Libby Phelps Alvarez, 34, has written a book about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church — and what made her decide to leave at age 25 and start a new life for herself in Lawrence. Here, in an edited and condensed version of the Journal-World's interview with the first-time author, the surprisingly bubbly and, for lack of a better word, normal Phelps Alvarez speaks openly about her childhood, her life post-WBC and why she still holds out hope for her estranged family. (Even "Gramps," as Phelps Alvarez lovingly refers to the late founder of Westboro Baptist Church, supposedly had a change of heart just before his death.)
Now married (with two small kids of her own) and working as a physical therapist in Lawrence, Phelps Alvarez, who writes under the name Libby Phelps, has also become an advocate for LGBT equality since fleeing her family's notorious anti-gay hate group nearly ten years ago. Her book, co-written by Sara Stewart and titled "Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church," debuted earlier this month.
What made you write this book? And whom did you write it for?
I’ve thought about this question a lot, because when I was first writing it — and it’s been a process over the past few years — everyone told me to write it. When I left (Westboro), everyone was like, “Oh, you should write a book.” I never really thought that my life was that interesting, because it’s all I’d ever known. So I didn’t know what would be interesting to people or why people would want to read it, but then, as the process went on, I realized how much of an inspiration it could be to people, just to show people that you can change. Your heart and your mind can completely change from what you were brought up believing. That’s what it turned into.
Do you think there’s anything missing from the public’s understanding of your grandfather and your family’s church?
Yes. That’s another reason, too (that I chose to write the book). There are a ton of misconceptions. When I very first started, it was almost like I was defending them a little bit, because it was my family. There was so much love growing up, but there was also so much hate. But they tell you that the way you love your neighbor is by preaching God’s hatred to everybody, so it’s very strange.
I don’t know what people think. They think that (my family) are coming at it from a hateful viewpoint, I guess. But at least when Gramps was preaching before he died, he thought it was the right thing to do, that he needed to warn his neighbor that everyone was going to Hell. But they really do believe it.
Growing up, did you have a sense that your family wasn’t, so to speak, “normal?”
I’d been picketing since I was eight years old, so it was so normal for me to grab a sign and go out and picket. It was like you’d come home from school, you’d have your afternoon snack or whatever, you’d do some homework, and everything was scheduled around the picket schedule.
I knew that nobody else picketed. I knew that that part wasn’t normal, but it was very normal to me. And they told us the kids would hate us and pick on us, and it was because what we were doing was right. So when they said, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ and it did happen, we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, our parents are right. They’re raising us right and teaching us the truth.’ Because what they said would happen, did happen.
You finally left the church at age 25 after your family staged an intervention over a photo that had surfaced of you wearing a bikini at the beach.
Isn’t that so stupid? I know that it sounds so dumb and trivial, but that’s what they do. They take the dumbest things and just blow them way out of proportion. What they do is they attribute intentions to everybody — like, the intention of you wearing that was to get some boy’s attention. And I was in Puerto Rico! Like, what are you talking about?
It was a family vacation, right?
Yes! And I know how this is going to come across. It just sounds so stupid, but that’s what started it. And then, and this is what I tried to make clear, it was the way I reacted to them talking about it. That’s what set them off, is because my cousin Megan (Phelps-Roper) called me up and said, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be wearing that. Why are you wearing that?” And then I said, “Well, you’ve worn one before.” Usually I would just back down and say, “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,” but I had just gotten sick of it, I guess — the way they treat people.
It’s like there always has to be some sort of strife or conflict inside the church, and they’re never happy. It’s awful.
Other Phelps defectors
Nate Phelps, one of Fred Phelps' 13 children, will discuss his childhood in — and his eventual escape from — the Westboro Baptist Church during "An Evening With Nate Phelps," slated for Sept. 7 at the Lawrence Arts Center. Phelps, who has become an LGBT advocate and public speaker since fleeing his family's church 40 years ago, is the subject of an upcoming feature-length documentary about his life and the lives of Phelps siblings Mark and Dortha.
The three siblings will all participate in the Arts Center's event, which will also screen brand-new clips from the movie, "Not My Father's Child." The event will be filmed for use in the documentary, with all proceeds from the evening going toward production of the film.
"An Evening With Nate Phelps" starts at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. Tickets cost $7.50. For more information, call the Arts Center at 843-2787 or visit its website at www.lawrenceartscenter.org.
Does part of you hope that your book might inspire your estranged family members to reach out?
When you leave, you are completely cut off. I know that they’re going to read the book, and they’ll probably just ignore it, but I don’t know. Part of the reason, too, that I wrote it is because I know they’re going to read it. They haven’t even met my kids. See, that makes me cry. When I talk about my kids, sometimes I cry.
So my kids haven’t even met their grandparents. I hope they can meet them someday.
Have you ever talked about that with your kids? How much do they know about their estranged family members?
Paxton, my oldest, is three. This was a few months ago when he came up to me — and I actually recorded him doing it because it was so sad — and he said, ‘I want to see your mommy.’ And I didn’t know what to say. I think I just said that they don’t live here, because that’s true. I didn’t want to lie to him.
The very first question (you asked) was, “Well, why did you write (the book)?” And it was for my kids, too.
A few years ago, one of your cousins told reporters that your grandfather supposedly experienced a change of heart just before he died, saying of the rainbow-painted Equality House across the street, “You are good people.” Do you think it’s possible that your grandfather really did change, and that maybe others in your family could too?
I think there’s always a possibility for people to change. When Gramps passed away, it was two weeks after Paxton was born. So I couldn’t go see him. Some of my cousins went over and found out that he was in hospice, and I wanted to go, but I’d just had a baby and I couldn’t get out. So, when he passed away, it was really awful. But my cousin did get to go, and they showed him (Fred Phelps) a picture of Paxton. I can never remember his exact quote, but Gramps said, ‘I can remember when she was a baby, just a sweet baby, and now she’s a mother.’
He was on his deathbed, and I’m so glad that she showed him that. And it really humanizes him. Most people think that he’s this fire-and-brimstone preacher, but there’s that side of him and then there was also this loving grandpa. A lot of people have reached out and said, ‘I almost loved Gramps by the end of this book.’ They see a totally different side. I feel like it’s a really honest account of what it’s like to grow up in the church.
Last week it was announced that there’s a movie being made about the life of your cousin Megan (Phelps-Roper), based on her own upcoming memoir. Any movie deals or similar projects in the pipeline that we should know about?
I’m working on a lot of stuff. I can tell you I’m planning to do something with GLAAD. It’s Sept. 8, and it’s some kind of an anti-bullying program. They’re going to maybe do a Q&A; with me. You can just say I’ve been in touch with GLAAD.
I just talked with somebody from the BBC. I mean, there might be a film made, but I don’t know. We just talked about it, and then they’re going to read the book and see.