Terry Mutchler’s memoir about her love affair with Sen. Penny Severns is brutal in its honesty. Shining in its love. And raw in its pain.
Mutchler puts her whole heart on public view in “Under This Beautiful Dome,” the story of a relationship the two tried mightily to keep secret back in the ’90s.
As near as those years seem, how far away they are.
Severns was an attractive, immensely popular Democratic lawmaker from downstate Decatur. A “single” woman, some would note quietly.
Mutchler, the Associated Press’ first woman statehouse bureau chief in Illinois, was single too.
Some suspected they were gay. But “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was an unspoken code governing far more than the military. It reached everywhere. Certainly into politics.
And so they hid in plain sight.
“The best years of our lives were written in invisible ink,” Mutchler writes.
Even today, the culture in Springfield is a fraternity world. Back then? You could “socialize” with your secretary and tolerate the “Animal House” behavior of legislators and lobbyists. But two women, one of them a senator, openly in love? That would have been a bridge too far.
Some, then and now, will see their relationship as immoral. I’m not here to argue anyone out of that belief, though I don’t share it.
What I do find troubling — and I think most reporters would — are the ethics of the Mutchler/Severns situation. How could the head of the state AP sleep with a senator and not compromise the integrity of her work?
In an email this week, Mutchler was unsparing on herself in response: “There is no way to sugarcoat this part of the story: being involved with a source without disclosure was unforgivable.” An editor, she said, long ago had advised her, “I don’t care if you screw the elephants, just don’t cover the circus.”
“I couldn’t face the fear of being out,” she emailed. “While the landscape is surely different and more welcoming now — I think it was the inner part of me, and perhaps Penny, our own homophobia that we were fighting. I think those components would still exist today . . . we would be braver no doubt seeing there are more people in the pool, so to speak, but each person still has to overcome their own thoughts and feelings.”
When Severns was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, all the bottled guilt of their clandestine relationship exploded for Mutchler, who made a “deal with God.” She said she promised God to leave Penny if it might save Penny, taking a reporting job in Alaska, removing herself from the lesbian relationship and professional conflicts.
But they loved each other too much to stay apart. Mutchler quit her Alaska news job. Came back to Illinois. And for the next four years was at her lover’s side in sickness and in health and in sickness again as the cancer returned.
In 1998, the year Penny Severns died at age 46, there was no gay marriage law on the books. No civil unions.
Though they thought of themselves as married, Mutchler had no legal standing as Severns’ wife, no place in the front row of her Roman-Catholic funeral Mass, and no home to return to. Her name was purposely not on the deed. And so no legal right to claim even the place mats on the dining room table they shared.
Protecting their secret ultimately left Mutchler utterly unprotected. Heartbroken and homeless.
What does it mean that Illinois last year voted to legalize same-sex marriage?
It means everything.
When state Rep. Ann Williams asked her colleagues to find the courage and the compassion to make history by voting for it, she told the love story of Penny and Terry that “played out under this beautiful dome.” And in so doing, gave title to this book.
What Terry Mutchler has done by writing it is to flood the chamber beneath that beautiful dome with bright, unfiltered light.