“The Meme”: An Excerpt From Ross McMeekin’s “Below the Falls”

"Below the Falls"

We’re pleased to have an excerpt today from Ross McMeekin’s new book Below the Falls, set for release on March 22 on Thirty West. Of this collection, Tommy Dean wrote, “McMeekin writes with a steady and assured hand, with a patience for allowing scenes to develop naturally, for creating bright and dark settings teeming with life and menace.” Read on for a taste of what readers will encounter within this book’s pages.



On the night of September 5th, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I received an email from my pastor, Richard Schuman, containing a humiliating, ableist meme of me that would ruin my life, and his. The meme portrayed me speaking at our church’s monthly lecture series on the world Jesus lived in. The picture was a jpeg of me, Francis Barrett, mid-sentence, Adam’s Apple like a baby’s fist, jawbone sharp and unevenly set, head tilted slightly to the left, mouth partially open, teeth vaguely yellow, thin hair previewing my impending baldness. My navy-blue blazer hid the lower third of a red tie with a knot in need of straightening. Overall, to be blunt, I looked like I was having a spasm. I have a speech impediment that forces me to read my lectures line-by-line, straight from the page, rather than work with simply notes or an outline. Written across the top of the meme was a series of incoherent words, meant to emulate someone like me—fuh fuh duh duh doy doy—you know, that awful kind of thing. The jpeg was embedded in the email, and above were three crying/laughing emojis.

There in my third floor, one-bedroom apartment in the University District of Seattle, wearing flannel pajamas and sitting back against the headboard, phone in my palm, I nearly spilled my evening bourbon on my lap. I rushed to my desk across the room, flipped open the laptop, and saw the meme in larger size. Was this how Richard saw me? 

No. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately made excuses for him. He was younger than me, and I knew younger millennials could be irreverent sometimes—and most importantly, he was a pastor, a man of character, so he couldn’t really mean anything by it. How could he? Along with my speech impediment, I struggle with a serious mood disorder, most often residing in the category of depression, and Richard knew that. Two weeks before he sent me the meme, I’d shared my struggles with him, struggles which had worsened over the pandemic, and asked him to remember me in his prayers. He agreed, and even went so far as to ask me if he could share what I was going through with his wife, so she could pray as well. So this incongruency of the meme—that he of all people would knowingly hurt someone when they were down—didn’t make sense. 

I made more excuses. I figured he’d probably been tipsy; sometimes he’d send these late-night passionate emails to the ministry team out of nowhere, making points that didn’t need to be made. You could hear the slurring through the typed words. But I suspected most of us—like me—were drinking through the pandemic in an attempt to keep sane. He deserved some grace.

And I reminded myself that I was sensitive to a fault. I’d always been that way. Things didn’t brush off me like they did for others. It was my problem that I was offended. A part of me even felt, well, flattered that he was even thinking of me at all. I thought maybe this is how he treats his friends. Now I might fit that definition. 

And is it strange to say I felt closer to him? I’ve learned that cruelty is a form of intimacy, forced on people whether they like it or not, and in my loneliness, I don’t know I minded it as much as you might think. I should have minded it on principle, but I wasn’t at a place to hold my principles higher than my need for community, and truthfully, I’d been bullied before, many times, so I had a high tolerance for it, even though it had been years.

I replied with one laughing/crying emoji and Hah! Thanks for that. Then I slugged down the bourbon and poured myself another glass.


Richard continued to send me the memes monthly, a day or two after my lectures. In my weekly meetings with my therapist Dani, a non-binary fifty-something, Richard kept coming up in conversation, without me even realizing it. The more I talked with them about the situation, the more I realized how confused and upset I was. One day we met at their office downtown, both of us in masks, sun streaming through the windows and warming my back. I sat on the couch and while they sat in a wicker chair with a lime green cushion, wearing their usual Birkenstocks, tight black jeans, and colorful blouse, with their auburn hair in a pixie cut. They asked me what I thought might happen if I talked to Richard about the memes. 

