Thursday, July 31, 2014
THE EARLY DAYS WITH AN ANGRY MAN - PART 2
After my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., had sold insurance for several years, he had amassed enough commissions off the yearly premiums to allow him to stop working and go to law school. He had already transferred credits from Bob Jones and John Muir to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and then taken coursework there to receive his degree. You might say Fred had guts. When he entered Washburn Law School, he had a wife and seven children. When he graduated, his family had grown by three.
Fred was editor of the Law Review and star of the school's moot court. He is remembered by some of the faculty as perhaps the most brilliant student ever to pass through Washburn Law. If the public performance was impressive, however, the private life grew even darker.
It was a very rare occasion when Fred would come anywhere in the house that the kids were. While he was studying the law, he'd fly into rages because we were making noise. Mom would hide us-for the good of all. In fact, Fred began to spend more and more time in his bedroom, cut off from his family except when they were needed to run errands for him; cut off except for his wife, whom he forced to remain with him in his bedroom for days at a time. Apparently Fred’s emotional dependence on my mother was significant. And while he did not seem to have any love or respect for her he required her presence in an almost slave-like capacity. It is hard for me to imagine the damage to my mother’s soul as she had to spend hour after hour in the presence of such a hateful, vicious human being. Its toll on her spirit is hard to imagine.
Mom had to spend the major portion of her day sitting next to Fred in bed, trying to say the right things to keep him calm, while he moaned and complained and railed and carried on all as one who could simply not take care of himself and not act as an adult. He left the older children to take care of the younger ones while he monopolized our mother's time and attention. We were literally left on our own for the major portion of our early childhoods.
The kids would sit in grime and scum and filth for hours at a time tied into their high chairs or strollers by mom, for their safety, until she could sneak away from Fred to give them a diaper change, redo their ties, and set it up for the older kids to feed them, so she could get back to him. Mom was placed in a servile role before Fred who was incapable of handling his own life, his own pain, his own mental instability and risked his children’s health and lives with no apparent remorse.
I remember when she'd come downstairs, all the kids would cluster around her like a swarm of bees, just to touch her and talk to her. If we had questions we would try to quickly ask. If she needed shopping done, she would try to get a shopping list completed quickly. Sometimes she would just try to get a little time to herself in the downstairs bathroom.
I started doing most of the grocery shopping, by bike, with my brother Fred Jr. when I was only five or six because our mom had such a hard time getting away from my father, and the house. We had baskets on our bikes. We were given money but it was often not enough. It was humiliating because we would hold up the line at the checkout while the cashiers would ask us what we wanted to keep or take back, and then they'd do the figuring for us. But the employees at the grocery store were very good to us! In the midst of the devastation of our abuse, we were treated with the milk of human kindness. Something we would never experience from our father. And every little bit of that sort of kindness did something to ease our pain and help us to keep putting one foot after the other.
When my father, Fred wanted a chicken dinner, he'd stay in bed and have me ride my bike two miles each way to get him one. He never thanked me. My older brother and I would run errands for that, or he'd send us out for a piece of apple pie with cheese on it. And we had to get back fast. Extremely fast, or he'd complain his apple pie wasn't hot enough. It was a mile or two back, the pie riding in a mesh basket, and we had to get it to him hot.
My father had to take care of us each year when my mom went into the hospital to give birth to the next baby. Whatever he had to do, he'd always lose his temper and start screaming. We'd be too scared of him to eat-and then he'd beat us for not eating. My saliva would not work when he was in the room and Mom was gone, so, to clean our plates, we'd throw our food under the table or into our laps, or pockets, and flush it down the toilet later. When Fred took care of us, I tried to stay out of the same room with him as much as I could. He would be really hard on the little ones when he dressed them. He'd push and jerk and tug really hard. Fred was so impatient and unpredictable. You never knew what to expect or how to act around him.
