Under This Beautiful Dome by Terry Mutchler is a multi-layered book whose subhead, A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America, merely hints at some of the layers. As I see it, they are the love two women have for each other but dare not make public, journalism ethics, raging, recurring and ultimately terminal cancer, sexual abuse of one of them as a child, and a family’s behavior toward one of the women when the partner dies.
The lovers are Illinois Senator Penny Severns and journalist Terry Mutchler, who falls for Severns the moment she sees her. Thus arises the ethics issues for as the women draw closer, Severns sometimes gives her Mutchler inside information. Quoting a journalist who spoke to one of her classes at Penn State, Mutchler knows that it’s one thing to cover the circus; it’s another thing to sleep with the elephants. (Yes, she was one of my students.)
Their love deepens, but they dare not go public, for both their sakes. After all, this is late 20th century Illinois (1993, to be exact) and a gay politician faces extinction at the polls no matter how good she is—and a friend in Illinois tells me that Severns was quite good. And no one can know that Mutchler, who is the Associated Press’s statehouse bureau chief, is sleeping with the elephants.
Severns and Mutchler eventually buy a house, but because deed transfers are public records, they agree that only Severns’ name will go on the deed and Mutchler’s contribution will be undocumented. They set up an elaborate routine to hide the fact that they are living together, although it becomes clear, perhaps more in retrospect, that some people had figured it out anyway.
Then Severns contracts breast cancer, which killed one of her sisters and has threatened the life of her twin sister. Mutchler blames herself and makes a one-way pact with God that she’ll atone for her ethical lapses by taking a job in Alaska. It is an unanswered prayer.
With the ethical issue out of the way, the two continue a very warm and loving relationship. Eventually Mutchler returns to Illinois, not as a journalist but as a student in law school. At the same time, she becomes Severns’ press secretary in her reelection campaign, which enabled them to be together in public, but not really the way they want to be together.
Five years after they fell in love, Severns dies. We know that will happen from beginning and we get a hint of the exclusion that Mutchler subsequently endures because few knew that they were partners, that they considered themselves married to each other. But as members of Severns’ family learn of the real relationship, that it’s not just a senator and her press aide, exclusion takes over.
Mutchler is not allowed to sit with the family at the funeral service, she is not allowed to deliver a eulogy, she is eventually locked out of her own house. The twin sister you thought would have been her standard-bearer turns out to lack the spine to stand up to her father, a bully and someone Severns never even wanted to include in her will. Mutchler barely survives, and it is to the credit of some of her friends that she eventually pulls herself together and gets on with her life, with the memory of her first love to keep her going.
The title of the book comes from a speech given by an Illinois lawmaker as the legislature considered a marriage equality bill (now law) in 2013. “One of the greatest love stories I have ever heard played out right here, under this beautiful dome,” the lawmaker said. “But it was a secret.”
Thanks to Terry Mutchler, it no longer is.