Remembering Niki Massey

Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’
—Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

‘It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer
would have it, that makes us what we are; nor
is it the will to power, […] but something deeper,
of which the will to power is merely a manifestation.
We want power because we want to matter.’

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

Most of a year ago, half a dozen of us decided to set up this site. When the time came to discuss who we wanted here, Niki Massey’s name came up immediately. I didn’t know Niki that well, but we’d tweeted, and I was one of the people who spoke to her about blogging with us. If I had any doubts about the need for a network like ours, that conversation changed my mind. Like many of the godless people you don’t hear about, Niki, who had multiple disabilities and was cut off from family, lived without much social support. As she put it: ‘I’m poor, I’m black, I’m an atheist. I exist.’

In her spare time, Niki escorted patients outside abortion clinics, where the religious right did their best to obstruct access. Last November, a man in Colorado killed three people at a Planned Parenthood branch: a day later, Niki went back to work. In a talk at Skepticon the same month, she’d spoken about volunteering and how others could get into it. ‘People say thank you,’ she said at the end. ‘They say “You’re super brave for doing this.” But to me it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like something a decent person does.’

Niki died yesterday. None of us know quite how or why—several conditions she had could have been life-threatening, and her circumstances left her at risk in other ways. What I know is that the friend I last spoke to on Thursday is silent now, and that someone here yesterday is gone today.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote that the art of losing wasn’t hard. Before last night, I never quite got her last line, ‘Write it’ intruding suddenly on the sentence. Today I’m trying to write, and the violent grammar of death is all too real. In her life and her work, Niki fought cruelty in all its guises: without her every fight feels harder, and the art of losing is much too hard.

Next time someone calls atheists small minded Philistines, tell them who Niki Massey was. Niki didn’t expect an afterlife, nor do I think we’ll meet again—to my relief, I realise I don’t wish I did—but I suppose she’d like the thought of resting in power. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Tamir Rice, she posted about black lives mattering. It’s safe to say part of what cut hers short was that Niki was many things deemed insignificant—not only black, but fat, disabled, queer and proudly, unabashedly unchurched.

If the will to matter is at the centre of what humans do, Niki devoted her own life to making other people’s mean something. She’ll be remembered for that fight, and for the work—write it—she leaves the rest of us.

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?

* * *

I dreamt about David Bowie last night. I forget the details, but I woke up thinking I’d write a post about how he seemed to regenerate rather than age. (The first Bowie was Cockney and a mod, the second was Byronesque, et cetera.) The first thing I saw on starting my computer was a friend’s Facebook post: ‘I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible.’ The headline underneath took me a moment to digest: ‘David Bowie, the Legendary Musician, Has Died at 69.Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

While there was me, I’d always assumed, there would Bowie. At eight, a clip of Ziggy’s arm round Mick Ronson was a queer wake-up call, and later ‘Life on Mars’ would help keep suicide at bay. Having died three short days after a new album’s release, it seems music sustained him too, and it hurts to have been denied the songs the twelfth or thirteenth Bowie would have made. After ten years away, The Next Day and Blackstar were considered two of his best records, and it would be a fair statement that he meant far more to me than any other singer.

It would also be fair to call him a child rapist. (Details ahead.)

Bowie did bad things alright. In the seventies he fixated on Nazis, calling Hitler one of the first rock stars and himself a believer in fascism—a phase which, to be fair, he grew out of and came to call ghastly. More disturbing are the stories of hotel room threesomes with fourteen year old girls. Former groupie Lori Mattix describes Bowie disrobing and having her wash him in the bath before ‘devirginising’ her. Both Mattix and the friend of hers who joined them later had been plied with drugs.

It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge except rehearse it. I know the above to be true, according to Mattix’s nostalgic account, and that it deserves to be remembered. I also know without Bowie, my own obit would have been written long ago, and I can’t help but remember that too. How do you find room in one eulogy for both those facts? Just for today, I’ll mourn the hero I saw in Bowie, thankful on behalf of the kid who needed all those songs; tomorrow and the next day I’ll let one more hero go. That’s the best I can manage—sorry if it’s not enough.

It’s the legend more than the man I’m grieving in the end, the performances that have stayed with me. ‘Starman’, aforementioned, on Top of the Pops, a Technicolor explosion in a monochrome world. ‘Footstompin’’ on Dick Cavett’s programme, Bowie’s mic trained on joyous, gyrating Ava Cherry. ‘Under Pressure’, where Annie Lennox stares undiluted lust at him after that last breathy note. ‘Heroes’ live in Berlin, where Bowie’s voice rises over six minutes from a mumble to a shout. And then, of course, this week, the video to ‘Lazarus’.

You wouldn’t call it a live act, but surely that’s the point. How much sense it makes now, that song that was so inscrutable days ago, the deathbed pose, title and lines about release, even the rush to productivity between this album and the last, the decision not to tour or perform. Unmissable as it is in hindsight—how visible the cancer’s impact is, quite suddenly—no one took ‘Lazarus’ literally because no one imagined Bowie could die. How unlike anybody else, how entirely like him, to stage his own death as performance art. Now ain’t that just like me?

