The Hippo


Apr 24, 2019








Meet Terry Mutchler

Where: Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord
When: Thursday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m.
Contact:,, 224-0562

The cost of living a lie
Terry Mutchler to talk about Under this Beautiful Dome

By Kelly Sennott

When attorney and former award-winning journalist Terry Mutchler began writing stories for Under this Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist and the Politics of Gay Love in America in 2004, there were no plans for the book. She was in therapy, writing to help grieve for Penny Severns, an Illinois state senator who mentored for Barack Obama and died of breast cancer in 1998. 

She and Mutchler harbored a secret, five-year relationship before her death, and Mutchler’s writing was provoked by fear of forgetting Severn. Many still didn’t know their story; Mutchler didn’t come out until two years after Severn died, and even then, was selective in who she told. 
Eventually, her sadness grew into something else.
“The healthier I became, the more distance I had [from Penny’s death], I realized the great tragedy of both keeping that love a secret, but also the great tragedy of what happened in the aftermath of Penny’s death,” Mutchler said during a phone interview last week.
She had been left out of the funeral-planning process, left out of eulogies and locked out of the house the two bought and built together. (Only Severn’s name was on the deed to safeguard their secret relationship. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Illinois.) A misleading will and betrayal by Severn’s twin sister ensured Mutchler lost her home and possessions.
“For me, writing the book has always been an uphill climb,” Mutchler said. “It was like a mental tennis match. Should I or shouldn’t I? … It was the single greatest fear-producing choice I’ve ever made.”
When she landed an agent and book contract three years ago, Mutchler began writing in earnest. She’d already written about their trips overseas, Severn’s marriage proposal — the memories Mutchler wanted to remember. But the contract forced her to relive the most difficult ones too, like the day Severn died and Mutchler’s fall into alcoholism.
“There are layers in [the book] about the consequences of living a lie, and it details the incredible cost we pay by denying people the right to choose how they want to live,” Mutchler said. “I did not spare the story, and I certainly did not spare myself.”
It takes a great courage to come out to the world, even today, where there’s a “softer landing spot” than in the ’90s.
“I believe that if I met Penny today, in this day and age, there certainly would have been an obviously wider acceptance of this relationship, but I can’t say with certainty we wouldn’t have made some of the same mistakes,” Mutchler said. “What drove us to secrecy … were our careers and that we were homophobic. I had a spiritual struggle, which I lay out in the book.”
She thinks it’s a disservice to say now that coming out is routine. 
“While more people today are saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine,’ you still have to make that individual jump. The landing spot might be a little softer, but you need to still have the courage to jump,” Mutchler said. 
And while the legal landscape is changing, Mutchler says we still need to work on healing the mindset.
“I do think that people look at gay couples differently,” Mutchler said. “When we reach the point where it’s no longer news when someone’s come out, I think we will have attained our goal.”
She sees hope; she estimates that about half of her audience members at speaking and book-promoting events are in their 20s, an age group she thinks is far more accepting.
“This book started out as a way of releasing tremendous pain, but through it, it’s taken a different turn. That turn is to say to people: whether you are gay or straight, whether you are married or single, Christian or Muslim, whatever you are, do it honestly,” Mutchler said. “I’m asking people, through this book, to take a pause and look at their own life.” 
As seen in the January 8, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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