Thursday, July 31, 2014
After my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., had sold insurance for several years, he had amassed enough commissions off the yearly premiums to allow him to stop working and go to law school. He had already transferred credits from Bob Jones and John Muir to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and then taken coursework there to receive his degree. You might say Fred had guts. When he entered Washburn Law School, he had a wife and seven children. When he graduated, his family had grown by three.
Fred was editor of the Law Review and star of the school's moot court. He is remembered by some of the faculty as perhaps the most brilliant student ever to pass through Washburn Law. If the public performance was impressive, however, the private life grew even darker.
It was a very rare occasion when Fred would come anywhere in the house that the kids were. While he was studying the law, he'd fly into rages because we were making noise. Mom would hide us-for the good of all. In fact, Fred began to spend more and more time in his bedroom, cut off from his family except when they were needed to run errands for him; cut off except for his wife, whom he forced to remain with him in his bedroom for days at a time. Apparently Fred’s emotional dependence on my mother was significant. And while he did not seem to have any love or respect for her he required her presence in an almost slave-like capacity. It is hard for me to imagine the damage to my mother’s soul as she had to spend hour after hour in the presence of such a hateful, vicious human being. Its toll on her spirit is hard to imagine.
Mom had to spend the major portion of her day sitting next to Fred in bed, trying to say the right things to keep him calm, while he moaned and complained and railed and carried on all as one who could simply not take care of himself and not act as an adult. He left the older children to take care of the younger ones while he monopolized our mother's time and attention. We were literally left on our own for the major portion of our early childhoods.
The kids would sit in grime and scum and filth for hours at a time tied into their high chairs or strollers by mom, for their safety, until she could sneak away from Fred to give them a diaper change, redo their ties, and set it up for the older kids to feed them, so she could get back to him. Mom was placed in a servile role before Fred who was incapable of handling his own life, his own pain, his own mental instability and risked his children’s health and lives with no apparent remorse.
I remember when she'd come downstairs, all the kids would cluster around her like a swarm of bees, just to touch her and talk to her. If we had questions we would try to quickly ask. If she needed shopping done, she would try to get a shopping list completed quickly. Sometimes she would just try to get a little time to herself in the downstairs bathroom.
I started doing most of the grocery shopping, by bike, with my brother Fred Jr. when I was only five or six because our mom had such a hard time getting away from my father, and the house. We had baskets on our bikes. We were given money but it was often not enough. It was humiliating because we would hold up the line at the checkout while the cashiers would ask us what we wanted to keep or take back, and then they'd do the figuring for us. But the employees at the grocery store were very good to us! In the midst of the devastation of our abuse, we were treated with the milk of human kindness. Something we would never experience from our father. And every little bit of that sort of kindness did something to ease our pain and help us to keep putting one foot after the other.
When my father, Fred wanted a chicken dinner, he'd stay in bed and have me ride my bike two miles each way to get him one. He never thanked me. My older brother and I would run errands for that, or he'd send us out for a piece of apple pie with cheese on it. And we had to get back fast. Extremely fast, or he'd complain his apple pie wasn't hot enough. It was a mile or two back, the pie riding in a mesh basket, and we had to get it to him hot.
My father had to take care of us each year when my mom went into the hospital to give birth to the next baby. Whatever he had to do, he'd always lose his temper and start screaming. We'd be too scared of him to eat-and then he'd beat us for not eating. My saliva would not work when he was in the room and Mom was gone, so, to clean our plates, we'd throw our food under the table or into our laps, or pockets, and flush it down the toilet later. When Fred took care of us, I tried to stay out of the same room with him as much as I could. He would be really hard on the little ones when he dressed them. He'd push and jerk and tug really hard. Fred was so impatient and unpredictable. You never knew what to expect or how to act around him.
