Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part Four

Many of you who have stayed with this last 4 part blog are probably hanging on to hear the end of the story of my relationship with my girlfriend. And you are wondering, and rightly so, how our two worlds and our two backgrounds could ever meld together.

As I mentioned at the end of last week’s blog, my father made me quit the job I had taken to earn extra money. He had no idea I had taken the job so I could pay for dates with my girlfriend. And it wasn't my study hours my father was concerned about. My father was completely against any time we spent working elsewhere since it took time away from work we could be doing for 'The Place'. He simply did not want me focusing on ANYTHING other than what HE wanted me to do! He wanted control. It was not about my earning money; it was that he did not want ANYONE working ANYWHERE or doing ANYTHING that was not at ‘The Place’ under his immediate and direct control.

So, I had to shave a dollar here and there off my candy sales and summer yard work to court my girlfriend. I would sneak the car for a few hours and take her to a movie or dinner at a fast food restaurant.

Once, we were in the Taco Tico, a fast-food restaurant at 15th and Lane, around 9 p.m. when the place was robbed. Two men in ski masks came in, and my girlfriend and I took off out of the place. We didn't want our names involved as witnesses because my father would have heard about it on the evening news and the jig would have been up - my secret life of dating.

My now wife adds, laughing "Trouble was, after we hit the sidewalk running, only then did it occur to us everyone would think we were the ones who'd just robbed Taco Tico."

Despite my girlfriend’s quiet demeanor and biblical mane, I soon realized she was not plugged in to the world according to Pastor Phelps. For example, one day after Debbie had died, Nate, Jonathan and I were out in the car selling candy. Following Fred Jr.’s habit, I had brought my girlfriend along with us, and we sat and smooched while the two younger boys worked in the neighborhood. (I learn quickly!) When Nate came back to report scant sales for that day, I gave the command by reflex: "Chin chin!" And Nate put his chin on the back of the front seat.

With my girlfriend sitting beside me, I punched Nate painfully in the face for his sales shortfall, as usual. In equal reflex, one from another moral world, my mild-mannered girlfriend immediately slapped me hard enough to bring stars. "Why did you..." I asked in stunned bewilderment. "Why did you do that?" she demanded. Soon the esteem I had for this petite firecracker-five-feet-two, eyes of blue, and with a fist like my father - caused me to begin opening my heart to her radically different view of human relationships.

For several years before I met my girlfriend, I had been my father’s assistant master-at-arms: when there was a beating due one of my siblings, sometimes my kind father would order me to do it. "At first I thought it was a great idea," says Nate, who received most of his elder brother's ministrations, "because he didn't have my father's violent spirit when he swung the oak mattock handle. However, that was short-lived. After a few less than satisfactory beatings-from the old man’s viewpoint-he threatened to beat Mark instead. Suffice it to say that afterwards I couldn't tell the difference between one of my father's and one of my brother's beatings - except maybe in their angle of attack."

I agree with Nate. My father would tell me to do it and then he'd go upstairs and yell down to us in the church: 'If I don't hear it up here, it's you who'll get the beating!' Now, however, confused by my new feelings for this remarkable girl I was getting to know, I began to slam the oak mattock handle onto the pew cushions instead. It sounded sufficiently similar to the sound when I did hit Nate and Nate would just howl in pain every time I hit the pew. It worked perfectly. But it wasn't until my new girlfriend and her influence that it would have ever occurred to me to do that.

In a matter of months this teenager with her radically different world view was making a major crack in the crumbling fa├žade of my father’s hatred. Love and its power to conquer hatred were being shown to me by a young teenage girl. And once my father’s wall of hatred and control started to fall my life would change. Forever!

I've been told children from abusive homes are unable to develop empathy. Boy that was us. It was survival . . . period. Save yourself. Remember how I said I felt when Mom used to drive off with everyone in the car, and Nate would get left behind, running alongside my window, begging not to be left alone with my father? I literally could not feel for Nate at that moment in my young life. I had only enough energy and stability to put one foot after the other and do what was required to stay alive and not be beaten myself.

God puts in us strong instincts of self- preservation. What it takes to care for others and do selfless and courageous acts must be taught by strong committed adults. In our abusive world nothing was being taught that would build our character, or our love for others, or our compassion. I didn't even know how to consider what Nate might be going through. I was just glad I was getting out of the house for a little while, and that was all that mattered.

But, after I'd been around my girlfriend, what was going on inside other people suddenly started to matter to me. I guess you could say she kissed me and changed me from the frightened little frog my father had made me. After I fell in love with my girlfriend, it made me begin to want to care about others. She gave me the courage to become much more of a person as she modeled a good life. Even at her young age. I have come to see how the Savior of the world, Jesus, would use a principled and loving young lady to be my savior to pull me out of the cult. To say I am eternally grateful to both of them is truly not thanks enough.

