Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Brother Nate

If you grew up in a large family you know sometimes the children will gravitate to different roles within the family structure. In some families you might find one kid being the smart one, or the athlete, the clown, the artistic one, the trouble maker, or the quiet one. If you are from a big family you can probably add to this list.

In my family I was appointed the saint in my father’s family cult, while my brother Nate was assigned the role of sinner. For me, Nate was the needed scapegoat . . . because in a very real sense Nate kept me safer. When my father had Nate on his radar I was not! For that moment anyway! For the rest of the family, Nate was a problem child, the delinquent of the brood. Brilliant like his dad (Nate's IQ has been measured at 150), the middle son heard a different drummer from the time he was a toddler.

When he was five, Nate remembers my father telling him, “I'm going to keep a special eye on you. Nate immediately knew that special eye was not going to be a kind one. The regular beatings of Nate started shortly thereafter. But this was not a role Nate gravitated to or wanted or used to distinguish himself as someone important or special in a large family of 13 kids. No, Nate had this role assigned to him by his father. “Hello, my name is Nate Phelps, and I was chosen to be the child who got the worst beatings and the most beatings, by a father who beat us all.”

For a brief period our father’s beatings were administered with a leather strap about 3 ½ feet in length, a leather strap he had made especially for administering ‘discipline’ to his children by the local barber shop. He wore out one strap and had another made, then another. However, by the time Nate was about five years old, around the time my father told him “I’m going to keep a special eye on you”, my father had the appalling idea of using an oak mattock handle for administering ‘discipline’ to his children. Disciplining with an oak mattock handle is like disciplining a child with a heavy baseball bat. And from that day on, all discipline was administered via the use of his oak mattock handle, for all the children, but especially for Nate!

If you want to think through the level of pain this would have produced in Nate’s little body imagine asking a friend to hit you hard with a baseball bat. Have your friend hit plenty hard enough on your backside but not too hard . . . hard enough to really hurt, but not hard enough to break any bones. And get a full swing in. Then imagine that you had the guts to ask your friend to hit you on your backside and upper legs and lower back with a strong firm hit like the first hit, a couple of more times. Just hard enough but remember, no broken bones.

Now, how about 40 times in a row? Or as in the case of my brother Nate, 40 times two or 40 times three. And to really simulate it you’d have to have your friend miss the intended target of back side and upper legs several times and beat on your lower back and your legs just behind the knees . . . with the intent that you not walk for four or five days. Got any friends (or enemies?!) you could even get to hit you that hard . . . Once!? (And in this hypothetical we have an adult hitting an adult with the same relative body size.) But then imagine, just imagine that you are a scared little boy, and that the one beating you with the bat is your six foot four inch daddy. Are you able to imagine, for just a second if you can stand it, the damage this would do to your body? And the damage it would do to your soul?

My brother Nate endured hundreds of brutal beatings in his young life before walking out at one minute after midnight on his eighteenth birthday. Nate got the lion's share of the 'discipline' among the kids in our family. I honestly don't know how he endured it, but he did; at least he lived through it. He'd get 40 blows at a time from the oak mattock handle, and at times, 40 times two or 40 times 3.

I used to think my father thought Nate was just tougher than the rest of us so my father somehow “adjusted” for that in his beatings. I don’t believe that any more. What I believe is that Nate was the child who consistently had the courage to stand up to my father and call what my father was doing wrong. Nate’s very presence in my father’s life was a daily reminder that my father’s message was not being believed by everyone. Nate stood as a kind of fortress that my father could not scale with his tactics and therefore could not conquer. Nate stood as the lone dissident of my father’s children. Who simply could not be broken, no matter how cruel, no matter how unjust my father was.

I believe Nate was born with a wonderfully strong sense of justice, and a natural sense of right and wrong. Nate knew early on that our father had no love for us and was simply using us; using us for his personal soapbox, his own agenda and his hate. Nate knew it and he always made sure our father knew he knew it. Nate realized our father was using us for his own monetary gain and to have some notoriety as the man whose only church members were his wife and children.

