Having finished reading Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper today, I wanted to write about it because it is a powerful book, one many people could learn from and one that deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible.
Unfollow tells the story of Megan Phelps-Roper’s life growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church and their powerful doctrines, how she came to question and eventually reject their teachings and beliefs and how she adapted to life in the outside world. The Westboro Baptist Church is a small, yet very infamous, congregation of hardcore devotees who preach the Bible in a very literal and confrontational manner. Perhaps best known for their appearances on Louis Theroux’s documentaries, they achieved notoriety for using any sort of tragedy to amplify their message of self-righteousness and condemnation. Picketing funerals is their preferred mode of attack, with their protests outside the funerals of dead soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars one of their most deplorable and insensitive approaches. Renowned for slogans such as ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Thank God For Dead Soldiers,’ they never miss an opportunity to capitalise on a high-profile or controversial death by means of provocation, ostensibly to preach the word of God, but in reality an attempt to raise their profile in the wider world. Their doctrine is a harsh, bitter one, where God is a vengeful master looking to condemn all but the select few, who they believe are themselves, to an eternity of suffering.
It is into this cult that Megan is born, and it is these dogmas that shape her entire worldview. The outside world is evil, full of sin, inequity and blasphemers, and only strict adherence to the Westboro tenets will see souls delivered to heaven. Megan writes of her unique and bizarre upbringing with a tenderness and honesty that takes you by surprise. Knowing she has left the church makes you expect condemnation of its ways throughout the book, but her words ring with longing and nostalgia; of a time when life was simple and the correct approach was clear, of a childhood where her roles were defined and her days were structured, where much was expected of her and she thrived in delivering what was required, of an adolescence filled with the joy of being surrounded by parents, siblings, cousins and friends who shared a closeness and a bond that was so absolute and unbreakable, a comradeship that anybody would yearn for yet so few would experience. From within the boundaries defined by the doctrines of hate-preaching and rejoicing in suffering of others, there grew a familial connection and closeness anybody would be envious of.
Of course, it could not last. As Megan grows older, she sees more and more relatives condemned by the harsh standards and cruel punishments applied by the church. She sees siblings and friends excommunicated, cast out into the world alone for seemingly-minor transgressions. When her grandfather is superseded of his role as the authority of the church, the self-appointed elders turn on the Phelps-Roper family, coming first for Megan’s mother and then her younger sister. Slowly, she starts to question the integrity of the Church, and describes her torment at this process in such moving terms, communicating the increasing disconnect and dissonance with the Church with remarkable candour and evocation. As the realisation the Church was hypocritical and unscriptural hits her, so does the panic, and the desire to flee. The final chapters talk of her and sister Grace’s adaptation to the world outside, the kindness of those she had been so cruel towards, the search for redemption, the power of forgiveness, the beauty of uncertainty and the glory - and agony - of love, both familial and romantic.
Unfollow is a rare book, one that teaches so much not through proclaiming to have the answers, but through acceptance that it does not. In a world increasingly polarised and simplified, this book thrives by describing emotions and understandings both nuanced and complicated. For someone whose entire identity came from a belief her church, her family, had the answers and they alone were living in accordance with God’s laws, and who flaunted that so publicly and provocatively for so long, Megan shows true courage in not only admitting she was wrong, but then walking away from the only world she has ever known, one populated almost entirely by family. Unfollow demonstrates that true power comes not from having the answers, but confessing you do not; that monumental change is possible not through anger, but through compassion; and that a world which is so often described as harsh and cold is instead filled with forgiveness, that redemption is possible for anyone who seeks it, that hope exists even in the darkest of circumstances.
Megan Phelps-Roper is a remarkable person, and Unfollow is a remarkable book. A true must-read, one that will challenge your preconceptions and leave you reflecting on your own life in ways that will surprise you. Fantastic stuff.
Megan Phelps-Roper's Ted Talk
“Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgment of ignorance or error doesn’t crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth. It teaches us to ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas, and encourages us to defend our position at all costs, even as it reveals itself as indefensible.”
“We dismissed Nathan as being driven by the same pecuniary motive people falsely assigned to us, and for partly the same reason: to avoid facing an uncomfortable truth, a blurring of the line between the good guys and the bad. So we called the truth a lie and rewrote history as though it were in our power to dictate reality so long as it was in the church’s judgment and interest. So long as we all held the line, no one could prevail against us.”
“It wasn't the desire for an easy life that led me to leave. Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.”