Book review: Banished by Phelps

Lauren Drain was 14 when her father, Steve Drain, moved his wife and two daughters from Florida to Topeka to join the Westboro Baptist Church. It was not an impulsive act. What had started as a documentary/expose film project (Steve received a master’s degree in film from Kansas University in 1997) morphed into a justification of the practices and beliefs of the church as Steve himself moved from critic to convert.

“Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church” by Lauren Drain

About the book

“Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church” by Lauren Drain with Lisa Pulitzer ($24.99, Grand Central Publishing, N.Y., 2013) is available to purchase in Lawrence at the Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St.

Hungry for her controlling father’s approval, Lauren did not question the church’s selective and twisted interpretations of the Bible. Rather, she was an enthusiastic participant in church activities, including picketing.

“The group’s seeming integrity was powerful, and they were really getting to the root of things, opening the eyes of their detractors to something profound, taking them to a new level of truth… We had good points, substantive discussions, and strong arguments. I liked the high, happy energy on the picket line. None of the participants was mad or mean like I had thought they would be.”

For the record, she is describing the Phelpses, those gay-bashing, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-anybody-who-does-not-believe-like-we-do Westboro Baptist Church folks. Those would be the ones with the happy energy who aren’t mad or mean Lauren Drain is referring to — the same ones carrying the signs that read “No Tears for Queers” and “Thank God for IEDs.”

“Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church” is essentially written by Lisa Pulitzer (she’s the “with” on the cover). Originally a crime reporter, Pulitzer wrote real-life crime books before cornering the market on what The New York Times described in an article March 12 as the “subgenre” of “escape stories.” Pulitzer’s recent books include young women’s harrowing escapes from an isolated polygamous Mormon sect and Scientology.

Both present interesting contrasts to Drain’s experience. First, Drain didn’t escape; she was kicked out. Secondly, she wasn’t subjected to chronic fear, isolation, deprivation, rape or any horrific abuse. She lived a middle-class life in a middle-class town, went to public school, graduated from Washburn University with a nursing degree and worked as an RN at a local hospital. When she was “Banished,” she had an education, a car and a profession.

Pain of expulsion

While Lauren had questioned certain biblical interpretations, her rebellion was not against dogma. The Westboro Baptist Church rules dictate that girls are not permitted to date or flirt, and Lauren kept secret a rather benign email exchange with a boy (no fornication, just email). That, coupled with a few minor prior transgressions, was enough to be labeled a “whore” by her family and the church, expelled and damned in one afternoon.

Lauren was incredulous, then devastated, as she realized that her family had indeed cut her off. In the months following her expulsion, she was desperate to return. She missed her three siblings, missed being part of the church, and was more than a little concerned about the doomed-to-burn-for-eternity-in-hell aspect of being kicked out. It took months, if not years, for Lauren to truly question dogma. Her emotional maturity, and capacity to appreciate the pain caused by the church’s picketing, is still a work in progress.

“Banished” is not about an escape, but it does look at how loyalty and conviction can trump logic, and how a life journey and world view are shaped by unmet needs for acceptance and validation from our parents. The compelling narrative here is less Lauren and more her father, Steve.

His is the childhood I’m curious about.

It did hit me how Lauren’s experience with Westboro Baptist Church mirrors that of many young LGBT men and women abruptly expelled from their Christian/conservative families (i.e. “you’re a sinner, you bring shame upon us, pack your bags and get out.”)

Life in the church

For local readers, “Banished” is a look behind the locked gates of the Westboro Baptist Church. It answers questions many of us have asked for decades: Who are these people and why do they do what they do? Why would anyone stay?

They stay because they really believe that they are chosen by God, the Elect, and that they are messengers for God. Anyone who is not Elect will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell (that means you and me). They stay because to leave is to be damned. But they also stay for the security and connection.

The church epitomizes shared values: loyalty over life; service to church and family; absolute compliance, all with a clearly defined hierarchy. Fred, or “Gramps” as the kids call him, channels God’s desires and opinions, and Shirley Phelps-Roper (much admired by Lauren) manages the day-to-day operations.

From the descriptions in this book, the church has created a compound in the middle of suburbia that is pretty close to a communist ideal. They share property — all the backyards for a square block have been enclosed with a tall privacy fence to create a communal park and playground (with a big pool, basketball court, volleyball, swings and such for the little kids, trampoline, jogging track, BBQ, grassy areas and more). When anyone needs home repairs or a remodel, everyone helps out.

When you’re “in,” you get a life where you will never be alone. And if you’re “out,” you lose it all.

If this were about another small bigoted/cultish church group, I might not be interested. But this is about WBC, the “church” that has harassed us for decades, the one that shows up at the Lied Center and funerals, at dance recitals and graduations, the one in our emotional backyard.

Read it and weep.

Note: In the months prior to publication, both Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper have also left Westboro Baptist Church, but for reasons of conscience.