Irgrid Keizer Wilson sat down for a very personal interview with Nate Phelps, the son of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.” Haruki Murakami (born 1949)
I’m not certain what it is about the physiology of humans that makes us slow our cars to look at the carnage of a car accident but it seems to be a prevailing part of human nature. We know that it slows traffic. We know that it complicates the work of emergency responders. We just can’t help ourselves. We have to look. Perhaps it is the fear that we might see someone that we know, or perhaps it is the knowledge of the randomness. Perhaps it is the idea that in a moment of vulnerability it could be us on the side of the road. We could unintentionally give way to inattentiveness for a moment and change the course of life for ourselves or someone else. On the other hand we give less attention to the things that are right in our world. It doesn’t seem to be our nature to look for the best in others. We don’t celebrate the teacher who teaches our child to think outside the box. We don’t recognize the efforts of the man who routinely stops to pick up trash from the side of the street. We certainly don’t see the miraculous in the flower that sprouts from crack in the sidewalk. Often we don’t even stop to acknowledge its beauty.
Fred Phelps is a tyrant. He is a zealot who spews hate. The media has spread the word of his highly distasteful protests at funerals to the entire world. He and his followers ride the jet stream of well publicized and tragic deaths and his hateful words and acts are protected by the first amendment. His words and actions repulse reasonable people but we can’t help but stop to look. We are transfixed and our attention empowers him.
Long before Fred Phelps became a household name his wife and children were subjected to humiliation, starvation and physical abuse. The cruelty to which his family was subjected to is sickening and heartbreaking. Although I find myself wanting to list these details they are well documented in many publications and are easily found on the internet. I encourage you to research this information. It will help you to understand the power he had and still has over his family and followers.
Nate Phelps is the sixth of thirteen children born to Fred and Margie Phelps. Like his siblings he is highly intelligent, well- spoken and passionate. Unlike most of his siblings Nate courageously escaped his father’s tyranny at age 18. Today Nate has dedicated his life to serving as an advocate for GLBT rights. He is an author, public speaker and avid atheist. Nate’s story reminds me of stories that I have heard from WWII survivors, stories of people who in the darkness and despair of tragedy allowed their courage and beauty to lead others to safety. Nate is proof that true beauty is resilient and can be born from misfortune.
A few months my son Adam called me to tell me that he had attended a conference at which Nate was a speaker. Adam asked me to research Nate and learn more about him and I did. I hadn’t heard of Nate or the work that he was doing. I inhaled everything I found but discovered myself wanting to know more. I emailed Nate and asked for an interview and he graciously accepted. I found him to be very authentic and surprisingly forgiving. It is my sense that Nate has absolutely no idea that he is truly remarkable.
This is our conversation:
Q: Reading about the abuse that your father dealt out was emotional for me. There were details shared that were will haunt me for a lifetime. The degradation to which you were all subjected to was horrifying. I can’t imagine living through those experiences without taking on a sense of “self-loathing”. Is that a battle that you fight? If so, are you getting better at it?
A: Yes, it was (is to some degree) a daily battle. As a child you absorb it unedited and it is the truth. If you’re lucky you find enough of yourself to defy it. It’s a constant battle, fed by the circumstances of your life. In my speeches I talk about the hours of disappearing into my head, silently raging at my father. Today I think that process was a big part of what saved me. Somewhere I could challenge him and his ideas and come out a winner. Not that winning was the goal, just that defeating that self-loathing tape was crucial. When I moved to Canada, it was at the tail end of a failed marriage of 23 years. I sat in a broken chair, in a broken house, in a foreign land and I was utterly lost. Angela was busy cooking and I fell into a hole. She turned and saw the look on my face, dropped what she was doing and rushed over. She put her hands on my face, looked into my eyes and said “don’t do this…don’t go to that place of fear and guilt. You have to question your assumptions Nate”. I had heard this before but I was never prepared to receive it until that moment. It was my life line. I hear it every time I move toward that darkness.
Q: I have recognized as I grow older that I am my parent’s daughter. There are some elements of me that are undeniably traits passed to me in my DNA. Some of those qualities make me laugh, some worry me, some comfort me and some infuriate me. Do you see your father and mother in yourself? How do you manage that? Can you provide some positive attribute that are a part of your parents?
A: I see it as a part of my environment (DNA or learned) that I am constantly motivated to be someone…make a difference. That could be a false perception, but my father was driven and he demanded it of us. As I thought about this answer, it dawned on me that I am not sure what my mother brings to this equation. I have argued over the years that it was her quiet gentleness that provided the good in all of the children. Yes, there is much good in my siblings. The public image is one of hate and madness, but that’s just the religious part. They are generally good people in most ways.
