Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing Skirts the Line Between Comedy and Tragedy

much adoThis is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.

 

Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.

Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.

This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust. Continue reading

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My Heart Breaks for Micah – and Bethany

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Bethany and Micah, SU Commons, September 1, 2008

One afternoon in the fall of 2007 I walked over and sat down across from Bethany in the Southwestern Commons. I had a dazed look on my face.

“Were you just talking to Micah Moore?” she asked me.

I nodded. “How do you know Micah?”

“He’s in my Reel Jews class. What did y’all talk about?”

“He did most of the talking,” I said, in a perplexed voice. “He told me about Jesus.”

Micah Moore was a freshman. I’d met him at the beginning of July when he messaged me on Facebook and asked if I was living on campus for the summer (I was), and if I would be willing to give him a tour of the school (I did). When he moved in at the beginning of the fall semester, we became good friends. Sometimes at night we would visit the hookah bars on Sixth Street, and drive through Austin listening to music and talking. Sometimes he would play guitar or recite poetry he had written. Sometimes my friend Booth would tell a joke and Micah would laugh so hard, he had to leave the room.

But then we got pulled in different directions and didn’t see each other as often. I’d learned that Bethany and Tyler Deaton were starting a secret prayer group, and I had begged them to let me be a part of it. Micah had dropped acid with some of his hall mates, and lately he wasn’t himself.

That was what we had talked about—and what we would talk about again on the last night of the fall semester, when Beth and I prayed over him. He hadn’t felt safe since the acid trip. It was hard for him to know what was real anymore. His mind was full of disturbing, paranoid thoughts. What if reality is just a projection? What if the people around me don’t even really exist?

Micah hadn’t prayed in a long time, but lately running and praying were the only things that could help him.

And being prayed over by others. Beth and I prayed over him for two hours that night in December, and by the time we had finished he was feeling more peace than he had felt in months. He said he wanted to be part of a community. He really seemed to like us.

I felt cautiously optimistic. To be honest, I was quite nervous. Micah was a cool guy, and I had been worried about how he might react if the two of us tried to ambush him with Scripture. But this wasn’t a case of someone being forced to pray against his will. He had sought us out. He said no counselor he had seen could bring him the feeling of reassurance he felt when Beth laid hands on him.

The moment he left the room that night, Bethany gave me a mighty high-five.

“I think he might join our group,” I said quietly.

“I was feeling the same thing,” said Beth. “Just wait until Tyler hears about this. He’s gonna flip out!” And she ran to go find him.

The next morning, Micah showed up at the door of my room. He handed me a CD and a note he had written.

“I can’t tell you how blessed I am,” it said, “to have become friends with you. You have inspired me on so many levels. It seems like every time I begin to feel negatively about things, I think about things you have told me and it opens my eyes … I know you are always saying you have a long way to go, but don’t we all? We all hurt and grow and fall and that is why we need God. Anyway, I just thought I would tell you how much I respect and look up to you.”

Today I think back on those words, and they burn.

*           *           *

I failed Micah. This is what I’ve been feeling, in one form or another, for most of the last week.

It was already a stressful week. The ends of Octobers are always hard now, ever since the night two years ago when I learned that Bethany was dead. Booth warned me not to let my grief make me bloodthirsty, but I was already so certain there was more to the story than a newlywed taking her own life.

And the rest of what transpired in the fall of 2012 just seemed to confirm my initial suspicions, as a few of the leaders from the International House of Prayer in Kansas City staged a heroic intervention (according to their version of the story) to rescue the remaining 18 members of Tyler Deaton’s cult. At a series of public meetings in the middle of November, senior IHOPKC leaders described how Shelley Hundley had interrogated Micah until he broke down and confessed to killing Bethany.

Mike Bickle and Allen Hood painted in the blackest possible terms the depravity of the sex cult from Texas. The men’s house, they said, was an epicenter of darkness. The core leadership was all engaged in despicable homosexual acts with each other. Tyler and Micah probably weren’t even truly saved. They were murderers. It didn’t seem to matter that Micah was still awaiting trial (and that Tyler had yet to be charged with a crime). What mattered was that Shelley Hundley had exposed a tremendous evil. Because of her, IHOP would no longer be associated with a dangerous cult.

