Monday, 14 April 2014

On Nate Phelps and "Leaving Hate Behind"

[The purpose of this post is mainly catharsis on my part, and I'm writing it in the full knowledge that describing my emotional reactions to some else's suffering is a self-indulgent frippery.]

As the final item on the schedule of this year's QED convention, Nate Phelps spoke about his childhood in the Westboro Baptist Church, and the series of "aha moments" he has experienced both while living under his father's rules, and since leaving home. It is an intensely moving story, told with great humanity and not without humour; his family are the butt of many scornful jokes, but his explanation of the often ridiculous inconsistencies in their interpretation of the bible are entirely without hate or derision.

I listened, unable to cry but full of tears and saturated with anger, sadness and impotence. It took every effort not to shout "Stop!" not at the speaker but at the past. All that mattered for much of that hour was pausing the story, removing the characters from this setting which was so desperately wrong, and setting the plot on a different course. And there was fear too - a plummeting sense of futility - once I realised when I'd last experienced the same feelings.

For several months last spring and summer, I did an internship at the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. There is an exhibition there and a memorial garden, but its main work is as a venue for survivors of the Holocaust to talk to school groups about their experiences. While there, I sat in on two of these talks, neither of which will ever quite leave me.

There is a sad and inevitable shift in Holocaust education and remembrance approaching as the number of living survivors decreases. It was pointed out by (I think) both speakers that the children present were realistically the last generation who would be able to listen to a Holocaust survivor in person. There is a great deal of work being done to record survivor testimony in order to give as close an approximation of this experience as possible to future generations, and this work is very important. However, no digital recreation could ever have the same emotional effect as being in a room with someone who is reliving, for you, the darkest episodes of their life.

My feeling on finishing the internship was gratitude that I had been given this opportunity, but also a sense that I could put a lid on those paralysing feelings. I assumed that unless I deliberately looked for an emotional response from myself, humanity's darkest episode* could become an increasingly distant (but nevertheless essential) object of study.

Nate Phelps has proven me wrong. Through his calm, measured explanation of his experiences, told with gut-wrenching self-control, he drew for his audience a picture, the essence of which was the same as that of the survivors' stories. They are stories of children forced to adapt to a situation in which family and community life was disrupted and destroyed by incomprehensible forces of hatred and blind, uncompromising conviction. They are also stories of survival, which show the deep scars which inhumanity leaves on those it doesn't kill, but also show what "leaving hatred behind" actually involves.

The fear I felt today was caused by realising that the "event" I dread the repetition of is not one massive occurrence which exists only in the past. I realised that there will always be an inexhaustible supply of "survivors"; incredible people who will retell and so relive everything that they want to forget, because we need to understand that their humanity was not stamped out. Every day, whether by individuals, groups, or whole nations, future survivors are being created through hatred, misplaced faith, indifference and inaction. The crimes and tragedies which create them will look very different, the scale will vary enormously, and comparisons will often seem sensationalist and distasteful, but the basic units will be the same; individual lives marked by violence, fear and a complete loss of self, where there should have been love, trust and hope.

I've thanked all three speakers for speaking, but couldn't explain that I was thanking them for making me feel this anger, sadness, impotence and fear. I couldn't possibly explain to someone's face how grateful I am to them for surviving not once, but every time they tell their story. I couldn't thank them for the way they carry their pain or the way they rebuilt themselves and their lives according to models they were never given but had to find for themselves. It seems such an inadequate, self-serving thing to do to say that they are an inspiration to someone who hasn't suffered at all.

I'm going to push all of this down again tomorrow, and get back to my thesis-writing and strategic cynicism and all the rest of it. But when I start to forget what's really important, I'll be forever grateful to have three borrowed memories to remind me, the newest of which is of a little boy being beaten by his father for refusing to hate enough.

*As many people view it, and it is a perfectly valid description in many ways. It's not the way I'd  describe the Holocaust when speaking as a researcher, but this is my gut reaction.