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?
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.