At the time, the murderer narrative made a certain amount of sense. I knew firsthand that Tyler was capable of extreme cruelty. I had seen him twist and manipulate the guys I had once lived with into doing horrible things that they would never have done in saner circumstances. Given the awful, nightmarish reality of Bethany’s death, it wasn’t a stretch to believe something only marginally more awful: that her husband had coerced a mutual friend into taking her life.

Yet there was always that nagging voice of hesitancy and discomfort, and it would come up in conversation whenever the subject turned to Micah. “Do you really think Micah…?”

It wasn’t that they thought Tyler incapable of ordering such a heinous act. No one doubted that. But anyone who had even the slightest familiarity with Micah wanted to know how someone like him—gentle, quiet Micah—could have been a party to something so ghastly.

Micah, who had once picked me up off the side of the road and driven me across town to a friend’s house, when no one else in the group would speak to me.

Micah, who would laugh and cry and cry and laugh whenever he felt the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Micah, who was beloved of my atheist friends because when I was being a total jerk, he had explained his faith to them in a way that was humble, and sincere, and made sense.

How could that Micah ever have done such a thing? What was he doing behind bars in Jackson County, unvisited by members of the group or anyone from IHOP?

And, in my darker and more honest moments, I knew there were several things that didn’t add up.

Like the fact that Bethany was clearly emotionally unstable, and apparently suicidal, in the weeks before her death. Shortly after her funeral I learned from friends and former members of the group that Tyler had shamed her during their honeymoon and shunned her when they returned. Knowing how traumatic the group’s shunning could be, and how prone she was to depression, even before the group started, there were times when I would wonder, what if…?

And then there was the fact that guys who had lived in the house at the time of her death, and whom I trusted, didn’t think Micah had been involved. And the fact that Micah had painted a lurid story of ritualistic sexual assaults that was not only totally outlandish, but also unsubstantiated by any evidence. And the fact—most worrying of all—that Micah was not mentally or emotionally stable, that for as long as I had known him he had been suffering from the after-effects of that drug trip: hallucinations, paranoia, and a tenuous relationship with reality. All those problems had been exacerbated by his association with Tyler’s group, and with IHOP.

*           *           *

And then last week, the week of the second anniversary of her death, Micah’s defense attorney released a 15-page motion to have his testimony rendered inadmissible. I read it—and had to admit that I have no idea what really happened, and that this case is even more twisted and confusing than we knew.

The defense makes a powerful case that Micah’s initial confession to Shelley Hundley was completely fabricated, and that the treatment Bethany received at the hands of Tyler and other group members pushed her to take her own life.

– Analysis of the suicide note found in her van revealed that it was written in Bethany’s handwriting.

– Micah’s DNA was not found anywhere on the plastic bag used to induce asphyxiation.

– Micah was unable to describe the crime scene accurately. He got some pretty important information wrong, such as the location of her body. He said I had helped him commit the murder, though the prosecution feels confident I was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened.

– Wal-Mart surveillance footage shows Beth buying the drugs that were in her system when she died, earlier that morning.

– Video taken from the IHOPKC prayer room web stream shows Micah in the prayer room at the time he originally claimed to have killed her. (I remember walking past him that morning. He was pacing around on the sidewalk outside the prayer room, reading his Bible. He said hi to me in a kind voice. I remember being moved and surprised by it. It was the last time life would be “normal” for either of us, ever).

But the thing that clinched it for me, that made me feel confident that Micah’s confession was probably fabricated, was when I learned the identity of the IHOP-affiliated group that had prayed over Micah and the other group members on the night of Micah’s confession.

It was Prisoners of Hope.

I’ve already written at length about my own experience with Prisoners of Hope. The leadership of IHOP denies that they’re an “IHOP group,” but they’re all IHOP staff members who are brought in to pray over sex-trafficking victims and people they suspect of being in demonic bondage. I went through a few “counseling” and “deliverance” sessions with PoH at the end of last year, and walked away feeling abused, humiliated, and insulted.

The ministry is like a mirror image of Tyler’s group. They implied that they had been following me on social media, wanted to know why I had been photographed with the director of an anti-IHOP movie, and performed a Charismatic “deliverance” ritual (speaking in tongues, snapping their fingers in my ears) designed to “break off” the false spirits of Catholicism, Mormonism, etc. Then finally, as if the parallels weren’t already explicit enough, they rebuked me for saying I would never battle the forces of Antichrist, telling me, “Tyler was right about that.”

