Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not My Brother's Keeper

Children of abuse are always, always thinking about their personal safety.  How could it be otherwise?  One misstep, one wrong move, and the child can become the object of the abuser’s wrath.  And that misstep might mean you don’t get up out of bed for 4 or 5 days.  So while I was obsessing on remaining safe; being hyper-vigilant to protect my own heart, my own mind, my own body, to somehow navigate the dangers of the landscape of my childhood, my relationships with my brothers and sisters were stillborn.  

I had no time for closeness with my siblings and no emotional capacity even if I had wanted to.  I had no frame of reference for the idea of peaceful or relaxed or friendly interactions with my siblings.  No “kid” chatting happened at my house!  Can you imagine this as a rule in a household of 13 kids?  Who would even think of any sane way to keep a lid on the bubbling happiness and joy that would be natural in a large family?  But, in my household joy and chatter and laughter were not so much suppressed by parents as truly beaten and terrorized out of us!  

There was no ability in my home to sit quietly and think or play or wander or discover, for myself or anybody else.  The standard daily activities you might expect of a lively household of 15 people were simply not heard in my house.  An uncomfortable silence was more the order of the day.  No more than a prisoner in a prison camp or a soldier on the battle field is capable of activities of the heart which are possible only when there is peace and safety, I could not attend to my companions of childhood.  And in this sense of “wartime” at my house we were left without the benefit that a military group might be afforded; with their creeds and their training and their preparation; we were all children with only one objective . . . survival. That was simply all that mattered to any of us.

When my brother, Fred Jr., was 18 years old he decided to move out of our family home. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., vehemently opposed this, but Fred Jr. stood up for himself. Finally he and my father compromised: the firstborn son would go and live with one of our father's business associates. Bob Martin was a retired army officer who ran Bo-Mar Investigations, a private detective agency. After Fred, Jr. had been staying with Martin for a week in his house, I remember my father got a phone call. It was Martin.

"Let's go!" said my father to me! I had become the squad leader in my father’s schemes. While we drove to the detective's place, my father explained the plan he and Martin had for my older brother, Fred Jr. We were to wait till he was in the shower and then confront him since a naked man would obviously feel vulnerable and powerless. Fred Jr. had just come in from work and gone into the bathroom. "When he comes out, we'll be waiting," said my father, with delight in his voice.

And so we were. As Fred Jr. walked out, towel around his waist, he was confronted by my father, by me, and a suddenly hostile Bob Martin.

"Get your clothes! You're going home!" snapped my father. The eldest son complied without argument. The next part I'll never forget. When we got out to the car, I was in the back seat, on the right, my father was behind the wheel, and Fred Jr. was in the front passenger seat. Bob had followed us and he opened the door on my brother's side. Through the space between the front seat and the door, I could see Bob place a revolver against my brother's right knee. And he said: "If you run away again, I have orders to come after you. And when I catch you, I'm going to shoot you right here." Of course his father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., had issued the orders!

. . . And I just sat there in the back seat stunned; and did not say a word!  As an adult the thing I am stunned by is the brutality that was being threatened if my brother did not comply with my father’s wishes, and still wonder about what impact that threat had on my brother’s psyche.

Another time I remember was of my sister, Katherine, who at the time was attempting to live on her own in a quiet Topeka neighborhood. She was dating a boy from our high school. It was the summertime, about 6:30 in the evening. Katherine’s boyfriend pulled in to pick her up for a date. My father and I, with some of the other children, had been waiting for her to come out of the house, and when she did, we just swooped in.

We had two cars. I was driving one and my father was driving the other. It was a real 'Starsky and Hutch' maneuver. We blocked off the departing vehicle, and pulled Katherine out of the car while her date just sat there stunned. Back at home her father beat her terribly. It was then her father confined her in the little nook area outside his own bedroom for 40 days and gave her nothing to sustain her but water.  This 'parental intervention' was actually a kidnapping: Katherine was 18 when it occurred, just as my brother Fred had been.

. . . And I willingly helped, and never once opened my mouth on behalf of my sister Katherine!

