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Radio review: Afterlives and Slow Burn

26 June 2020


Dawn Watson and Petra Velzeboer spoke on Afterlives (Radio 4) of their experiences in a cult 

Dawn Watson and Petra Velzeboer spoke on Afterlives (Radio 4) of their experiences in a cult 

IN THE lexicon of trigger words — vocabulary that, by its association, brings on anxiety and stress — one would not expect to find such terms as “forgiveness” or “joy”. But to Petra Velzeboer and Dawn Watson, these are words that summon up a childhood of guilt and control under the cultic guardian­ship of the Chil­dren of God.

These two now successful busi­nesswomen were brought together for the first time in Afterlives (Tues­day 9 June, repeated Monday of last week, Radio 4). They talked of their experiences and how they had moved on.

There has been a lot to move on from: a deracinated lifestyle that involved moving from one com­mun­ity to another; loneliness; emo­tional and physical abuse; and, in young adulthood, alcohol depend­ency and suicidal impulses. To talk of forgiveness conjures up one of the many ways in which the cult instilled a sense in its followers of unworthi­ness and vulnerability.

And yet they take what might be regarded as an unfash­ionable view of victimhood and reparation. Of the guru that ex­­ploited so many, Ms Velzeboer is prepared to ac­­know­ledge the good as well as the bad. You have a choice, she says, of how you deal with the hurt.

There is a danger that the #MeToo movement fixates on the pain without equipping women with the resources to move on. Part of that moving on is to take respons­ibility for one’s subsequent actions. It was not, Ms Velzeboer admits, the cult’s fault that she took her children for a ride in her car while under the influence, or the cult’s fault that she had a serious crash.

We could have heard more from these two remarkable individ­uals. In the hands of the new breed of pod­cast producers, their stories might have furnished a mini-series, com­plete with cliff-hanger narration — something like Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate productions, whose six parts are being released over the course of this month.

And a slow burn it certainly is. It tells the story of a white supremacist from Louisiana, David Duke, and his bid for mainstream acceptance through the electoral system. That we know of him through Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman, and not as a United States Senator, is enough to tell us that the story does not turn out well for Mr Duke; but the wealth of contextual detail that such a time-generous production can afford is as fascinating as it is unsettling.

He started his career as a rabble-rouser on the campus of Louisiana State University, at a time (the late 1960s) when even the most outra­geous views were allowed a platform in “Free Speech Alley”. The effec­tive­­ness of this ultra-tolerant policy is exemplified by an anecdote in which a black student followed Mr Duke on to the podium, cut his hand, and challenged the Klansman to compare the colour of their blood. The Shakespearean resonances are compelling; and too much for Mr Duke, who declined the offer.

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