My (heretofore unlikely) friend


It started, I think, with a stupid tweet about her last name. I think I asked her why, in an environment where the men always have the upper hand, was her last name hyphenated? Shouldn’t her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, exhibit submission to her husband in all things?

I was tweeting to Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps and the social media “voice” of the Westboro Baptist Church (you know – the “God Hates Fags” folks).

I don’t even know what compelled me to come up with this. I’d been reading her Twitter page for some time and was simultaneously outraged and fascinated. I knew I wasn’t up to the task of arguing scripture with her; I’d watched the WBC in action enough to know that they had biblical justification for EVERYTHING they did, and having not been quite so immersed in bible study as the Phelpses, despite 12+ years of Catholic education (which they would have sneered at anyway, because – sigh – “Catholics aren’t Christians”), I couldn’t whip out chapter-and-verse from memory the way Megan could. This was a girl who had a KJV app on her phone. You simply couldn’t shout “BUT WHAT ABOUT JOHN 3:16?!” at any member of the WBC; they’d know then that you hadn’t read beyond that verse, and were therefore biblically ig’nant (“…he that believeth not is condemned already.”). And on that point, they were pretty much correct. Let me tell you all right now: most people cannot, and should not, go to the mat with the WBC in terms of the bible; it’s like walking into the annual James Joyce Conference having only glanced through the Cliff Notes of Ulysses.

Despite what people believe about the Phelpses (that they’re a group of backwater, inbred imbeciles), the fact is that they are a shrewd, very well educated lot. And despite the persistent rumors that they’re actually running some kind of elaborate scam, making all of their money by suing counter protestors, the adults in the church are gainfully employed (mostly in law or medicine), and are expected to contribute a certain percentage of their income back into the church. It should also go without saying that they’re not a decades-long performance art piece funded by the Democrats in order to make Christians look bad. None of these rumors are true.

Anyway – I’d read her tweets and sputter and fume and try to find SOME way of getting at her. I was not one for ad hominem attacks; as horrifying as I found the WBC, to call them names seemed counter-intuitive, seeing as part of what was so horrible about them was the way they flung the word “fag” around. And at any rate it didn’t seem to matter what anyone said to Megan; her responses were always measured, and bemused. Which of course was even more infuriating. And yet I began to harbor a grudging respect for her. I saw, in the midst of the gay-and-Jew-bashing lunacy she’d been brought up to believe, a lambent intelligence and wittiness in her. I began to think, “She is WAY too smart for this.”

And then I thought: “I really hope she gets out of this.”

I stopped picking fights with her. I was just one of countless people challenging her belief system, or mocking her, or just trying to figure out why her family did these batshit crazy things. And I went on posting bad 80’s videos and coming up with brittle bons mots like I do.

There came a point when I realized I hadn’t heard anything about her in months. Curious, I popped over to her Twitter account. Her profile picture had changed. Where it had been a shot of her sandaled foot coyly stepping on an American flag, now it appeared to be of a fence bedecked with little white lights. Her bio, which had been the usual Sturm und Drang of “USA IS DOOMED BECAUSE FAGS” found on other WBC Twitter pages, read: “You’re just a human being, my dear, sweet child.”


Her tweets were her typical biblically-sound wisecracking up until around November 2012, at which point they stopped altogether until February. That tweet simply said “Hi,” and included a link to a short essay on Medium explaining that, after a period of crippling doubt and tremendous self-reflection, Megan and her younger sister Grace had left Westboro.

I was floored. And almost immediately, I felt compelled to send her a little message of support. I knew that at this point, she’d had no contact with her parents, siblings, and other family members still at Westboro, as it’s understood that if you leave, you are persona non grata (“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”). I couldn’t imagine how isolated and lonely that would make me feel. And I don’t even remember what I said, but she thanked me.

And so began my rebooted online relationship with Megan Phelps-Roper. I didn’t want to come off as a creeper, so I kept it light at first, until I found myself leaping to her defense when others were still railing at her. I’d send them the link to the Medium piece. Some of them would then apologize to her. I reached out to Grace as well. I told them that if they ever found themselves in Boston, they had a friend here. And somehow, they believed me. Which couldn’t have been easy for them, given that they had been raised to believe that the world outside of the WBC was evil, that those not in the church were hated by God and not to be trusted. And here I was, a 40-something former Catholic who was maybe still praying the Rosary now and then (it SOOTHES me, okay?!), who had a “gay boyfriend” and enjoyed all manner of filthy entertainment, saying “Come on over! I’ll bake a pie!”

