Hazel McHaffie


The price of fanaticism

Following on from Educated (which I reviewed three weeks ago), I was recommended to read Unfollow which tracks the life of Megan Phelps-Roper, the third of eleven children, brought up in the infamousĀ  Westboro Baptist Church, raised to uphold extreme religious views, and take part in public condemnation of everyone outside their community. Though they’re a family of well-educated lawyers, they become ‘the most hated family in America’, but the more vilified and persecuted by the world they are, the better pleased they become: it just demonstrates that they’re indeed chosen by God as his beloved. They and they alone are right; other churches are misguided ‘social clubs’ destined for perdition.

Reading it was not a good experience! I had to force myself to persevere.

The echoes of Tara’s experience in Educated soon began to ring ominously. Saturated in the doctrines of exclusivity and condemnation … terror that the evil within would bar them from God and his people for ever … re-writing history to suit the family’s image … a public show of piety and extreme zeal for God; a different story behind the scenes … an obsessive concern to show a united front within the fold; ready to cast to the dogs anyone who dared to leave it … accountable to no one outside their fences … Uncomfortable reading indeed. And I think, the more so because this family are educated intelligent men and women.

This text, they believe, was made for them and them alone:
But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged on no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Watching this young girl, fortified by direct Biblical quotes, glorying in condemning all homosexuals, Jews, Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Swedish royal family, and her own deserting brother; revelling in the collapse of the Twin Towers and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the 2004 tsunami; organising picketing at the funerals of young soldiers; chilled me to the bone. But she’s implacably set for the defence of the gospel, believing utterly in her myopic picture of a murderous and cruel and wrathful God, who’s bent on humiliation and punishment.

Clearly, the whole world was deceived – but we weren’t. How lucky we were to have the favor of God.

But the brutal elements of their way of life tell a different story, and Megan starts to connect the violence of her mother and grandfather with the church’s attitude to the suffering of outsiders. They actually rejoice at the demise of those people, their total destruction. And violence was how you taught obedience.

Then a lawsuit is filed against them for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arising from one of many funerals they picketed (a Marine in Maryland). Their response? To pray for the Lord to kill the father of that dead Marine and the lawyers filing the complaint! You couldn’t make it up, could you? Megan herself has her first serious wobble, questioning the behaviour she’s called to support. She’s twenty years old. But the multimillion-dollar judgement against them is eventually overturned at appeal, and they head in a ‘spirit of triumphalism and invulnerability’, for the United States Supreme Court – the highest in the land. It’s now 2010.

The level of insensitivity and obscene ridicule of others’ finer feelings, beggars belief, and yet Megan says she loved it, so confident was she that she was doing the Lord’s work. She travelled far and wide propagating the church’s message against gays, Jews, schools, Muslims, the Grammys, the Oscars … the list goes on and on.

But gradually, gradually she begins to feel sadness in response to the very tragedies her family celebrates. Her alienation is accelerated when self-appointed arrogant elders take over control of the church, making implacable demands for unquestioning obedience, showing a pernicious need for superiority and control, imposing draconian rules, punishing viciously former stalwarts and linchpins. And when her own relatives become the hapless victims, feeling their pain, she at last recognises, with horrifying clarity, that they had all been behaving in this way to outsiders. In humility and shame she realises their church, far from hand selected by God, are completely deluded and fallible people.

Doubts multiply, troublesome questions besiege her. She faces a terrible choice. But, after a lifetime in the protective embrace of family and church, how could she wrench herself away and face the hostile world she has consistently vilified? Whether she leaves or stays her prospects are bleak.

But increasingly she sees the arrogance and incomprehensibility of her former position:
the Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages no one speaks anymore … and somehow, Westboro alone has figured out its one true meaning?… Coming face-to-face with my arrogance, aggressive in its misplaced certainty, was a special sort of shame.

When she issues a public statement decrying her former life and affiliation to Westboro, and later, when she actually meets those she decried, she’s staggered by the generosity of spirit that forgives her and reaches out in friendship and compassion.

It wasn’t the desire for an easy life that led me to leave (my family). Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.

A searingly honest account of the price of fanaticism. And a sobering reflection given what such obsessive arrogance is wreaking in the world today. The redeeming feature is that Megan has made it her mission since to do all she can to be a vocal and empathic advocate for the very people she was taught to despise.


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The transformational power of education

How many of us really appreciate the education we received? We mostly take it for granted, don’t we? – only stopping in our tracks when we hear children in less advantaged countries expressing their amazement or gratitude for opportunities (often limited) that come their way.

Educated is a searing account of one woman’s extraordinary childhood and the transformative power of education in her life. It’s a compelling and sobering read, beautifully written, and unflinching in its honesty.

Gene Westover doesn’t believe in the state, so his daughter Tara has no birth certificate, no schooling, no medical records. The government doesn’t follow up her absence from school because, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, she does not exist. Instead she spends her early formative years preparing for the ‘Days of Abomination’, or roaming the mountain, or bottling fruit ready for the End of Days, or delivering herbs and babies with her untrained unlicensed midwife mother.

