Many years ago I knew a lamb named Flūther. But the lamb who lost his life when I was a girl recently returned to haunt me, as a long-lost shadow resurrected through the alembic of memory. Flūther’s fate has since accompanied me on an odyssey, a discovery of new facts and a recovery of the scuttled truths of the past. It is this peculiar process of ethical ‘conversion’ — which many of us have shared — that I wish to explore here for the benefit of the animal rights community. I call this turning point a ‘transversion,’ because the similar term — ‘conversion’—is so weighted with religious connotations, and because the form this transformation takes is a more cognitively challenging and radical one than the conversion to long-established spiritual traditions. This state of psychic transformation is what I call the “Flūther Transversion” in honor of the lamb that I once knew. The more vegetarian and vegan advocates share and understand this critical juncture in our lives, the easier it will be to help and educate others along the path to enlightenment and therefore animal emancipation. For some the ‘Flūther Transversion’ can last a few minutes, a few hours, a few weeks or longer; for others it can evolve in increments, punctuated by various incidents — but also lapses — even over a span of years before it reaches its moral crescendo. Yet in the course of a long lifetime one can still categorize what is almost always felt to be a noticeable before and after “moment” in one’s very sense of existence. Many vegans and vegetarians seem to refer back to the Eureka moment or episode that changed their lives forever: when a perhaps latent benevolence towards animals jolted into a searing realization of what the conditions are like for scores of billions of animals on earth. The “Flūther Transversion” can be a bolt-upright epiphany, almost mystical in its intensity. It can seem akin to the rapture in spiritual testimonials so well documented by William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” And as with Saul on the road to Damascus, the person doesn’t see the cataclysm coming. The implacable ordinariness of the preceding day or days also seems striking after the fact. You wake up on a typical Tuesday morning — just as you did on any other day — and suddenly an event occurs, one that will be recalled as a rite of passage that dramatically changes your destiny. By Wednesday you are a different person entirely. The first shock waves of emotion can be very powerful, almost violent in their affect, and certainly in their effect. Handkerchiefs seem in short supply at that moment. People speak of unstoppable tears, of a state of protracted sobbing. There is quite often a precipitous shift of spiritual-like force that leaves the person experiencing the transition with a sense of one’s life divided forever, with a ‘before’ the full consciousness and the ‘after.’
Storm Surge of Reality
The Flūther Transversion leaves us feeling overwhelmed with an all too glaring clarity of the truth on earth. What feels like a long-term state of denial collapses as we surrender—that surrendering a state described by the Greeks as kenosis — to the reality we suddenly see we’ve denied, and it pummels us with a realization that takes many forms of the full scope of animal suffering on this planet. The enormity of the violence done to animals is vividly experienced and can feel like a psychic annihilation, though this can later be followed by catharsis. But how the epiphany occurs may not in fact be quite as instantaneous as it seems, and we can parse out and break it down into various stages of transformation. Let us now look at these processes, and what follows, more closely.
1. The Catalyst
This Flūther Transversion first requires a catalyst. In the past (when we lived closer to nature and to animals), the catalyst usually consisted of witnessing an act of cruelty to live animals. Tolstoy and Kafka have written of such incidents. But contemporary Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen recounts just such an experience:
“I came to the vegan world from the carnivorous world of truncated ignorance. Who would have thought that lightening would strike? I was an investment banker… I received a mandate from a major conglomerate and visited their various operations, one of which turned out to be a slaughterhouse. It was the most shocking, terrifying and violent experience of my life. It was tangible proof of the abject failure of human beings to develop empathy for the suffering of other living beings… The sheer horror that morning affected me profoundly.”
In the 20th century, The Flūther Transversion might also come about by reading a book about animal welfare, or flipping a page until your eyes fell on a particularly heart-rending newspaper article. Or it’s a banal encounter with lunch at a fast food joint. Animal activist Dr. Steve Best recounts an incident in the late 1970’s that altered the course of his life:
“My own epiphany, the one that led me down the path of veganism and ultimately to a position of animal consciousness, happened 25 years ago in a White Castle fast food restaurant (talk about profane spaces!) in Chicago as I was biting into a double cheeseburger. As I usually ordered just a single cheeseburger, the double was so excessive, so over the top, so absolutely dripping with gore and vile, that I was completely nauseated. For the first time in my carnivorous life I made a concrete connection between the processed slop in my hands and the bones, tissues, muscles, tendons, blood, and life of an animal. With no prior knowledge of vegetarian issues – no contact with any book, video, speaker, or person of this persuasion – I threw the burger out in utter revulsion.”
