Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part 3

In my last blog we ended with the untimely death of my brother’s beautiful girlfriend. This was a tragic death that would shake my brother at his core. But you remember the problem for Phelps children. We were not allowed to express normal feelings, true of many children of abuse. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., simply had no place in his world for others feelings, either good or bad. He allowed only expressions of soldier-like support or the animated retelling of stories where we were the victors in fighting my father’s ideological battles for him. So when Fred Jr. needed to find comfort and solace to mourn for Debbie he would have to seek out someone other than my father, once again a perpetrator of wrong in my brother’s life.

Fred Jr. came to visit Mom, secretly. No one knew Fred Jr. was in the house. My brother Nate came into a room inadvertently and saw Fred Jr. and Mother sitting in chairs, facing each other. The eldest son had his head in her lap and she was stroking his hair. I have never talked to Nate about what that meant to him, but it must have been an unusual moment for him to see the great needs of a child being met by a parent.

Fred Jr. was crying for Debbie.

There's no question that my brother wanted to spend his life with Debbie. She was who he loved. And I knew her well enough to say my brother was the first light of hope she'd had in her life. When he left her, that light went out.

I think of Debbie sometimes. Debbie had a hard life before she met our family, and all she really needed was someone who would value her. If my father had allowed that, Debbie might have really found some hope and blossomed in her life.

In Matthew 12:20 Jesus says, 'the bruised reed I will not break; the flickering candle I won't snuff out; instead I will be your hope'. These verses are talking about people who are at a very low place in their lives and need extra special care. It was Jesus' desire to make it very clear He wanted to reach out to people whose lives felt close to being “snuffed out.” He wanted to bring them hope they might never have received before.

Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. He was modeling very clearly what he expected leaders to do. When you read about Jesus’ life you sense his tremendous compassion for the downtrodden and the weak but he had very strong words of warning to religious leaders. When you look at the evil and the hurt my father caused during his lifetime, my father had no right to the title of 'pastor'- never mind 'guardian of ‘The Place’.’

Two years later, Fred Jr. married Betty, the woman he'd brought home that Valentine's Day. Betty was finally approved by his father.

Betty was music major at K-State when she met Fred Jr. She had perfect pitch and played many instruments. However, she transferred to Washburn for her last two years of college, and went to law school on command. What dreams did she give up in that decision? Or perhaps Betty made the choice to go to law school. I know Fred Jr. did not. Not really! He had a passion for history and wanted to teach history.

I remember a time in 1973, when Betty was visiting Fred Jr. in the kitchen and the pastor started beating our brother, Nate, savagely with the oak mattock handle in the adjoining church auditorium. Betty had been eating a cantaloupe and she jabbed her spoon all the way through it and screamed: “Stop it!" It was loud enough for my father to hear out in the church auditorium. The good pastor came in from the church auditorium where he'd been beating Nate, and he said to Betty: 'You got a problem with this?' Then he turned to Fred Jr.: "If that girl has a problem with this, then I'm not going to put up with it! You better get her under subjection, or you're not gonna be marryin' her!"

In one of his FAX campaigns to the local Topeka community a few years later, the pastor, my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., stated: "Wives who have strayed too far from traditional family values of home and children need to be whipped into godly obedience. Sparing the rod and sparing either the children or the women is a strategy that fundamentalist Christians reject.”

I do not know of anyone who calls himself a true follower of Christ who would condone whipping anybody for any reason! My father was preaching something that is simply not found in the Bible. There was never to be a time where a husband would lay violent hands on a wife. For any reason!!

Betty was put in her place by my father and she was the butt of numerous negative comments from the pulpit over the following months until she finally displayed the 'proper spirit of subjection and obedience'. Betty sat under my father’s preaching for months having to endure the humiliation he was heaping on her. Finally, Betty chose to willingly cease to be the person she was to meet my father’s desires.

When I think back on the brief life of Debbie Valgos, this amazing 17 year old, I realize my father was frightened of Debbie! He was actually frightened by the power of a life that still had joy and passion in it! It was something my father could never compete with. He knew she'd take Fred Jr. from him. Yes, she might give Fred Jr. the chance of having a truly joy-filled life, but if my father let that happen he would truly lose his son Fred. And my father would lose a soldier in his army. His first born son!