“I don’t know. I-I’ve never seen him confronted by anyone before, or ever mention it happening. I guess he sometimes talks about mistakes he’s made in the past, s-s-s-so I know it has happened.” 

“Do you think it would be a good idea?” They set their laptop down on the coffee table and slid their legs beneath them on the chair. This was a sign they were ready to move from discussing my symptoms, which needed to be tracked, to the part of our sessions where we explored what was on my heart.

“Maybe. Y-Yeah, probably.”

“Then what’s stopping you? I mean that as a question, not a challenge. What is it, precisely, that is keeping you, and has kept you, from letting him know how it makes you feel?”

“I don’t know. I j-j-just feel like if I understood why he was doing it, it would be okay.”

“Do you think this should be okay?”

“I know it’s not. But, I don’t know,” I said, tailing off. What if Richard took it the wrong way? “I can’t burn this bridge. I f-f-feel like the church is all I’ve got.”

They blinked a few times and squinted. I knew they wanted to say that it wasn’t worth it, that I should get out, that this was fucked up, but they wanted me to come to that on my own. They knew I deferred to other people’s opinions way too much, which is one of the reasons I had gotten into this situation in the first place. 

This sense of belonging was important because as the pandemic dragged on, admissions plummeted at the progressive seminary where I taught church history, and it had recently closed its doors. I didn’t want to try and find another seminary job in a different city, because the pandemic made building a new, in-person relationships nearly impossible. As I mentioned, I had a strong community at Richard’s church, which—importantly—had a large young adult ministry. For people like me, young adult ministries were the best place to find a spouse. I hadn’t given up looking for a woman to marry who shared my faith. I was 38, older than most of the attendees, but they didn’t hold it against me. On top of that, I was already profoundly depressed. It was difficult enough for me to leave the house, much less change my life. So I applied for local jobs, and the week before I’d accepted one at the tech company Coaster as a copyeditor which, though boring and mostly remote, paid as well as the seminary.

Dani nodded. “It makes sense that you don’t want to burn bridges. But I have a challenge for you. I want you to try to access the pain that you feel more deeply. I know that you pray. Perhaps as a start, you pray that you can feel it, and wait, and be mindful. Let’s try for a few minutes. Do you want any ice?” If I was very anxious, sometimes Dani would go to the office kitchen and get me two ice cubes to squeeze in my hands over a trash bin, extremes in temperature being a good way to reset one’s mind.

“I think I’m okay w-w-without it.” I bowed my head and closed my eyes and tried to pay attention to body. My pulse had quickened, as had my breath. I tried to feel the fears, like they said, but it was confusing and unsettling. I was like a dolphin chasing a school of fish in a nature documentary I’d seen. The moment I approached, they’d all scatter. After a few minutes, I opened my eyes. “It’s hard.”

“You don’t need to figure this all out today,” they said. “Spend some time doing it at home. But Francis, I want to throw this out there: maybe Richard needs to hear this. I would call what he’s doing bullying, or even abuse. You say he’s otherwise a nice guy. Maybe this will be a gift to him. All of us have our blind spots. Maybe he’ll change, and the same thing won’t happen to someone else.”

Dani thought I was being bullied, an idea I rejected at once. Abuse? I’d put up with bullies all throughout school, but they were most, if not all, malicious—none of them were nice, like Richard. I wondered if I’d given him enough credit in my sessions with Dani, if I’d portrayed an accurate picture, if I’d intentionally misled them, in my insecurity making this bigger than it really was. I wondered if my need for compassion from them was misshaping the truth.

But the question remained: Why was he doing this, and to me? I concluded I had to know, whether the behavior stopped or not.


I met Richard at a coffee shop just past the north end of Seattle, one that was black-owned, one the church had given money to help start. Richard’s church had some of the trappings of an evangelicalism, like a rock band instead of a choir, movie theater seating instead of pews, and a younger crowd, but it also had an intellectual bent. There in line, Richard wore tan Carhart pants, a gray, North Face t-shirt with a silhouette of a mountain, and a retro Mariners cap. He would fit in anywhere in the Pacific Northwest as a basic, normal, middle-to-upper-middle-class white person, like most everyone else in the church—including me—but more rugged. Or gentle. It’s tough for me describe him. There are some people you can see and understand quickly and others who are elusive. But he looked you in the eyes when he talked, and when you talked, he squinted a bit, as if he were really listening hard to what you said. There are very few people who make me feel as if they want to know me, and not just be polite. 