Little wonder my girlfriend is Nate's favorite sister-in-law still today. Though my girlfriend refused to join my father’s church, she continued to attend Sunday services there for nearly two years. "I knew if I didn't, Mark's father would make it even harder, if not impossible for me to see him" she says.

"During that time, I learned things about Fred Sr. I didn't like." Such as? "That God hates. It seemed to me he was putting his own words in God's mouth. I mean, Mark's father was a pretty disturbed guy. I could see that and I was only 15. It's just sad he didn't have the self-knowledge to leave religion out of it and get some help. Also I didn't like his attitude toward family. His belief in beating children, and that women were servants to men. As a future wife and mother, that left me little motivation to join his claustrophobic community."

Toward the end of my girlfriend's two-year ceasefire with the pale-hearted Pastor, she arrived for services early one Sunday--too early. My sister Katherine was getting beaten with the oak mattock handle upstairs. In shock, my girlfriend listened to my sister's screams of pain and sobbing pleas for the good Pastor to stop. He didn't.

My girlfriend turned on her heel and walked out. Shirley Phelps, who always wept hysterically whenever her father went into his beating mode, ran after my girlfriend. At the door she grabbed her arm.

"Please . . . please...," she sobbed. "He doesn't mean it . . . he doesn't know what he's doing..." I remember my girlfriend stopped, whirled around, and looked Shirl dead in the eye. 'No, Shirl,' she said, 'you're wrong. He does mean it.' And she left.

Shortly after, my father decided to dish my girlfriend some of the abuse he'd used on Debbie Valgos. Following Sunday services, while my girlfriend waited within earshot in the church, my father collared me for a 'talk' in the law offices adjoining. He was punching and kicking me, and yelling in crude, filthy anatomical detail everything he said he bet I was doing to my girlfriend when we were alone. He knew she would hear, and that's why he did it. The level of my father’s crudeness and callousness toward the people of his church was astounding.

And that was my girlfriend's last Sunday at the Westboro Baptist Church. She walked out and down to the shopping center on Gage Boulevard where she called her father to come pick her up. The girl with the knowledge of right and wrong had had enough. My father had stepped over a line.

My girlfriend knew that day that she needed to leave the church and in doing so had to leave me. When she told me it was over she never asked me to leave the church. She didn't believe I could. She knew I had been taught that, if I left, I would be taken by God during the first night while I slept and that I would wake up in hell. My girlfriend didn’t want me to have to face that terror. She was looking out for my good then and she has never stopped.

For my part, I was in despair. At age 19 I flung myself face down in my girlfriend's front yard and cried. I cried because I was losing the person I believed was the best person ever to have come into my life. And there I remained for two hours, embarrassing her parents in front of the neighbors. My girlfriend's dad even came to her and told her, "I didn't realize you were so hard-hearted." My beached whale impersonation did not sway my girlfriend. Have I told you how strong my wife is?

Such emotional firmness in a 16 year-old was remarkable. But my girlfriend didn't know what else to do. She had no intention of joining the Westboro family cult and raising children in that kind of environment. And she knew I wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, one can only imagine the kind of talk this generated among the deeper keels in my girlfriend's cheerleading set. She was certainly a girl with a foot in both worlds. And a firm, mature head to know how to navigate each!

After the break-up, neither my girlfriend nor I slept or ate for days. I walked around in a fog. Then I found out I was going to get a 'B' instead of an 'A' in one of my college courses at Washburn University. That meant I was in for more trouble with my father. Somehow the idea that my father might now hurt my body after making my heart so miserable . . . it just seemed insane and ridiculous . . . and if all this misery was to please God, I was beginning to think it was awfully mean and petty for a Being that had created such a majestic universe... and that's when I began to hope my girlfriend might be right. That God might really be a loving God, and not full of hate like my father. . .and that if He was made of love . . . then he wouldn't send me to hell for loving her so much, would He? Oh the power of the truth coming from my girlfriend’s knowledge of her God was beginning to set me on a path that would one day set me totally free!

So I did it. I just grabbed some clothes and left. An acquaintance had told me if I ever wanted to leave, I'd be welcome to stay with his family the first few days. Little did he know how much that simple offer was to challenge and encourage me that one day, maybe, I would do it! I just showed up on their doorstep and they took me in for one night.

It might seem funny now to some who did not grow up in the brainwashing our family was exposed to, but those were some of the most terrifying hours of my life. I lay awake most of the night in their guest room, in cold, absolute cold terror; waiting for God to kill me. Afraid if I fell asleep, I'd wake up in hell. Literally! The ultimate nightmare! But I didn't. I woke up in the same bed the next morning. It was then I realized God might be nicer and the world bigger than my father had taught. Oh, what a glorious morning of beginning that was! And I thank my God for that day!

I landed on my feet, renting a room from a retired couple and worked; first as a busboy, then as a salesman in a downtown shoe store. My girlfriend and I were reunited, dating on weekends and talking every night on the phone.