When my father was suspended from practicing law for two years our family was left with no income.  My father’s brainstorm was to have his children sell candy for his ‘church’ and he would keep the money to provide for his family. Sure we told people we were selling candy to raise money to buy an organ for our church, but that was just a little lie compared to the rest of our lives.

My brother, Nate was obstinate and resistant toward my father’s schemes and this so angered my father that, by age nine, when regular candy-selling family outings were planned, frequently Nate was forced to miss them. He was required to stay behind with my father at the house/church building.  And during the course of the day, my father would beat Nate whenever he wished.  I recall once the family returned home to find my father jogging around the dining room table, beating the sobbing boy with a broom handle on the arms, hands, back, head, face, shoulders, rear end and legs, at will. My father would hit him in a different spot on his body each time around the dining room table.  While doing so, my father was alternately spitting on the frightened child and laughing an evil laugh of delight.

When Nate wasn't allowed to go along he would literally scream and chase my mom as she drove off with us kids in the car. He knew what was coming after we left.  I remember little Nate racing alongside the car windows, screaming and crying out begging us not to leave him until, like a dog, he could no longer keep up.  I am sorry to admit it, but I did not allow myself to feel any empathy for my little brother Nate, only relief it wasn't happening to me.  I just stared straight ahead.  I didn't allow myself to think about what Nate was yelling about. I was just glad to get out of there.

. . . It never crossed my mind to say a word to my father on my brother’s behalf, EVER!

One cold snowy day, the snow was crunching under the mailman's tires, and under his boots, as he put the day’s mail into our mailbox. With the mail that day came grades from the junior high.  “It’s time for the meat to get separated from the coconut”, my father said as he opened the letter.  My brothers, Nathan and Jonathan, showed poor grades . . . and the meat DID get separated from the coconut.

The beatings were so severe the boys were covered with massive, broken, purple, black and red bruising extending from their lower back to below their knees. Neither Jonathan nor Nate were able to sit down since the blows to the backs of their knees had caused so much swelling they were unable to bend them and because they were in such pain from the beatings.

And after the beatings came the shaming. It was 1972-the age of shoulder locks. Both boys had begged our father not to give them crew cuts, which had always been our family norm. They already felt exposed to enough ridicule as the odd ducks whose father didn't believe in Christmas, whose home no one was allowed to visit, who lived in a church building, and who were forbidden to visit others' homes (Remember isolation is the lynchpin to most abuse). 

Jonathan and Nate had a teenage dread of braving the corridors of the junior high with flesh-heads in an era of long manes, and their father had relented. Their hair had been allowed to touch their collars. But when the grades turned bad, out came the clippers. No attachments. Brutally short! Shaved bald.  It was not a haircut. It was a penalty . . . and a further way of cutting them off from the outside world

. . . Who me? Oh yes, you’re right . . . I uttered not a peep!

When I was 19 ½ years old I mustered the blind courage to leave my family and my father and his ‘church’.  I had no particular thought or concern for my family; my mother or my brothers or sisters.  It certainly never crossed my mind that they would miss me or that it would even matter to them if I were gone.  There was no place or time for sentiment or goodbyes.  Nothing could have been further from my mind!  In fact I quietly prepared my little basket of possessions and crept out very carefully so as to be unnoticed and safe . . . at 10:30 at night.   

. . . And my father verbally destroyed me, publicly from his pulpit, and privately to my family, and later, to his grandchildren in the years after I left.  And for many years it produced its intended effect which was to create an environment that would simply not allow leaving, not allow independent thought, and not allow each of us the opportunity to live the lives we were meant to live, with freedom and dignity.  

As far as my family is concerned, I am the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low.  I am the most evil heretic, reprobate conceivable and doomed for hell.  My mother, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces all know full well the consequences of making any contact with me.  They will end up as I; banished and condemned to hell!  That was the ever-present threat from my father and it hangs over my family members to this day.  

And I doubt any of them would want to contact me anyway because I stood quietly watching their devastation and uttered not a word. And most of them are still there, except for two, and now a few nephews and nieces out of 50+ people.  And the price for staying is to do exactly as father bids, and now after so many years, and with my father’s passing, it has become . . . exactly as they now bid. His bidding has fully become their bidding. And for all who leave . . . banishment!

