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tv   Megan Phelps- Roper Unfollow  CSPAN  October 26, 2019 9:00am-10:02am EDT

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>> later in november, the national book awards will be presented in new york city and we'll be live from the miami book fair on november 23rd and 24th. to find more information about upcoming book fairst and festivals and to -- fairs and festivals, click the book fairs tab on our web site, >> hello. my name is conor moran, i'm the director of the wisconsin book festival. thank you all so much for being here tonight. i believe this is the seventh of eight events in this room. it is also the 30th out of 32 events just today in the third day of the wisconsin book festival, so thank you so much. i've seen many of you all day, so thankis you. [applause] i couldn't be more pleased to be introducing megan phelps-roper,
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we weree just talking in the back, her discussion of life in a religious community, doubt, how you decide to leave or stay and how you defend yourself in those contexts is one of those conversations that we need to be having so much more as a culture. i think the it opens up so many doors for people. megan is herself a writer and an activist. she leftp the westboro baptist church in november 2012 and is now an educator on topics relating to extremism and communication across ideological lines. at the age of 53, megan -- at the age of 5, peg began began protesting homosexuality. this church was founded by her grandfather and consisted almost entirely of her extended family. picketing at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. as the church's twitter spokesman, megan was one of the few that interacted with the outside world, and twitter
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actually did something maybe we can applaud it for, it caused her to begin doubting the strict church members and its message. after digital jousts, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point, and then she began p exchanging messages wita man who would help her change her life. and i'm here to welcome her, megan phelps-roper or. [applause] >> good evening, everyone, and thank you as much for being here tonight. my name is megan phelps roper, and i grew up in a very tight-knit family in topeka, kansas. i am the third of 11 children, 3 girls and 8 boys, and we lived on a tree-lined street with dozens of other relatives. my grandfather had been the only pastor since the church's inception in the 1950s.
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my mom's family was vocally talented, and the hymns often gave me chills. their passionate praises to god for his mercy and grace into my welcoming ears. i grew up proud of my family. my grandfather had been a well known civil rights activist, a lawyer from the 19690s to the 1980s and had won awards from civil rights groups like the naacp. my family had suffered for that work. not just the constant vandalism, but the physical attacks on my grandfather's elementary school-aged children, but that never swayed them from the commitment to racial justice. when i was 5 years old, a new era of my family's legacy began, and i'll review a little bit about that now. i didn't understand what was going on, not at first. the signs simply appeared one day and never left like some undeniable force of nature. my mother's family had been a well known and polarizing
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presence in the city for decades, but in my memory, the picketing is the beginning, and out started at gage park. it sure didn't look like a park. there were no swings, slides or jungle gyms, just an open field that separated from place where we parked from the busier intersection. my grandfather would drive the pickup filled with signs that he'd made and the rest of the church -- consisting almost entirely of my extended family -- would follow in a caravan of vehicles. i couldn't read the messages gramps had carefully britain, but when i -- written, but when with i saw photos, watch your kids, gays in restrooms. gage park, my grandfather had learned, was a popular meeting place for gay men. in mindy sight, our protests wee bound to elicit an intensely negative reaction.
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gramps was an old school lappist the, he said, and -- baptist, he said. he leapt immediately into attacks on the gay community as a whole proclaiming they deserved the death penalty. the topeka capital journal published many letters including one by my aunt comparing the united states to and go mora. insisted that the blood of straight aids victims should be avenged upon those guilty of introducing and gleefully spreading this deadly disease, the homosexual. even during an era in which disapproval was more socially acceptable, it took only four sentences to outrage most leaders, and our signs managed to do the same with even greater economy. militant gays spread aids,
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expose gay aids ploy, gays are worthy of death. and soon enough, god hates fags. the community response to our protests would mystify me for years thanks to an ignorance born both to use and of the religious education i was receiving atio home. i didn't understand why anyone would reject our message. i was scared of them at first. young punks and diseased, probably got aids gramps would the bible for bad girls to -- forbade girls to cut our hair, but some girls came out with kool-aid hair andd with metal in their faces. there were boys with mullets, others with half their heads shaved and the other covered by long, black hair that hung in greasy extraordinaries. some -- strands. some were fat and bearded,
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combat boots on their feet and flannel shirts tied around their waists. they'd come out ind angry mobs, 50,100, more and less, and try to surround our group around 30, starting fistfights with the westboro dads. sometimes there were handcuffs and sometimes we were in them, which wasn't fair, i thought, because we were just trying to protect ourselves. ise held my gareth so i wouldn't catch -- my breath so i wouldn't catch whatever it was that was making them so awful. drivers and passengers would with sometimes abandon their vehicles in the middle of the street the, car doors hanging wide open and cross lanes of traffic to come after us on foot. my cousins and i would scuttle away back behind mom or an aunt. from behind my sign, i watched them approach to hit and
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threaten and shove and bellow and spit and grab for our signs, our bodies, our hair. the police rarely seemed to help, but my participants kept us -- parents kept us safe. still, i was alarmed and angry. how dare they, i raged, that's my mom. what made them think they could do this to us? why weren't the cops stopping them? but my grandfather had a different mentality. it was proof that god was with us. from the age of 53 and into my early -- 5 and into my early 20s, i attended protests across the country almost daily. they quickly expanded toen include -- to include literally everyone who wasn't part of our church. westboro sees itselff as the ony true church on the landscape, and we considered it not only our right, but our duty to judge others. we protested funerals, insisting that the deceased were in hell, celebrating their death while mourners c passed by a short