However, I was in a serious car accident six weeks later and miraculously escaped injury. That shook me up. I thought God was giving me one last chance before He did what my father said He'd do. So I high-tailed it back home. And my girlfriend broke it off again. “This time I wasn't so strong," she recalls. "I was totally miserable. I almost went over there many times." I really cannot communicate to you the depth of my gratefulness to my wife for remaining strong during that time. And it must have been so difficult for her!

By this time my father had taken to calling my girlfriend 'the Philistine Whore.' So now life with my father and a broken heart soon had me willing to play tennis with death once more. After two weeks, I returned to my new life, only to have my father swoop in to snatch me back, as he had with my sister Katherine and my brother Fred Jr.

That time, however, a miracle happened. Just as we pulled up to the church on W. 12th Street, some of my father’s law clients pulled up too. It was like a Hitchcock film: My father couldn't do anything in front of them, so I just got out of the car, walked through the front door of the law office (housed within the church building along with our family residence), and out the back door. Nobody stopped me. Freedom!

After that, I held on to my independence and my dreams tenaciously.

I knew I made enough money for only two of the following: an apartment; a car; and college tuition. I needed the car; and - now that it was for me and not my father - I really wanted to finish college.

For a year, I slept in my car or in the backroom of the print shop where I worked all day. In the evenings I took classes, and on weekends I worked as a waiter at Flaming Steer steak house just south of 37th Street on Topeka Boulevard. I took my showers at the YMCA downtown and did most of my studying while running the offset presses on the job. My girlfriend completed her junior year and senior years at Topeka High, and we dated on weekends. Despite my father’s curiously vivid and explicit imagination, our relationship remained chaste and unconsummated.

When my brother Fred Jr. asked me to be his best man at his wedding, I was thrilled and agreed. But when I showed up at the Westboro church for the ceremony, my father demanded I recant and return to ‘The Place’ or depart before the wedding went forward.

It was a trap! If my father ever missed a beat at being a jerk he did it before I was born.

I departed.

I have never been back. Well not until just a few weeks ago. That story will be in a later blog.

Nor did my father miss a beat damning me to the fires of hell. When I refused to die in my sleep, my father sent me my notice of eviction from the assembled elect of ‘The Place.’ I was cast out and banished forever from ‘The Place.’ My father then tore up both my picture and Katherine's picture in front of the rest of the family. (Katherine was also gone by then; she was working as a waitress and living with a soldier near 12th and Topeka Avenue. Apparently the GI took a dim view of anyone kidnapping his girlfriend, and the Phelps quick-reaction team left her unmolested.)

I did see my father again however. Once! At the YMCA gym one day, my father took the time to stalk up to me, close so no one else could hear, and whisper, glistening with hatred: "I hope God kills you."

God didn't.

In May, 1976, I graduated from Washburn University with a business degree. In August of that year, I married my childhood sweetheart after a courtship that had lasted since 1971. I was 22. She was 19. Though the family Phelps was all invited, none of them came. Many of them might have wanted to be there, but they had been forbidden to attend. My father, the good Pastor, had threatened anyone who did attend my wedding with being banished from ‘The Place’ and from the family.

My father’s methods involved erasing people from his life who did not live up to his code and then he moved on to demolishing them verbally for years. Does that sound like a man with the courage of his convictions or someone who is convincing himself?

The cramped apartment at 15th and Lane quickly became the headquarters for Phelps exiles. At one point, both my brother Nate and my sister Margie were living within its tiny confines alongside my wife and me. We didn't have much time to ourselves. I brought half my family out with me! Fortunately, Nate and I have always been friends. And, back then at least, Margie and I were too.

Later my wife and I would be the consolation and support for Paulette, Jonathan's girlfriend, who was driven from Westboro Baptist Church when she became pregnant by my brother Jonathan. Abandoned by Jonathan and rejected by his family, Paulette went through some pretty tough times.

Certainly today, if any of my family; if any of my nephews or nieces or brothers or sisters truly needed help, for refuge, for unconditional love, my wife and I, and Nate, would make ourselves available. Sadly the poison runs mighty deep in the hearts of those who have been abused and been blinded by hate. I doubt they would feel comfortable getting solace and comfort from us. But if they wanted it, it would most definitely be theirs.

So far, we haven’t had any takers on our offers. It’s understandable, certainly, that none in our family would want to associate with the one who chose a life with a woman who my father did not have on his “approved list.” I mean, who would want to associate with a ‘Philistine Whore!’ But from where I sit after 38 years of marriage with the one who was responsible for delivering me from a destructive cult and abuse, she has the highest approval rating I think a husband could ever give one woman. She has my undying admiration, love, respect and esteem. She is the heroine of my story. Our story.

Some of you reading this blog are longing to change your own stories. Many of you have poison in your souls just like I did and you want to begin to heal. And to bring to the surface the pain and agony of that poison and be set free. If I can be of any help to you as you take steps along that journey please let me know. A soul that is set free is an amazing thing of beauty! It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!

Mark Phelps

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