In 2006, Nicholas Sparks, the prolific romance writer best known for The Notebook and A Walk to Remember, helped co-found a prep school in New Bern, North Carolina, called the Epiphany School of Global Studies. The idea was to start a small, faith-based academy focused on world issues with an emphasis on language-learning, regular visits to other nations, and a shared understanding that “learning about the world” was an integral part of 21st-century life. In its mission statement, the school of roughly 500 students describes itself as “anchored in the Judeo-Christian commandment to Love God and Your Neighbor as Yourself.”
But since 2014, members of the Epiphany School’s Board of Trustees, including Sparks, have been locked in a legal battle with the academy’s former headmaster and CEO, Saul Benjamin, over what the latter describes as a pattern of harassment, racism, and homophobia. “Sparks and members of the Board unapologetically marginalized, bullied, and harassed members of the School community,” Benjamin’s attorneys wrote in the complaint, “whose religious views and/or identities did not conform to their religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions.“
Sparks rejected the claims in a 29-page declaration to the court. But emails obtained by The Daily Beast show the romance writer repeatedly taking issue with Benjamin’s attempts to make the school inclusive to all faiths, races, and sexualities. (Sparks would not provide The Daily Beast with additional comment for this story.)
In one stern message, Sparks chastised the former headmaster for “what some perceive as an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted.” In another, he put forward a motion to ban student protest at the school, an impulse that came directly in response to two lesbian girls planning to announce their orientation during chapel. In a third, while listing complaints against Benjamin, he cites “misplaced priorities at the school level (GLBT, diversity, the beauty of other religions, as opposed to academic/curricular/global issues, Christian traditions, etc.).”
Benjamin, whose suit includes claims of defamation, also alleges Sparks spread rumors that he suffered from a mental disorder. The former headmaster told The Daily Beast he has never received any such diagnosis, but in another obtained email, the romance writer laid out a case for diagnosing him, citing forgetfulness and an “obsession” with what he characterizes as “non-relevant” issues. “While I am not a doctor–and as scary as this may sound to you–I do believe that [Benjamin] is suffering from a mental illness of some sort,” Sparks wrote in the message. “What that is–Alzheimer’s, a variance of bi-polar, something else–I have no idea.”
Sparks, a former pharmaceutical salesman-turned-love-chronicler, has published 20 novels to tremendous commercial success. In the Sparks literary universe, handsome, hard-working, and occasionally brusque men tend to encounter waifish, strong-headed women, fall passionately, chastely in love, only to have some obstacle—status, sickness, hidden histories—intervene. Tragedies are common, love usually conquers, and Christian values can often be found in between. All of Sparks’ books have become New York Times bestsellers, with more than 105 million copies sold internationally, and 75 million in the United States alone; and 11 of them have been adapted to film—each a blockbuster hit, grossing a collective three-quarters of a billion dollars. Just this year, the author announced that a musical version of The Notebook—Sparks’ most successful novel and a meditation on love outlasting Alzheimer’s (the same disease Sparks would later suggest Benjamin had)—was slotted for a Broadway run.
“When Benjamin brought up his concerns or attempted to remedy them, he claims he encountered resistance and outright racism.”
The conflict dates back to early 2013. At the time, Benjamin, a Jewish-born Quaker, was teaching at the Moroccan university Al Akhawayn, when he got a call from a headhunter about Epiphany. The position seemed interesting—the job would come with a huge pay bump, and the school’s emphasis on spirituality and world cultures seemed right up his alley. “I’ve always been an educator, always globally focused, always keenly interested in the ways that different cultures and different religions and different communities try to help young people discover their potential,” Benjamin told The Daily Beast. “That’s not a speech, that’s my faith.”
In 2013, Benjamin accepted the position, and moved with his family to New Bern, North Carolina, to start at the school that fall. Almost immediately, according to Benjamin and court documents, he began to notice problems in the school’s attitude toward diversity. For one, the school was overwhelmingly white and Christian, with just two black students enrolled that year, despite the fact that African-Americans comprise nearly 40 percent of the county’s population. When Benjamin brought up his concerns or attempted to remedy them, he claims he encountered resistance and outright racism.
In one incident, alleged in Benjamin’s complaint, Sparks allegedly attributed the school’s dearth of black students to the fact that they are “too poor and can’t do the academic work.” In another, Tracey Lorentzen, a member of Epiphany’s Board of Trustees and a defendant in the case, claimed she often drives 35 miles away to shop at the Wal-Mart in Havelock, North Carolina. “Only black people work at the New Bern Wal-Mart,” she allegedly said, rendering the facility “dirty”; the Havelock location better suited her since “white people staff that store.” When Benjamin hired the first full-time African-American faculty member, he claimed in his complaint that she was subjected to “unwelcome comments and increased scrutiny.” When Benjamin arranged a school trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and talked to students about the school’s diversity problems, the Board of Trustees allegedly responded with anger, calling his efforts “provocative.” When Benjamin appeared at an event with the president of the local NAACP chapter, Sparks allegedly confronted him, claiming the pubic association brought “disrepute to Epiphany.”
