Why Isn't That Man In Jail?
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 Richarddawkins.net 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.