That’s why Nate would not cower before my father, and that’s why my father assumed, foolishly, ignorantly, that Nate was tougher than the rest of his children. Nate defied his father because he hated my father’s injustice! But, oh, did my brother Nate pay for his desire to always stand on principle. Nate was brutalized at the hand of his father . . . for years; for most of his growing up years!

In fact, Nate's tenacious resistance so angered his father that, by age nine, when regular candy-selling family outings were planned, frequently Nate missed them. Nate would be required to stay behind with father at the house/church building. And during the course of the day, Father would beat Nate whenever he had a whim to do so.

I recall the family coming back once to find our father jogging around the dining room table, beating the sobbing boy with a broom handle on the arms, shoulders, head, hands, back, rear end and legs. While doing so, father was alternately spitting on the frightened child and chuckling an evil laugh. I can hardly fathom that little boy’s terror and despair at being left alone with this tyrant! Who should have been his greatest champion and greatest advocate!

When Nate wasn't allowed to go along he would literally scream and chase 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, 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 him, 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 the heck out of there. Later I would wonder how my mom could tolerate leaving him behind to suffer at my father’s hand. You would think the maternal instinct would cut in at some point! Wouldn't the lioness turn in fury to protect her cub?

But I guess I do still feel that very deeply . . . that Mom betrayed a gut, primitive bond when she drove off and left Nate. I do love my mom. But I wish with all my heart she'd have put a stop to the abuse. As difficult as it would have been, she might have stopped my father, and she didn't. Please don’t misunderstand. I have great empathy for my mother. I realize she believed she was in an impossible situation. But these were her children. And they were, after all, only children. What were her children going to be able to do to stop their father!? Obviously, if our mother couldn’t stop our father, nobody could. Nobody did! So my father’s vicious, savage abuse of his family continued unchecked for many years.

One night just before Christmas, my brother Nate and I were out selling candy together, as was our custom. We were in a residential area, and while we were selling, we'd unscrew a tiny Christmas light from the evergreens outside people's houses, one of those small bulbs on a string of lights. We were only doing it occasionally for kicks. We'd 'launch' them over the street and listen to them pop on the pavement. We didn't think anything about it. Nate was 9 and I was 13.

Well, I remember very clearly what happened that night when we got home. I walked into the dining room where the bottom of the stairs was going up to our 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 really angry, and second, it was Nate and me 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 he was asking, I knew something was really wrong. Nobody answered my father’s question that was hanging in the air.

My father asked again. By that time Mom had come in. Her face was white. She said, 'Why?' Father said, 'I got a call from some guy who told me that there were two boys that had come by his house tonight, and that he was a retired police detective. Was this the church that the boys were selling candy for? I told them it was, and asked why. He told me 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?'

Before I could say a word, someone told father it was Nate and me. My father said, 'Let's go.' Those were the words my father always used when he was about to begin a beating. We dutifully went upstairs. Our father never asked me or Nate one word about whether it 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, bring reproach on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ like that?' 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 an oak mattock handle. Nate went into shock. I didn’t. The compassion toward my precious little brother and the terrible anger I felt that night over what Nate had to go through are still with me to this day. I will never, ever forget the injustice and cruelty that were done to Nate by my father that night. My father was the person on this planet given the greatest responsibility by God to protect and defend and nurture his young son. And he did the exact opposite. He acted like a treacherous villain instead of a dad. What happened in the mind and heart and spirit of that precious young man, my brother Nate, the night his protector and defender beat him till he went into shock? That night was a turning point for me in my relationship with my father and what would become my future. I wonder if that particularly deadly beating was a turning point for Nate as well.

I became a compulsive counter to handle the stress of our father’s beatings. I counted the square tiles on the floor as I paced in fear throughout the house. I counted the stairs up to my father’s bedroom. I counted every stroke, mine and Nate’s, while my father screamed obscenities and Nate screamed in pain. Every 20 strokes, my mother wiped my face off with a wet wash cloth while my father beat my brother Nate.

