Tag Archives: riverrun

“Being the Expert” on Women’s Religious Memoirs Again: Unfollow & Leaving the Witness

I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)

 

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper

“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.

Fred Phelps in 2002. (User Rudolf 1922 on sv.wikipedia.)

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.

By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.

Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.

All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.

Westboro Baptist Church demonstration outside the Virginia Holocaust Museum, March 2010. (JCWilmore [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D.)

There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.

Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.

My rating:


With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.

 

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah

Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.

Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”

As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.

The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.

My rating:


Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.

Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.

 

Can you see yourself reading either of these books?

Three Books that Originated on the Radio

As the end of the year approaches and I try to get through a final handful of review books, I’m looking for ways to combine posts. It may seem like a fairly arbitrary connection, but all three of these books originated as essays or short stories that were aired on British radio. I never listen to the radio so I miss out on these projects the first time around, but I’ve been interested to note how short forms and conversational styles lend themselves to oral performance.

 

Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body

These 15 pieces were commissioned for the BBC Radio 3 series “A Body of Essays.” Thomas Lynch, a small-town American undertaker and wonderful, unjustly obscure writer, opens and closes the volume. In his introduction he remarks – appropriately as Christmas draws near – that “We are an incarnate species”: we experience the world only through our bodies, which are made of disparate parts that work together as a whole. This project considers single organs by turn “in hopes that by knowing the part we might better know the whole of our predicament and condition.”

Naomi Alderman, musing on the intestines, draws metaphorical connections between food, sex and death, and gives thanks that digestion and excretion are involuntary processes we don’t have to give any thought. Ned Beauman reports on misconceptions about the appendix as he frets about the odds of his bursting while he’s in America without health insurance. The late Philip Kerr describes the checkered history of the lobotomy, which used to reduce patients to a vegetative state but can now quite effectively treat epilepsy.

The pieces incorporate anatomical knowledge, medical history, current research, cultural connections, and sometimes observation of a hospital procedure. These threads are elegantly woven together, as in Patrick McGuinness’s essay on the ear, which skips between Hamlet’s father’s death, the secretive delight of mining for earwax, Beethoven’s ear trumpet, and what we know about in utero sounds.

Most authors chose a particular organ because of its importance to their own health. Christina Patterson’s acne was so bad she went to the UK’s top skin specialist for PUVA light treatments, Mark Ravenhill had his gallbladder removed in an emergency surgery, and Daljit Nagra’s asthma led his parents to engage Sikh faith healers for his lungs. Two of my favorite chapters were by William Fiennes, whose extreme Crohn’s disease caused him to have a colostomy bag for two years in his early twenties, and poet Kayo Chingonyi, who has always been ashamed to admit that his parents both died of complications of HIV in Zambia. Such personal connections add poignancy to what could have been information dumps.

As is usual for essay collections, my interest varied somewhat. I had my hopes too high so was disappointed with a scattered piece on the kidneys. But the overall quality is terrific. If you enjoy medical reads to any extent, I recommend this as a bedside book to read occasionally.

Some favorite lines:

“It’s a strange and shifting thing – this sense I have that I am my body, of which some bits are essential and some expendable.” (Mark Ravenhill)

“There are things we only think about when they go wrong: the fan belt, the combi boiler, the bowel.” (William Fiennes)

“Like most of us, I take my body for granted. I live in the most complex, intricate machine and as long as it wakes up in the morning, and goes to bed at night, I am uninterested in its inner workings.” (Chibundu Onuzo, “Thyroid”)

My rating:


Beneath the Skin was published by the Wellcome Collection imprint of Profile Books on October 25th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

 

In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik

New Yorker writer Gopnik contributed to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View for over a decade. These essays date from 2012 to 2017 and are grouped into three loosely thematic sections on family, culture and politics. Gopnik self-deprecatingly sees himself as “offering measured ambivalences on everything.” As an American who was raised in Canada and has lived in Paris and spent significant time in London, he has a refreshingly cosmopolitan outlook and can appreciate the nuances in different countries’ identities. At the same time, he brings out what’s universal: being annoying to one’s teenage children, gauging the passing of time by family members’ changes, the desire to die with dignity (remembering his father-in-law’s death at age 95), and lessons in a happy marriage from Charles and Emma Darwin – he boils it down to lust, laughter and loyalty.

