Thursday, August 27, 2015

Second Radio Interview - Part 1

Daniel: Our guest today is Mark Phelps. He is the son of the late pastor Fred W. Phelps, Sr. Fred Phelps was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for their thousands of picket protests against the US Military and the homosexual agenda. Mark Phelps has come forward to testify about what it was like to be inside of the church and the process of healing he had to go through in order to overcome the negative impact his father had on him and his family.

Please speak candidly about what it was like to grow up with your dad and what made him tick. What was it like in the early days of your childhood?

Mark: I would say fear is the dominate experience. My first memory is when I was five years old and I remember being frightened because my mother had gone to have the next baby. I just remember being upset and scared and somehow I had figured out the phone number and I called her after my father had left the house. I was not smart enough to figure out where he was and that he had gone to visit my mother in the hospital. I called her at the hospital and I was crying and told her I was upset and asked her when she was coming back home. In the middle of my conversation with my mother my father took the phone; of course he had gone to visit her; and he told me “what the blankety blank do you think you are doing calling here bothering your mother?! You are going to catch it when I get home”. When he got home he gave me a beating. He used a leather strap at that time which he got at the local barber shop. He went through three leather straps beating his children.

By the time I was nine my father had purchased a mattock. A mattock it an instrument that has a steel or iron head on it and it is used to remove the roots of bushes and trees from below the surface when you want to rid your yard of a bush or a small tree. My father had purchased it because he wanted my older brother and I to remove sixty plus bushes that were on our property. This is what led to his decision; his bright idea; to use the mattock handle to beat his children. He started off beating my older brother and I with it, and my older sisters. But the main development from his beginning to use the mattock handle is that by the time my younger brother, Nathan, was about five years old, he began beating Nate with the mattock handle. It’s about the size of a baseball bat. One hit with the mattock handle on your back side stings and burns and hurts and shoots pain all through your body. But my father rejoiced in giving fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty hits at a time. The worst I remember for my brother Nate was 120 hits. Following that beating, my brother Nate was in the bed for about five days and was going in and out of consciousness.

So it was brutal, it was frightening, it was terrifying and it was Sunday morning and Sunday evening in the church service where he would use the Word of God to preach.

This generally characterizes our family experience and it got progressively worse as I got older and some of the children began to have a little more independence.

Daniel: What does a five year old do to push their dad to give them a beating like your dad would give to you and your siblings?

Mark: Well it was anything that was against his will, or if he was under stress or upset. That was all it had to do with. As I look back on it and understand my early years more broadly, it was just who my father was. His behavior was not about the children. It was not about my mother; my mother was a peaceful, quiet, gentle soul. My father would beat my mother, he would beat us; clearly his behavior was about who he was as a person, it was not about his children and his wife. If we did not do exactly what he wanted and if we didn’t do it when he wanted, and if we didn’t do it the way he wanted it, his response was habitually harsh, rapid, cruel and violent. This is the best way to characterize my father’s behavior.

Daniel: So, you are growing up in this environment, and you would watch your father do these things throughout the week, and then you would have to be in church on Sunday listening to him preach. Was he a preacher throughout your entire childhood or did he become a pastor at some point?

Mark: No, not at some point. My father was a pastor before I was born. He had already been set up in his own church by the time I was about a year old. And he was intense; the same voice that the public would hear now days, before he passed away; it was that same intense voice. He was a fiery preacher.

Daniel: Now, when we hear stories like this, the question becomes: ‘What makes a person like that?’ When you see somebody that says ‘well, I’m going to dedicate my life to the gospel of Jesus Christ’ you think the motivation should be that they have the heart of Jesus Christ. They want people to be saved, healed and delivered. Well, it doesn’t seem like that was really present in your father, from the kind of person you are describing here. What went in to making your father who he was? I mean, did he have an overbearing father figure as well? Was it just that he went to a bad school system, maybe, and he was bullied all the time? I mean, what was there that caused him to go this route?

Mark: Well Daniel that local Topeka newspaper sent two reporters to Meridian and Porterville, Mississippi, to the area where my father was born and raised. They learned a lot of things but nothing that would clearly explain his behavior. My father lost his mother when he was five years old. His father had an outstanding reputation in the local community. His mother was, by all reports, a wonderful Christian woman who played the piano and, like I said, passed away when my father was five. I just have not been able to find the direct cause of his behavior.