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the catalyst can still spring from any of these. But statistically the decisive instant is more than likely to happen while you’re idly surfing the Internet and stumble on a video that gives you metaphysical whiplash. Social media — especially Facebook and YouTube — have precipitated dramatic Flūther Transversions for any number of the non-initiated. Numerous Internet and Facebook postings have testified to Flūther Transversions when people watched the documentary ‘Earthlings’. In an interview in 2010 the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres described her transformation into vegetarian: “I forced myself to watch Earthlings. You see that and you go ‘I can’t participate in that.’… I saw the reality, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
2. Stepping Stones to Memory
If the Flūther Transversion seems to include a sudden discovery of enormous ‘spatial’ proportions—a sudden sense of the breadth of the problem — it also appears to include a temporal one as well. On the heels of the catalyst, the person appears very soon thereafter — again within minutes or hours—to experience a series of ‘flashbacks.’ One after the other, memories surge up through the forgotten years, like flat stones skipping over the surface of the awoken mind. This component of memory seems almost primordial, so that the Flūther Transversion is often described as a “suddenly remembering” or of “no longer forgetting.” Many describe it as a waking up from a deep sleep. This state of “recovery” of the past is often a re-connection with an earlier incident, or incidents even from early childhood. The retrieval process may involve either a deep and early kinship with a pet or an act of indifference or cruelty to a pet or farm animal. In spite of years or decades having passed, the memories that burst forth during the Flūther Transversion are unusually vivid and sensorial. Hollywood actor turned activist Joaquin Phoenix can recount even decades later just such an early childhood memory about a fishing trip that would return to haunt him years later:
“I was 3 years old—to this day it is a vivid memory. My family and I were on a boat, catching fish. As one fish was caught, he was writhing, then he was thrown against the side of the boat. You couldn’t disguise what it was: This was what we did to animals to eat them. The animal went from a living, vibrant creature fighting for life to a violent death. I recognized it, as did my brothers and sisters.”
The Flūther Transversion may also be experienced as an overwhelming recollection of time passing, of the years of passive acceptance of the utilitarian status quo, the willful pushing away of the truth even if punctuated by ephemeral moments of doubt. And this is just the beginning.
3. Heightened Sense and Awareness
The most dramatic long-term element that is a component and a consequence of the Flūther Transversion, alluded too in the paragraph earlier, is a brand-new perception of life and the world we live in. This new wide angle zoom encompasses, we have seen, a more or less instantaneous and intuitive perception of the magnitude of the suffering of all animals on earth. Barbara Stagno, of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals, has talked of suddenly looking at the world with “X-ray vision.” Philip Wollen eloquently describes this new vision, shared by so many of those who have lived through the Flūther Transversion:
“I began seeing every mundane piece of daily life’s experience through the prism of animal cruelty. Passing a crowded restaurant, and knowing that it concealed a smorgasbord of murderous opportunities. Seeing an attractive woman at the ballet and being repulsed by the sight of her fur coat. Knowing that every butcher shop was a retailer of body parts from murder victims; every fast food chain… every bit as lethal.”
This is the decisive moment when someone who has been omnivore becomes a vegetarian, often instantaneously. Eating with friends and family becomes a sordid sensory ordeal, sometimes edging towards the hallucinatory or surreal; as one of the vegetarian banners proclaims: “When you look at a hamburger, you see your meal. When I look at a hamburger I see a dying cow.” Sociologist Melanie Joy has compared this dual vision to looking at a well-known example of an optical illusion. When you first look you see a neoclassical urn or vase. Then it is pointed out to you that the picture is not just of an urn. Looked at ‘differently’ another image surges, obliterating the first: there in front of your face is the silhouette of two people looking at each other. Once you see the two faces, you can never forget them. That is also a hallmark of the Flūther Transversion.
4. Grief and Guilt
Either concurrent or following the shift in understanding is a profound state of grief and guilt: Grief at your sudden understanding of the enormity of suffering you have discovered. For older adults, this period of mourning may be accompanied by a sense of deep shame that the Flūther Transversion didn’t happen earlier for you, and your guilt that you allowed yourself to repel the inconvenient truth. A sense too of wasted time, years where you could have made a difference. These aftershocks — just as with a geological earthquake — can last hours to days or even longer. Like the stages of grief outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the grief may take a number of forms, or flip-flop back and forth, like a fish agonizing out of water.
The Fluther Transversion: After Effects
Usually following the cataclysmic experience, a brand new palette of perception, the painful stepping stones of cascading recall, the grief and guilt, come other milder aftershocks.
A sudden desire to scour websites, read books, and gain knowledge about the facts of animal use and abuse only increases the sense of indignation at seeing what others seem still so willfully blind to; there is an almost frenzied desire to fix things, immediately. Learning of the abuse to milking cows and egg-laying hens is usually the prompt for many vegetarians to become vegan. Newly minted, we may forget how blind we were as well. Like the religious convert, the neophyte animal rights convert sometimes can’t stop talking about the suffering of animals, proclaiming it far and wide; every decision is passed audibly through the filter of “What would a vegan/vegetarian do?” Meals with others become battlegrounds, implicitly or explicitly, and one’s daily habits and social life face upheaval. Vegans are greeted with so many of the same silly remarks that an inside joke circulating is a kind of Bingo game of the most typical retorts, e.g. “Well, don’t plants have feelings too?!”
