In this episode, writers Rene Denfeld and Megan Phelps-Roper talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how the private language of abuse has infected the political rhetoric of the Trump era. Denfeld discusses her work as a licensed investigator and talks about writing about verbal abuse, as well as the difference between investing in mass incarceration and investing in justice; Phelps-Roper recounts how she thought about language and audience as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, and how she considers the same thing now that she has left it.
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Readings for the Episode:
The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld · The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld · The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld · Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper · “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left,” TEDNYC Talk, February 2017
“Sonia Sotomayor Raises the Alarm Over Border Patrol’s Lawless Brutality: The Supreme Court is poised to remove all constitutional limits on border agents’ ability to kill.” by Mark Joseph Stern, Slate.com, Nov. 13, 2019 · “Rape is rampant at this women’s prison. Anyone who complains is punished, lawsuit says.” by Romy Ellenbogen, The Miami Herald, Dec. 4, 2019 · “The 25 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct,” by Eliza Reiman, Business Insider, Oct. 9, 2019 · “The Language of the Trump Administration Is the Language of Domestic Violence,” by Jessica Winter, NewYorker.com, June 11, 2018 · “Men in Power and the Lies They Tell: On Brett Kavanaugh,” Donald Trump, and the Malleability of Truth, by Lacy Johnson, LitHub, Oct. 2, 2019 · “Topeka Church Protests at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman School Over Poet’s Sexuality,” by Daniel de Vise, The Washington Post, April 25, 2009 · “A Humanist View,” by Toni Morrison, speech given at Portland State University, May 30, 1975. Transcribed by Keisha E. McKenzie.
* Part I: Rene Denfeld
Whitney Terrell: I just wrote down the series of explanations that Republicans have officially given as part of an actual public message to explain what happened with impeachment. First, it’s a perfect call—there’s nothing wrong with it, the call that he had with the president of Ukraine. Then, the whistleblower who reported the call as being bad is probably a partisan; his identity must be revealed. Then, the hearings process is too secretive; it gets protested by Matt Gaetz, who goes down and busts into the offices. Then, there’s no quid pro quo. There was no quid pro quo. Then, when that’s proven, Well, there was a quid pro quo, but presidents do things like that all the time! Then when that doesn’t work: this is a purely partisan proceeding, because of course, none of us are going to support you. And then: the President was genuinely interested in fighting corruption, which is laughable but nevertheless is an argument after all these previous arguments have all been disproven. And now they’re saying, well, the process is going too fast and more witnesses should be called, while at the same time the president, everyone knows, is denying those witnesses the ability to testify. I mean, this series of lies is not even worth responding to at a certain point.
Rene Denfeld: Yeah, absolutely. Basically, it’s reality shifting, and it’s something I saw throughout my childhood and I think it actually has helped me with my work quite a bit because I can recognize it and I think one of the problems of a lot of Democrats is we’re getting sucked into that cycle and you can’t win if somebody is constantly willing to invent a new argument and to shift reality and create reality distortions in order to validate and/or minimize or outright deny—that’s actually as a form of gaslighting as well. But that’s not how you stop that sort of abuse. It’s never going to work. We’re not going to be able to convince these people that what they’re doing is wrong.
WT: It’s as if a sex offender who we had clear evidence had committed a rape, then said to the prosecutor, yeah, but she wanted it. And the prosecutor then says, Oh, I guess we’ll have to investigate and figure out whether that was true. That’s the insanity of it. We don’t do that with sex offenders.
RD: Most of the time.
WT: Well, sadly, actually, there’s a history of that, too.
RD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. What we’re witnessing is something that plays out a lot in abusive situations. The abuser and then their cohorts and the defenders do get into these things of, well, it never happened. And then they’ll say, Well, okay, maybe it happened, but it was their fault, They’ll say, well, but it didn’t happen quite like that. We can just get into endless, endless cycles of distortion.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Yeah, it seems like the emotional equivalent of the—what is the legal strategy, drowning someone in paperwork? I think about that Toni Morrison quote about “the very serious function of racism is distraction.” How can you ever get to your own work if all you’re doing is proving the thing that you already know is true? I think about that Toni Morrison bit a lot. Sometimes, you know, my instinct is to respond. I’m interested in argument and the ways in which that prevents me from doing my own work are all too evident to me constantly. And I do think, you know, I was really struck in watching the impeachment hearings with the number of really powerful women testifying in a variety of hearings over the past couple of years, starting with Christine Blasey Ford–
WT: Wait, you said impeachment hearings, but you meant Kavanaugh hearings there.