But the real strain supposedly began in October of 2013, when Benjamin began to hear reports that students had been asking teachers questions about sexuality. According to the complaint, the kids had been gathering informally to discuss their own identities and orientations. When word spread of the group, Benjamin said, he began to receive complaints about bullying. Two of the students accused of bullying were sons of Epiphany school administrators; another was the son of an “influential Epiphany parent” and the vice president of the Student Senate. The students, including the Student Senate vice president, allegedly told their classmates they wanted to start “homo-caust.”
The incident seeded tension among the student body and staff. Rumor spread that Benjamin had formed what Sparks called a “gay club,” and the Board of Trustees insisted the club be banned. Two bisexual teachers approached administrators about the group, and were allegedly threatened with termination if they continued to discuss the issue, according to Benjamin’s complaint. It further alleges that at a board meeting on Oct. 30, 2013, a Board of Trustees member claimed Benjamin was “promoting a homosexual culture and agenda.” Sparks allegedly warned Benjamin against pushing the subject, suggesting it would be “wasting time on a side issue,” according to the complaint.
By November, resentments were running high. That month, Benjamin states in his complaint that two LGBT students approached Benjamin and informed him of their plan to stage a protest during chapel. They planned to remove their clothes and announce their orientation in body paint. Benjamin says he asked the girls not to protest, claiming it “was a time for healing, not heroics.” Instead, in the Friday morning Chapel Talk, a weekly tradition at the school, Benjamin spoke about bullying, and the school’s commitment to “loving their neighbors.”
The talk was received poorly, spawning two weeks of in-fighting and interventions. It was in this period in mid-November that Sparks sent the emails now entered as discovery into the public record.
In the first message, sent to Benjamin on November 17, 2013, Sparks told Benjamin he was angry and frustrated about the diversity and tolerance issues. “I told you this would happen… if you didn’t follow our advice, which was simply ‘don’t rock the boat on this particular issue.’” He offered Benjamin a list of recommendations to improve his standing at the school, which ranged from “mak[ing] sure all Christian traditions feel especially Christian, especially as we move into the Christmas season,” to refraining from implying the school has problems of tolerance. “It is in fact, the KINDEST school I’ve ever visited,” Sparks wrote. “There has not for instance, been a single fight in 8 years at the school. People accept other people here; our first student here were Jewish [sic].”
Later in the letter, Sparks wrote: “Regarding diversity, I’ve now told you half a dozen times that our lack of diversity has NOTHING to do with the school or anyone at the school. It’s not because of what we as a school has or hasn’t done. It has nothing to do with racism or vestiges of Jim Crow. It comes down to 1) Money and 2) Culture.”
In a message sent the following morning, Sparks echoed the same points, defending his decision to ban the LGBT group (“not allowing them to have a club is NOT discrimination”), and denying the school had any problem with gay students. “Remember, we’ve had gay students before, many of them,” Sparks wrote. “[The former headmaster] handled it quietly and wonderfully… I expect you to do the same.”
Three days later, Sparks called Benjamin into a meeting with the Board of Trustees. In the informal gathering, Benjamin claims in his complaint that the romance writer acted in a “loud, ranting and physically intimidating manner,” calling him a “liar” and insisting he resign. After a lengthy meeting which Benjamin described in the complaint as “false imprisonment,” citing his claim that he was not allowed to speak to a lawyer or use the bathroom, the headmaster resigned. His term lasted 98 days.
Benjamin filed a lawsuit against Sparks and the Board in October of 2014, seeking punitive damages for discrimination, breach of contract, emotional distress and defamation. After five years of hearings and discovery, the case is scheduled for a six-day trial in August.
For his part, Sparks denies the allegations. In his declaration, Sparks attributes the deterioration of their working relationship to complaints that the headmaster could be “aloof, even rude, elitist and dismissive of their beliefs or backgrounds.” He claimed Benjamin had secretly authorized an “official School LGBT club” against school policy, and that the headmaster was often dishonest in his dealings with the Board. “In other words, he lied,” Sparks wrote.
Throughout his career, Sparks has often drawn a hard distinction between “romance novels,” which he characterizes as trite and fantastic, and “love stories,” which he sees as at once more “universal” and realistic. In the FAQ section of his website, the author explains that love stories can differ in theme, while romance novels always have a general theme: “the taming of a man.” In the dichotomy of love and romance, Sparks believes his works air on the side of love.
“Love stories usually end tragically,” Sparks writes, “or, at best, on a bittersweet note.”