March 25th, 2019


Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church

Ah, the WBC. I've seen them in protests plenty of times when I was a gay rights activist and they had me just totally confused, then I started just shaking my head and adding them to the tally of statewide embarrassments that us Kansans wish would go away. A lot of us think they're a money-making scheme. They're lawyers, if you punch them they sue you, step 3 profit. And you really want to punch them.

There are plenty of former WBC members who've left the church, at least four of Fred Phelps' 13 children have left; Nathan Phelps is a well-known gay rights activist. Lauren Drain's book "Banished" was recommended to me and I was curious just HOW you get out of a nutball cult. Once I got into it I could not put it down. It's part material that you could do a comedy routine with because the church is so random in the things it hates... like Sweden, and haircuts, and every other church ever. They even started fights with other anti-gay churches. Religiously speaking they're calvinists, who believe God has chosen a few (very few) people who might get into heaven if they repent and spread his word, and his word is that he hates everyone else and they're going to hell. The purpose of the picketing isn't even to save people... they really just want everyone in America to know that God hates us and we're all going to hell. Just passing the information along, have a nice day.

Poor Lauren Drain was 14 years old when her father, who'd always been a bit confusing, controlling, over-confident and kind of weird, met the church doing documentary work and for some reason liked their ideas. I think he was attracted to the idea that they had all the answers. ALL OF THEM. Nobody questioned anything once Fred Phelps declared it. Lauren's father caught her talking to boys online and maybe having a boyfriend and was sure she was heading for a life of sin and hell, so after a trial period of strict rules and homeschool isolation, he moved the whole family to Topeka to join the Westboro Baptists.

Lauren wanted to fit in and get back in the good graces of her family so she studied the scriptures and joined the protests. She didn't want to go to hell. But no matter what she did it was never good enough, the church never really trusted her. She was the same age as some of the phelps grandkids, Megan Phelps' generation, but she had to dress a lot more modestly than them and ask fewer questions. Everything they did was loaded in hypocrisy and inconsistencies and it bugged Lauren. They were certain they knew exactly how and when the world would end, she'd find something in the bible contradictory, they'd say it was her lustful rebellious soul showing through again.

The reason the phelps grandkids existed was because the phelps children were allowed to marry outsiders who promised to join the church, but this was deemed unacceptable for the grandchildren's generation, they were told that marriage was unnecessary because the end of the world was just around the corner, and nobody outside was good enough for them. Lauren was well into her 20s, working as a nurse and corresponding with people who sent the church questions like she was supposed to do, and they decided she'd sent too many emails to a guy her age when they'd made it very clear she cannot ever get married or talk to boys, so they voted her out. She was extremely upset, begging to come back, had panic attacks thinking God was trying to kill her and send her to hell because the hottest part was for former church members. Other church members of the phelps family had kids out of wedlock, Lauren hadn't done anything but they were so suspicious and hateful that she had to go. Her family disowned her, took down all the photos and refused to speak to her, left her at a Topeka motel and said she'd made her choice. This was her father, mother, younger sister by a few years, and baby sister and brother who she'd helped raise.

That's when the story gets away from being a comedy and you realize it's just so sad. She had her teenage years stolen from her, and then her family. Then she lived for years thinking she was an awful whore (they called her that a lot) who was going to hell. Then she slowly, very slowly, started to realize they were very wrong about their biblical interpretations and she was going to be okay. She moved far away and survived. She apologized to the people she'd hurt by picketing, joined the NOH8 campaign, and wrote this book.

It reminds me a lot of what the no longer quivering blog calls spiritual abuse. Subjecting people to horrible situations and reminding them that God wants this so it can't be questioned. Women especially are told they don't deserve power in these fundamentalist churches, that they tempt men, that they must be silent, and after years of brainwashing they're so certain that leaving means eternal damnation that they can't leave. Some of them do leave and their stories come out, but we haven't figured out how to get the rest out, and whatever years and relationships are stolen from them can't ever be replaced.