When we did run into our father out of his bed, it was usually unpleasant. The day my brother, Tim, was born, Fred, Jr., and I were in the dining room horsing around playing tag, taunting one another, as young boys will do and my brother, Fred Jr., started to chase me out the back door. I ran right into my father. He started screaming at us not to horse around. He punched both of us several times and ordered us outside to work in the yard. I ran outside quickly out of fear and to respond to his violent commands. I immediately realized I needed my shoes so I went back in the back door to get my shoes. As I came in the back door I inadvertently stumbled into my father a second time. Enraged, my father connected with a hook to the side of my head. I fell down dazed and stunned. Then my father began to kick me, and kept kicking me, but I couldn't get up. My father screamed at me to go out in the yard, but my legs felt like jello and the room was rolling in vertigo. Finally, my father left me there, sprawled and dazed like a defeated boxer. When I was able to stand up, I got my shoes and I joined my older brother already at work. And I did what Phelps kids always did. After extreme behavior on the part of my father, with never an apology or anything to make it right, I would be required to exercise self control and hard work and obedience. And I learned to stuff my feelings, my pain, my anguish, my anger and my sorrow. Oh what a toll that would take on me and people around me who I loved, for years to come.
Three hours later, my father called us in. He told us to get into bed and not to move. He told me to turn my face to the wall. For hours I lay like that, too scared to roll over because I thought he might still be standing there, watching me. Finally, I fell asleep. When I woke up that evening it was already dark, and my father and mother were both gone. I learned later my father had gone to the hospital with Mom because she had gone into labor while he was beating us. And we had a new baby brother.
My father often slept all day and got up in the afternoon and then everyone would hide because 'Daddy was up'. He habitually had violent rages that included profane cursing, beyond any sailor's ability to curse, and he would throw and break anything he could get his hands on. My father routinely demolished the kitchen and dining room areas, as well as his bedroom. He would not only beat mom and us kids, he would smash dishes, glasses, anything breakable in sight; he'd even throw everything out of the refrigerator.
He'd literally cover the floor with debris. I remember seeing so much broken crockery once it looked like an archeologist’s dig. There was ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise splashed across the walls, cupboards, and floor and ceiling and doors like a paint bomb had gone off in there. Afterwards he'd go upstairs to the bedroom-and force mom to go with him. It would take hours for us kids to clean up after his rages. He never helped-he'd just dump on us and leave. It is amazing to me the level of responsibility he required of his children and was himself so incredibly irresponsible in his actions.
But he wouldn't stop raging. While we were cleaning the mess downstairs, he'd force mom to sit at his bedside upstairs while he continued to curse and complain to her about whatever had upset him. My father’s tantrums occurred regularly, usually once or twice a month. Sometimes there'd be several in a week. Our walls were stained with food, and my mom used to cry because she couldn't keep good dishes. She bought her dishes at garage sales. My father would also bust holes in the walls and doors. If they were on the outside walls facing into the church area, he'd fix them quickly. Inside walls facing toward the living area he'd leave unrepaired for months.
And, remember, whenever my father was beating us, or if he was tearing up a room, the violence might only last 40 or 50 or 60 minutes, but he would keep up his verbal tirade for hours on end. I'm not exaggerating. And we never knew when the violence would erupt again. My father would literally scream stream-of-consciousness non-stop insults at us for an hour. His mouth was, for all the years I knew him, the most foul, vulgar, filthy cursing mouth you've ever heard. There's nothing he wouldn't say, including cursing God openly. I watched him, one day, stand at the back of the church auditorium just outside the kitchen door, and literally jump up and down and scream curses at the top of his lungs, like a grown-up two year-old man. I remember as a young boy being so distressed with myself because I had the most dreadful habit of using foul, filthy, cursing language and I was unable to get myself to stop! I had developed a foul mouth from living with the master. I realize the people who used to know my father in another context who said “but he was a man of God” would have been shocked and stunned at how far from the truth their assessment was. This was a man who cursed God, cursed people, and had no respect for anyone who lived.
My sisters and brothers and I just stood around shaking and farting with white faces looking frightened when my father was throwing a fit, and I learned how to control my fear by working with my hands and getting things done. I used to stand in the back room of the house, which was called the ‘dryer room’, and fold clothes for hour upon hour. I learned to feel secure if I was getting something done. My bottom line was the doing of something tangible. For example, we often had a pile of clothes in the dryer room that reached near the ceiling at the corner and slanted down out to past the middle of the room. I would clear a spot on the floor and on the top of the two dryers and start folding clothes. I would end up with tangible results . . . large piles of folded clothes. This was my only sense of accomplishment in my younger years and even as an adult, work and its rewards was a place I would go for comfort.