So when I read the defense’s statement and found out that Prisoners of Hope had been involved in Micah’s confession… suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense.

I thought about how susceptible the group was to religious manipulation, and how during the summer of 2011 there had been a week (we called it “Fire Week”) where Micah and about half a dozen others would periodically start laughing, twitching, screaming, falling on the floor. (I would say one thing to Micah’s girlfriend and she’d collapse into the couch cushions, wailing).

And then I thought about the deliverance style of Prisoners of Hope, which seems designed to provoke exactly that kind of response.

And I thought about what a metaphorical person Micah is, and how difficult it would be for a literalist to understand that. And I wondered if maybe when Micah, overwhelmed by guilt and the rising tide of religious hysteria, confessed to murdering one of his closest friends—I wondered if maybe he was trying to express a feeling that for him was emotionally true, even if it wasn’t literally true.

Because the defense motion had made one other thing abundantly clear: if Bethany wasn’t murdered, she was certainly bullied into taking her own life.

“At her attempts to initiate a physical encounter with her husband by kissing him,” the report says of their honeymoon, “Tyler shunned her advance, became angry, and scolded her like a child—undoubtedly humiliating and devastating her.” And it kept getting worse: “Upon their return from their honeymoon, Bethany and Tyler began their married life in the basement of the men’s house. Because of Bethany’s attempted physical relationship with her husband, she was punished for her ‘narcissism’ by being shunned, isolated, and ignored. As further punishment, she was not allowed to sleep in bed with Tyler, and the newly married Bethany was forced to sleep alone on the couch. At a time when she had been physically rejected in the most humiliating way a woman can be rejected she was also being socially rejected—excommunicated from those close to her. She could find no solace—no reprieve.”

I hate that this happened to one of my best friends. It grieves me to think that the person responsible will probably never see justice in this life.

And if the defense is right, there are really two victims here. There is of course Bethany, who spent the last days of her life being rejected by a man who had systemically isolated her from her own closest friends and family until he was all she had left. Bethany, who found herself in the position of being the person on whom the group unloaded its anger, hostility, contempt.

And then there’s Micah—who, in effect, fulfilled that exact same role for IHOP.

And my heart breaks for him as it does for her—because even in my darkest imagination I have no idea what it’s like to wake up in a cold police station after a long, sleepless night, and find out that you just confessed to a crime that you didn’t commit. Because, as much as these last two years have been a nightmare for me and some of Beth’s other close friends, they’ve been even more of a nightmare for Micah, who was banished from his religious community, demonized by its leadership, and had to face the prospect of potentially going to prison for the rest of his life because of a statement he made in the throes of religious delusion.

And frankly, I’m haunted by the comment that Micah left tonight on Jonathan Barclay’s blog post about him. Haunted because what Micah says about IHOP is true—“they threw me to the fucking wolves and then walked away dusting their hands off”—and I went along with it. Haunted because his perspective on the similarities between IHOP and Tyler’s group—“to me, they are just two flavors of the same poison”—so fully mirrors my own, and it’s impossible to get IHOP to see that, and I wonder how many more Bethanys there will be, and how many more Micahs. Haunted because, yes, Jonathan’s post was full of empathy and compassion, and my own response, all too often, has not been.

And I’m so sorry that all of this happened. And I wish I had asked these questions sooner. I wish I had listened to the whispers of dissension. I wish I had fought harder for Micah.

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 3: When You Become the Monster

Jesus-expulse-the-gadarene-demonsAfter I left the group I began studying the mechanisms of scapegoating.

 French sociologist Rene Girard said that all human conflicts are built around something called “mimetic desire.” Here’s how it works. Suppose two brothers are happily playing in their front yard. The older one grabs a toy soldier from their pile of toys and begins playing with it. The younger one immediately wants it—not because of its inherent worth, but simply because his brother has it. This makes the older brother want it even more, and before very long the two are engaged in a huge fist fight.

 Luckily, though, the neighborhood whipping boy, Jerry, happens to walk by at that moment. Jerry wears glasses and is chubby. The two boys forget all about their argument and run off together to torment Jerry.
Continue reading

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 2: The Night I Stopped Hating

Tree-of-Life-ShadowIt’s not hard to see how an environment dominated by authoritarians can rapidly take on the contours of a nightmare.