During the weeks that I spent with these essays I was frequently reminded of Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye, which casts a similarly twinkling eye over the absurdities of modern life and the aging body. Gopnik endures shingles and shrugs over his funny last name (“drunken lout” in Russian) and short stature. He mostly ignores Twitter and decries our dependence on smartphones. As he’s never learned to drive, he’s amused by the idea of self-driving cars.

My favorite pieces were on significantly more trivial matters, though: the irony of famous Christmas songs being written by Jews, and a satire on society’s addiction to DVD box sets. Other arts references vary from the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to Cubism and literary festivals. It’s a quirky blend of high and low culture here. Bizarrely, Gopnik has recently written an oratorio on Alan Turing and a musical about a New York City restaurant.

The author is an unabashed liberal who prizes pluralism above all else but warns how fragile it is. In the final section he prophesies catastrophe under Trump and, afterwards, can only say that at least his election puts lesser issues into perspective. I valued the diagnosis of American insularity and British inwardness – this particular essay was written in 2013 but seems all the more relevant post-Brexit. This was my fifth book from Gopnik. While I didn’t engage with every essay and would have liked them to be chronological so there was a mix of topics all the way through, it was a pleasant and often thought-provoking read.

Some favorite lines:

“Watching the people we love die bit by bit is the hardest thing life demands until we recall that watching the people we love die bit by bit is in a certain sense what life simply is. It just usually takes more time for the bits to go by.”

“We should never believe that people who differ from us about how we ought to spend public money want to commit genocide or end democracy, and we should stop ourselves from saying so, even in the pixellated heat of internet argument. But when we see the three serpents of militarism, nationalism and hatred of difference we should never be afraid to call them out, loudly, by name”

My rating:


In Mid-Air was published by riverrun, a new Quercus imprint, on October 18th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

 

Turbulence by David Szalay

These 12 linked short stories, commissioned for BBC Radio 4, focus on travel and interconnectedness. Each is headed by a shorthand route from one airport to another, and at the destination we set out with a new main character who has crossed paths with the previous one. For instance, in “YYZ – SEA” the writer Marion Mackenzie has to cancel a scheduled interview when her daughter Annie goes into labor. There’s bad news about the baby, and when Marion steps away from the hospital to get Annie a few necessaries from a supermarket and is approached by a pair of kind fans, one of whom teaches Marion’s work back in Hong Kong, she’s overcome at the moment of grace-filled connection. In the next story we journey back to Hong Kong with the teacher, Jackie, and enter into her dilemma over whether to stay with her husband or leave him for the doctor she’s been having an affair with.

As he ushers readers around the world, Szalay invites us to marvel at how quickly life changes and how – improbable as it may seem – we can have a real impact on people we may only meet once. There’s a strong contrast between impersonal and intimate spaces: airplane cabins and hotel rooms versus the private places where relationships start or end. The title applies to the characters’ tumultuous lives as much as to the flight conditions. They experience illness, infidelity, domestic violence, homophobia and more, but they don’t stay mired in their situations; there’s always a sense of motion and possibility, that things will change one way or another.

My favorite story was “DOH – BUD,” in which Ursula goes to visit her daughter Miri and gains a new appreciation for Miri’s fiancé, Moussa, a Syrian refugee. I also liked how the book goes full circle, with the family from the final story overlapping with that of the first. Though a few of the individual stories are forgettable, I enjoyed this more than Szalay’s Booker-shortlisted All that Man Is, another globe-trotting set of linked stories.

Like Beneath the Skin, this acknowledges the many parts making up the whole of humanity; like In Mid-Air, it encourages a diversity of opinion and experience rather than narrow-mindedness. Maybe the three books had more in common than I first thought?

A favorite line:

“In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this aeroplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness which surrounded it on all sides.”

My rating:


Turbulence is published by Jonathan Cape today, December 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.