I mean…

Suddenly, it seemed that Megan and I were actually friends. Like – she has my cellphone #/knows personal bidness about me/drops me a line to check on me if I tweet something depressing. Friends.

I dug through bins in my dark, dank basement looking for a paper I’d written in graduate school about Emily Dickinson’s influence on Marilynne Robinson (a writer we both admire) so I could scan it and email it to her. As I pulled it out and stumbled around my basement yelling “Ah HA!” – triumphant – I had to pause and reflect on how I’d gone to the trouble of doing this for someone who, not just a couple of years ago, had so confounded and enraged me. It’s hilarious. It’s utterly insane. It’s amazing. Friends.

I find myself checking in on her like a meddling auntie – Are you okay? Don’t be sad. Well, BE sad, but be hopeful. When are you coming to visit? – like she doesn’t have people in her own family (those who’ve also left WBC, as well as those on her dad’s side of the family that she’s now connecting with) to do this for her. But I feel compelled nonetheless. I see the things that some people still say to her, and I cringe. She is, of course, an adult, and certainly “used to” the verbal assault by now, but it cannot be easy to see, every day, the anger that still erupts from her past actions in the WBC, almost three years after leaving.

Several weeks ago, I got a message from her saying she was going to be speaking in town, and could we meet up? After a lot of back-and-forth and juggling of calendars and such, we finally were able to meet for dinner (as an added bonus, I also got to meet the very lovely, and very ripped, Lauren Drain). We spent a good few hours laughing. Laughing about some of the more absurd signs the WBC has produced (my personal favorite is “Bitch Burger,” which Lauren and Megan found hilarious). Laughing about not knowing how to pronounce half of the stuff on the menu. Laughing like a group of people who’d found some common ground, and were just genuinely enjoying one another’s company.

But there were some tough moments, too. What strikes me now about my friendship with Megan is how we both came out of dependencies which had us painting ourselves into corners. We both had to come to terms with how something that had provided a means of coping, and a way to define ourselves, had ceased to work. For me, it was alcohol. For Megan, it was the WBC. Not knowing how else to maneuver through our lives without these things, we remained stuck, and fearful. And when something becomes too painful, you have to make a leap of faith that you can move forward, and then make the move.

Of course, my quitting drinking didn’t result in my family never speaking to me again; I don’t want to make light of the very real sacrifices Megan, and the others who have left, have had to make in order to do the right thing. But the other thing we spoke at length about was gratitude. Megan has learned that people outside of the WBC are not evil, that many in fact have been unfailingly kind and generous. And even with the daily pangs of missing her parents and siblings and friends who remain in the church, her life is largely one of enormous opportunity. She travels. She has a boyfriend whom she absolutely adores. She is incandescent with possibility. And she is grateful.

The easiest route to take sometimes is one of outright dismissal. A lesson that my father has repeatedly imparted on me and my siblings is this: “Consider the source.” And I get that the majority of people reading this don’t feel they particularly need to do this when it comes to the Phelpses, the Drains, the Hockenbargers, and the others who make up the WBC’s membership. That’s understandable. The protests, the signs, the indoctrination – these are indescribably awful to those of us who weren’t born into this and can’t for the life of us imagine how it’s in any way good or right. And it isn’t good or right, but yet that’s what they believe. What they’ve been taught from birth to believe. And that’s something I’ve frequently said about the WBC: “They’re not EVIL; they’re FRIGHTENED.” And fear can make one do some pretty – well – batshit crazy things.

Sometimes I send a tweet or two to Shirley, Megan’s mother. I’m always polite, the way one is with a friend’s mom, even though I completely disagree with her church’s doctrine. I know that someone who’s raised a person as frigging delightful as Megan simply cannot be a terrible person. I’d like to think that someday I’ll get to meet Shirley, too. In an interesting moment at dinner, Lauren looked at me, then looked at Megan, and said, “Your mom would TOTALLY get along with Lisa.” I didn’t find that insulting in the least. And if I do get to meet her, I would tell her that as far as Proverbs 22:6 goes (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”), here – in Megan – is no failure.




When I was around 12, I began to betray myself.

