Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper (2019)

We all know what Westboro Baptist Church is famous for - I'm not even going to repeat their hateful potty-mouthed slogans here, so you can Google them if you're unfamiliar. Started by pastor Fred Phelps, the church is made up primarily of his family members. Until a few years ago that included his granddaughter Megan. From the time she was 5, she was out on picket lines spewing hate. By the time she was in her 20s she was the most recognized voice from the church on social media, where she seemed to enjoy sparring with their detractors. But then something changed, and once she began to question everything she was raised to believe, there was no going back. This memoir is about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and the very painful, but necessary, decision to leave the church and her family for good.

A lot of things that I learned here surprised me. First, Megan's family was very kind and loving and supportive of one another. They had fun, joked around, and were very closed to one another. Given the things they say publicly, I did not expect them to be nice people. Second, Fred Phelps was a well-known civil rights lawyer. Why someone would be a strong proponent of civil rights - an unpopular stance in that place and time - but be so committed to hatred of the LGBT community seems very inconsistent. He also required that all of his children and their spouses be lawyers and work for the family law firm. I'll admit I was surprised to learn how well-educated WBC members are.

I heard about this book on a podcast (I think it was Get Booked) and the host mentioned that it was Megan's conversations with people on Twitter that led her to leave the church, remarking "It's probably the only good thing that's ever come out of Twitter." Reading this story, I don't know that I'd give all the credit to the conversations on Twitter, but it's true that some very kind people took the time to get to know Megan as a person, which was way more effective at helping her see why WBC is bad then just ranting at her. There were changes at WBC at the time that also contributed to her questioning their direction and their adherence to scripture. I think she's not even entirely sure what happened, but it seems like a lot of little things added up and she knew she could no longer live that way.

I've never understand many of the church's positions and Megan did her best to explain them. Picketing the funerals of soldiers is one that has always mystified me, and apparently they also celebrated deaths of children, such as those killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. It had to do with punishing people for their sins, and something about God's will - I don't know. It kind of sense in a twisted way when she explained it, but only for a moment. That's the thing about many of their beliefs. They are based on the Bible, but really twisted and manipulated.

It must have been terrifying to leave the only home she had ever known. She knew she would be cut off from family, because that's what happened to the few others who had left. But her sister Grace also left with her, so at least they had each other. Phelps-Roper clearly still loves her parents deeply and mourns the loss of their relationship, and holds out hope that they will come around. And the same for her remaining siblings. I was struck by how she wrote about death of her grandfather, Fred Phelps. He was actually kicked out of the church just before he died and was in hospice all alone because he had been abandoned by his family. I don't know how anyone who calls themselves Christians can treat family the way the Phelps clan does.

I found the earlier parts of the book a bit slow, I think because it was all about growing up in the church and what they believed and there were a lot of Bible verses quoted, and they just make my eyes glaze over. Otherwise it was thoughtful and hopeful, and mostly I'm just glad this person was able to get out of the cult in which she was raised. I hope more of her family follow her.

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