November 12, 2019

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Fleeing the flock

Ex-Westboro Baptist Church member details difficult decision to leave faith and family behind

Few writers have more reason to flee their beginnings than Megan Phelps-Roper, whose new memoir, Unfollow, chronicles her life in, and eventual departure from, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kan. — a community founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, that has earned global notoriety for its hate speech against LGBTTQ+ and Jewish communities.

Instead of closing this chapter of her life, Phelps-Roper has chosen a far more difficult path — that of engaging with her past, even at great personal cost.

Michelle Wray photo</p><p>Author Megan Phelps-Roper</p>

Michelle Wray photo

Author Megan Phelps-Roper

Unfollow’s title is borrowed from a 2015 essay written about her journey by Adrian Chen for The New Yorker.

In her elegant, expository style, Phelps-Roper describes her childhood home as a site of frenetic activity. The third of 11 children, she was endlessly babysitting and helping her mother, Shirley, deal with floods of laundry and housework. The Phelps-Roper home was also community headquarters; most of WBC’s members were related to one another and lived on the same block, sharing meal preparation and property maintenance.

Later, Phelps-Roper became an assistant at the family law firm and her mother’s right hand in WBC’s public messaging campaigns.

Phelps-Roper learned early not to quibble with cognitive dissonance. On one hand, her parents encouraged Phelps-Roper and her siblings to engage with popular culture so as to understand the "enemy," while on the other, they were supervised at all times to prevent them from being unduly influenced by outsiders. The preteen Phelps-Roper could find herself reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels before dinner and holding pickets declaring "God hates fags" after dessert.

But every family culture is considered ordinary by its members, and Phelps-Roper takes pains to describe not just the verbal and sometimes physical violence that was normal within her family, but also its quirks and joys, and the warmth of belonging.

When Twitter was in its nascence, Phelps-Roper became WBC’s spokeswoman on the platform, using it to target celebrities and activists and stir up global outrage — and attention — for the church’s messaging.

It was Twitter’s (then) 140-character word limit that forced Phelps-Roper to minimize insults and actually engage with the arguments of concerned activists perplexed by the incongruity of a hip millennial parodying Katy Perry lyrics to declare that America’s "whoring" had brought God’s judgment in the form of AIDS and military deaths.

From engagement came awakening, and a growing horror at the damage Phelps-Roper’s community had wreaked on other, more vulnerable communities.

Phelps-Roper was 26 when she left WBC with her sister Grace in November 2012. It was the hardest decision either had ever had to make. Leaving WBC voluntarily meant excommunication and vilification by the remaining community.

When her brother Josh chose to leave at age 19, Phelps-Roper writes early in her memoir, the family’s tears of shock and sorrow at his "betrayal" were swiftly checked by the reminder that "he was an Esau, our enemy, doomed to eternal destruction."

Desertion, in other words, was traumatic for everyone; it meant a cessation of relationship. In the chapter describing her own departure from WBC — and from her mother and father, grandparents and siblings — Phelps-Roper’s ironclad commitment to the facts is the reader’s only anchor in a wilderness of pain.

These days, Phelps-Roper works as a speaker and educator on "extremism and communication across ideological lines." We all, she asserts, "are susceptible to cognitive deficiencies and groupthink... an open marketplace of ideas is our best defence against them."

Chip Somodevilla / MCT FILES</p><p>In this 2013 photo, Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators hold signs along the inaugural parade route as then-U.S. president Barack Obama’s motorcade travels through Washington, D.C.</p>

Chip Somodevilla / MCT FILES

In this 2013 photo, Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators hold signs along the inaugural parade route as then-U.S. president Barack Obama’s motorcade travels through Washington, D.C.

Unfollow ends with a short but powerful discussion of some of the patterns that lead to polarization in modern political discourse. At the heart of these, she writes, is the false assumption that "we have nothing to learn from these people."

In telling her own story, Phelps-Roper writes, she had to work to resist her "opposing tendencies... (to) regret the past and romanticize it."

"I couldn’t allow bitterness to steal the beauty in my family, or love to conceal the destructiveness in it," she writes. "I wouldn’t rewrite history. I would hold the whole messy truth of it to myself all at once."

In her commitment to the messy truth of her story, and her openness to the legitimacy of others’, Phelps-Roper offers a new model of engagement, one that takes love instead of outrage as its primary motivator. Nobody knows better than Phelps-Roper that love is just about the riskiest thing there is, and that’s one reason Unfollow is a superlatively brave and beautiful book.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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