When we did run into our father out of his bed, it was usually unpleasant. The day my brother, Tim, was born, Fred, Jr., and I were in the dining room horsing around playing tag, taunting one another, as young boys will do and my brother, Fred Jr., started to chase me out the back door. I ran right into my father. He started screaming at us not to horse around. He punched both of us several times and ordered us outside to work in the yard. I ran outside quickly out of fear and to respond to his violent commands. I immediately realized I needed my shoes so I went back in the back door to get my shoes. As I came in the back door I inadvertently stumbled into my father a second time. Enraged, my father connected with a hook to the side of my head. I fell down dazed and stunned. Then my father began to kick me, and kept kicking me, but I couldn't get up. My father screamed at me to go out in the yard, but my legs felt like jello and the room was rolling in vertigo. Finally, my father left me there, sprawled and dazed like a defeated boxer. When I was able to stand up, I got my shoes and I joined my older brother already at work. And I did what Phelps kids always did. After extreme behavior on the part of my father, with never an apology or anything to make it right, I would be required to exercise self control and hard work and obedience. And I learned to stuff my feelings, my pain, my anguish, my anger and my sorrow. Oh what a toll that would take on me and people around me who I loved, for years to come.
Three hours later, my father called us in. He told us to get into bed and not to move. He told me to turn my face to the wall. For hours I lay like that, too scared to roll over because I thought he might still be standing there, watching me. Finally, I fell asleep. When I woke up that evening it was already dark, and my father and mother were both gone. I learned later my father had gone to the hospital with Mom because she had gone into labor while he was beating us. And we had a new baby brother.
My father often slept all day and got up in the afternoon and then everyone would hide because 'Daddy was up'. He habitually had violent rages that included profane cursing, beyond any sailor's ability to curse, and he would throw and break anything he could get his hands on. My father routinely demolished the kitchen and dining room areas, as well as his bedroom. He would not only beat mom and us kids, he would smash dishes, glasses, anything breakable in sight; he'd even throw everything out of the refrigerator.
He'd literally cover the floor with debris. I remember seeing so much broken crockery once it looked like an archeologist’s dig. There was ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise splashed across the walls, cupboards, and floor and ceiling and doors like a paint bomb had gone off in there. Afterwards he'd go upstairs to the bedroom-and force mom to go with him. It would take hours for us kids to clean up after his rages. He never helped-he'd just dump on us and leave. It is amazing to me the level of responsibility he required of his children and was himself so incredibly irresponsible in his actions.
But he wouldn't stop raging. While we were cleaning the mess downstairs, he'd force mom to sit at his bedside upstairs while he continued to curse and complain to her about whatever had upset him. My father’s tantrums occurred regularly, usually once or twice a month. Sometimes there'd be several in a week. Our walls were stained with food, and my mom used to cry because she couldn't keep good dishes. She bought her dishes at garage sales. My father would also bust holes in the walls and doors. If they were on the outside walls facing into the church area, he'd fix them quickly. Inside walls facing toward the living area he'd leave unrepaired for months.
And, remember, whenever my father was beating us, or if he was tearing up a room, the violence might only last 40 or 50 or 60 minutes, but he would keep up his verbal tirade for hours on end. I'm not exaggerating. And we never knew when the violence would erupt again. My father would literally scream stream-of-consciousness non-stop insults at us for an hour. His mouth was, for all the years I knew him, the most foul, vulgar, filthy cursing mouth you've ever heard. There's nothing he wouldn't say, including cursing God openly. I watched him, one day, stand at the back of the church auditorium just outside the kitchen door, and literally jump up and down and scream curses at the top of his lungs, like a grown-up two year-old man. I remember as a young boy being so distressed with myself because I had the most dreadful habit of using foul, filthy, cursing language and I was unable to get myself to stop! I had developed a foul mouth from living with the master. I realize the people who used to know my father in another context who said “but he was a man of God” would have been shocked and stunned at how far from the truth their assessment was. This was a man who cursed God, cursed people, and had no respect for anyone who lived.
