Thursday, May 19, 2011

Louis Theroux talks about his latest documentary on Steve Drain and the Westboro Baptist Church

Posted by on Thu, May 19, 2011 at 3:20 PM

click to enlarge Louis Theroux says
  • Louis Theroux says

English broadcaster Louis Theroux has made two documentaries on the Westboro Baptist Church for the BBC. The first, in 2007, was titled The Most Hated Family in America, a sort of introduction to Fred Phelps and his picket-happy congregation. His follow-up, America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, premiered in April and focuses on  the multiple defections from the church.

I met Theroux in 2006 while writing a profile of Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper ("The New Fred"). This morning, I caught up with Theroux. In a phone interview from London, Theroux shared his thoughts on Steve Drain (the subject of this week's feature story, "The Believer"; Drain compares Theroux with Pontius Pilate, calling him "one of the chief workers of iniquity in the whole history of man"); Drain's exiled daughter, Lauren; and the church's multiple defections. He says: "For all of their quirks and strange behavior, I have an affection for the family." Read the interview and watch Theroux's documentary after the jump.

The Pitch: I didn't have the opportunity to talk with Lauren [Drain's exiled daughter] and I wanted to get from you some impressions of her and how's she's doing.

Theroux: I had interviewed her in 2007 and had found her to be, at that time, a fully signed-up believer. I think she was almost compensating for being an outsider, for being a convert, as opposed to someone born into it, by being all the more strident and polemical. We didn't really use her interviews in the first show that we did because it was hard to reach through to the real person underneath. It didn't feel as though she was being completely open. I suppose, although she maybe wouldn't have been aware of it at that time, there was conflict and self-doubt and a lot of anxiety in there, but it was in a place that we couldn't reach.

She was very close with her father, for what that's worth, and so when I heard that she'd left, whenever it was a couple of years ago, maybe a couple of years after the original taping, I wasn't surprised, but it kind of made sense, and now she is still trying to put her life back together. It's just that she's sort of more strident when she was in the church. Now it's that she's kind of anti- the group now that she's out of the church.

Libby [Phelps] is obviously much more ambivalent, and it's all mixed up with this being a part of her identity. Whereas, I think with Lauren, she regards the whole thing as a misadventure and denounces the group as a cult at this point.

Do you get the sense that she's happy in her new life?

Based on spending an afternoon with her, it's hard to say or get a definitive reading of what her state of mind is, what her whole outlook is. I think she feels that she's done the right thing, and I think she feels that this is a long process of self-healing and re-establishing her identity. She seemed to be in control of her life. She seemed to be resourceful and kind of outgoing and involved. And I feel like she's making her new life work, and she's putting herself back together, but I don't think it's easy.

Do you get any sense that if the opportunity arose that she'd go back?

She was kicked out, but if she was invited back, I don't think she would go back. 

Her story is a lot different from the others in that she was kicked out.

Most of them actually leave. She didn't leave. She was kicked out. But I also think that not being a Phelps, you could argue that she was held to a higher standard. Although I don't know enough of the minutiae of how she came to leave to know whether that was really the case. And it wouldn't surprise me if it were the case.

click to enlarge Steve Drain
  • Steve Drain
What were your impressions of Steve Drain?

Steve is an intelligent guy and he's a very well-educated guy, and in many respects, he's a warm person and an interesting person. ... He talks about his old self as being kind of arrogant and a know-it-all, and he says, "I used to be the smartest man in the world," as if to contrast it with his present condition of humility. I feel as though Steve now has the ultimate sanction for being a know-it-all and a bit arrogant. He's now in this position of feeling that he has the ultimate authority for everything that he says because it's based on Scripture. In that respect, if he was like that before, he hasn't changed. He's found a kind of foundation for putting himself above everyone else. 

The whole idea of Phelps' humility -- we're so depraved and abject and we acknowledge that God regards us as wretched, putrid, and we're disgusting in God's eyes and it's only by his incredible generosity that God lifts up a tiny remnant of people to salvation. But when you see how they actually view the world and extrapolate that to how they view themselves, there's a deep sense of superiority, which they have about themselves and their church.

It seemed like the first time around with the documentary, it was a little more lighthearted. This time you seemed a little more troubled with what you were seeing.

It was a bit more barbed and edged because, for one thing, I didn't have the luxury of being able to suspend my disbelief. The first 20 minutes to a half-hour of the first documentary I did, I was just trying to get my bearings and figure out what is this place? Who are these people? What's going on here? So in a sense, the second one picks up where the first one left off. I'd gotten to a point of regarding them as damaging and hurtful to other people but also destructive to the lives of their own membership at the end of the first one.

The second one starts from that position, and they conversely start from a position of viewing me as a kind of miscreant troublemaker, a selfish intent on using phony arguments to bulldoze their Scriptural doctrine. And in fact, in a sense, that's not a million miles from the truth. So right off the bat, we get into a ding dong, Steve and I, and start having it set to an anti-Semitic video that they've made, and then about what I saw as their uncaring and cavalier dismissal of Lauren from the church. It made for an interesting change of tone, I think. The gloves are off for this one.

As bad as it is what they do on the pickets -- and it is dreadful and hurtful -- I'm going to go out on a limb and say they don't destroy the lives of the people they picket really. They contribute to a climate of homophobia. They disrupt a sacred day in the lives of the people whose families have lost loved ones, but they don't actually leave an imprint on them in the way they do their own membership. So when you see someone like Lauren or Libby, who will basically kind of carry that burden for the rest of their lives -- the burden of having lost a family and been raised in a set of beliefs that were destructive to them -- it kind of raises the stakes on the story.

By speaking to Lauren and seeing how she compares her family to people losing their parents to cancer -- in essence, she's lost the other five members of her nuclear family, those being three siblings and two parents -- she's lost them to cancer metafiguratively, which would be an unimaginable tragedy if that were a car accident. ... The scale of that loss is mind-boggling. Breaking up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend is dreadful, but imagine breaking up with your whole family for the rest of your life.

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