AN estranged former member of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church has spoken of her escape from the group and of how she was "brainwashed" throughout her life.
In a tearful interview with America's Today show, Alvarez described what it was like to grow up as part of the secretive family church, which in December infuriated the nation by announcing plans to picket the funerals of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre.
At the time, the church tweeted: “Westboro will picket Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.”
Founded by Alvarez's grandfather, Fred Phelps Snr, the church mostly comprises members of her extended family.
She said: "They think that they are the only ones who are going to heaven and if you don't go to that church you're going to hell."
"I almost think I was brainwashed into thinking that I wasn’t brainwashed."
For 25 years she wasn’t allowed to wear earrings or cut her hair, didn’t travel outside the country very often, and was alirenated from classmates for her extreme beliefs.
From the age of eight, her family took her on trips across the country, picketing the funerals of dead American soldiers. They often display signs with incendiary slogans like "God hates fags."
“They think that [the soldiers] are fighting for a nation that supports homosexuality. There was a point when we started praying for people to die. I didn't actually do that but I was around when they did it.”
Since the interview, the church has tweeted: “The eye that mocketh father & despiseth to obey mother, ravens of the valley shall pick out, the young eagles shall eat," quoting Proverbs 30:17.
Alvarez is now married and lives 30 miles away from her family. After escaping while the family was away on a picket, she had to live with her boss to make ends meet. She and her future husband, Logan Alvarez, then travelled around Europe, experiencing things forbidden by her family.
She insists that ties to her family have been broken, saying: “My aunt emailed me and said that nobody wants to talk to me anymore."
Four of Phelps’ 13 children have already distanced themselves from Westboro. Alvarez said she hopes to inspire other members to leave the family, saying: “I would tell them I love them and that people aren't evil like we were taught.”
“And even though I am crying right now, life isn't full of sadness and sorrow and disease and heartache like they told us. You can lead a happy and good life."