I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.
I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.
I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.
Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.
Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.