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distance away. this, i was told, was what god meant when he instructed to love our neighbor, to warn our fellow man that their sins would lead them to god's discussers in this -- curses in this life and eternal torment in the world to come. we saw our preaching as the very embodiment of compassion. our message was the only hope for a doomed world. in 2009 i a took that message to twitter in an effort to reach more peoplement but what i eventually found was that those people had reached me instead. amid the deluge of hostility, a group of individuals began to ask questions, to really pour over the nuances of westboro's belief. over time they found internal inconsistencies in our theology, and they gently and respectfully challenged me. i was absolutely baffled when i recognized that first contradiction. how could this be? our message was the design, unquestionable word of god. the fact that we could be wrong, that we did not, in fact, have a
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monopoly on truth was the beginning of the end of my whole hearted belief in westboro's doctrine. in 2012 i made the agonizing decision to leave the church knowing that i would be cut off from the only family and community i'd everr belonged to, that i would lose my lifelong home on that tree-lined street and that i would be left with a world that i had spent my entire life demonizing and antagonizing. right now i'm just going to read for a few minutes about the period right before i left westing boro. i had just made the decision to leaf, and i -- leave, and i discussed it with my younger sister grace who also felt the need to leave. we were tryingd to figure out what to do next. making the decision to leave introduced yet another impossible question. when? neither grace nor i had an answer, just a growing list of reasons that i it couldn't be now. we couldn't leave before mom's
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birthday, surely. and what about our parents' anniversary? how cruel right at this moment. and then there were the things we couldn't bear to leave without, all that we would forever lose access to. what about family recipes and home movies and old photos? weec should just wait a little while longer. there was no denying that it was partly a stalling tactic based on the dwindling hope that drastic change would occur. at the first prospect of losing everyone, grace and i had become painfully aware that we didn't there didn't -- that there was so much we didn't know. my sisters and i had begun interviewing my grandmother. we'd find gran upstairs in her bedroom next to church library. atra 86, our grandmother was so
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quiet and gentle, smaller than i'dwa ever seen her because of e deep curve in her spine, stooped with age. he'd lie in her bed, and grace would lie next to her, becca on the floor at the foot of the bed. i'dou tryry not to choke at the thought of losing my gran, at the tsunami of guilt washing over me for even thinking of betake her. i started recording everything; hymn singing practices, evening bible studies. my mother's stories about my siblings and me when we were young, a prayer she said for me, becca reading aloud. even if they eventually left, all the years of their little boy voices would be gone. an endless stream of photos, a
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family kickball game, getting ready to walk to school, my parents w holding hands as they walked through a department store, a family visit to our favorite art human in kansas city, walks to the park with my nieces and nephew, the front porch where grace and i ate breakfast each morning, snow cones with luke. in those months every joyful experience became a torture that left grace and me in tears and gasping for breath. we tried to remember what it was like before all this, what it was like to be happy without the sense that we were watching the slow, excruciating death of everyone we loved. began obsess i havely taking -- obsessively taking notes. i filled notebooks with descriptions of i routine interactions, terrified of losing even a single one as if clinging to these memories might alleviate the agony. as if recording it all could keep them from slipping from my
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grasp. i made a list entitled funny/nice things said during hugs. gran on how she could always count on me to smell good. gramps on how my curls in his face made it difficult to breathe. mom on how she didn't mind being smotheredded by them. dad on how he loved it when i finished his sentences. i love you, mimi. it was the name luke had given me as a toddler. we're very fortunate to have you as a daughter. i wrote it down before he could regret it, before he could take it back. before he could take down the photos of me that hung on the wall, before he could repurpose my bedroom, before he could spend the rest of his life erasingli me from his memory as much as possible. a little at a time, grace and i began packing our things in boxes. my sister made labels that said things like shoes or books. i numbered my boxes, me meticulously cataloging every single item. i tucked each piece of jewelry i
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owned into a tiny white envelope. if i ever forgot any detail, there wouldti be no one around o remind me. i copied 63 dvds worth of home movies watching scene after scene. and all the while i knew what would happen when we left. i knew what heartbreak they would feel and the betrayal. i had felt it when my brother josh left eight years earlier, a postmortem that went on for years. we had racked our brains, and with new instances transformed horror into outrage. all of us who remained were disgusted with his pairty. how could he? knowing all the while that he was going to abandon us forever? it did not occur to us to think of his devastation. we couldn't see his terror or his despair or his desperation. it was so much easier the cast him as a villain, to insist that
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he didn't care about us, that he was a selfish jerk who wanted only to pursue his own lust. we could not imagine that this 19-year-old boy could have a legitimate reason to leave the onlyt church of the lord jesus christ in the world today. we could not consider that there was anything truly wrong with us. my parents, my brothers, my sister, my gramps and my gran, they would all look back just like i had. they would see me copying those home movies interviewing gran, cleaning out my bedroom, they would search through all the text messageshe and e-mails id d sent. they would remember my tears and my refusal to tweet, and they wouldn't understand that i wantedfu to tell them everythin, that i tried so hard to keep them. that i'd been begging for change. that i'd want the stay. or shortly after that the, grace and i left the church and were separated from our family just as we'd known we would be.