That was Christmas Eve. We didn’t celebrate Christmas in our family. Christmas was considered evil by my father! And for children who were in forced isolation of the type seen in cults, the holidays seemed fraught with danger to us because we were further hidden from the view of the world for those days when we weren’t in school. And there was simply more opportunities for us to be beaten.

A mattock is a pick-hoe using an oak handle heavier than a bat. The ax head is easily removed leaving only the handle. My father swung it with both hands like a ballplayer, with a full swing. The first blow stunned your whole body. By the third blow, your backside was so tender, even the lightest strike was agonizing, but he would still hit us with a full swing. By 20 hits, though, we’d have grown numb with pain and the pain had become bone deep. That was when my father would quit and start on my brother.

After the second 20 strokes, I was weak and nauseated and very pale. My body hurt terribly. Then it was Nate’s turn, again. He got 40 strokes each time. I walked slowly over to the bathtub where my mom was wetting a wash cloth, again, to bathe my face. Behind me, I could hear the mattock strikes and my brother was choking and moaning. He was crying and father wouldn't stop. Then I heard my father shouting my name.

My mom was right there. But she wouldn't help me. What agony we endured knowing there was no help in sight. Not from my mother. Not from anyone. It hurt so bad during the third beating that I wanted to drop so my father would hit me in the head with the oak mattock handle. I was hoping I'd be knocked out, or killed... anything to end the pain. After that... it was the waiting that was so terrible. I didn't know if, when he was done with Nate, it would be my turn again. I was shaking in a frantic panic. Forty-five years since it happened, and the same sick feeling in my stomach comes back now.

Did he? Did my father come back to me for another round of beating?

No. He just kept hitting my little nine year old brother, Nate with the oak mattock handle. A little nine year old child would take the brunt of my father’s rage for a childish prank. And my mother must have suffered greatly as she stood by watching this cruelty being perpetrated on a son who was still a little boy. I wonder how many times in my mother’s life with my father that she considered picking up the phone and calling the police. She had to wonder at some point that night if Nate was going to die from the blows that rained down on him. The beating seemed to go on and on and on. As if it would never, ever end.

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 Nate with each blow. It was a horrible sound being released involuntarily by a young boy in terrible agony whose father continued to beat him beyond all reason or mercy; a young boy who at that moment most likely despaired of his very life. I looked at my brother once the beating stopped. He was in terrible, grievous, torturous pain, barely able to stand! He was desperately weak and in the throes of sheer agony.

I can't describe the basic animal fear that races through your body at a time like that, where someone that evil 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 or a woman being held captive and repeatedly raped and brutalized. In a situation that had daily violence with no hope of escape.

I can barely imagine how it felt to Nate because he got twice as many hits as I got. He was in bed lying on his side for four or five days after the beating. Totally alone! Nate was a nine-year old boy being left alone with no medical attention, no basic treatment for his wounds. Left alone to make sense of the cruelty he suffered for a little boy’s prank played out in the streets of his city. My father did not so much as look at him as he lay there, or even pass by his bed. Nate did receive a scant 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 for allowing him to be criminally beaten by his father, and particular shame on his father!

This action by my father was an unconscionable act of a physical and emotional abuser. It makes me wonder 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 kinds. What goes on in a prison camp is often not known by anyone except the soldier being tortured. 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. Yet my father 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 to himself. Apparently he felt no shame, no remorse and no agony for what he had meted out on this young boy.

I remember a day when the boys in our family had gathered in one room to do their homework. They'd been working quietly for some time when my father walked in. After staring in simmering malevolence at each of them, he intoned: "You guys think you may be foolin' me. But on a cold snowy day, the snow will be crunchin' under the mailman's tires, and under his boots, when he puts that letter in our box. Your grades! And that's when the meat's gonna get separated from the coconut.” My father had the opportunity to praise the children in his household for showing initiative in doing homework, or for perseverance or stick-to-it-iveness. But did he? No, he stared at us with anger and hatred in advance of what he perceived as something that could make him look bad. Our grades!