I recall very clearly that my mother was extreme in her insistence that the male children never strike one of the females. As an adult it makes sense that she was powerless to change my father’s actions in that regard but, by god, she was not going to raise abusive sons.
Another specific aspect of this question is that I have spent my adult life over reacting to abusive men. On several occasions I put myself in immediate harms way to intervene between a man and the woman he was abusing. In each case it was (and I say this somewhat tongue in cheek) beyond my control not to intervene. I have a visceral response to aggressive men, physical or verbal. My instinct is to avoid men in life and to lead with mistrust. I despise extreme expressions of anger. I see it as a weakness in myself and others because it can do such long lasting harm. I made a point of teaching my children that anger is normal, anger is good if it’s righteous, but the Bible says “be angry but sin not”. Even the Bible gets it right every now and then 🙂 The point I make is that we have a profound duty to find ways to release our angry energy in neutral or constructive ways.
Maybe I went a bit too far afield with that point, but it seems to fit. I have anger in me. It is my father’s anger (DNA wise), and it is my enemy.
Q: I listened to a “you tube” speech that you gave at the University of Kansas, I heard an eloquence that surprised me a bit. I’m sorry Nate, but I think that there is a bit of a spiritual leader lurking beneath your surface. I’m just not sure that it is possible to have experienced everything that you have and to come out with the desire to serve as an advocate to others without some level of “faith”, Perhaps it is not a faith in a Christian God but a faith in a human divinity. We have evidence of “the sacred” in human behavior, people who are not perfect but sacred in their treatment of others. What do you have to say about that?
A: The idea appeals to me but I have always craved proof. Perhaps it’s learned from my experiences, perhaps it was enhanced by them. When I let myself get emotional about it, I can get very angry at the harm spiritual claims impose on humanity. On the other hand I recall listening to Elizabeth Smart on Oprah. Several years after her kidnapping ordeal she reflected on how her learned belief in god sustained her during that horror. How do I tell that person they were relying on a fantasy? But that’s what I truly believe.
When you talk about human divinity, I think of those people who have “risen above” the noise of life and found a peace and understanding that made the well- being of all a priority to them. Nothing supernatural, just a direction that the sum total of their life experiences, thoughts, DNA and other variables took them. Why can’t that be enough? Why do we have to see something more to accept that a person like that can exist? Invoking a supernatural element, too me, weakens the value of it. We humans are quick to blame our humanity for the harm but slow to give our humanity credit for the good.
It’s a mind set. It’s a paradigm. It’s an assumption. Where is the hard evidence?
I hope this doesn’t sound preachy.
Q: Let’s talk about religion. The story about discussing “hell” with the kids and sitting in the car and crying, really touched me. I personally am not religious and frankly some of the people who I believe best represent Christianity are actually atheists, perhaps because they are simply good people because there is no “prize at the end of the rainbow”. They are simply good because it is the right thing, because it is part of their human code. However, there is something about faith that I find remarkable. What are your thoughts about religion is it simply a tool of manipulation, a fairy tale or rule book that some people need in order to navigate life? If your father had had a different beginning in life could he have represented a more “just” way of representing religion?
A: I think I unwittingly answered a lot of this question above. To respond to the “faith” part of it I’m compelled to begin with a disclaimer. I know from personal experience that this is an emotional topic for people. I never intend to insult, but find that I often do. Here goes: Faith is not a virtue. Let me start again. My understanding of faith, as it pertains to religion, is a belief in something without evidence. Some will reject my position by providing another definition of faith. Going with this definition, faith is not a virtue. Following 9/11 I vividly recall an encounter with my mother-in-law. We had always had a polite but distant relationship. I maintained a respectful approach with her because of who she was. We were discussing 9/11 one day…a group of us at my home…and she, in a moment of fear and worry, made a comment along the lines of “America has to get right with god. That’s why this terrible thing happened”. At this point I was actively questioning my remaining adherence to religion and I, pretty harshly, said back to her that it was this same blind ignorance that those people used to justify flying planes into buildings. What kind of fools are we to continue to make that same mistake.
I tell people that I had an epiphany after 9/11. I truly believe that blind faith could be one of the greatest threats humans face today. Blind faith is not accountable. It holds sacred the position that I don’t have to listen to reason or subject myself to facts or evidence. If I retreat to that position, I am prohibited from challenging someone else’s faithful belief. If I accept that exception to the rules of evidence in life, I support, and to a degree am culpable for, acts of violence justified by faith. I know this is a strong charge, but where else can the evidence take us?
