Bergman, Susan H.
BERGMAN, Susan H.
Born 5 May 1957, Bloomington, Indiana
Daughter of Donald and Nancy Pricket Heche; married JudsonBergman, 1979; children: Elliot, Elise (Elizabeth), Natalie, Bennet
In two different years, the Pushcart Prize (Best of Small Presses) essay award went to Susan Bergman for her short pieces destined to be parts of a longer one: these short essays, chapters in fact, were "Anonymity," honored in 1991-92, and "Estivation," honored in 1993-94. These are not the only awards Bergman has won for her writing: her work was included among Best American Essays in both 1987 and 1992 as a winner of Tri-Quarterly's essay prize in 1990; moreover, her poems were recognized by the American Academy of Poets (1987-88) and Discovery/The Nation Contest (where she was a finalist in 1990).
The two Pushcart Prize essays evolved into Anonymity: The Secret Life of An American Family (1994), where Bergman reveals in memoir form the shattering experience her family suffered when, upon the death of Susan's father, Donald Heche, at the age of forty-five, they learned he was one of the earliest victims of the AIDS epidemic that swept homosexual communities between 1983 and 1989. Anonymity is not a long book, but its power is deeply felt by reader and author alike. Bergman has a mature style and serenity that is comforting given the plain awful facts of her story. And her technique of weaving past and present events together with paragraphs of self-discovery and personal revelation produces an authentic poetic formula of presentation—where the reader is carried along the narrative by the pace and choice of words Bergman uses to tell her truths. She is a born teller of stories. She writes: "At first no one believed me and I knew it. On Sunday nights until I was at least ten (not every week) my parents spanked me for my week's worth of lies, until I cried so hard I would lose my breath. Eventually I learned how to simulate breath loss so they'd stop before the welts rose. I practiced on the gullible until, satisfied that even skeptics would not doubt, I told the one about my father's performance at Carnegie Hall." And later, as she removes the layers of untruth: "You must understand that lying is a temporal invisibility."
Bergman's memoir shook the very foundations of America's love affair with "the family." In a review for Christian Century, Suzanna Ruta addressed what it meant from the outside to acknowledge "the family of a father who died of AIDS….A strict disciplinarian, church organist, head of a fundamentalist family in which love was expressed, he led a double life of cruising and promiscuity." Each reader or reviewer confronts the same horror and must likely draw the same conclusion: that behind the statistics and the labels, behind the name-calling and the blame, lie real people (often children) whose lives are changed forever.
We learn from Bergman herself in Anonymity that she wished to attend a college where her artistic and writing skills could be honed and developed. She hoped for Cornell University. Her parents insisted on a Christian college, however, so her B.A. degree (1979) is from Wheaton College in Illinois. Later, as her choices were less bound by parental restrictions, Bergman earned M.A. (1988) and Ph.D. (1992) degrees in English from Northwestern University. She has managed for several decades to juggle motherhood (four children), a successful career as a writer, and service as a teacher. She was visiting writer at her alma mater, Wheaton College, in 1997-98; at Notre Dame University in 1996; and conducted personal writing workshops for the Ragdale Foundation and River Oaks Arts in Illinois. Her poems have been published since 1985 in such widely known periodicals as Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Indiana Review. She speaks frankly and regularly about writing and about AIDS, not always at the same time but always with the same courtesy and attention to her audience's need to understand. In an interview with Richard Ford, broadcast by National Public Radio in 1998, Bergman talked about her dedication to writing, its importance to her life. Ford praised her work for its clarity, its integrity, its subtle yet strong grip on what really matters about language—its power to communicate.
Bergman is on the board of directors of the Modern Poetry Association, and a contributing editor for Books and Culture and North American Review. She has written and developed liturgical materials—textual, visual, and musical—for church performance. Her meditation on the life and death of Saint Perpetua, "Called by Name," appears in a volume of essays, A Tremor of Bliss (1994), celebrating the way that "the idea and the ideal of sanctity, as it has been lived in certain lives over the centuries, persist in our significantly secular time." Bergman says: "I cling to the promises that if we seek God we will find him, that if we knock the door will be opened. In these words lie powerful incentives to an active life of faith."
Buried Life (1999).
Anthem (National Public Radio, Oct. 1998). NYTBR (1994).
—KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL