I went to an interesting event last night at the Lawrence Arts Center in anticipation of the upcoming documentary ‘Not My Father’s Child’. It features the stories of Nate, Mark and Dortha Phelps, their escape from abuse and how they learned to love those whom they were taught to hate. Readers from Kansas are all too familiar with the story of Fred Phelps and his hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church with their awful signs. These three adults all left their family and church many years ago – as many of their nieces and nephews are doing now in droves – and they opened themselves up to a crowd of people to share their perspectives on their upbringing and their infamous (and hated) father. It was both inspiring and heartbreaking.
I wrote an entire book that weaved my family story with that of the Phelps family. We are all children of Topeka and even though our upbringings couldn’t be more different (I mean really), I was drawn to their story. In some crazy way I felt that something about understanding them could help me understand myself better. I ended up cutting all I had written about the Phelps family and Westboro Baptist Church in order to give space to tell my own complicated family story. But my interest in their story remains, and as I was listening last night I became aware of a common thread – shame.
“Shame is a soul-eating emotion,” psychiatrist Carl Jung said. It was only recently that I realized much of my silence over the years has stemmed from its destructive core. But as Brené Brown wrote in her book Rising Strong, “Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.” So maybe I can identify with these Phelps family members because of some kernel of shame we all swallowed through the experiences of our unconventional (although vastly different) families. Maybe I identify with them as I too seek to give language to my story in order to destroy any lingering shame. We are all just people in the end, after all, trying to find our way despite where our circumstances led us. I feel empathy for those still in their family’s church who must feel shame and fear. I feel grateful for the speakers last night for being vulnerable with strangers about what they have gone through. I look forward to seeing the documentary ‘Not My Father’s Child’ and hope that it is widely viewed.
There is a lot to prepare for as my memoir Float On launches on December 1st. Here’s a little video with some details. Love, Molly