Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is the memoir of Lauren Drain’s years in the Westboro Baptist Church, from being forced into it as a teenager by her parents up until her banishment by both “church” and parents seven years later. I’m not even sure why I picked this book up, other than I love being a fly on the wall and I wanted to see what spiritual message could possibly support the vitriol they spew. I did not like the book, more for the content than the writing; the content was so nasty that I skimmed probably half of it. Still, I know more than when I started.
THE PREMISE: Doctrinally speaking, it’s masturbatory. Like Calvinism, the WBC believes only a select few are chosen for salvation before birth, and nothing can change that. No amount of faith, of love, of good works, of repentance, of atonement, nothing. If you are not pre-selected, you will burn in hell. Of course you can see the same thing I did, the tidy little paradox that renders the message and the “church” itself pointless. (Although it’s certainly arguable that living with faith in God and love of God is its own reward, that’s a dogmatic discussion for another time and in any case does not apply to the WBC.) And–but you saw this coming–the entire Phelps family is chosen. God talks directly, and only, to WBC “elders.”
THE MESSAGE: Hate. That’s it. Just hate. The “Thank God for dead soldiers” shit is explained by the cult’s hysterical homophobia: Any military that allows “fags” to serve, and which safeguards a country that “enables” homosexuality, is cursed. When I read, “Our primary motivation was to let people know God hated them,” I got sick of feeling sick and started skimming. Tragedies like 9/11 and Sandy Hook and hurricanes are all God saying he hates everybody except the WBC, but especially “fags.” Of course there is no reason for this message because even if God kinda sorta liked some of the rest of us, we still have only about a one in 110-billion chance of being one of God’s chosen few, but who cares about logic? We don’t need no stinking logic!
(Since hypocrisy and irony abound with these people, I have to wonder if the writer’s banishment and the defections of various Phelps family members opened up any spots on that Great Reservation List in the Sky.)
THE GODLY HUMILITY: Absent. “When prophets like us, who spoke only for God, were persecuted, our country was doomed.” She complains about feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the public. Sorry, sweetheart, but when you’re spewing venom into the faces of grieving families, you are not being misunderstood. At. All. At other points she wrote that she was “still confused,” or that she “just felt doomed,” which says her conscience and intuition hadn’t completely deserted her, but when you know you’d better cover up your picketing signs to board a plane, when your “church” is officially designated as a hate group, those are reliable hints you’re on the despicable side of humanity.
THE ORGANIZATION: It is facile to dismiss these people as merely ignorant. This brand of homophobia is not Cooter sitting in his trailer all beered up and hatin’ on the hommaseckshools. They are intelligent, many of them well-educated, with law licenses they use to defend their First Amendment rights all the way to SCOTUS. They are organized and strategic and detail-oriented to a gnat’s fanny. Everywhere they go, they know exactly what they can get away with. Baleful and vitriolic they may be, but stupid they are not. (The tragedy is that this evil narcissism is mostly taught, springing from the WBC founder, Fred Phelps, to his children and grandchildren. Without that upbringing, Phelps’ descendants might have been normal people, although that’s a nature-vs-nurture discussion, also for another time.)
THE INDOCTRINATION: As many memoirs and biographies do, this book suffered from Other People’s Childhoods Syndrome, so I skipped that part. I started reading in earnest when Lauren was thrust into the church by her parents at age 14. The immersion was absolute, including insularity, microrules, tattling and competition for favor, verbal and emotional abuse, isolation, constant monitoring, rote learning, public shaming for perceived wrongdoing–everything required to create a good little automaton. Of course, you also have to have a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive father and a mother who’s essentially useless beyond giving birth. (Steve and Lucy Drain are utterly horrible people and that’s not open for discussion.)
THE REMEDY: Ignore them. Utterly. They are trying to engage people so they can show off how smart and well-informed they are (a repeated bragging point), and to get headlines and photos. Do not feed the trolls. However, it remains that I adore the Bikers Against Child Abuse and the Patriot Guard Riders, bikers who create a physical wall of protection around funerals so the WBC can’t get close enough to picket effectively. I also loved the approach of the band Panic! at the Disco, who promised a donation to the Human Rights Campaign per WBC picketer at one of their concerts, then increased it and threw in a percentage of their merch sales too. That’s how you fight hate with love.
THE AFTERMATH: Unsatisfying. I did read the final two chapters and the epilogue in their entirety, and was left wanting the rest of the story and some real insight. Life after banishment is glossed over. The homilies and apologies felt canned and impersonal. She feels terrible about the people she hurt, she wants everyone to know God’s love, she now accepts other religions, blah blah blah. “I will never be a political activist for gay rights, but I like gay people and have lots of gay friends, too. I don’t judge them, and I don’t believe anyone else has the right to judge them, either.” Ah, the but I have gay friends! schtick. Hint: If you don’t think the LGBT population should have the same rights you have, you are judging and you are not their friend.
Her experiences about picketing and learning “church” doctrine have a good-old-days feel to them, and I’m not convinced she wouldn’t go back if they’d have her. I realize that could be nostalgia for the family she’s lost–even if they are shits, a part of us still aches for their love. Of course she misses her siblings, who are still trapped victims. I suppose it’s normal to fondly recall performances that earned you feel-goods, even if the script was malevolent. But when recalling her friends from the WBC, she writes merely that her “misgivings are stronger.” Um, what? The writer seems immature, but perhaps that’s to be expected from what is probably a textbook case of arrested development. I’m trying not to see her NOH8 message and her bootylicious pictures all over the internet as nothing more than a great big “Fuck you, Mom and Dad!” That would be understandable, but I want more for her.
I’m trying to be fair. Really. What I read is conversational and matter-of-fact and with the viewpoint of someone who actually believes this poison, which makes sense since it’s what she was living at the time–but man, is it hard to stomach. I like to believe people can change. Lauren Drain suffered horrific abuse during some very formative years and I suspect much deprogramming and healing remained to be done as of the writing of this book. Banishing her is probably the kindest thing her parents ever did for her, but my impression is she’s not in a place to see that yet. I hope she gets there. I’m sorry they hurt her so badly. No child should be treated as she was and I’m glad she’s out. Many blessings as she finds her own path of light.
Disclaimer: No, I am not a Christian. Yes, I have read the Bible, cover to cover, and I still own mine. When I cherry-pick it, I cherry-pick the good stuff, like help people, be kind, act in love, and so forth, because that Jesus dude was pretty chill.
Bookshelves: memoir, somebody-get-the-slime-off-me, couldn’t-really-read-it, religion-sort-of, in-the-news, non-fiction, controversial, just-nasty, unreliable-narrator, well-i-tried
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