Lauren Drain

Lauren Drain was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and has written a memoir. She lives in the Greater Hartford area. (Rick Hartford, rhartford@courant.com / February 20, 2013)

A: Well, the political side was different.

Q: That's what they call it, the political side?

A: Yeah. In the beginning I thought I was doing something that was right. ... Our picketing was a lot less extreme when we first started. It was more just awareness. ... But once we took it to the extreme, starting condemning people and thanking God for tragedies, and that very horrible kind of perspective we took on, which happened after Sept. 11, that's when it started getting too much and I was really starting to question what we were doing.

Q: So you started questioning after Sept. 11? You'd only been a member for about a year.

A: Not a lot at first. I was still new, I was still learning the Bible, I thought I might not have a full concept of everything. I would ask my parents little questions here and there. "Why do we say this or that?" "Isn't there a better approach?" "Maybe we're missing something here?" ... And then ... I would bring it to other people. I would ask Shirley (Phelps-Roper), who was a big figure there, to ask the pastor questions. I would ask other elders about "what about this verse?" I remember one of the verses I was asking about was in Ezekiel 33. [Ezekiel 33:11: "'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked."] So here we are saying "Thank God for Sept. 11." Here we are saying "Thank God for dead soldiers." How are we able to say this? ... I got met with a lot of resistance, basically just saying 'oh, you're not understanding, if you're questioning us then maybe you're not a true believer, maybe you're not a true Christian." ... I remember the first time, a couple years before I got kicked out, we started picketing small children's funerals. That was a whole new step for me. I was like, what in the world, these are innocent children, and parents losing their children. I couldn't justify it in my mind. I was so upset. I couldn't understand why they didn't see that either. I remember wanting to hide my sign and my face in the sand. I thought, if anyone comes up to me, I'm afraid I'm going to start crying.

Q: Any other reactions from the elders?

A: In my book I talk about discussing some other verses, and they would say "oh, well, we don't know what that means right now so we're not going to talk about it." And I would think, I thought we were the know-all church that knows everything and knows who's going to heaven and hell. How can we not know what a verse means? I thought it was so sanctimonious and so arrogant.

Q: But you still participated in the pickets?

A: Yeah. It's kind of an all-or-nothing concept. I thought maybe I could do some good by questioning things. ... I didn't think I would be met with resistance or necessarily be kicked out until I started getting more strong vibes about that.

Q: When did you start getting more strong vibes that you'd be kicked out?

A: It was probably one month before, two months before, when I really realized. They would make a mountain out of a molehill. They would say "she's communicating with a guy online and we don't tolerate that," and they would call it fornication. It was ridiculous. I hadn't even met the guy in person. ... But really what the case was, I had been asking questions and ramping it up, and stripping away at their so-called doctrine or ideology at the time. And I think they saw that other people saw that and they wanted to make an example out of me.

Q: Most people wouldn't relate when you write how traumatized you were to be thrown out of that cult. Most people would think it was a mark in your favor.

A: What I tried to show [in the book] is that they are humans. As wrong as they can be about the things that they do, I developed personal relationships with these people and I saw their human side. I saw that they have the potential for human empathy and for being a good human beings.

Q: Fred Phelps is driven by an obsession with homosexuality, which is a sexual obsession. Didn't it ever occur to anybody that forming a philosphy around helping one guy promote his sexual obsession to the whole world was kind of skeevy?

A: No, no, no. Never. ... I describe in my book where I think his crusade came from. I never came to that conclusion with them, I came to it on my own. I was like, wait a minute, why was he so obsessed? And then when I heard the history about he was going to join the military and he made an about-face and now he's a religious crusader against sexual immorality, I thought, maybe there's something more here than we know. ... It Clearly something happpened. ... It was so strange because he never got nervous in interviews, except when someone would ask him, have you ever had a homosexual experience? If they got too personal with the homosexual questions, he would freak out. He would lose it. He would want to leave the room. He would say "get these crazy media out of here." ... If you ask any other question, he would still have his little attitude, "you're so stupid, let me tell you the answer," but it was that question that would just set him off. Why is that?

Q: What brought you to Connecticut? The guy you met online, who lived here?

A: Yes, but not at first. I was living for about six months on my own in Topeka. I wanted to make amends with my family. ... I didn't want to come back per se because of the lifestyle, but I had lost my mother and father, my siblings, I thought maybe I could make amends and come back and fix this. That wasn't the case at all. They weren't giving me any sign that I could see them. So I started making plans on my own to start my own life.