I had to take a break from reviewing Guilt By Association because it felt like my head was going to explode if I kept up. I didn’t expect it to turn into a two year extended break, but between the arduous slog of getting through the bad writing and the memories it was dredging up, it was getting to be too much.
It’s time to dust the series off because in the intervening two years the changes in the political climate and Michael Farris’s recent hire as president of Alliance Defending Freedom makes this especially relevant. When I started writing this series in 2015, it was an experiment in the serial book review format, and the book was only relevant to a small niche of people researching the religious right and the Christian homeschool movement. Today, Michael Farris is no longer the fringe religious right figure who I used to describe as the most influential man in the religious right that no one ever heard of, he’s now leading a powerful organization that has shaping the next generation of judges as one of its key missions. He has the ear of our Vice President, and while folks may quibble about whether I’m accurately describing Mike Pence as Farris’s puppet, we know from the Indiana RFRA fight that he’s got significant sway with Pence.
I’m going to drop the animated GIFs that I used in earlier installments because, while they help me make it through reading the book, the stakes involved this are too important to treat like it’s a joke. When the Attorney General of the United States speaks a closed-door event held by the organization Michael Farris runs, it means that the ideas he expresses in books like these could be shaping the course of American history.
Before I get back to my chapter by chapter reviews, today I’ll give a recap since it’s been so long. You can read the full series starting here. I’ll also link to the relevant installments throughout my recap.
A note on terminology: while I understand the power to frame debate depending on language used, for this series I’m using “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because for these purposes I’d rather stick with the language that each group uses to describe themselves.
As a quick refresher, a group of pro-life activists formed when an abortion clinic opened in their community. Our cast of characters includes the group leader, Retired Colonel Hank Danners, who I prefer to call “Creepy Colonel Danners” because everything about the character sets off my creep-dar. He’s got no prior activism experience but somehow ended up in charge because he thinks he knows everything and is a man. Also in the category of men who are useless but somehow end up in charge is Pastor Randy Wallace, whose primary character trait is a that he’s pastor of one of the largest churches in Bellingham, WA. We also have Shirley Alper, a grandmother in her mid-60s, who really ought to be the one in charge of this group because she’s got two decades of pro-life activism experience, but she’s a woman so that’s out. Next up is Ginny Kettner, former television reporter turned pastor’s wife and sidewalk counselor outside the abortion clinic, who is really a rather boring character and a personal space invader. Finally, there’s Suzie O’Dell, who has had me screaming #FreeSuzie all through my reviews because she’s 19 and the only character who has demonstrated any actual organizing abilities, building a large group of pro-life college student activists on her liberal college campus. Naturally, being 19 and female, the book acts like she’s a child, and I really wish she ditches the rest of these clowns before they destroy her life.
On the abortion clinic side of things, we’ve got Dr. Rhonda Marsano, who I’m fairly certain is not long for this world because of the efforts Farris has gone through to humanize her as a character. She’s a lapsed Catholic who became an abortionist because her father died during her senior year of college and the only way she could afford medical school was on a grant that required her to work at an abortion clinic for four years after her residency. Rhonda is sort of dating a sociology professor named David Gleason, who is a prototypical creepy Male Feminist, but ends up hooking up with the mysterious Vince Davis, her ex-boyfriend who works for the clinic owner and was sent to Bellingham to infiltrate the pro-life activists and create a cause for the clinic to get an injunction against the group. Oh yeah, and Rhonda just found out she’s pregnant with Vince’s child from her hookup, because birth control doesn’t exist in Farris’s world.
Oh, and to recap Vince’s narrative, he shows up at the church where Ginny the sidewalk counselor’s husband is pastor, claiming to be a man named Stephen Gray. He conveniently is single and available to hit on Ginny’s friend and fellow sidewalk counselor Lisa Edgar. Lisa, whose only real characteristics are being single and not terribly attractive, mind you, because we’ve got to come up with an explanation for why she falls for him so fast. Vince quickly infiltrates the group, both because he’s hot and single (and thus available for Lisa), and because he’s invented a backstory about a cousin who died after bleeding out during an abortion. Never once do our protesters ever stop and consider how odd it is that this Stephen Gray fellow shows up out of the blue with a dramatic sob story and promptly tries to infiltrate the group.
