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Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

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The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny grou The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life. A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.


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The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny grou The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life. A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.

30 review for Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church

  1. 4 out of 5

    Laura Floyd

    Hi. I'm Laura from Chapter 8. This is NOT an unbiased review. Some framework: I have the great privilege and pleasure to call Megan a beloved friend. I have been by her side - always metaphorically, sometimes literally - since the events of Chapter 8. As a person, I find Megan to be one of the most vibrant, passionate, and brave human beings I have ever met. The strength it took her to not only survive all the events of this book, but also to be the driving force behind them, takes my breath awa Hi. I'm Laura from Chapter 8. This is NOT an unbiased review. Some framework: I have the great privilege and pleasure to call Megan a beloved friend. I have been by her side - always metaphorically, sometimes literally - since the events of Chapter 8. As a person, I find Megan to be one of the most vibrant, passionate, and brave human beings I have ever met. The strength it took her to not only survive all the events of this book, but also to be the driving force behind them, takes my breath away. The strength she continues to display as she takes on the world and the Westboro Baptist Church, one TED Talk, one conference panel, one joyfully lived day at a time, leaves me in awe. Okay. Enough love letter. Let's talk about this book. I read a lot of early chapter drafts. Before reading this book as a completed whole, I knew what it was about. I knew its themes and history and narrative style. I have admired Megan's writing since the very first draft I read. Her language flows lyrically, I am jealous of her vocabulary. She really is as fast-talking in real life as the book implies, but in writing her words can keep up with the speed of her thoughts, and from those words she spins out love, heartache, and resolution, all in equal measure. No amount of draft-reading could have prepared me for the impact the book would have on me, read as a cohesive whole. I actually didn't mean to pick it up and read it straight through just now. I picked it up to admire its completion and to feel what it was like now that it was an actual book. My eyes caught on the opening lines. I found myself skimming through chapter one, and by chapter two I was properly reading and couldn't put it down. I already knew the whole story. I knew the plot twists, I knew the ending. I read anyway, gobbling it up as if it were the first time. The early chapters contain a lot of background. There's something very disconcerting and occasionally even repulsive, reading about the history and tactics of the WBC from the perspective of someone deeply entrenched, someone who not only knew the doctrines but lived for them, reveled in them. The unabashedness with which Megan could shout mockery and insults evokes a kind of visceral repulsion, and knowing that it was her loving family that trained her up in these ways of callous cruelty doubles the discomfiture. Seeing how the public preaching tactics sat hand-in-hand with the warmth and love that the Phelps family displayed to each other is downright disconcerting. Once Megan shifts from reporting on the history of her family/church to telling of how her own mind engaged with their teachings and began slowly unraveling the precepts she'd held firm all her life, the real humanity of her situation becomes apparent. It seems impossible that such love and such cruelty could live together in the same heart, and it seems obvious that such a mental paradox would eventually have to give way under its own weight, but most of us have never been so thoroughly trapped by our circumstances. The cost of disobedience and rebellion for Megan was not just high, it was everything. By the end of chapter 7, I was in tears. I've known loss to death less painful than the loss Megan describes of her living family, and you feel her loss in every word. I couldn't help but imagine how her family would feel reading this book. Will they read it? Can they get past the ugliness of plain truths that they will feel, instead, as lies and slander? Will they be able to feel Megan's love of them, her desperate desire to save them from themselves and have them back in her life? Can they even get an inkling, through the indoctrination that would inform such a reading, of her deep sincerity? I hope so. Throughout the book, Megan shows us plainly the workings of her mind and heart - the ways she struggled to understand herself, her family, and their places in the world. Megan doesn't just observe the events that shaped her - she passes judgment on the actions of her family, and on her own past actions as well. But she also comes away with a sense of purpose and determination to make changes for the better. I have learned so much from Megan about what it means to love, to lose, and to continue loving. I have learned resilience from her, and boundless hope. I have learned, above and beyond all, the earth-shattering importance of learning how to change your mind. I can't wait for the rest of you to read this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marchpane

    A surprisingly insightful memoir, Unfollow is so much more than the standard ‘escape-from-a-cult’ narrative. It’s the story of Megan Phelps-Roper growing up in and eventually leaving the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church. Rather than being a salacious My Weird Life book, it is sensitive and generous, and is genuinely enlightening as to why intelligent, educated, rational people can behave so abhorrently in the name of religion. Megan’s story is one of a gradual awakening, of scales falling from h A surprisingly insightful memoir, Unfollow is so much more than the standard ‘escape-from-a-cult’ narrative. It’s the story of Megan Phelps-Roper growing up in and eventually leaving the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church. Rather than being a salacious My Weird Life book, it is sensitive and generous, and is genuinely enlightening as to why intelligent, educated, rational people can behave so abhorrently in the name of religion. Megan’s story is one of a gradual awakening, of scales falling from her eyes (to use a biblical phrase). This was only possible because outsiders, people diametrically opposed to Westboro’s beliefs and actions, were willing to have a civil exchange of ideas with her. We all have blind spots and biases, we all inhabit echo chambers to some degree—albeit not such confined and tightly controlled ones as Megan did—and we all have our world view reinforced daily by the people we surround ourselves with. Unfollow is a startling example of the value of interrogating those positions and engaging in ‘good faith’ discourse with those who don’t share them. It’s also a riveting story.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jenna

