Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part 2

If you have been reading my blogs for long you know a key aspect of my father’s life was his need to control anyone within his sphere of influence. I believe my father exhibited an extreme case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People with this disorder “often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet.” My father had a profound need to control our behavior and any independent thinking he ever saw us exhibiting!

One day my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., announced that the entire family was going roller skating; even Mom. He said we'd have some 'fun' together. It was a very surreal experience. You have to realize, in all the time we were growing up, our family never did that. We never, not once, went on an outing together. We'd go sell candy, or to run, but never to have fun. My father never took us to the zoo, the movies, out to eat, to the park, on a picnic, vacation, Thanksgiving at the relatives, to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July, driving around looking at Christmas lights-none of these things.

We spent our entire childhood and adolescent years waiting on our father and working for him and getting beaten up by him. The idea of parenthood or fatherhood as an obligation or duty he owed to his children was an alien concept to this man. My father never really wanted to be a father and he really didn’t want to be bothered with children! He wanted children so he could control and use them, but he had no desire to be a father. He wanted subjects! So we were very suspicious when he announced he was taking us all skating.

Sure enough, it turned out he'd caught wind of what was going on down at the rink. My father had found out that Fred Jr. and I had made plans to meet Debbie and my girlfriend there that day, and now he was ready to swoop in and destroy whatever small efforts we had made in having a life of our own.

Though my girlfriend had already been to services at the church, I only nodded to her as if she were a passing acquaintance at the rink so as to not arouse my father’s suspicions. When my father made fun of my girlfriend’s parents within earshot of my girlfriend, while at the rink, I was under duress to laugh at his cruel comments.

Fred Jr. and Debbie skated together briefly, but they didn't hold hands.

Everyone was watching the good Pastor. He strapped on a pair of skates and storked out onto the floor looking like a new-born calf on ice. I wanted to show off for my father so I started skating backwards and doing jumps and spins when I knew he was watching. Talk about redefining stupid!! Do you think my father liked my skating? No way! He went into a seething rage. He said he could “see I'd been spending all my goddam time down there, trying to get my dick wet.” What a guy!

Oh, by the way, both my girlfriend and I were virgins when we were married . . . five years after we met. Not that my father would ever know or even care about our own standards of purity for our marriages. If my father wasn’t able to personally plan, dictate, and implement the details of our lives and have full control over them he would eventually reach a crisis point. This crisis point meant we either had to fully capitulate to him and his wishes or be kicked out of the home and the church. A simple decision from my father’s perspective. Give up control of our own destinies or be thrown out and banished forever. And banished to a destiny he had painted for us our whole lives meant to torture us. Tyrants simply have no room for the autonomy of their subjects . . . and especially not their first born son.

Possibly due to the stress of the unexpected confrontation with my terrifying father, Debbie had another seizure right there on the skating rink floor. In a gloomy portent of what was to come, none of the Phelps boys dared go to her aid. My father was raising sons who had to fight against every manly, protective instinct they had to reach out to a helpless young girl who was in real need. She lay unconscious and abandoned by the good “Christians” of Westboro Baptist Church before my 13 year-old girlfriend noticed and rushed to her side. At that, my father glared at me. “Someone should tell that girl (my girlfriend) we don't associate with whores, (Debbie)". My father might have been hoping to control her behavior as well as ours. But instead the steadfast young teenager (my girlfriend) revived her new friend, while Good Samaritan Pastor/Father – Fred W. Phelps, Sr. – wobbled past on his skates and muttered, "Whore" at Debbie while she was recovering her feet.

The charitable timing of my father’s comment caused Fred Jr.'s girl to burst into tears. My girlfriend helped her off the floor and into the ladies' room. "I don't know why Fred's old man hates me so much," Debbie sobbed. "You're lucky that he likes you." My girlfriend never forgot the bitterness of those sobs: an SOS from the threshold of a soul's despair.

Debbie went to services at the Westboro Baptist Church several times after that, and, each time, she was called a whore from the pulpit. Truly unbelievable, right? Then why did she go? Why go to a church where you will be publicly humiliated and shamed by the leader of the church?! The hope of having Fred Jr. was clearly greater than the pain of my father’s words.

Debbie even came over once and asked my father what it was he wanted her to be. I was sitting in the room during their conversation. My father’s attitude and tone was condescending, arrogant and harsh. He was cruel to Debbie that day as always!

My father told her she'd have to get an education and amount to something if she wanted his son. That she'd have to go to college and law school first, and, while she was doing it, she'd have to stay away from Fred Jr. “But right now,” he told her, “You’re just a whore.”

Debbie said she could do it-she just needed a chance to prove it. I remember my father laughed in her face and told her she'd always be a whore. My father was compelled to trounce on the hearts of the vulnerable, like a roaring lion going for the kill on one of his prey! Hmmm . . . reminds me of Satan.

Another time, Debbie had been riding along with us on the candy sales, and afterward she and Fred Jr. intended to sneak out to a movie. Fred Jr. asked her to wait in the candy room at the church / house while he changed clothes. You see, my father almost never went in the candy room.

Well, my father chose that time to fly into one of his rages at Fred Jr.

Of course, whenever my father started beating someone, all the kids not in the line of fire would run into the candy room at the back of the house for safety. And we would always send a scout to assess the lay of the abusive landscape – the scout would listen in on my father’s raging to see how bad it was – and report back details every so often until the rage subsided. Certainly when he got really loud, all of us could easily hear him. This particular rage was one of the loud rages.

The candy room, and the back area of the house, was sort of our bomb shelter. We'd be pacing nervously, waiting for the violence to end, like a herd of cows from the candy boxes to the laundry dryers and back. Some of us would sit and quietly shake, with our faces white with fear. Debbie just sort of sat in shock watching all of us, as she listened to my father rage at Fred Jr., and as she listened to my father beat him.

My father was beating on Fred Jr. and screaming things like, 'You son-of-a-bitch! You got your dick wet! And now you're sniffin' after that whore!' It made Fred Jr. and Debbie both feel dirty and ashamed for what was really the best thing that had happened to them so far in their lives-their first love. And of course they were both very frightened!

Debbie got hysterical when she heard the things my father was saying. She ran outside crying. We were very nervous because she wasn't supposed to be in there. I remember several of us followed her out to ensure she didn't make a scene. That's where we were back then; we were all heart! Nothing mattered except keeping our father cooled off and staying out of his line of fire.

Outside in the street, Debbie was crying her heart out. She kept asking, 'Why does he say those things about me?' We had no answer for this anguished girl because at the time we had not yet articulated, even to ourselves, that he was simply a hateful human being who was absolutely filled with hate. (Well, the truth is, most of my siblings still have not figured out what a hateful, cruel person our father was, nor do they see how they have taken over where their father left off.) And that the character of the person on the receiving end of his hate attacks was in no way related to his hatefulness. His rage and hatred could be triggered by anything and everything.

Shortly after this event is when Fred Jr., now 18, decided to move out. My father vehemently opposed it, but Fred Jr. stood up for himself. Though Fred Jr. received multiple beatings with the oak mattock handle he was still unwilling to give up in this fight for his life!

Finally the two compromised: the son would go and live with one of his father's business associates. Bob Martin was a retired army officer who ran Bo-Mar Investigations, a private detective agency. After Fred, Jr. had been staying with Martin for a week in his house, I remember my father got a phone call. It was Martin.

"Let's go!" said my father, to me! I had become the squad leader in my father’s schemes. While we drove to the detective's place, my father explained the plan he and Martin had for Fred Jr.: wait till he was in the shower and then confront him; a naked man feels vulnerable and powerless. Fred Jr. had just come in from work and gone into the bathroom. "When he comes out, we'll be waiting," chuckled my father, in obvious glee at being able to, once again, thwart any plans my brother had to live out his own life and his own future. And so we waited. We waited with our secret plan to attempt to destroy a young man’s dreams. As Fred Jr. came out, towel around his waist, he was confronted by our father, by me, and by a suddenly hostile Bob Martin.