Seeing Debbie's weak spot- her self-esteem - my father did everything in his power to drive a sword through it... right into her heart. Debbie didn't hate life like my father did. She loved life despite all her reasons to despair. She had an indomitable spirit. My father knew she'd never fit in at his stoic doom and gloom ‘church’. Eventually she'd want to leave to go somewhere where life could be lived to the fullest and pull Fred Jr. along with her.

My father could not brook any insubordination in his “church.” It seems that Debbie was a person so full of life, and zest that her very presence seemed insubordinate! My father simply could not stand someone who was happy, or self-possessed, or had a dream or believed in herself or even believed in tomorrow and what it might bring. My father seemed bent on forcing all people into his mold. After he crushed the life out of someone, they were actually worth so much more to him. Because without a will to be one’s own man or woman, and without the ability to at least try to use the beautiful gifts God put in us, we tend to shrivel up into shells of whom we were meant to be. And shells are a whole lot easier to command.

Sitting in her mother's house, the sinking afternoon sun pours through the screen door, casting its soft gold across the widow's tattered carpet. Debbie’s mother offers, a little reluctantly and her eyes bright with guilt, the last moments of her daughter’s life: a First Communion veil; a dried corsage from an Easter Sunday get-to-together, and the photo album Debbie kept at the orphanage. On its cover, printed in the awkward, block letters of a bruised but hopeful new reed, a flickering candle not yet quenched, are the words:


"Debbie Valgos was a whore extraordinaire," snaps Fred Jr’s sister, Margie. But the good pastor’s words sound empty and formulaic on the daughter's tongue. What a pathetic justification for the loss of this beautiful, spirited young woman. Bankrupt words from a bankrupt system! And any who knew Debbie simply do not believe those words.

There is a verse in Philippians where Paul exhorts all followers of Christ to grow in love. To really grow in it! He says “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ Jesus.”

My family did not exhibit love first of all, but they certainly weren’t choosing to let their love grow in knowledge! Or depth of insight! My sister’s comment about Debbie showed a complete lack of insight! And this verse makes it clear that a love that is not growing in knowledge will not be able to discern what is best. My family did not love, so they were never, ever going to be able to discern what is best . . . about Debbie Valgos or anybody else.

And the end of this verse mentions the real consequences if our love isn’t discerning. We will NOT know what is best. We will simply not walk in a pure way or a blameless way. My family sadly has walked in a way FILLED with blame. All because they did not understand that a faith that isn’t filled with love simply can’t “get it right.” Not ever. Said another way, a life that lacks love will be a life filled with blame. That would describe my father’s church and what came from his hatred. And the blame for Debbie’s death is partly on them.

Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally abusive families will be unable to surmount their experience. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives.

It is instructive that nine of the 13 Phelps children, almost exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace the pastor's abusive world and ways. I am one of the few who made it over the wall at Westboro. I made it over the many barriers and managed to escape. And I hope my story can be a small beacon of hope to others who have survived abusive families. And who are ready to go on to lead different lives. Lives filled with hope and purpose they have never lived before. That is my strong desire as I write this blog. If I was able to be set free from the poison and pain of my past I know that others can.

I might still be my father’s point man today if it hadn’t been for a pretty 13 year old I met that evening at the skating rink. In May of 1971, a few months after Fred and Debbie had been dragged back from their aborted elopement, Fred Jr. and I met Debbie at the skating rink. Fred Jr. and Debbie paired off, and I remember I was rolling along alone on my rented skates, wishing for my hundred dollar pros Fred Jr. had sold, when suddenly a petite girl, slim and shapely, with long dark hair hanging halfway down her back sailed by. She fixed her beautiful blue eyes on me, smiled and said "You're a good skater!" And she pulled my heart right off my sleeve. I was only 16, and she, 13, but for me the search for my life's mate was over.

Only two months after rescuing his eldest from the charms of the 'whore-extraordinaire', my father found another wily ally of the serpent threatening his second son; my new girlfriend. My father actually perceived all future spouses of his children as allies of the devil. I think this was partly because he knew these spouses would naturally pull us away from him. But also I think my father had such distrust of the human race that he never was able to see any potential for good in our future spouses. In any of them! Even the hand-picked ones! He just had such a profound need to control us and use us as his pawns that all our marriages seemed a waste of time to him. But somehow he couldn’t think of any legitimate way to stop us from getting married. So, he would do his best to try to poison and control our choices in whatever ways he could. So my father saw my new girlfriend as a threat to be sure. And little did he know what a threat she would end up being. And what an incredible force for good she has been for those who have left the fold.