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at first i thought i had to run away and hide forever. i thought that after everything that i'd done, that was the only way that i could survive in the world. but almost immediately i connected with people who helped me to see things differently, people who invited me to work for change, to help dismantle the arguments that i'd spent my life preponderance. in the nearly seven years since i left westboro, i spent a lot of time make amends. i have been shown incredible grace by those communities, and i'm soo grateful to have had the opportunity to turn what has been a largely e destructive life into meaningful healing for so many people. healing for people like me who were raised from birth to condemn others, healing for people in similar situations and trapped, healing for people struggling to have meaningful conversations across ideological divides. and most importantly, healing for those who experienced the
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hate-filled message of westboro firsthand. after my book came out last week, i received a message from a gay man who, when westing boro was at its peak, was a teenager and struggling with his sexuality. he had consumed my church's contentd compulsively, almost s a form of self-harm. he told me reading your book and hearing you eloquently dismantle their arguments felt like a certain kind of closure. messages like this remind me that, as extraordinarily painful it's been to revisit this in writing, the cruel things i did to others at the most devastating moments in their life on this earth, that there's real value in owning our mistakes and finding ways of turning them into forces for good. thank you again for being here tonight, and if anybody has questions, i'm happy to answer them. i think they want you to use that mic over there if you do. [applause]
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>> huh. >> hi. >> thank you for coming. i'm wondering if you still count yourself as a christian and how you worship, if you do? and also, it's so clear that there was so much love in your family and so many good things. i wonder what you -- if in looking at the social struggles there's so many places that that divisions between the churches and the current society, is there any place that you feel like your church or more conservative churches in general have something to say to the culture that's's useful? >> hmm. i'llhe sit down. [laughter] the first part of your question, i don't consider>> myself a christian anymore. i'm not religious. although, you know, it's really funny to me how much, how many religious ideals -- or, rather,
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ideals i learned from religion, i still carry with me. i gave a ted talk a couple years ago that was basically detailing what those people on twitter did for me, how they managed to turn this incredibly acrimonious conversation that was taking place on twitter, how they managed to turn that around into ngmeaningful dialogue across the huge ideological gulf. and as i'm writing, you know, i was paying very close attention to everything that i i i wrote n that talk. i wanted it to say exactly what i meant and nothing more and nothingd less. and when i finally finished it after weeks of working on it off and on, i closed my laptop and realized that the thrust of my argument was what jesus said, prolove your enemies. -- love your enemies. so there's a lot of things in the bible that i have not been able to, like, find a good explanation for. like, there are some of the things i believed, we pent all this time -- we spent all this time memorizing bible verses, and. i've found much better ways
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of seeing some of those things, but there's still too many for me to ever, i think, be able to -- i shouldn't say ever, you know? i just, i think going from, coming from a place where i felt so certain about everything, i'm very wary and skeptical of ever coming to a place where i say, okay, now this is the answer, you know what i mean? and then the second thing, i'm not sure. ii guess i think, i don't think there's s a monolith when it cos to any, you know, church or set of believers, you know? so i think everybody has, you know, potentially wonderfully value things to contribute to a conversation. and so i don't think we should exclude anybody from that, and i don'tlu see why -- does that answer your question? i mean, it seems it's a little bit broad for me to be able to -- sorry. [laughter] >> [inaudible]
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>> hi. i wanted, first of all, to thank you so much for your courage, your courage the leave and your courage to write this book. so thank you for that. >> thank you. [applause] >> also i was wondering do you think your parents might ever read this book? >> i do believe that they will if they haven't already. you know, westboro's, you know, m.o. when it comes to ex-members is to generally pretend like we don't exist and to not acknowledge things that we say and do publicly. the can exception to that is when something gets attention. and so i mentioned that ted talk that i gave a couple years ago. they were tweeting about it. in the leadup to publication of this book, there were tweets saying things that i was ap antichrist -- an antichrist. i do believe that they will read it, and i definitely -- i wrote the book for so many reasons,
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and one of them is that i kind of see it as bread crumbs from my family and the people still in the church. like maybe by detailing exactly stopped believing the things that they believe, how i came to see the destructiveness in it and, hopefully, i mean, i've written it in a way that even they in their current position will, that it can be a bridge, you know, from where they are to where i am now. and even if it doesn't cause them -- i don't expect anybody, you know, any of them to read it and think, all right, i need to leave, but i do hope that it causes them to reconsider some things and to, hopefully, continue -- i write at the end of the book about how the church has moderated its position in certain important ways, but i think there's still, obviously, a long way to go, and i hope that this helps in that progress. i can just repeat the question
