Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Isn't That Man In Jail?

After speaking at the American Atheist convention in Atlanta the first person to the mic for the Q&A session was Dr. Dawkins. The bottom line of his question: Why was my father still walking around a free man after all the violence he perpetrated on our family? My reaction was incredulity and a little bit of fear. It seemed so obvious to me, that I worried the rest of the audience would chuckle at Dr. Dawkin's naivety. But the fear part puzzled me.

Grateful that Dr. Dawkins had even listened to my speech, I just let the uncomfortable nature of his inquiry slip into the background. A few hours after the speech, back in my hotel room, my fiance mentioned that she had spent a few minutes in discussion with Richard Dawkins after the speech. He was still agitated about my father and demanding to know how it was possible that he was still a free man. My fiance tried to explain it further. Later in the evening, in the lounge, I was introduced to Heidi Anderson. In our conversation she changed the flavor of the subject by pointing out that Dr. Dawkins was from England and things obviously were different there.

A few days ago, a thread appeared on linking to my published speech. Dr. Dawkins appeared in the comments section and once again raised the issue:

"I heard Nate Phelps give this talk and was deeply moved by sympathy for Nate and a passionate desire to see Fred Phelps put behind bars for the rest of his nasty life. I asked various people why he has not been arrested for violent abuse of his family. The answers I got were rather unsatisfactory: a combination of "If you are sufficiently adept at manipulating the letter of the law, you can get out of anything" and "Anybody who calls himself 'Reverend' can get out of anything." I am reluctant to believe either of these explanations.


This led to a number of other comments posted on the thread with variations on the same question.

Let me try to explain from my point of view.

It has been too long since the violence happened to me. The American legal system places time limitations on bringing charges against someone. I realize that begs the question of why didn't I do something sooner. Well, now we get into this whole area of the psychology of abuse. I can't say I'm an expert on it other then to tell you that every thought of vengeance that ever entered my mind was almost immediately dispelled by the certainty that I would die if I acted on it. Being severely beaten over and over, while at the same time being told that you deserve to be taken outside the city gates and stoned to death, does something to your mind. Remember, this is the person who is to define the world for you. The person who is to demonstrate the nature of life. The person who is to provide safety and security for a formative mind.

I looked to my mother for protection from my father. When I was around the age of 6, my mother packed the kids into the car and ran away to her sister Dorthy in Kansas City. Her sister lived in a small walk up apartment in a poor area of town. Her home was filled to overflowing with all the children. I remember being sat down in her living room with the TV while my mother and aunt sat, shoulders slumped, drinking coffee in the kitchen. Even at that age, the sense of joy was strong in me that we weren't going to have to deal with that man again. In the end she went back. I can only imagine the impossible hurdle she faced being alone and unemployed with 10 or 11 kids at that point. I learned very quickly that she was just as defeated by his violence as any of the children. The very real threat of violence and even death was more then enough to keep his wife and children from seeking help from the outside. Any intervention would have to be instigated from without.

In 1972 charges were brought against my father stemming from a particularly violent beating he administered to my brother Jon and myself. An excerpt from "Addicted To Hate" lays out the salient details of that:

For the moment, however, it had gone beyond the pastor's control. Police detectives investigated the matter, and it was filed as juvenile abuse cases #13119 and #13120. Jonathon and Nate were assigned a court- appointed lawyer, as a guardian-ad-litem, to protect their interests. The assistant county attorney took charge of the cases, and juvenile officers were assigned to the boys.

In his motion to dismiss, the ever-resourceful Phelps filed a pontifically sobering sermon on the value of strict discipline and corporal punishment in a good Christian upbringing. "When he beat us, he told us if it became a legal case, we'd pay hell," says Nate. "And we believed him. At that time, there was nothing we wanted to see more than those charges dropped. When the guardian ad litem came to interview us, we lied through our teeth."

Principals involved in the case speculate the boys' statements, along with superiors' reluctance to tangle with the litigious pastor, caused the charges to be dropped. The last reason is not academic speculation. The Capital-Journal has learned through several sources that the Topeka Police Department's attitude toward the Phelps' family in the '70s and '80s was hands off-this guy's more trouble than it's worth'.

Three months later, the case was dismissed upon the motion of the state. The reason given by the prosecutor was "no case sufficient to go to trial in opinion of state". The boys were selling candy in Highland Park when they learned from their mom during a rest break the Pastor Phelps would not go on trial for beating his children. "I felt elated," remembers Nate. "It meant at least I wouldn't get beaten for that."

