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 infamous  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 Stone Angel

Given the horrific and haunting events in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, it seems somehow frivolous to be thinking about books, or quibbling about words, or debating the niceties of modern medicine. If you aren’t already saturated by the images, have a look at these pictures. Unimaginable. Where would anyone begin to rebuild lives and cities?

But there’s little I can add to the unfolding catastrophe; every conceivable angle has been expanded and exploited in the media. And life here does go on. People aren’t all killed in natural disasters; they do grow old. So let’s talk about that instead. And perhaps even manage a wry smile in this week of escalating suffering.

If you’ve visited my website you’ll know that I work in a voluntary capacity with elderly people – have done for more years than I care to tot up. I also co-ordinate a befriending scheme, which basically provides one-to-one friendship for every individual in a residential home. So I do know something of what advancing age is like, and the dilemmas of deciding when the time has come to relinquish independence.

But in addition to that, two days before the earthquake I became the mother of a forty-year old son. Forty! Ho hum. It seems impossible. JP as a babeAnd a miracle in itself given that this baby wasn’t supposed to live beyond three weeks.

Forty years of parenthood. All very grown up stuff. Yes, elderliness is just around the corner.

With all this reality and experience bearing down on me, the novel The Stone Angel resonated strongly.

Hagar Shipley is now in her nineties, incontinent, confused, wilful. Her son, Marvin, and his wife, Doris, have been caring for her, but the burden is now too great. They are no spring chickens themselves.

By stealth and subterfuge they get her to visit the Silverthreads Nursing Home. But Hagar is nobody’s fool. She makes her own shrewd assessments.

The matron is a stoutish woman, pressing sixty, I’d say, clad in a blue uniform and a professional benevolence. She has that look of overpowering competence that one always dreads, but I perceive that some small black hairs sprout like slivers from her chin, so she’s doubtless had her own troubles – jilted, probably, long ago by some rabbity man who feared she’d devour him. Having thus snubbed the creature in my head, I feel quite kindly disposed towards her, in a distant way, until she grips my arm and steers me along as one would a drunk or a poodle.

Hagar finds an opportunity to speak to one of the residents:

‘Do you –‘ I hesitate. ‘Do you ever get used to such a place?’
She laughs then, a short bitter laugh I recognize and comprehend at once.
‘Do you get used to life?’ she says. ‘Can you answer me that? It all comes as a surprise. You get your first period, and you’re amazed – I can have babies now – such a thing! When the children come, you think – Is it mine? Did it come out of me? Who could believe it? When you can’t have them any more, what a shock – It’s finished – so soon?’

She has serious health problems requiring investigation but she has her own take on those experiences too. Here she is struggling with a barium meal:

I sip again and force myself to swallow. Again and again until I start to retch.
‘I can’t – I can’t –‘
‘Stop, then. Perhaps that’ll do for now.’
‘I’m going to be sick. Oh –‘
‘Try to keep it down,’ the X-ray says, calm as Lucifer. ‘If you don’t, you’ll have it all to take again. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’
My eyes stop watering and my constricted throat is eased by my fury.
‘Would you?’ I snap.
‘No. No, I wouldn’t.’
‘Well, why ask me if I would, then, for pity’s sake?’
From the infinite gloom comes, unexpectedly, a sigh.
‘We’re only doing our best, Mrs Shipley,’ the doctor says.
And I see it’s true, and he’s a human, and overworked no doubt, and I’m difficult, and who’s to blame for any of it?
‘I only wish my stomach or whatever it is could be left alone,’ I say, more to myself than him. ‘I can’t see that it matters much what’s wrong with it. It’s been digesting for getting on for a century. Maybe it’s tired – who’d wonder at it?’
‘I know,’ he says. ‘Sometimes one feels that way.’
So sudden is his gentleness that it accomplishes the opposite of what he intended and now I’m robbed even of endurance and can only lean here mutely, waiting for whatever they’ll perform on me.

As she battles with all the indignities and uncertainties of her present situation Hagar reminisces – her thoughts muddling past with present, youth with old age, courage with weakness. Beautifully conveying her ambivalence and conflict in so many areas of her life.

In desperation she runs away from the threat of residential care – actually physically absconds – and lives on her wits. Listen to this masterly description of life in her hideaway:

‘I have everything I need. An overturned box is my table, and another is my chair. I spread my supper and eat. When I’ve done, the light still holds and in one shell lying on the floor at my feet I see that half a dozen June bugs have been caught. I prod them with a fingernail. They’re not alive. Death hasn’t tarnished them, however. Their backs are green and luminous, with a sharp metallic line down the centre, and their bellies shimmer with pure copper. If I’ve unearthed jewels, the least I can do is wear them. Why not, since no-one’s here to inform me I’m a fool? I take off my hat – it’s hardly suitable for here anyway, a prim domestic hat sprouting cultivated flowers. Then with considerable care I arrange the jade and copper pieces in my hair. I glance into my purse mirror. The effect is pleasing. They liven my grey, transform me. I sit quite still and straight, my hands spread languidly on my knees, queen of moth-millers, empress of earwigs.’

It’s a penetrating insight into the mind of a person who’s losing her independence and her grasp on reality; whose physical health is failing, and yet who’s hanging on for dear life. As she says: ‘How you see a thing – it depends which side of the fence you’re on.’ And later: ‘Things never look the same from the outside as they do from the inside.’

How true.

The author of The Stone Angel is Margaret Laurence, a Canadian. She doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of a thwarted old woman – and they can indeed be difficult, even mean and vindictive at times. I always try to file such experiences away in my personal memory-bank … against the day it might be me in danger of losing my inhibitions.

Laurence conveys a depth of perception and honesty that I found quite scary. I suspect I should not have been comfortable in the presence of such a shrewd observer; I’d have felt she was penetrating my outward polite façade, and X-raying all the intolerance and impatience I’ve struggled to suppress.

Hagar is every inch her own person – ‘a holy terror’, to quote her son, Marvin. Sobering then to find I can identify with many of her sentiments and actions. Tongues do betray us. Kindly feelings are too often left unsaid. And I don’t want to be patronised by nurses, or betrayed by strangers, or pitied by relatives, either. Hmmm. Lessons have been learned! (I hope.)

As Sarah Maitland said in her afterword to the book: ‘I do not know, anywhere in literature, a more convincing or more moving account of old age, of the anger and the fear and the humiliation, coupled with a completely unsentimental recognition of the manipulation and the craziness and the meanness of a dangerous old woman.’ High praise indeed.

Oh, and the ending is fabulous.

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