The extremities of her dysfunctional family emerge only gradually in Tara’s memoir, which somehow makes the revelations the more harrowing.

Tara Westover is the youngest of seven children. Her father is a religious zealot, a paranoid and fundamentalist Mormon, an eccentric, who believes drinking milk is forbidden in the Scriptures; that public school is a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God; college education the work of the devil.

There’s two kinds of them college professors. Those who know they’re lying, and those who think they’re telling the truth. Don’t know which is worse, come to think of it, a bona fide agent of the Illuminati, who at least knows he’s on the devil’s payroll, or a high-minded professor who thinks his wisdom is greater than God’s.

To Tara’s father the theatre is a den of adulterers and fornicators; doctors are sons of perdition, and the Medical Establishment to be avoided at all costs; a teenage girl showing an inch of bare shoulder is a gentile exhibiting rank provocation; accepting a Government grant is to indebt oneself to the Illuminati; safety at work is a matter of faith in God. As Tara says:

We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment. Because Dad always put faith above safety. Because he believed himself right – after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.

It’s only years later that she suspects he suffered from bipolar disorder – unacknowledged, undiagnosed. At the time she believed his rantings: … the whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.

The Westover family live in a state of permanent chaos and squalor, and expectation of the imminent end of life as we know it. They keep themselves distant from anyone who believes differently, and even scorn members of their own church. Their family are the only true Mormons they know.

The house was pure confusion: piles of unwashed laundry, oily and black from the junkyard, littered the bedroom floors; in the kitchen, murky jars of tincture lined every table and cabinet, and these were only cleared away to make space for even messier projects, perhaps to skin a deer carcass or strip Cosmoline off a rifle. But in the heart of this chaos,Tyler [my third brother] had half a decade’s pencil shavings, [stored in matchboxes in his closet] catalogued by year.

It’s a wonder Tara survived childhood given the accidents and horrors and violence that befell her. Her father might believe angels were protecting them; her brothers might say they were protecting her; but to a dispassionate reader Tara relied largely on her own quick wits and instincts to survive. And in self defence she sometimes re-wrote history. It was the only way she could handle the manipulative controlling behaviour that characterised family life.

She finds redemption in study. Initially she uses dense church texts to learn.

In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse a narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.

Then she applies herself to mastering the abstraction of algebra and trigonometry, of prepositions and gerunds, and of science, for the entrance exam to college, and that, in spite of her father’s constant refrain that her desire is flying in the face of God’s laws.

The Lord has calledĀ  me to testify. He is so displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming.

University life is a shock to the system for Tara, even though it’s Brigham Young. Not only is the whole programme of work completely alien to her, but her fellow students repeatedly shock her. They think nothing of breaking the strict Mormon code of behaviour she has lived by: they shop and watch movies on Sundays, they wear skimpy clothes, they use soap regularly, they drink Coke. She’s surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints. She desperately clings to every truth, every doctrine, her father has taught her, finding a new devotion to an old creed. It’s only when she learns about slavery and apartheid at university that she starts to see her upbringing for what it was.

I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, and myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either wilfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others ...

Course-wise Tara is at a grave disadvantage. I wanted to weep at her accounts of ritual humiliation because of her deprived upbringing; her complete unpreparedness for life; her determination to remain true to her father’s philosophy. It’s clear from her writing that this girl is highly intelligent and discerning; and yet her loyalty overrides her instinct. But gradually, incrementally, enlightenment comes, and she receives sympathetic help. So much so that she wins entry to a study abroad programme at Cambridge in England!

I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette.

But the refinement, the encouragement, the praise, at Cambridge, compared with her former life of violence and manipulative control on the mountain, is initially overwhelming. She could never belong here …

… being here threw into great relief every violent and degrading moment of my life …
I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it … The ugliness of me had to be given expression.

However, her brilliance as a scholar shines through her social gaucheness. She is nurtured by her academic mentors, winning a Gates scholarship to Cambridge on merit and with their powerful endorsement. Her father still takes the credit, because they home schooled her … but he is also bereft – she is putting herself beyond the reach of his protection.

If you’re in America we can come for you. Wherever you are. I’ve got a thousand gallons of fuel buried in the field. I can fetch you when The End comes, bring you home, make you safe. But if you cross the ocean …

But it’s there, as a full time postgrad, and subsequently a PhD student, in this famous seat of learning, that she finds the courage to live in the real world. It is to cost her dear. One by one her family betray and disown her, creating a fantasy history exonerating themselves, blaming her for the evil influences that have led her astray. In the face of this agony, even a visiting fellowship to Harvard is robbed of any allure. This was what education had cost her. For a time she believes herself to be insane, delusional, crippled by psychological injuries, and begins to unravel. It takes years, and independent corroboration, for her to regain belief in herself. Some rifts are never healed, but eventually she finds a measure of peace – both within herself and with some of her family – without renouncing her own hard won belief.

A superb memoir by an inspirational writer and courageous woman.

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