"Dog Days for the Pastor"
Before greatness could be thrust upon him, however, this new John Brown would suffer his dog days. At first, the new arrivals sailed smoothly into the Eastside Baptist community. Fred was roundly admired for his thunderous preaching, and was quickly hired an associate pastor. The ladies at Eastside all liked Marge and made the young mother welcome in their circles.
Things went swimmingly. The Eastside congregation was planning to open a new church across town, and it seemed natural when their pastor, Leaford Cavin, asked Fred to fill the job. The Eastside church issued bonds to purchase the property at 3701 12th Street. To help Brother Phelps get underway, the congregation re-roofed the building, painted it, and bought the songbooks necessary. A start-up group of about 50 former members of Eastside volunteered to attend services at Westboro. The church formally opened on May 20, 1956. Fred had it all. A fine church and a congregation of his own. What went wrong?
What did provides an insight into the man who craves a greater and greater role as a moral arbiter of our times. "We gave him his church; painted; roofed it; even bought his songbooks; and after only a few weeks, he turned on us," says a long-time member of Eastside. Apparently not everyone in Leaford Cavin's church was enthusiastic about Phelps. One from that time recalls Fred, Marge, 2 year-old Fred, Jr., and 10 month-old Mark were in the pews one Sunday with the rest of the congregation, listening to Cavin preach. Mark began squirming suddenly. To the appalled amazement of his fellow worshippers nearby, the junior pastor repeatedly slapped the infant across the face with an open palm and backhand, snapping Mark's tiny head to and fro. Afterwards, several of the men in the congregation confronted Fred and told him never to do that again. Mark Phelps laughs to hear that story relayed: "My mom once told me-proudly, as if she'd effected a big change in his behavior-that my father had beaten my older brother when he was only five months old. She said she'd argued with him about it and he'd agreed to hold off beating the kids till they were a year old." "Phelps was wrapped pretty tight, even back then," recalls an old member of Eastside. "He was very severe with his children and a lot of people didn't care for him. But we all thought he was a man of God."
Within weeks after receiving his new status, building, and congregation, Fred Phelps warmed on the hearth of Eastside's hospitality and but the hands that had helped him. He and Leaford Cavin had an almost immediate falling-out over whether God hated the sinner as well as the sin. "Today, Fred will tell you it was theological differences," says an acquaintance of Cavin, "but those differences didn't seem to bother him when he needed out help." Adds another: "Theological differences? Brother Cavin was a very staunch Baptist." But not staunch enough for Fred?
"I don't know if there ever was a man more strict than Leaford Cavin. Really, it was the anger in Fred, not doctrine, that caused him to act the way he did." When a man in Fred's new congregation came to him for marital counseling, the pastor recommended a good beating for the wife. The man followed his spiritual guide's advice.
Later, he called the pastor to ask for bail: apparently separation of church and state didn't apply to assault and battery. Phelps paid the confused Christian's bail, but stuck to his guns: a former members of the early Westboro community remembers the following Sunday Pastor Fred was fiery in his message that a good left hook makes for a right fine wife: "Brethren," preached Phelps, "they can lock us up, but we'll still do what the Bible tells us to do. Either our wives are going to obey, or we're going to beat them!" "Leaders," observes B.H. McAlister, the minister who ordained Fred, "break down into shepherd and sheep-herders. The first lead, the second drive the sheep. If love is absent, the pastor is one who drives the flock; with love, he leads it."
Mark remembers his father used to frequently tell of the time he purified the flock and paid the price for his courage. Apparently a female member of that early Westboro congregation was discovered having an affair with a soldier from Ft. Riley. Only the males in the congregation were allowed to vote, and the pastor prevailed upon them to cast the magdelene from the midst. Away from the effects of his heated rhetoric, however, many of those swayed felt first remorse, then disgust at their part in the moral lynching. Mark remembers his father always referred to this incident to explain why his congregation had deserted him.