"Get your clothes! You're going home!" snapped my father. The eldest son complied without argument. The next part I'll never forget. When we got out to the car, I was in the back on the right, my father was behind the wheel, and Fred Jr. was in the front passenger seat. Bob had followed us and he opened the car door on my brother's side. Through the space between the front seat and the door, I could see him place a revolver against my brother's knee. And he said: "If you run away again, I have orders to come after you. And when I catch you, I'm going to shoot you right here." Yes, my father asked one of his few good friends to threaten serious physical harm against his own son!

At the time, 'knee-capping' had spread to the United States from Italy and France as the preferred punishment in underworld circles. It left its victim crippled for life. My intent is not to imply my father had underworld ties. I’m just saying that anyone who lives handsomely off the work of urchins hustling in the streets, who disciplines subordinates by beating them senseless, who fosters filial piety by threats of knee-capping, who knocks his wife around regularly, who surrounds himself with lawyers, and who is apparently beyond the long arm of the law could have made a very respectable gangster. Not a pastor; and certainly not a father!

Fred Jr. enrolled at Washburn University that fall and Debbie returned to Topeka West High School. Though the pastor had forbidden them to see each other outside church, they continued to do so.

My brother was struggling with his love for Debbie and his very real fear of hell. Remember my father taught that just leaving our family church meant you were consigned to hell. Some might find it hard to believe this kind of teaching could even be credible or that it would instill such real fear. But if you grew up from birth with your imagination open to my father, and heard his harsh words hammered into your heart and mind day after day, believe me when I tell you, hell as the consequence of leaving my father’s church was a concrete reality. For all of us! The battle inside Fred Jr. would last until the following spring, but the war had been lost when he turned back from Indiana.

In late September, Debbie dropped out of high school and moved in with girlfriends at a house on Central Park Avenue. It was just a few blocks from the Washburn campus. We went there a lot when we were out selling candy. That lasted into December, probably, because I remember being there when it was very cold and we were wearing winter coats.

But father was relentless, and not only with the oak mattock handle. He assumed Fred Jr. was still seeing Debbie, and he hit heavy, heavy on Fred Jr.’s heart and mind with his chosen weapon the Bible. My father had spent decades cherry picking verses from the Bible designed to terrorize his children. Fred Jr. was especially vulnerable to my father’s framing of the situation as 'Debbie the Whore... the Agent of Satan sent to lure him into temptation and directly down into the gaping jaws of hell.’ Our father had scripted this scenario for us from the time we were young boys, and repeatedly warned us about what would happen were we to date the “wrong” girl or not do as we were strictly told. Fred Jr. would spend time with her then try to avoid her to escape the pain of what he understood my father’s words truly meant for him.

In addition to the guilt being heaped on him Fred, Jr. was getting some pretty severe beatings. While Fred Jr. drifted from his girlfriend out of fear, Debbie fought to hang on to the man she cherished and who cherished her. Debbie would wait for Fred Jr. outside his classes on the Washburn campus. She would beg him to come back to her. It always worked. He always went back to her, at least while he was at Washburn. Fred Jr. never stopped loving Debbie; he was just more scared of my father and hell than he was of losing her.

Sometime in December, 1971, events turned murky, fast, and fatal. Even though Fred Jr. was furious at my father for forcing him to leave her apparently he was willing now to give Debbie up. But Fred Jr. was also afraid he wouldn't be able to do it while they lived in the same town, so he ran away again, despite Bob Martin's threat to find him and kneecap him if he did so. From late December till mid-February, the following events are known:

Fred Jr. disappeared and no one in the family knew his whereabouts. One night in January, shortly after Nate and Jonathan had been beaten and shaved and the school had notified the police, Fred Jr. stopped by the house without his father knowing. Nate remembers he asked to see their heads and then commiserated with them about the embarrassment they had felt at the police station. My brother Fred Jr. often showed real compassion towards his younger siblings. And it was something we were all hungry for.

About the same time, my girlfriend’s father saw Fred Jr. at a Washburn University basketball game. Fred Jr. had a K-State jacket on and a rash on both arms. My girlfriend’s father became concerned about Fred's welfare and, with nothing to go on but the jacket and the rash, he was able to track the troubled youth down working at a produce business in Manhattan, where the state college was situated.

My brother, Fred Jr., had a look of terror on his face when he looked up and saw my girlfriend’s father. He was certain his father had sent him. My girlfriend’s father assured him he had found him on his own and that Fred Jr. could trust him; that Fred Jr. was safe with him. But Fred Jr. turned down all offers of money or help. At the time, he was living in the basement of a young married couple’s home. Whether Debbie visited him or even joined him up there is unknown. What is known is that, on Valentine's Day, Fred Jr. showed up in Topeka with a new girl for his father to meet. The need to meet our father’s approval, no matter how cruel he was to us, was still very much a reality for us all.

Betty was a lot closer to what my father demanded in a young woman. She was another like my girlfriend - or at least who my father originally thought my girlfriend was - she had long hair, and she was very quiet and submissive.

A few weeks after Valentine's Day, Debbie came to see her mom. Debbie’s mom remembers they went for a walk in the small park near where Debbie had lived with her friends. Her daughter's spirits were very low, she recalls. Debbie confessed Fred Jr. had given her an engagement ring and they had eloped, but that Fred Jr's dad had made them come back. She admitted bitterly that his father had told her she wasn't good enough for his son, and the younger Phelps had been forced to obey him. “Now Fred Jr. has found another girl," she told her mother. As they walked, Debbie’s mother remembers her daughter took off the ring and threw it in the bushes. “He's never going to marry me, Mama," she said, "but I know I'll never love anyone else."

Debbie’s mother says she tried to cheer her up, and later, thinking Debbie might regret it, she returned to search for the ring in the grass. She never found it, and even if she had, Debbie never would have accepted it. The mother and daughter's walk in the park that afternoon would be their last time together.

The remainder of Debbie's hopeful life can be found, not in the memories of those who knew her, but in the dusty, impersonal files of the U.S. Army Intelligence Criminal Investigations Division.

After seeing her mother that day, Debbie went up to Junction City, an army town that served nearby Ft. Riley. It was also only a 20 minute drive from Manhattan, where Fred Jr. was living. Whether they saw each other during that time is not known. From the part of her life that has been documented in the Army's investigation of her death, it seems unlikely.

During her final days Debbie Valgos touched a match to her longing soul. She flamed up in a white-hot blaze of self-directed violence, anonymous sex, amphetamines, heroin, and rock and roll. All the things my father said she was, she'd end up being. I wonder how Debbie’s life might have turned out differently if the good pastor had told her she was precious in the sight of God and how much she was loved by Him.

She moved in with a soldier. She shot smack. She partied for days without sleep. The speed she was constantly on burned through her body till she'd gone from 130 to 87 pounds. In less than a month the 5'7" girl had become a walking corpse with the wide, burning eyes of the starved. Perhaps that is when her face could at last reflect her heart: faltering into despair after a lifetime without sustenance.

Because the effect was so striking, Debbie's new acquaintance nicknamed here 'Eyes'. But 'Eyes' had stared into her abyss, and she knew. At the end of all worlds...was a single lost soul. The last days of Debbie Valgos' life, those few weeks in Junction City, were one long suicide...a death dance through the Army bars...a soul signing off. When she lost Fred Phelps Jr., Debbie must have felt she had forever lost her way...that she was never coming back...and so she touched a match to her despair.

Her new friends told CID agents she had tried to commit suicide four times in the weeks prior to her death: by jumping out a window, rolling off a roof; and twice by drug overdose. Each time they had stopped her or brought her through it; then came the night of April 17, 1972. Debbie was in the Blue Light, a soldier's bar. Though she had a soldier waiting at home, that hardly mattered. She let two more pick her up. When they invited her back to their barracks to 'party', she said 'yes'.

As they left, a girl who lived in Debbie's house insisted that she come along. She'd been there during Debbie's earlier attempted suicides, and she worried that the frail runaway might try it again. They were spirited past the gates of the fort, hiding on the floor of the car. The soldiers parked in an alley and had the girls crawl through a window into their barracks room.

Once inside, one of them offered Debbie some speed. It was a bottle of crushed mini-bennies, according to CID reports. Debbie took it, and the soldier turned to put on a record. When she gave it back, the boy was amazed. "You took way too much!" he said. "You'll be up three or four days!"

