Book Club: Mystery novel by Susan Thistlethwaite exposes the nature of white supremacism on college campuses
Editor’s note: This monthly-ish column by the Vail Daily’s entertainment editor will discuss what she’s reading currently and how it affects her life.
I met the author of “When Demons Float,” Susan Thistlethwaite, at the Bookworm of Edwards for a coffee in December. We talked about the third installment of her series of Kristin Ginelli mystery novels, but the conversation, like my reading of the book, went much deeper than that.
Thistlethwaite, a longtime local who retired here with her husband, was the former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, where she now holds emerita status. She has previously written columns for The Washington Post and is a frequent contributor to the Vail Daily. Often, her work illuminates the socio-political landscape of whatever issue she’s examining, and in the case of “When Demons Float,” that issue is white supremacism and the alt-right.
In the book, a series of “White is Right”-fueled crimes begins with a noose hanging from a tree on the quad. The plot shines a light on how young white men on college campuses are recruited through violent video games, and how university life and safety is affected by ultra-conservatism. Ginelli, her protagonist, is a former Chicago cop and current faculty member at a Chicago university. Ginelli works to solve the mystery while escaping imminent danger herself.
Thistlethwaite put a lot of research into her book. On a lighter note, she drew from her own experiences with her grandkids to write about Ginelli’s twin 6-year-old boys. For Ginelli’s best friend Alice, who is a campus cop and an African American woman, Thistlethwaite had her friend Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of African American studies and sociology at Colby College, read the book after she’d finished it to make sure that everything was in-character and appropriate. Gilkes has endorsed the novel.
But to really get into her antagonists’ heads, she spent time in chatrooms of one first-person shooter games and used actual conversations from players in between chapters of her book. Any time she needed to conduct research on sketchy white supremacist sites, she used library computers because the dangerous white supremacists will find you and stalk you.
“I started this after Charlottesville,” she said. “It’s not something you want to mess with.”
Sure, I’m a huge sucker mystery stories. But beyond that, what made me want to read this book was my own alma mater’s struggles with similarly upsetting problems.
I graduated from Syracuse University in May 2019. While I was completing an internship and taking classes in New York City during spring 2018, The Daily Orange campus paper broke a story that Theta Tau, the professional engineering fraternity, had made their new pledge class participate in a play that issued a slew of derogatory remarks about nearly every identity group you could possibly insult: I don’t care to remember all the horrible things they said. Even worse, there was a video.
I worked for The Daily Orange in college. I watched my friends cover the story with professionalism and diligence. I remembered the Theta Tau party I went to as a freshman and realized that uneasy gut feeling of “something about this place is whack” was right.
I remembered visiting campus for a prospective student interview in the fall of 2014, walking in the admissions building and wondering why there were a bunch of students sleeping in the lobby. An admissions officer offhandedly answered, “oh, they’re protesting.” I should have asked why: the university had cut funding to Posse scholarships, which provides scholarships to 4-year universities to emerging leaders, many of whom are students of color. Those protestors, who dubbed themselves THE General Body, were predecessors to the student activists who spoke up against the Theta Tau controversy.
Then the racist graffiti happened.
The Daily Orange reported on Nov. 7, 2019 that someone had vandalized a freshman dorm with racist graffiti. My sister Kiley, now a second-year in the School of Architecture, lived there in Day Hall the year prior, and so had many of my friends. At least 20 bias-related incidents, including slurs, swastikas and flashers have occurred since.
#NotAgainSU formed to protest the incidents, and released a list of demands stating that SU has created a pattern of silence, and among other things, asking for Syverud’s resignation. He eventually agreed to all the demands — minus the resignation, apparently — with only a few changes made to their original plans.
The university has already tried to do things to mitigate the obvious problems on campus. After Theta Tau, all freshmen had to take a one-semester diversity course, but Kiley, who took the class, said many didn’t take it seriously. Some thought it was inadequate and didn’t address problems at the source. Security measures were implemented during the break between semesters.
By and large, many are unhappy with the way SU has handled the whole affair, though the administration’s recent announcement that it will immediately suspend any student involved in bias-related incidents is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. This comes on the toes of more racist graffiti found on the back of a vending machine in Day Hall.
Campus-wide emails from Syverud and the campus police, the Department of Public Safety, about the incidents came only after the D.O. reported on them in some cases, and Syverud has denied a cover-up. Some believe they have failed to address the severity of these crimes. National politicians, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, who graduated from the SU College of Law, have spoken out against the events.
This isn’t just a problem at Syracuse. The noose incident in “When Demons Float” was based on an incident at Duke University, where Thistlethwaite received her Ph.D. Frat incidents are obviously everywhere: one of my friends in college was best friends with Tim Piazza, a new pledge at the Pennsylvania State University’s chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Piazza died following a hazing activity at the fraternity where he was forced to drink a fatal amount of alcohol. He fell down the basement stairs, was kicked by upperclassmen and died on a couch after some brothers put him there without calling 911.
“When Demons Float” is a popular choice for book clubs. It even has discussion questions on the back pages, and the characters are engaging. But for me, it was nice to see university police actually accomplish something. It was nice to see the bad guys actually meet their fate, instead of waltz off with a slap on the wrist.
I’m not going to pretend like I know what’s happening on campus — DPS, the Syracuse Police Department and the FBI may not have enough evidence to prosecute or make arrests, and the law is the law. Plus, I haven’t been back since May 2019.
But I am going to hope endlessly that someone steps up and actually does something effective to stop violence from happening again in a place I want to love.
Casey Russell is the entertainment editor at the Vail Daily. Contact her at email@example.com.
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