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Other voices, other Joans
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“Rural Teen Executed: 19-year-old who Defeated English Government Claimed she Heard Voices of Saints.” Had there been a newspaper in France in 1431, this headline might have described the heresy trial and burning at the stake of the woman known as Joan of Arc.

In 1995, Savannah author and (now-retired) physician Preston Russell knew little about Joan, or Jeanne d’Arc, other than what he had gleaned from plays and movies. While on vacation in France, a chance visit to the garden where the twelve-year-old Jeanne first claimed to have heard the voices lit a fire in Russell that has resulted ten years later in his newly published book, Lights of Madness: In Search of Joan of Arc (Frederic C. Beil).

On Sunday, Dec 4, Russell will give a free lecture and reading from his book at First Presbyterian Church, 520 Washington Ave., at 6 p.m.

Lights of Madness is classified as biography, but this is no detached account. The book begins almost as a travel memoir, recounting the moment when Russell stood in Jeanne’s garden “where a remarkably serious girl, aged twelve or thirteen, first heard a frightening voice….Then and there I heard something like a voice myself. Was it true? Can it be? From that instant, I was hooked.”

“I’m a physician,’ says Russell. “I’ve spent almost half a century as a scientist. When I first got that curiosity, “Is it really possible?” my scientific curiosity was greatly aroused. In my gut I was convinced that something really happened.”

From the first pages, Russell plunges into the story of Jeanne’s heresy trial, recounting her day-after-day ordeal, the hours of questioning put to the illiterate 18-year-old woman by a dozen learned men, whose motives were not to give her a fair hearing but to find her guilty.

Jeanne becomes real--courageous, standing up to her inquisitors, and unwavering in her claims that Saints Margaret and Catherine instructed her to lead the French army to victory over the English, and deliver the country to God’s chosen king of France, the not-yet-crowned Charles VII.

Never does Jeanne falter in her story, nor in her faith: not in exhaustion from imprisonment, despair, and the relentless trial; not even in her agony as she is burned alive after being found guilty of heresy--for daring to suggest that God has communicated to her through the saints rather than through intercession by the hierarchy of the church, and for the sin of wearing men’s clothing.

“It was considered a minor heresy for women to wear male clothes,” says Russell. “In Deuteronomy and in [the letters of] Paul it says what you should wear and what you can’t. That was the literal reason she was burned at the stake. After she recanted and swore she would wear women’s clothes, she put men’s clothes back on in prison. The judges saw this as another example of ‘You’re not knuckling under.’”

After the dramatic trial and execution related in the first chapter, Russell turns back the clock on Jeanne’s life in Chapter Two, describing her childhood and the events leading up to her arrest, including the victories of the underdog French army against the English.

Russell recreated this section from transcripts of Jeanne’s “Rehabilitation” in 1450, when Charles VII, after becoming king, set out to learn the truth about Jeanne by interviewing her family, childhood friends, compatriots in battle, and even witnesses at the heresy hearings nineteen years earlier. Russell’s skills as a story teller, and his personal interest in Jeanne, make this chapter nearly as compelling as the first, particularly the descriptions of her meeting with Charles VII and the battle scenes.

Was Jeanne d’Arc a heretic, a war hero, a saint? A feminist, a lesbian, a witch, a man? Did she have multiple personalities? Was she manic depressive? Paranoid schizophrenic? Was she divinely directed, or was she delusional?

In the final two chapters, the author’s passion to answer his fundamental question “Is it really possible?” led him down all of these paths. Russell applies his training as a pathologist to psychological, medical, sociological and theological questions.

In his breezy, often conversational style, Russell follows the literary and historical Jeanne revealed by Shakespeare, Freud, Twain, Shaw, and dozens of Jeanne scholars, weaving into his discussion Jeanne’s evolution in the Roman Catholic church from heretic to saint. Russell’s accounting of these treatments of Jeanne makes for entertaining and informative reading, at times laced with humor. Only an occasional lapse into an academic deconstructionist style detracts from these chapters.

Says Russell, “I just love the bitchy literary fights that people will get into -- great writers arguing that their Jeanne is the real Jeanne and the other guy’s is trash. So I just traced about 500 years of opinions starting with Shakespeare on up through the 20th century.”

Small wonder that the writing of this book took ten years.

Russell describes the final chapters of his book as “a layered approach scientifically and medically, peeling each layer of the onion one at a time. I peel away the layers and come to a conclusion. The reader has to read each layer to get there.”

The author waits until the very last page of Lights of Madness to reveal his conclusion, which he calls an “impossible possibility.” Discussion of his theory on what 12-year-old Jeanne heard in her garden nearly 600 years ago could have led to another lively chapter, but Russell sidesteps a defense of his resolution.

Resist the temptation to skip ahead through the layers to peek at Russell’s resolution to the mystery. Instead, enjoy the adventure and pathos revealed in the skillful telling of his journey in search of the real Saint Jeanne d’Arc.

Preston Russell will give a reading and lecture on Lights of Madness: In Search of Joan of Arc, on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 520 Washington Ave. Free admission. A book signing and reception will follow.