Debbie only smiled at him. What might have been a four-day problem for a 180 pound man, Debbie undoubtedly hoped would solve all her problems at 87 pounds, less than half the other's body weight. Shortly after, "Eyes started to have a 'body trip'," states the girl who had accompanied her. "She shut her eyes and just started moving with the music. She did that for a while and then she started to act dingy. She called me over and said she felt like little needles were poking her all over her whole body and she was tingling. I told her I would stay with her and not to make any noise in the barracks." When Debbie started rolling around on the floor and mumbling, her friend worried she might hurt herself, and so she sat on her.

The other girl, who apparently was quite large, continued drinking and talking while she kept Debbie pinned beneath her. The party went on. Debbie was babbling incoherently. After almost another hour, everyone became alarmed at Eye's grotesque physical contortions. They pulled her back through the window, loaded her in the car, and smuggled her off base. Returning to her new boyfriend's house, they woke him and ran the tub full of cold water. By then, Debbie had passed into a coma. She would not be taken to Irwin Army Hospital at Ft. Riley until 5 a.m., nearly five hours after she'd ingested almost half a bottle of crushed Benzedrine.

Debbie lasted 20 hours unconscious in ICU, just long enough for her sister to find her. At 1 a.m., her heart stopped. Her spirit had flamed up and was gone. She was 17. She was sunny and loving and only wanted to be loved. After all she'd been through, Debbie Valgos thought she'd found safe haven with the family Phelps.

She died for her mistake. Debbie Valgos died because she found hate in the heart of my father, the pastor; where she should have found love . . . and the truth about how to have life forevermore!

In that spring of 1972, one of the Top 40 songs playing on the rock and roll radios Debbie no doubt listened to while riding her dark current of heroin, amphetamines, and despair was a tribute to Janis Joplin, sung by Joan Baez: "She once walked right by my side I know she walked by yours. Her striding steps could not deny Torment from a child who knew. That in the quiet morning there would be despair. And in the hours that followed No one could repair... that poor girl… barely here to tell her tale. Rode in on a tide of misfortune rode out on a mainline rail...”

But the Pastor, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., my father, devotee of a hateful god, had made up a song of his own: I remember getting home from school the day Debbie’s death notice appeared in the papers, and my father came dancing down the stairs, swaying from the knees and clapping his hands, singing: 'The whore is dead! The whore is dead! The wicked whore is dead!' He paraded around the house, singing and laughing with that maniacal giggle he had, 'the whore is dead! Thank God, Thank God, the whore is dead!' My father was singing his words to the tune of the song from the Wizard of Oz, ‘The Wicked Witch Is Dead’. The cruelty of this man still sometimes takes my breath away.

One is reminded of the warning from the first epistle of John: "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Let that soak into your mind, dear one. If we claim to love God and hate anybody we are liars. And if we do not love others we simply cannot love God. These are simple words. But the truth behind them is powerful. My father did not love people, and based on that we know he also did not love God.

God told us if we say we love God we must love others. It was a command, not a suggestion. My father never chose to follow that clear command. Sadly I have to conclude my father didn’t love God.

My father’s hatred of a precious 17 year old girl was clear evidence he didn’t have the kind of love God expects of His followers. And my father’s very grave misunderstanding of who God was set him up to live a life in complete opposition to this God of love. My father opposed the God of the universe in pride and arrogance and because of it he brought people down . . . and some of them down into their graves.

I hope you are like me. Encouraged that God gives us a very clear way to show love to him simply by loving the people he made. Jesus said this so clearly. “My command is this. Love each other as I have loved you.” And the best part about it is when we love people we get blessed. More than anyone! Loving people, really loving them is the greatest adventure and the greatest privilege we have. Go have some adventure! Love people!

Mark Phelps

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part 1 of 4

My personal introduction to sex and sex education, from my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., came in the form of a sermon preached one Sunday morning. The content of this sermon, thundered from the pulpit was: ‘Don’t let me catch any of you hot blooded young bucks sniffing after any whores!’ So, parents, how would you feel about your children getting that as their first introduction to sex education?

I don’t think it ever occurred to my father to have a one-on-one conversation with me, regarding sex, sex education or expected behavior related to sexuality. I just showed up to the church service one Sunday and ‘wham!’ I heard the above statement. I overheard him say one time: “What’s to learn, you do what comes natural.” When I think of the importance of the marriage relationship and what a gift it might have been to me to have a caring father giving me wisdom about how to be a man of integrity in marriage or in relating to women this all seems even sadder to me.

This theme of my father’s ‘No Sniffing After Whores’ was hammered over and over again as my older brother, me and a couple of other young men in ‘The Place’ began to come of age. Lessons were drawn from the Old Testament as well as the consequences that could come from ‘going a ‘whoring’’. It is probably safe to say that every verse on the subject of the evils of sex, adultery, fornication and every form of sexual sin were included in my father’s effort to control the anticipated behavior of the few young men in ‘The Place’, during my adolescent years. Sadly what was never mentioned by my father was the profound importance of treating any women of our acquaintance with the utmost respect, honor and kindness. That sort of advice would have helped us all be much better future husbands and better people!

I am sorry to even write what I am about to write because I wish it were not true; I wish it had never happened. This part I am attempting to describe now is one of the most heartbreaking times of our growing up years with our father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. It is a profound and tragic example of the fruits of hatred when it is directed by a hateful tyrant against the innocent and defenseless.

My older brother Fred Jr. was deeply in love with Debbie Valgos, a girl from St. Vincent's Orphanage in Topeka, Kansas located several blocks from our house. The two of them were just crazy in love... Debbie was a free spirit; and a great looker. Noisy, loud, hearty laugh! She was very warm, and friendly, and loving. She was cute, thin, and blonde.

"That name...," sighs one of the nuns from the orphanage, "is like a punch in the stomach..." Debbie was not an orphan. She lived with her mother and step father on Lincoln Street in Topeka. When she was 11 years old, for reasons undisclosed, Debbie was placed in St. Vincent's Orphanage.

She went to Capper Junior High and later attended Topeka West High School. When she was 14, Debbie sent this poem to her mom: “I settled down west from town, though no one knew I was a clown. My face was clean, and all around were children, though I heard no sound.” She signed it, 'Mom, I love you very much!' with seven asterisks for emphasis.

Debbie’s older sister recalls: "She sang. She had a beautiful voice. And she played the guitar. She was a pretty little thing." Debbie's mom had an album of photos taken by the nuns of her daughter while she lived at the orphanage. Pictures of her as a cheerleader at Capper; smiling on a dock at the Lake of the Ozarks with some other girls from St. Vincent's; clutching her pom-poms, watching the players; pictures of her 15th birthday party at the orphanage.

Fred Jr. and Debbie met at the skating rink. Sometimes my older brother Fred Jr. and I would trick my father. When he thought we'd gone out on our obligatory 10 mile run, instead we'd go skating. Or if we'd had a good night on candy sales, my brothers Jonathan, Nathan, Fred Jr. and I would knock off early and hit the rink before going home.

Debbie was a good skater. She came to the rink with other kids from the orphanage. She skated fast and reckless. At first my brother Fred Jr. saw her secretly, during stolen moments. Then he'd go by the orphanage when the four of us boys were out selling candy.

You should know when I was 9 and Fred Jr. 10, we began to hear degrading, insulting sermons from my father about how no good it is for boys to have girlfriends. My father would say: "You'll meet a girl someday and she'll start saying things like, ‘aren't you cute; aren't you handsome; ooooooh, you're really something’, and like some kind of ignorant, stupid lamb being led to slaughter, you'll fall for it, and the next thing you know, she'll want to kiss you or some bullshit like that. I'm telling you now; I'm not going to put up with it. If you think you're going to have some whore coming around sniffing after you, you better know right now that I'm not going to put up with it. You better start gettin' it through your thick head right now. You just have to trust the Lord to provide you a good woman who will subject herself to the authority of the church...”

They met, I think, in the fall of 1970. On the candy sales, Fred Jr. would drive and I'd ride shotgun, with brothers Jon and Nate in back. We'd pick Debbie up on the way out and she'd sit between us. When we got to our selling destination, the rest of us would sell candy, and Fred and Debbie would stay behind in the car. Boy, did they kiss. Every time was for the last time. Like Bogart and Bergman at the Paris train station.

