It was five minutes to midnight as Nate Phelps quietly picked his way through the three interconnected rooms where his siblings slept. At the end of the corridor there was the dining room. To the right, a closed door to the church which adjoined the house. There was no sound from the top of the staircase that led to his father’s room. Nate stood there in the darkness, staring at the old red clock in front of him and watched as the minute hand approached 12 and the moment he would turn 18.

He ran as fast as he could, back through the three rooms and out of the door into the night. Nate had no idea who had heard him or who, if anyone, was coming after him. He jumped into his waiting car, an old banger he’d bought for $300 from the high school security guard the previous week, and prayed as the engine spluttered to life. Then he disappeared, away from the church, from his father’s abuse and from the only life he’d ever known.

Phelps is the sixth of 13 children of Fred Phelps, the notorious pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro first came to international attention after its members (consisting largely of members of Phelps’s extended family) picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the student who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

At Shepard’s funeral, Phelps and his followers held signs that read: “God Hates Fags” and “No Tears for Queers”. By 2005, the church was picketing funerals of fallen soldiers too. During one, Phelps told the Associated Press: “Our attitude toward what’s happening with the war is the Lord is punishing this evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives that are worth a dime.”

Essentially, Phelps and his followers see all tragedies involving loss of life – war, natural disasters, mass shootings – as God’s judgment on a world that “enables” homosexuality. Using this bizarre logic, they have protested at Lady Gaga concerts, schools, the Oscars, and the funerals of Navy SEALS, miners, hurricane victims and Elizabeth Taylor – “fag enablers” one and all, they claim. The church has only about 40 members, yet Westboro is world famous. Several US states are introducing laws aimed at banning their protests; even the KKK has denounced them.