I should be careful writing this post, the Westboro Baptist Church just may have religious spies trolling the internet. Perhaps I’ll be added to their ‘hate list’ or whatever it’s called. I suppose I shouldn’t have to worry that much; for one I’m Canadian. Secondly, I didn’t just release a memoir chronicling my years in the WBC until I was kicked out for reasons that are rather flimsy. No, that would be Lauren Drain, a registered nurse in Connecticut who just wrote “Banished: Surviving My Years in The Westboro Baptist Church”, which is about, well just what the title says.
You may be surprised that there are people in the church not with the last name Phelps. At one point there were three non-Phelps families. Lauren and her family moved to Topeka in 2001 when she was 14. She was kicked out in 2008, but her mother, father, and three siblings (two of whom were born in the church) are still a part of that freakezoid cult. What’s interesting is Drain’s family history. She grew up in Florida in a rather liberal, non-religious family. Her father was a filmmaker who was working on a documentary, Hatemongers, about the WBC, when everything changed. The contrast and change her parents go through is remarkably shocking.
The book itself is interesting. It took me a while to finish and a good deal of time to get into. Drain is not a natural writer and it shows. A good first portion of the book is made up of simple sentences and ideas, although the second is rather quite meaty and juicy – perhaps because there were so many absurd and horrific details about what life was like inside the church. It’s as if Drain got more comfortable with writing as the book progressed.
The story is not necessarily an expose or whistle-blowing. The members of the WBC are portrayed in the media as kooky anti-gay religious zealots with a penchant for picketing funerals. Church spokesman Shirley Phelps-Roeper doesn’t dispute that. But they are God‘s people after all and the rest of us just don’t understand. But the are things Drains mentions that aren’t known to the general public. Several of the girls in the church (Drain included) picketed their own high-school graduation. (Which begs the question if the church thought it was a fag-enabling school, why did they send their kids there rather than homeschool them). Drain also explains why Phelps clan members are forgiven more frequently whenever one of them commits a sin or transgression.
Drain also insinuates that Fred Phelps, father of the church might be gay himself. Now, I’m not one to start a conspiracy theory, but there are certain elements to his backstory that put the puzzle together. As a young man, Phelps was a West Point cadet with dreams of a career in the military. After one summer, he abruptly quit, came home, declared homosexuals to be the most vile thing on earth, and started preaching. Given that he protests soldiers’ funerals and has a very anti-military streak, one cannot help but wonder if he was sexually assaulted by a male colleague or superior at West Point. It would make sense. It would also be really quite juicy if he himself is the father of Shirley’s illegitimate son Sam.
I suppose it is unfair to make these accusations against the WBC; after all, every story has two sides. Except that the church doesn’t deny half the things Drain says. They freely admit to their antics. Drain was very brave in telling her story. What I found most interesting was when she detailed her life after she left. She still believed in God, and was, in many ways, politically conservative (or at the very least libertarian when it came to gay marriage and abortion). She struggled to survive on her own until her mid-twenties and is still uncomfortable in many social situations.
Is the Westboro Baptist Church a brainwashing cult? To the outside observer, most definitely. But perhaps Fred or Shirley should write a book so that we, as a society, can understand where they are coming from. Drain did not release a ton of new information, nor is she the strongest writer, but it was a story she needed to tell. Overall, I enjoyed the read, primarily because I enjoy stories about crazy people. However, I did feel that the book lagged a fair bit in the first half. But for someone as unseasoned as Drain, it was a solid effort. She is 28 now, engaged and working as a nurse in Connecticut. I’m sure she still has demons, but I am glad to see she seems to be doing alright.
“Banished: Survivng My Years In the Westboro Baptist Church” was released March 5th, 2013 by Grand Central Publishing. It was co-authored by award-winning journalist and author Lisa Pulitzer.