People ask if I was brainwashed by my own family into doing the unspeakable things I did. But that implies it was manipulation, and that they knew what they were doing was wrong.
Indoctrination is a better word for it, because everyone in the Westboro Baptist Church – myself included – truly believed in what they were doing. It wasn’t a performance.
We were taught to feel and appear unmoved by other people’s pain and even to actually celebrate their anguish.
From five-years-old I was encouraged to join pickets at soldiers’ funerals, primarily because Gramps’ interpretation of the King James Bible was that homosexuality was a sin.
Just like my mother before me and my Gramps before her, I solemnly believed that the creator of the universe absolutely required this of me. Or else I would spend eternity in hell.
As soon as I could talk, this ideology was drummed into me. By protesting against soldiers serving under an administration that supported same-sex unions, we were merely following God’s doctrine.
The protests were based on verses that Gramps would quote, and we held signs bearing the slogans “God Hates Fags”, “Paedophile Rape Enablers” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”
It wasn’t until years later that I finally realised that I had literally spent every day of my life until then casting doom and discord to the entire world and antagonising people in their most vulnerable moments.
It was utterly terrifying, and when I eventually realised that it wasn’t the creator of the universe that had been driving the crusade, but my grandfather, I felt like a monster.
I was a monster, trapped by a prison of beliefs, but now I’m repairing the damage my family caused.
Beaten with a paddle
Gramps died in 2014, two years after I left the church. I now know that he was even more abusive to my mother than she was to me.
My mum and her siblings have always vehemently denied abuse publicly. They say it was just spanking and won’t acknowledge that violence played a big role in building their belief systems.
My siblings and I were beaten with a wooden paddle by our mum, yet I have never doubted my parents’ love for me – even though they believe that they can’t have anything to do with me now I’ve left the church. I know they were only following “God’s Word”.
Writing about the physical punishments for my book Unfollow was really tough and it’s been hard for me to use the word “abuse”, although it definitely, frequently was.
When I was remembering what it felt like being a child subjected to that kind of wrath, it felt inexcusable. Until I recalled all the Bible verses Mum believed she had to follow – even about the blueness of the wounds.
So even when she had bruised her own child, she used the following verse as theological justification, “The blueness of the wound cleanseth away evil.”
But I don’t blame her. She was just following her indoctrinated beliefs.
Unlike my mother, however, and thanks to the power of social media, I have changed.
It was Twitter conversations initially. People started to point out the inconsistencies in the two central premises that the Bible is the Word of God and the Westboro Church is the only interpretation of it, then everything else just followed naturally.
When I started to realise that what I’d been taught was questionable and assailable, everything changed, and I will never forget that lightbulb moment.
I was sitting painting in the basement of our house in Topeka in Kansas with my sister Grace on 4 July 2012 when I just realised that all these things were unscriptural, and the Westboro view of the world was fundamentally wrong.
At that moment, everything came crumbling down and I experienced this intense feeling of shame, humiliation and regret for what I’d done.
I realised how incredibly destructive it had been to other people’s – and our own – lives. It still took me four months until I finally left the church with my younger sister Grace.
My family believes that I’ve traded my soul in order to have this worldly life and before I left I did have a brief moment when I heard Satan whispering in my ear, telling me this was a test and I couldn’t trust myself.
I considered continuing to pretend to believe in order to keep my family happy, but I knew in my heart I couldn’t carry on hurting people and being so destructive.
Since leaving the church, a lot has changed for me. I got married to Chad in 2016 and we have a daughter, Solvi. I have completely rejected spanking and I will never hit my daughter.
I will also be honest with her about what happened to me, why I rejected it and why she should reject it, too.
I’ll tell her to be wary of people or groups whose ideologies claim to have all the answers.
I no longer believe in God, but I do believe in people and humanity. Knowing what I did, and what my family did, makes me want to repair the hurt and damage.
It’s my responsibility now, and there have been plenty of full-circle moments where I’ve made my peace with people I once abused.
I joined the Gay Pride march in Chicago last year after previously holding homophobic signs against them, and they welcomed me with open arms.
I’ve also had many encounters with families of soldiers whose funerals I’d once picketed.
A close friend of a soldier who’d died has read my book. He told me that although it didn’t justify what I’d done, it helped him understand why I did it and he forgave me. I’ve been amazed by the grace and generosity of people towards me.
But I haven’t changed because I’m special. I’m just human and on a journey like everyone else. Even if the person that you’re seeing is at a Ku Klux Klan rally, everyone has the potential to change.
My mother hasn’t spoken to me since I left, although I did see her at a protest in New York flanked by two aunts who were screaming at me and waving signs trying to intimidate me.
I told her I’d found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. She didn’t reply but I still believe she can change. I haven’t lost hope. I absolutely believe that she can be reached because I was reached.”