Still, my father would wake us up at night with Mom screaming from fear as he raged at his family. I'd come awake and lie there feeling afraid and upset. I wasn't worried about being woken up, that he was upset, or even that he was hurting Mom. I was worried about survival; about what could happen if it got worse. I was thinking about lying still in case he came in, so he wouldn't know I was awake. We often thought that since he was so crazy, we really didn't know whether someday he would kill us all. This was a very real fear.
Back in those days, during the '60s, when Fred was in law school and then a young lawyer, the neighbors would often see my mother on the porch. “She'd just be sitting out there, crying her heart out," remembers one former neighbor. "We all felt so sorry for her. But none of us ever went over there to comfort her. Her husband had us all intimidated."
But if life with father was bad already-it was about to get worse. My father had become heavily dependent on amphetamines and barbiturates while in law school. Every week for 6 years, from 1962-1967, mom would give me a 20 dollar bill and ask me to ride my bike over to the drug store and pick up my father's 'allergy medicine'. I always got the bottle of ‘little red pills’ from 'the tall blond man' at the nearby pharmacy. I was told they were to 'help Daddy wake up'.
I also picked up bottles of little yellow pills that were to 'help Daddy get to sleep'. But the beast already so poorly penned within my father now came out with a vengeance. Under the conflicting tug of speed that wouldn't wear off and the Darvon he'd taken to sleep, my father would often wake up the family in the middle of the night while doing his imitation of a whirling dervish whose shoes were tied together: With all the drugs, he had very little body control so we weren't really scared of him at those times, as far as him beating us. But he would fall and break the bed frame apart; get up and knock over a lot of the bedroom furniture. Mom would start screaming and call my older brother, Freddy and me, to help her get him under control and put the bed back together.
My father’s face would look so impaired, and he couldn't focus his eyes. He couldn't walk in a straight line, and sometimes he couldn't even get up off the floor. Another time when he was wiped out on drugs, my father started going after my mom. She was yelling for help. Again, Freddy and I, probably 10 and 11 at the time, went running upstairs and tried to force father back into his bedroom. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic. We managed to get him inside his room and slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside. He started pounding on the door and screaming incoherently. Finally, he actually broke the door down. That seemed to calm him a bit, and he fell back on the bed and passed out.
There was fighting one night, in the middle of the night. My father was besotting on drugs again. He shot the 12-gauge into a roll of insulation. It was probably a pretend suicide attempt. Only my mom and he were in the bedroom, and it was during the middle of the night. What I think happened was, he was so under the influence, he was so screwed up, and he was so mad that he was doing one of those things . . . you know. . . I'll show all of you . . . I'll just get rid of this whole problem by killing myself. But he had no intention of killing himself! And I think he just did it. I think he did it for the dramatics of it- to manipulate and impress even greater control upon us all. Following the incident, that roll of insulation sat in their bedroom for almost a year.
Our mom tried to keep things quiet and keep things contained. She acted as a mother to him as well as us. Having him in our family was like having a little 2 year-old in an adult's body-with an adult intellect. But it's a 2 year-old who can do whatever it wants, because there's no adult discipline, instruction, or correction involved. My father did not subject himself to accountability of any kind. He didn't care about our mom, except for how she could meet his needs. He treated her like an animal. And the animal’s real function was to be glued to his side so she could soothe him as he raged. Raged on like a two year old throwing a fierce tantrum.
We had two beagle dogs-Ahab and Jezebel. When I was a young boy, I used to throw rocks on top of their dog house and Ahab would viciously attack Jezebel as the rocks would hit the top of their dog house. I would stand on top of the picnic table thinking it would keep me safe from Ahab as I threw the rocks, and though it made me nervous, it intrigued me to throw rocks on top of their dog house and see what Ahab would do. I kind of thought it was fun. That was the way my dad treated my mom. If anything would happen that my dad didn't like, he would beat on her, blame her, make her life miserable, and take it out on her-even if it was something out of her control.
I remember one morning when I was downstairs and heard a tremendous racket coming from mom and dad’s bedroom above. Furniture crashing! Fred screaming! My mother begging him to stop! Then her screaming too! This went on for 20 minutes until finally my father stormed out.
