Anyone who lived in Wichita, Kan., 30 years ago will tell you that the “culture wars” used to be different. That there was a time when it seemed like the way people thought about things like race and evolution and abortion might change gradually, the natural result of long co-existence among those with differing views. Pro-life people lived next door to pro-choice families, yet neighborhood block parties stayed peaceful. Planned Parenthood put discreet ads in the high school newspaper with no uproar. Debate societies and church youth groups discussed abortion-not without heat, but without violence and without tears. This is perhaps the only way in which the early 1980s can be described as “idyllic.”
And then all hell broke lose. That hell, even more than the murder that was one of its many eventual results, is the subject of Stephen Singular’s The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion . I went to high school in Wichita and college in Kansas in the ‘80s and ‘90s; Singular grew up there a couple of generations earlier. Both of us watched as what had once been a placid city in a state best known for being Dorothy’s pre-Oz black-and-white home became a focal point in the abortion wars-“the dividing line between two visions of the United States, two views of God, and two radically different perceptions about what women can and cannot do with their own bodies.” I saw people I’d known for years get caught up on one side or another; a boyfriend’s mother went from mildly pro-life Catholic housewife to being arrested for handcuffing herself to Dr. Tiller’s car in the space of a few years. The abortion dispute enflamed other long-standing issues and sparked the full-blown culture wars, and any chance of the gradual evolution of Kansas evaporated, along with the ability to even use the word evolution without risking giving offense. How?
In The Wichita Divide, Singular found a very personal way to answer that question. It’s a half true-crime book, half cultural discourse, and it is at its most fascinating when Singular follows the evolution of Dr. Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, from an ordinary, slightly unstable guy into a remorseless and righteous killer through the eyes of Roeder’s first wife, Lindsey Roberts. This is, in part, the story of “what it was like to fall in love with a man, have a child with him, and then watch him turn into an American terrorist.”
Roberts is stunned by Roeder’s transformation-when they married, he attended church only cursorily and shared her “casually pro-life” beliefs. She is essentially held hostage as his views grow more and more extreme, but not extreme enough for a court to deny him visitation with his son. It’s a wrenching story. By the moment, toward the end of the book, when she took Roeder’s call from jail and told him-“I just want you to understand that I’m a card-carrying, pro-choice, Obama Democrat, and a member of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and I don’t believe in anything you’ve done, Scott. I think it’s totally wrong”-my sympathies were as strongly with her as they were with the Tiller family.
Roeder, too, is the most human (and therefore the most frightening) of monsters. Singular says he “doesn’t like the word loser,” but it’s hard to avoid with Roeder, who never managed to hold onto a job or a family and sank from one far-right trope to another, taken in by a fraudulent televangelist, refusing to pay taxes, and eventually getting arrested driving around with no license plate on his car. All of Roeder’s obsessions, right up to his anti-abortion terrorism (from the beginning of his anti-abortion crusade, he advocates, and attempts, bombing empty clinics and Planned Parenthood offices) seem to be less about conviction and more about the last resort of an alienated, disenfranchised man looking for community and finding, instead, a scapegoat and an outlet. It’s an ugly story made uglier by a pervasive sense that it’s not at all an unusual one-except in the final outcome.
Singular’s personal views are clear-this isn’t an even-handed book about how the left and right came to be at such odds. But by putting Lindsey Roberts’ story at the heart of his book, he’s managed to depict the ways that the movement of the extreme right-wing views that once hovered on the edge of society into the mainstream harm people who never intended to engage in cultural warfare. In revealing the humanity of both Dr. Tiller (shown as a very flawed saint) and his murderer, Singular makes it even clearer just how far we are from an end to what’s only in part an ideological clash. The Wichita Divide is also a complex, detailed (and infuriating) look at how politics and personality have played into the abortion wars in unexpected ways. It’s a captivating read, but not a soothing one. The battle between Roeder and Dr. Tiller is over. The larger battles have been going on for decades-yet they appear to have just begun.