When the report cards arrived from Landon Middle School one day in January, 1972, it was snowing. And Jonathan and Nate's grades were poor. And the meat got separated from the coconut.

The beatings were so severe the boys were covered with massive red, green, black and purple bruising extending from their lower back to below their knees. Some of their bruises were bleeding through to the surface. Their skin would swell, and then due to repeated blows with the oak mattock handle, it would crack and bleed. Neither Jonathan nor Nate was able to sit down, and the blows to the backs of their knees had caused so much swelling they were unable to bend them. My father was a sly man who knew very well how to keep all contusions, bruises and injuries on his children’s bodies in places no one else could see.

And after the beatings came the shaming. It was 1972-the age of shoulder-length locks. Both boys had begged their father not to give them crew cuts. 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, and who were forbidden to visit others' homes (the isolation thing, remember?). Jonathan and Nate had a teenage dread of braving the corridors with flesh heads in an era of long manes, and their father had relented for a time. Their hair had been allowed to touch their collars. But when the grades turned out to be poor, 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 my brothers off from the outside world . . . and for my father to show his complete dominance over his captives.

On the following day-a Thursday-the boys came to school wearing red stocking caps. When asked to remove them in class, they declined. This upset their teachers almost as much as their refusal to take their seats. One instructor demanded Nate remove his headgear. Finally, Nate did. The teacher stared at his bald head. So did his classmates. "On second thought," said the charitable man, "put it back on."

For gym class that Friday, the boys had a very necessary note from my mom excusing them all week. My father could hardly let the evidence of his beatings be seen by the school authorities. By now, the faculty had a pretty good idea what the clothes, notes, and funny hats were covering, and Principal Dittemore asked Jonathan to come into his office. Waiting for him were the school nurse and a doctor from the community.

They asked the 13 year old to show them his bruises. He refused. Feeling their hands were tied, the staff released Jonathan, only to have the pastor himself show up a few hours later. During a stormy second meeting, Phelps accused the school, first of slackness and poor discipline, then, paradoxically, of beating his sons and causing the bruising themselves. My father, the deceiving bully, threatened to slap a lawsuit on anyone who pursued the matter.

Not a man to be intimidated, Dittemore reported the suspected child abuse to an officer of the Juvenile Court. On Monday the same routine occurred-with my brothers unable to sit down and insisting on wearing their stocking caps-until it came time for gym once more. The note had excused them for a week, but now the coach demanded they show it again, saying he'd thought it was only for a day. The boys had left their note at home.

The coach took Nate into the locker room and stood there, waiting for him to get undressed. Nate refused. At that point, the faculty relented, and Jonathan and Nate thought they were off the hook. But, as they walked out of Landon to their mom's station wagon after school, (to start their 5 hours of candy selling) they saw two police cars waiting. One of the teachers pointed the boys out to the officers. Before he knew it, Nate was in a squad car on his way downtown. Nate was terrified. Not because he was afraid of the police. No, he was afraid of his father! He kept thinking it was all over but the funeral. He was terrified of what my father would do to him, even though it was in no way his fault! Nate was sure this would be perceived as his fault and was certain his father was going to beat the daylights out of him. Nate was like a lot of abused children who believe even the legitimate consequences their abuser has to face for his criminal behaviors are things they, the victim, should have foreseen and figured out how to deal with. And poor Nate could barely walk from the last beating.

At the station everyone was very kind to Nate. They spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to allay his fears and coax him to allow them to photograph his naked backside. Finally he did. When the police allowed Mom to take her boys home, Nate's worst nightmare did come true. After my father nearly got arrested for delivering a tirade of obscenities and threats to the juvenile detectives, my father rushed back to the house and delivered a fresh beating to his exhausted sons.