Hard to think someone who did that could have much faith in any afterlife. (Bowie, for his part, called himself ‘not quite an atheist’.) I don’t often wish I believed in one, and it’s hard to wish heaven on a man with his history, but at eight I longed to travel to Ziggy’s world. It hurts to know for the first time that where he is, I can’t follow. But I do live in David Bowie’s world—the world where everyone followed his tune, where he was sometimes a hero, sometimes a monster, always singular. I don’t feel good about all of that. All the same, I’m glad it was my world too.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

* * *

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover

Greta Christina has a new book. (Doesn’t she always?) Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God is a guide for atheists, agnostics and believers whose faith isn’t helping them deal with mortality. In place of wishful thinking it offers… well, the clue is in the name.

Since her regular collaborator Casimir Fornalski was unavailable, Greta asked me to design the cover art. I bit her hand off said I’d be delighted.


Certainly I had reservations. Fornalski and I have never interacted, but I’ve admired his work with her for two and a half years: the angry woman who looks suspiciously like Greta on the covers of her prior atheist books has become an unmistakeable part of her brand. Ending such an effective partnership is risky even when you have no choice, and I worried I’d be unable to create something as memorable or iconic.

The project became about creating something unlike Fornalski’s covers – in particular, I decided it should look illustrated more than designed, have a coloured background instead of a white one and be uncartoonish. (A further design constraint when Audible required square covers for audiobooks. So the image could be broadened just by adding a strip each side, the background had to be one flat, replicable colour.)

Greta and I discussed ideas. ‘A stylised tree with roots as well as branches, but with the roots being made of DNA double helix coils’ got vetoed: ‘As a many-times-over designer for atheists,’ I told her, ‘no more effing double helixes. They’ve been done so many times the concept’s over.’ (Movement: take note.) The tree motif I did like, so the next suggestion – ‘a person sitting or standing at a gravestone’ – became someone under its boughs.

I started doodling.

Negative space designs are my weakness, and initially the figure beneath the tree was to be the same colour as the background, appearing as a ‘gap’ in the tree’s trunk. (I wanted a cypress tree – symbol of mourning in the classical era – but gave up on it when the shape was wrong.) Given the book’s sombre theme to differentiate it further from Greta’s other covers, pastel tones drew my eye and the soft grey-green I chose – softer than the final one – survived till late in the design process.

I won’t lie – this design intimidated me. The moment I knew how the tree should look, I knew I had to ‘paint’ it with digital sponges, creating foliage and paint blots from shapes in two different colours, green defining white – over eighty layers and over four hundred individual ‘spongeprints’ went into the end product above. For a while I was unsure I should attempt something so different from my previous work and toyed with the idea of a cover consisting solely of the title in narrowly-spaced Georgia, perhaps referencing Faber’s minimalist poetry collections.

It didn’t take – I suspect because I knew my first thought was my best and that I ought to persevere. When I did, I ended up with the following halfway house.

Since I’m terrible at drawing representational forms – I studied graphic art, alright? – creating the sitting figure was tough. I tried suggesting someone crosslegged with the abstract shaped I’d used in that first doodle, which turned out to be easier to draw by hand than with a mouse – then at the other extreme, with jagged polygons whose proportions were tricky to get right. Neither worked harmoniously with the tree, and in the end it occurred to me the only way to make the sitting person work would be to use an actual human outline.

This terrified me. I’ve always hidden behind symbols and logo-ish abstractions, and human bodies are some of the hardest things to draw convincingly. (Nonetheless, easier than horses. Try it if you doubt me.) In the end I based the figure on a man’s outline in a stock photo, adjusting the shoulders, midsection and hair to make them appear gender-nonspecific.

It’s obvious to me the background colour to the left was wrong, but making it an apple green was Greta’s suggestion. She also mentioned the typeface – Bebas Neue, also present in my blog banner – may be too stark, asking whether a handwriting-style font could be used instead. It couldn’t, I said, because only chunky all-caps sans serif had the impact not to get lost. (Chinese Rocks was briefly a contender, but Hemant Mehta had shotgunned it with his own book.)

The actual problem, I realised, was the black. Changing the background and making it a soft grey fixed that problem, though it created more. The final alterations were the addition of Greta’s name, deciding whether or not to centre it and experimenting with text in different colour schemes.


Since we both liked the second image from the right best, that one became the cover.

Want to buy Greta’s book? Head over to her blog for details.

Want to hire me? That also works.

Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014

Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.

Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.

I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.

In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?

Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.

Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.

This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.

Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.

Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.

For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.

His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)

If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.

Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.

I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.

It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.

Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.

After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.

Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.

Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?

My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.

It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.

On the marvellously pathetic death of Fred Phelps, 1929-2014