My sisters and brothers and I just stood around shaking and farting with white faces looking frightened when my father was throwing a fit, and I learned how to control my fear by working with my hands and getting things done. I used to stand in the back room of the house, which was called the ‘dryer room’, and fold clothes for hour upon hour. I learned to feel secure if I was getting something done. My bottom line was the doing of something tangible. For example, we often had a pile of clothes in the dryer room that reached near the ceiling at the corner and slanted down out to past the middle of the room. I would clear a spot on the floor and on the top of the two dryers and start folding clothes. I would end up with tangible results . . . large piles of folded clothes. This was my only sense of accomplishment in my younger years and even as an adult, work and its rewards was a place I would go for comfort.
Still, my father would wake us up at night with Mom screaming from fear as he raged at his family. I'd come awake and lie there feeling afraid and upset. I wasn't worried about being woken up, that he was upset, or even that he was hurting Mom. I was worried about survival; about what could happen if it got worse. I was thinking about lying still in case he came in, so he wouldn't know I was awake. We often thought that since he was so crazy, we really didn't know whether someday he would kill us all. This was a very real fear.
Back in those days, during the '60s, when Fred was in law school and then a young lawyer, the neighbors would often see my mother on the porch. “She'd just be sitting out there, crying her heart out," remembers one former neighbor. "We all felt so sorry for her. But none of us ever went over there to comfort her. Her husband had us all intimidated."
But if life with father was bad already-it was about to get worse. My father had become heavily dependent on amphetamines and barbiturates while in law school. Every week for 6 years, from 1962-1967, mom would give me a 20 dollar bill and ask me to ride my bike over to the drug store and pick up my father's 'allergy medicine'. I always got the bottle of ‘little red pills’ from 'the tall blond man' at the nearby pharmacy. I was told they were to 'help Daddy wake up'.
I also picked up bottles of little yellow pills that were to 'help Daddy get to sleep'. But the beast already so poorly penned within my father now came out with a vengeance. Under the conflicting tug of speed that wouldn't wear off and the Darvon he'd taken to sleep, my father would often wake up the family in the middle of the night while doing his imitation of a whirling dervish whose shoes were tied together: With all the drugs, he had very little body control so we weren't really scared of him at those times, as far as him beating us. But he would fall and break the bed frame apart; get up and knock over a lot of the bedroom furniture. Mom would start screaming and call my older brother, Freddy and me, to help her get him under control and put the bed back together.
My father’s face would look so impaired, and he couldn't focus his eyes. He couldn't walk in a straight line, and sometimes he couldn't even get up off the floor. Another time when he was wiped out on drugs, my father started going after my mom. She was yelling for help. Again, Freddy and I, probably 10 and 11 at the time, went running upstairs and tried to force father back into his bedroom. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic. We managed to get him inside his room and slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside. He started pounding on the door and screaming incoherently. Finally, he actually broke the door down. That seemed to calm him a bit, and he fell back on the bed and passed out.
There was fighting one night, in the middle of the night. My father was besotting on drugs again. He shot the 12-gauge into a roll of insulation. It was probably a pretend suicide attempt. Only my mom and he were in the bedroom, and it was during the middle of the night. What I think happened was, he was so under the influence, he was so screwed up, and he was so mad that he was doing one of those things . . . you know. . . I'll show all of you . . . I'll just get rid of this whole problem by killing myself. But he had no intention of killing himself! And I think he just did it. I think he did it for the dramatics of it- to manipulate and impress even greater control upon us all. Following the incident, that roll of insulation sat in their bedroom for almost a year.
Our mom tried to keep things quiet and keep things contained. She acted as a mother to him as well as us. Having him in our family was like having a little 2 year-old in an adult's body-with an adult intellect. But it's a 2 year-old who can do whatever it wants, because there's no adult discipline, instruction, or correction involved. My father did not subject himself to accountability of any kind. He didn't care about our mom, except for how she could meet his needs. He treated her like an animal. And the animal’s real function was to be glued to his side so she could soothe him as he raged. Raged on like a two year old throwing a fierce tantrum.
We had two beagle dogs-Ahab and Jezebel. When I was a young boy, I used to throw rocks on top of their dog house and Ahab would viciously attack Jezebel as the rocks would hit the top of their dog house. I would stand on top of the picnic table thinking it would keep me safe from Ahab as I threw the rocks, and though it made me nervous, it intrigued me to throw rocks on top of their dog house and see what Ahab would do. I kind of thought it was fun. That was the way my dad treated my mom. If anything would happen that my dad didn't like, he would beat on her, blame her, make her life miserable, and take it out on her-even if it was something out of her control.