How can I describe the physical pain my two brothers endured that evening when my father ruthlessly beat their raw backsides, again, with the oak mattock handle. What cruel and inhumane injustice! And remember this was on top of my brothers having spent time at a police station getting the best my culture had to offer at the time for children of child abuse . . . which was, sadly, to send them straight home to an angry abuser bent on avenging himself of his humiliation at having been caught. My father’s behavior that night was atrocious, outrageous and evil! My father blamed his sons for the consequences of his own personal behavior, and his anger was vented, brutally, in a raging fit, onto the backsides of two of his sons, with an oak mattock handle. It felt like there was no hope and no justice in the world. Certainly there was not for us as Phelps children!

For the moment, however, the circumstances of the investigation had gone beyond the pastor's control. Police detectives investigated the matter, and it was filed as juvenile abuse cases #13119 and #13120. Jonathan and Nate were assigned a court- appointed lawyer, a guardian ad litem, to protect their interests. The assistant county attorney took charge of the cases, and juvenile officers were assigned to the boys.

In his motion to dismiss, the ever-resourceful pastor/lawyer; my father; filed a pontifically sobering sermon on the value of strict discipline and corporal punishment in a good Christian upbringing. When he beat my two brothers, Jonathan and Nate, he told them if this situation became a legal case, they would pay hell. And the boys believed him. At that time, believe me, there was nothing those two boys wanted to see more than those charges dropped.

When the guardian ad litem came to interview these two boys, they lied through their teeth. Can you imagine? These two boys lied to save themselves from what they knew would be far worse punishment! Surely the child abuse system has learned from those early years, but in our case the system actually caused my brothers more abuse and more pain. And further isolation knowing that their father could do an end run around all of the authorities. Legally and personally! And my father, tragically, was emboldened to abuse again.

Principals involved in the case speculate the boys' statements, along with legal superiors' reluctance to tangle with the litigious pastor, caused the charges to be dropped. The last reason is not academic speculation. The Capital-Journal newspaper in Topeka, Kansas learned through several sources that the Topeka Police Department's attitude toward the Phelps' family in the '70s and '80s was ‘hands off-this guy's more trouble than he's worth'.

As I mentioned earlier, there was no escape from my father as far as we children were concerned. And the decisions of the Topeka police department, and the other civil and criminal authorities, put an end to any flickering hope for the Phelps offspring. The legal system, with very clear evidence of abuse, was unable to come up with a way to prosecute my father for abuse and thereby protect his children from him. The system that exists today to protect children has a much more sophisticated system in place to help children. But in the late 1960s the city of Topeka, Kansas was just not there yet.

Three months later, the case was dismissed upon the motion of the state. The reason given by the prosecutor was "no case sufficient to go to trial in opinion of state." The two boys were selling candy in the Highland Park area of Topeka when they learned from their mom their father would not go on trial for beating his children. They were elated! It meant at least they wouldn't get beaten for this. To say that the Phelps children’s lives were the time they lived “between beatings” is really an apt understanding of what we went through.

But if Nate's life was so full of pain and fear, why didn't he speak up when he was at the police station and everyone was being so nice to him? I remember Nate’s response to this question. He laughed. It's the veteran's tolerant amusement at the novice's question. Nate explained: "We'll do anything not to have to give up our parents. That's just the way kids are.” And of course there was the desire to avoid even more horrendous beatings had the case continued.

That's the way we were. Besides, when crippling abuse occurs from birth, and fear dominates your daily existence, it never even crosses your mind to fight back! You know how they train elephants? They raise them tied to a chain anchored deep in the ground. Later, it's replaced by a rope and a stick. But the elephant never stops thinking it's an impossible-to-break chain. He is forever in bondage to his understanding that he cannot escape.

Since my brothers’ juvenile files were destroyed when the boys reached eighteen, had it not been for my father’s vindictiveness, there might have been no record of this case. As it was, my father sued the school. This caused the school's insurance company to request a statement from Principal Dittemore, who complied; describing the events which led to the faculty's concern the boys were being abused. The suit was dropped. When contacted in retirement, Dittemore confirmed he'd written the letter to the insurance company and he acknowledged its contents.