As for me, I forgave myself after years of anguish and sorrow.  I worked on discovering the truth of the abuse, the truth about the Lord and the truth about my father.  And through much prayer before the Lord and help from professionals, I worked through the darkness and into the light.  And I was finally able to forgive myself for my part in the abuse of my brothers and sisters, and the hurt I have caused my mother.  And I was gradually able to fully forgive my father.  

Though it has been 40 years, and though my father has now passed away, I still have no contact from my brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, with three wonderful exceptions, all three of whom have also left.  For my family members who remain in my father’s ‘church’ it is as though I do not exist.  I am the black plague and there is no incentive to venture towards me.  I’m all trouble, as far as my family is concerned.  I also have no contact with my mother.  

My brothers and sisters were fellow prisoners with me; my mother too.  They know what they have been taught from the day they were born.  The same is now true for my nephews and nieces.  I have nothing to forgive them for; they are doing what they think they must do.  They are doing what they need to do to avoid hell and avoid banishment, which is what they believe they would experience if they made contact with me.  I accept this. 

Through it all I have learned that chronic, pervasive, extreme physical, emotional, psychological and religious abuse has many faces to it . . . it:

-destroys the ties that bind

-poisons the heart

-crushes the spirit

-cripples the soul

-devastates the mind

-hardens the heart

-produces outcasts

-generates utter chaos 

-spawns mindless compliant followers

-exalts pride and arrogance

-institutes and formalizes deceit

-dictates the assigning of scapegoats

-concocts and perpetuates lies

-twists the Holy Bible endangering the soul

-requires someone to blame 

-hatches and perpetuates preposterous suppositions

-enables the free rein of evil

-dismantles the ability to think objectively

-shatters trust

-imprisons and enslaves for life those unable to escape

-mandates secrecy 

-wrecks the family

-actualizes the goals of the abuser in the lives of those unable to escape

-creates a fear of hell greater than the hell they are living

-causes those abused to hate

-turns each abused heart away from the true living God

-is a scourge on society at large

-begets fraud

-causes harm to every human heart it touches and

-just messes everything up

Love, in the form of the person of Jesus Christ, is the antidote, the balm, the restoration and the hope, for anyone who has experienced abuse. It is also essential to have human beings who love and support you; and professionals to aid your recovery.  But it does not happen easily or quickly.  It has taken me years to put straight what was made crooked and twisted deep at my core. But I am now free because of the truth. 

At first the truth is hard to see. But as the lies are chiseled away, as the terror is reduced, as the hurt is acknowledged and the balm of healing is applied by the ‘Balm of Gilead’ Himself (Jesus); through grieving, through mourning, through much re-examining and searching; healing can occur, truth can be identified, and the heart can be made mostly whole again. Lies will cease to stand when they are in the presence of the truth.
If there are lies you still believe that were told to you by your abusers, you can be set free by the truth too.  The beautiful, powerful, amazing cleansing of truth can heal you, too. It can!

This same learning of the truth, and the ability to be set free, is the hope I have for every member of my family.  However I realize such healing can only happen for the willing; for the sick who know they need a physician.

God says in the Bible “I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight. These things I will do for them, and not forsake them.”  Isaiah 42:16

Healing and wholeness is what I desire for you too, no matter what your hurt, however severe or mild.  If you have been broken, I bid you to come to the source of all hope and healing, the Lord Jesus Himself, our Maker, the Great Physician.  I encourage you to find one or two people to love you and support you, and a professional or two who can aid you in your healing journey.

My wife and daughters know they have a man in their lives who is whole (enough) and who loves them deeply.  My daughters have always known this, for I was able to do the healing work, for the most part in time to avoid infecting them with my poison.  My wife was not so fortunate.  She came into the fire with me, to get me out, and she has some scars to show for her courage.  But through it all, my wife and I are fully in love, and we fully love one another today, by God’s grace.  

May this kind of blessing be yours as well!  If you choose to brave this journey of healing, the darkness can be made light for you; one step at a time.

Mark Phelps

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Language of Love

I am not an expert on language or how language is learned.  I do know I learned to speak English when I was very young though I don’t remember learning English. I just found myself able to speak.

