A Sweetthang Story: Remembering Susan Bernosky

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.

(Photo by Paul Chinn | The Chronicle)

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, Harley K. Dubois and Jennifer Lynk, 2002 (Photo by David Bernosky)

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.

(Photo by Laurel Renz)

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)

About the author: Harley K. DuBois

Harley K. DuBois

A founding member of the Burning Man Board, Harley K. Dubois brings to bear over 15 years of project management, art and city planning experience. As the City Manager of Black Rock City, Harley oversees both the Playa Safety Council and Community Services departments, ensuring that the citizens of BRC are happy and safe, including ingress, life on playa, and egress. She originated theme camp placement, the Greeters, Playa Info, Burning Man Information Radio, and has kindled the development of all other Community Service teams. Harley also created and maintains a comprehensive training and self-development program for the Burning Man staff, fostering the concepts of volunteerism and cross-departmental communication. Harley is a founding member of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, where she chairs the grants committee and acts as the foundation's liaison with the Burning Man Project. She is fully engaged in program development and works closely with the Executive Director and other staff members in conducting day-to-day operations. Harley has an extensive education and history in the visual and performing arts, has been a fitness director and a San Francisco fire fighter.

18 Comments on “A Sweetthang Story: Remembering Susan Bernosky

  • Geomom says:

    We have had the pleasure of knowing Susan (Sweetthang) and Dave for many years, on and off the playa. Much love to her family.

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  • Juno says:

    Beautiful post, Harley. Thank you. Sweetthang was a force and will continue inspire from the other side.

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  • Beautiful tribute, Harley. Sorry the community lost Sweetthang. Sorry you lost your friend.

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  • Will Chase says:

    I’ve long struggled to properly describe Sweetthang, and you nailed it, Harley.

    “I didn’t feel like she had a sense of how strong and powerful she was.”

    “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.”

    100%! Thank you for the wonderful tribute to this powerhouse of a human we were all proud to call a friend, she’s missed. <3

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  • Monica says:

    Wish I got to know Sweethang in this life. Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute to your friend, Harley. Love to all she touched.

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  • Dave Bernosky WD Winnemuccadave says:

    Well said Harley. Susan was a good wife; we complimented each other well. She gave so much of herself to so many people and organizations it was amazing (and at times tiring!) to see and watch. To her final breath Susan made it clear to everyone she was not afraid to die and kept a smile on her face to the end. Such strength and power.

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  • Tony Perez-Banuet says:

    Beautiful, Harley – thank you

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  • David Andrews says:

    Wow so close to home ! I was in my teens during Camille in Biloxi. Always wanted to attend Burning man but believe to be to Sparkleponied (:

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  • Retro says:

    Great and fitting tribute Harley, thank you. As then manager of Community Services I oversaw the reign of Sweetthang as Placement manager. The best part about that was forming our camp of many years together, and Susan and Dave were SO kind and generous! Dave had a substance abuse problem: busses. He couldn’t pass up a good deal on an old bus. Their well-appointed white “prison bus” was the anchor of our camp. Among the upgrades, they added solar panels that charged our radio banks pre-power grid. They were just such great company as camp mates.

    Sweetthang always gave it her all. On more than one occasion when visiting her Oakland office for a Burning Man meeting, I would find her catching a few winks on the couch by the front door. After her departure from Burning Man, we reconnected in 2022 when she offered her Reno home, as she had done for so many others, while I attended a Burning Man Operations Summit. There I found she really hadn’t departed Burning Man at all: her walls were full of event memorabilia, including a laminated city plan as her dining room table cover. Her heart still belonged to Burning Man. In our last conversation she asked me to tell everyone that her “burning years were the most fun of her life. Hard, but fun” she clarified. Gone, but she will never be forgotten. I love you, Sweetthang!

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  • HepKitten says:

    You hit the nail on the head with this Harley. Thanks for putting to words so much about ST that I don’t know that I would be able to.

    Getting to work with her and become her friend was a privilege. There are so many good things and great stories about her that I have in my heart and my mind. She is missed.

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  • dustbunny says:

    Harley! This is amazing. She was such an influence in my life! I adored working with her on the placement team and have always been madly in love with her. I think she was one of my favorite people to prank….and I am sure she will pay me back. Hugs to all who knew her and to WD and her family.

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  • Half Deaf says:

    I’ve been greeting since 2005. I never directly interacted with her, or if I did it was brief. In any case I know that having been in her presence, I do definitely remember that she possessed great physical and emotional charisma.

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  • Lye says:

    Thanks for this beautiful remembrance of Susan. I shared an office with her in Rockridge for many years – she taught me a lot about insurance! I will always regret not having the chance to spend time with her on the Playa.

    When Susan passed 5 weeks ago, I went to the kava bar in Berkeley and bought everyone a round. I know she will have loved that gesture – because it made everyone smile, like she always did!

