The infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is frequently in the news for its extreme fundamentalist views. Its leader is the Rev. Fred Phelps, directing the tiny but outspoken congregation to picket soldiers' funerals and revel when natural calamities occur.
Lauren Drain, 28, spent her formative years in Phelps's congregation -- consisting of 30 people, tops -- but was cast out and shunned at age 21.
Her heartbreaking and often infuriating memoir is the first inside look at this publicity-seeking sect that condemns gay rights, abortion and divorce. The vast majority of the book was likely written by Lisa Pulitzer, an American whose previous credits, Stolen Innocence and Beyond Belief, have made her the go-to ghost gal for memoirs about escaping religious cults.
Raised in a strict and emotionally abusive environment, Drain describes how she was moulded first by a controlling stepfather whose own religious beliefs swerved from atheist to fundamentalist Christian over a matter of years, then by Westboro's condemnation of the outside world.
As a teenager, she was taught about God's hatred of the world, and why it was important to convict and warn Americans (and Canadians, too, as she notes in one chapter; Westboro had planned to come to Winnipeg to picket the funeral of Tim Maclean, the man beheaded on a Greyhound bus in 2008).
The picketing of soldiers' funerals, Drain was instructed, is a logical recourse since America is in violation of God's laws through its support of homosexuality.
Drain reflects on her childhood when her stepfather began filming a documentary about the small, Kansas church that was starting to receive national attention for its radical views. But after immersing himself in the Westboro culture, he began believing and fully embracing their view of God's harsh judgment upon humanity.
When her family moved into the Westboro "neighbourhood" in 2001 to become part of the Phelps "family," Drain recalls she found herself under almost constant condemnation and suspicion. She says she was never really accepted by the closed congregation and always compared negatively with Phelps's biological children. On page after page, Drain recounts judgment, hypocrisy and unfair treatment of her by virtually all members of the church, especially Phelps's daughter Shirley, who found Drain's lack of faith disturbing.
"Sometimes in a Bible study I just couldn't keep myself from posing what I thought were intelligent, probing questions," Drain writes. She also received punishment after she committed such heinous teenage crimes as flirting with, phoning and emailing boys, and attempting to wear mascara.
Drain says Westboro tired of her asking questions about church rules -- although not about their interpretation of the Bible, which she accepted wholeheartedly. She had found it confusing, for example, why she was labelled a whore for flirting with boys when other teenagers in Phelps's biological family were not even reprimanded.
Cut off from all other relatives and under strict supervision by church members to prevent association with non-Westboro friends, Drain lived in a state of almost constant self-doubt. Tattled-on by her peers and berated by her own parents, Drain entered a downward spiral of low self-esteem, depression and paranoia, always worried that she wasn't "good enough" for the church.
It was a self-fulfilling prophesy. After seven years, Westboro had enough of her; she was called to a meeting with the entire congregation and informed of her banishment. Her parents disowned and ridiculed her, joined by the rest of her friends and church "family" with whom she had grown up and lived among.
Drain is now a nurse and lives with her fiancé in Connecticut. But readers will be frequently shaking their heads in disbelief -- if not at the matter-of-fact descriptions of Westboro's theological justification of its messages of hate and vilification, but for the many examples Drain relates of its complete control over the minds and actions of its congregation.
Chris Rutkowski is a typically sinful Winnipeg writer.