book reviews

A review of Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Roper-Phelps

I don’t remember the first time I heard of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. I’m sure it’s been a couple of decades that I’ve been aware of this controversial fringe group, founded and once led by the late lawyer/pastor, Fred Phelps. I distinctly remember visiting their Web site once, back when Bill and I were dating. It made me sick to read what was posted there about homosexuals, as well as the awful song parody done by church members. They’d bastardized the song “God Bless America”, changing the lyrics to “God Hates America”. And supposedly, it was all because of homosexuals.

I haven’t navigated back to that site in at least fifteen years. However, as the wife of a veteran, I was acutely aware of “church” members picketing the funerals of fallen servicemembers who had died in combat. It seemed like they were in the news constantly, disrupting peaceful congregations of people who simply wanted to honor their dead loved ones. It was disgusting to me, but I was still very curious about this group. I wonder what had made them so full of hatred that they would harass regular people simply trying to go about their business.

In 2013, I read and reviewed Lauren Drain’s book, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. Unlike most Westboro Baptist Church members, Lauren Drain was not related to Fred Phelps. In fact, her father, Steve Drain, had originally set out to make a documentary about the church called Hatemongers. Church members somehow won him over and he ended up joining the church with his family. Lauren Drain wasn’t born into the church and eventually decided not to stay in it, once she came of age. She was basically kicked out of the community with the clothes on her back.

Megan Roper-Phelps was a different case, though. She’s a blood member of the Phelps family. I wondered what it would be like for her, after she decided to leave the family “business”. That’s why I decided to read her book, Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, which was just published last month. I first heard about the book from Bill, who had seen a review of it.

Megan Roper-Phelps is the daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper and the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, whom she and most everyone else referred to as “Gramps”. Born January 31, 1986, she is the eldest daughter of eleven siblings, all of whom were raised to hate homosexuals. From the age of five, Megan was on the front lines picketing, holding up signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers”. After she graduated from Washburn University, the alma mater of choice in her family, Phelps worked in her family’s law firm. It wasn’t until 2012 that she and her sister, Grace, finally decided to leave the church and strike out on their own. Megan Roper-Phelps is married and has a daughter, and she remains estranged from most of her family, who are still living within the confines of the family/church compound in Topeka.

Megan Roper-Phelps’ 2017 TED talk, which offers more insight as to how she came to leave the church. Well worth watching, perhaps even better than the book.

Although Westboro Baptist Church seems like a horrible organization filled with angry, hateful people, Megan Roper-Phelps experienced it as a loving group. They were her family members. They lived in harmony, celebrating birthdays, swimming in the pool, playing games, and worshipping God. Yes, her childhood was full of religious extremism, but it was also happy and sheltered. She writes with affection about the late founder, Fred Phelps, her “Gramps”– everyone called him that.

Even Fred Phelps wasn’t above being cast out, though. In the last days of his life, he was in hospice care. Phelps had not believed he would die and had publicly claimed he wouldn’t. Consequently, his condition was kept secret, even from Roper-Phelps, who had left the church when her grandfather was on his death bed. Church members had kicked Fred Phelps out of the church, as they hid his condition. Megan and her sister, Grace, had to sneak into the hospice facility to see him before he died. They were only able to see him once, before staff members were ordered to keep them away. Disloyalty was an unpardonable sin and leaving the church meant losing the family.

Having watched my husband leave Mormonism after divorcing his ex wife, I’ve become very familiar with the practice some faiths have of casting out doubters and/or those who determine a religion isn’t for them. In my husband’s case, it meant losing contact with his daughters for years– the church was used as one of many “reasons” his ex wife had for preventing Bill from having a relationship with his children. To be clear, his ex wife would have cut him off from his kids whether or not they had converted to Mormonism. It was just a tool she used. She did the same thing to her first ex husband, and they were not LDS at the time of their divorce. However, having gotten to know a lot of ex Mormons over the years, I know that a lot of people do get cut off from family simply because they don’t believe in the Latter-day Saint doctrine. I also have a cousin who is a former Jehovah’s Witness and he and his family were similarly ostracized after they left the religion.

Given the visceral reaction many “regular” people have when confronted with Westboro Baptist Church’s message and tactics for being heard, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for some of the family members to quit the religion. If it’s the only thing you’ve ever known and your entire social network is made up of church members, it can be terrifying to strike out into the world. As it turned out, Megan and her sister, Grace, found shelter in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they rented an Air BnB room of a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They became friends with the couple… and Megan eventually found her husband, Chad, an attorney she had met online while still an active church member. He’d engaged her mind, and later her heart, as they engaged on Twitter or played Words With Friends. Rather than escalating disagreements and resorting to insults, he would change the subject or otherwise gently excuse himself from the argument. Slowly, but surely, his gentle pressure helped change his wife’s mind.

Megan Roper-Phelps also had exposure to other people on Twitter, who managed to convince her that the church’s beliefs were wrong. One friend, a Jewish man named David who writes a blog, showed up at a protest ready to engage Megan as a fellow person, rather than someone who had beliefs that disgusted him. It was the people who showed her kindness and tried to understand her that helped her find the strength to leave the church. Because Megan Roper-Phelps also responded with Bible verses and kindness, even though the church’s message was basically hateful, she won over friends on Twitter, who helped her change her views.

One area that I wished Megan Roper-Phelps had expanded more upon was what it was like to be in the church as a young person. Lauren Drain had written about going to school as a WBC member, and how the youth were expected to perform and behave. In many ways, it was “normal”, but in other ways, it wasn’t. I remember reading in Drain’s book that the children of Shirley Phelps-Roper were kind of “elite” within the church. I don’t recall Megan writing much about that. In fact, she seems to defend the church and its founder quite a bit, reminding readers that Fred Phelps was a white southern man who originally fought against racism.

This book is useful in that it reminds readers that Westboro Baptist Church is made up of people, and many of its members were not willing converts who chose to join its ranks. Megan and her siblings were born into the church, and they were raised in a sheltered community where they were taught to hate homosexuals. People in authority used the Bible to justify that hatred, even if the message was warped. Megan Roper-Phelps’ mind and heart was changed because other people approached her a person and appealed to her with kindness and compassion, rather than condescension.

I give Megan and Grace a lot of credit for being strong enough to leave the church and strike out on their own. Megan loves her family, and states that they were loving to her as long as she believed– but other people’s kindness and understanding was enough to undo twenty years of conditioning. I do think this book would have been stronger if there had been more specific information about the years she spent as a member. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it, particularly in companion with Banished, by Lauren Drain.

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