As for my father and the path he took. You unwittingly open up another huge area that I’m fascinated by right now. Free will. Not the free will debated for centuries by various religions. Free will as we are beginning to understand it in the sciences of the brain. As I understand it, absolutely my father could have gone another direction. Just as he was “powerless” to do anything other then he has based on the direction his make up, environment, and experiences took him in fact. More and more science is making the case that we are profoundly sophisticated biological machines. If we had the ability, and one day we may, to identify and quantify all the variables that impact on who a person is, we could accurately predict their every decision and action. Crazy eh? What does that do to self-responsibility? Are we morally obligated to treat our prisoners better? Do we throw out our entire justice system and rebuild on this new evidence?
Q: I’ve read a lot about the night that you left and your preparation for that process. I haven’t read much about what you felt during the preparatory period and what you felt those days following your departure. I imagine there was some level of exhilaration, fear and vulnerability. Did you question yourself? Did you have to “dig deep” to find that courage or was it more of a “fight or flight” situation. What took place in those days and weeks immediately following? Did your father try to make contact? Were there any attempts to bring you back?
A: My older brother Mark had left when I was 16. He was the first one to leave and stay gone. It was the first time I was exposed to, and entertained the idea of, being free of that situation. Another part of me started forming around that time. My anger. Up to then I was simply existing and taking in the message of my father. I recall several times, responding to my father’s raging insults, a burning resentment rising in me. I remember one particular time when I was 17. My father often berated and chastised us children behind the pulpit. After one particular sermon where he focused on me. I stood up after the meeting and walked toward my father at the front of the church. It’s the closest I ever got to confronting him. My mother saw it developing and she stepped into the isle and blocked my way. She quietly talked me down and the shame and fear slowly quenched the anger.
My recall of that night and leading up to it is that I didn’t perceive a choice. I felt like I didn’t belong. The physical and verbal abuse had convinced me that I was bad and I didn’t want that reminder anymore. I left believing that I had until the year 2000 to live my life then I would have to confront this eternal damnation issue (my father was teaching at that time that Christ was returning in the year 2000 give or take a decade). I was excited about not being subject to him any longer.
The only preparation I did beyond buying the car and slowly packing my few belongings was to talk about my plan with a friend who managed a gas station near my high school. He knew just enough about my situation to agree to let me sleep in the bathroom of his station until I made arrangements. I reached out to my brother Mark after I had left and his mother-in-law gave me a room and helped me find a job.
Surprisingly, I never did receive the excommunication letter. For others who had left my father had drafted a very official legal sounding letter that he had a group of us deliver to the wayward. That letter, full of Bible verses, detailed their crimes (enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season, lusting after the flesh, forsaking the assembly) then announced that they had been “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so their spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. However, several years later, I started receiving calls from Shirley and Margie urging me to come back. I had lived for a year with Margie in Kansas City where we worked for a law firm. When the senior partner was arrested we discovered the firm was one of the top law firms for the Kansas City mob. I moved to St. Louis to go to work with my brother in the printing business and Margie made the decision to return home. After 8 months in St. Louis Mark and I decided to open our own printing business in a suburb of Kansas City in September of 1978. Circumstances conspired to force Mark to move back to Topeka and I was left, at the age of 20, to run this new shop on my own. I was ill-equipped in all respects. I was still very immature and I allowed myself to be swayed by Shirley and Margie’s promise that the old man wasn’t violent anymore and I agreed to go home.
Within a few months I realized my error and left again. At this point I became very self-destructive. I spent about six months on the verge of crime, drugs, alcohol, and prison. At my lowest I reached out to Mark again. I moved to southern California where we opened the first of 8 printing stores in that area. I spent 25 years in southern California and the Phoenix area. I married and raised a family of 4 children. Eventually I left the company I helped build with Mark and started my own. I ran that for 7 years until I separated from my wife after 23 years. I met a woman on line. She lived in Canada so I moved up here to be with her in December of 2005 and have been here since.
Q: You serve as a LGBT advocate, which I personally find delightful but are you also fighting to counteract the damage done by your father? Do you feel that is your responsibility? What is the status of your book? What can you tell me about the speech circuit?
A: I relate to the LGBT community. They are beaten and bullied for being different. They are ostracized for circumstances they didn’t create. Most of this harm comes from a religion that boosts the “unconditional love” of their god. I also feel an obligation of sorts to undue some of the harm of my father (and now my siblings).
Two quick stories:
When I was in 7th and 8th grade there was a push to educate America’s school children about the unjust history of blacks in America. Bill Cosby narrated a 3 day long film called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed” that was, at it’s essence, a propaganda piece to jump start our efforts to fix the harm we’d done to black Americans. I ended up watching this film 3 different times over two years. I remember a profound sense of injustice and feeling like I needed to personally apologize.