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too. >> [inaudible] >> yes. >> [inaudible] >> yeah. so my, i have actually two brothers who are out of the church, another brother who left a year and a half after i did. and i am close with my brothers, not with my sister anymore. i think it's just complicated. people react differently to leaving. it's one of those things i think when i was in the church, you basically think of ex-members as a monolith, that they're all on the same page, everything's a club of ex-members, and people have different experiences within the church, within different families. and so while there is a lot of support, it's notil nearly the, you know, club, i guess, that the church envisions. >> you talked about in the responses or thinking that you hod with the people with whom you interacted on twitter the importance of reason, their
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arguments. but you with also talked about the strong sense of community and the pull that you had to your family and to the church. as you work with other people who are, it sounds like you work with people who are working on leaving their types of extremism, and could you talk a little bit aboutit the interplay of reason and community or feeling r that -- >> yeah. >> -- that you would try to help them with? >> yeah, absolutely. i'm really glad that you brought up the community aspect of it because reason -- i mean, i come from a family of lawyers, and so they're very intelligent and analytical and, you know, it seems like a very closed system, you know? because as long as you accept the basic premises, which is that, you know, the bible is the literal and infallible word of god and that westboro has the only true interpretation of it, youhe know, everything else just
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seems to follow for the most part. and so it was very important for me to experience on twitter, like, to actually have conversations where people were able to find those internal inconsistencies and contradictions. i don't think i could have left without that. but i do think the emotional aspect of it is important too, the community aspect of it. so i was talking to an anthropologist last year, and she defined shame as the feeling that we get when we have, we know we've violated the norms of our community. and for a long time, all my life, like, i had grown up like from the time i was a kid, you know, when mother teresa and print access diana died, for instance -- princess diana dies, that was something my church celebrated. this was a joyous occasion, right? >> [inaudible] >>ca yes. enter well, she was catholic, and catholic are idolaters, and princess diana was an adulteress, according to theth church, so that's all it took x.
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i knew nothing about them other than those two facts, and that was enough to have them condemned to hell forever. and so this was my, you know, this is howel i was trained to respond to death. i was just modeling the behavior of the people around me. sot when in each rolled around - 9/11 rolled around and i was 15, literal reaction was to say out loud "awesome," when i had heard. i never felt ashamed of that because that was my comurnghts right? this was my community. i o got on twitter in 2009, andt is shocking to me hooking back how quick -- looking back how quickly, you know, when these people i started interacting with. so, again, the vast majority of the people were extremely hostile, very much like on the picket lines and very understandably. but the fact that there was this group of people that i was starting to come to know over time, there was a lot of things about twitter that made it unique in my experience, right in so the fact that it was very
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limited, 140 characters, that made me feel safe. i couldn't, you know, my interactions with outsiders, i always knew to keep them at arm's length, but because it was sorm limited, i just wasn't awae ofof a feeling in danger as i ws when i was in physical space with other people. it stopped me from using insults, like casual insults. my family would throw them around, you know, all the time. and there wasn't space for it, you know, on twitter. and also when i did include those kinds of insults, the conversation just completely devolved into this mess of you don't know me and that kind of thing. is so i stopped using them because they didn't communicate our core message. and is so there's all these things about what was happening on twitter that, you know, being able to know people over time and developing rapport with them, like, this was -- it affected me in ways that i couldn't have anticipated or rather that i just missed it until, you know, now i'm seeing on twitter, you know, brittany
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murphy passed away, and, you know, this was a few months after i'd gotten on. and i felt bad. youu know? seeing how other people are responding, sharing memories of her and things like that. and then so i'm sitting, you know, at a birthday party actually, so it was one of our monthly birthday parties at the church. i'm sitting, you know, surrounded by people, and i was like, whoa, kind of stunned, and i say brittany murphy died, and the celebrations start. and this is the kind of first sense of dissonance where i'm feeling bad, and then it just gott worse and worse. i would see something like, you know, i remember a famine in somaliaor or when amy winehouse died. like, because i had -- i was becoming part of this community, i started to feel ashamed, right in i couldn't feel shame until i was part of this other community. so anyway, i just wanted to, you know, emphasize that while reason was absolutely important and essential, so was this other piece, you know?
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this is why i think that our tendency as humans often is to see people in groups hike this and think, oh, these people are irredeemablyma evil, we need to isolate them. if we want them to change, if we don't want that kind of hatefulness being, you know, you don't want them -- other people to join them the, right? having thehe language as much as webbing for whatever individual -- we can for whatever individuals have the timeme and patience and feel sae enough to engage with people like that, the more likely we are to change hearts and minds. and i just want to point out some people look at my experience and think this is, like, singular or unique somehow. and it may be in some particular, you know, like the fact that westboro's -- the specific things they do are kind ofhi far, far outside the norm,i don't think that my reaction was anything other than completely human.