I remember one morning when I was downstairs and heard a tremendous racket coming from mom and dad’s bedroom above. Furniture crashing! Fred screaming! My mother begging him to stop! Then her screaming too! This went on for 20 minutes until finally my father stormed out.
I slipped quietly up the stairs, afraid my father would come back. I peeked in the bedroom. Oh my! The mattress was thrown from the bed. Sheets were ripped away. Drawers were flung out of the dresser, and the dresser was kicked over. Lamps and tables, everything was smashed and strewn about the room.
"Mom?" I called. I couldn't see her. "Mom!?" I heard a sob. Then a long, low moan of agony. I walked stiffly into the mess. I picked my way across the floor. In the corner, behind an open closet door, I found my mother cowering. Her face in her hands as the sobs wracked her body, she told me over and over: "I can't take this anymore . . . I can't take this anymore . . . I can't take it . . . I don't know what I'm going to do..." My mom didn’t feel there was anything she could do.
I remember there were times when my mother would get out and go to the store, especially when my father was asleep. She'd go to Butner's IGA at Huntoon and Gage. They had a little coffee shop/bakery with donuts at Butners. Four or five times I saw her in there when she didn't know I saw her. It made me feel deeply sad, because it was such a lonely thing to see her sitting with that coffee and donut, and know it was her safe harbor, the only time she could be alone. She looked so unhappy and despairing, sitting there staring at nothing, soaking in what may have been her only comfort during those years . . . solitude, her cup of coffee and her glazed donut.
One winter Saturday afternoon when I was 9 years old, my mother called me over to her. She whispered: "I've had it. I can't take it. Would you get the children's clothes and load as much as you can in the trunk and the back seat of the car?"
I packed the clothes in the old white Ford Fairlane 4-door immediately! When my father fell asleep around 4 p.m. my mother came down the stairs softly. She had me gather all the children. "We're leaving," she told all of us. No argument from any of the children. Somehow we got all of us to fit inside the car, with mother behind the wheel, and us 9 kids wherever we could find space.
We looked ridiculous piled in on top of a big pile of clothes, half sitting on each other, and I remember the toll-takers at the turnpike laughed at us. But I'll never forget that day... the feeling I got as we drove away from that house. It was a cloudy day, and cold, but I remember feeling hopeful. Thinking we were headed to a new life. And it was going to be better than the one behind us. I want to tell you, I really got my hopes up that afternoon! I didn’t know any better.
My mother ran away from my father with her flock to Kansas City. She went to her sister Dorotha's apartment. Most of my mother’s original family hadn't seen my mother in 15 years, not since she'd left for school in Arizona. Dorotha’s husband drove a truck for a renderer, a business that collected dead animals for glue. My mother’s sister no doubt gave her the bad news: driving for a rendering company didn't bring in enough to feed 10 extra mouths; and the apartment couldn't possibly hold them all; she couldn't stay there... In fact, there was no place for a pregnant woman with 9 children to run except back to the man who beat her, but who paid the bills. Or who got the children to pay the bills through candy sales…
I remember my mother stoically dialing the number for the Westboro church. I remember barely being able to overhear her speaking to my father. I could not hear words, just quiet conversation, and tears. Silently, the children crawled back into their niches among the clothes-filled car. When we arrived home at 3:00 am early that Sunday morning, my father was waiting for us. I remember he had his arms folded and he was smirking. It was a cold leer that I will never forget: It was smug, it was cruel; and it said, 'there is no escape-don’t try it again'. Sunday services that Sunday were surreal! My father preached as if nothing had happened. Of course, nothing changed for the good after that . . . only for the worse.
It would be ten years before I finally escaped permanently from my father’s physical control. It would be another twenty years before I would finally complete the necessary difficult years of therapy and restorative work to effectively work free from the long term effects of the all- consuming hate and abuse of my father.
