The Westboro Baptist Church may be the most vilified group in America: over 338,000 people have signed a White House petition to have it classified as an official hate group. But Former Westboro member Lauren Drain, author of the revelatory Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, says "They're beyond a hate group. They're cruel."
After coming of age within Westboro, even though she was ostracized by Westboro members for several years, Drain was cut off from her three siblings by her parents when she was 21. She writes in Banished about her father's bizarre transformation from a dispassionate filmmaker scrutinizing the church to becoming its main champion in the Drain family. Under the auspices of the Westboro Baptist Church, Drain was shaped by the confusing emotional punishments designed for would-be defectors and members who were considered out of step with Phelps' version of Christianity. She was publicly shamed as a whore, for instance, for wearing makeup and dating boys outside of a complex system of courtship designated by the Phelps family.
When Phelps or other church leaders condemned Drain, her parents supported and reinforced more of the same, producing an alienating, confusing adolescence. Initially, Drain says Phelps' version of Christianity sounded appealing and picketing felt like an exercise in freedom of speech. "I felt a sense of pride about being a part of something that was helping the community," she says. As time went on, though, the church turned extreme. "I felt in my heart and my mind that there was something very wrong about picketing funerals. It just took me awhile to speak up about it."
The Topeka, Kansas-based group defines itself as an "Old School (or Primitive) Baptist Church" and relies on a small group of members to spread the message that America is doomed because of the nation's increasing acceptance of homosexuality. On its website, the group describes itself as one that "engages daily in peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colorful signs containing Bible words and sentiments, including: God Hates Fags, Fags Hate God, AIDS Cures Fags, The World is Doomed...etc." The congregation's firebrand, Fred Phelps, believes that America's embrace of homosexuality has led to God's wrath in the form of national catastrophes and thousands of military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1991, the organization claims it has held more than 49,000 such pickets at gay pride parades and military funerals.
The publication of Drain's Banished and the departure of Phelps' granddaughters from Westboro indicate that the group's hold and power over many of its members may be dwindling. In February, when Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper announced they "ripped the Band-Aid off" and left the organization, Drain posted on her Facebook page: "Words cannot express how happy I am for them. I can't imagine how comforting it must be to have a close sister by your side while starting a new life."
Drain is a registered nurse now and works in Connecticut, about 30 minutes from Newtown, where Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. When Drain learned the Westboro Baptist Church planned to picket victims' funerals, she uploaded a YouTube video offering tips to friends and journalists on the simplest way to combat the church's vitriol: by ignoring their obvious ploys for media attention. "If the media stays away, if they don't cover that story, that's much more honorable," she says. "It's eerie to think that I was part of this church and to know my family is still there and they're promoting and doing these things that are so bizarre."
Though she has moved on with her life and she generally ignores any Westboro-related news that isn't sent to her directly, Drain says she continues to heal from the trauma of her time with the organization. Her biggest struggle is the sadness she feels over being separated from her family, whom she has no contact with. "It's not like I lost them to a natural disaster or a disease," she says. "I literally lost them to some type of cult brainwashing. But I changed as a person and someone could have condemned me before I did. I hold out hope for my parents that they can change."
Joshunda Sanders is writer and journalist who blogs about books at Big Book Lover.