It is horribly easy to hate people you don’t know. Through the distorted lens of a Facebook post or a contextually useless tweet, we all pour out our worst immediate reactions because it’s just pixels on a screen. We all know deep down it eventually leads to a person, but even then, they’re not like us at all. They’re everything that’s wrong with our country, our society, even our entire planet. And, you know what, it’s our patriotic duty to tell them such.
But what happens when they finally get to say their piece, unfiltered and uninterrupted? In Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper does precisely that. You would be hard-pressed to find someone connected to a more culturally and politically infamous organization, one universally despised by so many as an unspoken truth. If you do feel the need to test someone’s opinion of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), and they somehow don’t already know who they are, just ask their opinion of these two oft-used picket signs, “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11”.
Two slogans. Six words and a couple numbers. That’s all most people need to know.
The story goes deeper, of course, and Megan does a superb job retelling her upbringing, the details of the family structure, roles, and relatives, along with several facts you’d never see coming. The WBC is more than a church, a majority of the congregants are related. Taken over by Fred Phelps in 1953, he populated the pews with his own children, grandchildren, and cousins. Clutching the words of the Bible as “straight from the mouth of God,” Phelps preached biblical law as not only the right of every American but their privilege as well.
That divine sword can cut in many unexpected ways. One not-well-known tidbit about the family is many of them are lawyers and incredibly smart ones to boot, including Pastor Phelps. Early in his career, when he first moved into the Topeka, Kansas area, he dropped into the legal and civil firestorm of Brown v. Board of Education. Shocking to some, Phelps used his skills to defend the rights of blacks against the segregationist establishment. Some say this was purely for money since there was no shortage of civil rights cases to be had and few to none wanted to play defense, but according to their family lore Phelps did it because he saw all men as created equal under God (albeit similar as we are all sinners and continually beg for forgiveness).
How does that square with commanding the church picket squad to find where the funerals of dead soldiers are being held so they can show up with signs reading “Thank God for IEDs!”? The core thought process in America is guilty because we’ve allowed sin to flourish, especially in the case of gay rights and acceptance. Obviously, the argument “I was born this way…” doesn’t hold much sway.
That’s the world Megan was raised in. Those are her brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, and grandparents standing next to her holding their garishly colored signs, designed purely to offend your eyes and your soul. Try to imagine what that must’ve been like. All the counter-protesters yelling at you, screaming about what a monster you and your family are, all while back home in the confines of their tight-knit sanctuary, they are being told what they’re doing is out of pure and undiluted love for the souls of every single person.
When someone has an invisible and incorruptible force telling them they’re right, good luck getting any other opinion through.
Yet somehow, after decades of being an integral part of the WBC, Megan’s nagging doubts became too much for her to tolerate. She was told everything they did was out of love, but everywhere she looked was hate. On top of that, she bore witness to a virtual coup inside the church that sidelined her own parents, who were one-time defacto leaders. She saw too many examples of people disobeying their own rules and making up new ones to justify their behavior. It was time for her to leave, but leaving the church meant more than just not showing up for Sunday services or pickets anymore. Leaving meant near-complete disconnection from all family still inside the church.
This is not how any church should work. This is how cults work. They isolate people from the rest of the world until they have nothing left in their life except that which exists inside the group. Once that’s achieved, anyone thinking about leaving is faced with knowing they have nothing to retreat to, nowhere to go, no friends or social contacts, no money or belongings. That wall of fear and isolation is the biggest and most difficult for many people to break through.
For Megan, she had one stroke of luck as she was born at the perfect time to grow up in the Age of the Internet. Almost by default, she was put in charge of the WBC online engagement efforts, which connected her to an unseen army of people who vehemently disagreed with her and her family’s beliefs and actions. Imbued with the confidence you can only get from unfettered faith, she digitally danced with her attackers and deflected their arguments, but eventually, some people started to get through. As questions and doubts began to pile up, so did her fear of what was going to happen when she tried to leave.
Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is an incredible and compelling statement from a genuinely battle-tested cult survivor. Megan Phelps-Roper once believed the hateful words she cheered were borne from love, but now she uses her experience and escape to help in every way she can. For that, I can only wish her the best of luck and say thank you.
*I received an early reader copy via a Goodreads giveaway, but it in no way affected the content or tone of my review.*
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