I want to tell them that the world isn’t evil. That it’s full and complicated and beautiful and good, filled with unknown truths and unbroken hopes, and that it’s waiting just for them.
– Megan Phelps-Roper
I first heard about the Westboro Baptist Church in 2007 when I watched a documentary by Louis Theroux called ‘The Most Hated Family in America’ (for more on his adventures check out his autobiography Gotta Get Theroux This). It followed the day-to-day lives of the members of this aggressively homophobic and anti-Semitic religious sect, most notably the Phelps-Roper family, including mother, Shirley, (formerly a leading spokesperson for the sect) and daughter, Megan, whose autobiography, Unfollow, landed on our shelves in 2019.
With the publication of Unfollow, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued. Theroux’s documentary had stayed with me, not only because of my voyeuristic fascination with how the members of the WBC spread their ‘values’, but mostly because I couldn’t wrap my head around their conviction that dead soldiers are God’s righteous punishment for a society accepting of homosexuality. Unfollow promised me a story of someone who had once held that conviction, then broken away from it. But despite the obvious premise of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure of what angle the story would take and, more importantly, what kind of person would emerge from its pages.
Phelps-Roper’s clear and eloquent prose drew me in from the first chapter, starting with her earliest memory of picketing a soldier’s funeral with her family when she was just five years old and progressing to the theological discussions she had as a teenager, as well as her first doubts about what the WBC stood for. But what took me aback the most about her childhood was that it seemed, to a certain degree, wonderfully ordinary: there was school, there were chores, there were friends, there was the joy of having a treat after dinner. In showing this, however, she is not trying to defend or excuse her behaviour (or that of her family). Rather, she describes how, in spite of her own views having changed, her love for her family has not.
In a world where fear and hatred are widespread, it makes for truly hopeful reading to learn of someone who has emerged from its shadow. If you’re looking for an intelligent, touching and educational read, you’re in for a treat.