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05/12/2018 09:43 GMT | Updated 05/12/2018 13:31 GMT

I Grew Up In The Notorious Westboro Baptist Church – This Is How I Left

My punishment for wearing a bikini was to be the sole target of a massive, coordinated verbal firing squad that had but one purpose – to tear me down

Libby Phelps
HuffPost UK

This blog is an extract from Girl on a Wire: Walking The Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church, published by Skyhorse

I went home and prepared to be reprimanded by my family. My plan was to keep quiet and pray that everything would blow over. I rationalized that since the picture was all but invisible, it couldn’t cause anyone any more grief, and they’d probably soon forget about it. On my way back from a picket the next day, I got a call from Megan.

“Libby, why were you wearing a bikini in that picture you gave to Gramps and Gran?” she asked. Here we go, I thought. My body tensed.

“A girl I work with had a couple of them before she got pregnant and had her baby. She didn’t want them anymore, so she gave them to me,” I said, as calmly and matter-of-factly as I could manage.                                        

“Well, we’ve been talking,” Megan said, “and no one thinks it’s appropriate to wear that.”

“We?” I thought to myself. I guessed she meant her and her mother. “You’ve worn one before!” I said out loud, incredulous. 

“That was when I was twelve!” she said. Even though Megan was my best friend, she, like her mother, still expected me to immediately apologize when confronted by a displeased church member.                           

“Okay, well you wore one before and I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.” I spoke quickly and hung up the phone, hands shaking. This was the first time I had ever stood up for myself against another member of the church. Megan was surely going to tell her mother, who would in turn call everyone in the church to inform them of my disobedience. The whole issue had gotten blown way out of proportion—but this, as I was soon to learn, was just the beginning.

I saw Megan at a picket the next day. Traffic at 17th and Washburn was steady on this overcast afternoon, and the occasional car honked as they drove by, some with passengers who flipped us off and yelled “Go home!” as they passed. Megan and I set up with our “God Hates Your Tears” and “Fag Bods” signs on the landscaped grassy terrace in front of the school’s fountain. My aunts Rachel and Becky were down closer to the street, chatting while walking up and down the sidewalks, turning their signs to greet the oncoming traffic. They were regulars at this location; they considered it a good place to walk for some easy exercise.

I was hoping to put the whole bikini drama behind me, but Megan brought it up almost immediately. She reminded me of the “4B” rule. I tried to explain that this bikini was no more revealing than any other; I considered the swimsuit to be adequately modest. Seeing that she was still displeased, I gave in and apologized, hoping it would resolve the issue once and for all.

The next day, I stopped by Gramps’ house on my way home from a busy day at work. He had been complaining of pain going down his right leg and wanted me to use my physical therapy skills to try to fix his back. I had been helping him for a few weeks by this point, and we were in mid-routine when my phone rang. It was Shirl.

She told me she wanted me to go down to her house because a few people wanted to talk to me. I squeaked out an “Okay,” and hung up, panic-stricken. I tried to restrain my tears to avoid upsetting Gramps and Gran, but simply couldn’t; I burst into tears.

“What’s going on, hon?” asked Gramps, turning to me with a concerned look. “You remember that picture you asked for – of me and Sara?” I asked, struggling to get the words out. Gramps nodded. “Well, we got in trouble for wearing bikinis.”

“That’s not right,” he said. “I think you both look great in that picture,” he added.

“But it was the way I reacted to them when they told me not to wear it, so now they want me to go over to Shirl’s house and talk to people.”

“We’ll come with you,” said Gramps.

Libby Phelps

We both knew what was in store for me: when a church member committed a wrongdoing and it was seen as severe, Shirl called a meeting for an intervention. My bikini offense, and my initial reluctance to apologize, had been deemed severe enough to qualify. I was absolutely devastated by what I knew would shortly happen: The judgment and vitriol of the whole church was about to be unleashed on me. I was to be the sole target of a massive, coordinated verbal firing squad that had but one purpose – to tear me down, put me in my place. Their aim was to make me so frightened, so humiliated, so ashamed, that I’d never find the courage to challenge them again.

