janice Turner, who wrote the ST article, confessed to being totally freaked out by the latest book, Postmortem. But my point in raising this her is not to plug her books – more to highlight some of the aspects of her background which have brought Cornwell to these fascinations. Needless to say her childhood was pretty fraught:

  • Her lawyer father left the family for good when she was only 5, clinging pitifully to his legs.
  • Her mother descended into mental illness; meanwhile, Cornwell found herself molested by a security guard

“And the next thing I know is there is a police officer at my house and I’m at some kind of hearing at the court house and strangers are passing my little red shorts around, the ones he’d put his hands inside. I feel fear and that what I did was bad. My mother’s only way to deal with it is to take me to a toy store afterwards. And never to talk about what happened except to tell me I can’t ever buy a pair of red shorts because it will give [me] bad memories. Why not just say nothing?”

Gruesome. But then her mother further deteriorates – and help comes from the most unexpected (unless you know anything about them, that is) source:

When Cornwell’s mother needed to be hospitalised she drove Cornwell and her two brothers to the nearby home of preacher Billy Graham. His wife, Ruth, welcomed them in and found foster care, even though the family were strangers. Ruth Graham remained Cornwell’s beloved mentor until her death last June, sending her cheques at college, guiding her through adolescent anorexia and, above all, encouraging her to write.

This is a fantastic witness to God’s love and is consistent with everything one has ever heard about the Graham family. But tragedy was not far away from Cornwell. As the article continues, it describes Cornwell’s foster mother (in simple but somehow damning terms) as a ‘missionary’. What’s that supposed to mean, then? Well, I know exactly what it’s getting at.

But Cornwell’s foster mother, a missionary, terrified Cornwell, forbade her to leave the house, tormented her, fed her food she found disgusting. “I probably kill this lady every time I write a book,” she says grimly. “I find some way or form. She’s dead now and she deserves it.”

Having been a crime reporter and then had involvement in police investigations, it is not perhaps surprising that she has a pretty pessimistic view of life. In fact as the article ruefully says, her friends have given her the nickname ‘Mrs Worst-Case Scenario’! It is also no surprise that, the Grahams aside, she has a pretty devastating impression both of men and Christians. I suppose you could say she was fleeing both by marrying her long-term partner, Dr Staci Gruber 3 years ago.

But contrast the various attitudes to this:

The couple were married in 2005 in Massachusetts, the only US state that permits gay marriage. It was a private ceremony because, Cornwell says, with sadness, “I wouldn’t invite my family. They know about it, but we don’t talk about it.” Her mother and Ruth and Billy Graham all accepted Gruber. “The people at the centre of the evangelical universe are kind and non-judgmental. It is the rings around Saturn you have to watch out for.”…

… When Cornwell was growing up her mother once declared that the worst thing in life was to turn out a homosexual alcoholic: “And I grew up to be gay with a DUI [Driving Under the Influence conviction],” she laughs grimly.

Now, this is definitely not the moment to rehearse all the various theological arguments to and fro about the issue of gay marriage. But what has really struck me is that the likes of Billy Graham have never been those to water down Christ’s imperative for repentance. And yet here you have a family offering long-term and committed love, even to people whose lifestyles do not conform to or cohere their understanding of the biblical ideals.

But my point in all this is that the impression given of her cruel foster ‘missionary’ mother (and i suppose to some extent Cornwell’s real mother) fits more with the populist image or even caricature of what Christians are like. I’m sure there are many reasons for this. There are those who are opposed to Christian things and religious things – and so there is prejudice here, as there is in all walks of life (including the church). But let’s face it, there are a LOT of Christians who ARE ogres – ‘the rings around Saturn’ as Cornwell put it. Wasn’t it Gandhi who once observed, I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ’? Too right – a trenchant rebuke if ever there was one.

But there are also many, many people who are not celebrated or heralded (usually because that’s the very last thing they would want) and who want to live in a Christlike holy way, and therefore have moral standards but a love for any and all whether they meet those standards or not. It is harder to describe that kind of love in soundbites or labels – but it is just as real as the monstrous, hypocritical or limp Christian of populist fiction/drama/imagination. If only more people knew and loved as the Grahams did and that this filtered down into another, widely recognised image (or even caricature) of the loving but thought-through Christian. I’m just grateful that Patricia Cornwell is able to be frank and open about her positive experiences of Christians as well as the not so positive.

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