Because I went through that healing process one of my hopes is that I can pass some of what I have learned on to you who have been abused; Who may be out from the physical control of your abuser but who are still filled with your abuser’s poison. It is a process and one that takes courage but it can take you to a place of hope . . . and peace . . . and the sense that there truly is something to live for. If you keep reading you will learn in later blogs some of the ways I approached healing, and some books and resources that might encourage you along the path. My prayer is that you will start on the path. And not stop till you have reached a place of healing that feels GOOD!
Contact me. I would love to hear about your journey. And encourage you along it.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
In 1954 my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., was roundly admired for his thunderous preaching, and was quickly hired as an associate pastor. The ladies at Eastside Baptist Church all liked my mother and made the young mother welcome in their circles.
Things went swimmingly. The Eastside congregation was planning to open a new church across town, and it seemed natural when their pastor, Leaford Cavin, asked my father to fill the job. The Eastside church issued bonds to purchase the property at 3701 W. 12th Street in Topeka, Kansas. To help my father get underway, the congregation re-roofed the building, painted it, and bought the songbooks necessary. A start-up group of about 50 former members of Eastside volunteered to attend services at Westboro. The church formally opened on May 20, 1956. My father had it all; a fine church and a congregation of his own.
So what went wrong?
"We gave him his church; painted; roofed it; even bought his songbooks; and after only a few weeks, he turned on us," says a long-time member of Eastside. Apparently not everyone in Leaford Cavin's church was enthusiastic about my father. One from that time recalls my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., my mother, Margie, 2 year-old Fred, Jr., and 9 month-old Mark, that’s me. We were in the pews one Sunday with the rest of the congregation, listening to Cavin preach. As a 9 month-old, I suddenly began squirming during the service. To the appalled amazement of his fellow worshippers nearby, my father, the junior pastor, repeatedly slapped me across the face with an open palm and backhand, snapping my tiny head to and fro. Afterwards, several of the men in the congregation confronted my father and told him never to do that again.
By the time I actually heard this story at age 40 it made me laugh. Not because I wasn’t appalled at being slapped repeatedly in the face as a baby. But because my father never once, to my knowledge, took the input of another human being in response to his sinful or wrong behavior. So it was a bitter laugh of resignation. I remember my mother once telling me-proudly, as if she'd effected a big change in my father’s behavior-that my father had beaten my older brother when he was only five months old. She said she'd argued with him about it and he'd agreed to hold off beating us kids till we were a year old." What a very sad and small “victory” for a woman who was to have 13 children with this man. To have exacted a promise from him that he would not begin to beat his children till they were one year old.
"Phelps was wrapped pretty tight, even back then," recalls an old member of Eastside. "He was very severe with his children and a lot of people didn't care for him. But we all thought he was a man of God." As I think about this now I feel sad. What might have happened had anyone truly tried to get in my father’s way and slow him down? The Bible is clear about the required ways to challenge sinful behavior in another person. It begins with going in person and if the recipient refuses to listen there is a further mechanism for taking others to confront the issue. I have no idea what would have happened had this little church pursued my father in a confrontation about his sin, and its impact on his congregation. Probably my father would have found a way to do what he was bound to do. But I wonder…
Within weeks after receiving his new status, building, and congregation, my father who had been warmed on the hearth of Eastside's hospitality, turned and bit the hands that had helped him. My father and Leaford Cavin had an almost immediate falling out over whether God hated the sinner as well as the sin. Pastor Cavin’s position was that God clearly loved the sinner, and only hated the sin. Fred’s stance was that God hated both the sin and the sinner. And that understanding impacted every aspect of my father’s life as far as I can tell. But sometimes my dad would simply tell folks these were “theological differences” meaning that they were things good willed people could differ on. And then other times he would be very upset and angry with people who didn’t believe as he did. Over time my father would come to believe that indeed God did not love sinners at all and that only a few people would be allowed into heaven and the truth was it was only those in his church. Oh my father lost his moorings in this life.