    "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 The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for their invidious messages of hate, especially towards those in the LGBTQ "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 The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for their invidious messages of hate, especially towards those in the LGBTQ community. They picket establishments that support gay rights; they picket funerals of soldiers killed in action (supposedly because they're fighting for a country that grants rights and (some) protection for LGBTQ citizens. They loudly proclaim their hatred in the name of their god.   Megan Phelps-Roger was raised in this church; her grandfather was Fred Phelps, founder and pastor of the church.  From a young age, she was given a sign, taught to sing songs of hatred and contempt, and planted on the picket line.  She and her siblings were indoctrinated into this insidious belief system but thankfully, as an adult, she finally allowed herself to question the church's beliefs, messages, and actions.  This book is her journey, from childhood in the church to adulthood outside it. I most enjoyed the first part of the book, learning about Megan's childhood, strange as it was.  Some of it is familiar to me, the crazy beliefs, the "special" status of thinking you and the people in your church are the only righteous people on earth and the only ones who know how to correctly interpret the bible and know what some god "really" wants.  The satisfaction the group feels by seeing themselves as martyrs simply because not everyone thinks the same way as they do.  Having to memorize entire chapters of the bible. Etc.  There were dissimilarities in our childhoods as well -- I was more sheltered from the rest of the world -- but those were some things I could identify with.  I can also identify with the process of gradually freeing oneself from such deep-rooted indoctrination.   Unfortunately, I found the book to be repetitive and slow.  The process of freeing oneself is a slow one and the questions that arise are repetitive, as one gradually allows oneself to question every more deeply.  Therefore, it makes sense that the book was slow and I should appreciate that more.  Still, I found myself at times longing for the book to reach its conclusion and I didn't find it intellectually stimulating.   Ms. Phelps-Roger is to be commended for her honesty and willingness to speak out against the dangerous belief system of the Westboro Baptist Church.  She was brave to leave it behind and embark on a life of her own, free of hatred for people who are "different" from her. I wish I enjoyed the book more and maybe if I was still in the questioning process, I would have found the book more interesting.  It's not a bad book, and it's well-written.  However, I think everything that needed to be said could have been said in half the length.  3 stars, though I wish I could grant it more.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Grace Carman

    As a queer person, attacked in the past by vicious homophobes, I never thought I would cry at a description of Fred Phelps's last days. But I did, I wept as this book ended. The infamous 'Gramps' was subject to the cruelty of the church he created in his final days, while sick and only semi-lucid, taken out of his home and marriage and put into a hospice, alone. This is a memoir as much about a family as it is about a religious cult known for its GOD HATES FAGS signs. Megan Phelps-Roper is a wond As a queer person, attacked in the past by vicious homophobes, I never thought I would cry at a description of Fred Phelps's last days. But I did, I wept as this book ended. The infamous 'Gramps' was subject to the cruelty of the church he created in his final days, while sick and only semi-lucid, taken out of his home and marriage and put into a hospice, alone. This is a memoir as much about a family as it is about a religious cult known for its GOD HATES FAGS signs. Megan Phelps-Roper is a wonderful writer, and her perspective is vital. Through her writing we can come to understand how sentiments like GOD HATES FAGS and PRAY FOR MORE DEAD SOLDIERS are justified by those who hold the signs. Where these beliefs come from, which Bible verses 'support' them, and the pressure on Westboro Baptist Church members to never question these beliefs. Never question the church. The church that, for Phelps-Roper, was mostly made up of her family - how, then, to leave your entire world behind when you no longer believe? This is not a tell-all, not a peep show into a 'crazy' family, this is not about the exceptional: this is about the everyday. Unfollow is practical, realistic, a memoir that details what it is that can change the mind of someone who has extreme, hateful views. A perspective we dearly need as hate spreads and becomes everyday.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lou

    I, myself, am agnostic/non-religious, but I don't have an issue with others believing in a higher being as in this life, we need to hold dear those things that bring us comfort. The trouble really begins when a religious group turns into a cult. I first heard about Westboro Baptist Church through Louis Theroux's programme some time ago and finding it intriguing I knew when I spotted this that it was right up my street. Megan Phelps-Roper delivers a scathing attack on the indoctrination and behav I, myself, am agnostic/non-religious, but I don't have an issue with others believing in a higher being as in this life, we need to hold dear those things that bring us comfort. The trouble really begins when a religious group turns into a cult. I first heard about Westboro Baptist Church through Louis Theroux's programme some time ago and finding it intriguing I knew when I spotted this that it was right up my street. Megan Phelps-Roper delivers a scathing attack on the indoctrination and behaviour she experienced all through her childhood and formative years. What I love is that it very much reads like a thriller but of course, it's real-life; you have to keep reminding yourself that the author went through these shocking things. Unfollow is a raw and honest written account of life both inside and outside the church and her struggle to escape from a life and family she no longer wanted to be part of. She has finally been able to move on from this and is living freely but there is no doubt it will impact her forever. A deeply moving and emotional read written in an exquisitely compassionate and forgiving tone, and I am so glad to hear of her meeting and marrying the man she loved. This rings with a powerful authenticity and will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time to come. Phelps-Roper pens a brave and fiercely inspirational book in which she sings like a bird finally released from its cage. Highly recommended. Many thanks to riverrun for an ARC.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." -- Ephesians 4:32 There are books that put me through the proverbial wringer, and there are books that almost cause me to shed a tear or two (but out of 'things will be alright' happiness, not sadness). Phelps-Roper's memoir is one of those books. This is the first great non-fiction book I've read this calendar year. The author is the granddaughter of the founding minister for the Westboro Baptist Chu "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." -- Ephesians 4:32 There are books that put me through the proverbial wringer, and there are books that almost cause me to shed a tear or two (but out of 'things will be alright' happiness, not sadness). Phelps-Roper's memoir is one of those books. This is the first great non-fiction book I've read this calendar year. The author is the granddaughter of the founding minister for the Westboro Baptist Church in the small capital city for Kansas. The WBC first gained attention and then infamy during the early 90's when members - a large majority of whom were immediate family members of Rev. Phelps - would picket at various city locations with signs reading 'God Hates Fags.' (I detest just typing that awful phrase right now.) Their subsequent efforts included loudly and fully blaming the 9/11 attacks on the 'sinfulness' of American citizens, and also celebrating at the funerals of U.S. military personnel. Phelps-Roper's mother was the daughter of Rev. Phelps and a sort of executive officer or assistant for the man, so she [the author] grew up fully immersed in the family church and its 'unique' ways. Thankfully, Phelps-Roper enters young adulthood during the time when social media is picking up steam in the world. Through communication with many types of people all over the world - and a natural curiosity that is often associated with our post-teenage years - she begins to question and be very concerned about the heavy-handedness of her church's doctrine. Things move into 'code red' territory when her aging grandfather is unceremoniously removed from power and a couple of younger men seize control, with a council of elders now tamping down on the members' freedom. (The women more-or-less become second-class citizens, fully answering to the men in their life.) Phelps-Roper and her younger, college-age sister decide to leave the family fold - being branded sinners and then excommunicated from the church - and escape to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is powerful stuff. As one of Phelps-Roper's new friends mentions late in the story it took A LOT of courage for her to simply walk away from the only life she ever knew. (And, for the record, I am also very bothered by the religions and/or families in the U.S. that shun people just for choosing not to follow a certain sect or denomination -- this country was partially founded on religious freedom, folks!) Phelps-Roper does a phenomenal job in retelling her experiences, and her eventual two-pronged realization that 1.) her family's church was spewing hatred and 2.) that good and decent people in this world exist with all sorts of orientations or religious beliefs was heartwarming.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This is memoir 4 of my Non-fiction November memoir project. Unfollow chronicles Megan Phelps' journey out of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for anti-gay protests and general awfulness. Megan shows it from the inside (her grandfather started the church) and I think anyone interested in cults or extremism will learn a lot about the tactics used to make people behave in ways that seem so unforgivable, and also to understand the keys to helping them work their way out. As a person coming fro This is memoir 4 of my Non-fiction November memoir project. Unfollow chronicles Megan Phelps' journey out of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for anti-gay protests and general awfulness. Megan shows it from the inside (her grandfather started the church) and I think anyone interested in cults or extremism will learn a lot about the tactics used to make people behave in ways that seem so unforgivable, and also to understand the keys to helping them work their way out. As a person coming from a background of similar religious beliefs (if not the insular committee,) I sadly related to a lot of this, and some of her realizations resonated in ways I hadn't actually considered before. She likely has a long road ahead of her, still isolated from her family still in the church, and the almost 30 years of brainwashing that (trust me) surfaces in bizarre ways. Being raised in an extremist religion creates an internal running dialogue of doctrines and verses and teachings. Megan captures this experience in a way I've never been able to articulate. Her long mental journey out also comes with the realization that Westboro is not as unique as we want to believe it is, that extremism and hatred are on the rise, and I'm glad she is working to counter it from this point forward. I have ao many pages marked but read an ARC so feel I can't put them here. I am likely to buy it and reread it so check back. I had a copy of this book from FSG books through netgalley and it came out October 8, 2019.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jenna Bookish