One thing that kind of factors in here, my father’s father told my father that if he is going to be in a fight he needs to kick the other person in the shin as hard as he could, hit the other person in the mouth as hard as he could. And keep on hitting and keep on kicking! Whatever else my father’s father taught, that is certainly one of the things my father learned from his father. My father repeated this and told this story several times. My father was also a boxer in high school, and maybe early college, and I heard he had won some significant fights in competition.

But there is not anything that explains my father’s behavior other than the fact that every person has to make their own choices, everybody makes their own decisions. Everybody has, to a large extent, the responsibility to make their own choices. The Lord allows that for each of us. I don’t have any other information or anything else I have ever been able to learn to explain why my father made the choices that he made. But this is how my father was!

Daniel: Now, did your father play favorites, as a father? Did he have a certain one of you that he put on a pedestal and then punish the others around that one or was it pretty universal that everybody caught it when he was in a bad mood or just found someone who wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted?

Mark: Well, my father never played favorites. There was never anybody that felt more favored. His favorites for beating were my sister Katherine and my brother Nathan. Everybody else got more of an equal amount of his abuse. My brother Nathan experienced extraordinary, extreme abuse over a long period of time; for years and years, for at least 12 years of his life. Also, there were some specific experiences with my older brother Fred Jr. and my sister Katherine who is one-year younger than I am that involved extreme abuse. There was a specific period of time as they were coming of age where my father did some of his most outrageous, extreme, brutal abusing. But most of the time, any time any of us would not do what he expected; whether he had communicated his expectations or not; if my father was unhappy or did not like what he saw, that’s when things would happen, which was quite regular.

Daniel: What was it like growing up with your mom in this household; how did your dad treat her; how did you guys relate to your mom?

Mark: Well, she was more . . . you might describe her more accurately as being one of the children, in terms of the way my father related to and abused her. My father would beat our mother also. One time he through our mother down the stairs and, in trying to catch herself as she fell, she pulled her right arm out of socket. Then in the months and years following this event, when my father would be upset at her, or just upset, he would reach for her bad arm. I do not even know the number of times my mother suffered a dislocated shoulder; at least 6 or 8 times.

Another general characteristic of where our mother fit into the picture; she would try to keep little offenses and daily events that would happen that she knew he would not be happy with; she tried to do some of that kind of hiding and keeping information from him. Unless there was something specific that one of the kids had done, our mother was usually the first and main person to receive our father’s abuse. Our father would rage and curse and scream and beat her. If our father was beating one of the children and our mother got too frightened, she’d try to interfere and he would curse her and turn his attention to her and beat her or hit her in the face, then turn his attention even more intensely back on one of the kids. So it was a mutual war zone for her together with us. I just don’t know how it changed after I left after age 19. I know at some point there appears to have been a lessening of the abuse toward the family.

But for all the time I was there, and have memory, this is how it was. He would empty the refrigerator, throwing things about the room and against the walls; mustard and ketchup and mayonnaise (glass bottles in those days) and whatever might happen to have been the leftovers in the fridge. Then he would just leave the mess for others to clean up when he got done throwing his fit. I mean it was just a very difficult environment. My father was not raging 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but it was difficult for us to hide the stains and the holes in the walls. I mentioned earlier, we lived in the same building structure where the church auditorium was and the children were required to clean it every Saturday in preparation for Sunday services. We had a difficult time hiding the holes in the wall when he would have just thrown a rage the precious week. The children and our mother, we were the ones who knew that on the other side of the walls or the door, there was a hole in the door or a hole in the wall. Or there was stain on the wall.

And of course, with my dad, also we were taught very rigid, fundamental beliefs. One teaching was women are not supposed to cut their hair. I remember when I was eleven years old, returning home from school one afternoon, and my mother called me upstairs. She was sitting on the side of the bath tub upstairs in their bedroom. I had been looking for her and was calling out to her. I finally found her sitting up in her bedroom and she had a towel on her head. And apparently that day . . . she looked at me with pursed lips and ripped the towel down off of her head and her hair was chopped close, all the way down to the scalp and maybe as long as two inches in other parts. Apparently at some point during that day, while we were away at school, our father had gone into one of his rages and our mother did not respond the way he thought she should. My father accused her of not being in subjection to him and he cut her hair off. My mother was abused as much or more; I would put three children ahead of her; otherwise, my mother probably got more abuse than any of the rest of us, other than those three. Other than these three, my mother got most of my father’s abuse.

Daniel: Now I have to ask this question . . . you know, we have statistics for women that are battered. There is this balance where, on the one hand, we see in the Bible certain messages like God hates divorce, and these kinds of things. But then we have situations like this where it is such extreme abuse and it is destructive. The relationship is destructive. It is unsafe, for both the woman and the children, it is destructive. How have you reconciled the balance between some of the things the Bible says and what you witnessed your mom go through as you were growing up? How has that shaped your thoughts on these tough questions?