He greeted the manager, a rail-thin twenty-something with a faux hawk, and she came from behind the counter and gave him a big hug. 

“Free coffee for this guy,” she said. 

“Give it to the person behind me,” he said, meaning me. 

We sat down near the window, and he asked how my preparations for my next lecture were going. He told me about one of his son’s select soccer experience, how intense it was, how youth soccer was becoming less of a sport and more of a lifestyle. He took a sip of his coffee and smiled at me. “So what do I owe this pleasure?”

“I have something I want to d-d-discuss with you.” I’d rehearsed this conversation in my head countless times, feeling each one. I was no longer prescribed benzodiazepines for sleep due to my passive suicidality, so I had stayed awake all night, trying to distract myself with television, books, internet games and videos—you name it. I was exhausted.

“Sure thing. Is this ministry related?”

“Well, it’s more p-personal.”

“Good. Good. I get so tired of talking church business all the time. I feel like I never get the chance really to know the people who attend and serve as volunteers.”

I took a small sip of coffee. I felt lightheaded. “It’s about the m-m-memes you send me after my lectures.”

He grinned and leaned back in his chair, resting his hands on his lap. “Hah! You like those?”

“Well, that’s the thing. It’s not that I don’t think they’re funny in their own way, I just don’t understand why you do them. Sometimes I think, w-w-well, that I’m a kind of joke to you.”

He looked shocked. “No no no. Not at all. I have a deep respect for you. You know the Bible better than I do, for crying out loud. No, I just think you have one of those faces.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like you have these, I don’t know, expressions. You have such an expressive face. I was telling my wife that you could be a character actor. Like someone on Saturday Night Live. Like a Steve Buscemi. It’s fantastic.”

“But the c-c-caption, with me stuttering.”

“Oh, that’s all part of what I’m saying. It’s just a joke. I thought you’d get a kick out of it. You’ve never seemed like a guy who took himself too seriously. I do these memes for a handful of folks who aren’t all uptight like a lot of the people at church.”

“It’s just that, well, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m not s-s-saying you’re a bad person…”

He waited for me.

“Well, it’s like this. I’ve worked in churches before. Most p-p-people don’t take this kind of joke very well. And if the elders and staff at the church were to see these, knowing what I’ve been going through, well, they would think it was inappropriate.” 

He blinked. “Is that a threat?”

“N-n-no, not at all, I’d never do that. But it’s just if you are doing this to people, and it gets out, you’d be in big trouble. Like s-s-say someone gets mad at you and posts it on Facebook and tags you and the church…you could lose your job.”

He stared at me, squinting, scanning my face. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop. I can respect that. You’re probably right.” He leaned back and stretched, but the move looked, in hindsight, contrived. “Thanks for the insight. I consider you a friend and you’ve done what friends do: offer wise council.”

“Thank you.” I felt relieved, to say the least. I almost felt like crying. I wanted to hug him, to apologize for even bringing it up. 

He checked his phone. “Hey, someone needs me. I have to go. But thanks for this.”

We both left, him to his Subaru Outback, me to my Toyota Corolla. At home, I felt good about it, so much so that I emailed Dani and they emailed me right back with Wonderful! This is a big step. I’m so glad you’re being more assertive. Let’s talk more about it in our next session. I went on a walk that night and sang worshipful songs under my breath and praised God. Richard had called me a friend, and I’d helped him avoid a potential pitfall. The opposite of what I’d feared happened. We’d become closer.


A week later, I received an email from Richard’s secretary, telling me that the ministry meeting about the lecture series had been canceled. A few days after that, she sent an email out to the ministry saying that the elders of the church had decided to go a different direction with the event, they were now going to hold monthly prayer and healing services instead. It said the needs of the community had changed. I was disappointed and immediately feared it was because of our conversation. 