Really, it was Fred’s internal anger, not disagreements about doctrine that caused him to act the way he did. When a man in my father’s new congregation came to him for marital counseling, the pastor recommended a good beating for his wife. The man followed his spiritual guide's advice. Later, he called my father from jail to ask for help with bail. My father paid the confused Christian's bail, but stuck to his guns. A former member of the early Westboro community remembers the following Sunday Pastor Fred was fiery in his message that a good left hook makes for a right fine wife: "Brethren," preached my father, "they can lock us up, but we'll still do what the Bible tells us to do. Either our wives are going to obey, or we're going to beat them!"
I wonder if my father may have ever noticed that the Bible never instructs husbands to force their wives to obey. The Bible teaches husbands to love their wives as their own body and to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. B.H. McAlister, the minister who ordained Fred, made this comment about leaders in the church. He said "leaders break down into shepherd and sheep-herders. The first lead, the second drive the sheep. If love is absent, the pastor is one who drives the flock; with love, he leads it."
I remember my father used to frequently tell of the time he “purified” the flock and paid the price for his courage. Apparently a female member of that early Westboro congregation was discovered allegedly having an affair with a soldier from Ft. Riley. Only the males in the congregation were allowed to vote, and my father prevailed upon them to officially cast this woman from their midst. Away from the effects of my father’s heated rhetoric, however, many of those swayed by his logic felt first remorse, then disgust at their part in the moral lynching. It wouldn’t surprise me, either, if one or two of the wives may have had a word or two to say about the public lynching, in private to their husbands. I remember my father always referred to this incident to explain why his congregation had deserted him. I doubt my father would have understood it was really him who deserted them.
In later years, my father was convinced he was alone in his church with only his children to listen because those who'd started Westboro were too weak for the harsh truth of God: that God hated sinners as well as the sin. I am not sure my dad ever understood where that teaching would logically take us. If we were all sinners, and we were, then that meant God hated us too. It would be years before I would understand the power and the depth of God’s love for me and for the people He created. And the teaching of my dad was the biggest derailer and destructive force taking me away from that important Truth; of God’s amazing love. For me! For my siblings! And for the people I ran into selling candy or running by on the way to Lawrence. That He loved them all and died to set them all free.
If the local Baptist churches were still unsure about the new fire and brimstone brother from Arizona, shooting his neighbor's dog didn't help. Aside from etching one of my earliest memories, shotgun-blasting the large German shepherd that had wandered into our unfenced yard quickly got my father, the novice pastor, noticed in his community. The incident was discussed in the papers, and the dog's owner sued the arrogant minister. My father defended himself and won, an action I believe may have encouraged my father’s turn toward practice of the law.
But the irrationality and violence of the act sent the last of his congregation scurrying back to Eastside. For weeks after the shooting, one church member recalls, someone placed signs on the lawn in front of Westboro at night that declared prophetically: "Anyone who'd stoop to killing a dog someday will mistake a child for a dog." Soon it was clear no one wanted any part of my father’s god, not if he hated like my father. And that posed a problem for my father: he still owed 32 dollars a week on the bonds for the church, and no one was paying for his hate show on Sundays.
To cover his mortgage and support his family, my father, the failed pastor, turned his pitch from God to vacuum cleaners during the week. During the following five years, he went door-to-door in Topeka, selling those and baby carriages and, finally, insurance. In a pattern that held ominous overtones for the future, my father at some point sued almost everyone who employed him during that period. The Bible is very clear about how generally wrong it is to sue people, especially others who love God. There is a verse that says “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” If the Bible says that even having lawsuits makes one a defeated person, my dad was apparently one defeated guy.
I remember later, once when I was selling candy, I met a man who said he knew my father. We chatted a bit and that was all there was to it. When I returned home from the night’s candy selling outing; not knowing any better; I mentioned the brief conversation to my father. He went into a rage and beat me. He told me he wouldn’t tolerate me fraternizing with the enemy, and that the man had defrauded him when he had worked for him in the past, and had done damage to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This not only shocked me, but I was deeply hurt by the injustice of getting beaten because of an innocent conversation I had with a man who I had no way of knowing was the wrong man to have talked with.
