Lauren Drain, 27, lives in the Hartford area and works as a nurse. She shares a simple apartment with her fiancee, web designer David Kagan, and their lively little puggle dog. It's an average life, but Drain appreciates every moment of the freedom she has to live it.
That freedom began more than five years ago, when Drain was kicked out of the Westboro Baptist Church. The extremist cult, based in Topeka, Kansas, is infamous for its fixation on homosexuality. WBC members regularly picket funerals, not just of gays but also soldiers and public figures, to harangue mourners with their belief that all Americans are going to hell because our culture tolerates same-sex relationships.
Drain had been a member ever since her parents converted when she was in high school, in July 2000. Steve and Luci Drain indoctrinated their daughter to believe that only WBC members were living by God's law, that life outside WBC was all evil and darkness. She loves her parents, but still couldn't stop asking questions about the church's beliefs. Those questions were the reason for her ouster.
At the time she was kicked out, Drain was heartbroken by her family's complicity and by the loss of all her friends, who now mocked her and called her a "whore" because she chatted with a young man online. As time went by, however, she became grateful for her ouster.
"I had lost my faith. ... I was wondering if I had wasted my life for seven years. It was just a total loss of identity," Drain said in an interview. "I ended up moving here because I had support. The mother of the guy I knew was very kind to me. She invited me into their home and helped me study. I discovered that it's not the Bible that's wrong. It's interpretations of it that make it a problem."
Drain has written a memoir, "Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church" (co-written with Lisa Pulitzer, Grand Central Publishing, 304 pp., $26.99). It hits stores on March 5.
A few weeks ago, her close friends from WBC — Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, two granddaughters of church founder Fred Phelps — left the cult of their own choice. Drain didn't want to talk about them; she hopes to reconnect and doesn't want to speak for them. But she sat down for an interview to talk about herself: how her family got into WBC, life inside it and life since her ouster.
Q: How did you feel when the WBC threatened to picket Sandy Hook funerals?
A: I was really emotional the week that it happened. I got a flood of mail from people asking, "What should we do, should we counter-protest, we're so upset, we're trying to defend our town and our state, these grieving families; what should we do?" It was so close to home, the fact that it was here and that it was my family that was coming. The whole thing was bizarre and awful. I took the opportunity to make a little video. I posted it on YouTube, to explain, that as angry and upset as we all are, please don't give them the attention they're asking for. They don't deserve it. They don't deserve our time and energy. The families, if they want us there, deserve our compassion and support. Let's focus there, not on this. ... I had a couple media contact me, asking me, should we cover this story, should we not cover this story? I was like, I don't think you should. This is not a good time. ... Let's just let everyone grieve. Thankfully, I didn't see any big stories run. ... [The protest] ended up not happening. I was very, very relieved.
Q: Was your father always very controlling?
A: Yes. ... If someone was attracted to me at school and had a vested interest, he literally would pull me out of school. He pulled me out of high school twice, once in Florida and another time in Kansas. ... The church, that community, has an inordinate amount of control over their members.
Q: Do you think he was attracted to the church's theology, or the church as a method of control over you?
A: I know [the control] definitely helped, but I know he did latch onto the theology as well. ... He always had been trying to find a right theology anyway. ... He was searching, searching, searching for a right answer, some way to feel like he was right. I don't think his intentions were bad to begin with necessarily. ... I think he wanted to be a good Christian... and when I saw that change in him, what he wanted for his family, I thought, 'this is good.' I didn't understand the whole extent of what we were getting into.
Q: When you moved to Topeka from Florida, you immediately got into the lifestyle?
A: It was immediate. We had been studying the Bible and listening to [Phelps'] sermons online and stuff before we moved there, so we sort of had an idea what their theology was, but you were inundated once you got there. We had a home in what they called "the block." They bought a whole bunch of homes on one neighborhood block. ... They took down the fences in the backyards and it became a community backyard. Some people would call it a compound.
Q: When would you say the indoctrination began? As soon as you got there? Not just the activities, the picketing, but the actual beliefs?
A: Yes. Now we were attending the church services, getting a lot more information, we were doing picketing, we were getting sent to our houses newsletters about current events, what we should be picketing, why some thing were evil.
Q: Tell me what daily life is like in the church. Are there religious activities even during the week?
A: Yeah. That part I actually liked. I liked the sense of community and studying the Bible and raising the kids to know so-called right and wrong. I didn't like the judgmental streak we took with it, but I did like that we would sit down. ... It was a huge sense of community. I felt like everybody was my family. ... You were loved, you were special, you had a role.
Q: Even though your role was to picket?