I’ve heard it said we learn a lot before we learn a language.  We sense and feel from our earliest moments of life, even prenatally.  We gain impressions of the world and how the world is; whether it is safe, or scary, fun or difficult, interesting or troublesome.  Love is an important part of our early days.  Feeling loved and feeling safe allows us to explore and learn.

A reporter in the town where I grew up investigated my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. and in the process he spoke with some adults who knew my father around the time I was born.  They told this reporter that my father had slapped me with his open hand, and cuffed me with the back of his hand because I was squirming during the church service.  I was nine months old. These adults spoke to my father about this but he was unwilling to listen.  As I ponder this now from the vantage point of being both an adult and a father myself, this practice on my father’s part seems both cruel and having no useful purpose in a child’s life.  But at the time as an infant of course I had no filter or mechanism to help me understand how to view my father’s actions.  

My first memory was around the age of five.  I have no memories I am able to call to mind prior to this.  This first memory was of my father beating me because I was scared and crying; because I could not find my mother.  As I ponder this from an adult vantage point I realize I was being beaten for having and expressing the normal emotions of a child.  Sadly my first memory was not of happy cooing sounds on the part of a parent, or an interaction with a sibling playing, or a time in a crib looking at a mobile, or playing in the dirt in the backyard building things.  My first memory was of being beaten by my father. Studies done since I was a small child speak to the issue of changes in the brain that happen due to abuse while growing up. 

“Babies' brains grow and develop as they interact with their environment and learn how to function within it. When babies' cries bring food or comfort, they are strengthening the neuronal pathways that help them learn how to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally. But babies who do not get responses to their cries, and babies whose cries are met with abuse, learn different lessons. The neuronal pathways that are developed and strengthened under negative conditions prepare children to cope in that negative environment, and their ability to respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). “
“Babies and children who suffer abuse may also experience trauma that is unrelated to direct physical damage. Exposure to domestic violence, disaster, or other traumatic events can have long-lasting effects. An enormous body of research now exists that provides evidence for the long-term damage of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse on babies and children. We know that children who experience the stress of abuse will focus their brains' resources on survival and responding to threats in their environment. This chronic stimulation of the brain's fear response means that the regions of the brain involved in this response are frequently activated (Perry, 2001a). Other regions of the brain, such as those involved in complex thought and abstract cognition, are less frequently activated, and the child becomes less competent at processing this type of information.
“One of the ways early maltreatment experiences may alter a child's ability to interact positively with others is by altering brain neurochemical balance. Research on children who suffered early emotional abuse or severe deprivation indicates that such maltreatment may permanently alter the brain's ability to use serotonin, which helps produce feelings of well-being and emotional stability (Healy, 2004).
“Altered brain development in children who have been maltreated may be the result of their brains adapting to their negative environment. If a child lives in a threatening, chaotic world, the child's brain may be hyper-alert for danger because survival may depend on it. But if this environment persists, and the child's brain is focused on developing and strengthening its strategies for survival, other strategies may not develop as fully. The result may be a child who has difficulty functioning when presented with a world of kindness, nurturing, and stimulation.”

As I have looked back over my childhood development and into my 20s and even 30s I believe this article speaks precisely to some of the stages of late adolescent and early adult milestones I struggled with.

For years I thought the way my father was behaving as a parent was normal.  Because our family did not interact with other families and I was not allowed to have normal friendships as other children do, I didn’t initially have a basis for comparison.  I simply learned to live with what my father was doing in our family by beating his children for a variety of our childish infractions, throwing violent rages, beating my mother and breaking and throwing things.  As I got older, and began to notice behaviors of normally functioning families around me I began to question my father’s behavior, and eventually I mustered the courage to get away from him.

My father was the preacher of his own church and he taught me what I know about God, most of which I found out later was not true.  Because young children are easily able to believe their parent is a lot like God, when I discovered that my dad was not able to love me or be kind or nurturing to me it was very easy for me to believe the same, and even worse, about God.  

You might imagine it is hard to change your beliefs about God when they are forged in the midst of violence and terror, before you have even learned to speak a language.  While this is true let me assure you it is by no means impossible to see powerful, life giving change as you begin to heal.  The healing I have experienced has completely changed my understanding of God and of people and I now live with a freedom and a peace I would never have dreamed in my early years.