VVG: Well, I actually mean both. This is a lineage of women resisting this in a legislative context. You’ve got Anita Hill insisting that what she says is true, people saying how could this possibly be, Joe Biden being in charge of making it so that it was hard for her story to be told. And then her still insisting on being there. Christine Blasey Ford in the Kavanaugh hearings, and then in the impeachment hearings, the ambassador to the Ukraine. And Pam Karlan, who was just on, and all of these women resisting the language of abuse in really striking ways. Rene, I wonder, have you been watching these and what do you think? Can I connect those dots?
As a woman, it doesn’t matter how white, it doesn’t matter how successful you are—you’re probably not going to get believed. The system is not there for us.
RD: I think you can. I watched the Kavanaugh hearings as much as I could stomach. One thing we’re witnessing is—and I’m trying to think of some diplomatic ways to put this—I’ve done the public defense and criminal justice work now for over a decade. It’s unfortunate—I think a lot of white liberals and particularly white women have bought into the ideas of mass incarceration, have bought into the ideas that police are there to protect us, that the system works. And if you call the FBI and they investigate Kavanaugh, they’re going to, you know, spend more than two minutes on it. There’s just an overwhelming desire to believe in law and order, a desire to believe that we can adjudicate these things and that people are out there looking for our best interest. And one thing I hope that there’s a bit more of a revelation about is, that’s just not the truth. And we live in a society for instance, with mass incarceration, we’ve incarcerated now millions of people, we disenfranchise the millions of black voters who could have stopped Trump.
And yet, we still have decades of rape kits that are never getting tested. The investment in mass incarceration and the investment into this police state is not the same as actually an investment into justice. And I think that’s where we’ve gone afoul. We have not invested in justice. We’ve invested in a system that is into incarcerating people of color in the poor. But we haven’t actually created a system in which victims are heard, are believed, or where things are adjudicated meaningfully. For me, watching the hearings, I have to say I was not terribly surprised because I’ve had years of experience with victims not being believed. And it doesn’t matter how powerful you are as a woman, it doesn’t matter how white, it doesn’t matter how successful you are—you’re probably not going to get believed. The system is not there for us.
WT: So the example that I used earlier is exactly the problem. The problem is that if a sex offender says, she wanted it, then the prosecutor does often say, well, let’s see if that’s true.
RD: Yes. The number of, for instance, rape cases that are cleared is very low. Because it’s not the focus of our system. The focus of our system is incarcerating as many people as possible. So the focus is going to be more on turnstile jumpers, or moms that didn’t pay their traffic tickets. Those are easy people to arrest. It takes time and money and resources to adjudicate sexual violence. So, which is maybe a bit of a tangent–
WT: No, but it seems like—what you’re saying, when I hear you speak, and I think it seems very powerful, is that the groundwork has been laid for this kind of behavior at the highest levels because it happens first at lower levels.
RD: Yeah, it happens for everyone. There’s a lot of talk among liberal circles about how men are getting away with this because they’re rich and powerful. But I would respectfully disagree, because I see men get away with this no matter what their status is. The people that are being incarcerated are usually actually not the serious offenders in our culture.
When the divide is so great that you cannot recognize the other side as human beings—but just manifestly evil—there’s a hopelessness there that I think is really detrimental.
* Part II: Megan Phelps-Roper
Whitney Terrell: Did you at some point connect the language of your family signs with the language and actions of the protesters? Was there a sense of cause and effect or responsibility? Or no, that was just completely disconnected?
Megan Phelps-Roper: It took me a very long time to recognize that we had any responsibility for the way that people responded to us. Because Westboro believes in predestination, we had it in our minds that our only job was to preach God’s word and that how people responded was God’s prerogative alone. So anytime anyone criticized our methods—our use of the most incendiary language, our choice to pick the most provocative locations for our protests—we completely denied that there was anything wrong with our actions and insisted that we were just doing our duty to God and to our fellow man. And we would say, people are mad because of what we’re saying, not how we’re saying it. And they actually still say things like that today. And of course, I eventually came to recognize that that was complete BS, that it was unscriptural as well as completely divorced from the reality of how communication works.