She was cute, but it wasn't only a physical attraction. Those two were very, very much in love. I was there. I saw it. I watched them together - kissing, walking, and being together. Fred and I shared the same bedroom and I knew my brother. It was obvious they were meant for each other. That romance had so much voltage it could have lit the city.

Fred and Debbie's special song was "Close to You", by the Carpenters, but that didn't keep them from fighting. Debbie had a hot temper. She was very intense and dramatic. So they kissed and fought, kissed and fought. But they loved each other terribly hard--none of us doubted that. Debbie also got a kick out of hanging around with all of Fred Jr's brothers. She used to say it was her instant family. And that made us all feel good. Lord knows we had very little family closeness so the fact she saw us that way was pretty amazing.

Many of Debbie's teachers remembered her vividly. And they remembered her long-lasting romance with Fred Phelps Jr. “She was craving a family environment, with all the emotional outlet and loving she imagined went with it," recalls one. "When she was dating Fred Jr., she thought she'd become an adjunct member of his family and she wanted to be a part. When she thought she was, she was very happy." "She was such a warm, sweet girl," remembers another, "it's just a shame what happened to her."

In the car on candy sales and at the skating rink was the only time they could see each other.

Apparently Debbie suffered from epilepsy. Periodically she'd pass out. I saw it happen 10 to 12 times. Suddenly she'd stop talking and when you looked, she'd be limp, her head back and eyes closed, though still breathing. Debbie told Fred Jr. what it was, but he never revealed it to anyone.

After they'd been stealing time together for several months, Fred Jr. somehow found the resources to buy Debbie a gold band with a tiny diamond. I remember her showing it off proudly in the car that day. Fred was 17, she was still 16. They began to talk of getting married. Before you jump to conclusions about another teenage marriage remember my family didn't believe in dating around. We believed God would send us our mates. That it would just happen one day, and we would know it in our hearts. When it happened, that was it--whether you were 16 or 56.

Of course, my father thought he was the god in charge of that. But I wouldn't assume Fred Jr. and Debbie's union would have been another miscast teenage marriage-and therefore my father was right to do what he did. Such an assumption would be a mistake! Why?

Because my wife of 38 years, and my best friend for 43, is the same young girl I met at the rink that May of '71. We've been together since I was 16 and she, 13, and we're still totally nuts about each other. You see, I think God has a hand in these things. And maybe it's naive of me, but I think all that we Phelps children went through as kids made us wiser and more street savvy about people than a lot of grownups. We had spent time on the streets from the time we were very young, selling the candy for our father’s church in a variety of places, and we had to learn to be good judges of character to try to stay safe.

I estimate the passionate romance between Fred Jr. and Debbie was kept from my father through the New Year of 1971. Sometime shortly after, however, my father caught wind of his son's happiness. After that, my father, of course, forbade Fred Jr. to see Debbie. He tried everything to get Fred Jr. to stop.

Though Fred Jr. was only a few months shy of 18, my father regularly took the oak mattock handle to him to stop his 'slinkin' with that whore'. In February of that year, Debbie left the orphanage and moved back in with her mother and stepfather in the house on Lincoln Street.

Fred Jr., Nate, Jon and I would swing by and pick her up there. Shortly after she moved, Fred Jr. and Debbie moved again: they made their bid for a life together free of their burdened pasts. They eloped.

They took one of the family cars, a '66 Impala wagon. And I had a pair of top-notch skates hidden in the back of the car. They cost me a hundred bucks. I was a serious skater back then, and I carried them around in a slick black case and felt very professional. But my brother Fred Jr. took them along for gas money. He sold them at a rink in Kansas City for ten bucks. I missed my skates, but I wasn't mad at him. Back then, we had no sense of personal belongings or boundaries. And we did not have parents who had the time or inclination to help us learn how to navigate anything like living in a family and respecting each others things. If you needed something, you just took it. Besides, I wanted those two to get away. I just wish he'd gotten more for those skates! Ten bucks was insulting!

With a borrowed car and a tank full of gas, the intrepid couple hit the great American highways-though not with that era's open agenda of 'wherever you go-there you are!' To Fred Jr., the available universe consisted of two addresses and the highway that connected them. One was on 12th Street in Topeka; the other was the home and church of Forrest Judd in Indianapolis.

My father and Judd met at a Bible conference in Ashland, Kentucky. Forrest was a Baptist preacher and he and my father hit it off. They used to come to Topeka and visit a lot. He and my father were doctrinally alike, but Forrest was a very different personality. He was a jolly fat Santa type of guy-a factory worker and a really neat fella. He had three sons of his own, but he'd become sort of a 'good' father figure to a lot of us kids.

His church was the only one my father approved of. You see, no matter what differences we had with my father as the head of our house, none of us questioned his authority as head of our church. It was a certified gathering of those who had been chosen, remember. And the only way to get to heaven was to do that, to assemble with the chosen. My father interpreted that, and we accepted it, as membership in a physical congregation certified by him as part of the chosen... ‘The Place’... And there was only one Place besides his-Forrest Judd's. So my brother had nowhere to run, you see. Not if he wanted to get to heaven. To a believer, even the most wonderful love in this world isn't worth an eternity in the fires of hell. As long as we accepted that my father had the power to send us all to hell. He had the trump card in any showdown over our choices.

After Judd and my father conferred by phone, the father figure, Judd, convinced Fred Jr. there would be no room on the Indy bus to heaven. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to go back to Kansas. A member of the staff at Topeka West High School remembers my father called the school to rage at them, holding them responsible and threatening to sue. As I recall, my father stopped the marriage; and he was demanding the school go and get them. He wanted each returned separately so they wouldn't 'fornicate' on the way home. School officials tried to point out to my father that Fred Jr. and Debbie were teenagers, and they'd been alone together for over a week-the damage was done. Not that my father ever wanted to hear the truth about his children or the people they were becoming!

From the moment the disappointed lovers started down the road from whence they had come, the clock began to tick toward tragedy.

Back in Topeka, Debbie moved in with her mom again, and Fred Jr. counted the weeks till his 18th birthday. Though my father did everything in his power to separate them, those afternoon candy sessions went on just as they had before. In early May of 1971 my brother, Fred Jr. turned 18, and my father changed his strategy. It would be OK for Fred Jr. to see Debbie, but only when she came to church services on Sunday.

By this time, I had met my future wife, also at the skating rink. She was convinced to come to church as well. The only way my girlfriend and I could see each other, officially, was if she came to ‘The Place’ for Sunday service. None of the children of ‘The Place’ had a social life; we simply weren't allowed to date. So my girlfriend’s willingness to come to church service in order to have a friendship with me was a real blessing in my life, as you will soon see.

My girlfriend remembers that first Sunday: "When I arrived, Debbie was already there, sitting in one of the pews, waiting for it to begin. She looked back at me and smiled. I was nervous and her warmth touched me. She was quite radiant and seemed very happy that day."

My girlfriend fared better than Debbie under the pale-hearted Pastor’s basilisk eye. She had long hair and was shy - a quality my father mistook for subjection to her man.

My father took an instant dislike to Debbie. She had all her signals wrong: she had short hair; she was vivacious, passionate, and fiery; she was direct; and she had an open, honest laugh. Openness?! Honesty?! Hardly traits the head of a cult would be welcoming! Starting that Sunday, and forever after, my father called Debbie ‘the whore' from the pulpit, in person, to Fred Jr., and to the family.

Let me make this clear. My father would say things from the pulpit like “'I see the whore is here today' then start in on Fred about running after whorish women.” In the middle of the church service! She didn't argue! She just looked shell-shocked. I am sure it never even occurred to her that a pastor would say such horrible things to someone in public, much less from the pulpit! She started to cry, but did it quietly. After the service, she disappeared. After that, my father preached to Fred Jr. that this beautiful woman who he loved dearly and wanted to marry was a whore; from the pulpit every Sunday.