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  • WH says:

    What a moving tribute to this woman, who sounded like a total badass. I never met her, and I don’t even usually read these blog posts because they don’t seem relevant to my experience…but this was a visceral reminder that there STILL ARE really cool people at this event, not just spectators & poseurs (which would be a great camp name). Condolences to the author for her loss, and RIP Sweetthang!

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  • SamX says:

    Thanks for helping us get occ Med going. You were one of the early people to believe in us and coach us! Last year you named our new acupuncturist “punk-ture” now it will stick! No pun intended we will miss you.

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  • Dominique Hatt says:

    Sweetthang. Thank you Harley for such a vivid recall of things now past. Dave, WD, my respects.
    I can’t help it but remembered the 2002 Chicago Pizza thingy. Those who know, know. XOXO
    Mr Dice

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  • Alchemy GDSL says:

    Im stricken with shock and suprise. Always the least judgemental on the madness in my life that has often detoured me from participating to burn along with my origins of Burn family. I have had a simular exsistance but didnt know it yet, She inderstood me , I felt comfort in her acceptence when I fell to curbside housing , lived off of my burning wits suffered domestic injustices mothers anguish and burner guilt. but she was always the island of acceptence love humor and inspiration when i could finally penetrate the thickening layers of sudden selective inclussion that grew between myself and the office she was there and welcoming inclusive and accepting understanding and wise humorful and great to share a drink a laugh and somehow to the weight offa my heart and cleared my mind and made space for me to enjoy tje moments the time and space .for her I am forever greatful and wish more people had such soul and such strength . a modest warrior respectfully stood as a leader without banners without a parade just leather chaps and a grin. ,when I felt less up to the standard she reminded me of our commonality of pagan communion and struggle and to not regret but except our choices for family and the need for release and celebration amd respit
    Always with a comment that was wry smart and caused me to cackle when i least expecyed it when I needed it most . She not only broke ice , she broke my self conciousness and was the oil in the mechanics between groups,and crews, made shit seem effortless, Im so disapointed so bent so very disrupted bothered I didnt get to hag with her more and will never have the pleasure of her hugs and a smile again in this life
    she was always my welcoming becon in the sea of anxt and defalt regrets that often have been an albatross to my love of going home and I may not be so remembered and if so sometimes for some , remembered and sometimes not considered but Sweet Thang was like Larry ,
    an unchanged ,pure and 100 percent aithentic burning soul. The core has lost another golden one when i think of her I remember deep hugs a wise and inviting smile ,sisterhood ,felt love and i imagine a scale that is the sybol of her which holds a pile of gold and treasure in one dangling bowl and in the other ; an irridecent white fluffy and sparkling feather placed upon leather quietly placed and dazzeling ly beautiful in a center of fire burning around the rim of that other hanging bowl in a circle of flame . I wish you were here just a bit longer you wild and devine woman Im greatful for those times you helped me not be so worried about whether i was worthy or doing enough to burn . I know you are loved and will be missed , , Ill drink to you next chance I have .Fuck!! SweetThang is gone , who will be Sweet Thang for us now? Im sorry for your loss M.M. truely.

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  • Emil Guillermo says:

    I learned about Susan’s illness on Thanksgiving when I sent her an e-card, and she sent back a nice reply. It made me be even more thankful for the day.
    We never talked again, though in February I sent her an email when I was in New York. I was going to talk about her in my story telling show, and I hoped she’d live stream it. I never heard from her. So I kept the story for later.
    And now there is no later.
    I will never forget Susan.
    She was there for me when I hit the lowest point in my life–I became an insurance salesman. After a high profile career, I just saw it as a new low for me. But Susan taught me the value of insurance. She knew the need to protect loved ones from catastrophes. She survived Camille. She knew how important it was to be the only one to show up at a grieving family’s home with a cashable check. My time with her at her Rockridge office were among my happiest days in “business.” She helped me understand the purpose and meaning of something like insurance. She covered the houses and cars, I covered the people. Together our success helped me get passed any shame I might have felt about “sales.” Susan was also the most interesting insurance person I could have worked for. Burning Man? I experienced it only vicariously through her, Ms. Sweet Thang. Tattoos? Nudist? I only know the last two from pictures. That’s how professional our relationship was when you can say I only know her as a nudist fully clothed. But we’d often have talks that usually began with how to offer specific coverage to a person and then ended up with talking about “the meaning of life.” It was great, but things always change. When we both left the corporate insurer we worked for to go our separate independent ways, I missed Susan. I’d bug her every now and then just to say hello and remind us of the good old days of partnership. We’d also exchange stories about our respective families. And that always brought a smile to our faces if we were having a down day. It was welcome reassurance.
    When I talked to Charles recently, I was astonished that I was part of her agency more than a dozen years ago! It feels like yesterday. I would just always assume Susan would be there to take my call or respond, just as she did when I reached out last Thanksgiving.
    Susan had to be there. She was our insurance. And in many respects, she will always be.

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