I was grateful for Gramps and Gran wanting to come and show support. They offered to come, I think, in hopes that the group might be a little less hostile with them there. The problem was that Gramps and Gran never attended these meetings unless an offense was serious enough to involve them, and I was afraid that their presence might only further enrage the other members. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask them not to come, and told them I’d meet them at Shirl’s.

I was overcome with worry as I walked across the block toward Shirl’s house. I had never felt so disconnected from my own life. The air was cool that March evening and the crickets were beginning to chirp. I was exhausted and miserable, and my head throbbed from the onset of a sinus infection that had begun a few days prior. I had been witness to several of these interventions in the past, when other members had been accused of stepping out of line. Just being in attendance at one of these meetings had always filled me with anxiety; the thought of being the subject of the church’s merciless scrutiny was almost unbearable. The rejuvenated feeling I had gained from my family vacation was gone completely – I just wanted to go to sleep.

As I neared the door, I thought of the movie The Green Mile, imagining myself as condemned to a desolate fate, taking that slow march toward my hour of persecution. The fact that the meeting had been called meant that the verdict had already been handed down. There’d be no chance to defend myself, no opportunity to plead my case, and no one to turn to for support. I was painfully aware of the possibility they had already decided to kick me out, and I took a last look behind me before entering the side door of the house, fearing it might be the last time I made this walk – a walk I’d made a thousand times before – as a welcome member of the church.

“Careful, dear, I just mopped,” said Shirl, as the door clicked shut behind me. Wiping her dishwater hands on her green apron, she looked as fresh and impeccable as ever. That was how someone had once described Shirl, “fresh and impeccable,” and somehow in that moment the words found a way of looping in and out of my thoughts.

Despite the apparent kindness of her words, Shirl’s expression was grim, and her long, salt-and-pepper hair gave her the look of the Wicked Witch of the West. She switched off the local news playing on the small kitchen television and took off her apron, folding it and placing it neatly on the granite countertop.

 Fresh and impeccable as the wicked, wicked witch, I thought to myself, but said nothing.

Shirl pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail as if she had heard my thoughts. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I’ve made eggrolls.” My stomach turned.

“You look terrible. I went out and bought you some Zicam for your sinuses. Go take it. It’ll make you more comfortable. They’re by the wipes,” she said, gesturing to the small box of cold medicine which had been set next to the ever-present yellow container of Lysol wipes and green bottle of Germ-x on the counter between us.

I walked past her with my eyes on the floor, cowering like an abused pet. The heat from the oven and smell of the egg rolls made me suddenly nauseous. I recovered, and hesitated for a moment, imagining myself refusing the medicine in an act of courageous defiance. I grabbed the box and tore it open as I sat down on the bar stool at the counter.

“Here’s a glass of water, hon.”

I was already losing the battle.

I sat at the table and tried to calm my thoughts as we waited for the other church members to arrive. I took note of the white dry-erase board near the door. It simply read, “LUKE, BRUSH YOUR TEETH,” a message to the youngest of Shirl’s eleven children. Across a portion of the grapevine-patterned wallpaper, my attention fell on a brown, wooden frame that contained the outline of a heart in the middle. Inside the heart were wooden figures with the names of Shirl’s children painted in white on their chests. The figures were all suspended in a line on a thick grey wire. I had seen the framed figures a hundred times before, but they suddenly took on a new significance. I felt just like the little wooden girl on the wire—tied to my family, only ever allowed the freedom to move a centimeter in any direction.

It wasn’t long before small groups of people began to arrive. Gramps and Gran were among the first, much to Shirl’s surprise. Brent, Shirl’s husband, shuffled in soon after, tired from work, looking miserable to still be in his suit and tie. Marge followed in a women’s dress suit, also fresh from work, seemingly just as put out by the timing of the event. My uncle Tim came in still wearing his uniform from the jail, where he was a captain. Other younger members, still in their teens, came in laughing and joking, apparently excited to witness the first intervention focusing on someone of their generation. Sara and Megan came in quietly and immediately took their seats. My parents were among the last to arrive. My dad had had time to change and looked relaxed in sweatpants and a t-shirt. My mom just looked exhausted.

