Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, A Journalist,
and the Politics of Gay Love in America
by Terry Mutchler
Seal Press. 330 pages, $24.
ILLINOIS STATE SENATOR Penny Severns was well known and well thought of; she was a strong and media-savvy minority whip who advocated for working families, education, and breast cancer awareness. Moreover, she helped mentor, among others, then state senator Barack Obama. At the age of 41, she took her first and only lesbian lover, Terry Mutchler, who remained with her until 1998 when Severns died of breast cancer. Mutchler was 27 when she first met Severns while working as the AP statehouse bureau chief in Illinois. As Severns went about the business of politics, campaigning and attending long sessions at the Senate, she had little time to allow for a new relationship. Once Penny showed up for a dinner date with Terry at 11:30 p.m. claiming she couldn’t get away sooner.
Terry Mutchler writes about the confusion of early courtship and the thrill of the consummation, about stealing a kiss in the darker corners of the capitol building. Yet the effort to divert public attention was exhausting. The couple lived in constant fear of public and political discovery. Plus, there was the added complication that Mutchler was senior reporter and ethically could not develop friendships with politicians. So the people closest to Severns, even her parents, could not know. The couple lived together at their home in Decatur. They were so careful that Mutchler parked her car two miles away and walked home in the evening; then she’d leave at four o’clock in the morning to have time to walk back to her car and drive to Springfield, one hour away.
When Severns was diagnosed with breast cancer they went into battle together like any couple. By then Mutchler had quit the AP, started law school, and joined Severns as her press secretary. In a foreshadowing of things to come, a pharmacist refused to fill the prescription for morphine for Severns’ intense pain because Mutchler was not a relative. In the end, as Severns’ press secretary, it was Mutchler’s job to announce Severns’ death.
Mutchler gives us the painstaking details and, at the risk of some repetition, she names people and places. Immediately after Severns’ death, her family took over. Mutchler was placed in the fifteenth row at the funeral, then directed to a vestibule and told “only the family will greet the dignitaries and guests.” This vestibule turned out to be a coat room. Mutchler fled the church and state dignitaries approached her in the parking lot offering comfort and condolences. In the following weeks, Mutchler lost all that she thought of as theirs, including the house in which they lived. After a trip to Chicago, she discovered her garage opener wouldn’t work and there were deadbolts on all of the doors. She was allowed to take only her personal items. Things that she and Severns bought together were taken from her, including expensive art and furniture. While Mutchler was dealing with grief, she also had to deal with Penny’s family, who gave no credibility to their partnership and treated her like an embarrassment.
Mutchler eventually moved to Chicago, and her story goes on a bit more about living numb with grief, in a fog of alcohol, until a friend stepped in to help her start the mending process. (She stopped drinking, finished law school, and passed the bar.) Now, all these years later, she remembers.
Martha Miller’s latest book is the mystery novel Widow (2014, Bold Strokes Books).