In later years, Phelps was convinced he was alone in his church with only his children to listen because those who'd opened Westboro were too weak for the harsh truth of God: that He hated sinners as well as the sin; and therefore His elect must also hate the sinners-even those who might be assembled with them. If the local Baptist churches were still unsure about the new fire and brimstone brother from Arizona, shooting his neighbor's dog didn't help. Aside from etching one of his children's earliest memories, shotgun-blasting the large German shepherd that had wandered into his unfenced yard quickly got the novice pastor notice in his community. The incident was discussed in the papers, and the dog's owner sued the arrogant minister. Fred defended himself and won, an action his son Mark believes may have encouraged his father's turn to the law.
But the irrationality and violence of the act sent the last of his congregation scurrying back to Eastside. For weeks after the shooting, one church member recalls, someone placed signs on the lawn in front of Westboro at night that declared prophetically: "Anyone who'd stoop to killing a dog someday will mistake a child for a dog." Soon it was clear no one wanted any part of Fred's god not if he hated like Fred. And that posed a problem for the Pastor Phelps: he still owed 32 dollars a week on the bonds for the church, and no one was paying for his hate show on Sundays.
To cover his mortgage and support his family, the failed pastor turned his pitch from God to vacuum cleaners. During the following five years, he went door-to-door in Topeka, selling those and baby carriages and, finally, insurance. In a pattern that held ominous overtones for the future, Phelps at some point sued almost everyone who employed him during that period.
He also carried on a running feud with Leaford Cavin at Eastside Baptist. Cavin spent several years trying to discover how to repair his mistake and stop the nightmare unfolding at the Westboro church. "Eastside held the mortgage on Westboro," remembers one churchgoer who was involved in the finances there, "and we always hoped Fred would miss a payment so we could foreclose. But he never did."
To save money, the pastor moved his wife and children into the church. Since the congregation at Westboro was essentially the Phelps family, Cavin convinced John Towle, county assessor, that Westboro should be taxed as private residence. The controversy was covered in the media, and the exemption for 3701 West 12th was lifted. But again the fighting Pastor Phelps taught himself enough about the law to successfully contest the decision before the Board of Tax Appeals. For good measure, he sued Cavin and Stauffer Communications for libel. He lost the suit, but the lines of his future had now been drawn: Fred Phelps had his castle and his church and he'd learned how to defend them.
His chosen community detested him, but that was to be expected when one was elect and immersed in a world of damned souls. Fred was content that his god hated those who questioned him. And he was content to remain in his private La Rochelle and sally forth occasionally to smite the reprobate. One old member of Eastside is philosophical about the feud with Pastor
Fred: "I'll tell you one thing, we can feel awfully lucky he turned down that slot at West Point. Right now, he'd probably be a general-with his finger on the button." It was during this period that the Pastor Phelps cut the final ties with his original family.
When talking with friends, Fred's father never discussed the son he had in Topeka, says Fred Stokes, a retired army officer who lives outside Meridian. Stokes was a close friend of the elder Phelps and a pallbearer at his funeral in 1977: "He had some fundamental beliefs that were unshakeable, but he didn't force them on anyone." In his later years, Stokes says, Fred's father was active in the Methodist Church. "He was a very kind, grandfatherly person. He was at peace with himself and didn't have any rancor toward anybody at the time of his death." Marks tells how his grandfather, Fred, (whose name he learned only recently from Capital-Journal reporters) once came to visit them in Topeka when Mark was a child. What he recalls most vividly is standing on the platform at the railroad station with his father and grandfather. As they waited to put him on the train back to Meridian, the preacher told the weeping old man never to come back, not to call, nor to write. "I remember my grandfather was crying. He told my father to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense."
Pastor Phelps admits there was a rift between him and his father. "He was disappointed when I didn't go to West Point, which is understandable. He worked hard to get that appointment for me, and he was a very active Methodist, so he was disappointed in that. But my dad was a super guy that I loved deeply and I miss him." Relatives in Mississippi said the elder Phelps never really got over his abandonment by his son. "It grieved him a lot," remembers one.
When Pastor Phelps was 15 and in his last year of high school his father, 51, married a 39 year-old divorcee named Olive Briggs. The son would leave home soon after and grow up to be a fierce critic of divorce. Olive's sister, who didn't want her name used, said Olive was a kind Southern lady who never had children and treated Fred and his sister, Martha Jean, as if they were her own. The new Mrs. Phelps often talked to her sister about the trouble between the former railroad detective and his son, the Baptist preacher. "Olive would say he grieved over that every day of his life. That he never would have parted ways. It was his son who parted ways."
