Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Now this is what the DC chattering classes desperately needed right now -- something to talk about other than President Donald Trump and his wife's controversial choices in footwear.

If you have followed post-1960s life in Washington, D.C., you will not be surprised that the person in the center of this hurricane of whispers is none other than journalist and social maven Sally Quinn. Yes, we're talking about the much-talked-about lover and much-younger wife of the great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Once the most feared "New Journalism" scribe covering DC social life, Quinn later used her personal charisma and clout to create the "On Faith" blog at the Post -- opening a window into the religious beliefs of her corner of the DC establishment. Hint: Mysterious progressive faith is good, traditional forms of religion are bad, bad, bad. Meanwhile, the former atheist became -- in her public persona -- a rather visible Episcopalian.

Now she is tweaking that image with a spiritual memoir entitled "Finding Magic" in which, in the words of a must-read Washingtonian profile, the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Journalists reading this profile will marvel at the personal details. However, it's also important to keep remembering that Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

OK, back to the Washingtonian article itself, which details the degree to which Quinn has decided to let her "spiritual freak flag fly." The summary statement is:

It’s a spiritual memoir, called Finding Magic, that charts her path from “angry atheist” to -- well, Quinn’s spiritual classification is a bit hard to define, even for her. A sort of Eat Pray Love for the This Town set, the memoir offers an intimate, at times painful look inside her exceedingly public life. There’s less glamour and cutthroat ambition, more vulnerability and personal anguish. She outs herself as a believer in the occult and as an erstwhile practitioner of voodoo, and she packs the book with moments that have made anxious friends wonder: Are you sure you want to share that?

Really? #Really.

Clearly, what is going on here is a mixture of the personal, the Sexual Revolution (a potential lover caught her eye just the other day), the occult and, in the final product, her own liberalized form of good Christianity. What is stunning is the degree to which these forces mesh in key events in her life, such as her relationship with Bradlee. Yes, in what will surely be the most discussed passage from this profile, Quinn. Goes. There.

By 1974, the pair were an item -- quite a scandal, seeing as he was her boss, 20 years her senior, and married. The first time they had sex, in fact, was after a lunch meeting at which Quinn weepily told him she had taken a job at CBS in New York as a way to escape her forbidden love for him. Instead, the two wound up in bed. (Yes, it’s in the book.)
“What I felt for Ben was so transcendent, so sacred, so divine,” she writes of that night. “I had never experienced anything like it. It was magic in the sense that it was otherworldly, life enhancing, life transforming. ... I merged with another being, another soul.” Quinn describes the day that their son was conceived -- on the banks of the Cacapon River in West Virginia -- in equally exalted terms. (Yes, that’s in the book, too.)

Any spiritual memoir has to include a basic timeline, from her slide into atheism as a child, while still attending Episcopal Sunday school. Her journalism days are crucial, but so are the new insights during the years when she served as the older Bradlee's caregiver as he declined into dementia. Also the couple's child -- Josiah Quinn Crowninshield Bradlee -- had a chromosomal disorder that, as the article summarizes, "results in terrifying combinations of congenital heart disease, developmental delays, odd facial features, seizures, and kidney malfunction, among other things."

There was also the stress of living through the George W. Bush era, when her dinner-maven skills were not needed. At this point, her spiritual quest merges with journalism. For GetReligion readers, these are the details that really matter:

She had gotten heavily into meditating and had had a life-changing experience while walking a labyrinth at a California spa. She later had a labyrinth of her own built at the family’s home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore -- a 50-footer modeled after the one at Chartres Cathedral in France.
Increasingly, Quinn felt certain she was not alone -- that the entire field of spirituality remained underexplored. “Religion is a huge story,” she says. “In all this foreign policy and American politics, religion plays a huge role, and we were not covering religion.” ...
These were the early days of Wash­, “when you could do anything,” Quinn says. Thus was born On Faith, a section devoted to all things spiritual. Quinn admits it was an “off the wall” move for a long-professed atheist, but as her co-moderator, she recruited longtime journalist and then–Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

She went to lots of spiritual retreats. Behind the scenes, there were Tarot cards, visits with mediums (she has "repeatedly" been in contact with Bradlee), contact with ghosts, Ouija boards, astrological charts, palm reading, talismans, etc.

The bottom line:

It simply took until her mid-seventies to have the “epiphany” that “believing in magic is as legitimate as any religion or faith.”

She confesses that she has engaged in dark arts and worries that her curses have actually affected people for the worse. Would she do that again? Right now?

“You can’t imagine the number of people who have asked me to put a hex on Donald Trump -- I mean, I have got friends lined up,” she says. “This is my biggest restraint now.”

There's much, much more -- just in the Washingtonian piece.

But I want to end with a few ideas from one of the most controversial pieces I have written at GetReligion -- "On Fog: A Meditation" -- which focused on JOURNALISM questions raised by Quinn's highly personal, experiential approach to religion-beat coverage.

Consider again her famous, some would say "infamous," description of her actions at the funeral of NBC's Tim Russert:

... At Tim's funeral mass at Trinity Church in Georgetown (Jack Kennedy's church), communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started "On Faith" and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. ... I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it.

Father James Martin responded with these comments at the Jesuit magazine, America:

Most intelligent people know a few facts about the Catholic church: this is one of them. And even if one doesn’t know this, one would know to act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own. ... An essential element of respect for another religious tradition is approaching their holy places, people and ceremonies with sense of reverence, even awe. That’s why the words "transubstantiation notwithstanding" are difficult to hear. If one knows enough about Catholicism to mention "transubstantiation" then one should also know that the word "notwithstanding" makes little sense in that context.

Amen. This also affects journalism. As I wrote, in that 2008 post:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people -- left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call "fringe." Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.
This isn't about emotions and feelings. It's about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

This will also be true in discussions of Quinn's memoirs.

It's fine to press her for specifics, but reporters must let her speak. It will be tempting to elaborate. But she deserves a chance to tell her story and, yes, the facts will matter.

Please respect our Commenting Policy