I was beginning to see that our first loyalty was not to the truth but to the church. That for us, the church was the truth, and disloyalty was the only sin unforgivable. This was the true Westboro legacy.
Megan Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. The tiny but very loud street-preaching Topeka, Kansas church is considered a hate group, dubbed the “most hated family in America,” and are known for their boundless enthusiasm for picketing, including funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their gleeful celebration when tragedies like school shootings or terrorist attacks occur. That’s God’s punishment for wickedness, according to them.
They’re particularly obsessed with persecuting LGBT+ people, and Megan memorably makes clear just how fiery they get about this topic:
I could articulate the meanings of “scat,” “rimming,” and “golden showers” all before my eighth birthday, though I was loath to do so. To publicly accuse gays of these filthy behaviors would leave a girl open to challenge—“How do you know?”—and thus put her in the unenviable position of having to explain that it’s in a book called The Joys of Gay Sex … which, no, she had not read … but her grandfather had told her about it … during church … from the pulpit.
That grandfather, Fred Phelps, “Gramps” to his large family, was “armed with a law degree, righteous indignation, and unwavering antagonism” through his law career and the church’s founding. I didn’t know much about Westboro beyond basics — it just seems best not to give these types the attention they desperately want — so I was astonished to learn Phelps had been a vociferous advocate for civil rights, had even been honored by the NAACP for his work.
This cognitive dissonance was surprising but then again not, as Phelps-Roper herself acknowledges many such instances that church members, herself included, exercised constantly in order to adhere to their beliefs. On her lunch break, she even protests outside the high school she’s attending at that moment. (But what were they protesting there? Sometimes potentially significant details are missing.)
Curiously, members are highly educated with a penchant for law: her mother and many aunts and uncles are lawyers, and the family runs a law office. With so much education and ability, it’s hard to understand their decision to use their powers for evil instead of good.
Phelps-Roper left the church and her insular family in late 2012, and Unfollow is her memoir of her life there through her decision to leave, up until shortly after she’s started over with her sister Grace outside Westboro’s confines. She’s one of 11 (!) children (four of whom have now left Westboro) born to Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred’s daughter, and Brent Roper, a rare outsider convert. Westboro members are an extremely small group, numbering only around 70 and primarily being members of Phelps’ family. They very occasionally get outside converts, but Megan had mostly resigned herself to never having a partner. Everything was about the church and its message, that its interpretation of the bible is the only correct one.
Megan was an avid Twitter user, serving as a spokesperson there trumpeting the church’s ideology and interacting with dissenters, of which there were obviously many. But she’s also educated, quick-thinking and witty, all things that made her an intriguing sparring partner for Twitter users, and even won her some strange friendships, of sorts, among those who tried to engage her in ideological discussions. In a twist emphasizing the basic goodness of people, even in the face of such extreme hate, some of these people would come to her aid when she left the church and help her get on her feet in the outside world.
With each new kindness, I understood with ever greater clarity the depths of my ignorance about the world.
Among these were her high school English teacher and David Abitbol, a Jewish blogger (Jews being another major Westboro target), and eventually Chad Fjelland, who not only engaged with Megan on Twitter but over Words with Friends, which led to deep discussions of her beliefs. It was one of the catalysts for her to begin questioning these beliefs, and she shows how fundamentally difficult this was, as questioning was totally verboten. In one heartbreaking scene, she walks on a college campus with her aunt Margie, who would’ve rather become a professor than a lawyer constantly fighting Westboro’s battles, and the two consider “the choices we would have made if we’d had any choice at all.”
In a “reader, I married him” ending, Fjelland eventually enters Megan’s life in a greater capacity and they’re now married. I didn’t expect to be as touched by this as I was, but she’s a fairly deft writer (with an impressive vocabulary) and she makes the depths of her experiences and feelings deeply felt.
The earlier parts of the book portray her life within Westboro and love for her family. It feels like an attempt to humanize them, and I see why she’d want to do that, but it comes at the cost of describing more about Westboro’s ideology and workings. Not that I want to read more of their hate-filled screeds, but I never grasped the jump from civil rights advocate to hater of everyone with the bible lines to prove it, and how exactly everyone could be convinced of the infallibility of it all. There’s some serious cult indoctrination that happened and which we never see.
A bit too much of the book contains the excerpts Westboro members used to underscore their protests and beliefs. Much of the content is Megan’s questioning of these against her previous defenses of the same, and that’s interesting to some extent, but I found it switched gears often when I still had curiosity around a topic. It’s best when she outlines bigger leaps in belief, like having to reconcile with the possibility they’re wrong:
I crossed a chasm in that split second, pursuing a thought my mind had never truly imagined and now could never take back. With stark clarity I understood that whether the church was wrong or right, I was a monster. If we were wrong, then I had spent every day of my life industriously sowing doom, discord, and rage to so many—not at the behest of God, but of my grandfather. I had wasted my life only to fill others’ with pain and misery.
She’s a clever writer who touches on many areas of curiosity, even if it did go in circles around her inner thoughts a bit. I’m sure she’s still making sense of all this herself. I had some curiosity left about the group’s functioniong and where the shunning aspect came from, but maybe these are less important topics, ultimately. It also ends rather abruptly, as I think seeing more of her transition into where her life is today would’ve been illuminating.
The impact of her story is immense, and it’s clear that she loves and misses her family terribly, and that’s uncomfortable to consider. I can only imagine how difficult it is for her, but she’s constructed a fascinating, if unnerving, narrative about the ability to change lifelong beliefs in the face of harshly conditioned fear of the “other”. She even includes a timely, unsettling warning about how the mindset in America is shifting towards this fundamental distrust of those who don’t think like us, and how it echoes the rhetoric Westboro preaches. She would know, and that’s a terrifying warning. 3.5/5
A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
by Megan Phelps-Roper
published October 8, 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.