None of them acknowledged my existence as they filed through the kitchen and into the game room. I’d spent countless hours in this room, doing homework, scrapbooking, playing board games, and playing rowdy games of Rock Band with Megan and other church friends. Being in choir, I was always eager to show off my singing chops, and regularly got a perfect score on vocals for Radiohead’s “Creep,” a song whose lyrics I found secretly empowering.

“We’re just about ready to go.  Let’s get this thing started.” Shirl directed, pointing latecomers to a nearby row of black folding chairs. The rest had already taken their places on the cream-colored couches, which were arranged in a large U-shape. I took my seat at the bottom of the U, sharing the couch with my grandparents. Their nearness was comforting, and I was glad they had come after all. Shirl sat as close to me as she could on a couch perpendicular and to the left of mine. Her posture was predatory: rigidly erect, ready to pounce.

In the suspense of the final moments leading up to the intervention, I feared I was going to faint, or maybe lose control of my bladder. Standing strong as a united group, the WBC was unbelievably intimidating, at least to me. For them, the matter was beyond life and death—the repercussions of their judgment were eternal. It was shape up or, literally, go to hell.

I looked up at the grey atomic clock on the mustard yellow wall across from me. It was 6:45. The meeting would start any moment. I wiped my clammy palms on my pants and held my breath, trying to steady my erratic breathing. My body ached with tension.    

My watery eyes fell on a family picture taken at my brother Ben’s wedding eight years earlier. The picture had been in that same spot for years, but I felt like I was seeing it again for the first time. All of us looked so young. I nearly grinned, remembering how it took nearly thirty minutes to get a picture where all the kids were both smiling and looking at the camera. I was there in the middle next to Sara, smiling too.

Someone coughed. I scanned the faces of the nearly thirty members in attendance, ranging in age from my sixteen-year-old cousin Grace to Gran, who had turned eighty-three in September. I recognized the people in the photos on the walls as members of my loving family, but the people in the room had taken on strange features, and in the surreal atmosphere of the moment, they were almost unrecognizable to me. My parents were standing in a corner by the door behind me and over my left shoulder. My dad was looking down at nothing in particular, lost in thought. My mom looked up and caught my gaze, giving me a smile of meek encouragement. Sara was sitting next to Marge on the next couch over from Shirl. Megan sat on the piano bench across the room, watching everything intensely, looking almost as terrified as I felt.

Libby Phelps
After leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Libby has a husband and children and now works as a physiotherapist in Kansas

“Libby, we brought you here today, because we fear for your eternal soul,” Shirl began, matter-of-factly, as if discussing the weather or the day’s meal plan.

I nodded slowly, struggling to swallow.

“I know this started out because you were wearing a bikini,” she continued, addressing me and the rest of the room at once, “but that’s not the big issue. It’s the way you reacted when you were questioned about wearing it.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to get the words out quickly. “I told Megan I was sorry for how I reacted and I won’t wear one again.” I was too nervous to think of anything else. I looked back to Megan for some kind of reassurance. Her eyes flashed to her mother, and then down to her feet.

“Okay, well—,” Shirl scoffed, “there’s not much we can do about that subject. So moving on . . .”

“It seems as though you’re always an arm’s distance away,” Shirl’s husband Brent added quietly, avoiding eye contact.

“I don’t know what you mean by that,” I said, though I knew exactly what he meant: That I wasn’t helping out enough. I was stunned by the accusation, given the daily sacrifices I was required to make in the name of the church.

“It means you do just as much as you think is needed to keep off our radar,” he said, finally looking at me.

“All right,” was the only response I could summon. I wanted to remind them of all the times I tried to help, like when I wanted to help with the construction of the additions to a church member’s house, only to be sent home by Shirl because she hadn’t specifically requested my assistance. And what about all the days I had to miss work to babysit, file charts at the family law office, and paint their fences, or mow their lawns? I had spent my entire life in subservience to these people, rarely thanked or acknowledged. Could they really be that selfish?

In a moment of heavy silence, I tried to gauge the reactions of my other family members. My eyes kept falling on Marge, who was slumped low in her seat, looking down and shaking her head. My parents were also both looking down and offered no support. Part of me had hoped one of them would stand up in my defense, but I knew they wouldn’t, for fear of severe retaliation. I felt guilty that they were in this position and that I had put them there. I knew I had let them down, and it broke my heart. It was one of the saddest moments of my life.