My father had so little understanding of human nature I honestly wonder if he even understood what incredible harm he was doing to my brother Fred. I have no idea all that went on in my brother’s young heart and mind as he was subjected to public denigration and shaming week after week from this supposed man of God. But I can tell you it took a desperate toll on him as a person.

Mark Phelps

Part 2 of four parts will be published next Thursday, October 30, 2014.

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Assailed To The Breaking Point - Part 2

All of us have rules we live by. Some of us are aware of our rules and some of us aren’t. My father’s rules for how to interact with people were forged throughout his lifetime. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., set the stage for family relationships in our growing family by looking to the way he handled his family of origin. My father’s stance was to reject everyone in his life who did not agree with him and support him in whatever he was doing. And this stance would eventually include all the friends he ever had. His rule was simply to reject them and slander them as soon as they “crossed” him in any way.

My father even made it clear to all of his children that it was right and proper to reject; banish and never speak with again; any of his own children (our own brothers and sisters) who chose to exercise the freedom to live their lives as they chose. And he taught that there would be public humiliation from the pulpit for any who left ‘The Place’, his church. This was a threat my father made good on within the full view of all of his children who stayed with him.

I do not think you will be surprised to learn that there are now Phelps grandchildren who have left my father’s church, and so by necessity have been banished from their own families. I am sure the choices to leave were for a variety of reasons, but at the very least those reasons reflected the unique, made-in-the-image-of God precious people they are. Individual decisions made by individual people simply wanting to live their lives.

But the serious, life-changing consequence of those decisions was that these individuals were required to be shunned. My father taught us that to leave him meant the person who left must be shunned. By the entire church! And that the shunning had to include their own parents and siblings. For the remainder of their lives! Simply because they want to live out their lives by their own conscience and their own dictates. So because of this teaching each of my siblings, who have had a child leave, must now shun his or her own children. Forever! This is what my father required.

And because the brainwashing of my father is so profound and so effective it is almost certain my siblings truly believe they must follow this command . . . that they must show no love and no respect for their children who have left, and have no contact with them whatsoever! And who are committing the “crime” of wanting to follow their own dreams. Is it possible there is some faint impulse in these parents of being just a little proud of their children for having had the guts to do something they never could? I wonder. Late at night or in a moment of reflection, do they find some small satisfaction that their children are living their lives in the way each child believes is best? To follow their own hearts and their own best idea of how to live a life of love, and integrity and following the gifts that are in them . . . gifts that are different from those of anyone else they know?

I weep for my siblings who have had to shun their children. And who believe there is no other response to their young adult children’s desire to have their own lives but to shun them. This is what my father required of those who stayed in his church and who had to watch others leave and be given the opportunity to live out their dreams. Shunning and shaming were required for the audacious behavior of wanting to be an adult in a free society. And my siblings seem to be following that family code set down by my father. It hardly matters that our father has passed from this earth because his teaching on this was woven so deeply into the fabric of their souls . . . this code that says they are to do exactly as their father tells them to do in every particular, forever, if they want to remain safe from hell fire!

God does not want any of us to experience hell. The truth is He wants everyone to spend eternity with Him in complete freedom and joy. But God created us with a free will, like his own. And He wants more than anything for us to come to Him with a willing heart; to come to Him out of true desire and freedom; and to be able to respond to Him as the most loving being in the universe. God has never wanted people to come to Him out of fear. Or as puppets and pawns who are not able to use their brains and their gifts and their talents.

My father, on the other hand, was happy with puppet behavior from his followers. He wanted no honest questions or discussion. Ever! He wanted complete obedience and submission to any and all of his commands. My father preached about hell constantly. But he never, ever preached about a God who wanted to rescue all his children from this hell and give them amazing lives connected with Him. My father never preached about the real, loving God of the universe. He just tortured us with a terribly twisted view of God that to this day makes it very, very hard for my siblings to come to the real God.

As for my father’s teaching on shunning children . . . I still hope in my heart, that somewhere deep down is a spark or an impulse in these precious parents that allows them to see how this is still my father’s hand of hate directing their steps. Even after his death. And that they are free to do otherwise. Free to love their children, even if their children disagree with them. Free to love their children and stay in contact with them as these young people search out their own faith . . . and truly make it their own! This is a concept that was completely foreign to my father.

My father’s fear of anything less than immediate mechanical compliance to his rules made him seek to dominate even his adult children’s lives. He warned us that we didn’t even have the right to live our adult lives as we chose. My father did not seem to want children who freely chose the life he was offering, so that he would know they willingly joined his efforts. My father seemed perfectly happy to create puppets that did his bidding even if out of fear and bondage to him as a kind of slave master. Slaves never admire nor do they love their slave masters. I believe my father knew in his heart we could not love him because he beat us so cruelly and that he would have to have a slave-like compliance to have any followers.

But, I believe there is a spark or an ember that may still be alive in the hearts of my siblings who have had children leave their families, and their grandfather’s church. And I hope that ember gets slowly fanned into flame and that they reach out to their children . . . in love and in kindness. Knowing that with all of their hearts that is the treatment they longed for from their own father when they were young people.

I pray that my brother Fred Jr. will pursue these precious daughters he has lost, if necessary to the ends of the earth, and seek to build a bridge with them. I know this brother of mine. He has a heart of compassion. He showed that heart toward me many times . . . and to his daughters, I am sure. I only wish I still had a connection with that heart! Hearts are amazing things. I pray for the rejuvenation and healing of each of my siblings hearts as they try to stay connected to the amazing children they have. Even ones who disagree with them! It has always taken bravery to let our offspring be who they are, but there is so much blessing in it!

Sometimes I wonder. What might have happened if my brother Fred Jr. had been allowed to follow his dream and be a history teacher? And bring a love of learning and wisdom for life in the way history teachers can do so well? What might have happened in the lives of students Fred Jr. would have poured into? But the world got one more lawyer. And one unhappy one I am sure.

And that was the method my father used always; to squeeze the life out of young people. Clearly he had no zest for life, no love for life or people and it must have been too hard for him to bear to see a young one with a different bent; young ones with liveliness in their step and a twinkle in their eye. Once again my father did not push past his own negative emotions to allow others to live. And his cult leader status for years gave him a sense of the right he had to crush others.

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'. Jesus was very clear here that He would be especially kind and gentle to people who had suffered greatly and were barely hanging on.

My father, on the other hand, bruised his children . . . then he broke them! He did both of these things to his children! My father did everything he could think to do to cause the candle of his children’s hearts to flicker and then flicker weaker. And then he snuffed them out. It was as if he was raising an army; all privates in Fred’s army. The fact that they were unique, valuable human beings in their own right just never crossed his mind. His children were fodder to sacrifice in his hate battles, his pawns for playing, but never, ever people who had a right to themselves, their thoughts, and their dreams. Never!

These facts provide a clear insight into the horror coming of age held in the house of the preacher, my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. These words I have written are an expose of a man who gained a following from his own offspring and then saw those precious souls writhe in agony from the evil he would do to them. It is a look behind the veil of a false prophet who, with investigation, appeared more and more as a new type of serial killer. My father was too clever, too cowardly, and too lawyerly to kill the bodies. His life was a trail of murdered souls. And his worst victims were his own family. These words may sound strong to you, but I can tell you as one who lived it that this is exactly what it felt like to grow up in my family. We felt like we were being systematically exterminated as thinking, feeling people, exploited by my father strictly for his desires.

No man or woman living in the Phelps compound has been allowed to become the person they longed to be. We were never allowed to figure out our own gifts, talents, desires and longings. Any hint my father saw of one of us not being completely prepared to give up his or her dreams; and their very soul was summarily squashed. This short writing is meant to reveal the betrayal and murder of the spirits of his children by my father.

Katherine’s brother, Nathan, has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is quite likely that Katherine suffers from it also. Today, but for the statute of limitations, the brutal beatings and torture this pretty teenager experienced would bring a long jail sentence to her perpetrator.

But nothing was ever done. And as far as I know, nothing has ever been resolved for Katherine. I have not had contact with my sister Katherine for 40 years. I could be mistaken, but as far as I know, she has never received the kind of help that reaches deep into the spirit that is needed for the level of abuse she endured. Perhaps no one has ever come alongside her to process the depth of the abuse and the lies she was told. And the toll this all took on her beautiful spirit. And to weep with her over it! As far as I know, my sister Katherine remains in her brokenness and, despair to this day, still believing that God hates her and her father despises her.