    This post will be a little different than most on my page; I’d like to post less of a formal review and really talk more about why this book is so important to me. In terms of quality, I’ll be brief. Megan is eloquent and this subject matter of her memoir is totally riveting. Every time I had to set this book down to take care of real life felt like a chore. But beyond being an enjoyable read, a lot of what Megan had to say feel so terribly timely. We live in truly weird times. The internet is fo This post will be a little different than most on my page; I’d like to post less of a formal review and really talk more about why this book is so important to me. In terms of quality, I’ll be brief. Megan is eloquent and this subject matter of her memoir is totally riveting. Every time I had to set this book down to take care of real life felt like a chore. But beyond being an enjoyable read, a lot of what Megan had to say feel so terribly timely. We live in truly weird times. The internet is forever and a ruined reputation can be increasingly difficult to escape, especially for anyone remotely in the public eye. Strangers snipe at each other on Facebook in public comment sections. Ten year old tweets are dragged from the depths of Twitter to discredit people who have long since grown out of and apologized for the attitudes they expressed at the time. Let me be clear; this is not anti-accountability. People who mess up or hurt people should apologize and see if there is a way to make amends to those who were harmed. But implicit in Megan’s story is a message that is, at its heart, simply pro-empathy. Megan left her church in large part because of people who were able to stop seeing her as a cog in the Westboro machine and engage with her as a human being. They pushed back against her harmful ideas, but treated her as a person who was capable of improvement rather than a person who needed to be punished. It is never the responsibility of harmed parties to try to change the extremist views of those who have hurt them. But for those who do have the ability and emotional energy to do so, we must first empathize. We cannot change views that we don’t take the time to understand. We cannot change people whom we treat as inherently unworthy and irredeemable. Megan was raised in a church that, like many extremist groups, taught her the world would reject her forever because of the way she grew up. If we want more people to experience the growth that she did, we must always be prepared to prove them wrong about us. You can read all of my reviews on my blog, Jenna Bookish! Facebook | Instagram | Tumblr

  9. 5 out of 5

    Canadian Reader

    Rating: 2.5–rounded up Phelps-Roper’s memoir tells of a young woman’s growing up in an extreme, cult-like, and bigoted Christian-fundamentalist church, also providing some general details about how she managed to break away. The book is too long by at least a third. Phelps-Roper includes lots of text messages, plenty of tears, and an excess of scriptural passages—a reader understands quickly enough that church members’ acts were based on literal interpretation of the Bible, and he does not requir Rating: 2.5–rounded up Phelps-Roper’s memoir tells of a young woman’s growing up in an extreme, cult-like, and bigoted Christian-fundamentalist church, also providing some general details about how she managed to break away. The book is too long by at least a third. Phelps-Roper includes lots of text messages, plenty of tears, and an excess of scriptural passages—a reader understands quickly enough that church members’ acts were based on literal interpretation of the Bible, and he does not require biblical verse after verse to get the point. The chapters are very long and occasionally tedious. While the book is not badly written, I can’t say I was unhappy to get to the end of it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    “God hates fags.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the may “God hates fags.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality. By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem perfectly normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church turned to for its beliefs and actions. Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick a dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go where the First Amendment can’t protect them. All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d just about had enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting and this interlude ended up being my favorite section. There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing. Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G. Originally published, with images, on my blog, Bookish Beck.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lloyd