I slipped quietly up the stairs, afraid my father would come back. I peeked in the bedroom. Oh my! The mattress was thrown from the bed. Sheets were ripped away. Drawers were flung out of the dresser, and the dresser was kicked over. Lamps and tables, everything was smashed and strewn about the room.
"Mom?" I called. I couldn't see her. "Mom!?" I heard a sob. Then a long, low moan of agony. I walked stiffly into the mess. I picked my way across the floor. In the corner, behind an open closet door, I found my mother cowering. Her face in her hands as the sobs wracked her body, she told me over and over: "I can't take this anymore . . . I can't take this anymore . . . I can't take it . . . I don't know what I'm going to do..." My mom didn’t feel there was anything she could do.
I remember there were times when my mother would get out and go to the store, especially when my father was asleep. She'd go to Butner's IGA at Huntoon and Gage. They had a little coffee shop/bakery with donuts at Butners. Four or five times I saw her in there when she didn't know I saw her. It made me feel deeply sad, because it was such a lonely thing to see her sitting with that coffee and donut, and know it was her safe harbor, the only time she could be alone. She looked so unhappy and despairing, sitting there staring at nothing, soaking in what may have been her only comfort during those years . . . solitude, her cup of coffee and her glazed donut.
One winter Saturday afternoon when I was 9 years old, my mother called me over to her. She whispered: "I've had it. I can't take it. Would you get the children's clothes and load as much as you can in the trunk and the back seat of the car?"
I packed the clothes in the old white Ford Fairlane 4-door immediately! When my father fell asleep around 4 p.m. my mother came down the stairs softly. She had me gather all the children. "We're leaving," she told all of us. No argument from any of the children. Somehow we got all of us to fit inside the car, with mother behind the wheel, and us 9 kids wherever we could find space.
We looked ridiculous piled in on top of a big pile of clothes, half sitting on each other, and I remember the toll-takers at the turnpike laughed at us. But I'll never forget that day... the feeling I got as we drove away from that house. It was a cloudy day, and cold, but I remember feeling hopeful. Thinking we were headed to a new life. And it was going to be better than the one behind us. I want to tell you, I really got my hopes up that afternoon! I didn’t know any better.
My mother ran away from my father with her flock to Kansas City. She went to her sister Dorotha's apartment. Most of my mother’s original family hadn't seen my mother in 15 years, not since she'd left for school in Arizona. Dorotha’s husband drove a truck for a renderer, a business that collected dead animals for glue. My mother’s sister no doubt gave her the bad news: driving for a rendering company didn't bring in enough to feed 10 extra mouths; and the apartment couldn't possibly hold them all; she couldn't stay there... In fact, there was no place for a pregnant woman with 9 children to run except back to the man who beat her, but who paid the bills. Or who got the children to pay the bills through candy sales…
I remember my mother stoically dialing the number for the Westboro church. I remember barely being able to overhear her speaking to my father. I could not hear words, just quiet conversation, and tears. Silently, the children crawled back into their niches among the clothes-filled car. When we arrived home at 3:00 am early that Sunday morning, my father was waiting for us. I remember he had his arms folded and he was smirking. It was a cold leer that I will never forget: It was smug, it was cruel; and it said, 'there is no escape-don’t try it again'. Sunday services that Sunday were surreal! My father preached as if nothing had happened. Of course, nothing changed for the good after that . . . only for the worse.
It would be ten years before I finally escaped permanently from my father’s physical control. It would be another twenty years before I would finally complete the necessary difficult years of therapy and restorative work to effectively work free from the long term effects of the all- consuming hate and abuse of my father.
Because I went through that healing process one of my hopes is that I can pass some of what I have learned on to you who have been abused; Who may be out from the physical control of your abuser but who are still filled with your abuser’s poison. It is a process and one that takes courage but it can take you to a place of hope . . . and peace . . . and the sense that there truly is something to live for. If you keep reading you will learn in later blogs some of the ways I approached healing, and some books and resources that might encourage you along the path. My prayer is that you will start on the path. And not stop till you have reached a place of healing that feels GOOD!
Contact me. I would love to hear about your journey. And encourage you along it.