I think the most powerful passage in the Bible that convinced me that we were doing wrong was when the Apostle Paul says, “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak.” We did the exact opposite. We went to people who were weak, in these moments of deepest pain, and we celebrated their tragedies. We played games of soccer with the American flag as the ball outside of funerals where people were preparing to bury their loved ones. So of course people were filled with outrage and anger. I don’t believe that that necessarily justified the violence perpetrated against the church. But I also know that that violence only served to push us deeper into our positions. But it absolutely explains a lot of it.
There seems to be a distinct similarity in the way that Westboro and President Trump view themselves in relation to the broader world, in both extreme victimhood and triumphalism.
WT: You hear this idea all the time in our political discourse now, from the right, that it’s great to trigger the libs. That using incendiary language to get a reaction, is in and of itself a good thing. And that feels a little bit like what you’re talking about too. And I would also say that this goes back to protests in the 1960s, from the Left of the Vietnam War, where there was no kind of protest that you could do that was too extreme to protest the war. Using increasingly incendiary language—I feel like there’s a continuum there, that the Right learned from the Left, in a certain way, how to do this.
MPR: It’s the tribalism. It’s when you come to see the other side as not just mistaken or wrong in their approach but as actually evil, and motivated by a desire to do wrong. When the divide is so great that you cannot recognize the other side as human beings who have a lifetime of experiences that have led them to their positions, that they’re just manifestly evil—there’s a hopelessness there that I think is really detrimental.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was just wondering about the ways in which you discuss language within your family because you cited an example of a protest sign earlier. If you believe in predestination, what does that mean for how you write and revise your insults? It seems like a weird question, but what does it mean–
WT: Do you have to workshop those signs?
VVG: That’s kind of what I’m wondering. That’s kind of what I’m wondering! You write a sign and someone else says, you know, actually this would be much more provocative—what were the goals? If the goals were to change people, how did you all talk about your rhetoric within your family?
MPR: The goal wasn’t really to change people. Westboro would say that their only goal was to publish. Because of the predestination thing, because they don’t believe that they have the power. In other words, if you consider how your message will be received by people, the idea was that we would necessarily start to change the message to try to make it more palatable to the human mind, which was inherently at odds with God. And so it was like the idea of even considering how people would take it. We didn’t do that, except, of course, to make it as provocative as possible, just to get attention. I don’t listen to a lot of the interviews they give—for the most part, I I consume their content in writing, but I recently listened to this podcast where one of the elders—it was just so incredibly frustrating, because he’s repeating the same things over and over again—won’t let the podcast host get a word in edgewise.
He refuses to answer any questions honestly, and when the podcast host got anywhere close to identifying things from a Biblical perspective that Westboro was doing wrong, he just talked louder. And that was how we always did. We could never acknowledge that we could possibly do anything wrong. I mentioned that passage—the rest of that is, to the Jews I became as a Jew, and to the Greeks as a Greek, to the weak I became as weak that I might gain the weak. Clearly you are supposed to consider who is hearing your message and how you’re framing it, and so I hope that eventually that will get through to them too.
VVG: It’s like God also would like to know who you’re writing for. So it’s not as if the Westboro Baptist Church’s views are totally foreign to mainstream America. When you’re talking about people talking over other people, I mean, to me that sounds like cable news. Opposition to gay marriage and LGBTQ rights are Republican Party issues, and ending abortion, restricting the rights of Muslims . . . Do you ever watch campaign ads, in this our blessed campaign season, or listen to the speech of a contemporary politician and think, they’re using the same language and tactics that we did?
MPR: Just because Westboro is so in your face and emphatically not trying to change hearts or minds or laws, almost nobody else uses that exact same kind of language. Although Westboro members have criticized President Trump quite a bit—you know, they call him adulterer-in-chief—I have an uncle who is a Westboro elder who frequently retweets criticism of the left and the media, and clearly is very angry about how Trump is being treated. And there seems to be this kind of distinct similarity in the way that Westboro and President Trump view themselves in relation to the broader world, where there is this simultaneous sense of both extreme victimhood and triumphalism. In their minds, they deserve all the sympathy in the world for these unfair attacks against them. But also those attacks are completely ineffectual because of course they’re going to come out on top, because they’re the good guys.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photo of Rene Denfeld by Owen Carey. Photo of Megan Phelps-Roper by Michelle Wray.