Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julie Scheeres

Julie Scheeres had a shitty childhood. Now you might think you've had a shitty childhood and feel you could hold your own in the Shitty Childhood Championships but, unless you have a particularly harrowing story or were her brother David, it is unlikely to be as shitty as Scheeres. She grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household with parents who she paints as unloving and scary. Her father beat her adopted brothers brutally. Her mother had an intercom system set up so she could monitor conversations anywhere in the house.

She also experienced sexual abuse from her older adoptive brother, Jerome, who made her young life a living hell. Meanwhile her brother David suffered racist abuse on an almost daily basis growing up in "Hicksville" as a black adopted member of a white family.

And what did the two of them get for their troubles? They got sent to Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic, where they were subjected to emotional and physical abuse "for their own good".

Sounds like a depressing book right? But instead Scheeres manages to maintain a balanced look back on her youth weaving in humourous episodes and giving full and balanced perspectives on all involved (rather than the deeply bitter perspective one could reasonably accept from someone who has been through what she went through). But above all else the love she had for her brother David shines through and this book is really a story about how they stuck it out together dreaming of a better life.

This is a story of religious excess, abuse, racism and of family. And it is one I'll admit to shedding a tear over in the final pages. Scheeres really doesn't hold back much detail on what happened to her which gives this book the credibility that many memoirs I've read recently desperately lack.

There's more on the abusive atmosphere at Escuela Caribe here.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julie Scheeres

A Thousand Lives. What an absolutely excellent book. Julie Scheeres has a real talent for bringing history to life. Whilst Reiterman's "Raven" (which I read a couple of months ago) gives a detailed history of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple this book gives us an insight into the people of Jonestown and how they fell in love with the Peoples Temple and how it turned out for them on November 18th 1978.

You follow the lives of people like Hyacinth Thrash who was with Jones from his early days in Indiana all the way through to that last evening when she managed to survive the massacre in her cottage. You see how she changes from true believer to disgruntled resident. Unlike other books you get a real sense of the humanity of the Jonestown residents.

Another person who the narrative follows is Edith Roller. An intelligent, middle class former college professor she truly believed in the project. She also kept an incredibly detailed journal describing life in the colony and honestly discussing some of its drawbacks. She died that tragic November evening.

But the true tear-jerker story is that of teenage rebels Tommy Bogue and Brian Davis. They were desperate to escape the Hell that was their life in Jonestown. They were inseparable. Except on the final day when Bogue finally got his wish and fled with his family. Davis, a minor and unable to leave without his family's permission, was murdered that night. You can read Bogue's moving tribute to his friend here.

If you want a blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of Jim Jones, go read "Raven". If you, however, want to really understand (as close as anyone so far removed from the events can anyway) what the people of Jonestown went through and how they were led to the slaughter this is the book for you.

Some may just mock the victims of Jones and put it all down to them being crazy cultists. But they were so much more than that and Scheeres really brings home to you that each one of those people who died were individuals. All undeserving of their fate.

Scheeres ends the book with words that have haunted me for days after finishing it. "They believed in a dream, how terribly they were betrayed."

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ervil LeBaron & The Extremes Of Religious Conviction

I've just finished two books which detail the bloody history of two Mormon sects headed by two very different brothers. The 4 O'Clock Murders gives a very well-written overview of the history of the LeBaron family, their Mormon fundamentalist faith and the events leading up to and following the religious split that would lead to a great deal of misery. Cult Insanity: A Memoir of Polygamy, Prophets, and Blood Atonement by Irene Spencer, a personal memoir of her time as the plural wife of Verlan LeBaron. As a (then) member of the family and someone who was privy to the internal politics of the sects it is an interesting insider account which complements The 4 O'Clock Murders and also contains a few moments of light relief.

The history of the faith journey of the LeBarons is far too convoluted (comprising as it does a few different claims to Mormon prophethood) to go into here. However the short (comparatively) story is that in the 1950s Joel LeBaron founded the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times claiming to be the "One Mighty and Strong" that the founder of the Latter-day Saint movement Joseph Smith had claimed would arrive to put the affairs of the church and the world in order. Many of Joel's brothers, including Verlan and Ervil, quickly accepted his claims. However Ervil hungered for power and eventually split the church. He and his followers, believing Ervil to be the true "One Might and Strong" founded the Church of the Lamb of God.