After his sermon the next Sunday, I approached him as he was gathering his notes from the lectern. 

He looked up and smiled. He wore black Converse all-stars, tight blue jeans, and a royal blue t-shirt with a thick, lime-green band, the t-shirt a nod to the fact that Seahawks had an afternoon game in a few hours. “Francis. Franky. Frank-man. So good to see you. Hey, I’m sorry the elders changed the event. There are a lot of people still hurting in the aftermath of the pandemic whose pain isn’t being addressed, and we feel called to fill that need. You understand. You’ve been through a lot yourself.”

“Yes. I j-j-just wanted to thank you for the opportunity over the last few years. It’s really m-m-meant a lot to me.”

“It’s meant a lot to me, too. Hey, I have to get to a meeting. Let’s catch up sometime soon, okay?”

“Sounds good.”

Is there a better feeling than that first sense of peace when a conflict is resolved? Is there a better feeling than that cool relief, besides love? I stuck around at the potluck after church and stayed to the very end, even helped clean up. Richard had acted normally, perhaps with more warmth than usual, and had asked me catch up, so it truly wasn’t about me. He’d said that in a sermon before, that humans have the tendency to make everything about them, when in reality, it rarely is. He said we must keep our focus on Christ—it’s him who lives through us; if we follow our self, it will lead us only to pain.

But a week later, at ten on a Tuesday, I received a phone call from the associate pastor in charge of the young adult ministry, a tall guy with slicked back hair and an undercut, who wore tight, highwater jeans and flannel shirts opened two buttons down, showing his collar bone. I could hear voices in the background of the phone; he was probably just out of a church meeting. He told me that it was time to move on from the young adult group at church. He told me I was the oldest person there—now 39—and they’d decided in the session meeting to make a hard age limit of 35. They didn’t want to make the younger women uncomfortable. No one had mentioned my name, specifically, but there was a general sense among them that there needed to be some adjustments.  

“I know you understand,” he said. “You’re a critical part of this church and we want you involved. Maybe spend some time just being a pew sitter for a little while, pray for new vision on where to go next in your volunteer ministry.”

I hung up the phone, and felt not disappointed, but confused, embarrassed, and ashamed. Was this because of me? Of what I said? My therapy appointment with Dani was at noon, so I drove to their office and told them right away.

They paused for a moment, considering what I’d said. It was windy outside, and rain dripped down the windows.

“Do I need to be worried?” I asked.

“How involved are you there now?”

“Well, I’m not, really. I only g-g-go to services on Sunday.”

They paused again and looked up, mouth pursed, as if they were thinking whether they should say anything, or if so, how they should say it. Finally, they said, “I don’t know. I don’t really know church culture that well, so you probably have a better gauge on this than I do. But I think you need to be prepared for the possibility that you’re being pushed out. I’m sorry, Francis.”

This stunned me. I was unable to speak. Dani handed me the tissue box and waited. I often depended upon Dani for clarity in situations I didn’t understand. I doubted myself as a rule, doubted my ability to perceive a situation honestly. Part of this is my mood disorder. There’s always this doubt in my mind: am I seeing this scenario for what it is, or is it distorted by my depression? 

In the end, it didn’t matter. I still attended on Sundays, but I couldn’t help catastrophizing. Were there women there at that moment who I’d creeped out? Did Richard now hate me? Was I considered a wolf among the sheep? The building paranoia was too much, so a few weeks later, I left the church. No one followed up to see why I’d left, or how I was doing. Silence.

After work, every night, for the better part of a year, I festered over it. Now that I wasn’t in any sort of leadership position that demanded I stay sober, I drank with authority. I grew heavier, less attractive than I already was, and gave up on finding someone. I stopped reading the Bible and praying, angry with God that this was happening. I stopped going to therapy with Dani, despite her urgings not to. I blamed them for suggesting I have that conversation with Richard. I decided, in response to all of this, that my only option was to meet every need for pleasure that my paycheck would allow, and once it was done, if my body didn’t give out, I would crush all my pills, swallow them, and bid farewell. 

