Culture Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

New revelations in Phyllis Tickle biography

One of the greatest gifts of my years at Publishers Weekly was the chance to work with Phyllis Tickle, who founded our religion department at the magazine and had her finger on the pulse of the religious landscape like no one else.

Phyllis died in September of 2015 after a brief battle with cancer (see my tribute to her here). I’m one of thousands of people who miss her intelligence, her sense of humor, and the ability she had to make you feel as though you were the most important person in the world at that moment.

Fans of Phyllis’s will enjoy the new biography Phyllis Tickle: A Life, by veteran publisher and author Jon Sweeney, who was a good friend of hers. They’ll also learn about several aspects of Phyllis’s life that were not widely known. I certainly did. — JKR

RNS: How much was Phyllis involved in the biography?

Sweeney: The project was determined very soon after diagnosis, and she was involved. The very first step was that when her diagnosis was made public, Michael Lawrence sent me an email and said, “So, are you going to write her biography?” It surprised me. The idea would never have occurred to me, but I thought about it and realized it would be an honor and a delight. Then I took the idea to Phyllis, and I was expecting her to pooh-pooh it, and say, “Who would want to read my biography?” But she said she thought it might be lovely. I was so surprised by her answer that that was my confirmation.

Since this was in the spring of 2015, I then had a few months with Phyllis to work on sources and interview questions, and get all of my ducks in a row. I also had the benefit of the contents of her desk and a lot of materials that were in her office, which were boxed up and sent to me before they went to the Phyllis Tickle collection at Shorter College.

Jon Sweeney, author of “Phyllis Tickle: A Life”

RNS: What surprised you in the research?

Sweeney: There were a couple of things. First, her mystical life. There’s a chapter on that where I lay out the origin and the publication of The Divine Hours. Another was her relationship with [her husband] Sam, particularly around Sam’s sexuality. As I’m giving talks—I’m giving one this week in Texas—I’m deliberately not talking about it there because it feels too glib.

RNS: The revelation that Sam was bisexual was hugely surprising for me too, and that Phyllis knew about it. Major bombshell.

Sweeney: I agree completely. It was difficult for me to discover it and to verify it and to decide to write about it. A printout of Sam’s email about it was in Phyllis’s desk when she died. She knew that I was going to be getting the contents of her desk immediately after her death, and that email—this seemingly random email from 2009—was sitting in her desk drawer by itself. She didn’t want me to not know about this.

RNS: So she let you make the decision about what to do with the information?

Sweeney: Yes. Exactly.

RNS: For me another surprise was also that Sam had a temper. When I knew him he was older and seemed like such a teddy bear. He was very kind to me. It was difficult to read about.

Sweeney: That part was not difficult to write about at all. He could be angry and sullen. The kids were very forthcoming, and a couple of Phyllis’s friends. So that was very much publicly understood, particularly by those in Memphis. “Daddy was a difficult person” was a common refrain from their kids.

RNS: Phyllis and Sam lost a child, Philip Wade, which I knew about, but I never knew the details. So it was heartbreaking to read about that period, and the rawness of their grief. It became a wedge in the marriage.

Sweeney: I think some of that is sometimes a male-female dynamic that they dealt with the grief so differently. There’s video evidence where Phyllis discusses that and says that she and Sam were unable to talk about their grief. Also my book shows Sam’s grief is probably related to his professional embarrassment about Philip Wade, because he was a pulmonologist and here was his infant son gasping to breathe.

Photo courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit via Flickr

Phyllis Tickle in 2014, the year before her death.

RNS: When was the last time you saw Phyllis?

Sweeney: The last time I spoke to her was a couple of weeks before she died, because she really couldn’t talk by then. She was still emailing and texting, but she couldn’t talk without great difficulty. The last time I saw her would have been in July, when I went down to interview her.

RNS: Did she have any last words for you?

Sweeney: No, because she wasn’t like that. In the closing chapter where I talk about her final year, there’s a point where I track the social media craze after the news of her diagnosis became public [via David Gibson’s story on Religion News Service]. That was all kind of maudlin, because Phyllis had no interest in sentimentality. She was on her way to a treatment when the story broke, and she had plans for the projects she was going to write.