Ervil couldn't believe that many had failed to accept his claims and had stayed loyal to Joel. Hungry for power and desperate to take over Joel's church Ervil had Joel murdered by his followers. When this act failed to bring many converts (with the Firstborn members being quite understandably rather terrified by the events and scared of Ervil) he ordered an attack on Los Molinos, a Mexican colony of the Firstborn church. Drawing a crowd to fight a fire they had lit, Ervil's followers (hoping to catch Verlan, the new Firstborn leader) opened fire killing 2 and injuring dozens. Growing dissent and "disobedience" within his own church lead Ervil to order the murders of others including his own daughter.

Ervil's downfall came when he planned once more to ensnare Verlan. He decided the only way to draw an understandably paranoid and elusive Verlan into the open was a major funeral he couldn't fail to attend. Rulon Allred, then leader of one of the largest Mormon fundamentalist groups in the USA, was the target. Two women, one Ervil's plural wife Rena, murdered Allred at his place of work but a large police presence at his funeral meant the attempt on Verlan's life was aborted. Rena was acquited of the crime but later admitted it in an autobiography.

Ervil, however, finally faced justice for orchestrating the murder of Rulon Allred and died in prison in 1981. Unfortunately that was not the end of the horrors. Ervil left a list of people (mainly followers who abandoned his church in the aftermath of Allred murder trial) who he wanted "blood atoned" (murdered). And he also left over 50 children among whom a number were willing to carry out his orders. Many have died since (including 4 people all at once in the "4 O'Clock Murders) and some of his children and followers remain on the loose even today.

What on Earth possessed ordinary Americans and Mexicans to turn into cold-blooded killers? A mixture of unquestioning faith and tribalism allowed them to follow the orders of a crazy man preaching discarded Mormon principles. Both books give different insights into what drove Ervil (power, money and attention mainly) and how his followers were completely unable to see that (or, in some cases, embraced it). The events are a warning of where extreme belief can lead us.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Anti-#EqualMarriage Minister Gets Stonewall Staffer As Special Advisor

Imagine... A Stonewall head of education working for an anti-marriage equality Tory Minister.Who'd of thought it? Everyone? Oh.

But Jae, I hear you say. The debate is over. We've got equal marriage. Let's move on and work together. It is about helping end bullying (well if its homophobic anyway, otherwise the kids are on their own). Blah blah blah. Won't somebody think of the children? Etc.

Well it isn't over. And it isn't right. We still have plenty of work to go before we achieve actual marriage equality. And the idea that Luke Tryl, who probably had a fair bit of input into this piece of sex-shaming, will somehow make Morgan's positions more acceptable is laughable.

I'm no radical queer here. You guys often tell me off for holding things politicians did 30 years ago against them today (because being anti-LGBT youth turns out to have an "unacceptability" expiry date). But this is something she did last year! We haven't even got marriage equality yet, and instead of opposing such an incredibly awful choice for equality minister people at the very top of the "leading" LGB charity in this country are choosing to help her (though I hasten to add Tryl has left his position at Stonewall to go and aid Morgan).

Does nobody else find this infuriating? Am I the only person just aghast at this whole rubbish chain of events? I don't really agree with much of what Peter Tatchell believes but I'm thinking I need to increase my £5.00 monthly donation to him just to bring back some balance.

"Them: Adventures with Extremists" by Jon Ronson

A bit of an oldie now but, given the increasing rise in profiles of extremists of all ilks, "Them" provides a really interesting insight into the odd mentality of holders of some of the weirder political outlooks in the Western world.

From Omar Bakri to Alex Jones we see the odd dissonance (something I see in most "believers") between living ordinary lives with ordinary problems whilst holding onto beliefs that seem to oppose the very concept of living ordinary lives. If I truly believed in the New World Order I'd either try and keep my head down or give up my ordinary life and become a die-hard opponent. This "Having our cake and eating it" malarkey seems to fly in the face of their own beliefs, with their ability to live a normal life seemingly unimpeded by the evil NWO.

You also get to see a human side to these people that helps you remember that they aren't madmen or geniuses but just flawed people like the rest of us. They live "exciting" lives full of paranoia and faux intrigue, playing out fantasies like tricked out role players.

Oddly, given my line of work is fairly mundane, I speak to similarly paranoid people all the time. I spend a lot of time trying to convince them I'm not out to get them before they'll finally let me help them. And I regularly encounter people with extremely odd beliefs regarding conspiracies, aliens etc. I've come to believe these "extremists" are little more than just the tip of a large iceberg. Humans, in general, easily and readily give themselves over to crazy beliefs, easy (if elaborate) explanations for what are really rather mundane events and to a blinkered worldview that defends their viewpoints regardless of any counter evidence.