I was certainly in a similar state for years myself and know the horrendous agony of your soul being filled up with poison that you have believed about yourself and your life. And for which you believe there is no escape. That is the sense of despair I lived with for years before I got help and I believe Katherine probably suffers far more than I did with what she has been through. I heard she had tried to return to my father’s ‘church’ from time to time and been treated with disdain. So as far as I know, she has found no consolation, no resolution . . . and no truth, except for her father’s ‘truth’! The damage is the same today, I fear, as the day it was perpetrated.

If Katherine is where I was before I got help in healing she is still terribly broken, as are any of us who grew up under my father’s abuse. Because the betrayal and broken trust in her case are so complete. She was assailed continually, over and over, and then assailed again . . . by my father and by his religion, and by his church; and by her family, until she no longer has life in her. Victims of lengthy abuse often say they feel invisible. As if they are just going through the motions. Oh, as far as I know Katherine is still breathing. But she doesn’t really live. She is terrified of hell and she is terrified of this present evil world. It’s as if she has been suspended in a permanent state of anguish and despair that has locked her into a private hell.

I don’t know if Katherine has ever been able to comprehend how much her God loves her. She has not been taught the truth of that by anyone. Certainly not by my father! She has been so mangled in her soul, and been so abused by the deceitful use of the Word of God, that she is unable to sort out the truth. And there is no one to console or even reach out to her. That’s what her life feels like to me. I hope I’m wrong. But I am probably not wrong.

Katherine, wherever you are, I hope you call me or email me. I would love to begin a dialogue with you. With the beautiful sister I never got to know. And I would love to start right now getting to know you. The real you . . . in all your brokenness Katherine! Maybe we can compare our brokenness and do some healing together. I would love that. We have stories to tell and stories to hear, and much healing to do.

Here is the reality: The victim of abuse takes the guilt and shame of the abuser deep into his or her own heart. It all gets buried deep down in the heart of the child. And often the adult survivor of abuse can’t analyze it or get down to it to fight back. To challenge the lies and the damage the lies have done. It's a feeling of filth and worthlessness and horrible dirtiness and ugliness and shame that goes deep into the heart of the child, and remains and putrefies deep down inside there, way down deep in their heart. And the child has no way to filter all that out because it came from the people whose job it was to help her and define her not as one who is worthless but one who has amazing worth. And what a child hears from a parent as a very young child she believes in a way different from all other teachers and voices in her life.

My father left no room for his children to make mistakes, no room for grace, no room for humility, no room for learning and failing and trying again, no tolerance for humanness; and no need for faith in the one true God. All the while we all fell further and further into grave theological error because my father had no accountability outside himself, anywhere in his life. We learned nothing of humility, godliness or truth. Instead, we learned cruel, crushing dogma; that everything he said was right and was not to be questioned. Learning was punished and mocked, if it deviated from what he taught. Attempts at understanding or developing relationships outside father’s control were annihilated.

The truth is, my father is not like the Lord. My father is nothing at all like the Lord!

There is a place in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament where God is telling the prophet Ezekiel what to say to the leaders of the day. And the words God has for bad leaders are worth hearing.

“. . . But I (God) want you to condemn these leaders and tell them:

I, the LORD God, say you shepherds of Israel are doomed! You take care of yourselves while ignoring my sheep. 3 You drink their milk and use their wool to make your clothes. Then you butcher the best ones for food. But you don’t take care of the flock! 4 You have never protected the weak ones or healed the sick ones or bandaged those that get hurt. You let them wander off and never look for those that get lost. You are cruel and mean to my sheep. 5 They strayed in every direction, and because there was no shepherd to watch them, they were attacked and eaten by wild animals. Ezekiel 34:2-5

God is making an analogy about sheepherders doing a poor job of taking care of sheep. But he is very serious about the leaders of Ezekiel’s time understanding that a leader’s foremost job was protection and taking care of any of his people who needed things; things that would be for their well being.

The Lord of the universe feeds and strengthens and heals and binds up and seeks the lost and does not break a bruised reed and does not extinguish a flickering candle. He does not weaken anyone, or make anyone heart sick, or drive anyone away, and ignore anyone when they are lost or crush anyone or put out the light in anyone’s heart. That’s Satan’s job. It’s not who God is. It’s who Satan is. My father spent years telling us qualities of Satan and attributing them to God. And my father made it extremely difficult for us to ever hear the truth about the real and loving God.

He will not crush the weakest reed, or put out a flickering candle, finally He will cause justice to be victorious. Isaiah 42:3, Matthew 12: 20

There it is again! Here again is a statement about God’s character where He acts in kindness and gentleness towards the weakest in society. We in the Phelps family never learned of this kind of God. And never knew how much he loved us and wanted to care for us.

Fred Jr. never became a history teacher. He left the law profession to work for the Kansas Department of Corrections. A quick survey of the curricula vitae of the Phelps children shows my father’s astonishing success in getting his children to conform to his wishes. In fact, the Fred W. Phelps, Sr. Plan became a factory for loyal and legal support of one man's ambitions – his own: Of the 13 children, 11 got law degrees-nine of those from Washburn University; of the nine loyal offspring and four approved spouses, all but one received law degrees; eight have undergraduate degrees in Corrections or Criminal Justice. One can only wonder why the pandemic fascination exists about prison among the Phelps loyalists.

For the nine kids who stayed with my father, God provided only three spouses from within his church. Fred Jr. and my brother Jonathan had to provide for themselves. They became Westboro outlaws to find mates among the damned. When they eventually returned to the fold, these 'tainted women' were only accepted after a long probation and apprenticeship at being a wife-in-subjection. Six of the Phelps daughters remain at the compound. Two of them were betrothed to Chosen already residing in The Place. I have no idea if any of these marriages are happy and lively. Or if they are filled with honor, respect, love, openness and maybe even a little fun. But if I know my father that was something he did not care about in the least. He wanted soldiers. Who wants a soldier with a personality or one who is enjoying his life, I ask you!

Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally abusive families will be unable to fully overcome their experiences. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior and its fruits as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives. With all the detriment to themselves and anyone they come in contact with if they are unable to get healing help.

It is instructive that 9 of the 13 Phelps children, almost exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace my father’s abusive world and ways.

We were the only members of my father’s church; and we had no choice. When we got old enough to make our own decisions, choose our life's work, and our life's mates, did you think my father would permit that?

My father’s bizarre behavior toward his children as they struggled to become adults is as disturbing as it is revealing. To my father, adulthood for his children meant soldiers for his wars. To accomplish this, he attempted to arrest and redirect each child's path to fulfillment. We were not to leave his nest, nor learn to fly: "The Bible may say you're gonna be the head of your house. But I'm tellin' you right now, goddammit, that ain't gonna happen! I'm gonna be the head of your house! And you better start gettin' that through your thick head right now!”

It was emotionally degrading. And it was the misuse of religion. And it was most decidedly abuse! It was spiritual abuse!

But how was my father able to maintain control of the lives and dreams of his children? There were some formidable forces working against my father’s desire for a family who would willingly be an extension of himself. One was the adolescent's yearning for independence; the pull of hormones and the heart of another to love and care for was another. In addition, the harshness of our upbringing left us with little genuine respect or love for our father.

Then what produced such amazing levels of conformity with people who feared and even hated my father? There were two major obstacles for Phelps children being able to exercise the freedom to live their own lives and dreams, both too high for 9 of the 13 to surmount. These are the twin secrets of my father’s sway over his troubled flock.

First, in our firmly brainwashed belief system, the ones my father said were “chosen” were the only ones who could reach heaven. And he taught that one could only reach heaven through the portal of ‘The Place’. What arrogance my father had in believing he was the only one who held the entrance into heaven. But that’s what he taught. That he who runs ‘The Place’ holds the keys to the gates of Paradise. My father said it, and we believed it. But our belief came from years of repetition that started when we were too young to even understand. And the teaching was always followed by brutal beatings. This type of violence is what many cult leaders find is the only technique that can keep thinking people in a cult. We were terrified to oppose the will of heaven's gatekeeper and imperil our souls. It was the fires of hell we felt in all our choices. So my father didn’t talk softly but he carried a very big stick! And that stick was hell.

