Jun 19th 2012 by NatePhelps • 33 Questions • 2315 Points
My name is Nate Phelps. I'm the 6th of 13 of Fred Phelps' kids. I left home on the night of my 18th birthday and was ostracized from my family ever since. After years of struggling over the issues of god and religion I call myself an atheist today. I speak out against the actions of my family and advocate for LGBT rights today. I guess I have to try to submit proof of my identity. I'm not real sure how to do that. My twitter name is n8phelps and I could post a link to this thread on my twitter account I guess.
Anyway, ask away. I see my niece Jael is on at the moment and was invited to come on myself to answer questions.
I'm going to sign off now. Thank you to everyone who participated. There were some great, insightful questions here and I appreciate that. If anyone else has a question, I'm happy to answer. You can email me at [email protected].
Have you seen the Louis Theroux documentary about your family? If so, what did you think of it?
I've seen both of them. I have two copies of the new one in my desk, sent from Louis' producer.
I think he did a good job. You get a pretty accurate idea of who they are, especially my old man.
Was thinking of asking this myself. Were you in any of the documentary in the background somewhere?
I interviewed with Louis for a day while he was putting together the second documentary. It wasn't used, but I'm hopeful.
I remember reading somewhere that your father treated your mom like trash. Can you give examples if what he did to her and if that played a part in you leaving?
He pulled her arm out of the socket. He beat her with his fists, his feet and a mattock handle. He cut all her hair off, down to where her scalp showed through because she wasn't in subjection. He screamed and threw things like a child having a temper tantrum.
Imagine that as the image you have of the person who defines your world and how safe you feel in it. I don't mean to get melodramatic, but I only have so much time and opportunity to impress the reality of the situation on you.
When's the last time you've spoken to anyone in your family still associated with WBC?
I spoke in Topeka in March...I think it was just over two years ago. My family held a protest in my honor at Gage Park and I went and watched them from across the street. My sister Margie and my brother-in-law Brent Roper (Shirley's husband) crossed the street to give me a tongue lashing. That's the last time I've spoken with any of them.
I actually know your brother-in-law. I work where he works. I was actually dumb founded when I found out he was a part of the WBC. A bit odd, but seems like a nice enough guy.
A lot of people say that when they meet members of my family. They can be really nice then their eyes glaze over when the word of the lord comes over them.
How do you feel about the rest of your family that obviously decided not to leave the church? Are you at all as resentful towards them as the rest of the general population?
I despise the harm they are doing. I get emails and messages constantly from young people who have read and seen their message. Many of them are terrified. On top of that this whole hate thing adds immensely to the social idea that gays are lesser citizens or humans. This idea is what some people use to do harm to these people. I hold my father and siblings responsible for this harm.
I think my father is a hateful person first. The religious beliefs gave him a forum and permission to be cruel to the world.
Is there any REASON he is so hateful? I know this sounds dumb, just curious if you have any insight into this!
No idea. His mother died when he was five. Maybe that explains something, I don't know. He was raised Methodist, but not seriously. Good student, Eagle Scout, appointment to West Pointe that he squandered when he went to a revival meeting and found Jesus. Attended Bob Jones University and Prairie Bible Institute (coincidentally only an hour and a half north of where I live now) then started his career as an itinerant preacher. He showed signs of hatefulness almost from the beginning. Some people from his home town talk about having the tendency early on to piss people off.
do they know that everyone hates them and the god hates fags demonstrations just make them look worse?
Sure they do. We were taught that enmity with the world was the goal. They would be profoundly disturbed if the world embraced their message.
So if people suddenly, in total mockery of course, joined them in one of their protests, would they be confused?
They're pretty smart and have seen a lot. You would have to be very convincing before it would confuse them.
Are members submitted to any form of abuse as punishment for 'sinning'?
When I was growing up there it was a very violent environment. It wasn't constant, but it was often enough and unpredictable enough to be very destructive. It is my opinion that this is the primary reason my siblings stay there and parrot my old man's theology.
Any specific memories from your childhood that you can share?
okay...let's see. I remember running around the track at Topeka West. A kid came on the track with his bike and was riding around the outter edge of the track while we ran around the inner edge. My old man yelled at him to get off the track. When he came around again, he ran out to the kid and knocked him off the bike. The kid ran away crying and a half hour later a truck came roaring into the parking lot. The kid's father got out, decked my father and knocked him down. We left the track and when we got home he went into a rage and took it out on our mother.
Whoah... what a complete dick. It's good that you are gone from that situation. Did anyone ever try to press charges for the abuse? Either your family or somebody else?
Charges were brought in 1971 after a particularly brutal beating he gave to my brother Jon and I. The police picked us up after school, took us to the station, took photos and pressed charges...then sent us home.
A lawyer was appointed to represent us but our father threatened and coached us for days before we were to meet with him. I remember I was scared to death and hated that man when he walked in the door.
The charges were dropped.