But I didn’t only wither. I grew angry at Richard with a dark energy. I wanted to send the photos to the elders at the church to get back at him. A human being must decide, over and over in their life, whether to seek justice or to protect others from what they’ve done. I could be like Jesus—like Richard so often urged us to—but which Jesus? The one giving mercy so gentle it might spark change? Or a severe mercy, hard as flint but able to spark that same change just as effectively? And what would each decision do to me?

The arguments didn’t matter, in the end. One night I was angry and depressed, and I drank myself into a fury. I know now my temptation to drink is simple: I so often feel powerless, and being drunk is the only state in which I have enough of an ego to feel my heart is worth defending. But sometimes there’s a cost, and there was that night. I wrote a letter explaining my mental illness, my speech impediment, my involvement in the church, what Richard had done, and then my being pushed out. I pasted it into an email and attached every meme Richard ever made of me, as well as screencaps of the emails to prove I hadn’t made them myself. I titled the email Beloved Local Pastor Bullies Suicidal Volunteer Throughout the Pandemic and sent it to The Stranger and The Seattle Times—I don’t actually remember that part, but when I woke up around noon the next day, I had replies from both newspapers saying they were going to do some research and try to find others to interview and, if all checked out, they would run the story as soon as possible. I tried to convince them otherwise, but it was too late. They shared the articles, and the rest of the nation soon picked up the story as well. It was only by seeing those pictures on the screen beneath the header of the New York Times that I realized how incredibly cruel Richard was for sending those pictures of me. 

But, as the attention grew more intense, I also realized how foolish it was for me to make it public in the way I had. Somehow people got my email address and I received dozens of messages, some of them requests to speak or appear or be interviewed, some of them making fun of me. I drank and drank, and avoided the computer and my phone, but I never could keep away for long. It felt at times like I was reading my own obituary, over and over. To some I was a hero, to others I was a joke. I didn’t know who I was anymore, either. But in the eyes of the world, I realized, I’d now been defined by the very photos that I hated the most. I could have erased them, but in revenge, I’d done the opposite—and now what I wished didn’t exist would never go away, and I’d be defined not just as a victim, but as someone sad, inept, unable to defend himself. Weak. I’d let it go on for so long. 

Two weeks after it came out, I made my way to a bridge and stood looking over the side, and soon cars had stopped and I was being pulled back from the guard rail, and then the police arrived, and a few hours later I found myself in the inpatient hospital ward. I was there two months, and was nurtured by the staff and counselors, as well as others like me. Once I improved enough, I was able to get some distance from the entire situation, enough to realize that I needed to change my own life, and not depend on people like Richard to do it for me. I stopped drinking for good. I moved from my apartment near the north end of the city into the quiet, middle-class suburbs to the south. I grew a beard and always wore a hat. I closed all my email accounts, changed my phone number, changed my name, and got a job doing paperwork for a shipping company outside the city. I bought a software program that would allow me to block any website that might say something about me or was connected in any way to my previous life. I read news only from Europe, where my story had less traction, and avoided those from the States.

Instead of trying to find another church, I attended a mindfulness gathering every week and went on long retreats, in the silence feeling the emotions inside of me slowly, slowly, begin to dissipate. I attended three group therapy meetings a week and volunteered often at the homeless shelter downtown, and soon felt part of a community of people who were like me. While volunteering I met LeeAnne, a transplant from the south who reminded me of Dani in her warmth. I felt I could trust her enough to tell her what had happened, and she accepted me completely. She’d been bullied as a teenager, so she understood what it was like. We grew close but decided never to become romantic with each other. I’d given up on those sorts of relationships, and we weren’t attracted to each other in that way, which is its own gift. She’s still my closest friend.

One night, a few years later, while we were watching PBS Newshour in her apartment on a Friday night, I decided I was ready to make contact with Richard.

“Are you sure?” LeeAnne said. She swept her hair from her shoulder and leaned forward on her Lazyboy.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s time.”

“I believe in you.”

