Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with a copy of Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir, Unfollow: a Memoir of Loving and Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, in exchange for an honest review.
Unfollow is a memoir of faith and forgiveness that details Megan Phelps-Roper’s decision to leave the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. The church was founded and headed by Megan’s grandfather, Fred Phelps and is famous for its aggressive protest campaigns.
If you live in the United States, it’s very unlikely that you haven’t heard about the Westboro Baptist Church. They are constantly in the news for their hate-filled attacks towards what they believe is sinful behavior, such as homosexuality, even going as far as to protest at funerals of those whom they believe are sinners. The church is considered by many to be a hate group and they certainly do not shy away from hateful speech in efforts to have their message heard. They relish the attention and media coverage, including leveraging it to their advantage by arguing with those who disagree with their tactics.
I found Phelps-Roper’s memoir to be eye-opening and honest. I knew about their protests, but I didn’t know anything about the members of the church or its structure. The Westboro Baptist Church is comprised almost entirely of members of the Phelps’ family. It’s a small group. It rarely has outsiders join and therefore, is a very insulated group. I wrongly assumed that they would behave more like other conservative fringe groups, but what Phelps-Roper revealed was surprising to me. For example, the kids attended a regular school and were very familiar with pop culture, such as current music and movies. Pop culture was not forbidden or sinful. Although they had a modesty dress-code, it was probably even more liberal than other churches and did not become more restrictive until Phelps-Roper was an adult and deciding to leave the church.
The Phelps family is highly educated and above all, law degrees are prized. Fred Phelps was a lawyer and he encouraged his children to follow in his path, including Phelps-Roper’s mother. The women in the church take a very active role, using their education to fight lawsuits and also fight for their protections under freedom of speech. I suppose that this shouldn’t be surprising, as the Westboro Baptist Church has operated a shocking campaign for many years and has been able to defend their right to do so. I think most people, myself included prior to this book, would be surprised to learn that they are a very educated group of people with strong women.
I was also surprised that in his early years, Fred Phelps was a strong defender of civil rights. This is such a contradiction, as Phelps is in many ways a villain, yet he was also a strong activist, using his legal background to help the black community.
Phelps-Roper’s memoir is about a girl raised in the faith of The Westboro Baptist Church. She spent her childhood and young adult years at protests and believing the faith of her family. She even took on a stronge leadership role when she became an adult, which included spearheading their social media campaign. Yet, she was always questioning and engaging with people who had different beliefs. It took many years, but over time she began to have a crisis of faith. This crisis occurred around the same time that her church was undergoing changes, including a rise in male leadership and a suppression of women. She grew up in a church where every church member’s voice was heard, but now hers was being minimized. She saw terrible things happening to her immediate family, when they were accused of breaking church rules. She also began to see the ways to interpret the Bible and had doubts about her church doctrine.
I had mixed emotions for Phelps-Roper, as she made her decision to leave the church. Leaving the church mean’t a total cut-off from her family and although she left at the same time as her younger sister, Grace, they were two young women who were very alone in the world. I feel like it is important to make clear that I don’t agree with any of their principals, nor their tactics. I think what the Westboro Baptist Church does is disgusting. As much as I want to defend their and anyone else’s right to freedom of speech, I feel their sentiments are hate speech. It’s reprehensible. That said, I can’t image the bravery that it takes to make the decision to leave both your faith and your family. in addition, Phelps-Roper is a public figure and she had to leave under the scrutiny of the public eye, especially of those whom she hurt through her previous actions.
The amazing thing is how her memoir shifts to forgiveness. Phelps-Roper found many friends from those whom she had protested against and considered sinners. She was welcomed with many hugs and much forgiveness. It seemed like the people she had harmed were actually more willing to offer her forgiveness, than she was towards herself. Phelps-Roper continues to make amends by publicly speaking about her childhood in the church and writing books, such as Unfollow.
Unfollow is an important memoir for the insight that it provides. It’s very easy to hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, but it isn’t easy to take a deeper look at them. I still consider their speech and tactics to be hateful, but I also have a broader understanding of what it would be like to grow-up in that world and what it truly means to both seek and give forgiveness.