He would grab us by the arms, lift us up and drive his knee into our stomach. He would beat us with his fists on our face and body. He would kick us. He would spit in our face. He would beat us from our lower back down to behind our knees with a mattock handle, often splitting the skin and causing bleeding.
How did you find the balls to leave? How much did your consciousness change when you left the family? Was there a moment where your mind was blown by how the world actually works versus the way in which you were raised?
It's hard to answer that. I felt so miserable as a human, I despised my father for all the pain he had caused, I hated myself and knew that it came from being in that controlling environment.
I have "mind blowing" epiphanies all the time when I peel away another layer and realize that I've lived with certain bizarre, false assumptions based on ideas I was raised with.
It seems more of the relatives are slowly defecting, such as Lauren as shown in the BBC documentary 'America's Most Hated Family in Crisis.' Do defected relatives have reunions and sort of a support network, or do you not communicate much? Have you ever met Louis Theroux? What do you think of his documentaries on your family, and are there any other reporters whose work you appreciate?
I have been able to get together for dinner with four of my nephews, a niece, and my sister recently. There has been one other smaller gathering. It's still very tentative, but I have hope that we can come together better in the future.
Did you ever discuss your doubts or criticisms of religion with any of your siblings before leaving the family? Were you alone in your feelings? Is there anyone in your family you know had doubts but are still involved with the church?
It wasn't safe to discuss doubts. The environment there was such that any of us kids would throw another one under the bus if it kept us from facing Fred's rage. If you didn't want the old man to find out, you kept it to yourself.
Another component acting on the situation was the message we learned early on. If we thought for ourselves, if we questioned the message we were taught, that very act of thinking or questioning was evidence that god had not found grace in us. So you stayed away from that behavior and minimized it's validity when you did entertain the ideas.
I knew when I was 16. My older brother Mark had left and that was the first time I thought it was possible. I left because the environment was so violent and hateful. I was at odds with my father for years.
Can you tell us about Jael?
She posted that IAmA, and it was immediately filled up with hate. I was wondering if you could offer some insights into her activities in the church. I think most people over there kind of just assumed she deserved hate without thinking and I was wondering about your opinion.
EDIT: Added link to Jael's AMA upon request, thanks to TimMensch and haikuginger for finding it quickly.
When Jael's mother became pregnant out of wedlock she was summarily shown the door at WBC. Jon, my brother, was guarded zealously, watched every where he went and given limited access to money to control him and keep him from her. Paulette contacted Mark and I in California and we flew back to Topeka to try to help. It's a fairly long story, but in the end my father caved when Jon threatened to leave. Paulette was allowed back, but has been treated like a 3rd class citizen since.
I've never known Jael personally. I think she has a sweet disposition and, like so many of the other young people, she is as much a victim in all this as the many people who they protest. At some point she must take responsibility for her choice although there is not much choice perceived their.
I say don't hate them...pity them.
I saw you speak at the Reason Rally, it was an excellent speech!
Where did you go after you ran away from home?
What is something you miss about the religion that you were raised in (if anything)?
Thanks! The first three nights after I ran away, I slept in the bathroom of a gas station near the high school I attended (Topeka West). From there, my brother's (Mark) mother-in-law offered me a room at her home. Very little I miss. It was so destructive and took years to undue. I have talked about the sense of security and belonging I can recall feeling from time to time when we were having church services on Sunday evenings. Something about being tucked in that building that's half buried and feeling like we're the only one's that god loves...it's hard to articulate.
Did you ever share the beliefs of your WBC family or did you always doubt them? How did this (either way) affect your growing up?
As a young child you have no real choice. It's how the world is. I was terrified of god and hell, even when I ran away from home. I left convinced that I would live until the year 2000 (that's when my old man was saying Christ would return) then have to deal with death and eternal suffering. I only let go of that fear within the last 8 or 10 years.
I don't know. I wasn't there. But that does raise an interesting subject. Shirley has effectively announced that the beginning of the tribulation will start on July 22 of this year. You have to bear with me here. She didn't actually say those words, but she has clearly declared Obama the Anti-Christ and announced that he only gets 42 months to rule. Here's a link to her making those comments (about 4 minutes in): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8zulP5KTXY
So in their own special way, they've picked their own end times prophecy.
Another aspect of this sordid part of the story. My father believes that he will never die. Recently there's strong evidence to suggest that they now believe none of them will die. They are here to prepare the way for Christ's return and they will be taken up into heaven just as Jesus comes back and gets midevil on us. Just one reason why I think the whole system will suffer a fatal blow when he passes.
Your father and the rest of WBC are of course hateful to homosexuals. I understand that your father worked to help African Americans during the civil rights movements. But why can he, and the rest of the family/church work to help "children of Cain" and not the LGBT community?
My father was very successful in helping flesh out the parameters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was good at what he did and he saw a tremendous opportunity to earn money and gain notoriety as a defender of the black community. He still held strongly to his convictions that they were a cursed race and regularly displayed his bigoted attitude toward them in private. I have no doubt he would be happy to represent a gay person in court while still considering them evil and damned.
- why does the WBC picket at military funerals?