As the Lord was working in my heart, I began to realize some important things about how a father should and should not behave.  Coming up with this list about a good father took about four years of therapy that the Lord was right at the center of.  It may look like a simple list, but each item on it was forged through a process of tearing down lies in my mind and heart and replacing those lies with life giving truth.  The process was often extremely painful but at each step of the way a small part of the burden was lifted from my heart.  And each step I took, with the Lord right there with me, was critical to my being the man I am today who is filled with strength and peace.  

A good father:
-does not attempt to psychologically “break” his children

-does seek to build up and nourish the hearts and minds of his children

-does not exploit his children’s weaknesses

-does understand the weaknesses of his children 

-does draw his children closer to himself to support and love them when they feel vulnerable

-does not react with jealousy in response to his wife’s love for their children 

-does teach his children how to love themselves

-does love his children unconditionally

-does protect his children

-does seek to build courage into his children’s hearts

-does demonstrate God’s love by the way he loves his children

-does show patience toward his children as they grow and learn

-does encourage and foster learning and growth in his children

-does not behave selfishly

-does not crush the spirits of his children

-does not mock the normal human needs of his children

-does not violently rage at his children

-does not brutally beat his children’s mother (his wife)

-does lavish love and affection upon his children

-does not savagely beat his children with oak mattock handles, fists, knees to their mid sections, and does not twist their arms behind their backs and spit in their faces

-does not treat his children hatefully

-does not abuse his children emotionally

-does not treat his children harshly

-does not scream and curse at his children

-does not leave his children to themselves 99.9 percent of the time

-does not use his children to provide for his own financial needs

-does not forbid his children to have friends

-does not use his children to provide for his own emotional needs

-does not act cruelly toward his children

-does not continually judge and condemn his children

-does not try to remake himself in his children

-does not try to live his own life through his children

-does not slap his children across the face for crying when they are tiny infants

-does not confine (imprison) and starve his children

-does not become his children’s primary fear in life

-does not refuse his children involvement in social and sports activities 

-does not expose his children to the dangers of the outside world for his own profit

-does demonstrate love for his children by spending time with them

-does delight in his children

-does share daily in the lives of his children

-does not teach his children to hate all the people of the world

-does not teach his children to be cruel and mean and nasty and judgmental

-does not tell his children that all of his hatefulness and cruelty and harshness . . . is love

That last item on the list is one that really gets to me.  My father intentionally tried to misinterpret language itself to us by calling what he was doing love.  There is a verse in the Old Testament that says “Woe to them who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” Isaiah 5:20.  That verse encapsulates what my father did in my life.  He told me things that were evil, the things he was doing, were good.  And they were most assuredly not!  He took even the word love itself, and what should have been my understanding of its beautiful connotations and blessings, and twisted it in the heart of his little boy. The language he taught me was not the language of love at all, but the language of hate.  

When there has been a serious level of thought control used by perpetrators of violence on children, the process of healing requires a whole lot of unlearning the bad before you can ever go on to the next step of learning the good.  I had to learn what love is NOT in order to finally learn what true love is.  I did this by intentionally facing the feelings that were deep in the core of my soul; which were forged deep within me from the earliest hours of my life; the hate and harshness and cruelty and meanness of my father.   

During therapy I allowed myself to feel my own broken heart; all the emotional poison and evil that were lodged in my heart. And I cried until I thought I would never stop crying.  In doing so, under loving, professional supervision, love began to finally enter my heart.  It wasn’t a flood initially but started out as a trickle.  But day by day, moment by moment, I began to reconnect with my own heart and was able to see it open up; to myself, to others, and ultimately to God.  That process blessed me then and blesses me every day.  Being able to give and to receive and FEEL love is an amazing gift!

O Lord my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. Psalm 30:2

You may have stories about the way you were harmed by perpetrators when you were young.  Things that scarred you deeply and still impact the way you see life every day.  If you have never told your story, or still need to tell it to begin to release the pain and the poison, please consider me someone who would like to listen.   

You can privately message me. 

Each step we take in the process of recovery, hard as it may seem, is one step closer to wholeness and healing. My heart goes with you in your journey.

Mark Phelps