My father also carried on a running feud with Leaford Cavin at Eastside Baptist. Cavin spent several years trying to discover how to repair his mistake and stop the nightmare unfolding at the Westboro church. "Eastside held the mortgage on Westboro," remembers one churchgoer who was involved in the finances there, "and we always hoped Fred would miss a payment so we could foreclose. But he never did."
To save money, my father moved all of his family into the church building. Since the congregation at Westboro was essentially our family, Cavin convinced John Towle, county assessor, that Westboro should be taxed as a private residence. The controversy was covered in the media, and the exemption for 3701 West 12th Street was lifted. But again my father, the fighting Pastor, taught himself enough about the law to successfully contest the decision before the Board of Tax Appeals. For good measure, he sued Cavin and Stauffer Communications for libel. He lost the suits, but the lines of his future had now been drawn: my father had his castle and his church and he'd learned how to defend them at all costs.
His chosen community of Topeka, Kansas detested him, but that was to be expected when Fred considered himself one of God’s “chosen” but immersed in a world of damned souls. Fred was content that his god hated those who questioned him. And he was content to remain in his private fortress and sally forth occasionally to wreak havoc on his community. One old member of Eastside is philosophical about the feud with Fred: "I'll tell you one thing: we can feel awfully lucky he turned down that slot at West Point. Right now, he'd probably be a general-with his finger on the button."
It was during this period that Fred cut the final ties with his original family. When talking with friends, my father’s father never discussed the son he had in Topeka, says Mr. Stokes, a retired army officer who lives outside Meridian, Mississippi. Stokes was a close friend of the elder Phelps and a pallbearer at his funeral in 1977: "He had some fundamental beliefs that were unshakeable, but he didn't force them on anyone." In his later years, Stokes says, my father’s father was active in the Methodist Church. "He was a very kind, grandfatherly person. He was at peace with himself and didn't have any rancor toward anybody at the time of his death."
My grandfather (whose name I did not learn until the mid ‘90’s from Capital-Journal reporters) once came to visit our family in Topeka when I was a young child. I recall standing on the platform at the railroad station with my father and grandfather. As we waited to put my grandfather on the train back to Meridian, my father told the weeping old gentleman never to come back, not to call, nor to write. I remember my grandfather was crying. He told my father to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense.
At the time of my grandfather’s death, my father admitted there had been a rift between him and his father. "He was disappointed when I didn't go to West Point, which is understandable. He worked hard to get that appointment for me, and he was a very active Methodist, so he was disappointed in that. But my dad was a super guy that I loved deeply and I miss him." Relatives in Mississippi said my grandfather never really got over his estrangement from his son. "It grieved him a lot," remembers one.
When my father was 15 and in his last year of high school his father, 51, married a 39 year-old divorced woman named Olive Briggs. My father would leave home soon after and grow up to be a fierce critic of divorce. Olive's sister said Olive was a kind Southern lady who never had children and treated my father and his sister, Martha Jean, as if they were her own. The new Mrs. Phelps often talked to her sister about the trouble between the former railroad detective and his son, the Baptist preacher. "Olive would say he grieved over that every day of his life. That he never would have parted ways. It was his son who parted ways."
Other relatives recalled that, each year, the grandparents sent birthday and Christmas presents to their grandchildren in Topeka. Each year they were returned unopened. I remember the first year we received Christmas presents from my grandfather. We opened them before my father had seen them. They were really fun and nice and I was very excited to have Christmas gifts. It was the first and only time we would have Christmas gifts. When my father found out about the gifts, he snatched them from our hands and that was the last we ever saw of them.
For photos of my grandpa and grandma my father gave his extra touch: When they once sent him pictures of themselves for us kids to have, I remember watching my dad cutting them meticulously into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Then he placed them in an envelope and mailed them back.