Other relatives recalled that, each year, the grandparents sent birthday and Christmas presents to their grandchildren in Topeka. Each year they were returned unopened. Photos of grandpa and grandma the pastor gave his extra touch: "When they once sent him pictures of themselves for us kids to have, I remember watching my dad cutting them meticulously into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Then he placed them in an envelope and mailed them back."
When the elder Phelps died in 1977, and Olive Briggs in 1985, of the two not inconsiderable wills, Fred's father left him one-eighth and his sister, seven-eighths. Fred's stepmother left her entire estate to Martha Jean. There would be no relatives dropping by from mother's side either. Though Marge Phelps had nine brothers and sisters still living in rural Missouri or nearby Kansas City, with one notable exception, her own children never met them or so much as knew their names. And the firm pastor forbade his children to play or talk with the rest of the youngsters in the neighborhood. Says Mark: "I wanted friends to share with and talk to, but felt it was the wrong thing and felt guilty. They would initiate conversation or want to play, and I would feel real scared and not know what to do or say. Sometimes I couldn't avoid talking, and it made me feel real uneasy and scared that I would get caught. "My dad used to make me go and tell the neighbor kids they couldn't play by the fence, or talk to us, or come in the yard. He'd say, "I'm tellin' you, if those fucking kids are in this yard again and I catch them, it's you I'm going to beat!"
"I used to have to fight the kids sometimes, or yell at them, or push them out of the yard; or I'd turn my back and ignore them so they wouldn't want to talk or be friendly and get me in trouble." While this is in keeping with the 'fortress Phelps' mentality the pastor embarked on shortly after opening Westboro, it is interesting to speculate how much of the strange goings-on within the fortress the pastor feared his children might reveal had they been allowed outside confidants. When Fred's sister, Martha Jean, and her husband, Fred's teenage best-buddy, John Capron, returned to the U.S. on a year sabbatical from their Indonesian mission, they came to see Fred. In part, they'd come to arrange a reconciliation between the brittle pastor and his devastated father.
They never got started. "He wouldn't even talk to me," Fred's sister told her nephew, Mark. The good pastor bid her also leave and never return. Mark remembers riding his bike along in the street, both curious and embarrassed, watching his aunt go weeping down the sidewalk for three blocks from their house.
With that, the vengeful minister had succeeded in cutting all lines leading to his captive congregation. Anyone in the outside world who might know of their existence or be concerned for their welfare had been driven off. After he had sold insurance for several years, Phelps had amassed enough commissions off the yearly premiums to allow him to stop working and go to law school. He had already transferred credits from Bob Jones and John Muir to Washburn, then taken coursework there to receive his degree. Fred Phelps had guts. When he entered Washburn Law School, he had a wife and seven children. When he graduated, his family had grown by three.
Phelps was editor of the Law Review and star of the school's moot court. He is remembered by some of the faculty as perhaps the most brilliant student ever to pass through Washburn Law. If the public performance was impressive, however, the private life grew even more dark.
"It was a very rare occasion," says Mark, "when he would come anywhere in the house that the kids were. While he was studying the law, he'd fly into rages because we were making noise. Mom would hide us-for the good of all." In fact, Phelps began to spend more and more time in his bedroom, cut off from his family except when they were needed to run errands for him; cut off except for his wife, whom he forced to remain with him in his bedroom for days at a time. Apparently the pastor's sexual appetites were voracious, and his emotional dependency even greater: Says Mark, "Mom had to spend the major portion of her day sitting next to him in bed, trying to say the right things to keep him calm, while he bitched and moaned and complained and railed and carried on. "He left the older children to take care of the younger ones while he monopolized our mother's time and attention. We were literally left on our own for the major portion of our childhoods." While the pastor lolled now grossly overweight in his bed like some Ottoman pasha, rolling in his law books and 100 pounds of excess blubber, lecturing the wife and walls on the evils of the reprobate, wallowing in gluttony and goat-like sexual appetites, he resembled, not so much the John Brown of his earlier ambitions, as he did an esquired Jabba the Hut.