RNS: Phyllis could be expansive in how she told a story! You point out a few places where there was some “license of the storyteller” going on, where the way an event went down was not always the way she wrote about it later.

Sweeney: I think she very genuinely saw her life as a thing of wonder, which was her great gift, but it also means that the narrative changes. Like the story of when she and Sam sold St. Luke’s Press. She makes it sound in her autobiography like this was a spur-of-the-moment decision reached while standing in the kitchen on a telephone call. But Phyllis and Sam talked about that for months; they strategized. And then there’s the way that she talked about Sam in the autobiography as if he had miracle, shamanic qualities, when in reality she would tell friends he was a packrat and it drove her nuts. People’s best qualities are often the flip side of something that can be negative.

RNS: Tell me about The Farm in Lucy, the land outside Memphis where they raised their kids. It’s so vividly portrayed it’s almost a character in the biography.

Sweeney: It’s one of those details that I always assumed Phyllis Tickle fans knew about already. But what readers may not have known about the farm were the somewhat libertarian views that went along with it. Phyllis and Sam wanted their kids to know what it meant to raise the cow that became their beef, and to raise their own vegetables. And of course the farm became totally a character in her writing. It’s not unlike Port William for Wendell Berry.

She had no interest in dying anywhere else, when the time came. That’s where she wanted to both live and die.

Upcoming talks and book signings for Phyllis Tickle: A Life

Sun. March 4            Talk; Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN

Mon. March 5            Signing; Burke’s Book Store, Memphis TN

Tues. March 6            Talk; Lenten Preaching Series, Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN

Sun. March 18           Talk; Trinity Church Wall Street, NYC

Wed. April 11             Talk; Blue Ocean Faith & St. Clare’s Episcopal, Ann Arbor MI

Thur. May 3               Talk; Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta

Thur. May 31              Signing; BookExpo America, Javits Center, NYC

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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Throughout their lives, Mama knew my father to be both the tender-hearted, artist-healer she often mentioned and the bull-headed, momma-hurt, depression era pack-rat whose dyslexia and birth order contributed to periodic depression, among other things, he could not admit. “Physician, heal thyself,” as it were. In the hours and minutes of days across the arc of their 80 + years together, each suffered the full range of wedded bliss and blistering, I believe. In the long run, Robin Mays’ view is the correct one. It was a match made in Heaven. That’s my narrow view, in any case. Not fair, idyllic or unchanging. Just true.

  • “And then there’s the way that she talked about Sam in the autobiography as if he had miracle, shamanic qualities, when in reality she would tell friends he was a packrat and it drove her nuts.”
    This one line bothers me. I think it is important to know that these two things aren’t contradictory and that mom wasn’t lying about it. He was a miracle worker healer beyond belief. He could just about lay his hand on someone and tell you their medical diagnosis without a single test. He frequently treated and prolonged the lives of the incurable. He could take in a patient who was in a wheelchair with six agonizing months left to live as their prognosis and give them ten glorious years. He was also a pack rat who made her crazy in a million ways. I believe he was the only man she ever loved. None of her portrayals of situations are false but the color of the lens may be different.

  • I have to wonder what were Phyllis Tickle’s opinions and ideas about Jews and Judaism. I’ve never heard it discussed.I read an article she wrote about Martin Luther and she completely ignored his antisemitism. That’s all I know.

  • Were it not for the strong convictions I hold as a result of her influence, I would be more confident in trying to share the texts and tenets which defined her view of Judaism. As it is, and especially in this forum, all I can safely do is share a personal view. So I’ll tell you she had an abiding respect for the faith traditions and literature of God’s chosen people. She felt kinship with and a great personal affinity for the faithful. She treasured colleagues and friends, across a span of Jewish orthodoxy, as well as some margin of cultural difference. She was fond of reminding us that in Memphis, it was the Jewish community and the Rabbi who put themselves at risk in support the civil rights movement by opening the Temple as a secret place to conduct meetings after it became too dangerous to meet elsewhere.
    I hope others also will see and respond to your post. If we’re lucky someone may have useful references to share from within her work or personal correspondence.