Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Fred Phelps, the founder of the odious gay-hating “church” Westboro Baptist Church, died. When I found out about Phelps’ demise the mash-up, “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again,” featuring those two gay icons, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, played in my head. Then I thought to myself…
“What’s it like to be a part of church that spreads so much hate and despair in the world?”
Don’t worry faithful readers. I won’t join the Westboro Baptist Church. But, thanks to Lauren Drain, I now have an insider look at this church due to her eye-opening and disturbing memoir Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (written with Lisa Pulitzer).
Until Lauren was in her mid-teens she lived a pretty standard all-American life. She got good grades in school. She hung out with her friends and flirted with boys. She enjoyed sports and outdoor activities. Then her father Steve (who fancied himself as a documentary filmmaker) decided to focus his camera on the Westboro Baptist Church and the notorious Phelps family.
Initially Steve was going to use his documentary called “Hatemongers” to expose the vitriol, hatred and bigotry of the church. But it wasn’t long before Steve got sucked into the world of Westboro and the Phelps. And what was supposed to be an exposé turned out to documentary in support of the church.
Steve decided to uproot his family, which Lauren’s mom Luci and younger sister Taylor, from their home in Florida to Topeka, Kansas to join Westboro. Steve’s turn from skeptical outsider to true believer is a head-scratcher. To me, it seems as if Steve was directionless soul who needed a sense of purpose. Apparently Westboro gave him that purpose.
Lauren goes from living a normal teenage life to picketing funerals and other events, carrying signs claiming, “God Hates Fags.” Lauren also becomes close to Fred Phelps’ daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper.
You’re probably familiar with Shirley, she with the evil grin and the severely damaged hair. After Fred, Shirley was pretty much the “face” of the Westboro Baptist Church, often interviewed by the media. Banished gives a very multi-dimensional glimpse at Shirley. Yes, Shirley is detestable and intolerant. She’s also very much a control freak, constantly lecturing people and admonishing them how to correct their behavior. But she’s also very human. She had a child out of wedlock, and when her son Josh left the church she became absolutely apoplectic.
However, Shirley was often very kind and maternal towards Lauren, often more so than Lauren’s actual mother who comes across as very subservient and weak. Shirley would give Lauren advice on how to live her life, often using misconstrued passages out of the Bible to extend the church’s message.
Lauren also becomes close to Shirley’s children, especially her daughter Jael. Lauren and Jael later attend nursing school together and work at the same hospital.
Lauren’s account of the church’s activities and how they managed to find so many venues to picket and also get out their message to the media is truly interesting. The church members are hugely well-organized, very disciplined, and experts at multi-tasking. They even put a lot of craft and care into the protest signs they carried. While reading these passages I kept wondering, “If only they could have used their skills for good and not evil.”
Lauren becomes a true believer and feels a sense of belonging amongst her fellow church members. If there is anything an impressionable, vulnerable teenager desires it’s a sense of belonging. At times, I wanted to shake Lauren and shout, “Just what are you doing young lady? Can’t you see how vile these people are?” And at times, I felt a great deal of compassion for Lauren. I know what it’s like to be a teenager just wanting to fit in.
However, Lauren is also an inquisitive sort and likes to ask a lot of questions. And as she got older she began to become less fervent and challenges many the church’s beliefs. She also wanted to find love and settle down. Needless to say, those in the church didn’t want Lauren to get involved with an outsider and let’s just say the pickings amongst the Westboro gang were pretty slim. And when Lauren begins emailing a young man those in the church become outraged and are convinced Lauren is sleeping with him.
Before long Lauren is kicked out of the Westboro Baptist Church; in other words, banished. After she was banished the church did everything to make Lauren’s life miserable, both personally and professionally. Furthermore, Lauren’s family completely shuns her, which by now included younger siblings, a sister named Faith and a brother named Boaz.
Towards the end of Banished Lauren describes the difficulty she had in losing her family, her place in the Westboro Baptist Church and navigating the outside world. Fortunately, Lauren’s determination, intelligence and work ethic allowed her to not only survive, but thrive. Today Lauren lives with her husband in Connecticut where she works as a cardiac nurse. And she has denounced her past and is now supportive of gay rights.
Banished was a fascinating read of a people that uses their “faith” in God to harm not heal. And as much as I hate the Phelps family, I find Lauren’s father an even bigger evil and a total failure as a father. I also believe bringing along former New York Times correspondent Lisa Pulitzer as co-writer was a huge help in writing Banished. Pulitzer co-wrote the best-selling Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs with Elissa Wall. Clearly, Pulitzer is well-versed in religious extremism and without a doubt she had a great deal in shaping Lauren’s story.
Banished is one book that shows how someone can get sucked into religious extremism only to be completely shunned, and ultimately live to tell the tale.