 She handed me her laptop. I sat down, took a deep breath, and tried to find Richard. I had to sift through a lot of articles, and as I saw the memes and read my name, over and over, I could feel that old discomfort, confusion, and pain in my chest. LeeAnne could tell I was distressed and came over and sat next to me. It seemed that Richard had never given an interview, never publicly apologized—there was only the statement of the church, which has since changed its name and location, just like I did. I found his wife on Facebook. Though her account was private, I could still see the profile pic, which was her with another man who was much taller than Richard, but still dressed like him. He looked, well, dorky and trustworthy. Whether he was that, I could no longer tell. I have trouble trusting men. 

After some more digging, I found him on Twitter, of all places. His profile photo was a meme of a donkey and elephant fighting, and his posts were mean-spirited, belligerent, and sometimes attacked the church in all its forms. He had a large following, which wasn’t surprising, given his gift for language and people. But that cruel part of him that sent me those memes was still there. I scrolled through his posts and read parts to LeeAnne. 

“Should I message him?” I asked.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “Honey, you have to. For you.”

I quickly made an account so I could reply.

Dear Richard,

This is Francis. I want you to know that I forgive you for what you did, and I hope you will forgive me for my part in it. I would like to talk to you, whether in person or over the phone. I know I have a lot to say and I’m guessing you might, too.

Best wishes.

I left my phone number. I watched the message for a little while and was notified that he had seen it. I waited for a reply, for maybe for an hour, and nothing. I checked it incessantly over the next few days with no luck. Then I logged on about a week later and discovered I had been blocked. But after few more days, I got a phone call from a 616 area code, western Michigan, and though I figured it was a spam call, I knew from his Twitter account that he lived in Grand Rapids, so I took the call.  

“Is this Francis?”

I recognized him immediately, but his voice glistened, like someone drunk. “Yes. Is th-th-this Richard?”

“Still got that pathetic stutter, I see. You know, most people can get over that. You probably keep it so you can get people’s pity.”

“I, I, I d-d-don’t know what you’re talking—”

“—whatever. It doesn’t matter. I don’t really want to talk to you. I just want you to know you ruined my life. You and your sensitive, precious little heart. You ruined my marriage, my career, my family. Everything. I want you to live with that. I want that to seep into your bones and haunt you forever.”

He hung up before I could reply.

I remember a story he told one Sunday morning from the pulpit. He talked of a friend he once knew who was a devoted Christian in college, one who took up partying hard in his fraternity, and soon the friend couldn’t stand to go to the church anymore because he felt so guilty, and eventually he hated the church for judging him, and eventually he hated God for the same, when all the while what he truly hated was himself. He committed suicide, Richard said, because he believed in God but didn’t believe in himself enough to follow him. Too simple of an answer, I realize now.

I don’t know whether I will ever hear from him again. I have no plans to search for him, at least not now, but I’m not so foolish as to think I never will. Sometimes I imagine him calling me, and us going to the coffee shop and telling the truth to each other. I imagine what it would be like if he started another church, knowing what he knows now. A church led by someone who understood what it means to be cruel, and what can happen when we use our power to take liberties, to bully. I imagine us sitting next to each other in front of a congregation and telling our painful stories. I imagine redemption. I still have hope, which is part of how I got into this situation in the first place. I hoped I was wrong about Richard, hoped to the point of delusion, hoped to the point of betraying myself. 

I believe our dark, painful, unredeemed stories have their own desire, apart from our will. They become weary of being tragic. I believe they want to arc toward the light and resolve into it. That’s why the dark stories replay over and over. Those memories want us to help them reach the light and then become it. It’s the reason we need photographs and friends to bring forth the good memories—they’ve left us, already having found their homes. But the dark ones remain, unsettled. Restless. They arise as pain, again and again, in our bodies and in our minds. They want to be free. Only then can they free us. 

For the most part, I’ve moved on. Occasionally I see the memes, and they don’t affect me the way they used to. But the truth is, I’ve had times of peace, but I’ve never felt free. I don’t even know what that would feel like anymore. I pray I lose hope in him.


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