Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bring Up A Child

One night just before Christmas, my brother Nathan and I were out selling candy together for my father’s ‘church’, as was our custom. My father is Fred W. Phelps Sr., the late preacher at Westboro Baptist Church. We were in a residential area after dark, and while we were selling, we were entertaining ourselves by unscrewing a few tiny Christmas lights from the evergreen trees outside people's houses and launching them high above the street so we could listen to them pop on the pavement.  Childish foolishness! We did it four or five times, for fun. We didn't think much about it. Nate was 9 and I was 13. 

Well, I remember very clearly when we got home. I walked into the dining room near the bottom of the stairs going up to my father’s bedroom. He was coming down those stairs just as I came in.  Mainly I remember the look on his face. He said, 'Who was selling on Prairie Road tonight?'  It took me only a few seconds to register that, first of all, he was seething with anger, and secondly, it was my brother Nate and I who had been selling on Prairie Road that night. I got sick to my stomach immediately. I remember the intense fear that came over me. I didn't know much yet, but between the look on his face and the questions, I knew something was wrong. 

There was no immediate answer to my father’s question.

My father asked again. ‘Who was selling on Prairie Road tonight, Say!?’ By now mom had come into the room. Her face went white with fear. She said, 'Why?' 

My father said, 'I got a call from some man who told me that there were two boys that had come by his house tonight, and that he was a retired police detective. He asked ‘Was this the church that the boys were selling candy for?’ I told them it was, and asked why. He told me that, he was sorry to have to report it, but that I should know the boys were stealing light bulbs from Christmas trees and then trying to sell them door-to-door. Who was it?' (The truth was, we were at that time, along with selling candy, also selling 'Paul Revere' light bulbs that had a lifetime guarantee.  We were not selling the few tiny Christmas lights we took from evergreen trees. We were selling the Paul Revere light bulbs that were a part of our normal sales stock which our father had purchased for us to sell for his church).

Before I could say a word, someone told my father that it was Nate and me.  My father said: 'Let's go!' These were among the most feared words of Phelps children since we knew my father was about to mete out terrible abuse on his children. But even so, we had no idea what was coming this night!

We went upstairs to his bedroom. My father never asked me or Nate one word about whether what the man had said was true. He never asked us for our side of the story. All he said, after we got upstairs was, 'How could you endanger the church like that, after all the problems we have? How could you do it? How could you bring reproach on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ like that? Say!’ By that time, I was so scared, all I can remember saying was, 'I'm sorry Daddy. We didn't mean it. We're so sorry'. 

I feel nauseated whenever I remember that night.  I was hit 60 times and my brother, Nate, 120, with a mattock handle made of oak wood.  Nate went into shock.  I didn’t.

Starting very early in my life I had become a compulsive counter to cope with the stress of my father’s violence. That night I counted every stroke, mine and Nate’s, while my father screamed obscenities and Nate and I screamed in pain. Every 20 strokes for me and every 40 strokes for Nate, our mother bathed our faces off with a wet wash cloth over by the tub, while my father beat the other one.

That was Christmas Eve. We didn’t celebrate Christmas in our family.  Christmas was considered evil by my father! What felt like a distinct evil to two boys was the abuse we experienced this particular Christmas Eve and the painful recovery from it.

The mattock my father used on my brother and me is a pick-hoe with a wooden oak handle about the weight of a baseball bat but more oval in shape. The ax head is easily removed leaving only the handle.  My father swung it with both hands like a baseball batter, with a full swing.  The first blow stunned your whole body.  By the third blow, your backside was so sensitive, even the lightest strike was very painful. But he would continue to hit us with a full swing.  By 20 hits, though, I was agonizing with burning pain.  That was when my father would quit and start on my brother Nathan, except Nate would get 40 hits.  This gave my backside time to gain a little feeling back.  Then when my father would start beating me again, the pain was searing.

I have often wondered how that must have felt to Nate, who while doing the same mischievous thing I did, received a full 60 more strokes.  I wonder if my father, brutal as he was to us, ever thought about how unfair even that must have seemed to his son Nate, a 9 year old child. I wonder what a pediatrician on the witness stand of a child abuse trial might have said about 120 hits dealt to a 9 year old child’s body with an oak mattock handle and what it might have done to his internal organs!

