Escaping Westboro

In this exclusive interview, former Westboro Baptist Church member Lauren Drain talks about what she’s sorry for, and what she believes is really the source of Fred Phelps’ homophobia.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

March 14 2013 5:00 AM ET

After spending seven years as a baptized member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Lauren Drain was kicked out of the antigay church for talking to a boy online and on the phone. At least, that’s how Drain tells the story in her revealing new memoir, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, now available in hardcover or as an eBook.

Drain’s father, Steve, led the charge to remove his daughter from the church and today is one of the most vocal members of Westboro, often appearing on television, when he’s not behind the camera documenting counterprotests for the the church’s legal team, which makes a business out of suing counterprotesters who unwittingly cross the line of constitutionally protected free speech.

By the time she was kicked out, just before her 22nd birthday, Drain had built a reputation as a boy-crazy troublemaker, a “whore” and a “liar” in the church’s and her father’s eyes. She had begun questioning elements of church doctrine that she found hypocritical, but her theological curiosity was swiftly squashed, and she was shamed for questioning “the Word of the Lord.” Drain’s father, mother, and three younger siblings are still embedded in the church, living in a house on the Westboro “compound” in Topeka, Kan.

Today, Drain lives in Connecticut, where she is a registered nurse and lives with her fiancée. She says she was “ecstatic” upon hearing the news that her former friend, Megan Phelps-Roper, and Megan’s sister Grace, granddaughters of the church’s infamous founding pastor, Fred Phelps, had abandoned Westboro in February and apologized for their hateful words, the same month that Drain’s photo for the pro-LGBT No H8 Campaign was released.

The Advocate: You certainly have a compelling story, and I think one of the most interesting parts is how your dad set out to produce a documentary exposing Westboro, but then got sucked in. What was it about your father — or perhaps about the WBC — that created such an intoxicating, compulsive urge for him to uproot your entire family?
Lauren Drain: My father has never been really religious or anything like that. But he had spent a lot of time in college searching for some sort of ultimate truth. He had been changing his majors — he went from philosophy, [to] Western civilization, he did a religion class. … I think he was definitely looking for something where he could be in a dominant position of power or righteousness. At the time, he was also looking for work, so it was the whole, you know, “Could I make a documentary on this weird subculture?” And on top of that, he was raising a teenage daughter, followed by another teenage daughter. So I don’t know if it was just all a combination of everything at the time, that kind of compelled [him] to thinking, Well, this is a controlled environment, I could take advantage of this for myself and for my family.

The way you described him in the book, it seems your dad always had a controlling streak. Did that change at all when he joined the WBC? Did he become more or less borderline violent or angry?
I would definitely say, not necessarily physical violence, but definitely a loss of human emotion throughout the time we were at the church. I tried to describe … that my father was somewhat normal, my family was somewhat normal. He was what I felt was a good father figure in the beginning … but basically I think during the time we were at the church, they stripped away at human emotion, they stripped away human connection, human empathy — even for your own family members, and I noticed that. And during my time there, every time I saw it happen, it would make me very upset, whether it was to me or someone else. I never really let it strip away my own human sympathy, and I think he allowed it to happen and as a course of that, he is just able to say and do mean things to anyone and have no regret or remorse. That’s one of the things they teach: It’s very scary and a horrible thing to see.

News recently broke that Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper [two of Fred Phelps’s granddaughters] have left the church. In the book, you mentioned that you and Megan were friends, although it sounds like there was some competitiveness between you two. How did you react to the news that they had left the church?
I was ecstatic. I was so happy. As soon as I found out, I tried to get in contact with them, and now we’re back in contact. The girls are lovely, and we’ll be in close contact. We have a lot of things in common; we share a lot of things. There was such a controlled environment and such a judgmental nature that we had to carry about, that we judged each other. It was so intense and so bizarre and I feel so bad about it. They feel very bad about it too. Because we were taught to be that way. We were taught to judge each other, to constantly judge whether or not we’re doing something wrong, or if they’re doing something wrong. Should we tell on them? Should they tell? And I feel awful that’s the way it was. So it might look like I do depict the type of [competitive] mentality that I had at the time, but I’m not proud of it.

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