"The kids would sit in grime and scum and filth for hours at a time," says Mark, "tied into their high chairs or strollers by mom, for their safety, until she could sneak away from him to give them a diaper change, redo their ties, and set it up for the older kids to feed them, so she could get back to him.
"I remember when she'd come downstairs, all the kids would cluster around her like a swarm of bees, just to touch her and talk to her." Mark goes on: "I started doing most of the grocery shopping, by bike, with my brother Fred when I was only seven or eight, because our mom had such a hard time getting away. We had baskets on our bikes. We were given money but it was never enough. It was humiliating because we would hold up the line at the checkout while the cashiers would ask us what we wanted to keep or take back, and then they'd do the figuring for us," Mark sighs in the phone: "When he wanted a chicken dinner, he'd stay in bed and have me ride my bike two miles each way to get him one. He never thanked me. "We'd run errands for that, or he'd send us out for a piece of apple pie with cheese on it. And we had to get back fast. Damn fast, or he'd complain his apple pie wasn't hot enough. "It was a mile or two back, the pie riding in a mesh basket, and we had to get it to him hot." Mark pauses. "It's pretty unbelievable when I think about it. At breakfast, my father got bacon and eggs; the kids got oatmeal and grits. At dinner we'd have beans and rice while he ate chicken or hamburger. Now that I'm a father myself, that just seems incomprehensible to me. "My father had to take care of us each year when my mom went into the hospital to give birth. Whatever he had to do, he'd always lose his temper and start screaming.
"We'd be too scared of him to eat-and then he'd beat us for not eating. My saliva would not work when he was in the room and mom was gone, so, to clean our plates, we'd throw our food under the table or into our laps and flush it down the toilet later. "When he took care of us, I tried to stay out of the same room with him at all times. He would be real hard on the little ones when he dressed them. He'd push and jerk and tug real hard. My father was so impatient and unpredictable. You never knew what to expect or how to act." When the children did run into Jabba-the-Dad out of his bed, it was usually unpleasant. Mark tells of one such time: "The day my brother, Tim, was born, Fred, Jr., and I were in the dining room fooling around and Fred started to chase me out the back door. I ran right into my dad."
According to Mark, the pastor started screaming at them not to horse around. He punched both boys several times and ordered them outside to work in the yard. On his way out, Mark rounded a corner and inadvertently stumbled into his father a second time. Enraged, the pastor connected with a hook to the side of his son's head. Mark fell down dazed and stunned. The pastor began to kick him, and kept kicking him, but Mark couldn't get up. His father screamed at him to go out in the yard, but the boy's legs felt like jello and "the room was rolling in vertigo". Finally, his father left him there, sprawled and dazed like a defeated boxer. When Mark could stand up, he joined his older brother already at work.
Three hours later, their dad called them in. "He told us to get into bed and not to move. He told me to turn my face to the wall. For hours I lay like that, too scared to roll over because I thought he might still be standing there, watching me. Finally, I fell asleep.
"When we woke up the next day, we found he'd been at the hospital with mom the night before. And we had a new baby brother." Their father often slept all day and got up in the afternoon, remembers another Phelps child. "And then everyone would hide because 'daddy was up'. "He habitually had violent rages that included profane cursing, beyond any sailor's ability to curse, where he threw and broke anything he could get his hands on," states Mark. "My father routinely demolished the kitchen and dining room areas, as well as his bedroom. He would not only beat mom and the kids, he would smash dishes, glasses, anything breakable in sight; he'd even throw everything out of the refrigerator.
"He'd literally cover the floor with debris. I remember seeing so much broken crockery once it looked like an archeologists's dig. There was ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise splashed across the walls, cupboards, and floor like a paint bomb had gone off in there. "Afterwards he'd go upstairs to the bedroom-and force mom to go with him. It would take hours for us kids to clean up after his rages. He never helped-he'd just dump on us and leave.
"But he wouldn't stop raging. While we were cleaning the mess downstairs, he'd force mom to sit at his bedside upstairs while he continued to curse and complain to her about whatever had gotten his goat." Nate and Mark confirm the pastor's dish tantrums occurred regularly, usually once or twice a month. Sometimes there'd be several in one week.
