Someone we all hated very much died on Wednesday. I have been extremely grateful to see the world go from thinking that Fred Phelps maybe had a point about Mathew Shepard to realizing that, at least his specific brand of vitriol was too extreme for anybody. Overall, I’d say that Phelps did more to help the average American find sympathy for gay people than almost any other single activist in the history of the movement.
But enough about that corpse.
I’m writing this because a lot of my friends seem conflicted on how to react to the death of someone who made the world such a shittier, stupider place. Especially when you take into account the fact that picketing the funerals of decent Americans was basically his calling card. And since I have some experience with having a hated old man/mortal enemy die on me, I thought I’d share my experience as a lens through which we can examine Phelps’ death.
As many of you know, my maternal grandfather was a universally despised shit-bag abuser. When I was a little girl, I used to play “grandpa’s funeral” and hang toilet paper from my ceiling like it was party streamers, then dance around the room with my pets. My plan since forever was to have a massive, huge celebration when he died. I wanted him to have a grave just so I had something to dance on.
But, I grew up, circumstances changed. Other people got their own chance to try and break my head open (hi mom), and what we’d had in my youth just didn’t feel special anymore. Through adult eyes, I realized that his mom and dad had beat the shit out of him, and instead of dealing with that, he turned into a hateful cuss who beat the shit out of his kids. As far as I could tell, hating him was a fast-track to becoming him. So I tried to let it go.
There are a lot of dramatic stories in the 12 step community of people who grew up hating their moms and then through the magic of a power greater than themselves and the love of their sponsor, by the time she died, their abusive old mom turned out to be their very best friend. I actually worried that might happen for my grandpa and I. I feel like becoming friends with the people who tried to break you when you had no ability to fight back is maybe the least safe or sane thing any person could possibly do.
I can honestly say that, through the magic of a power greater than myself, and the love of my sponsor, that bastard died with my contempt for him still as clean and pure as it was the first time he dragged me through the house by my hair and threw me out the back door. However, in addition to the contempt, there was a respect for myself that I’d never had before.
In the thirteen or so years between the day I left his house, and the day he died in a nursing home in Pasadena where he swore up and down that the nurses hit him, something happened for me. It’s never going to be a Lifetime original movie, but I learned about the kind of person I really am. Not the reactionary victim that his special brand of parenting helped mold me into, but who I really am. What I really believe in. And part of that is dignity. The kind of dignity that no one can take from you. The kind of dignity that says that I can be polite, even decent, to the worst man I know, not for his benefit, but because I try to be polite to every person. So, at the end of his life, I spoke to him with respect when I did see him, but in general, I avoided him whenever possible.
I had the dignity to treat him with the common human decency he never gave anyone else. But I also had an assumption of his dignity, one element of which is for him, as an adult, and as a man, to make his own choices and live with his own consequences. The way he lived made it so that no one would take him in at the end. The way he treated people meant that no one was concerned for his safety. And gee, that’s mighty sad, but a man makes his choices, and those were the choices he made.
When he finally died, I was completely surprised to be sad. Not about him, I was glad he was gone. He did nothing but hurt people. I was sad for him. Here was a man who had nothing inside him but the infectious bile of his own hatred, who nobody wanted, and nobody mourned. He had no children of his own (my mother and uncle’s real father died when they were toddlers), no protégés, no one who remembered him with anything approaching fondness. What a waste.
That’s how I feel about Fred Phelps. I’m not sad he’s dead, I’m sad he ever lived in the first place. He was a noxious, used tampon of a man who snail-trailed his hateful bullshit all over otherwise decent people who were just trying to bury their kids or live their lives. I don’t need to throw a party, or picket his funeral, because it turns out that I’m not the kind of person who would picket a funeral. Of anybody. But I am the kind of person who will feel great relief when a jerk like that dies. No matter how much he unintentionally helped the gay rights movement.