When Lauren Drain was 14, her father, a documentary filmmaker, moved his family to Florida to make a movie about the Westboro Baptist Church, the fundamentalist Christian church best known for picketing funerals. But he was soon captivated by Fred Phelps, the group’s charismatic leader. The Drains joined the church, and Laura spent her teens listening to — and accepting — their teachings. She tells her story in a new memoir, “Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church.”
How did Pastor Fred Phelps operate?
At first, he kind of had this intimidating presence. Slowly, he kind of had this charisma. It’s really hard to describe. He had this grandfatherly presence. I would see how he dealt with his granddaughters — he seemed tenderhearted and to care about his family. When you see him on the picket lines or in public shouting, then you see him with his family, it’s like two completely different personas. I got to see his nature with his family and thought, “oh, maybe he’s misunderstood.” That was all in the beginning. It wasn’t until later that I saw the hypocrisy.
What happened on the day you were banished from the church?
My father told me “you’re a bad influence on the kids. I don’t want you in my home anymore. Pack your bags. I’ll pay for your hotel for a few days, but you need to find another place to live.” They didn’t even tell me what I had done. I was begging to stay because I did not want to leave my family. They dropped me off at the hotel and said “don’t contact us, you’re on your own now.”
Are you in contact with your extended family?
I was terrified of contacting my extended family. [My parents] did all these scare tactics, saying bad things would happen. My mind wasn’t right for a good two years. Finally, I realized nothing bad was going to happen to me. My extended family was not evil. People are not evil. I was slowly able to assimilate and stop judging people. I think I’m a better Christian. I want to show that people can change. I am not the same person I was years ago.”