"It established a life habit for me," says Mark. "Even today, the moment I get home, I'm thinking 'Is Daddy mad?' "Our walls were stained with food," he continues. "And my mom used to cry because she couldn't keep good dishes. My father would also bust holes in the walls and doors. If they were on the outside, he'd fix them quickly. On the inside, he'd leave them unrepaired for months.
"And, remember, whenever my father was beating us, or if he was tearing up a room, the violence might only last a few minutes, but he would keep up his tirade for hours on end. "I'm not exaggerating. My father would literally scream-not talk, scream-of-consciousness non-stop insults at us for hours. "His mouth was, for all the years I knew him, the most foul, vulgar, cursing mouth you've ever heard. There's nothing he wouldn't say, including cursing God openly. I watched him, one day, stand at the back of the church auditorium just outside the kitchen door, and literally jump up and down and scream curses at the top of his lungs, like a grown-up two year-old man." The content or nature of those tirades is instructive. If, in fact, Phelps did maintain this kind of vitriol for hours one end, it indicates an individual who is seriously clinically disturbed. Since one man's scandal might be another's vernacular, the Capital-Journal asked Mark and Nate for a sample of one of their father's marathon four-hour tirades. The following, if read in a loud and angry voice (not everyone can scream), will have a very different effect on one than if it is only scanned. It offers a sudden and shocking subjective experience of what it must be like inside the pastor's head-of the twisted rage and volcanic hate that must seethe in there-assuming the sample is accurate. Most functioning individuals are able to carry on the following Fauve impressionist vitriol for only a minute or so...Phelps reportedly maintained it for hours:
"Shitass, Goddam, tit-ass, piss-ass Goddam, ass-hole bastard, piece of shit, dick, son-of-a-bitch God forsaken filthy measly-assed piece of fucking shit Goddam horses ass. You're not worth shit. You're a no good, no account, God forsaken piss-assed little bastard. Get your ass in there and lean over that Goddam bed, you're going to get a licken. Bitch. Fucker. Prick, Fucker, Prick, Goddam fucker, Goddam prick, asshole, prick, prick, fucker, fucker, fucker, fucker, fuck you, you Goddam fucking piece of garbage. Go to hell. Fuck you. Go to hell. Prick. Fucker. GODDAMN YOU, you fucker. You worthless piece of shit. Goddam you, you worthless piece of shit of Goddam fucking shit. Fuck you. Go straight fucking to hell you Goddam fucking son-of-a-bitch. God Damn You! God Damn You!!! God Damn You!!! You Goddam asshole son-of-a- bitch. God Damn You! How dare you, you asshole bastard prick turd. You turd. You lying, mother fucking stinking piece of fucking shit. Fuck you, you lying sack of shit, you. Get the fuck out of my face. Go to hell. I hate you, you bastard. I hate you, you asshole. You Goddam prick asshole bastard, dick, piece of fucking rank stinking fucking garbage that's as full of shit as anyone could ever be. Get the hell out of here, you fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Go to fucking hell you bastard. Piss- ass. Horses ass. Goddam fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. FUCKER! FUCKER! FUCKER! Asshole. You bastard. You sick Goddam son-of-a- bitch. You worthless little bastard. You Goddam asshole prick bastard. God Damn It!! God Damn YOU!!! GOD DAMN YOU!!! Fuck you, you bastard. You're going to hell. You little Tit-ass. Shit-ass. Fucker Tit-ass. You little Shitass. Piss-ass little bastard. You Goddam little bastard, I'm going to teach you. Get the hell up there. Why did you do this to me? Say!! What's the big idea? What the hell do you think you're doing, bringing reproach on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? I'm not going to put up with your sissified wimpy asshole ways. Shut up. God damn it. God damn it. God damn it. Keep those Goddam kids quiet. I'm not going to tell you again. What's the big idea making all of that Goddam racket? Say! Didn't I tell you to not make a fucking sound? You think you're so Goddam smart thinking for yourself, when I told you what the fuck I wanted. Keep those Goddam kids quiet or I'm going to beat the hell out of all of you, you bitch. You bastard. You bitch. Fuck you. Fuck you, God damn it. I'm going to beat the hell out of you; I warned you and now you're going to catch it. Where do you think you're going. Get the fuck back over here you son-of-a-bitch and take your beating like a man. Fucking asshole bastard son-of-a-bitch chicken shit piece of crap, no good little bastard. What the hell do you think you're doing, for Christ's sake? I'm