So once my father had been able to get us in complete fear of hell, he could almost stop with the brainwashing. The deed was done. The fear he instilled was destined to keep most of us from ever leaving him to be sure. It also sadly kept us from ever having the son/daughter relationships with God that the real God wanted us to have! My father truly set us up to not be able to receive love from God and understand that God wanted us to be His beloved sons and daughters. In my father’s desire for a kingdom of his own in Topeka, Kansas he was attempting to keep us away from the only Father worth trusting for Phelps kids, a heavenly one. This is the thing that nearly crushes me when I think of the real damage of religious abuse.

My father established early on the expectations of each child in the family. My father didn’t say what many fathers do and set expectations till a child was 18 or graduated from college or could go out on their own. No. My father set up his expectations for each child’s entire life, and the consequences to each of us if his expectations weren't met. According to my father, each of us would finish college, get our law degree, work for him, and marry whomever he chose, when he chose. By no means were we allowed to leave ‘The Place’, or it would be seen as 'abandoning the church'. (Or if he were honest, abandoning him and his dream of fiefdom?) If we did that, we'd be excommunicated. Cut off! And we would go to hell! Can you imagine the power over a child who was brainwashed with this thinking year after year, from birth? Little children do not have the capability to fight off that kind of relentless conditioning.

Besides being groomed as lawyers, we were constantly told we were “different”. We were taught we were “special” from the time we were able to learn. And we were taught that the rest of the world out there was evil. And inside ‘The Place’, people were good and going to heaven. Outside ‘The Place’ they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world ever got us down, or argued back, or poked holes in our rigidly constructed fa├žade, we were taught to find strength by imagining the terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside ‘The Place’.

‘The Place' was how my father referred to his church. If you left, you were ‘forsaking the church’ (his, of course!) My father spent an enormous amount of time trying to frighten us and threaten us into doing what he wanted us to do. He had two separate preaching time slots a week to harass us and intimidate us but it didn’t stop there. He even had letters delivered to those of us who left with legal stationery with a list of our grievances to try to get us to come back to him. And always, my father manipulated various passages in the Bible to get us, and try to keep us under his thumb.

One passage my father chose to manipulate refers to a child 'leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife'. My father interpreted this to mean a child was not to leave his parents until he was married. But, since he decided who and when we were to marry, he controlled this, too. If my father had truly understood the word “cleaving” he would have known his days were numbered with all of his children. He either didn’t understand or chose to ignore the meaning of the word cleave. Cleaving to one’s new spouse was to be something like the most powerful glue in the world; stuck to them by choice and by vows to stick with THEM and no longer with parents. My father completely misunderstood how much the next generation’s marriage trumped anything that came from their family of origin, no matter how much you loved and honored that family. And that misinterpretation was to profoundly hurt and injure 13 children and their future spouses. The happiness, autonomy and blessings of 13 homes my father could never and would never support.

Another passage mentions 'not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together'. Since my father had long ago established in our minds that his church was where the Chosen ones came to assemble, that it was 'The Place', he could lead us easily to the belief that to leave home was to 'leave' the company of the Chosen, to join the innumerable multitude of the damned! My father did not understand that passage meant that people who loved God should spend time together, nurturing, supporting, and helping each other through life’s difficulties. The Bible is filled with people who belonged to God and were able to pick up and travel to the far flung corners of the world, with the full knowledge that God would be with them wherever they went.

My father had no trouble “whiting out” large chunks of the Bible that did not suit him. And because he himself “forsook assembling with others” – others who might have challenged him in his conceit and arrogance and very strange interpretations of the Bible - he might have been slowed down in the implementation of some of his terribly wrong views. Or turned in another direction! Had Fred W. Phelps, Sr. followed the meaning of that verse and “assembled” with people beyond his own family some of the protections of that verse might have been there. For him and for us!

The second of the twin secrets used to keep us all in line was to cast the world beyond The Place as evil and fatal to the soul. My father spent a lot of time telling us how wicked people on the outside were. Never mind we had a father who was a vicious abuser, and wicked beyond most of what we would ever encounter on the outside. But somehow we believed what he said.

Then my father would follow up with his claims by manipulating the local community so they would react with hostility and aggression whenever a kid would venture out. It's why my father insisted we go to public school. Thanks to him, we were hated before we even got there on Day One. And people were so mean to us, that, when we came home, my father could say, 'See, I told you so. They're evil and reprobate. They're not like us.' It is hard for me to say this, but my father was both evil and brilliant. And I doubt he could have pulled off the level of his evil intent upon his family and his culture had it not been for his brilliance. And of course his willingness to use violence to maintain compliance in his chosen group.

Growing up in our family we were told we did not believe in Christmas because there is no mention of it in the Bible; nowhere does it say Jesus Christ was born on December 25. Seriously? The birth of Christ could not be more central to the truth of who God is. And my father chose to leave that truth out of our upbringing! That truth was not preached at his church!

Jesus shared deity with the Father. But somehow, out of the great love they had for the human race, it was decided that Jesus would set aside the privilege he had in heaven and come to earth to be born as a baby. What a humbling thing for Jesus to do! Leave all His glory and majesty in heaven and come hang out with the human race and be a baby and then be a little kid and grow up and be a laborer and finally be given the task of paying the price for the moral wrongs the human race would commit. All of them! God the Father sent his son to rescue the world from the moral wrongs we had committed that would separate us from the Father. If you think about the picture that the Bible shows us about God’s love it’s a Father knowing his kids are going to sin and make morally wrong choices and sending someone else to actually pay for the consequences of that sin and wrong instead of the children. Sound like a pretty typical loving father?

So a question comes to mind for those of us who knew my father and the lengths he went to in recreating God in his own image. Is it possible my own father simply could not stomach the amount of love that was shown by the Father in sending His son so he chose not to tell us?!? His actions now strike me like someone finding buried treasure but being so selfish as to not want to share it with others. Why on earth would my father not want to share that Jesus Christ came to earth as a baby to one day pay the price, on a Roman version of Death Row, for all of our sins and moral wrongs? Was it too loving for my father’s comfort? Too extravagant? Too outrageous a love?

When I think about how often my father tried to downplay or white-out of the Bible any loving acts by God, it occurs to me that what my father could not stand was God’s love. Did God’s love infuriate my father? My father seemed to have such an adverse reaction to God’s love that it compelled him to eliminate the truth of God’s love at every turn. But deep down do some of the rest of us feel a little uncomfortable with unconditional love? We hear that God’s love is free and for all and we think “now wait a minute God, I think I can help you here. Your love is just a little free and a little too lavish! So, how about I add a bunch of conditions to your love? So I can feel more comfortable with it.” And what my father did was add the final trump card of all conditions that if you weren’t in his church you simply couldn’t receive God’s love.

My father knew, somehow, that there was a gift of eternal life available from God but he kept telling the world they couldn’t have it! How does telling the world over and over again that God’s love is unavailable make any sense? There is a verse in Revelation that shows the complete availability of God’s gift of eternal life. It says “Whoever is thirsty, let him come and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Really it’s an unbelievable truth.

It’s saying to receive this gift you just have to be thirsty. And then it says “whoever wishes.” Whoever wishes? Well, that could be anybody, right? Yes! It could! I think Jesus gift of eternal life just blew my father’s mind. It was too good and too big and too free. And that was just too irritating to my father! How could all these reprobates out there who were sinners deserve God’s kindness? So my father began to do damage control on God . . . the Old Testament God my father somehow found ways to twist to use for his purposes of hate mongering. But, Jesus? He was far too dangerous. And He was always offering the gift of eternal life to anyone! Prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners! So, what I think my father did very early on was essentially write Jesus right out of the Bible. This dangerous and crazily loving God had to be put back in his box. And the best way he knew to do it was to wrap the box in hate.

So when my father did war on Christmas in our household none of us really understood it was war on Jesus Christ and His love. All-out war! So besides being reprehensible to not present the basic tenet of God’s love toward mankind to his own children, my father’s 'bah-humbug' to the season of comfort and joy significantly added to the burden of 'otherness' we shared that caused the world outside to repel us all back to ‘The Place’. My father knew what he was doing and how it would impact the young minds of his children.