There would be no relatives dropping by from my mother's side either. Though my mother had nine brothers and sisters still living in rural Missouri or nearby Kansas City, with one notable exception, we, her own children, never met them or so much as knew their names. What was the legacy my parents were choosing for their children? Clearly it ended up involving isolation from any family or friends with a focus on an Us against Them mentality each step along the way.
This isolation policy would express itself in my father forbidding us children to play or talk with the rest of the youngsters in our neighborhood. As young children, my brothers and sisters and I wanted friends to play with and talk to, but was taught to believe it was the wrong thing and felt guilty even desiring such a luxury. Neighborhood children would initiate conversation or want to play, and I would feel really scared and not know what to do or say. Sometimes I couldn't avoid talking, and it made me feel really uneasy and scared that my father would catch me talking with them. My father used to make me go and tell the neighbor kids they couldn't play by the fence, or talk to us, or come in the yard. He'd say, "I'm tellin' you, if those fucking kids are in this yard again and I catch them, it's you I'm going to beat!" My father told people his whole adult life they were dishonoring Christ because of their actions. As far as I can tell, my father’s lack of love for people; precious, beautiful, amazing, ordinary people; was the greatest dishonor he could think of doing to Christ. And he did it most days of his life for as long as I knew him.
I used to have to fight the kids sometimes, or yell at them, or push them out of the yard; or I'd turn my back and ignore them so they wouldn't want to talk or be friendly and get me in trouble. While this was in keeping with the fortress mentality my father embarked on shortly after opening Westboro, it is interesting to speculate how things might have turned out differently had we children had normal contact with neighbors and members of the community. And how much of the strange goings-on within the fortress which my father so feared would come to light might indeed have with some simple human contact. Had we children been allowed outside confidants and friends, the story of Westboro Baptist Church might have been very different.
When I read this list of 25 attributes of a cult I realized that in every sense of the word my father’s “church” was never a church. It was truly a cult.
25 ATTRIBUTES OF A CULT:
This list is taken from a college course called "The Psychology of Fundamentalism" offered by the University of Texas
1. the leader is charismatic and often militaristically demanding
2. the leader is always right
3. elitism, the leaders treated as royalty or a sense of awe, hierarchical, authoritarian power structure
4. lower members get no respect, or get abused
5. leader is not held accountable for his actions or the actions of his authority structure
6. leader will not tolerate or receive criticism, but leader criticizes all others
7. there is no exit
8. if members exit they are considered rebellious, out of the will of a higher power or the leader
9. members do not have any association with members that have left the group
10. there are no graduates from the “program” or group, just deserters or evil people
11. there is cult speak (a language many others cannot understand)
12. personal attacks on critics or those who are not in the group
13. solidarity within themselves, no outside allegiance or association
14. use of guilt to manipulate members
15. the leaders of group are self absorbed
16. instant community
17. members unable to tell the truth
18. money grubbing
19. newcomers don’t “think right” and need to be trained
20. system of punishment and reward
22. sense of powerless, dependency, covert fear, guilt
23. members and leaders are imbalanced or mentally ill
24. thought stopping language, clichés, or slogans
25. demands of ultra loyalty or ultra trust in the groups process and others
When my father’s sister, Martha Jean, and her husband, my father’s teenage best-buddy, John Capron, returned to the U.S. on a year sabbatical from their Indonesian missionary work, they came to see my father. In part, they'd come to arrange a reconciliation between my father and his devastated father. They never got started. He wouldn't even talk to his sister. My father bid her leave and never return, just as he had his father. I remember riding my bike along in the street, both curious and confused, watching my aunt go weeping down the sidewalk for several blocks from our house. I remember watching my mother and Martha Jean talking, and they were crying. I didn’t completely understand, at the time, what was happening, but I knew it was not good.
With that, my vengeful father had succeeded in cutting all lines leading to his captive congregation. Anyone in the outside world who might know of our existence or be concerned for our welfare had been driven off. We were now truly in an unprotected state that would exist for years that would allow our abuse to continue undetected, unrestrained and simply unstoppable. Oh, the utter hopelessness when children of serious abuse are cut off from all normal contact.
END OF PART 1 - THE EARLY DAYS WITH AN ANGRY MAN