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Now in his 80s, Brother Frank has the portly, well-groomed look of a banker; in person, his demeanor is cheerful and open. At his bright, inviting church on a leafy side street, he greets the men and women of his flock with kisses and hugs, tousling their children's hair. And yet his sermons, delivered in a rich baritone, are stern affairs.

He teaches that any "apostate" who rebels against the kingdom ministry (as he refers to his church) is guilty of nothing less than "recrucifying" Jesus Christ. Another persistent theme is the debased and lowly nature of mankind, a point he's driven home by citing scripture that refers to people as "worms" that exist for God's purpose. In his 1996 book God's Nobodies, Frank blasts "the pseudo-Gospel of self-realization and fulfillment," advocating instead "death to self." "Being a true Christian goes beyond acknowledging Jesus Christ as our personal Savior," Frank once wrote in a church pamphlet. "It also involves giving up our rights to ourselves in order to become His own possession." And although Frank doesn't dwell on homosexuality in print, he has left no doubt that it should be treated as a grievous sin.

His tough love stance has made for an obedient, tight-knit parish. Many in his congregation believe that Frank alone can discern God's will; the especially devout refer to him as a prophet, and "the anointed." They routinely consult him on personal matters: Paul and Esther asked for his guidance on where to buy a house and how to handle their children's dating travails; Pam and her future husband, John, asked Brother Frank when they should announce their engagement, and sought his approval for the wedding guest list. When another bride's ceremony contained elements he disapproved of, Brother Frank chastised her from the pulpit, saying she'd sinned before God.

Pam was 100 percent on board, and always concerned with how her family—in particular the distinctly odd Tim—was being perceived by the church. Her husband, John, a fit and physical firefighter, was more accepting of their son's quirks.He found it poignant that Tim shared none of his burly confidence, and John felt protective toward him: If anyone had a problem with Tim, they had to deal with his father first.

That ended in March 2002. After John and a fellow firefighter entered a burning house, the floor collapsed beneath them and they were killed instantly. In their shock and grief, Pam and Tim turned to each other for companionship, cocooning at home night after night, praying together and watching TV. Pam purged her belongings of all traces of her late husband, although she did allow one memento: a framed news photo of the fire that killed him. In the flames, Pam insisted, she saw an image of an angel ascending.

With her husband gone, Pam couldn't risk losing Tim, too, so she smothered him with worry, insisting on constant contact when he started commuting to Syracuse University. Even today, Tim can dutifully recite the rules: "Call her when I arrive on campus, and then sometimes throughout the day, and then when I leave campus," he recalls. "I would give her a copy of my schedule of classes, and what hours they would end, and what hours she could expect to see me home. If class was canceled, or if something came up, I would call her and let her know. Otherwise she would be just totally panicked"—and start barraging him with calls.

Pam fretted so much about Tim that nothing was off-limits, including his effete manner—she once warned him that his reluctance to talk to a girl at church looked "very gay." As Tim remembers it, she relentlessly criticized his thin, high voice, hectoring him with "Clear your throat" and "Speak up"; if Tim objected, she would simply respond, "Well, then, fix the problem." She sent Tim to a drama coach and a voice therapist, and put him through countless drills of her own—anything that might deepen his tone. (In one exercise Tim particularly despised, his mother demanded that he repeat "It's a beautiful day" over and over in a gravelly register.) All of which contributed to Tim's mounting terror—accompanied by a sick feeling in his gut—that the secret of his homosexuality was seeping out. In the worst moments, he harbored fantasies of killing both his mother and himself.

With Pam scrutinizing Tim, the mood in their home grew unbearably tense. It might have helped if Tim had had someone to talk to, but Pam had turned to Brother Frank—and Tim clearly couldn't confide in him. His protective father gone, his mother fragile, his church inaccessible, Tim endured the summer of 2006 in a solitary panic.

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