A bit about me (if you’re new around these parts and haven’t heard this before):  I was bullied.  By girls.  Girls who really went to impressive, creative lengths to let me know just how much I would never, ever fit in with them.

For a while, I was able to let it roll off.  They were not, by and large, girls that I related to, and so I didn’t particularly care that they didn’t like me.

But you can only be pelted with acidic disapproval for so long before your sense of self, your comfort within yourself, erodes and you are left completely unprotected.  I kept my head down, and hoped that it would stop, but it didn’t, and so in the middle of 7th grade, I switched schools.

I went from a private school where I’d been with the same couple of dozen kids from kindergarten on, to a public junior high school with complete strangers.  Here, at last, was a chance at reinvention.

So I started collecting stickers.

Understand that prior to this, I collected stamps.  I was all about the VALUE of a thing as it aged.  I was deeply interested in anything old, and in anything recent that had the potential of becoming old, and thus, valuable.  Stickers did not compute.  And yet I observed the girls in my neighborhood furiously stockpiling scratch-n-sniff, Mouthless Kitty™, and the deeply-coveted “puffy” stickers, as though their very lives depended on it.  And I remembered an afternoon where I actually lectured one or two of them about the OBVIOUS superiority of postage stamps, which weren’t at all “cute” and didn’t have googly-eyes.

It occurred to me, then, that in order to have, and keep, any friends that I could make in this new environment, I would have to fake things about myself.  And so I obtained a spiral-bound photo album, and began dutifully filling it with stickers.

I found that sticking, if you will, to this relatively simple process of obtaining things, and then trading them for “cuter” things, enabled me to interact with other girls without revealing my “real” personality.  I was starved for companionship, and willing to settle for the superficial as I navigated this new environment.  Understand, at this point, that I had more or less been mentally and emotionally beaten down into believing that my true self was not anything to be proud of or sought after.  And so I sold out my stamp collecting soul in favor of stickers that smelled like watermelon. 

And that’s exhausting – the act of suppressing your own needs in favor of being thought of, as evidenced by the signatures on my 8th grade yearbook, “a really good kid.”  Don’t make waves.  Don’t wear the wrong sweater.  Carry the little Jordache purse with the right lipgloss and pretendpretendpretend.  This went on for a good couple of years, until 10th grade, when I gave myself over to Thespis, joined the Drama Club, and finally felt safe again.

This is all just a roundabout way of explaining that women are terrifying to me, even now.  I never cease to be amazed at how ruthlessly efficient we can be at tearing one another down.  This week’s Internet Kerfuffle™ — Sinead writing to Miley, Miley snarking at Sinead, Amanda writing to Sinead about writing to Miley, and the accompanying maelstrom of slut-shaming and mental-illness-bashing that pierces a place in my heart where I am trying to keep that 12-year-old me safe. 

The internet is, quite often, just no place for me to be.  So I carve out my little corner and stay here with my stamp collection and hope that the girls here will be kind.

The road so far…


Somebody found me interesting enough to interview for a web radio show today. Actually, that person is my friend Lawrence, who also happens to be a close personal friend of Goth Robot.

At any rate, you can listen to it here.

I found myself in the unique position of reliving the past 20 years in about 20 minutes, as I went over the various projects I’d been involved in since 1992, when I came back to Boston to go to graduate school. And I realized that as I was recounting all of these projects and all of these experiences, mine has been a pretty interesting “adulthood,” as far as those go, despite the many years I spent avoiding responsibility and being a raging alcoholic.

I didn’t go into that. It didn’t even occur to me, really. As I talked, I found myself flashing back to so many different clubs, so many different stages (physical and otherwise). At one point Lawrence asked me, “How did you find yourself involved in all of that?” And I’m paraphrasing myself here, but basically I said that I’ve encountered people along my path who I just figured I’d tag along with for a while…to see where they took me. For the most part, that’s worked out in my favor.

Since I was a kid, I have been able to recognize the other members of my “tribe,” so to speak. I’ve just known, instinctively, that certain people are going to go along with me for as long as the road stretches. Everybody has these people. If you’re lucky, you meet them really early on. They see you at your absolute worst and most awkward, and they love you, anyway.