    I can imagine Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is the biography the author, Megan Phelps-Roper, needed to write, but publishing just the sequence of events doesn't make it nearly as interesting of a read as it could have been. The book is missing scrutiny and the story ends when her healthier life starts. The author seems very successful at putting herself back at that age in that place. And she touches many unimaginably emotionally sensitive times in her life I can imagine Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is the biography the author, Megan Phelps-Roper, needed to write, but publishing just the sequence of events doesn't make it nearly as interesting of a read as it could have been. The book is missing scrutiny and the story ends when her healthier life starts. The author seems very successful at putting herself back at that age in that place. And she touches many unimaginably emotionally sensitive times in her life including the legacy of physical abuse and the coup against her mother’s role in the church. It’s surprising that she doesn’t weigh the change in leadership of her church as the main catalyst of her disillusionment. How she described these events was also the chapter where I gave up on getting anything raw. I wanted to understand really who the new elders were and what her and the old leaders where like and how the transition happened. The message of how controlling they were was clear, but not by whose authority and how they maintained that authority. I couldn't relate to or understand adults being submissive to the emotional abusive community. The author touched upon how the decision process seemed open previously, but I suspect it was actually a straight patriarchy with her family being favored. If the change in leadership really was impenetrable to the author that would have been interesting to document and comment on more as well. Throughout the book it is a historical account sewn together with the Christian biblical quotes that enabled her justification. Although the prose is very good, I waited the whole book for her reflections and insights. It left me disappointed. Did the author finish the story? Did she exhaust herself in the emotional work by recounting her painful experiences? Or is she keeping her recent experiences for herself and the privacy of her new family. The book’s “back cover” description ends “Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of ...” But we only get the less interesting *half* of her life. What is interesting to me is who she became in the seven years since freeing herself; how she continues to reprogram herself and how she made dating & relationships work while hopefully developing independence. The author doesn’t seem to revisit how gross her family’s view of the lack of possible mates was. How was she able to re-orient this to a healthy pursuit once she escaped? What makes her relationship with her husband successful? It’s wonderful she is a new parent. Does she have any professional plans? She tells us she is no longer praying, but what does her spirituality look like now? Since drafting this review, “I've watched the author's incredible TED 2017 talk: I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left.” Why wasn't that content included and expanded upon in the book?

  12. 4 out of 5

    ~Jo~

    I can entirely understand that Megan Phelps-Roper felt like she needed to write her experiences with the Westboro church on paper, I really can. I just don't think she did it well. Phelps-Roper grew up in an extreme religious cult, that being called The Westboro Baptist Church. These individuals are dead set against the LGBTQ community, and they take part in sick protests to inform the people as much. They also celebrate at American soldiers funerals, considering it as an act of God. While growin I can entirely understand that Megan Phelps-Roper felt like she needed to write her experiences with the Westboro church on paper, I really can. I just don't think she did it well. Phelps-Roper grew up in an extreme religious cult, that being called The Westboro Baptist Church. These individuals are dead set against the LGBTQ community, and they take part in sick protests to inform the people as much. They also celebrate at American soldiers funerals, considering it as an act of God. While growing up Phelps-Roper appeared to accept this, as she grew up, it was then she began to question her beliefs of the church, and her own personal beliefs, until she made a move to leave the church. The first half of the book was quite interesting, and although she didn't go into as much history as I'd hoped, it was certainly readable. As I read on into the second part, it was pretty obvious of how repetitive this was, and the constant text messages was tiring, and definitely not helpful to elaborate on the story. I think this book could have been halved in length, and it would have been improved. I appreciate that to leave the church must have taken a great amount of courage, and I admire Phelps-Roper for that, but I just don't think this book was written well enough. Sometimes, it's a relief to be an atheist.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    A brave book Meghan is one of the granddaughter’s of the once afeared leader and pioneer of Westboro Baptist, after many years she has left and this book details her childhood and life in the church, her decision to leave and then the repercussions of her leaving and finally her life now I had great sympathy for her throughout the book as basically she was born into a family cult of hate masquerading as Christianity and as a child knew no better and at a very young age was made to go to daily pick A brave book Meghan is one of the granddaughter’s of the once afeared leader and pioneer of Westboro Baptist, after many years she has left and this book details her childhood and life in the church, her decision to leave and then the repercussions of her leaving and finally her life now I had great sympathy for her throughout the book as basically she was born into a family cult of hate masquerading as Christianity and as a child knew no better and at a very young age was made to go to daily picket lines shouting ‘God Hates Fags’, ‘Rejoice in 9/11’ and ‘Pray for more dead children’ amongst other pleasantries and she thought ( as was indoctrinated ) that this was normal and correct, reading the parts of her childhood I would say she was mentally and often physically abused especially by her Mother and was brought up in a regime of hate not love It is then very interesting how via Twitter her take on things starts to change and she, slowly at first, starts to question this way of life and how she can escape the family, not as easy as we on the outside looking in would imagine The initial shock factor at the family and the church and what they do to gain notoriety starts the book with a roar of indignation from the reader but you soon realise just how powerful the family rule, this then leads to many ( and I mean many ) musings by Meghan re biblical verses, her families views and also their dynamics and tbh it did get a bit repetitive and samey, there is only so much shock value you can have and then only so much reading about a family make up before your mind wanders The leaving the family is quite a drawn out affair and I found myself annoyed that as an adult she didn’t just tell them where to go and leave at once, however as said its easy looking in without ‘living it’ The author has to be commended for writing this book, pitied for having such a childhood/teenage existence and congratulated for leaving and having a future but this book will not suit everyone and I wonder if a shortened say magazine article would satisfy many readers who want to know the key points and how she is doing now? Difficult to score tbh so will take the easy way out and say for surviving this family and being able to write this book it has to be a 10/10 5 Stars