Vince’s job with this infiltration is to try to radicalize some of the college students to get them to do something that could help build a case for an injunction. He gets them to start chanting at a couple headed to the clinic, one of the college students has to be held back from punching the guy who’s going to the clinic with his girlfriend, and then Vince doctors the tape to make it look worse. Oh yes, and he admits to the clinic owners’ high priced lawyers that he doctored the tape, yet the lawyer still goes along with the idea of using this fraudulent tape in the injunction suit. Let’s just ignore that that’s totally an ethics violation that a partner at a high-powered firm would never risk.
In case you didn’t read the rest of my series and are wondering, yes, the book is that ridiculous and no, I’m not exaggerating anything. There’s a reason why I used so many animated GIFs and all caps rants in the earlier installments.
So anyway, the clinic sues the protesters in federal court under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and RICO, seeking an injunction and $1,000,000 in damages. Everyone freaks out, and after talking about how they need to get a lawyer, go out of their way to ignore Suzie and treat her like a clueless child, doing everything but patting her on the head when she tries to tell them that she knows a lawyer who can help them. They apparently think it utterly hilarious that a 19-year-old college student might know a lawyer, much less a lawyer who knows what he’s doing in federal court, because that’s the kind of world Michael Farris lives in. Because nope, Farris doesn’t treat this as the others behaving badly, in his world this is the totally natural reaction that people have to college students mentioning they know lawyers. Eventually, Suzie manages to get them to stop talking down to her long enough to find out that her lawyer friend has federal court experience and successfully took a suit against the State of Washington to the US Supreme Court.
Oh yes, and her lawyer friend is the hero of Farris’s first novel, Anonymous Tip, his scare story about how CPS is going to steal your children. Peter Barron is really obviously Farris’s self-insert avatar, which is why I like to call him Author Avatar Lawyer Peter Barron. He’s handsome, dashing, brilliant, and the bestest at lawyering. He also ended the last book by marrying his client (hereafter referred to as Saintly Mom Gwen), whose ex-husband conveniently died in a drunk driving accident 3/4 of the way through the book. To say I’m not a fan of the character is an understatement. Aside from the ethical violations of dating and then marrying his client, while she was still his client, in the first book, in this book he manipulates his now wife into thinking it’s her idea that he take the case. She starts questioning whether it’s a good idea to take a big case on the other side of the state where he’ll be away from home, and he pulls this passive aggressive thing where he makes her responsible for all the babies who will be aborted if he doesn’t take the case.
I mentioned this in some of my earlier posts in the series, but I’ll repeat it here for those who are just joining us. One of the things that is continuously infuriating about this book is that Farris is trying to write a book about the anti-abortion movement during a time that I lived it, and none of it feels true to life. I don’t think the man ever spent any time in the movement trenches and he clearly didn’t bother to do any research to tell a story that has even the slightest air of truthiness to it. It’s the pro-life movement as seen through glossy brochures with a heavy dose of Farris showing his own hand about how he approaches activism, leadership and especially how he views younger activists.
As an adult I can look back on my activism and understand how the movement used those of us who were teenagers as pawns, but whatever else is true, I never experienced the kind of condescension that Farris’s older characters show towards Suzie, where they acted like she was too young to know anything or contribute. And unlike Suzie, I really was a kid back then, not a college student. The way the pro-life movement actually worked during that era was that they gave us more responsibility than a preteen or teenager should have had. My siblings and I spoke at Operation Rescue events. We were left mostly to our own devices to organize youth led civil disobedience. I was constantly hearing that my youth should not disqualify me.
Now, what I understand now is that doing that is a way to get young people to buy in fully and to commit, because a young person who believes they’re deciding for themselves while being given adult responsibilities makes a better foot soldier. You think it’s your idea but you’re really just acting out somebody else’s script. It’s not a healthy tactic by any stretch of the imagination, and understanding how it works is a big reason why today as an adult I feel so used by movement leadership, but that’s the reality of how the pro-life movement operated.
More than anything else, Farris’s fictional pro-lifers seem to reflect his own habit of treating homeschool alumni like children even as we’re well into adulthood with academic credentials that dwarf his. Farris’s novels are less about the narrative and more about the mirror he’s holding up to show who he is. It’s why his books are so frustrating if you approach them like you would approach most novels. They’re less storytelling than a look into how his mind works and how he approaches the world. Fortunately for our purposes, that glimpse into his mind helps us understand how he operates.
Next time I’ll go be back to the book to delve into the often frustrating mind of Michael Farris, as he tells us about the hearing for the preliminary injunction against our Merry Band of Protesters. I’m sure it will be infuriating, but I’ll try to at least make it entertaining along the way.
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