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and there are many other examples. so, for instance, derek black, you know, former white nationalist who david duke as his grandfather, he left the movement after engaging with jewish people. and others, not just jewish people. and daryl davis, this black jazz musician who has convinced some 200 members of the kk can k to abandon -- kkk to abandon the movement. there's a lot of people, there's a lot of examples of these strategies being powerful and the community aspect of it may be personal where you have this person demonized in your mind showing you that they are not who you've been taught they are. that's extremely powerful and heads to this kind of cognitive dissonance that hopefully, eventually in a lot of cases, actually does cause people to change their views. that was a long answer. >> hi. so you said you keep, you kept people at a far distance when you were on twitter. when you first got into twitter
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and you were responding to all these differentnt things, did yu have guidelines or did you have free will with what you were allowed to do? was there someone over your shoulder doing this? did, you know, when you were discussing what was being said, what was that interaction within your family, within the guidelines that they had and you were kind of given this free will to figure out what was going on? >> right. yeah. so like i said, i got on twitter in 2009. i was 23 at the time, and i still -- i had to live at home and i did. my bed was 5 feet away from my mother's. she was the de facto spokesperson at the time and had been for many years. i got on twitter after i read an article about it on cnn. i was the only member on twitter for -- i can't remember, maybe a year, year and a half, something like that. and so i always, at first, i always would run my, you know,
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posts by my mother before i posted them initially. and then as time went on and i became, like, more p and more kd of -- you know, i saw twitter as a way of communicating with people in a way that didn't require the distorting whims of aop journalist, right? i always felt like i'd talk the these journalists and try to explain our positions, and then i'd read the article and think that's not that i said. i'd get very frustrated. which sounds very trumpian, actually. [laughter] so i, yeah. so i loved that aspect, that i could reach out to people directly. and it kind of became this thing that i would do all the time. i'd be cooking dinner and have my iphone in hand. i'd be standing out on the picket line with two hands -- two signs in my hand and my phone in another. because i had grown up on the picket line and, you know, a family of lawyers taught me all these arguments that i had been
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memorizing andug discussing, you know, from the time i was tiny, there was always an answer. and if somebody asked asked me a questionme and i didn't quite kw how to respond, i could go to the older people, and they would give me the answer. chapter and verse from the bible to explain the position. again, this is why i felt very safe, right? because we had all the answers. this is the truth of god. this is unquestionable. and i a had never, ever had the feeling of being bested, right? so thisad is why when i came to this point and having these conversations with the very first case came from this jewish man named david who ran a blog -- who ran a blog. he's asking me questions, this is about a year into these conversations. like, i had started out attacking him, and he responded really negatively at first, and then he started asking questions, and i started asking questions in response not -- purpose was to better counter
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his arguments. and so in midst of these -- getg into the extreme knew watcheses of westboro's theology, he finds this internal inconsistency, and i literally was flare fasted. i had -- nabber fasted. i had at that point 20 years almost of always having an answer. and then i, you know, go to my mother and a couple other older people in theture catch start to approach this question, and they can -- in hindsight, you can see the cognitive dissonance on their faces. they are reiterate the verses that justify their position, but they are not identifying the contradiction. it was this total mind-blowing thing. lost my train of thought there. where was i -- oh, yeah. on twitter. of caseally, i would have people, i had an aunt come up to me, she pulled out her phone, she scrolls through my tweets x
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there's ten in a row to the same person, and she basically insinuated there's something wrong with that. and i basically said that's all one response. because there's no, like -- it was about predestination, so i had to explain, and it was a long explanation. and the twitter handle's long, so there wasn't that many spaces left. i had to defend it occasionally. but for the most part, after a while i was just trusted, and like i said, i felt safe doing it. and i think since i left i've heard that things are a little more tightened up in that way. so, which is understandable. >>mo hearing about your grandfather was,ay and his >>anti-racism work was very fascinating. can you tell us any more about him and just him, i guess? >> so i do write a lot about that in the book. it kind of goes into a lot of detail, so he moved to toe pee e ca, kansas, the same month or
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day as the brown v. board of education case. and he took that as a, like, sign from god that he should go, go to law school and, you know, defend the rights of black people. and for him, you know, some people look at that work that he did and compare it later to the work he did against lgbt people and their rights, and for him, you know, there was no tension between those two. even though it seemed like that from the outside. and it's because he saw both of those positions as being scripturally derived. so the importance h of equality under the law in the bible, one law shall be to him that is home-born and to the stranger that so journals among you. because god has made of one blood all nations of man to dwell on the everett. there was no god never said it was an abomination to be back or old or female like these protected classes that we have in these anti-discrimination laws.