  14. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    The Westboro Baptist Church has been a staple of Topeka, Kansas—and the American religious landscape—for decades. The inflammatory rhetoric of its congregants, who spread condemnation and cheer on tragedy, has brought them both worldwide fame and notoriety. Megan Phelps-Roper, as a granddaughter of the church’s founder, grew up with this as her backdrop, where protesting homosexuality and soldiers’ funerals with vulgar signage were regular occurrences. With an upbringing steeped in extremism, Ph The Westboro Baptist Church has been a staple of Topeka, Kansas—and the American religious landscape—for decades. The inflammatory rhetoric of its congregants, who spread condemnation and cheer on tragedy, has brought them both worldwide fame and notoriety. Megan Phelps-Roper, as a granddaughter of the church’s founder, grew up with this as her backdrop, where protesting homosexuality and soldiers’ funerals with vulgar signage were regular occurrences. With an upbringing steeped in extremism, Phelps-Roper evolved not only to accept these views, but to offer full-throated support as she disseminated hateful rhetoric as a digital content manager for the church. And then Twitter changed everything. Megan Phelps-Roper doesn’t try to hide or rationalize many of the things she said and did as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. There are no long-winded apologies begging for forgiveness from anyone who was ever targeted by her family’s protests. That simple gesture elevates her memoir. Rather than feeling like an uncomfortable apology tour, Phelps-Roper provides an insightful, painful examination of her stepping away from an organization devoted to self-righteous cruelty. And she does this in the most surprising way of all: she finds the human side of a group often associated with inhumane treatment. After all, Westboro is a small church primarily comprised of members from one family—they’re her parents, siblings, cousins. From this familial connection she’s able to draw on happy times, from sleepovers with her grandmother to inside jokes with her sister. It makes the juxtaposition against the ever-present ‘God Hates Fags’ signs all the more horrific. Yet this sense of community ultimately leads to Phelps-Roper’s removal. As small questions about doctrine become impossible to ignore, she finds herself confronted with a wave of debate on the social media accounts she was tasked with curating. She’s an eloquent author, and the inner turmoil she obviously felt while trying to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the wider world she explored digitally is palpable on the page. Refreshingly blunt and seemingly honest, Phelps-Roper has managed an affecting look at fanaticism, family, and self-discovery. Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley. Review also posted at https://pluckedfromthestacks.wordpres...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ross Blocher

    Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist Church. Normally, attending a Baptist church would be nothing special - that describes some 50 million people in America - but Westboro is set apart for its reputation as (in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center) "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America". They're known for public protests with large, garish signs that hurl offensive zingers like "THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS", "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL", "GOD HATES JEWS Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist Church. Normally, attending a Baptist church would be nothing special - that describes some 50 million people in America - but Westboro is set apart for its reputation as (in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center) "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America". They're known for public protests with large, garish signs that hurl offensive zingers like "THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS", "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL", "GOD HATES JEWS", or most famously, "GOD HATES FAGS". They've really leaned into the latter: their URL is godhatesfags.com. These are the kinds of Christians that most other Christians can point to and say, "That's too much. I'm not with them." Not only was Megan Phelps-Roper born into the congregation, but she is the granddaughter of the church's founder, Fred Phelps. One confounding fact shared in the book is that Phelps used to be a civil rights lawyer in the 60s. Most of the 80-or-so people in the congregation are members of his family: Phelps had 13 children, and Megan is one of 11 born to his daughter Shirley Phelps. It would be easy to assume they're all dumb, or inbred, but the family's intelligence is readily apparent and key to their success. It's what has allowed Westboro to win court cases (all the way to the Supreme Court, in which Megan's mother Shirley played a central role) and play the media and internet for press and notoriety. In Unfollow, Megan provides a look at what it's like to grow up in that atmosphere. The fear of hellfire is deeply ingrained. A girl's hair can never be cut, but men can't grow theirs long (what would Jesus do??). Skirt lengths are monitored. Nail polish can only be subtle, grandpa-Fred-approved shades. To avoid any appearance of evil, a young woman can't be alone with a man. You may attend a public school, but you'll spend your lunch break with your family picketing that school with signs. Vacations will be road trips to picket funerals, and you'll be overjoyed if you're chosen and trusted to participate. You're used to appearing on the evening news. Every argument has a clear resolution and prescribed restitution, with the loser identified as morally culpable. Bible verses are intensely memorized and woven into the fabric of conversations. Of course, the Westboro crowd has its own, idiosyncratic selection of verses that are emphasized above all others. The Bible is unerringly correct, straightforward, and Westboro is the only group that understands it correctly. It might as well have been written in the King James Version, because that's the only valid translation. They are deeply Calvinist, preaching a hardened form of predestination that leaves most people un-elect and invariably doomed to hellfire. Megan describes all of this, along with more human stories of love and affection, all without judgment. It would be easy to brush off the family's beliefs and practices as stupid or immoral, but she doesn't go there. There's a lot of compassion and unpacking of motives. This may sound perverse, but if what they believe is true... then they're doing the right thing. One can sense Megan's careful recognition that her family may someday read this account, and she doesn't want to turn them away or throw them under the bus. ** There be spoilers ahead ** As Megan becomes more involved in the family's affairs and [importantly] social media presence, we begin to see the tendrils of doubt that shift her perspective. On the Church's Twitter account, she finds clever ways to respond to critics, finding that positivity goes a long way to throw others off balance. In the process, she finds some detractors to be compassionate and decent, which similarly throws her off balance. (There's a lesson to be learned about engaging our ideological adversaries with kindness.) Megan begins an extended personal correspondence with a man, initially known only as CG, on Words With Friends. Who knew a phone-based Scrabble replica would be the primary battleground for her struggle with faith? She begins to flirt with dangerous questions, such as why does the church preaches the unreliability of "the heart" and yet point to the heart to justify its reliance upon the Bible? Or even more dangerous... does God even exist? Other factors add to these mounting questions. BBC documentarian Louis Theroux, who profiles the family multiple times, grows close to the family, and expresses his concerns. A major reorganization within the church's governance structure puts a group of men in charge of everyone's business, casting doubt on the church's biblical foundations. The new leaders censure Megan's mom, and even lie on social media about the protests. Megan finally confides in her younger sister Grace, and her trepidation to do so reminds me of so many tales from other high pressure groups. When Megan does finally leave, Grace joins her. The process is as painful and uncomfortable as one might expect. They aren't the first to have left the family, and other defectors have been painted as selfish, immoral reprobates. Megan wants desperately not to be seen that way, but knows there's no avoiding that portrayal. It's the only way the church can still claim infallibility. The story of Megan's post-Westboro transition is equally fascinating. Megan and Grace go to see their grandpa Fred, who the church has just marginalized and removed. They end up at the Airbnb of a Jehovah's Witness couple, which invites more questions of scriptural interpretation and emphasis. Megan and Grace learn that they have different goals and personalities, and must forge independent lives of their own. Megan struggles with the pieces of her identity and worldview; having to carefully determine what is still true and what is healthy, and probe just how to make amends for her previous public persona. She tries to meet up in the real world with her Words With Friends partner, and wants to see if her romantic interest is reciprocated. The entire story is beautifully told and filled with compassion, reflection, and depth. That signature Phelps intelligence is apparent and put to positive use in her writing. I took note of the casual, artful use of words such as concupiscence, dispositive, rapprochement, condign and recondite, which paints a funny picture of how those Westboro conversations must have gone. No wonder she did well in Words With Friends. This is a story filled with hope for our world: where there is kindness and concern for truth, people like Megan and Grace will break the molds of hate. You can hear it all in her own voice, and I recommend the audio version. If you want a sampling, you can watch Megan's fantastic TED Talk.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Carrie Poppy

