In the early 1980s, I first came across feminist references to Pope Joan, and began, at that time, to try to tell her story. The notion of a woman who was able to disguise her true identity and rise up through the ranks of the Church in the ancient, misogynist world of Charlemagne to become Pope was a compelling one to me for many reasons. Later on, I discovered something amazing: from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, Joan was presumed to have actually lived and died, and a bust of Pope Johannes, the name she went by, stood in the cathedral of Siena in Rome beside those of all the other popes. Yet in the early seventeenth century, on the order of Pope Clement VIII, the bust was transformed into that of another pope, and Joan became relegated to the status of an “apocryphal figure” in the Catholic Church. "Why," I wondered, "why, after all that time?" This fabulous intersection of fact with myth, of ordinary, tangible life with the script of recorded history authored by those in power, touched on all my questions about the nature of the world we live in. But I was young, living in San Francisco, and having way too much fun. This story was too vast for me to give adequate voice to at that time, and so it distilled in the netherworld of my imagination for a couple decades, slowly evolving, more between my ears than on paper.
Then I discovered disturbing things about the Catholic Church and some of its people in positions of power concerning the Nazi Holocaust. Slowly the scope of my story was widening, in ways I could not have anticipated. In the meantime, I was getting older and, living in Chicago again, found myself in transition both professionally and personally. I went to law school and embarked upon a new career. But the story was always there, haunting me in the quiet hours, and I knew the time had come at last to tell it. By then, I realized the work’s central character was really history herself, in all her various permutations, told through the lives of Joan and the two young Jewish lovers of Polish descent living in Depression-era Berlin who are drawn into apocalypse, among others. And when, at last, I arrived at the end of John the Angelic, something astonishing happened I never dreamed could take place, but I am getting ahead of myself.
The first volume introduces the trilogy’s central character, Joan, a brilliant, willful young woman from Mainz, Germany, who disguises her identity to become Pope in the years following Charlemagne’s death. The book chronicles the savagery of the ninth century, detailing Joan’s personal struggle to choose between the man she loves and the Church that has no place for her in its ranks. Volume I also summons forth the historical enigma of Socrates, perhaps the most polarizing and least understood figure of antiquity, showing through his eyes the world of ancient Greece and its relationship to the famed philosopher, European history’s first cultural “deviant.” The book explores the fascinating borders between myth and history, as well as the imperial intrigue muddying them both.