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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book reviews

Reposted review of Lauren Drain’s book, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church

I originally reviewed Lauren Drain’s book for the now defunct review site, Epinions.com. I saved the Epinions review for my old blog and, because I am now reading another book about Westboro Baptist Church, I’m sharing it again on this blog. That way, it will be ready for linking when I review Unfollowed, by Megan Roper-Phelps. My review of Drain’s book was originally written in March 2013 and reposted a year later, when Fred Phelps died. Here is a link to Lauren Drain’s Web site.

If you regularly read my reviews, you know I love true stories.  I also find fringe groups fascinating, especially those that are religious.  Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas has been around for decades, but it’s only been in the last fifteen years or so that they’ve made headlines, picketing funerals with their inflammatory rhetoric about homosexuals.  Westboro Baptist Church is probably among the most vilified and least respected groups in the United States today.  They are often defined as a hate group; yet they have no qualms about publicly expressing their views, no matter what the world thinks of them. 

Lauren Drain was a member of Westboro Baptist Church for years.  She and Lisa Pulitzer have just published Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church (2013), a new book about Drain’s experiences growing up a member of Westboro Baptist Church.  I just finished the book this morning and am ready to share my views.

The prologue sets up a scene in Washington, DC.  It was the day former President George W. Bush was to be inaugurated for his second term in office and Westboro Baptist Church was on hand to picket.  On January 20, 2005, Lauren Drain was 19 years old and fully indoctrinated as a member of Westboro Baptist Church.  She fully believed in the signs she and others in her group held up, condemning America for tolerating homosexuality.  They sang a bastardized version of the song, “America the Beautiful”.  The lyrics mocked America and their singing was loud enough to drown out the angry taunts of counter protesters.  Lauren Drain believed God would protect her and the rest of the picketers for preaching what they believed was God’s will.  When the demonstration was over, Drain got into a rental van with other church members.  Her father was proud of her.  He said, “I love you.  You are my little prophetess.”   

After the prologue, Drain starts at the beginning, explaining that her parents, Steve and Luci, got married in 1983, at age 18 in Florida.  Drain was born December 31, 1985.  Her parents were not particularly religious in the early days.  Drain explains that her father had a troubled upbringing, but was very smart and talented, particularly when it came to media.  He and his wife landed in Kansas when Drain’s father got a full scholarship to go to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.  Lauren Drain was then five years old.  At that time, Drain’s father was an atheist; her mother was a Catholic.  Life was stressful.  Besides going to school, Steve and Luci Drain had a younger daughter named Taylor who had some significant health issues.

Lauren Drain describes her father as pompous, opinionated, and a lover of debates.  One day, Steve Drain met a “missionary-type” preacher.  He invited the preacher to an intellectual debate and was sure he’d win.  As it turned out, the preacher was able to present arguments that made sense.  Pretty soon, Steve Drain started studying with his new mentor, although he still didn’t go to church.  After a year, Steve Drain had a falling out with his mentor.  Things were a little more normal for awhile.  Steve Drain earned his master’s degree in 1997 after seven years.  He moved his family back to Tampa, Florida to start a film production company.  Lauren Drain was then twelve.

While the Drains were back in Florida, Steve Drain worked for the Home Shopping Network and Lauren Drain became a young lady.  Lauren wanted to do normal things like join the dance team.  Her father felt it was too “slutty” an activity.  But they weren’t going to church… until Steve Drain decided he wanted to make a documentary about Westboro Baptist Church called Hatemongers.  He hoped to enter the film in contests.  He never expected that Westboro Baptist Church would one day claim him as a member. 

In 2000, after attending the Millennium March in Washington, DC, an event that celebrated gay pride, Steve Drain came back to Florida excited.  He had met with church members and they had managed to change his mind about the church.  Instead of speaking out against Westboro Baptist Church, Steve Drain supported them.  He was thrilled by all the footage he got at the Millennium March.  Later that year, Drain went back to Kansas to interview church members for his documentary.  He stayed for a month.  When he came back, he began to transition from an atheist who wanted to make a film called Hatemongers about the Westboro Baptist Church, to a guy who wanted to be a member of Fred Phelps’ church in Topeka. 

