Nate Phelps is the estranged, atheist son of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, famed for his “God Hates Fags” protests. Nate is speaking up about his childhood of abuse and being raised in what was once called “The Most Hated Family in America” on his blog at natephelps.com.
When was the last time you actually saw your family?
It was 1982-83. Several of them were coming out to Southern California for some lawyers’ conference and my sisters called me and wanted to go out for dinner. It was interesting, because I was at a point in my life where I felt my side was legitimate whether or not they agreed with me. So I said to my sister, “I’d love to see you guys, but there won’t be any discussion about my eternal damnation,” and they held to that. So we had a good time, we had a good dinner and that was that.
Out of all the physical and mental abuse you suffered as a kid, what was the worst thing you remember about growing up?
That’s a tough one to answer, its been thirty some years since I was there, and a lot of stuff just melds together in you mind. I mean there are specific events that stand out, but its just that overall sense of when he [Fred] would get to a certain point of terror and fear. I remember cowering in one of the back rooms with three or four of my siblings and literally shaking and all that that entails. I mean as a child you don’t think about of the specifics of it, you’re just immersed in it. Your brain is washed with the anxiety and the fear. It just experiencing it and not knowing if there’s anything you can do about it.
Considering your childhood you seem pretty well adjusted, how did you adjust over the years?
I think that a lot of that’s a facade. I think you have to be adjusted to get along in the world, or at least appear OK. It’s a daily struggle. Literally, it’s my version of the world going around in my head. What I’ve started learning to do is when I get hit too hard with some of the stuff is to talk myself out of it. Using my brain instead of letting the emotions take over
So you left home at age 18, but then you went back one more time…
Yeah, I left as soon as I turned 18, went back in 1979 or 1980 and was there for approximately a year.
What made you go back?
Shirley and Margie, two of my sisters, started calling me. They were saying that the old man had changed and he wasn’t violent anymore and that everything would be OK. And that’s appealing. This is my family, right? So I went back.
I damaged my relationship with my brother Mark, who had left before me, in the process. Within a couple months of being back I realized that it was a terrible mistake for a lot of reasons. I just suffered through it for the better part of a year and finally it came to a head because I wasn’t doing what my Dad wanted me to do.
Out of all of your 12 siblings, what makes you different? Why did you leave? You said your brother Mark left as well?
Yes, Mark left, but he was kind of expected to be my father’s successor. He was the one who was most like him and most embraced his expectations, or at least appeared to. But then Mark met a girl. Always seems to be about girls doesn’t it?
As far as I was concerned, I had been at odds with my father for as long as I can remember. That showed itself in disobedience and in spite of the violent beatings I was still doing what I want to do. When you think about a man like that, who must control his environment, must have absolute authority, both because it’s his nature and because what he believes is his faith, my disobedience was intolerable. It just infuriated him.
I can’t say as a kid I was doing it deliberately, until I turned 18, but it follows that’s what’s going on.
So you were just a born rebel?
I guess. You know, I’d just see him by the pulpit every Sunday preaching this extreme dogma that we were the chosen ones, the remnant, the elect on the earth. And then Monday morning would roll around and not only would we go out and be like the rest of the world in our behavior, but even crueler. He was not a nice person.
So I’m looking at that and I’m saying, this doesn’t fit, where is the evidence that we are somehow unique? There should be goodness there should be some positive effect on our environment and it’s the opposite. It didn’t make sense to me.
You were married for almost 20 years, have 3 children of your own and a stepdaughter. Did you struggle with being a father?
I struggled constantly with how to raise my kids. There was kind of a form of cognitive dissonance, because I knew what I’d been taught as far as raising kids. The tapes were in there, the message was always in there, but I refused to do it that way.
Actually, when the kids were very young I was still inclined towards spanking them if they got in trouble. Because I was afraid of being violent with the kids and leaving them with that impact that my father had, I made myself go through a certain ritual if I was going to spank them, to make sure it wasn’t out of anger, to make sure they knew I loved them afterwards, that kind of stuff, right?
So when my youngest son Hunter was 3 or 4, I’d take him upstairs because he’s gotten in trouble, and he’s literally shaking. I ask him why he’s shaking, and he said “Because it scares me so much when you’re going to spank me.” So I sat there and thought about it, and I talked to my wife about it, and I said, “It’s not working.”
There’s something to the whole notion of spanking your kids, and the physical part of it, that I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong or I’m just not getting it, but I basically said I’m not going to do it anymore.
The amazing thing, Kate, was that once that I had made the decision, then all of the other options opened up. Then you realize, no, you really don’t have to do that. There are plenty of ways for a child to learn discipline and responsibility and the realities of life without ever physically touching them in anger. So that was kind of the last piece of my father’s effect on me in practice.