This girl was no fragile psyche, vulnerable and clueless when it came to dealing with abusive authority figures, as Debbie Valgos would be. Raised Catholic, Debbie may have had no criteria by which to identify Protestant heresies, and, coming from a broken home, she might have had no expectations of being esteemed by others or treated with kindness by the outside world.

My girlfriend and future wife to be came from a conservative Lutheran family firmly grounded in the unconditional love of God the Bible speaks about. Even as a young teenager my wife had high self-esteem and a very clear idea of right from wrong. Her parents were as firm about their God of love and their love for her as my father was about his hateful god and his hate for all. Little did my father know that he had just met his match! This girl, though slight and shy, was not going to accept my father’s interpretation of the Bible, his personal myth; nor would she take to being called a 'whore.' But, at first, things went well between the two.

A few weeks after my girlfriend and I had met to skate again and I had been calling her secretly by phone, she came to church. It was on that Sunday in early June that Debbie first came as well. Things went better for my girlfriend because the pastor believed her long hair showed her subjection to God and man. And her naturally shy and quiet way belied the stout heart within her.

If his boys had to have mates, here was a good example of the kind of girl my father wanted to see joining his church. Not the sassy, rebellious, Catholic, blonde-with-the-page-boy-cut Fred Jr. had brought home.

In high school, the disfavor of our family name, combined with the pastor's refusal to allow his children any participation in extracurricular activities, assured the Phelps kids were the pariahs of Topeka West High School. So Fred Jr. and I were both pleased with ourselves that we had the great fortune of meeting such wonderful girls!

Across town under the gothic vaults of Topeka High School, my girlfriend was quite the opposite of a pariah. She had many friends and became one of the school's cheerleaders. It was a mystery to everyone why she insisted on dating a member of the Addams family over on 12th Street. My girlfriend remembers the curious questions and the biting comments she got.

So why did she? She laughs "At first? Because he was a good skater, and he was cute – but remember, I was only 13. That's what 13 year olds notice. Later, it's not so important if they skate or not" she laughs again. "Seriously though, he had so much energy and he was very smart and he was really sweet to me. What chance did I have? Even my dad told me I wouldn't find a better one!"

Because she was just 13, her parents at first would only allow me to visit her at their home. I would sneak out whenever I could, or drop by while on candy sales. After a year and a half, her father agreed to let us date. He even offered to give me enough for dinner and a movie out. (My girlfriend had been attending services every Sunday at my father’s lonely keep, and she had invited her parents several times – and they saw enough for her dad to feel sorry for me.) My father knew nothing about my home courting advantage, or our plans to date.

I refused my future father-in-law’s offer to pay for our date and instead found a weekend job as a busboy in the restaurant at the Ramada Inn on Fairlawn Road in Topeka. That lasted one shift. My father found out about my endeavor to expand my independence and promptly beat me. In fact he punched me in the eye Sunday night immediately before church service. I promptly assumed my position at the church organ that night. I was so angry. My tears of anger made it hard to read the notes. But I did not let anyone see me crying. After the beating, he forced me to quit the job and forbade me to take another.

Perhaps this blog, even though it ends before we go on to its conclusion in #4 next week will help you see what difficulty it would be for Phelps children to follow the dictates of their own conscience and their own spirits. Especially when it came to the spouses we would choose. For those of you who have suffered abuse from a parent especially you may see parallels in your own life.

The abusing parent finds it especially difficult for their children to appropriately grow up and exercise adult decision making because it can signal the end of their reign of terror over that particular child. Often you will see the parent stepping up their fear tactics and making it clear that there is no purpose in telling anyone about the abuse. And to keep the child or fledgling adult tied to them in fear. Keeping secrets is a top priority in maintaining abusive control!

Perhaps some of you find yourselves in fear as you ponder seeking help. Perhaps as you imagine beginning to tell your story that there is just too much pain and that if you ever take the lid off of your rage and anger for the way you were abused you might not be able to contain it. I would love for you to write to me if you want to process this idea. Of beginning to allow light to shine into the dark places of your heart. Where the pain has been closed off, and held at bay, for maybe decades. Oh, friend, I would love to help you begin to consider the process of working toward healing. Or perhaps listen to a part of your story no one has ever heard.

Mark Phelps

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