After the second 20 strokes, I was weak and nauseous and my face was greenish white pale in color.  My body hurt terribly.  Then it was Nate’s turn, again.  He got 40 strokes each time to my 20. I staggered to the bathtub where my mom was wetting a wash cloth, again, to soak my face to help me avoid throwing up. Behind me, I could hear the mattock blows and my brother was choking and moaning. He was crying and my father wouldn't stop. Then I heard my father shouting my name.

My mom was right there, but she wouldn't help us. Or perhaps the more correct way to say it was she didn’t think she could help us; that whatever she would do in our defense would be turned on her or right back on us.  And sometimes her actions on our behalf made it even worse for us.  Oh, what a dreadful situation for a caring mother to find herself in . . .  As one who could not protect her children from evil and abuse that was in her very own home. 

It hurt so badly during the third beating session that I kept thinking to myself: ‘I am going to drop so he hits me in the head’. I was hoping I'd be knocked out, or killed... anything to end the pain and terror.

After that... it was the waiting that was so terrifying. I didn't know if, when he was done with Nate, it would be my turn again. I was shaking in a cold panic. Forty-six years since this incident happened, and the same sick feeling in my stomach comes back now. 

Did he? Come back to me? 

No. He just kept hitting my little brother, Nate with the oak mattock handle. The beating seemed to go on and on and on. I remember the blunt thud sound of each blow and how finally my brother stopped screaming. Now Nate could only emit groans with each blow; a sort of desperate, sickening, groaning sound came out of little Nathan with each blow.  It was a horrible sound as of one enduring horrific pain, being involuntarily released by a young boy in terrible agony whose father continued to beat him beyond all reason or mercy; who most likely despaired of his very life.  I looked at my brother once his father stopped beating him.  Little Nathan was in terrible, grievous, torturous pain, barely able to stand!  He was desperately weak and in the throes of agony.

I can't describe the basic animal fear that races through your body at a time like that, where someone has complete power over you. And they're wracking you with unendurable pain. And there is no rescue, no deliverance, no escape. No way out… if your mom couldn't help you. I can't explain it to anyone except perhaps a survivor from a POW camp. 

I simply cannot imagine how it felt to Nate because he got twice as many hits as I got.  He was in bed lying on his side or stomach for four or five days after the beating.  Alone!  My father did not so much as look at him as he lay there, or even pass by.  Nate did receive a bit of obligatory care and food from his sisters, and maybe a little check in, once or twice, from his mother.  Otherwise, he lay there as the scapegoat and family outcast he had become; an embarrassment and a shame to his family.  Well you know what? . . . I say ‘shame on his family!’  Shame on his family for allowing him to be criminally beaten by his father!

This action by my father was unconscionable physical and emotional and psychological abuse.  It makes me think what it must be like for prisoners in a prison camp.  Prisoners of war are held at the mercy of the enemy and subject to horrible treatment of all kind.  What goes on in a prison camp is often not known by anyone except the soldier being tortured, and his torturers.  The tortured prisoner can tell his fellow prisoners how he is being tortured, but it brings no relief because all the prisoners are captive and hidden away from view and shut off from contact with the outside world. There is no one to stop the outrage and no hope for intervention. Sure there were rules for treatment of prisoners, such as the rules of the Geneva Convention, but rules are very difficult to enforce when there is no immediate accountability.  My father also had no outside rules superimposed upon him and not an ounce of outside accountability.  And he obviously had no internal mechanism to govern his treatment of his own children.  He was free to brutalize his son, Nate, with no apparent personal consequences. He was free to abuse all of his children at will.

My father used the Bible as authority and justification for beating all of his children.

Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13 and 14

One principle of reading the Bible is not to read a verse completely out of context of the entire Bible.  God has a lot to say in the Bible about anger and the damage it can do in human relationships.  A couple of verses come to mind:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.  James 1:19-20

An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins. Proverbs 29:22

If my father had simply read the variety of Scriptures on anger, he would have seen the serious anger problem he had and would have known deep in his spirit that certain actions were off limits, ever, to a man of anger.  I believe my father did not see himself as subject to verses in the Bible that would ask him to change himself, as it related to his sinful anger or anything else.  He only responded to verses that he understood would allow him to stand unchallenged in his power and in his might.  Would that he had read what his God thought about his actions.  The course of his life might have been so very, very different.

Like all of my brothers and sisters, I was willing (and terrified not) to give all of my energy and waking moments to my father’s demands.  He tolerated no social life for his children.  He didn’t want us to have friendships, any clubs or student organizations at school, or even any normal “downtime” or play time a normal child might have.  The moment we left school we were sent out to sell candy for our father’s ‘church’.  Then it was off to the track to run for an hour.  Then it was home to do house chores and homework. 

