After reading Educated back in January, my Kindle flagged up Unfollow as something I’d be interested in, this month I finally got around to reading it.
Unfollow is Megan Phelps Roper’s memoir documenting her journey from hatred to hope.
For those not familiar with the surname Phelps, Megan’s grandfather, Fred, was the founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist church in Topeka Kansas.
For those not familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s an extremist American church known for spreading hate speech against LGBT + people, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, atheists, Jews, Mormons, US soldiers, celebrities, politicians; basically anyone who doesn’t follow their doctrine or share their beliefs.
I wasn’t overly familiar with the church and the family behind it before picking up this book, I’d seen the odd news article about their repugnant protests and knew of the Louis Theroux documentary ‘Most Hated Family in America’, I hadn’t watched it. I didn’t really want to give their views any oxygen.
Megan’s story is fascinating. At the age of 5-years-old she joined the churches protests against homosexuality; she couldn’t even read the writing on the signs she was told to carry. She details angry confrontations, every Saturday morning, why any parents would put their child into this situation is beyond me. Megan didn’t really understand what they were doing, this would be the path her life followed.
What I hadn’t realised is that the members of Westboro were all family, which is what makes Megan’s story tragic, she was brainwashed and trained by those who she trusted to shout abuse at others. It is beyond cruel and an example of how family can shape and mould your mind in a damaging way. It’s an uncomfortable read, seeing how she and her siblings were raised to believe the doctrines of the church and revel in the pain of others. It’s juxtaposed with what she describes as a loving and caring family, her home life is normal squabbling siblings, chores and school, it’s quite difficult to marry these two very different sides of her family.
As Megan grew up she became more and more outspoken about the church, she gave her first media interview at 11 and was soon appearing on TV chat shows and news programmes sharing her views, always well versed in the bible and using it to justify her and her family’s extreme beliefs.
It’s when she joins twitter in 2008 that she starts to question her firmly held beliefs, when people outside the church started having theological debates with her, showing her there’s different interpretations to bible verses. She doesn’t get dragged into arguments and name calling, instead using civil questioning and debate to make her points but it’s this that sets her off in a different direction. It gets her thinking that if bible passages can be interpreted in different ways, who is to say the way Westboro has interpreted it is the right way?
There’s also a growing sense of her being uncomfortable with the actions of the church, the celebrations of celebrity deaths, disasters and the picketing of funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We behaved as if everyone in all the world were accountable to us, as if they all were steadfastly bound to obey our preaching—because we were the only ones who knew the true meaning of God’s Word. Presidents and kings, judges and governors… —all were subject to our understanding and our judgment. And all the while, we ourselves were accountable to no one…” Megan Phelps-Roper
She sensitively talks about her internal battle, as she has a gradual awakening and has to make a decision, whether to blindly follow the church, despite not agreeing with doctrine or find the strength to leave her family and everything she’s ever known behind and start again.
How many of us could honestly say we’d be brave enough to give up everything and do the same in Megan’s position?
There were so many things that stunned me about this story. It’d be easy to write off Megan’s family as thick and inbred; in reality they’re lawyers, Fred Phelps was a civil rights lawyer (surprised me a lot) their intelligence is how they’ve managed to play the media and win so many court cases. It’s that what makes this memoir fascinating, it shows how well educated, intelligent, rational people can behave abhorrently and in a not very Christian way, in the name of religion.
I feel for her parents too, the church is all they’ve ever known, her mum has been indoctrinated since birth, the whole family were taught to believe that there is only one right way and that is the Westboro way. It’s pretty hard to break out of that echo chamber when it is your entire life.
I loved seeing Megan’s thirst for knowledge, how after leaving she kept questioning and trying to work out what it was she believed in, using the new friendships she’d made to help her make up her own mind on theology.
It was hard to read about how heartbroken she was at being forced to say goodbye to her family and walk away. Yet she still has hope, now a public speaker, she hopes to reach out to her family to convince them to change their stance and minds, she lives in the hope that they’ll leave the church that’s kept them imprisoned and see there is a different way. That may be idealistic view, but it is possible have your beliefs challenged and for a person to change, Megan is living proof of that.
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