Skepticism has a long way to go in changing human behaviours for the better.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Straight Men Are Not Our Enemy

Maybe it is a hold over from bullying at school, or maybe it is just some sort of collective myth, but some gay men seem to have a rather disturbing fear of straight guys.

Straight men, especially white ones, are the current Big Bad for every "progressive" (self-described, I'd call them backward and divisive shadows of true progressive and inclusive movements). But this focus on smearing people based on their colour, gender and sexuality just doesn't sit right with me (an evil white man myself, so I suppose it figures). We are meant to be above this sort of thing but, almost at every turn, LGBT people happily try to insult straight men and even use underhand tactics to hurt them.

Take, for example, the recent approval for a "straight" lap dancing club in a "gay" district in Liverpool. Ignoring the fact that bisexuals are a part of LGBT politics, LGBT "leaders" opposed this new business based on fears it might bring an increase in homophobic violence. Why? Because straight men would be about. Some, in comments I've seen, have also used feminist arguments to oppose this "degrading" enterprise.

This is little different to the opposition to gay bars, clubs and other facilities which focus on all sorts of scare stories involving children, drugs and crime. It is little different to those who think gay bars are a "wretched hive of scum and villainy". At a time when a new rave of anti-sex puritans from both the left and right are fighting to undermine freedoms fought for by LGBT people for the last few decades, some LGBT folk seem unwilling to spot the connections between heterosexual sexual freedom and our own. LGBT "leaders" should be providing a refuge for those businesses ostracised elsewhere not joining in with the Christians and feminists.

And then we have this odd obsession with opposing anyone, regardless of whether they are truly nasty or just a bit eccentric, who even discusses a "straight pride" event. As if a straight pride event must automatically be oppositional to gay pride.  See this recent story. An all age event where everyone is welcome? Sounds just awful. Perhaps it'd be more acceptable to the LGBT glitterati if it had corporate sponsorship, some lacklustre and often insultingly awful campaigning organisations marching and some truly directionless political messages? Or should we just leave that to pretty much every gay pride march in the Western Anglosphere? They do seem to have it down to a fine art now.

Straight men aren't our enemy. They are our fathers, brothers, friends and colleagues. They are mostly decent people. We simply must stop tarring them with the same brush (the one we created with our teenage traumas, leftie political leanings and dodgy alliances with people who actually hate us). We need to start dealing individuals and not making wildly outrageous claims about entire groups. You know doing what we've been asking people to do for us for the last 100 years.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People

Tim Reiterman's "Raven" is one of the most compelling and complete histories of a New Religious Movement that I've ever read (up there with Atack's Scientology history "A Piece of Blue Sky"). His book follows Jim Jones' life from his birth to his death and captures the parallel track of the life and death of his Peoples Temple.

This odd man, who seemed to move from sincere Christian belief to atheism and back in his early years, evolved into an atheistic con man who lead over 1000 people on a journey from Pentecostal worship at his faith healing meetings in Indianapolis to communal "socialist" living in Guyana.

He, and his close aides, conspired to deceive his followers, critics and neutral observers at every turn. Fake attempted assassinations, claims of hate crimes, imaginary miracles and over-egged promises of a paradise in Jonestown are just a few of the lies he put out (and it was the fear of those lies being exposed to ultimately lead to the exodus to Jonestown and the ultimate end for over 900 people).

He was a utopian who seemed to believe the ends justified the means. Though it is an age old story, he was just one of many such men who left the 20th century littered with bodies in their wake. He raped women and men, he instigated "catharsis" sessions where members of the Temple were forced to confess to sins and take abuse (sometimes physical) from other members (a similarity with Scientology's Int Base antics) and ran fake suicide drills.

Reiterman had the misfortune to be in Jonestown on its last two days and was among those shot as Congressman Ryan's party tried to shepherd to safety those Temple members who wished to escape the growing madness of Jonestown . His narrative of the end days, however, remains as neutral as possible and with interviews with the handful of survivors and members not in Jonestown that weekend he manages to paint a near complete description of the horror that unfolded as Jones directed his people to die (some of whom did not go willingly).

This is a big book, and it is very thorough going over every detail of the rise and fall of this man and his movement. The people, good and bad, who rose and fell with him get their stories told as fairly as possible. If you want to understand where religious and political ideologies can go wrong and how normal people can be lead to their deaths by a con man, this book gives you plenty to ponder.