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March 28, 2013

My Life in a Cult

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Photo Credit: AP Photo/Las Vegas Review Journal/John Locher

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Church members — mostly relatives of Fred Phelps — live in a compound in Topeka called "the block." What was that like?
Claustrophobic. And there were strict rules. Girls weren't allowed to cut their hair because it was seen as a symbolic covering that showed submission to God. I once got in trouble for using Sun-In. Makeup and revealing clothes were forbidden; we could never expose the "four b's" — boobs, butt, belly, and back.

When did your doubts about the church begin?
After about a year, I started noticing that the rules applied differently to different people. One of Phelps' granddaughters wore revealing clothing yet was never chastised. Later, bigger questions started nagging me. We had signs that read "Soldiers Die, God Laughs," but the Bible says that God has "no pleasure in him that dieth." When I brought that up, they just called me a troublemaker.

Why were you kicked out?
I was answering e-mails sent to the church through our website, and one was from a guy, about my age, named Scott, who struck up a correspondence with me. We started flirting online. My father found out and flew into a rage. Even though I was 21 and working as a nurse, I still wasn't allowed to date — the church had outlawed marriage, calling it a "distraction." One day my dad told me to go pack. I'd been kicked out of the church — and my home. I'd seen members "disfellowshipped" before, cut off from everyone, including family. My father drove me to a hotel where I stayed for two nights, crying and reading the Bible. I called my parents repeatedly, but they wouldn't talk to me.

What is your life like now?
Six months after my expulsion, I was so depressed I could barely function. I found a job as a cardiac nurse and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Scott lived. Five years later, I'm 27 and engaged to a Web designer I met online. Now I study the Bible on my own. I still call myself a Christian, but I'll never end up in another extreme church. And I wrote an open apology in the book for my past behavior. It took me a long time to understand how wrong it was. It was so cruel to picket funerals, and no one has the right to judge who is going to heaven or hell. And I don't agree with the church's ideology on homosexuality. I have gay friends now, which I couldn't have imagined before. They know how I was raised, but they don't judge who I was. They love who I am.

Do you talk to your family?
I called my father on his birthday one year. He put me on speakerphone so everyone could hear him disowning me again. I last talked to my mother three years ago. They're still precious to me, but getting kicked out was the best thing that could have happened. I pray mostly for my two sisters and brother. I wish I could tell them that I love and miss them and that how they're being raised isn't the only way to live.


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