The Flūther Transversion seems to be followed sooner or later for most vegetarians and vegans by a slump, a period of alienation from the status quo of early 21st century society. No matter how kindly you were disposed to human beings before the Flūther Transversion, the recovery of the truth inevitably creates a distance from family and friends who are still the same old meat-eaters and still — in spite of our protestations—apparently indifferent to the lot of animals on earth. Vegans and vegetarians handle the collective silence or even anger they are greeted with in a number of ways. The Flūther ‘transvert’ may feel like Cassandra, punished by having no one understand or see what they can see. It becomes only natural then — and is clearly documented — that vegetarians and vegans who have lived or are currently living through the same experience quickly seek out others who have lived through the same transversion. Joy Graysen, a young woman new to a vegan discussion group — and clearly having been caught in the throes of a Flūther Transversion — spoke vividly of this deep sense of discovered kinship:
“I’m so grateful for my vegan friends and my friends who are on that path… It feels like I’m being reunited with my indigenous relatives, from a land where we all once lived… where an evil spell was cast that sent us all into a terrible and deep slumber, buried beneath leaden blankets of lies and deception… Those of us who have been able to awaken, or who are in the process, are true brothers and sisters. We have had the power to wade through the mud of unconsciousness and be who we used to be, whom we were supposed to be… It is impossible to deliver an adequate salutation to my long lost family, whom I have missed sorely, so i will use this one – Namaste.”
To an outsider, this might seem like adolescent hyperbole. To someone who has lived through that same magnitude of discovery and sense of alienation, Joy’s words capture evocatively that state of mind.
Since the first step following a Flūther Transversion is often a decision to become — usually instantly—vegetarian, relief at this decision is followed in time by a sense of physical well-being. This sense seems to increase for those who transition to veganism. The Flūther Transversion, with its catalyst(s), flood of memories, deep anguish, and alienation, may also be followed at some point by a sense of energy and renewal. It may be an often-transcendent feeling of all the “pieces” of one’s life — of one’s anxiety, one’s compassion, one’s lack of focus — suddenly falling into place. If before the epiphany of the Flūther Transversion, you had felt useless, or trivial, or nagged by a sense of inadequacy and wastefulness, now suddenly you may have a vigorous sense of purpose. You fret only briefly over whether to throw out your leather shoes or give them away to charity. At this juncture—which can last from days to years — you may feel galvanized to make up for lost time, and to compensate for the collective unconscious of the society at large. Like Alice Walker, you may find deep “joy” in the path of ‘resistance to evil.’ Depending on the nature of the catalyst and one’s own memories one may suddenly enlist in areas of advocacy, either for welfare reform for specific animals or single causes. Or the Flūther Transversion continues apace, and by the end of this last seismic transformation, many vegans tend to militate more generally for fundamental rights of animals and their place alongside us in the world.
The intense identification with animals’ sufferings may be accompanied sooner or later by a profound transformation, often cerebral: the realization—or to use that worn out phrase—a paradigm shift — of how one views the world on a philosophical plane, or what the Germans called Weltanschauung. For the person moving into this phase, the mostly western Judeo/Christian-generated hierarchy of man at the top of an ethnocentric pyramid, having dominion over all animals, is blasted into ideological smithereens. The person here must pass through a genuine and sometimes protracted period of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to realize that on an evolutionary scale we humans are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than our fellow animals; we realize that those are speciesist prejudices, and that we haven’t in fact any intrinsic or innate rights over them any more than they do over us. The move here from speciesist is not only the obvious—animals must not be abused—but also: animals are not in fact our property, they are not ours to use. As a poster so clearly makes explicit: it is a diametrically different view of our existence as we move from an ‘ego-centric’ to ‘eco-centric’ perspective. People who have moved into the realm of animal rights often describe this final transition also as an ‘awakening,’ or of being “newly born.” Someone may say more simply “I suddenly got it.” Depending on their exposure to the facts, or the catalyst itself, many vegetarians may thus become vegan directly. But it would appear that the majority of people who pass from vegetarianism to veganism do so from a cognitive stage and at different rates.
It was only natural that since my own Flūther Transversion occurred by my using social media, I wished to create a community page as a place of record for all, whether vegetarian or vegan, to share and discuss their own epiphanies. I named the facebook page ‘The Flūther Transversion-An Animal Rights Epiphany,’ in honor of Flūther but also to honor every lamb, and every animal. How we become vegan is significant, the moment when our spirit suddenly lurches forward and we understand that we have bent and distorted reality through social conditioning to suit our purposes, and that it is high time we change. A close look at when and how that psychic earthquake transforms us will help us to help others along the path to ethical redemption.