Nate finally left the house, his family, and his father’s church at the stroke of midnight, November 22, the day he turned 18. Nate's departure from home was dramatic. Inclined towards being a freethinker and sceptic, and long the family's designated scapegoat, Nate was initially not so torn about leaving the assembly of the elect. "He constantly told me I was worthless," says Nate about his father. "That I was a son of Belial (Satan); I was going to end up in prison; I was evil. That message came through loud and clear. For years since, I have had to struggle to achieve any sense of worthiness in the eyes of God or man.”

“My father often opined I was such a loser; I'd never even make it through high school. Two weeks before the end of my senior year, when it was apparent I would, he decided my weight needed constant watching again. Instead of being allowed to take my final exams. I was pulled out of school and made to ride a stationary bicycle six hours a day. Now . . . there's a rational act . . . a real daddy-non-compos-mentis. So I didn't graduate. I had to take the GED later for my high school diploma.” For those of us who knew my father’s fear of having his flock leave him this looked like just one more act of desperation.

“A few weeks before my 18th birthday, I bought an old Rambler for $350. I parked it down the street and I didn't tell anyone I had it. I took my things out to the garage a little at a time, and I hid them amid the mess out there. On the night before my birthday, around 15 minutes to midnight on November 21, 1976, I pulled my car into the drive, opened the garage, and loaded my few personal belongings in the back. Leaving my keys in the ignition, I walked into my childhood house of fear and pain.”

“I walked to the bottom of the stairs to the room where my father slept and I...screamed; at the top of my lungs; and left. That night, I slept in the men's room of an APCO gas station on Fairlawn across from my high school because it was heated. I found work and eventually ended up living with my brother Mark, his wife, and my sister Margie, who were also experimenting with adult independence.”

Thus, Nate made his initial escape. When my wife and I moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1977, my sister Margie and Nate took an apartment and jobs in Kansas City. A little later, Nate went to work for me at a print shop in St. Louis, and Margie returned to the Westboro community. She would become one of my father’s staunchest defenders even to the point of arguing the Snyder v. Phelps case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. I’ve said it before. It is really hard to leave that level of mind control.

In the summer of 1978, my wife, my brother Nate and I returned and opened our first copy shop in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City. It was a success. In January 1979, my wife and I opened another copy shop in Topeka, and Nate stayed in Kansas City to manage the first. At that point, says Nate, "It hit me. It was the first time I'd ever been totally separated from all of my family.” Though Nate held no illusions about building some kind of new relationship with my father, deep down Nate had always wanted to be a part of the rest of his family--his mother and brothers and sisters--in some other capacity than as the bad seed. Now, he felt cut off and alone.

It was precisely then that my sisters began calling him, pressing him to return, saying they could all be one family again, and that my father had stopped beating his children. Interesting, don’t you think, that they knew with Nate they would have to lead with whether his father was still physically abusing his children. “Hey, Nate, the physical abuse isn’t happening anymore. Want to come home?”

So, three years after his Jim-Morrison-exit, the prodigal returned. However, my father’s idea of a welcome was to draw up not a feast, but a document. Nate remembers they had him sit down and pen a letter to me - Mark, his brother and his boss at the time - which they dictated. It was left on Nate's desk at the shop in Kansas City, and it informed me I had lost my manager without notice due to my serving as ballast for that manager's slide into hell.

For Nate, rebirth into his family came with my father’s umbilical cord drawn tightly around his neck. Though he got his meals now, Nate was expected to work in the law office full-time for his meals and a room. He was also expected to complete college and attend law school. "And, in return for my work, my father would pay my tuition," says Nate. "But I had no desire for law school, and I had debts to pay. I needed a cash income - not just room and board." Nate declined the work in the law offices and found employment outside the compound.

In the meantime, my father refused to talk to him, handling any business through intermediaries. Seriously? Come back and be part of the family but we won’t talk to you! Nate attended church services, but was excluded from the adult male congregation. Instead, he worshipped with the women and children.

