Susan Bernosky’s story can be told by beginning with Hurricane Camille, which smashed through Gulfport, Mississippi in August 1969. Susan was just a little kid; her dad decided that she, her siblings, mother and grandparents would stay home during the storm while the town was evacuated. The morning after the hurricane the family woke up alive, barely sheltered by what remained of their demolished home.
That single event wreaked havoc on Susan and her family, leaving them with emotional scars, and sometimes estranged. It also most assuredly bestowed Susan, who we knew on playa as Sweetthang, with her astonishing strength and resilience. She could let anything run off her like water off a duck’s back — and she’d do it with a gleaming, dimpled smile. Unless, of course, she really cared; then there was no stopping her no matter who you were. She would take on a mad dog if she thought it would hurt her family or reputation.
Sweetthang left home young. She slept on the streets, and met her first husband when they were just teenagers. They carved out an existence, learned about life and love together and eventually started their own insurance office — helping people who may find themselves in the predicament she was in at such a formative age. She was incredibly good at what she did, and was the insurance agent for many Burning Man Project staff over the years. In time she became a broker and started her own practice, one of her proudest accomplishments.
When Sweetthang found Burning Man, she found her home. It was so obvious! She started showing up at weekly Greeters meetings sometime around 1999, driving in the evenings with her youngest daughter Cindy in tow. She was always on time, and always on her game, though I didn’t feel like she had a sense of how strong and powerful she was. I almost felt like she didn’t know how to have it, how to be as cool as all of the other players. Everyone around her knew she was in her element — but did she know it? It took some time but eventually she thrived in her Sweetthang persona.
About the time Sweetthang came along I had started seven departments that would later become Community Services. They were all nascent and needed the exact same thing — people to step up to the plate and help run them. After one year I asked her to take the lead on Greeters. She said, “No, there’s no way I could run Greeters,” and refused. So I sat back and let her take charge without the formalities. After she’d been essentially running it for another year, I asked again, “Now that you’ve been doing the job, will you finally take the title?” Now she was honored. Did she prove it to herself?
Sweetthang eventually moved on to Placement, and was the second person to run it after I left to become City Manager. Together she and I refined a process for placing staff camps and she ran staff placement for years to follow.
In the early 2000s I introduced Sweetthang to her current husband. They were married a short six months later. After almost 20 years with Burning Man, she stepped away to spend time with her five children (three from her first marriage, and two from her husband’s previous marriage) and four grandchildren.
A woman with an innate ability to go big and strong, Sweetthang spent her entire life finding out who she was. Her involvement with Burning Man was a contributing factor to her recovery from trauma, supporting her growth into a beautiful, fiery, bike-riding momma. I feel like she blossomed for us all. Burning Man helped her find her confidence in who she was in a way she couldn’t have felt anywhere else. It allowed her to be her whole self — and she had a big whole self, at times rough around the edges: a dedicated and loving mom, a hard worker, a sexy woman, an accomplished professional, a loyal (though spicy!) wife, and ALL completely self made.
Decades later in Black Rock City Sweetthang came to me in tears and asked me to read a Reader’s Digest article. It (somewhat inaccurately) detailed her family’s harrowing encounter with the hurricane. That day was the anniversary of Hurricane Camille, and she was viscerally re-living the trauma as if it was happening right there.
Here’s an excerpt from “Face to face with Hurricane Camille” by Joseph P. Blank (Reader’s Digest, March 1970):
The wind sounded like the roar of a train passing a few yards away. The house shuddered and shifted on its foundations. Water inched its way up the steps as the first-floor outside walls collapsed. No one spoke. Everyone knew there was no escape; they would live or die in the house… A moment later, the hurricane in one mighty swipe, lifted the entire roof off the house and skimmed it 40 feet through the air. The bottom of the steps of the staircase broke apart. One wall began crumbling on the marooned group.
In February 2023 we lost Sweetthang to cancer.
Sweetthang and I were sisters at heart. We fought, we cried, we laughed — and yes, pole danced. There was a lot of straight talk and honesty between us. We appreciated each other for this clarity, and through it we learned a lot. I keep hearing how she was a role model to many newer women at Burning Man, modeling how to be a badass. She was. She had a way of building authentic connections with many different people and many different departments, in many different ways. She had super high standards in what she expected and you knew she was disappointed if you didn’t meet her standards. That could get ugly. In the end I think her greatest ability was meeting people where they were at.
She was so competent. When she got cancer, she went into it with grace and no regrets and lived her life the fullest she could to the very last moment. She called the shots and bid people a loving adieu, saying she would see them on the other side. She was still growing into who she was until her last minute. It was truly admirable. I had the honor of being the last person beyond her family who saw her before she passed. And she was just as beautiful then as she was her whole life. A Sweetthang story.
Cover image of Sweetthang (Photo by Laurel ‘Sunset’ Renz)