This just in: Life is nothing like a Nicholas Sparks novel. Just ask Mr. Sparks himself. In a new lawsuit, the bestselling romance author has been accused by the former headmaster at his Christian prep school of brewing “a veritable cauldron of bigotry,” New York Magazine reports. And for some reason, we’re not surprised.
It all started back in 2006 when Sparks, who once said he would never dare write a story featuring two people of the same sex falling in love, dumped $10 million of his own money into launching the Epiphany School, a Christian prep school in New Bern, North Carolina.
In just a few years, Epiphany developed a reputation for being a shelter for conservative Christians to protect their children from the real world. Bill Hawkins, a pastor at First Presbyterian in New Bern, went so far as to the school “a community where a fundamentalist minority spoke with a loud voice.”
Just what the world needs, right? Another community of fundamentalists loudly spewing their nonsense and spreading a message of hate.
In 2012, Sparks wanted to build more global recognition for
his cult Epiphany. So he decided to hire a new headmaster. Saul Hillel Benjamin was recommended to him by a headhunter. As New York Magazine describes him, Benjamin was “a 64-year-old Jewish-born Quaker who’d studied at both Kenyon and Oxford.” He’d worked in Bill Clinton’s Department of Education, served as a professor at the historically black Bennett College, and was a poet to boot.
With such a strong liberal arts background, Benjamin didn’t seem like the most obvious choice to helm a Christian school, but Sparks, whose belief in humanity is unwavering, was willing to take a chance. He offered him a package including a four-year contract, as well as a secondary job at the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, and a salary of more than $250,000, plus housing.
Naturally, Benjamin accepted the position. And he and Sparks became fast friends. They would often have dinner together, hang out in Sparks’ infinity pool, and even cruise around in Sparks’s “extraordinarily gorgeous black Bentley,” as Benjamin described it.
“It was pretty remarkable how close we were,” Benjamin told New York Magazine.
Soon, Benjamin and Sparks began spitballing ideas on how to improve Epiphany. Some of Benjamin’s ideas included increasing diversity (of the school’s 514 students, only two were black) and building its library, both of which Sparks agreed with.
Last school year, Benjamin began implementing his ideas. He started by trying to convince trustees to adopt a nondiscrimination policy that included sexual orientation and start a gay-straight alliance. Shortly after doing so, he received an email from Sparks.
“You have to first win their hearts,” he wrote. “Some [people] perceive … an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted … The [board] will not sanction a club or association for GLBT students.”
“As for the club,” he added, “there obviously can’t be one now.”
As the school year progressed, Sparks and Benjamin’s relationship became more strained, with the bestselling author claiming he was constantly dousing “raging infernos” started by Benjamin.
In one e-mail, Sparks demanded to know why Benjamin was spending so much time lecturing people about “tolerance, diversity, non-discrimination”?
“There was no simmering, hidden problem,” he insisted. “It is, and has been since its founding, a kind school, where everyone is kind.”
Then, in November 2013, Sparks’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Cathy surprised Benjamin at his home. She was accompanied by one of the school’s trustees. They had one question for the rabble-rousing headmaster: Do you believe in God?
“Yes,” he replied. Then he added: “But it’s an answer that takes some explaining.”
That, it seems, was the last straw. Three days later, Benjamin was called before an assembly to explain his beliefs.
“I’ve never experienced so much vitriol about my heritage or my faith in people’s ability to learn,” he said.
Two days after that, Benjamin claims he was brought into a conference room and “held hostage” by Sparks who blocked the door screaming: “You bastard! You liar!”
“It was the most frightening moment of my life,” Benjamin says.
So he resigned.
(Sparks, of course, denies this dramatic scene ever happened, suggesting that Benjamin suffers from Alzheimer’s, like one of the characters in The Notebook.)
This past fall, Benjamin filed a lawsuit against Epiphany, claiming the school violated his contract and calling it “a veritable cauldron of bigotry.”
“I saw real ugliness,” he said.
Bullying, too, was a very common problem, despite Sparks’ claim that Epiphany was “a kind place.”
Sparks’ lawyer calls allegations “absurd.” Sparks himself is trying to put the whole incident behind him, hiring a new “solid Christian educator” as headmaster and focusing on saving his crumbling marriage (he and Cathy separated earlier this year) and writing more crappy romance novels about heterosexual white people living in small Southern towns.
To quote Mr. Sparks himself, sometimes “it has to get ugly before it gets pretty!”