Meanwhile, Lauren was growing up and becoming attracted to boys.  When she started flirting with a boy at her school, Steve Drain started calling his daughter a whore.  He also went to the boy’s house and got into an altercation, which led to his head butting the kid and breaking his nose.  Lauren was eventually Internet-homeschooled; her father severely restricted who she could and couldn’t see.  Then the family moved back to Kansas, where the whole family became fully indoctrinated in Westboro Baptist Church.  Within a few years, Luci Drain had two more kids, a boy named Boaz and a girl named Faith.

When she eventually began to question doctrine, Lauren found herself labeled a black sheep.  Even as a young woman who had gone to college and studied nursing, Lauren was expected to obey the church and let the members control her life.  As she noticed that there were many double standards in the church and voice her concerns, Lauren found herself pushed out.  When she dared to have an adult relationship with a man, she was eventually banished from her friends and family in the Westboro Baptist Church.  For the first time in her life, she had to learn how to cope on her own.

My thoughts 

Lauren Drain mostly writes about what it was like to be a teenager in the church.  She refers to Fred Phelps as “the pastor” and explains that his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, is one of the church’s top leaders.  Many of Fred Phelps’ twelve children have law degrees.  Women in the church were required to keep their heads covered and were not allowed to cut their hair, wear makeup, or dress immodestly.  Lauren Drain comments that she noticed Shirley Phelps-Roper’s daughters were never called on the carpet for dressing immodestly.   

One thing I noticed about this book is that it almost seemed a bit like even though Drain has been kicked out of the church, she still feels like she’s a part of them.  Granted, her immediate family members are still in the church.  They shun Lauren, though.  She didn’t leave of her own accord; she was forcibly ejected.  Even though she now claims the church is very controlling and toxic, in reading this book, I got the sense that she’s wistful about them.  Indeed, as she explains the church’s beliefs, she almost seems like an apologist.

I don’t know how harshly I can judge Drain for missing her group.  She was heavily indoctrinated as a teenager and did not have exposure to others.  At the very end of the book as she finally writes about her banishment, she explains that she had been controlled for so long that she didn’t know how to function on her own, even though she was an adult with a full time job in nursing.  As an adult with a somewhat normal lifestyle, it’s hard for me to fathom a young adult tolerating such control over her lifestyle.  And yet, I look at people like Jana Duggar, a 23 year old woman who still shares a bedroom with her eight sisters.  At least Lauren Drain had the benefit of a good education and a lucrative job.

Having seen Fred Phelps interviewed and read about his hatred for homosexuals, I envisioned him as a cruel man.  But Lauren describes him as gentle and even thoughtful.  Everyone calls him Gramps.  She describes Shirley Phelps-Roper as a nice person who welcomed her into her home and encouraged Lauren’s friendship with her daughters.  It wasn’t until Lauren fell out of favor that the church members totally turned on her.

While I found many parts of this book very interesting, I have to admit that it was kind of a struggle to get through it.  Drain’s personal story is complicated and she probably spent too much time on that, rather than what life is like in the church and the actual banishment she suffered.  I’m guessing that’s what many of her readers are after, anyway.  I liked the fact that Drain included a few photos, noting that she didn’t have many because she wasn’t allowed to take much with her when she was forced out.

On the other hand, Drain reveals some fascinating details about what the church is like.  Its congregation is mostly made up of Fred Phelps’ family members, but there are a few other families involved.  All of them were subjected to the church’s extreme control measures and those who did not comply were ejected.  One couple, who had been members for fifty years, was kicked out of the church because they objected to church members throwing away their stuff as they descended on their property to make them move to a house closer to the church.  Another man was kicked out because he was overweight and refused to diet.  His kids were also becoming overweight, which Phelps strongly objected to.  So one day, a bunch of church members showed up at the guy’s house while he was sleeping, woke him up, and forced him to pack up and leave. 

It’s hard to imagine adults putting up with this kind of thing, especially when we have laws to protect us.  But maybe that’s the beauty of Phelps’ operation, since he and many of his children are lawyers and know what is and what isn’t legal.

Overall

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in the Westboro Baptist Church, Banished might be a good book for you to read.  I think it rates a solid four stars.

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