I don’t remember the exact year. It seems I was a young teenager. My father made me go with him to the YMCA to jog. It was a small indoor track, I think you had to do like 28 laps for a mile. There was a weight area in the middle of the track and racquetball courts along one wall. We children spent a lot of time at the Y and knew many of the regulars. One regular was an older man who was blind. He would use his walking stick to whack the outer edge of the track as he walked as fast as he could around it. This system meant that he would often meander toward the middle of the track until his next swing of the stick would send him back closer to the outer edge. Folks were used to that and made a point of being aware of him as they ran past so they wouldn’t run into him.
My father had his first encounter with this man on that day. But he responded differently. He was indignant that he had to watch out for him. So he started threatening him every time we lapped him. At one point he said to the man, “if you get in my way again, I’m going to knock you down”. The old man, outwardly shaken, apologized and disappeared from the room. A few minutes passed and he returned with one of the managers. I remember he was weeping so hard his face was ugly red and a mess with spit and snot. My father started yelling at the manager, defending his actions, and stormed out. Again, I felt a profound sense of injustice and that I needed to personally apologize.
The book is the bane of my existence. Every time I write on it I spend too much time trying to make it perfect instead of just writing. Eventually.
The speaking circuit has been amazing for me. File under “unintended consequences” that I have met a lot of amazing people and been exposed to understandings and ideas that I never would have. I am grateful.
There is constant debate between the faithful and unbelievers about the source of meaning in life. A friend recently wrote that her college professor said she could not be helpful in social work if she didn’t have faith. I believe that we make our own meaning…even the faithful. They just use the prescribed method and the rest of us create our own. These past 4 or 5 years have given me new meaning. The idea that I can have a positive effect on even one young gay person is profound to me.
Q: Personal story – A few years back I heard that Fred Phelps had cancer and was dying. A lot of people saw it as his getting “his”. I guess that I thought it might be the thing to make him do a “turnaround”. I must have thought about it a lot because one night I dreamed that my sister in law and I were planting flowers around the perimeter of the Phelps compound. Sadly my sister in law died from breast cancer after that. Fred Phelps on the other hand still lives. Could Fred do a turnaround?
A: What an interesting story. Life and death. God’s judgment was Fred’s explanation for death. He believes (it’s become part of their internal dogma) that no one in that church will ever die. They are convinced that Christ will return and they will be the only ones to rise up and meet him. It will shake their foundation when he dies. But history suggests that they will rewrite their beliefs and be all the more dogmatic.
I don’t know about a turnaround. For my father to have a turnaround he would have to have an experience so profound that he may not survive it. It’s a popular idea out there that the WBC is just a scam, that they don’t really believe all this. I assure you my father believes it to his core. I can’t imagine so many of my siblings embracing it otherwise. I watched my father behind the pulpit for 18 years. He would be reduced to tears at times as he contemplated the enormity of his relationship with god. I suppose it’s possible for him to turnaround, but it’s also possible that teapots orbit Saturn.
Q: Fred started getting a lot of press after picketing at Matthew Shepherds funeral. It seems to have set the pace for the future. People all over the world know Fred. If we stopped paying attention to him would his activity stop?
A: Several thoughts about this question.
We should stop paying attention.
Regardless, he would never stop. Stopping is defeat to them.
Q: Why haven’t any of his children had him charged with abuse?
A: He justified everything he did. His violence was god ordained. That’s the psychology of the equation. However, there was a time in the early 70’s when my junior high principal reported him. My brother and I were taken to the police station and photographed…then they sent us home. As an adult that seems crazy to me. The system was ill prepared to manage such a situation. They assigned an attorney to my brother and I but the one interview we had with him was at our home with my father coaching us (threats of violence included) prior to his arrival. The attitude was different in the early 70’s. There was a greater acceptance of the idea that physical violence was okay, even necessary. The problem was that there was no real effort to distinguish between corporal punishment and brutal abuse.
Q: As you might have guessed from the posts that you read, I have a tendency to believe that we are born from our ashes. Those experiences shape who we are today. How would you describe who you are today?
A: Searching. Hopeful. Cautiously optimistic. At the end of the day we sleep with ourselves and we have to find peace with the choices we made. There are days when I am hugely confident and certain. Then there are days when I let the messages from my past indict and accuse me.
The essence of it is this. I will read about some new discovery that science has made that is leading us to a profound understanding of the universe we live in and the good we can bring to humans with the discovery. I can’t find the words to describe the thoughts and feelings I have in those moments about how utterly insane it is for us to continue clinging to, and arguing about, nonsense when we have the tools to change everything in our hands. All things supernatural seem a colossal waste of our time in those moments. Wasted energy, emotions, time, resources, etc.