I am where I am because I’ve made decisions and landed in the right bars and had my heart broken by exactly the people who were supposed to break it. And so I’ve played heroin-addicted housewives and played drums on songs about giant space pussies and read Ally Sheedy’s poetry aloud wearing nothing but my underthings and shared my high school diaries with total strangers all because of being in the right place at the right time. And that all led to puttin’ on a play about UFOs and boys and the Virgin Mary, and having Goth Robot turn up in the audience one night. And Goth Robot introduced me to Lawrence, who as it turns out knows my brother. Crazy. Awesome.

And then I also get to do this a lot, because of that whole “recognize your fellow wayfarers” thing:

Think I’ll keep trudging that road to happy destiny and see who else shows up along the way.

On Friendship and Forgetting


There were two articles in the Boston Globe this morning that I read with interest. One was about the changing definition of “friendship” in the world of social networking. The other was about the ongoing Phoebe Prince case.

For the most part, I benefit from social networking, as much as I tend to grumble about it. There have been many people from my past that have reached out, and I have been more than happy to hear from them. I accept their offer of virtual “friendship” in most cases. But how many people on this list of “friends” really fit the pre-Facebook definition? How many of them could I call when I’m feeling down? How many of them are on my Christmas card list? How many of them know anything about me other than what I vomit up onto my wall?

Lately, I’ve been turning down requests. If someone can’t be bothered to include a few words about how he or she knows me, then I’m simply not inclined to accept the offer. My own list of “friends” numbers close to 600. Sometimes, I have to go through the list to see if I actually KNOW most of these people. Because of my Irish Catholic heritage, a good deal of them are related to me. Others I know from having played in a band for several years. And many more are people with whom I went to school: grad school, college, high school. Finally, there is a small handful of people from my elementary school.

I am very, very guarded when it comes to encountering people from that particular time of my life. I’ve certainly made it no secret here that I was bullied, pretty relentlessly, during the last two years of my time at that school. I have spent years hashing this over, wondering what I did to deserve it. I was a wise-ass and a loudmouth. I made my feelings known. Only fairly recently have I been able to really say: “No. No one deserves that. I did not deserve that.”

I was bullied because I was weird, fat, not rich. The barrage of mental and verbal cruelty did not cease outside of the school, either. I was prank-called at home, on weekends. When I transferred to another school, there were girls waiting to pick up where the others had left off, having been appraised of the situation (which was that I was a loser and deserving of absolutely no peace). The turmoil died down once I got into high school, at which point I’d found an outlet for my pain, and the friends who’ve remained my friends to this day.

Phoebe Prince didn’t have the chance that I got. Seeing no end to it, she did the only thing she believed would take away that pain. In today’s article, two of her accused tormenters faced Mrs. Prince and heard, from her own mouth, what it was like to hold her daughter’s cold body. They were put on probation, required to perform community service. But more importantly, they were shown that actions have consequences. They will always remember having to stand trial. They will not forget what happened.

While I struggle with the idea of legislating classroom behavior, the fact that these kids will not escape the memory of this ugliness, and what that ugliness wrought, is a good thing. Because I have certainly found that people – by and large – don’t remember having been truly, genuinely ugly to others. And you know what? I get it. The years go by, you put away “childish things,” you get married and divorced, you raise children of your own, you rotate through a series of jobs and offices. How can you be expected to remember what you did when you were 12?

The burden, the ramifications, of that behavior almost always is carried by the recipient.

Several months ago, I got a Facebook “friend” request from someone from that school. And she DID introduce herself, she did remind me how I knew her. And she excitedly informed me that there were many others from that school with Facebook profiles. She told me that I should definitely add them all. She didn’t mention that she had called me fat, that she had asked me – in front of everyone – when my pregnancy was going to come to term. Because I’m sure she didn’t remember this. She didn’t remember that I left that school in the middle of seventh grade. She didn’t remember harrassing my younger sister – still a student there – demanding the details of why I had left.

I declined her offer. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman. Pillar of her community and all that. I am, despite what you may be reading into all of this, at peace with what happened. I have, to the best of my ability, “gotten over it.” I try to be aware of the marks that bullying has made on me. With the help of others, I have come to understand my “role” in it. I have become aware that my responses to the world around me have been informed by my past experiences. I have learned much about my reactions to people and situations, and I have come to understand that when these reactions are inappropriate, I need to apologize for them. And to some extent, I have learned to forgive myself, as well as the people who bullied me.

But I don’t need their “friendship.” I’ve got plenty of friends.