But if Nate's life was so full of pain and fear, why didn't he speak up when he was at the police station and everyone was being so nice to him? Nate laughs. It's the veteran's tolerant amusement at the novice's question. "We'll do anything not to have to give up our parents," he answers. "That's just the way kids are. That's the way we were." "Besides, when it (abuse) occurs since birth, it never even crosses your mind to fight back," interrupts Mark. "You know how they train elephants?

They raise them tied to a chain in the ground. Later, it's replaced by a rope and a stick. But the elephant never stops thinking it's a chain." The loyal Phelps family are of two minds on the case. Margie admitted it had occurred. Jonathon denied it. The pastor never decided. Instead, he launched into a lecture on the value of tough love in raising good Christians.

Since their juvenile files were destroyed when the boys reached eighteen, but for their father's vindictiveness, there might have been no record of this case. As it was, he sued the school. This caused the school's insurance company to request a statement from Principal Dittemore, who complied, describing the events which led to the faculty's concern the boys were being abused. The suit was dropped."

What this excerpt doesn't detail is the level of intimidation that my brother and I faced from our father. When it came time for us to discuss the case with Tom Valentine, the attorney appointed to represent us (what a joke), my father spent hours pounding into our heads exactly what to say and what not to say. I remember the extreme dislike I felt toward Mr. Valentine because his presence threatened my physical safety. I no longer had the capacity to even recognize who was my friend and who was my enemy. I learned the outside world was impotent against my father.

Dr. Dawkins asked me why I waited until 18 to leave. I thought I made that clear in my speech. My father had the legal right to do with us as he saw fit until we reached the age of legal independence. That age was 18. Ultimately my brother Mark succeeded in leaving because his efforts began AFTER he turned 18. My sister Kathy tried to leave when she was 17 and the violence he visited on her, after he found her and forced her home, was epic.

There was no way in hell I was leaving before It was legal to be on my own.

There was no way in hell I was staying after it was legal to be on my own.

That was the best I could do...until now. When asked why I'm speaking out against my father my thoughts always get muddled. It's impossible to pick a single motive or even identify, honestly, all my motives. It's disingenuous to say that I have no notion of vengence. But until Dr. Dawkins asked that question, and this issue started being debated, it never occured to me that speaking out is, at least in part, my way of finally defeating this demon I live with every day.

If there is a way, and I shudder even thinking this out loud, to make this man pay for his cruelty, perhaps this journey will lead me to it. But ultimately there must be a strong will from within the state or federal government or my father and my family will run roughshod over them in the defense they mount for their prophet.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A journey to Atlanta and beyond...