    Fantastic.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Woodbury

    You know when a book involves religion that I am going to start my review with a caveat: my experience with this book was incredibly specific to my own history, brought up in a conservative patriarchal religion that I eventually left after a difficult internal struggle. It was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me but it was an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. Even so many years later when I've had the opportunity to talk to many people with similar experiences, I don't You know when a book involves religion that I am going to start my review with a caveat: my experience with this book was incredibly specific to my own history, brought up in a conservative patriarchal religion that I eventually left after a difficult internal struggle. It was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me but it was an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. Even so many years later when I've had the opportunity to talk to many people with similar experiences, I don't always find we have much in common. It can be a very vast spectrum. I certainly would not have expected to relate to the experience of Megan Phelps-Roper, as I am very familiar with the abhorrent activities of the Westboro Baptist Church. And yet, I cannot think of any other book I have read or story I have heard that hit me so hard. I cried. A lot. I was often overcome with emotion and memories of my own pain. That Phelps-Roper is able to do this is a testament to how thoughtful and clear this book is, far beyond what I could have imagined. Even if you haven't had this kind of experience, I think Phelps-Roper expertly walks the line of giving you a full, complete picture of her life both inside and outside of the church. This is something not many people are able to do, they cannot portray a place and culture with empathy after they leave it behind, but she remains clear-eyed. She can describe abuse and mistreatment but she also describes everyone, even her grandfather Fred Phelps, WBC's leader and the man behind so many of their awful policies, with deep affection and care. As much as you want to villainize the members of WBC, Phelps-Roper insists on portraying them as the people she grew up loving and still loves. Her journey out of the church is little by little and then all at once (mine was also like that) and because WBC is so extreme, nearly every reader will be relieved as she starts to question and reject their teachings. I also related deeply to her search after leaving WBC for a new personal belief system, another truly difficult and lonely experience. That she is able to write about these experiences with such insight and thought only 7 years later is astounding. Often in memoir people try to tell a traumatic story like this too early before they can really see it. There are occasional glimpses of this but just whispers, and she wisely keeps those out of the spotlight. One of the most affecting books I've ever read, and one of the few books that can really explain an extreme religion. A good companion to Leah Remini's TROUBLEMAKER, less funny but more fulfilling. A note for queer readers: this book contains many many many many uses of the f-word. So many.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Fiona

    Arguably the most extraordinary episodes of Louis Theroux’s documentary series were those in which he visited Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. ‘The Most Hated Family in America’, the activities of the Phelps were not well known, if at all, in the UK before the first programme was broadcast. Extremism in any form is frightening to see but was particularly difficult to watch because so many children were involved. They were raised in an environment of pure hatred portrayed as God’s will. We wond Arguably the most extraordinary episodes of Louis Theroux’s documentary series were those in which he visited Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. ‘The Most Hated Family in America’, the activities of the Phelps were not well known, if at all, in the UK before the first programme was broadcast. Extremism in any form is frightening to see but was particularly difficult to watch because so many children were involved. They were raised in an environment of pure hatred portrayed as God’s will. We wondered why social services weren’t involved. It’s not surprising that some church members left when they reached adulthood but it is refreshing to listen to this daughter of the church analyse her upbringing and the actions of her elders so openly and honestly. The final chapter, in which she likens the narrow and damaging views of Westboro to the nurturing of intolerance towards those who are ‘other’ in Trump’s America, is very moving. By having the courage to leave the church, she has lost her family and that must be very difficult, particularly as she is now a mother herself but I’m glad that it has brought her peace and happiness. I listened to an abridged version courtesy of the BBC.

  19. 5 out of 5

    SheLovesThePages

    ⛪BOOK REVIEW⛪ UNFOLLOW by Megan Phelps-Roper -DESCRIPTION- This is a memoir by the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the infamous pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church. We get a view of the emergence of the church, Megan's childhood, and her eventual leaving. -THOUGHTS- 1. Wow. Just wow. Not only do I have such a huge respect for Megan, but it definitely makes me stop and remember that although many of us are sickened by the message of the WBC, that these are real people, who have been born into this rel ⛪BOOK REVIEW⛪ UNFOLLOW by Megan Phelps-Roper -DESCRIPTION- This is a memoir by the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the infamous pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church. We get a view of the emergence of the church, Megan's childhood, and her eventual leaving. -THOUGHTS- 1. Wow. Just wow. Not only do I have such a huge respect for Megan, but it definitely makes me stop and remember that although many of us are sickened by the message of the WBC, that these are real people, who have been born into this religion...as most people are. 2. At first you may be annoyed by Megan's justification of the picketting, the villification of the counter protestors, and her blind allegiance...but trust me, it's all intentional. We are on this trip with her. The members of this church have things in common with most of us, as much as we wish they didn't. 3. Megan's writing is beautiful. I thought it was brilliant that she not only quotes the Bible throughout...but then once she has left, she starts quoting other literature. Her way of thinking is super spot on for me. I've had a similar realization with Christianity. -RATING- ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ I highly recommend this memoir. -SIMILAR RECOMMENDED READS- The Sound of Gravel Half Broken Horses Glass Castle