Mark: Well, first let me answer that question directly. And I hope anybody listening will make no mistake about this! The Lord says in His word, men are to love their wives as Christ loves His church. Hardly ever do these so-called fundamentalists, when they are preaching, do they get to that part of the Bible. They get to the part about wives being in subjection, Daniel, but somehow they have blinders on or somehow they just don’t happen to get to that part of the Bible where it clearly instructs men to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for it; and to love their wives as they love their own bodies! It is absolutely and unmistakably; I am saying this as an adult at my age today, I am saying this as clearly as I know how to say it; abuse of women is absolutely and unmistakably . . . UNACCEPTABLE for a man to abuse a women!

You are not going to get perfection from a man, but when the situation gets to the point where the pattern is clear and the verbal abuse starts to evolve into physical abuse, I say it needs to stop right there. Ideally, way before marriage or even serious dating, women must learn to season any man they are going to get involved with and spend any significant amount of time with FOR AT LEAST A YEAR before they are allowed to have anything to do with you other than spending time together getting to know one another. I know this is not realistic so let’s get to the reality of it.

So let’s say you are a woman in a relationship, and you have children, and you are being beaten and you feel there is no hope. There is no question about the fact . . . there is hope, especially in today’s world. You have got to get out of that relationship and you have got to find a way to get those children safe, and that man has to take accountability for his own behavior or he is not to be around his wife and children. The church body ought to be able to help with this. But there are resources today that will allow her to get safe.

The other thing I wanted to say, to clarify. There was still no excuse for it in 1963, but my mother was unable to get away from my father. Maybe there was a reason for not getting away from my father. I still say my mother in this situation was responsible to get her children away from this abuser; the children were not. The adult should have done something. My mother should have done something.

When I was 9 years old my mother had me pile the vehicle that we had, high with clothes and then the kids sat in on top of those clothes on a Saturday afternoon at about 4:00 o’clock. My father had fallen asleep to take a nap after one of his rages. I had hope for a few hours. My mother told us all to get in the car and she drove from Topeka to Kansas City to her sister’s place. But at about 2:00 in the morning, Sunday morning, my mother had a conversation with my father on the phone and we were back at the house of abuse by about 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning. And my father did his same normal dogmatic preaching at 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning as if all was normal. That was the only time we ever had even a scent of a bit of hope of getting out of there.

But today it is different. Today there are shelters and safe houses. My wife has a master’s degree and she works primarily with abused women. I know there are ways, today, to get away and get safe. And I strongly urge anybody who is being abused to get away from the abuser and get your children safe. I am not saying to walk out at the drop of a hat. I am not saying take your marriage vows lightly, I am not saying to be irresponsible; this isn’t a license to destroy families. But if the marriage and the family have any chance of surviving then the relationship has to change and the man’s abuse of the woman must stop! And you have to use your leverage to get the abuse to stop. And if the man still doesn’t do something to take responsibility for his own behavior and stop mistreating his wife and his children, then that may be the end of the marriage. But something needs to change. You can’t just sit there in that situation and do nothing!

Daniel: Those are powerful words, and the truth of the matter is, there may be someone out there, someone listening to this program . . . you need to hear what’s being said right now. And there are little ones whose safety may be in your hands.

You know, I remember reading an account of the pinnacle of how we can get things wrong. There was a woman in a church whose husband was an upstanding citizen, made a good amount of money, and who was extremely abusive to his wife. She was trying to get some help and she went to the pastor of the church and the pastor, not wanting to get into it with the woman’s husband, or cause any kind of thing, just basically read her the riot act and said: ‘listen, you are called to submit to your husband; just pray for him and it will be fine’. And her spirit was broken from that day forward and she just continued to submit to her husband’s heavy beatings and then the day came; and this is what she was told by her pastor. She was told that ‘you staying in this situation brings glory to God’. Well, you tell me how much glory God got when she died and her husband went to jail for manslaughter because he killed his wife in a beating! This is what actually happened. And the reason why she stayed was because, well, her pastor told her that by staying, she was bringing glory to God. Folks that did not bring glory to God! That broke God’s heart! And you know, this is a problem and I’m so glad you are willing to talk about this Mark, to speak to it and to be open and candid about it. It really hurts me that people have had religion used to put them in situations that are the exact opposite of healing and deliverance and salvation. It is just heart breaking.

End of “Second Radio Interview – Part 1”

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