You see, every Sunday, just prior to services, all the men in the church would congregate in my father’s office to sit and chat. When they filed out and took their seats in the auditorium, it signaled services were beginning. It was a rite of passage for the older boys when they were allowed to join. To his credit, Nate was never included nor wanted to be part of this ritual, either when he was younger or when he came back to the church. Nate knew at his core that what got decided by the men of this church was simply a perpetuation of my father’s hate. And he wanted no part of it.

During the ensuing months, my father still refused to speak to Nate. Instead, envoys were sent to inform Nate that the pastor was displeased he was working 'outside'. Again and again, it was suggested to Nate he ought to give up the 'outside' job and work in the law office; that his benevolent father would pay him for this by sending him to law school. Nate was true to himself and always refused. He didn't want to go to law school. And he needed cash to pay his debts. He was 21 at the time. If my father had paid a wage, even a small one, it might have been OK with Nate. But money in your pocket, to my father, meant he had less control over you. It allowed mobility and independence; something he was not going to tolerate.

All of the loyal Phelps children and their approved spouses followed the pastor's formula: they worked as law clerks, legal secretaries, and go-fers for my father as he churned out lawsuits. In return, my father took care of whatever he had decided were their needs.

Finally, one Sunday my father devoted his entire sermon to denouncing the reprobate in our midst. He preached that Nate was not of ‘The Place’, not one of the chosen, or he would be happy to join in the toils of the family enterprise. My father announced there would be a meeting after the service where the family would 'decide' whether Nate should stay or go. "I started packing my bag," says Nate. "Family councils never contradicted my dad. He just called them when he wanted everyone else to feel responsible for something he had every intention of doing, regardless."

After he'd thrown his few belongings together, Nate remembers he dozed off on his bed, waiting for the verdict. He was awakened by a fist pounding on his door. It was Jonathan. The two brothers were less than a year apart. "You have to go,” Jonathan told his older brother. "You have to go tonight."

The Phelps family scapegoat nodded stoically. He hoisted his bag and stepped through the door. His younger brother gave him no hand to shake, no pat on the back, no words of farewell - only silence. None of the normal, bittersweet responses you would have expected from a sibling who was being forced to say goodbye to another sibling, perhaps forever. Nate has not seen his father since. Once, he went back to visit his mom: "It had been years since I'd talked to her," he relates bitterly. "She'd only see me for two minutes at the back door. And she kept looking over her shoulder the entire time. I felt like a hobo asking for a meal." It was as it had always been for my mom. Her fear of my father would trump all else.

But Nate, who, like Katherine, had taken the brunt of my father’s cruelty and abuse, would find he could not leave his past behind so easily. When he drove away that night after his family council, rejected, wounded, he would be in a very vulnerable state. And that vulnerability would set the stage for Nate to move into self-destructive behaviors that anybody who had read a high school Psychology textbook could have predicted. Gratis the pastor and the horrible, denigrating things he had said about his son Nate for all those years. Nate would now experiment with all the bad things his father had said he would do.

The image we have of ourselves has a profound influence on our actions. The brilliant, creative, intense, passionate, justice-seeking, kind, compassionate, gentle Nate Phelps had never known what a gift he was; to God, to many of us in the family, and to random strangers who would immediately see his amazing joie de vivre. He would simply begin acting in accordance with the self-image my father had shaped in him, through terror and abuse.

Nate was 6'4" and 280 pounds. He plunged himself into a world of drugs, drink, violence, and hooligan friends, and very nearly accomplished his parents' self-fulfilling prophecy that he would be the convict of the family. "When I first left," says Nate, "right away I moved in with some wild boys living above the VW shop on W. 6th Street in Topeka. They had a perpetual party going there for almost four months. A keg was permanently on tap. When I hit that, boy, did I have an attitude! I remember I was real belligerent and anti-authority." Raise your hands all you reading this blog if you are surprised Nate Phelps would be a little anti-authority after his horrendous upbringing!

