Nun shall pass

Last week, as friends started to reach episode 11 of the new season of "Orange Is the New Black," they asked me if the nun character was based on the Catholic sister I've covered for the past year as she and two fellow activists were tried, convicted and sentenced for a ballsy non-violent intrusion onto a nuclear weapons site in July 2012. I figured that the character, Sr. Jane Ingalls, was a composite of the many sisters and activists involved in the Plowshares movement over the past 34 years. Then I saw this Hollywood Reporter story, in which actor Beth Fowler refers to Sr. Megan Rice as the direct inspiration. Then I watched the episode last night. The flashback to Sr. Jane's crime looked very familiar.

Sr. Jane and two men cut through a fence with bolt cutters, splash blood on a big white building, hang a sign that says "SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES," spray paint "WOE TO A KINGDOM OF BLOOD" and then wait to be arrested. Here are the real-life photos of the crime scene, and a portrait of the trio by Washington Post photographer Linda Davidson:

What started out very familiar soon got very unfamiliar: Sr. Jane wants her picture taken as she commits her act. She admits that the blood is fake. Afterward, she brags about making the front page of The New York Times. She's accused of being an egomaniac who timed the break-in to the release of her memoir, "Nun Shall Pass." Needless to say, Sr. Megan  although she also made the Times's front page shortly after the intrusion has taken great pains to remain in the background while pushing the nuclear issue forward. When I visited her a couple weeks ago at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, as part of my book-leave reporting, she was gently concerned that I wasn't giving equal attention to her fellow jailed activists and to the issue at hand. I think she recognizes that her age and vocation are what grab people's attention, but then she wants to redirect that attention away from her to nuclear weapons. 

At the end of the "OITNB" episode, Sr. Jane is wheeled off her ward in a state of food-strike delirium, thinking she's a folk hero or rock star. It makes her a complicated character, good for TV, but it made me cringe a bit. I've never seen Sr. Megan demonstrate anything except steadfast humility and laser-focus on the issue she cares about. Still, I would love to sit down with her and watch this episode. "Isn't this silly," she'd probably say. "And I'd never dye my hair."

That's only about 2,700 column inches, right?

In about two years, unless the writing kills me first, a book will be published under my name. Zoinks! That book, whose title is TBD, will be based on this story of a break-in at a nuclear weapons site, but it will be broader in scope. In my head I'm categorizing it several ways, depending on how the reporting actually goes: a parable, a "moral thriller," a "general theory of sociopolitical relativity" or  brace yourself  a THEORY OF EVERYTHING (take your pick, fellow fauxlosophers). There will be grannies and God and bombs and bureaucrats, caught up up in a 70-year chain reaction, all underlined by physics and faith. The patient and exacting Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects shepherded my proposal over the past eight months and sold it last week to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin, and I can't think of a better home for the project. Here's the Publishers Marketplace blurb:

Washington Post reporter Dan Zak's [tentatively titled] THE PROPHETS OF OAK RIDGE, the story of why three activists broke in to one of the world's most secure nuclear weapons facilities in 2012, how their actions were connected to the larger history of the anti-nuke movement, and why their intrusion bolsters the argument that nuclear catastrophe is our most imminent existential threat, to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, in a pre-empt, by Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects (World English).

"I'm going to make lots of trouble," Rosenthal told The New York Times when he first announced his imprint, and I ♥ trouble. I also ♥ Gene Weingarten for turning David on to my stuff, and Ann Gerhart for mothering the original story (and me, for that matter), and The Washington Post for giving me license to expand it. The first draft is due in November 2015; I am taking a one-year sabbatical from the newsroom starting this June 1 to tackle the epic reporting that needs to be done. After nine years at the Post and 15 years writing short (ish) for newspapers, I will have 90,000 words of open road in front of me. Perhaps I will chronicle the progress and pains here. If you see me doing that, though, tell me to get the fuck back to work. Or just say "Boooooook!"