Megan was still looking at me anxiously. I could tell she was sorry I was going through this. But her mother had convinced her it was being done for my own good, that they were attempting to save my soul, so she did nothing, said nothing. It was then that I realized there was no one who would stand up for me—no one could save me. I was truly alone.

“Maybe she’s chaff...” my father’s red-headed youngest brother Tim chimed in, referring to a specific passage in the Bible. “Outwardly, it looks as though everything is fine, but deep down there’s nothing there. There’s no strength at the root. When the wind comes by, it will grab the chaff from the wheat and blow it away,” he added, motioning with his hands. He was implying that I might not be one of God’s elect, one of the few righteous souls deemed worthy of heaven. There was no doubt in their minds that they were the chosen people. And if I wasn’t one of them, I was one of the condemned.

They spoke on without emotion, as if I wasn’t even human. They spoke of me as if I were already an outcast, no longer part of the family. The veil of delusion under which I had been living began to lift once again. They claimed to model their lives after the love described in the Bible, though God’s love, of course, was reserved only for them. Until that moment, I too had believed in that love, and was proud to be one of them, but now I felt what it was like to be on the other side of their love—the side of the hated and the damned.

After being disparaged by Shirl and the others, I was expected to address the church. Ben and two other members came around the couch behind me, leaned in close and thrust their phones out in front of my face; there were members who couldn’t attend the meeting, and they were on speakerphone, waiting to hear what I had to say. Ben held his blue Razr only inches from my face as a voice on the other end demanded I explain myself. The absurdity of the situation added to the feeling of being trapped in an unfolding nightmare. All the pressure from the anxiety, frustration, and humiliation I was suffering was almost unendurable. I felt I might scream or spontaneously combust.

“I want to help out more,” I squeaked out through heavy sobs. They shook their heads and rolled their eyes. The phones were silent. Marge sneered.

There were so many things I could have said in my own defense. But I had learned from past interventions that any further refutation by me would only feed their fury.

Despite all the reservations I had about church beliefs, and how uncomfortable the community’s actions made me at times, deep down I still wanted to please them—I wanted to belong. I was deathly afraid of the outside world, the world in which I was told a member could never return from once they left. In that moment, I wanted another chance more than anything, but I couldn’t find the words.

“I’m sorry,” I added meekly, trying to find those magic words they all wanted to hear, to put things back the way they were.

Libby Phelps
After leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Libby has a husband and children and now works as a physiotherapist in Kansas

Once my church family made up their minds, they never wavered, and itseemed pretty clear that Shirl and the others had all but made up their minds. I sat devastated, unable to do anything but cry. I was disappointed in my family, especially my parents, for not sticking up for me, but knew that they too feared, more than anything, the wrath of the church’s contempt. And under Shirl’s control, Megan was as helpless as I was. But I was surprised by Marge’s disdain, considering her own pregnancy situation of years earlier. I thought she of all people had to know what I was going through. But she judged me just as harshly as the others.

“Well... it sounds like everyone is mad at Lib,” Gramps said simply, breaking the silence. I laughed through my tears at the obviousness of his statement.

“Do you think if there aren’t as many people around, you’ll be able to talk more?” Gran added.

“Yes,” I said, still struggling to control my sobbing.

“Maybe we should stop here for now, and you can talk to smaller groups of people.”

I smiled at her gratefully. “Okay.”

At 7:30, Shirl announced the meeting was adjourned. The intervention had only lasted forty-five minutes, but it had felt like an eternity. I gave Gramps and Gran a big hug and thanked them for coming.

I walked with Megan into the kitchen, where she put her hand on my shoulder. “Libby, I know you can do this. You can change. If anyone can do this, you can.” She sounded as if she was begging me.

“I know I can. I’ll try.”

We hugged, crying, and told each other we loved one another. I had never hugged anyone so tightly.

“She’s too far gone,” I heard Marge say from the other room.

I left dejected, without saying another word to anyone.

Libby Phelps was part of the Westboro Baptist Church until she was twenty-five years old. Today, she’s a physical therapist and lives with her husband and children in Lawrence, Kansas

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird, wonderful and transformational life experiences. If you’ve got a story to share, email ukblogteam@huffpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.