Repeated beatings. Twisting his wife’s arm out of her socket. Forcing his children to lie to investigators after they noticed the signs of abuse. Such was the world of Pastor Fred Phelps, according to his estranged son, Nate Phelps. Fred Phelps, the Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, is infamous for picketing dead soldiers’ funerals, for proclaiming that “God Hates Fags”, and for rejoicing at Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. He, and thus his church, is motivated primarily by vengeance, namely, expressing God’s wrath. In the worldview of the WBC, of the whole world, only 30 or 40 people will be saved, and the beneficiaries are the congregants of Phelps’s church alone. Meeting with Nate’s brother, Jonathan Phelps, at the German Consulate in Portland during a Westboro protest piqued my curiosity. How could people be so intelligent, so superficially charming, so educated – yet so rageful?
In my discussion with Nate Phelps, I tried to identify the source of that anger, and ended up confronting a rage that was so mystifying that it could only come from deep within Nate himself. In arranging the interview, Nate said that he had “a lot of time” this week, and would be more than happy to talk. We set up a time, chatted for an hour, and had a second interview scheduled for that evening. Then silence. He stopped returning my emails, ignored my phone calls, and put me off for days. When I finally reached his partner, Angela Feldstein, she relayed a message of rancor from Nate himself; “He is done talking to you!” The man who had loads of free time was suddenly “too busy to talk”. In short, this maladjusted woman patronized me, she hung up the phone on me, and she emphasized never to “call back again.” My crime? I merely wanted to tell Nate’s side of the story.
According to psychological theory, it is typical for those who are abused to either become abusers themselves or to gravitate toward those who will perpetuate the cycle of vengeance. And abused Nate was. “Growing up [at Westboro] was very violent,” Nate explained. “My father would get angry. …The violence was both physical and verbal. From fists to the face to knees in the stomach, he beat all the kids.” However, the violence wasn’t limited to the children alone. “Wives are to be in subjection to their husband[s]. If my mother said or did something that he didn’t like…[she] was subject to his discipline.” And the discipline wasn’t limited to physical beatings; in rage, Phelps cut off all his wife’s hair. Although Margie, Nate’s mother, had to wear a wig for only a year, the consequences of Fred Phelps’s actions were far-reaching and psychological. In short, while Nate didn’t understand the rage’s source, “it was always there.”
When Nate Phelps was eighteen, he finally did escape, but he had to do it in the dark of night. “I spent the first few nights sleeping in the bathroom of a gas station. I had no idea how to deal with the real world.” And in my encounter with Nate and Angela, this inability to relate to a world where verbal abuse – in the form of harassing an interviewer – isn’t tolerated, became all the more apparent. In all the interviews I’ve done, including best-selling author and prominent philosopher, Daniel Dennett, I had never been hung up upon, nor had I ever been treated inhumanely. When contemplating such actions, I could not help but be reminded of Nate’s father, Fred Phelps, who was equally hostile to Louis Theroux of the BBC in the documentary, The Most Hated Family in AmericaThe same anger, the same disregard for others’ feelings, and the same holding people to fictitious time schedules was something that bore more than a superficial resemblance to Pastor Phelps himself.
Although Nate is thirty years removed from Fred Phelps’s hostility, it is obvious that he still suffers from the traumatic effects of his abusive father. And as is typical in cases of victims with a rageful parent, the abused’s visceral anger often gets taken out on others, like interviewers merely trying to portray their point of view. While I was troubled by the encounter, in the end, I had to remember with whom I was talking. Nate’s first marriage ended with three children, plenty of arguments, and divorce papers. Likewise, although I was interested in Pastor Phelps’s rhetoric, Nate kept steering the conversation back to his trauma, which obviously clouded his ability to have an earnest discussion about his father’s oratory. Equally bizarre, the same individual who was eager to set up a second interview, who appeared more than helpful, all of a sudden decides that he needs an emissary to tell off his interviewer. Although I may never be able to understand the source of Nate and Angela’s rage, I am content to leave that to the family psychiatrist.