For example, in a 1989 criminal case, psychology student Mary Wegman realized that some of her fellow jurists could not remember important pieces of evidence, invented evidence that did not even exist, and drew faulty conclusions from the evidence that everyone could agree on. (Subsequent tests indicated that each of these jurists scored highly on the RWA scale).

Imagine being the defendant in a trial in which certain jury members, perhaps because of the color of your skin, already presume your guilt and are literally incapable of seeing anything that might contradict it.

It sounds more like a situation out of Franz Kafka or The Twilight Zone, and yet it really happens.

In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. Within two months 31 million bottles had been recalled. The New York Times covered the story over fifty times in the final three months of that year. The FDA immediately established new packaging guidelines and made product tampering a federal crime.

That same year the AIDS epidemic first burst into the national consciousness. Of the 771 people who had been infected, 614 had already died. Yet although this was ten times the number of Tylenol deaths, the New York Times ran only three stories.

The government largely ignored the problem until the end of the Reagan administration. Evangelical Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, blocked a report from the surgeon general on AIDS in the United States because he believed those who had AIDS deserved to die from it. Nor was this a fringe position. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Said White House communications director Pat Buchanan, “With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”

What the media, and the White House, and the general public largely seem to have missed is that actual people were actually dying of a devastating plague, and that a significant number of these cases had not resulted from gay sex. Yet the meme persisted. “People need to awaken to the reality that this so-called love story does not have a happy ending,” said a recent essay, almost gleefully, going on to claim (erroneously) that the average homosexual male has between 200 and 250 partners in his lifetime. AIDS was obviously a gay pandemic (no matter what “science” tells us), and no one who’s gay could possibly be a true Christian… so, largely ignored by the rest of the Christian community, nearly 450,000 Americans died within a twenty-year period.

Here they are, in their own words:

“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living . . . it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.”

“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other.  The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mind-boggling, just incredible.”

index.phpYet AIDS victims and gays continued to be demonized. Just as the Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1348, the homosexual community was blamed for terrorist bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, “and possibly a meteor.” Those who were suffering the most now had to contend with insane allegations about inflicting suffering on others.

The Moment I Realized That Other People Were Human

As one who was raised in a deeply religious and conservative environment, I was good at demonizing other people. Really good at it. In junior high I would gather in the courtyard every morning and give sermons on the dangers of gays, Catholics, and girls in short skirts, which won me a certain amount of popularity. Later in college, the end-times cult that I co-founded aligned itself with a nationally famous, far-right Evangelical ministry that said Jesus was going to return and physically kill thousands of people with his own hands. We were taught to beware the “gay agenda” and to view Christians in other denominations with suspicion. There’s a mass movement of young people doing works of justice, they told us, but because they don’t profess the name of Jesus, it’s a “false justice.”

As I absorbed these teachings my behavior changed radically, and so did that of the cult’s other members. I was belligerent and aggressive towards my gay and atheist friends. My thinking became compartmentalized and I was suddenly unable to have logical discussions. Yet the other cult members told me not to worry about it, said I was being “persecuted” for contradicting “the world’s” teachings. When a fellow student, who had been involved in peaceful demonstrations and interfaith dialogues, was accidentally run over, we celebrated his death as a sign of God’s wrath being poured out on campus.

But then when I moved to Kansas City and started getting punished constantly, something changed inside of me. Something deep and drastic.

It was a long process, but I think the pivotal moment happened one night as I listened to the community praying together from the floor of my bedroom, where I had been consigned following a series of truly disturbing events. Each night the group would gather in a circle and listen for two or three in minutes in silence to hear what “God” was saying. Then they would discuss what they had heard. On this particular evening a woman began the discussion by saying, “I feel like we’re being attacked. There are demons of control coming against us right now.”

The group prayed in silence for a moment longer. Then one girl said, “It’s Boze.” And another girl said, “I just heard the same thing.”

And they spent the next hour praying against me. As I sat there in my room listening to their prophecies about how God was going to “punish” me, at first I wondered what I could have possibly done to upset them. But then I realized: They’re wrong about me, and their prophecies are wrong, and the things they’re hearing from God are wrong. And I can prove it.

And gradually in those next weeks I quit being afraid of them. And though I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, I realized that I could never again single out any other group or person for shame and condemnation. I had been on the wrong end of that, one too many times now. I resolved to become an advocate for all who were trapped in nightmares.