Orange County, Calif. -- Mark Phelps remembers going to sleep one night convinced he was going to wake up in hell.
The date was Dec. 27, 1973, and he had just broken away from his family and his father's home and church. He loaded some of his possessions into his car and left.
"That night, I stayed at a stranger's house," he said. "I specifically remember that night when I lay in that bedroom in that bed and was going to sleep. I thought I was going to wake up in hell the next morning. That's how strongly I believed," he said. "My dad had told me since I was 10, 'If you ever leave the church, you're going to hell.' I so strongly believed that. I did not think I was going to wake up. That's what I thought was going to happen to me."
Mark Phelps, along with his brother Nate Phelps, both live in Orange County, Calif., a suburban area of Southern California halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The brothers own and operate a chain of print shops. They are both sorrowful about their upbringing and have cut off contact with their father and mother and the nine brothers and sisters who remain loyal to their father, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr., pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.
The brothers tell horror stories of life inside the Phelps house and Westboro Baptist Church.
Life in their father's house included what they described as savage beatings and violent outbursts.
"Basically, it was like being in a war zone where things were unpredictable and things were very violent," Mark Phelps said. "There was a person who was violent what did what he wanted to do, and that was hurt people or break things or throw a fit or whatever he wanted to do and that's what he did. We had to watch out for this madman."
Fred Phelps dismisses all of the allegations, saying there is "not a shred of truth" in them. He acts as he is being told an unbelievable story when asked for his response to the allegations.
Phelps denies beating his children or his wife, Margie Marie Phelps. "It's amazing to me that even one of them stayed," Fred Phelps said, referring to the nine sons and daughters who remain loyal to him. School teachers have access to the kids from age 5, he explained, and children are constantly besieged by foreign ideas and "their own lusts."
Referring to charges by Mark and Nate, Fred said, "Hardly a word of truth to that stuff. Those boys didn't want to stay in this church. It was too hard. They took up with girls they liked, and the last thing them girls was gonna do was come into this church. These boys wanted to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. I can't blame them. I just feel sorry for them that they're not bound for the promised land."
Mark and Nate disagree with their father. "It just became important for me to tell the truth about this. I'm not trying to save my dad. I'm not trying to be vengeful toward my dad," Mark Phelps said.
Both Mark and Nate Phelps said their lives as children were difficult.
"As soon as you had a problem that would in any way draw attention away from my father, then you were accused and attacked," Mark Phelps said. "In other words, opposite from what you would expect from a Christian person. It can run a little bit along the lines of 'we shoot our wounded'. My dad, figuratively speaking did a lot more than shoot the wounded. His goal was to annihilate you if you had any human need."
Physical abuse was a big part of their lives, they said. "You didn't ever walk away from a situation where you had upset him without being beat," Nate Phelps said.
They said they were told not to associated with other children. "We were given strict instruction not to play with any of the neighborhood kids," Nate Phelps said. "If we were caught even standing across the fence from a neighborhood boy, that would cause us to get a beating."
At least two children were beaten because of their weight. Nate was one of them. "They just got beat all the time because they didn't weigh what he wanted them to," Mark Phelps said.
Nate Phelps devised escape routes throughout the church and house in order to avoid his father. "I'd have to hide out in the bathroom for two or three hours until I could tell from his voice he was facing away from the bathroom door or he'd gone back upstairs. Then I'd hightail it out of there," Nate said.
One of their sisters was beaten and had one of her arms held behind her back by her father, they said. "She would just be screaming blood curdling screams. He'd be telling her he was going to break her arm, and kill her if he had to, but she was going to do what she was supposed to do," Mark Phelps said.
Mark Phelps also said he used to beat his brothers and sisters if his father told him to.
"Each person responds to abuse in a different fashion. I guess the way I respond to it was to so succumb to it that I was completely under the control of it," Mark said. He remembers beating his brother Nate at the urging of their father. "My dad told me, 'You beat him. I want to hear it or you're both going to get beat.' So I beat him. I beat Nate with a mattock. My brothers and sisters are entitled to hate me."
A "mattock" has a handle similar to an ax handle.
Through it all, the Phelps children learned to take care of themselves and learned to survive, Mark said. "We kind of raised each other."
He offered advice to children living in abusive homes. "I think the statement I would make to a child who lived through abuse similar to the kind we had to live through, is that person who is hurting you -- the violent person -- that person is not like Christ. That person is not like your God. That person is a sick adult who's taking the responsibility that he should be taking for himself and he's putting it on you in a way that hurts you. And that's the message that people who are abused need to hear."
A short time after Mark Phelps left his father's house, Mark was working out at the Downtown YMCA. His father was, too. "He came right up to me and said, 'I hope God kills you.'" Mark Phelps said.
Both Mark and Nate Phelps say are working to change the way they view life.
"Once you reach a certain point, coming out of such complete control and abuse and you're ready to face it -- once you get past some of the real intensity of the abuse -- you begin to get a since of what it might be like to be a human being," Mark Phelps said. "My dad never once stood with me or sat with me or worked with me to teach me anything about the practical life of a Christian. It was just preach at us on Sunday.
Mark Phelps described his father's church. "There's no focus on humanness," he said. "There's no focus on the human heart or being a human being."
Mark Phelps wants to forget the memories of his father. "In my opinion, he's a dead human being on the inside and something happened to him that allowed him to make up his mind that 'I am going to be as cruel and mean and be as happy and proud and delighted about it as I can be. And I'm going to use the Bible and God to go help me with my efforts'. "My goal is to get him completely out of me."