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but he would say that being gay, like homosexuality is defined by conduct and not neutral conduct, abominable conduct, ungodly conduct. and so, yeah. for him it was just this is what the bible says, and therefore, it wasn't the principle of the thing so much as this is what, what we find in the bible. and, therefore, this is the standard of god, and it's unquestionable. >> but that was the reason he went to law school. >> right, yeah. >> wow. >>on yeah. he actually had gone to, even before that he had gone to a school, bob jones university, and he left because they excluded black people. so he never, he didn't actually graduate from there. he left -- and this is all kind of amazing since he grew up in the deep south. like, this was his -- my mom would say that this was, you know, god had shown him this, the mercy of god that he had seen what was wrong and didn't just go along with it.
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>> yeah, i've got a question. i kind of glanced at your wikipedia bio before the, before i came here. i didn't read it deeply, but i think it said you went to washburn university? was that before or after, and if it was before, how were you able to avoid all the students and other people, you know, being in the academic life of that sort of influence on you prior to that? unless it was online, of course. [laughter] >> yeah. so washburn was actually before twitter, and it was definitely not>> a place that a westboro member would look for or find intellectualing freedom. and it's because it's a mile and a half from our house, from my house, and if we protested there every week from the time, you know, when the protesting started. we spent as little time there as possible, and, you know, i talk about the fact that we went to public school also before that.
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and, you know, so people wonder, like, how could you be exposed? we read secular books, we listened to secular music. there was very little -- very few restrictions on what we were allowed to consume. >> you must have been home schooled, that's why -- >> yeah. i should probably back up a little. but so, you know, for us, so how did those things not influence you. and the best analogy that i've come up with is that, you know, before you're i ever exposed to any of these ungodly, you know, ideas or, you know, portrayals, you know, like, you understand, you are taught in detail, like, why all of those things are wrong. and it's like being inoculated against those ideas. again, before you're ever exposed to them, you memorize the chapters and the verse that explain why all those things are wrong.
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so when you see them, you don't see it as something to emulate, you see it as -- you kind of shrug it off like whore, hrcriminal, adulterer. it's not something you're ever swayed by. in college if there was ever -- if evolution came up or something, we obviously didn't believe in that, but we just learned to parrot the answers that they wanted, and we thought that way. we're justvo telling you what yu want to hear, and we can do that, that's fine, but we don't have to believe it. so that's kind of how that went. >> i heard you speak on wrt radio yesterday, and you got on the subject of how this country is very polarized politically. >> right. >> and i think we all probably have relatives or friends who are on another, the other side of a gulf, and we can't
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communicate. and i think you went over four or five steps where it's possible to get over the gulf. >> right. so that is the ted talk that i mentioned. it was this, the distillation of what those people on twitter did for me and that i think, you know, those steps have a lot of power in bridging divides. so i'm literally just prpg dealing the best ideas. but the four points were to, one, not assume bad intent because, you know, when you're talking to somebody if you assume that they are just evil or stupid or delusional, you tend to stop actually listening to them. you're not actually hearing where they're coming from. and if you don't actually know what they believe, it's going to be very difficult for you to actually find a way to reach them. ich just said actually way too many times. [laughter] the second point was to ask questions because, again, you want to understand where they're actually coming from. actually again.
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[laughter] where they're truly coming from. and, you know, asking questions is a way of signaling to this other person that they are being heard. and that tends to make people more open and more curious to ask you questions in return, and it's like you're giving them permission. that's exactly how i experienced it with those people on twitter. and is so the third point is to stay calm, which is really difficult when you're talking about these really intense, you know, ideas that you both feel very strongly about. and it can feel like an attack when minute questions a deeply held -- when somebody questions a deeply held value you have. so it can be very difficult. this is one of the ways i think that online communication or written communication can be really powerful, because you, you know, you have a moment. you can take time and step back, like you're not right in physical space with somebody where you feel like you have to respond immediately. you can stop and consider exactly what words you're going
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to choose to up communicate your -- to communicate your ideas, and you can decide not to, like, respond instinctively. which, again, can be really difficult when you're irl with people. and the fourth step was to make your argument which may seem obvious, but it'sp one of those things that can also be difficult to do. t if you believe something really strongly and you think that the logic behind it, the reasoning behind it should be obvious to any well-intentioned person, any decent person would have already come to theso same conclusion yu have. sometimes we forget to actually argue for the idea itself and to defend it, to articulate those defenses. so those are the four that i mention in the talk x. the fifth one that i would have included if i had time, i used all the way down to the very last of the 15 minutes they gave me, the fifth point would have been to be patient because people don't change in an instant. maybe eventually it's an
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instant, but it takes time for the process, especially, again, when it's a deeply held belief, people generally don't hear -- like, forr instance, when i head that first contradiction, i still, like, the words that i said to the person in that moment were manager like you want -- were something like you want me to say that that activity that god calls abominable is okay, and i won't do it. i wasn't interested in the contradiction. i didn't even acknowledge to him i'd seen the contradiction. this was something that kind of, you know, it just got inside of me, and it's only in hindsight that i see how immediately following that conversation things started to change for me. i started being willing to challenge things that i was being taught by they woulders in the church -- by the elders in the church in a way i never had before all because of that little bit of doubt. so it takes time for that to