- how big is the WBC now?
- any experiences having your life threatened by either family or outsiders?
Picketing at funerals gets a lot of attention. They can connect anything bad back to homosexuality. In this case they say that American soldiers are fighting for a country that is tolerating homosexuality.
The church boosts around 50 members now. Nine of my siblings, their spouses and offspring + five members of the Drain family and a few odd ones thrown in the mix.
Are there others who have left and converted like yourself? Also, do you still keep in contact with your radical family?
My older brother Mark (he lives in the Phoenix area and has changed his last name), and my younger sister Dortha (she still lives in the Topeka area but also changed her last name).
Nope. Dortha did it because she has to live and work in that city. Mark did it because he moved back to the Kansas City area in 2000 and was concerned for the well being of his two daughters.
Well this is an interesting turn of events! Thanks for coming!
Does WBC dogma say that homosexuals can be 'redeemed' through going straight? I was curious because of something Jael said (Basically that homosexuals were made so by God at the beginning of time and are basically doomed forever) and ask to try and get my head around how twisted their interpretation of God seems to be (especially to this atheist): 'yes redemption is possible' is bad enough from any rational point of view, since this shouldn't even be an issue, but 'nope, screwed forever' is just bizarre and sadistic.
As a followup, rabid homophobia seems to be a major component of their public face, but how much of a factor is it in 'day to day' private religious activities like simple Sunday services? Or is it a pretty constant obsession?
There's a passage in Romans that says something like god gave them up to their vile affections. My father reasoned that this was proof that homosexuality was a sin you couldn't recover from. That made this sin sort of the center piece of much of his ranting against humanity.
To explain how they are in private...they get along alright with most folks, they just think they're going to hell. I can tell you that my niece Sharon (Fred Jr's oldest daughter) was kicked out of the church years ago. One of the reasons cited was the fact that she was friends with a gay person.
Nathan, How do you feel is the best way for people to counteract what your family does? Do you think the counter protests are best? or do you think people should try to ignore them? Do you have a preferred method? Do they feel any shame?
Counter protests are better. Counter protests that yield positive, tangible results are best.
No, they feel no shame for what they do.
Thank you for doing this! So many questions...
Can you explain a little bit about your family's specific focus on homosexuality? There seems to be quite a bit of selective quoting of the bible; are the members of WBC aware of their apparent hypocrisy, or are there some alternate interpretations of the additional passages that they operate under?
If predetermination is a core belief, why is the church so concerned with the actions of others? In other words, what drives them to try to "save" people, when its already decided what's going to happen to everyone?
Embarrassingly, I've blanked on a couple other questions I had in my zeal, but thank you again for taking the time to do this. It seems your nieces AMA turned into a bit of a hate rally, with little real info. =(
Edit: Deleted a question (asked and answered).
My father believes homosexuality is a special sin you can't recover from. He get's this from some obscure passage in Romans. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of selective quoting. But this is lost on them because they never really were taught to examine the Bible and decide for themselves. They were taught to believe what he believes. This leaves them wholly unable to truly debate anyone. They recognize certain sounds and respond to those sounds with the sounds they learned. They don't critically analyze the incoming sounds at all.
One of those sounds they recognize is "why do you preach if you don't think people can be saved" to which they respond with the sound "it's not our job to save, only to preach". It's what I call the divine Nuremberg defense.
Do you know if any members of WBC have had problems with substance abuse in the past?
My father went through a period where he became dependent on prescribed amphetamines and barbiturates back in the 60's. That's all I know of for sure.
I'll go ahead and ask a question now too.
Do you ever regret leaving? You have a family now, do you feel like they're missing part of who you are by not knowing your parents?
Do you believe your family is inherently good, but misguided? Do you still love them?
Do you feel like it's your responsibility to try and counteract whatever poison they're pumping into the world?
I don't regret leaving. As I've said, I never perceived an option. I honestly think i would have died there. My knee jerk reaction when my children get too close to that situation is to warn them away. It freaks me out to imagine them getting pulled in.
I believe my siblings, some of them, have good hearts. I have fond memories of some of them. It's hard to call it love after 30+ years.
Yes, it's one of the reasons I give talks and speak out against my family. I've had too many people tell me it's helped pull them from the edge when they find out about me and read my response to my family.
Do you ever wish you could go back for your siblings? Your parents? Do you think any more members of the church will leave?
I often wish I could go back and undo so much of what has happened. I fantasize about what it would be like to have a normal, loving family. You could say I'm in love with the idea of a family, but it's just not going to happen with them barring a miracle and I don't believe in miracles.
I'm sure more will leave. I'm sure the church will change profoundly, if not die, when my father passes.
What was the most successful or most annoying "counter-protest"?
I remember one of the Shawnee Mission (I think East) schools doing a killer counter protest. My personal favorite is the Jewish Center down in Texas that raised enough money at one of their protests to buy a new ice making machine for the center. They put a plaque on it that said something like: "The Fred Phelps Memorial 'Hell Froze Over' Ice Machine".