Ten months later, addicted to speed and crystal meth, without shoes, penniless, and desperate, the prodigal giant appeared on my wife’s and my doorstep only a few days before we were to move to California. Haunted by ghosts of his father’s hatred, enraged by the memories of his physical abuse, and emotionally disemboweled by the knowledge that his mother and his siblings had offered him up, had sacrificed his entire childhood, to save themselves, Nate Phelps had become a rider on the storm.

Soon the pastor (my father) might have had reason for dancing and clapping his hands again in delight. But my father’s appointed angel (me - Mark) and his projected devil (Nate) knew instantly we were veterans from the same war. We needed each other. We each sensed we might be able to redeem the other brother: the one of his guilt; the other from a coffin void of love or self-esteem. Thus, the former favorite of our father; and back-up oak mattock handle-beater; was the only Phelps who could understand and forgive the rage of the family's designated criminal and black sheep. The 'good' Phelps boy forged a bond with the 'evil' one, and he invited his little brother to come to California with them.

It’s been a rough ride for my brother Nate who has striven with all his might to reconcile the insanity of his youth with the growth of his journey toward wholeness. In his present life, my brother Nate is reaching out to those who have been abused by our society, by religion, and by my father’s church. He is standing in the gap for those who are mistreated and scapegoated by a society that still struggles with prejudice and bigotry.

I am so very proud of the man my brother Nate has become and proud of how he is living his life today. I have intensely deep respect for him. You can easily learn of Nate’s present endeavors by a quick search of Google under the name ‘Nate Phelps’ or find him on social media. This brother of mine who has so many gifts is using many of them right now in his life. So I hope you gain hope knowing that about him. He has a heart full of love and compassion to help others. You’re the best, Nate!

If this blog has brought up issues for you related to your own abuse or if you have questions about anything you’ve read, please contact me. It is my desire, always, to reach out to my blog readers as they read and process abuse. I am a former victim, now survivor and I know there can be intense pain even when you read of someone else’s abuse . . . because it reminds you so much of your own. So please know it would be my privilege to walk with you on any part of your journey.

Mark Phelps

9 comments:

  1. I cannot imagine how your mother allowed such evil to be inflicted on you. I'm so sorry you all had to go through all of that. I only hope that the children still mired in the WBC aren't being physically abused like you all were by your father.

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  2. Sending love to you and Nate. Love your mom would have given had she been healthy. You and Nate were worthy of massive love your entire childhood, and are now. Sending everything I've got...

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  3. Mark, What an incredible childhood. Along with considering prisoners of war I remember our Savior who was handed over to be beaten beyond recognition - and by who's stripes you and your brother have been healed.

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  4. Religion has never been kind to it's children, to it's future. So the children leave, and pastors wonder why the church pews are empty. This was beautiful and tragic. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Reading this blog entry, I was struck by how similar our stories are Mark. Thank you for shooting your story and God Bless.

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    1. Geoffrey thank you for your note. I hope you have the comfort of God in your life and that God is blessing your life though you have experienced great difficulties!

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  6. I just realized that I said "shooting" instead of "sharing", sorry (autocorrect). Anyways, thank you, yes I do have the comfort and blessing of God throughout all of my struggling, He has been so helpful in my healing process as well.

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  7. I'm very moved by this story. I've followed Nate on social media for about a year. My upbringing wasn't nearly as abusive as his, but I still sometimes doubt my ability to overcome. I relate to Nate in numerous ways, and it seems that I have arrived at the same conclusions as he has. Thanks again.

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  8. I'm not against discipline. We all need discipline in our lives to keep us inline. But this is *not* discipline, this is abuse. Pastor Fred Phelps was not only an abusive monster, but also a manipulative puppet master, pulling the strings of those who come in contact with him. If he cannot control people, he just rejects them. He refuses to have anything to do with them, and demands that his children have nothing to do with them. It's unforgivable that such tyrant be allowed to control people like that. I'm glad some people have been able to escape the hatred of Westboro Baptist Church. :(

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