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unravel. so that's the fifth point, be patient. >> hi. i have two completely unrelated questions. so one, i was raised roman catholic and lost faith because of the contradictions, so if you're willing to share, be more specific about what the contradiction is -- >> sure. >> if you could talk in a little bit more specifics. >> sure. >> and second question, what was your first night like when you left? you know, did you sleep? >> right. [laughter] yeah. so the first point, yes. so the contradiction, the specific one was he was asking me ant one of our picket -- about one of our picket signs that called for the death penalty for gay people. and, you know, i said westboro's lines which are that's the punishment called for in the book of leviticus, and if that punishment is good enough for god, it's good enough for us. that making homosexuality a
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capital crime the only way for this nation to show that they have truly repented of this grievous sin. so this is what i say to david. and, you know, he says -- he quoted jesus, he said didn't jesus say that he was above sin, cast the first stone? and our response to that had a always been we're not casting stones, we're preaching words with. we're just standing on a public sidewalk preaching. and he points out the obvious which is you're calling for the government to cast stones, so what does that verse mean. and that kind of set me back on my heels for a minute. and then he went on. he said,and also what about your mom in i was like, what about your mom? he said, well, didn't she have a child out of wedlock? and isn't that another sin that deserves thet death poem -- penalty? and i had never -- our response to that, anytime anybody brought up that we'd say the standard of god is not sinlessness, it's repentance. so she's okay and doesn't
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deserve these punishments because she repented, and she acknowledges it was wrong. then, of course, david pointed out if she had been killed, then my family wouldn't exist, she wouldn't have had the opportunity to repent if be forgiven. so theexwo realization like, ohy god, like, how -- the arguments we had in response to the two points he made had always seemed -- they were specious. they seemed to sound right, but the inherent contradiction was there thehe whole time, and i'd missed it. how could i have missed it? that was one of them. eventually, one of the ones that i saw that really blew my mind was i mentioned that westboro sees their protesting as the embodiment of compassion and the definition of what it means to love thy neighbor. rebuking them when you see them sinning. you're offering them them only hope to turn around and to avoid certain destruction. and so we claimed to love our neighboruc and then on the other
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side, you know, there came a point in our ministry where we started praying for people to die, for god to curse people. and that also was a scripturally derived position. it came from, for instance, david who god called a man after mine own heart, prayed for his enemy's children to be fatherless and for their wives to be widows. he was currently calling for the ildeath and curses of god. so we saw this as an example for us not realizing, of course, this is a direct contradiction to ideas in the new testament where jesus say love your enemies, pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, and then, you know, the apostle paul who says bless them who persecute you, bless and curse not. so you're specifically enjoined not to curse. and when i came toto the realization, like, i just felt literally like i was deranged. like, how could i have so strongly and passionately
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believed both of these things at the same time? and, you know, in hindsight, i've learned a lot about psychology since i left. it's just the way our brains compartmentalize information. two beliefs, they're both in the bible, the bible's truee and impossible to be wrong and so, therefore, never the two shall meet. so anyway, it was unreal. was there another question? oh, yeah. what happened when we left. that firstea night was really awful. we actually, my sister and i stayed in the home of my wonderful friend, keith newberry, who was my -- both of our high school english teacher who was really wonderful. him and his wife and their kids. they let us stay in their basement that first night. and also he would hurt me if i didn't tell you to follow him on twitter, the his teacher quotes. [laughter] but he, so he stayed up with us for a couple of hours. i thought when we got to his
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house, he would basically leave us to our despair, and instead he stayed up with us for a couple hours way into the night, and that was so important, you know, to be able to finally out loud mourn our family and what was happening and, like, the fact of what our whole lives had been and trying to figure out which way is up. he was absolutely wonderful. so, yeah. >> hi. thank you so much for your talk. it's been really inspiring and interesting to hear. my question is what are some things that s the you have doneo make amends with the community that you hurt in the past such as the lgbt community and such? is. >> thank you. so there's, of course, financiallyy contributing to different groups, that feels important. i've spent lot of time around people in these community communities volunteering. i went to montreal for a month. that was the 12th month after i
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left the church i spent with a secular jewish family in montrealpe volunteering there. i've always spent a lot of time with law enforcement and trying to find ways of using these experiences to help people who are, officers who are working on issues like hate crimes and de-radicalization and counterterrorism. things like that. so basically any opportunity that i have to help people that we -- eventually, i was talking to my husband about this, we really want to start a a nonprofit at some point, and he suggested that we call it the westboro foundation. [laughter] and i really love that idea because i want to, like, part of this reason that i kept my name too is to change the legacy of that name. and i would love for people to, when they hear westboro, to not think of protesting funerals or