not going to put up with you, do you understand me? Do you? I won't tolerate this bullshit. God Damn you!! I'll beat the living shit out of you. Watch it. I'm warning you. I warned you what I'd do. It's your own God Damn fault. I warned you, for Christ's sake. What's the big idea getting this family in trouble like this? I'll beat you until you can't stand up or sit down. God damn son-of-a-bitch, asshole. I told you what I'd do if you didn't get them Goddam grades up. You little prick. How do you like that? Does that hurt, does it? Goddam it, does it hurt? It better hurt. If it doesn't I'll make sure it hurts. Are you fucking crazy? Are you crazy? You must be insane. Jesus Christ, how many Goddam times am I going to have to beat you? When are you going to learn? Say! Say! Is that right? Is that right? When you are going to learn? You no account little bastard. In the old testament they used to take kids like you out and stone them to death. That's what you deserve. You ought to be taken out and stoned. At least parents in that time had some Goddam solution to a problem like you. That's what would cure you. You've been nothing but Goddam grief to your mother and I since the fucking day you were born. I wish you were dead. I hate you. Jesus Christ, I hate you. I can't stand you. I can't stand the sight of you. You're sniffing after some whore, for Christ's sake. You got your dick wet and now you've just gone crazy sniffing after that fucking whore. You hot blooded little bastard. Keep your Goddam pants on and keep your fucking dick inside. Horse piss, bullshit, balderdash, crap, lying bastard, son of belial, reprobate. ballamite, Goddam Horses Ass! God damn you God, you lying asshole letting them do this to me. God damn You God, how could you let them do this to me! What the hell do you think you're doing? God damn you God. You son-of-a-bitch. Hey you bitch, got any good words for me? You better say something or I'm going to kick the living shit out of you. Speak up. Say!!! What the hell good are you? Say, what the hell good are you? What the hell is on your Goddam mind? Speak the hell up. I'll slap the living shit out of you until you fucking can't see straight. You pussy whipped little bastard. You horse manure. Fuck you. Go to hell. You're going to hell. Go to hell. Shitass. Bastard. Bitch. Horses ass. God damn chicken shit bastard son-of-a-bitch little fucker, get the fuck out of my sight. You little chicken shit. You piece of garbage. You're God damn worthless. You'll never amount to a God damn thing. You're a loser and always will be. You go along fine for a while and then you do something like this to fuck it all up. You little asshole. You'll never amount to anything. You're a God damn loser. You'll end up in jail you God damn deadbeat. Shut your big dumb ape mouth, you look like some kind of fucking idiot with your big Goddam dumb mouth hanging open. I'll beat that foolishness out of you. Look at that foolishness leaving him, I can see it with every hit of this Goddam mattock. It does my heart good to hear those screams and see that foolishness leaving. What's the big idea doing that to me? Say! Why did you do this to me Say! Say! How could you treat me this way? How could you treat me this way you little bastard? What's the big idea? Say! I'm not going to put up with this kind of bullshit. You're going to get a beating. Lean over there Goddam it. You think I'm going to put up with you? You think I don't know how to deal with the likes of you, you God forsaken little bastard? We know how to deal with asshole kids like you. I'll beat you. I'll beat you like the Bible says to beat you and you won't die. Dammit woman, you know the Bible says that if you beat your child they won't die, so shut your Goddam mouth or I'll slap you. Do you want me to beat you fat ass? You Goddam hussy. You fat Goddam hussy. You'd think you could give me some Goddam fucking support instead of always fighting me and causing me all of this Goddam fucking grief. I'm not going to put up with your Goddam sassy mouth talking back to me or telling me what to do, you fucking bitch. I'm telling you; Goddam it; I'm warning you, I'm going to slap the hell of out of you; you're going to catch it if you don't shut your Goddam God forsaken mouth and back off. I'm not going to tell you again. The next time I'm going to turn my Goddam attention to you and you're going to be sorry. I'll cuff you around and give you a Goddam beating. Don't interfere with my beating of this Goddam bastard one more time. I want this fat off of that ass. I'm not going to put up with that fat ass. If you don't lose by tomorrow, you'll get another beating. I want that fat ass off of you, you fat bitch, you Goddam fat slut, do you get it, you think headed bitch?"