  20. 5 out of 5

    Paige Cuthbertson| Turning_Every_Paige

    Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper {review} . . . . I read this with my book club in January, and it was a lot to take in. Megan grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and was a key member for most of her adult life. She was the granddaughter of the pastor, a secretary, the person in charge of communication and social media, etc. Since she grew up in the church, she has very personal active and eyewitness involvement in this story, and it is fascinating. Westboro, to put it briefly, is a hyper-C Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper {review} . . . . I read this with my book club in January, and it was a lot to take in. Megan grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and was a key member for most of her adult life. She was the granddaughter of the pastor, a secretary, the person in charge of communication and social media, etc. Since she grew up in the church, she has very personal active and eyewitness involvement in this story, and it is fascinating. Westboro, to put it briefly, is a hyper-Calvinistic church (cult) that hates gays. And they are as loud, hateful, obnoxious, and bigoted as any Pride Parade you might see on the news. And all, they claim, in service to God. Megan’s story is heartbreaking. She was so devout, so compassionate, so tender-hearted amidst this whole ordeal. I admire her earnest search for the right thing. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style, and seeing her heart in her work. Her love story was such a sweet and bright spot in this dark story. But Megan breaks my heart because she never comes to the truth. Instead of realizing that Westboro’s interpretation of the Bible was completely and horrifically wrong and trying to find out what God TRULY says, she left His Word altogether, and I find that so sad. I hope the real Gospel can find its way to her still, and pray for her as she continues her journey. I think this book spoke to me on a personal level because I am Independent Baptist myself. And I grew up in a church that has always preached truth and done so in a loving way; however, while I have never been in a church anywhere nearly as radical and extreme as WBC, I have heard the way a lot of fundamentalists speak about homosexual people. And it really caused me to check my heart and my attitude. I believe that Biblically, marriage is made of one man and one woman, for life. But that doesn’t mean a gay person deserves any less of my love and respect. Jesus loves sinners— myself included. I must never be one to “cast the first stone,” but speak the truth with so much love, compassion, and kindness. That is how Jesus would do it, and that is what truly makes a difference. Warning: this book does not shy away from the details of how vile this church’s picketing “ministry” is. There is strong language, descriptions of sex acts, etc. Not for the faint of heart! 4 ⭐️ .

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andy

    Megan Phelps-Roper is the voice we all need to hear in an increasingly polarized, angry and hateful world. It's so much easier to think of the Westboro Baptist Church as a bunch of evil, stupid loony tunes. It's so much easier to think of a lot of people as evil, stupid loony tunes (and of course some of them are). But by introducing her family as intelligent, loving and complex human beings (with an abhorrent and hateful worldview) *in effect if not in intent*, Megan forces me to consider that a Megan Phelps-Roper is the voice we all need to hear in an increasingly polarized, angry and hateful world. It's so much easier to think of the Westboro Baptist Church as a bunch of evil, stupid loony tunes. It's so much easier to think of a lot of people as evil, stupid loony tunes (and of course some of them are). But by introducing her family as intelligent, loving and complex human beings (with an abhorrent and hateful worldview) *in effect if not in intent*, Megan forces me to consider that all the people I want to write off might also be intelligent, loving and complex human beings. Furthermore, by writing about how good-faith human connection and engagement eventually changed her mind, Megan has challenged me to approach everyone in the world around me AS IF good faith human connection and engagement is the only way for me to ever get my point of view across or actually understand theirs. Taking this message to heart makes the world a better place. It makes my life more interesting and keeps me constantly learning. It leads me to have conversations across differences I would have blanched at before. It leads me to a place where I can actually understand the position of people I disagree with so we can at least have a conversation in good faith. Hearing Megan and Grace's story has made me a less hateful person. For that I will be eternally grateful to them. Everyone should read this book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    Megan Phelps-Roper's narrative of her transition from her early life as a die-hard, bible-thumping, sign-carrying member of the Westboro Baptist Church to her departure from the church and even her family (who make up the majority of members) is a tale of hope for rational and compassionate thought in America today! The book somewhat reminded me of Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, which I thought was very well-written. Phelps-Roper's is perhaps not q Megan Phelps-Roper's narrative of her transition from her early life as a die-hard, bible-thumping, sign-carrying member of the Westboro Baptist Church to her departure from the church and even her family (who make up the majority of members) is a tale of hope for rational and compassionate thought in America today! The book somewhat reminded me of Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, which I thought was very well-written. Phelps-Roper's is perhaps not quite as well written, but she may be excused as a novice writer. Her book is a much more personal, first-person account, loaded with emotion, which may hinder the clarity in some areas. Stories in which the protagonist has a huge change in their perspective are very important in current times. There is so much despair with the dichotomy and knee-jerk antipathy when we try to discuss differing points of view. Megan's grandfather, who was a young lawyer actively involved in civil-rights cases founded The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas back in the 1960s. The entire family became involved in both the church and in the family law company; however, the church doctrines, although not racist, became very dogmatic in interpreting America's late 20th and early 21st century woes as punishment from God for not following the bible literally, especially in matters of moral degradation and homosexuality. A key mantra of the church was literally, "God Hates Fags!" coupled with a belief that the LGBTQ community was sent by Satan to destroy America. All family members, including the children, were expected to picket parks, schools, and even military funerals with signs calling attention to the moral failings afoot in the USA. This is the environment Megan grew up in. Totally enveloped in an ostensibly close-knit and loving family, she bought into the ideas that it was her church and family (who were chosen by God himself) to fulfill the Lord's mission, and she felt somewhat at ease with the extreme doctrines, at least until she grew older and the logical fallicies and inconsistencies in the church's biblical interpretations overwhelmed her sense of rationality. Interestingly, her mother and aunts, being members of the family law firm, had taught Megan to think critically and pursue outstanding questions. This was so she could rebuke the erroneous claims of "unbelievers" who accosted the picketing church members. However, as church doctrine hardened, and noticeably morphed the male "elders" control of the female members, Megan had an epiphany and confided with a younger sister, with whom she eventually left the church and Topeka. The open-minded Megan was also gradually influenced by people she faithfully and honestly debated on Twitter. In these online discussions, she started to learn that outsiders were not all evil Satanists, but often had valid points she could appreciate. She often felt empathy and compassion that they were not going to "saved" like her. The great news about this story, is that it shows how people who can, with the right environment, eventually use their own critical-thinking skills and "see the light" to break out of the dogmatic thinking that holds them prisoner. Megan is somewhat of a unique case, in that she grew up open-minded, loved to question and to think independently for herself. Obviously, this is not always the case for most members of fringe groups. Encouragingly, Megan Phelps-Roper didn't just ride off into anonymity but wrote about her experiences. She hopes to convince others who remain caught up in cultlike thinking to trust their own thoughts and sense of justice, rather than soley rely on a group of "elders" that thinks for them and controls their lives. I think and hope we hear more from her, as she is well-poised to help breakthrough our culture's logjam, where two sides cannot hear each other over their own spite and venom, stuck in the thought that they must be the only group who can be "right". She believes that free-speech is important. Even poorly thought-out and dogmatic ideas can be entertained, as long as we are able to rationally debate them on the marketplace of ideas and truthfully evaluate them.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Chris Steeden