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celebrating tragedy, but of people who will be there to help people when they suffer. i thought that was a wonderful plan on his part. >> i have two questions as well, somewhatat unrelated. first is where do you get your strongest sense of family nowadays? and the second is just asking for advice for, that you can impart onng us from your experience, especially when engaging with people with whom we strongly disagree at a time when it feels like the politics stresses us out, life stresses us out and we just lose the energy reserve to engage on these important topics. what would i you say to us in terms of self-care and engaging in a healthy way? >> the first -- will you remind -- i already lost it thinking about the second one >> you get your strongest sense of family. >> i married one of the people that i met from twitter. [laughter] that's a whole part of the story. and so we have a 1-year-old daughter now. she just turned 1 a couple weeks
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ago. actually, she just took her first steps right back there. [laughter] [applause] so wonderful. my husband's family is incredible. so is he has a brother and, you know, sister-in-law and they have three children, and then his parents also live -- we live in south dakota. his parents live nearby, and they are just -- it amazes me that i met my husband on twitter, and i just feel like we fit so perfectly together, and it's wonderful. fact that i love his family so much and that it just happens that both of his parents worked in mental health -- [laughter] that was just, like -- [laughter] just is a really wonderful, wonderful gift. but they are incredibly supportive. and, you know, having my daughter, obviously, is something that it has made me -- i think about my mom all the time. i thought about her allme the te before but now even more intense. so, you know, not having her around to talk to about
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everything and share things with, like having my husband's mom be so wonderfully supportive and such a, just a warm and wonderful person, like, i'm just super grateful for that. and now i've forgotten your second s question. oh, yes, getting the strength to, like, be able to engage when you're tiered. so i would say, like, not even i can do it every time, right? when you end counter someone -- encounter someone, sometimes it's not in you to have the argument at that point or to be able to reach out. i still reach out to my family, and and i do it anytime i feel moved to. it's pretty regularly. but there are moments when i feel like i want to, and i just can't. it's too painful, you know? this is one of those things it's not like you just leave and then things get better. it's like this is a continual thing, right? the rejection is, it's constant. it's active, right in and so sometimes it's just too painful. and so not even i can do out all
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the time. but it's just that being aware that it's an option, right, i think is important. because i think it seems like there is such a sense of hopelessness now, like there's just no point in even trying. and i think just even moving away from that in small ways, a little bit at a time. and, again, the four steps that i mentioned, those are absolutely skills, right? they're things that take time to develop and to, you know, to implement in your own life. it takes time and it takes effort.. and soes in whatever ways that u can, yound know, don't assume tt any, like, the small things are not worth doing because, you know, again, it's not like those people on twitter, it wasn't that i was talking to all of them everye day, right? it was just little things along the way, right in the fact that there were multiple -- obviously, i think that helped too. but ultimately, it was just a few people over time willing to
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engage. and so just to be willing to see every, all these things as opportunities and not, don't feel like it's an obligation to do it every single time. because you will very quickly get overwhelmed and just say i can't doo this, i'm done. >> [inaudible] neutral or are you addressing a specific argument or -- >> yeah. so when i'm addressing my family, sometimes it's just to tell them things that are happening in my life. more often it is making some kind of argument. like it depends, right? so for a while it was about that specific contradiction about praying for bad things to happen to people. that's actually one of the things that has changed since i left. you know, initially when i first made the argument and brought up thosefo passages from the new testamenti and said -- i made e
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other analogy to say, like, for instance, you know, david had multiple wives. we don't take that as an example and with why? because it con the that districts what jesus and paul said -- contradicts what jesus and paul said about marriage. why would we say that when we have specific commands from the new testament not to do that? initially, they just doubled down, right? and then about, i think it was about eight months after that my dad gave a sermon about that passage, love your enemies. and i don't think a i ever heara sermon about that verse in my entire life at westboro before then. and shortly after that they stopped, you know, every week there was this flier that would go out on fridays that would let's all of the soldiers that had died, and if it had been 15, it would say thank god for 15 dead soldiers. we pray for 15,000 more.
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that line disappeared from the notices. i know they can be reached, and i know there are absolutely still arguments to be made each from their own perspective that would help them continue to moderate and step back from some of those more extreme ideas. so, yeah. anytime i see that, anytime i see an opportunity, i have an aunt who tweets. so, again, they've kind of stepped away from the praying for bad things to happen to people, and they say they don't celebrate the bad things that happen to people, but then i have an aunt who will tweet, she will dot a retweet with some bad thing that's happened and her only comment op the tweet says "ha." you know what i mean? seeing those kinds of things, you can see the old spirit's still this and just reminding them that's not t right, that's not biblical, that's not scrip chub. -- scriptural. i still keep an eye on their twitter feeds especially and see what things can i say to help them change for the better.
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> hi. i wonder if you've heard the book "escaping the rabbit hole," it's written by a person who a reasonable amount of money in the internet business and decided he could retire early and spend most of his time debunking things like chem trails and various conspiracy theories, alien abduction, so on. the conclusion of his book, which verye much parallels you, is be nice to people, ask questions, be patient. have you ever encountered that book? i think you guys would have a lot in common if you got together. ..
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i think we're done. thank you. [applause] >> you're watching book tv on c-span2, for complete list, look at book book
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