The Westboro Baptist Church has been a staple of Topeka, Kansas—and the American religious landscape—for decades. The inflammatory rhetoric of its congregants, who spread condemnation and cheer on tragedy, has brought them both worldwide fame and notoriety. Megan Phelps-Roper, as a granddaughter of the church’s founder, grew up with this as her backdrop, where protesting homosexuality and soldiers’ funerals with vulgar signage were regular occurrences. With an upbringing steeped in extremism, Phelps-Roper evolved not only to accept these views, but to offer full-throated support as she disseminated hateful rhetoric as a digital content manager for the church. And then Twitter changed everything.
Megan Phelps-Roper doesn’t try to hide or rationalize many of the things she said and did as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. There are no long-winded apologies begging for forgiveness from anyone who was ever targeted by her family’s protests. That simple gesture elevates her memoir. Rather than feeling like an uncomfortable apology tour, Phelps-Roper provides an insightful, painful examination of her stepping away from an organization devoted to self-righteous cruelty.
And she does this in the most surprising way of all: she finds the human side of a group often associated with inhumane treatment. After all, Westboro is a small church primarily comprised of members from one family—they’re her parents, siblings, cousins. From this familial connection she’s able to draw on happy times, from sleepovers with her grandmother to inside jokes with her sister. It makes the juxtaposition against the ever-present ‘God Hates Fags’ signs all the more horrific.
Yet this sense of community ultimately leads to Phelps-Roper’s removal. As small questions about doctrine become impossible to ignore, she finds herself confronted with a wave of debate on the social media accounts she was tasked with curating. She’s an eloquent author, and the inner turmoil she obviously felt while trying to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the wider world she explored digitally is palpable on the page.
Refreshingly blunt and seemingly honest, Phelps-Roper has managed an affecting look at fanaticism, family, and self-discovery.
Title: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
Author: Megan Phelps-Roper
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: October 08, 2019
Classification: Memoir, Nonfiction
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.