But I must admit this brutal, merciless beating from my father, in response to my foolish lapse in judgment, this juvenile offense of mine, broke my spirit that day.  I did not recover from my father’s cruelty for 25 years. 

My father’s idea of the right way to bring up his children was literally to:

-beat his children repeatedly with an oak mattock handle on their lower backs, rear ends and legs 
-lift his children by their wrists and land their midsection onto his knee repeatedly
-hit his children repeatedly in their faces, heads, upper arms, backs and stomachs with his fists
-twist his children’s arms behind their backs until they feared they would break or dislocate
-beat his children on their arms and backs and legs and head with a broom stick
-kick his children as they lay on the floor as a result of his beating them
-spit into the faces of his children
-curse and use filthy derogatory degrading condemning language as he beat up his children
-as he beat his children, repeatedly ask his children ‘why did you do this to me . . . Say’?!
-force his children to sell candy for his ‘church’ every week night and all day Saturday
-demand his children be at two church services every Sunday of their lives to hear his doctrine
-threaten his children with hell if they ever left his ‘church’
-force his children to run long distances at the school track every night
-force his children (and our mother) to serve his every whim; serve his majesty’s every desire

As a young teenager I was no master theologian.  I had no response to my father when he used the Bible to justify his treatment of his children.  I had no understanding of the amazing love God has for all of us and the very high standard God had for parents toward their children. 

But even if I had, and had thought of ways to respectfully approach my father with ideas of my own on how to interpret these verses, I would have received no corresponding respect out of my father.  As far as I know my father respected no one; least of all his children.  And he had no place in his parenting for helping his children learn how to have honest, thoughtful discussions about various topics with him.  My father’s favorite line to arrogantly state when hearing something he did not want to hear from his children or any other person was: ‘Is that right?!’ When a parent chooses to bully and abuse, there is no room left for true parenting. 

The hatefulness and filth and vicious condemnation my father displayed in public as a picket master was mild compared to his treatment of his family.

My father was big and loud and violent and powerful and nobody could stop him!  My mother could not stop him.  None of my brothers and sisters could stop him.  I could not stop him.  The local school board and school authorities could not stop him.  The local police department failed repeatedly to stop him. The juvenile court, child protective services and the district attorney could not stop him!  As an attorney, my father had figured out how to insulate himself and structure his world so that he was able to do exactly what he wanted to do, and nobody could stop him.  He was free to abuse and act with cruelty. 

He would file a lawsuit at the drop of a hat, and have his children deliver the paperwork at 6 am on a Saturday morning, to individual’s private residences, to intimidate his enemies. He had no out-of-pocket expense and most people and organizations cannot afford the expense of legal defense and the enormous strain of litigation.  My father delighted in tormenting anyone who crossed him; by the use of litigation, up to the day he was permanently disbarred from the practice of law.

All of the children in my family were terrified of my father during the years I was growing up, though my siblings who remain in his ‘church’ have denied this publicly, for years. We had to worry what mood we'd find our father in after returning home from school or from selling candy for his ‘church’.  The number one question on our tongues, each time upon returning to the house, was: “Is Daddy mad?”  If Daddy was mad and if one of us did draw his attention it meant summary judgment and severe punishment at the hand of Daddy!

Imagine life as a child, having a father who is so terrifying, so oppressive, so difficult, so self-absorbed, so harsh, so dangerous, so brutal, so cruel, so controlling that in order to cope with him it required spending all of your waking moments either avoiding, or preparing carefully for each encounter with him. On one occasion I found myself unprepared to cope with him, but saw him coming into the room. Out of sheer angst I quickly dove under the dining room table; a foolish move! I was too young to realize that he easily saw me diving under the table, and he wanted to know what I was up to.  When I stuttered and stammered in an effort to give him a quick enough, acceptable response, he took me up stairs and beat me. 

Of course, the best option, by far, was to completely avoid my father around the house. Though I developed quite a talent of hiding and moving about unseen, it was not always possible to remain unseen.  So, knowing that avoiding him was not always possible, I found it necessary to carefully prepare my thoughts and emotions, and my words, so that I was braced for each encounter, in an attempt to minimize my risk and my pain.