And our father poisoned our souls toward beautiful precious parts of the Bible so we literally avoided them as pure evil – and specifically he did this toward all the parts of the Bible that speak of the miraculous birth of our Lord; the angels’ joy and declaration of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’; and the unspeakable joy of Simeon, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds in the field, the three wise men and others getting to witness and be a part of God’s miraculous plan to bring salvation to the entire earth! This included all the beautiful Christmas songs of faith which declare with great joy and victory this miraculous work of our God! Not once were we given permission to join in with the angels to sing of this miraculous virgin birth of a King who came to earth to bring great salvation to the whole world!!

From kindergarten on we were not allowed to stay in the classroom if there were Christmas activities going on. We always had to go to another room, usually the library. My father threatened to sue the schools if they did not remove us during those times. Our humiliation was constant. And effective! Once when a teacher found out I was a piano player she asked me to play some Christmas carols for a sing-along time in class. I obediently did what she asked but felt like I was doing something horribly wrong the entire time I was playing. Imagine this with me. I am the pastor’s son and I am asked to play songs honoring the beautiful story of Christ and feeling bad about it. What is wrong with this picture?!

From suing the schools to shooting our neighbor's dog, my father’s personal and litigious behavior would ensure his children a cool reception in their community-without an encore as the pastor who stole Christmas. We weren't allowed to participate in any activities at school. Not through most of our childhoods. No choir or musical performances. No sports, not even track; until my senior year. And I have to wonder if that was allowed because since I had become a good runner, I was able to be one of my father’s “trophies” for him to trot out for the sake of his own self esteem. And never, ever about what might be an enjoyable activity for his son.

And there were to be no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere; to birthday parties or anything else. Then, he decided to shave the boys’ heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right back to him; to ‘The Place’; the world-within-a-world; the world that was father-centric. And it worked.

Spouses were not welcome in such a world. There were to be no girls for the boys and no boys for the girls. If my father had his way none of us would have gotten married. He'd just as soon keep everyone away, thanks.

With his private genetic following, my father had found a world perhaps he'd always sought; one where they would care for him and do his bidding and never leave him. To make that happen required the promise that their youth be devoted to settling the scores of my father’s past; sacrificed at the altar of my father’s monumental, albeit terribly fragile, ego. My father crushed the innocence, the joy, and the dreams of his children.

His reputation as a civil rights advocate is at least ironic. My father preached racism that he thought he could justify from the Bible so imagine the surprise of people who saw Fred W. Phelps, Sr. now championing causes in the civil rights movement. Perhaps he saw this as a way to make a name for himself and bring home some bacon. Our pastor/father's chains of bondage over our souls may have been invisible to our community, but were actually far stronger than the iron ones worn by the ancestors of those he often brags he's helped free. The children who were raised in the nightmare on 12th Street carry their shackles in their hearts.

It is their fear of my father’s keys to hell, and their view that the world is hateful and hates them, that made us Phelps kids like the elephants in India. Elephants in India are initially kept shackled by iron until their wills are subdued. Then the flimsiest stake will keep the elephant tethered. And that describes most of us. We kept serving the will of a man who, by now they must realize, is much smaller than themselves and honestly unable to do anything to them. Well, except there were his powerful words of doom. Those hung around…

My father for years hoarded his hell-stunned flock close around his own flickering candle. He pulled them like a threadbare cloak about his old wounds, huddled against the cutting hawk of a cold soul wind blowing from somewhere out of his past. His woundedness was the source of all that would run our lives. And ruin our lives as well.

With the evil he perpetrated and the hurt he caused during his life, my father had no right to the name of 'pastor'- never mind 'guardian of The Place.’ Since the word pastor is called Shepherd in the Bible it is a particularly egregious misnomer to call my father ‘pastor’. A shepherd will do anything to protect his sheep and if necessary risks his own life to do so. My father risked anybody and anything to serve his weaknesses and his wounds.

One of the greatest consequences of my decision to follow very closely in my father’s footsteps was that it sort of made me invisible to his view. When you are right behind the point man he is not looking at you! This was a strategy I think I instinctively used to remain safe as a Phelps son. But it perhaps allowed my father’s actions to go unchallenged and possibly emboldened him further. By pretending to be a staunch supporter; by being the only son who did not fight or resist openly; perhaps my father took even greater license to abuse than he would have. I have spent much of my life wondering about those decisions I made. And I have wept buckets of tears. I have wished I had stood up for my siblings, at least once in a while; that I had been able to communicate my horror at what they had to go through and my sadness too. I wish I could have been a good big brother, looking out for ones under me. Like a big brother should!

My father never taught me that. He never showed me that to be a true man meant to protect the weak and innocent. Nor that it meant I was to lay my life down for others. True manhood is something I have had to learn as I healed from the poison my father used on my soul. Some of you will try to excuse my behavior and say I was caught in a Stockholm syndrome, or fighting back would have gotten me the same internal injuries Nathan and Katherine got; that I was simply a kid protecting myself. But, I have profound grief over those decisions nonetheless. If I get the chance I would like to look each of my siblings in the eye and tell them I am sorry; for what I didn’t do to protect them. And to show them how valuable they are to me.

My father did not allow sibling relationships to develop into much of anything because it would have diminished his power base. It is so much more effective to keep the underlings afraid of everybody including each other. But I would like to try now. To develop what I can with any of my siblings who would like to. I would like to talk. And take a walk around the block and learn of their lives, what they have been through, how their journey of healing has gone, if it has, and encourage them on that path. I would love more than anything to hug some of my siblings and tell them I value them. And have missed them terribly. Whether or not I could have had any influence on my father’s behavior, I can’t say for certain . . . but probably not. I am not aware of any person on the earth that ever had the ability to bring about positive change in my father’s behavior!

I do know my father’s extreme acts of aggression and violence toward his children increased more and more as each of us sought to find our own direction in life. Nothing we did was acceptable to him. And what “might have been” for his children’s lives will forever remain unknown. His destructive impact in our lives changed every one of our lives forever. Some of us have chosen to seek hope and healing. And we have seen amazing changes. But our father’s destructive impact is still something we must fight. Daily!

I mentioned to you that I started this blog with the word assailed to represent my father’s actions. And the word assailant is the noun form of the verb to assail. And from our perspective as growing children we had a deadly assailant in our house.

My father did not understand true loving relationships and did not understand the true, loving God he preached about. God longs to have a relationship with all of us and He showed His love in a way that is incomprehensible to any human being. None of us would give our only beloved child for our enemies! God gave us free will and He stays with us to the very end of our lives in the hope we will give our hearts and lives to Him in relationship . . . willingly with a full heart of love and gratitude! And He makes all kinds of ways for us to be able to do this. To respond as the loved children we are.

The true God would NEVER enslave the hearts of those He loves as a means to gain their love. We do not comprehend the massiveness of the gift of eternal life God has provided. But I know my God desires for me to love Him from my heart, not love Him because He forces me to love Him. He does not shackle my body or my mind or my soul. He sets me free to live and love. This is something my father never understood. My father, who thought he spoke for God, never understood the most basic fact of God and His amazing love for people.

My father had his children physically close to him but was unable, ever, to love them. I am reminded of the warning from the first epistle of John: "He who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen..." By the strong truth of that verse my father does not appear to have ever loved God. The person he claimed he lived his life for; he did not love at all.

In sharp contrast to my father, Christ will heal the brokenhearted. And in whatever state your broken heart finds itself. The Bible speaks of Him granting freedom to captives and new sight to the blind. Among His titles are the King of kings and the Creator of the ends of the earth but it is his strong desire every day to give liberty to any bruised captives, and to heal the broken hearted! And He does it in a way that totally respects the individuality of that precious person. You!

If you are struggling with this concept, that God could truly love you and want to set you free from the pain of abuse and lies, please get in touch with me. I would love to step into this with you. And hear your story. And weep with you and mourn with you. But also look forward to a new day . . . a day when you may be set free from this. And become the person you were meant to be….

Mark Phelps