"My sisters and brothers just stood around and shaked and farted and looked scared when dad was throwing a fit," brags Mark uncharacteristically. "but I learned how to control my fear by working with my hands and getting things done. "I used to stand in the back room of the house, which was called the dryer room, and fold clothes for hours upon hours. I learned to feel secure if I was getting something done that was bottom line."
The voice pauses. "Still, he'd wake us up at night with mom screaming from fear as he threw his fits. I'd come awake and lie there feeling afraid and upset. "I wasn't worried about being woken up, that he was upset, or even that he was hurting mom. I was worried about survival. About what could happen if it got worse. I was thinking about lying still in case he came in, so he wouldn't know I was awake. "Because, he was so crazy, we didn't know that someday he wouldn't kill us all." Back in those days, during the '60s, when Fred was in law school and then a young lawyer, the neighbors would often see Marge on the porch.
"She'd just be sitting out there, crying her heart out," remembers one former neighbor. "We all felt so sorry for her. But none of us ever went over there to comfort her. Her husband had us all intimidated." But if life with father was bad already-it was about to get worse. According to Mark, who was 10 when his father graduated, Fred Phelps became heavily dependent on amphetamines and barbituates while in law school. Every week for 6 years, from 1962-1967, their mother would give Mark a 20 dollar bill and ask him to go down and pick up his father's 'allergy medicine'. Mark always got the bottle of little red pills from 'the tall blond man' at the nearby pharmacy. He was told they were to 'help daddy wake up'.
He also picked up bottles of little yellow pills that were to 'help daddy get to sleep'. But the beast already so poorly penned within Fred now came out. Under the conflicting tug of speed that wouldn't wear off and the Darvon he'd taken to sleep, the Pastor Phelps would often wake his family in the middle of the night while doing his imitation of a whirling dervish whose shoes were tied together: "With all the drugs, he had very little body control," remembers Mark, "so we weren't really scared of him then. But he would fall and break the bed apart; get up and knock over all the bedroom furniture. "Mom would start screaming and call Freddy and me to help her get him under control and put the bed together.
"My dad's face would look totally stoned, and he couldn't focus his eyes. He couldn't walk in a straight line, and sometimes he couldn't even get up off the floor." Adds Nate: "Another time when he was stoned on drugs, my dad started going after my mom. She was yelling for help. My two older brothers, probably 12 and 13 at the time, went running upstairs and tried to force my dad back into his bedroom. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic. "They managed to get him inside his room and slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside. He started pounding on the door and screaming incoherently. "Finally, he actually broke the door down. That seemed to calm him a bit, and he fell back on the bed and passed out."
Without referring to his records, the pharmacist named by Mark immediately denied he had ever filled any kind of prescription for the Pastor Phelps-except once. Blessed with preternaturally accurate recall, the pharmacist claimed that, since 1962, he'd only filled one order for the pastor-a skin cream several years ago.
Questioned again later, the pharmacist admitted he'd been filling prescriptions written to Mrs. Phelps for decades. But he denied ever selling her amphetamines. According to Mark, the physician who wrote those prescriptions delivered all or most of the Phelps children, and was their family doctor when they were growing up. During the period in question, he at least twice reported his doctor bag stolen and its narcotics missing. The thieves were never caught. When this physician shot himself in a Topeka parking lot in 1979, he was under investigation for providing drugs illegally to his female patients in exchange for sexual favors. What kind of drugs?
There was fighting one night," Mark recalls. "In the middle of the night. Dad was stoned on drugs again. He shot the 12-gauge into a roll of insulation.
"It was probably a suicide attempt. Only my mom and he were in the bedroom, and it was during the middle of the night. "What I think happened was, he was so under the influence, he was so screwed up, and he was so mad that he was doing one of those things...you know...I'll show all of you...I'll just get rid of this whole problem by killing myself.