The years of fear and terror, on top of this latest brutal beating by my father, caused in me an all controlling fear and terror.  It left me feeling violated and outraged, though I could not express these feelings.  It plunged me into utter despair! It was life changing for me. It had become the last straw!  Its effect was an all-consuming, gut wrenching despair and terror that changed my entire life and my whole approach to living. I abandoned all other endeavors for the cause of survival. And for the most part I was successful. 

I did not attach to others in my family.  I did not get involved with them emotionally, in any way.  I figured a way to become invisible to my father by meeting my father’s expectations effectively, and I actually partnered with him in the abuse of my brothers and sisters.  I became his alter ego.  I was so effective at this endeavor that my father only found cause to beat me one more time following the implementation of my new strategies.  My father accepted my new actions as genuine, probably assuming his disciplinary measures were effective, at least for his second oldest son. So when I left my family at age 19 ½, he was stunned. 

I heard later that my father had told my siblings that of all the children, the last one he expected to see leave was me. He honestly had no idea what impact that beating would ultimately have on me.  He crossed a line of brutality that night that I was unable to recover from, and during the next six years I was to witness many, even more brutal beatings and even worse abuse, thrust upon several of my siblings by my father!  And like most abusers, my father completely justified his own actions and walked away from his abuse over and over again without concern for the moral wrong he was perpetrating. 

If my dad initially had any kind of conscience about his actions toward his family, he quickly got past any guilt and shame for what he was doing.  So, he could truly look at my leaving at 19 ½ years of age with disbelief instead of understanding my actions as being the evidence of the last shreds of self-respect in a young man who had been beaten and traumatized all throughout childhood.

Though I left my family, the pain and injustice and outrage that should have surfaced in a healthy kind of way remained buried deep inside me.  Eventually I was able to get professional help.  Only by working on identifying and overcoming the terror I felt from my father was I able to eventually connect with the rage I had toward my father that I had buried deep in my heart. 

Children of abuse will often say things like “Sometimes someone hurts you so bad you stop hurting at all.”  In my case, when I was eventually able to connect with and vent the rage I had in my heart, with the help of professional counselors, my heart was able to begin healing.  I had to learn, perhaps for the first time in my life, to connect, to trust, to feel, to be authentic.

Funny thing . . . when I was no longer controlled by fear and rage and guilt and shame and confusion, I found I did not need to be a master theologian to cope with my father’s abuse.  I realized clearly that what my father had done was wrong.  It is wrong to beat children and to terrorize children as my father had done!  And I know the heart of the Lord and I know the Lord’s instructions to parents in other parts of the Bible.

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Colossians 3:21

And this:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. Mark 9:42

And this:

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. Matthew 18:10

By working hard and long to restore my heart, I was ready to be a father when our first adopted daughter joined our family.  And it was a day of amazing joy that has never ended.  Then we were all delighted and filled with great joy, again, when our second adopted daughter joined our family.  Well our first daughter wasn’t sure at first, but it didn’t take her but a few hours to fall in love with her new baby sister.

I know there are so many children who have been mistreated by their parents.  Thankfully there are many children who were not.  But I know there is a lot of brokenness and confusion today, in the hearts of adults.  And my heart mourns for those who still suffer in silence.

If your father or mother abused you so you have, perhaps, lost your way a bit, I want you to know my heart goes out to you.  I am so sorry for your suffering! 

I hope you are able to eventually realize it was not your fault, and that you have been able to experience healing and restoration, and have found peace.

If not, I would like to help. I hope you get in touch with me!

Mark Phelps


  1. Love is where it's at! I am so glad you are there!

  2. My heart goes out to you ... While my parents didn't hit me because of religion ... they did simply because it was done that way in the 50s and 60s. I wasn't beaten as you were .. that was horribly abuse. I am SO glad that you can talk about it .. and write about it .. and are healing. How anyone can believe that the Holy Bible mandates hitting children, is beyond me! Christ tells us to be like little children ! How then ... can children be the evil, nasty things that some believe them? Much love ... and many prayers of love for you too !

    1. SusanJ, Thank you! I am sorry your parents hit you. Thank you for your prayers Susan!!

  3. Thanks for your testimony - I was deeply moved by it. I give my book away free to help people stop this type of parenting forever while still holding onto to their faith in the Bible.

    Blessings from Jerusalem

    Samuel Martin -

    1. Samuel Martin, thank you for your kindness and I have found your book from the information you provided. Thank You Samuel!!

  4. Just as in Addicted to Hate. Thank you so much for sharing, Mark. I wish you all the best.