April 15th, 2009
I was not prepared for the outpouring of support and emotion that occurred after I spoke at the American Atheist Convention last weekend (April 11th). There is just so much that happened, so much I need to say, and so many I want to thank. Richard & Angela Haynes...what can I say...a great couple with real heart. There was the young man and his mother who came from Overland Park, Kansas. He was so excited to get to talk with me because one of the local high schools where he lives had recently staged a very successful counter protest when my family visited a theater production they disapprove of. Then there was...well, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning: Back in late October, actually I think it was published on Halloween of 2008 (coincidentally the birthday of my sister Shirley - what are the odds of that?!?), a young college student published an article that he wrote after meeting me in my cab in Cranbrook, British Columbia. Following our meeting he spent several hours interviewing me by phone. From that came his article "Running From Hell" that was published on the University of British Columbia web site. Here's a link if you are interested in reading it: David Silverman of American Atheists happened upon the article and contacted me with an invitation to speak at the convention. I spent the next 4 months in a constant state of agitation as I cobbled together my thoughts and experiences into a speech. At the same time, I was doing an independent study program to get my Provincial financial adviser license and working 50+ hours a week driving a cab. Another gentleman who read the "Hell" article and contacted me was John Lombard from Vancouver. He ended up being invited to speak at the convention as well. His expertise in public speaking as well as his editing assistance on the speech was also very helpful. So, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon (April 7th) my fiance Angela, John Lombard, and myself piled into our van and headed out of Cranbrook toward the stunningly beautiful city of Atlanta, Georgia. Oh, one other issue that was creating terrible stress in me was the very real question of whether the Canadian Border Patrol would let me back in. While I have "status" with my work permit, there was some suggestion that they may not consider that sufficient to allowing me back across as an American citizen. On top of that, the Canadian government had recently ordered the border patrol agency to not allow any of the Phelps clan into the country after they had threatened to protest at the funeral of a young man who had been murdered and beheaded on a Greyhound bus here in Canada. Putting my anxieties behind me, we turned south and across the border. We switched off driving and made the journey of over 2,400 miles in just over 41 hours. We arrived at the Emory on Thursday around noon. The next few days were a blur as I fine tuned my speech to get it down to the right time length and wandered around the convention, dazed and confused. We made a few forays out into the community and found a remarkable little restaurant called The Flying Biscuit. It will always be the symbol of our affection for Atlanta. Angela has pretty much convinced me to name our daughter (if we can manage to make one) Georgia because of our experience there. I did get the opportunity to sit at Dr. Dawkin's table at the Friday night dinner, but there was no chance to chat with him. I had the impression that he wanted to be left alone so I struck up conversations with several others at the table. On Saturday morning, I was up early obsessing over the speech. We headed for the convention hall in time to catch the end of Dr. Thompson's speech. Dr. Dawkin's speech was next and I was not disappointed. I have fed off of Dawkin's books and web site over the past few years and find his capacity to present lucid arguments both brilliant and sustaining. The crowd broke for lunch and the sweat broke out on my turn next *gulp*. All I can say at this point is Thank (God/Zeus/Thor/The Flying Spaghetti Monster) for Angela. She was my rock throughout it all. So much second guessing and anxiety and she just kept saying it would be okay...the story was compelling... ...David is up on the stage with me struggling with the speaker's mike. Now he's searching for his introduction which he can't find. I might just throw up. Snatching up a convention program from the podium, he turns to the page about me and reads the information there verbatim...he was great! As much as I didn’t want to come across as an amateur, oh well…at least I didn’t stutter too much. In truth, the only emotion stronger then the abject terror of standing in front of a room full of people was the very real concern that I would break down during certain parts of the speech. I deliberately avoided looking at Angela because she was so emotional throughout. Then something odd happened…the audience began clapping. I gotta say, I did not see that coming. Every time I focused on a face I just saw all this seriousness…then it happened again. Applause. Anxiety dropped a few levels as the audience interrupted my speech 4 times. At the end they all stood up and I almost broke down. Oh, no time for that as I notice Dr. Dawkins striding purposefully to the Q&A microphone. O!! M!! G!! The next 3 or 4 hours was a blur as I shook hands with dozens of people, hugged many who were in tears, then rushed off to do two taped interviews. I finally found Angela who recounted her own stories of being approached by many more people. She even had the opportunity of a lively discussion with Dr. Dawkins in the foyer. The rest of the afternoon and evening was a blur of introductions and invitations. I finally got back to the room with Angela where we tried to relax for a little bit before I went to a 3rd interview. Finally, we headed back down to the bar in the main lobby and I was at last able to sit down with Richard Haynes and his wife Angela. Richard had contacted me prior to the convention and we agreed to get together. It was some of the best time we had in Atlanta. We asked if they could take us somewhere that was uniquely Atlanta and ended up at the Varsity Jr. restaurant (I use the term restaurant very loosely here). The food was…erhm…deliciously dangerous. The conversation ranged from hilarious to poignant. Richard’s background as a reformed pastor of a fundamentalist mega-church provided him with many experiences similar to mine growing up with Fred. Our Angela’s got on famously (does it violate official atheist dogma to point out the fact that both of our ladies have “Angel” in their name?) We talked about some of the people who approached me after the speech in tears. It occurred to us that there are a lot of people out there who carry serious baggage from a background of religion based fear. I feel like I have a duty to do something positive with the unique circumstances I find myself in. Maybe we can work together to make a difference in peoples lives. We said goodbye in the early morning hours Sunday and headed back to the room for a few hours rest before we headed north at 6 am. We crossed back into Canada just before midnight on Monday, some 42 hours later. The agent at the border was funny and kind…and let me back in without hesitating. *whew* I got home and slept 2 hours before getting up to work another 10 hours…driving!! While I’m not clear on the exact direction we might take with this, Richard and I are serious about giving it a go. To that end, I want to post the entire content of my speech from the convention. This can be found on my personal website at