"And I think he just did it. I think he did it for the dramatics of it- of course, he missed. "After the incident, that roll of insulation sat in their bedroom for almost a year. "Our mom tried to keep things quiet and keep things contained," says Mark. "She acted as a mother to him as well as us. Having him in our family was like having a little 2 year-old in an adult's body-with an adult intellect. But it's a 2 year- old that can do whatever it wants, because there's no adult discipline, instruction, or correction involved. My father does not subject himself to accountability of any kind. "He didn't care about our mom, except for how she could meet his needs. He treated her like an animal.
"We had two dogs-Ahab and Jezebel. I used to throw rocks on top of their dog house and Ahab would viciously attack Jezebel. I thought it was funny. "That was the way my dad treated my mom. If anything would happen that my dad didn't like, he would beat on her, blame her, make her life miserable, and take it out on her-even if it was out of her control.
Mark remembers one morning when he was downstairs and heard a tremendous racket coming from their bedroom above. Furniture crashing. Fred screaming. Their mother begging him to stop. Then her screaming too. This went on for 20 minutes until finally his father stormed out. All quiet.
Mark stole up the stairs, afraid his father would come back. He peeked in. (At this point, Mark's voice breaks. It takes him a long time to describe this, speaking in short phrases, interrupted by long pauses to control his emotions.) The mattress was thrown from the bed. Sheets were ripped away. Drawers were flung out of the dresser, and the dresser kicked over. Lamps and tables, everything was smashed and strewn about the room.
"Mom?" he called. He couldn't see her. "Mom?" Mark heard a sob. Then a long, low agony moan. He walked stiffly into the mess. Picked his way across the floor. In the corner, behind an open closet door, he found his mother cowering. Her face in her hands as the sobs wracked her body, she told her frightened child over and over: "I can't take this anymore...I can't take this anymore...I can't take it...I don't know what I'm going to do..." For awhile she did nothing.
Mark remembers there were times when his mother would get out and go to the store, especially when his father was asleep: "She'd go to Butler's IGA. And after she'd go to the bowling alley and the little coffee shop there. Four or five times I saw her in there when she didn't know I did. It made me feel sad, because it was such a lonely thing to see her, sitting with that coffee and donut, and know it was her safe harbor, the only time she had alone. She looked so unhappy and despairing, sitting there staring at nothing, the coffee getting cold and the donut untouched." Then one winter Saturday afternoon when Mark was 9 years old, his mother called him over to her. She whispered: "I've had it. I can't take it. Would you get the children's clothes and load as much as you can in the trunk and the back seat?"
Mark packed the clothes in the old white Fairlane 4-door. When the pastor, luxuriating in his bed upstairs, fell asleep around 4 p.m., their mother came down softly. She had Mark gather the rest of the kids. "We're leaving," she told them. Somehow they all fit inside the car, the mother behind the wheel, and the 9 kids wherever they could find space.
"We looked ridiculous," admits Mark. "And I remember the toll-takers at the turnpike laughed at us. But I'll never forget that day...the feeling I got as we drove away from that house. "It was a cloudy day, and cold, but I remember feeling hopeful. Thinking we were headed to a new life. And it was going to be better than the one behind us."
Marge fled the good Pastor Phelps with her flock to Kansas City. She went to her sister Dorotha's apartment. Most of her original family hadn't seen Marge in 15 years, not since she'd left for school in Arizona. Dorotha's Profitt's husband drove a truck for a renderer, a business that collected dead animals for glue. Marge Phelps' sister no doubt gave her the bad news: driving for a rendering company didn't bring in enough to feed 10 extra mouths; and the apartment couldn't possibly hold them all; she couldn't stay there... In fact, there was no place for a pregnant woman with 9 children to run except back to the man who beat her, but paid the bills. Mark remembers his mother stoically dialing the number for the Westboro church. Silently, the children crawled back into their niches among the clothes-filled car. When they arrived home that night, the pastor was waiting for them. His son recalls he had arms folded and he was smiling. It was a cold leer that Mark will never forget: "It was smug, it was cruel; and it said, 'there is no escape'."