"Banished, A Memoir: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church" by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer is a disturbing book. Part of what makes it so disturbing is the pettiness of the abuse it describes. An all-American family turned its picture-perfect life into hell, for no good reason. "Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. That's certainly the case in "Banished."
The book is written in a very flat, "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" style. There is little dialogue or and no vivid description. Literature's power to illuminate dark corners is ignored. Basic facts are presented in simple words and short sentences, with no attempt at interpretation.
"Banished" invites readers to question religion and homophobia. Why do the members of Westboro Baptist Church hate homosexuals, as well as Catholics, Jews, and the US military? The book suggests that all the frenzied hatred that this tiny cult manages to stir up is the result of a bad experience that founder and patriarch Fred Phelps had during a brief visit to West Point. Further, one suspects that Fred Phelps' crazed hatred of homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, and the US military is used by the cult as a bonding tactic. They give themselves a common enemy, and feel closer to each other.
Reporters and others who hoped to challenge the Westboro Baptist Church completely missed the boat. Critics try to fault Westboro on the Bible. This cult is not about the Bible. It's about lonely, marginal, not very intelligent people following Fred Phelps and trying to give meaning to their lives thereby. Phelps is comparable to Charles Manson or any other cult leader. God has nothing to do with Westboro's homophobia. Westboro's members go along with Phelps' monomania because they hunger for a leader, a sense of being involved in something larger than themselves, and a sense of belonging.
The book further invites readers to contemplate how cults differ from religions. Make no doubt about it; Westboro is definitely a cult. Westboro Baptist Church's tax exempt status should be revoked. "Banished" also demands that we consider where the dividing line is between religion and madness.
Lauren Drain is a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When she was in her early twenties, the church banished her. She tells her story in "Banished."
Steve Drain was a handsome young man in love with a very pretty woman, Luci. Steve Drain was domineering and needed control. Luci was a doormat, allowing Steve to walk all over her, and dominate her. Steve gave every appearance of cheating on his wife, spending time and energy with other women. Luci protested, but never made her protests stick. Steve was also unstable, moving from job to job, enthusiasm to enthusiasm. Steve was looking for something. He wanted to feel that he was part of something larger than himself. Steve stumbled across the Westboro Baptist Church and it gave him the sense of meaning that his life lacked.
Steve picked up his family, his wife, Luci, his daughters Lauren and Taylor, and moved them to live at the Westboro Baptist Church compound.
Lauren describes life within the cult. Members jockey for position in the church. Being a member of the Phelps family is required for highest membership. Members debase themselves and tear each other down in order to get close to Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps Roper. Fred Phelps hands down arbitrary rules about what members can and cannot do. At one point women were allowed to cut their hair; later, that permission was revoked, and women had to forgo any haircuts. Women are urged to dress modestly, but the higher up one is in the hierarchy, the lower cut blouse one is allowed to wear.
Lauren describes Westboro's members as believing that they alone will go to Heaven. In Heaven, they will observe sinners suffering in Hell. They will mock those suffering in Hell, and Hell's sinners will hear their mocking comments. They adhere to an interpretation of Calvinism that informs them that God has chosen to save only them, and no one else on earth can be saved, even if they try to be saved. Reporters should have investigated the mind control and bizarre workings of this cult, and exposed all that, rather than focusing on debates about what the Bible says about homosexuality.
Again, the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult based on power, not Christianity. Members must submit to Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps Roper, in her every whim. At one point, Shirley decides to tear some of the church members out of their homes. This couple had been church members since 1955. Without warning, Shirley reports to this couple's home and begins to place their possessions into a hired dumpster. Shirley receives no permission to do this. It's her whim. She must be obeyed. The elderly couple's belongings are half in, half out of their house, when the old couple protests and resists this massive theft. Shirley, annoyed, announces that she is excommunicating the elderly couple from the WBC. This behavior is criminal, controlling, and heartless. It has nothing to do with Christianity. It's all about raw power and the members' desperate, fear-based need to belong, at any cost.
Lauren's home-life is pettily perverse. Though "Banished" never uses the word "incest," it's clear that her father, Steve Drain, has an incestuous attachment to his own daughter. He reacts with rage to her blossoming womanhood and interest in any male other than himself. He monopolizes Lauren's time and encourages her hero worship of him. When Lauren spends any time with a boy, Steve screams at her, "How could you prefer him to me?" Most disgustingly, Steve takes money from Lauren. In just one instance, when Lauren gets a full time job as an RN at a hospital, Steve takes her entire five thousand dollar signing bonus to pay for his brand new Ford truck.
Luci, Steve's wife and Lauren's mother, is jealous of Lauren and undercuts Lauren in the household. When Steve turns on Lauren and abuses her, Luci, her own mother, refuses to come to Lauren's aid.
Lauren Drain was ejected from the church as an adult. She was ejected because she was pretty and attractive to men. This caused tension. She had to leave within moments of learning she was ejected. She had time to pack only a few items. She was forbidden to have contact with her parents or her three younger siblings, whom she helped raise. Lauren repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to re-enter the church, and to make contact and reconciliation with her family.
Lauren's book contains no serious, thorough repudiation of the hateful stances she voiced when she was a WBC member. For this reason, I think it is unfortunate that Lauren will keep all the profits from her book. It would be right if some of the profits went to homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, and the US military.