    I had heard Megan on the Sam Harris podcast and she came over really well. Intelligent and articulate. It was amazing to me that she had this former life where she was a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBP) in Topeka, Kansas. Her grandfather was the pastor back in 1991 when the outrageous picketing signs began to be used. Before the podcast I had seen the eye-opening Louis Theroux documentary. Megan was five years old in 1991. How could she understand what was going on? She was w I had heard Megan on the Sam Harris podcast and she came over really well. Intelligent and articulate. It was amazing to me that she had this former life where she was a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (WBP) in Topeka, Kansas. Her grandfather was the pastor back in 1991 when the outrageous picketing signs began to be used. Before the podcast I had seen the eye-opening Louis Theroux documentary. Megan was five years old in 1991. How could she understand what was going on? She was with her family and of course she would follow them. It is very clear how much Megan loved her family and recites how Fred Phelps, her grandfather, met her Gran and started the church. The Phelps part of the family is from her mother’s side. Fred was a civil rights attorney in the 1960s and 1970s. At home he sounded like a tyrant to his children and his wife. ‘Until fear of God replaced fear of pain, this was how you learned obedience’. This is not a sensationalist read with tabloid-like exclusives on ‘The Most Hated Family in America’. It is a much more thought-out piece of work. In the podcast she was still able to quote a lot from the bible and she does here as well to show her thinking at that time when she was with the church. Everything was backed-up with a quote. They lived their life by the scriptures. Megan’s life will turn, as we know from the title of the book, but so does the church when the old order is thrown to the side and her brother, Sam, and another member of the church, Steve, take over. This is certainly a turning point but there is also another. Megan recites well the big questions in her head when she became wary of the scriptures and what she had been taught all her life. You can really feel her struggling with that. She was being pulled in all directions. Both Megan and her sister, Grace, are very brave. Leaving the church and their family when they knew nothing else. It is a gamble. No doubt but it was something they knew they had to do. OK, so this is not the rollicking, salacious book it could have been. The front cover of the book is a giveaway. It is quite slow but I have no issue with that. It would not have been right for Megan to make money off the back of the church by making it a tabloid read. It is her book and she has certainly made it hers. I wish Megan all the best for the future.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Figgy

    After watching Louis Theroux's original visit to the Westboro Baptist Church over a decade ago, and his visit around 2012 (either just before or just after Megan left), I was fascinated to know how someone so embedded in a familial culture of hatred could see the light, as it were, and leave that culture behind, especially knowing that it would likely mean excommunication from the family. So, needless to say, I am UNBELIEVABLY curious and excited to dive into this one! After watching Louis Theroux's original visit to the Westboro Baptist Church over a decade ago, and his visit around 2012 (either just before or just after Megan left), I was fascinated to know how someone so embedded in a familial culture of hatred could see the light, as it were, and leave that culture behind, especially knowing that it would likely mean excommunication from the family. So, needless to say, I am UNBELIEVABLY curious and excited to dive into this one!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Emmkay

    I started to understand that doubt was the point - that it was the most basic shift in how I experienced the world. Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. 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 I started to understand that doubt was the point - that it was the most basic shift in how I experienced the world. Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. 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. Certainty sees compromise as weak, hypocritical, evil, suppressing empathy and allowing us to justify inflicting horrible pain on others. Doubt wasn’t the sin, I came to believe. It was the arrogance of certainty that poisoned Westboro at its foundations. I’m always fascinated by well-told stories of how people genuinely come to make a sea change in their lives and to depart in unexpected ways from what seems to be a set course. Religious fundamentalism, though not part of my own background, is also interesting to me. Megan Phelps-Roper’s story is quite something. The granddaughter of pastor Fred Phelps, she was raised in the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, wielding “God Hates Fags” placards from early childhood and encouraged to see the world in black-and-white, millenarian terms. As a young adult, she became a key social media voice for the church, but it is there that something interesting happened. Some of the people who interacted with her online, rather than just going for the attack, spoke with her kindly and presented their opposing viewpoints to her (including her future husband, with whom she played Words With Friends!). Coupled with her own increasing observation of hypocrisies and contradictions within the church, this sowed the seeds for her departure. The church is comprised largely of her own extended family, and the rupture’s pain is evident throughout her memoir. A really valuable read, with lots to think about in how we interact with each other, how we make change, families and their rifts, and the value of reading and thinking and doubt. 4.5.

  26. 5 out of 5

    TJL

    Second Verse, Same as the First: Don't feed the damn trolls, kids. Don't do it. And while she spoke in vaguer terms at the end, the author's got a good message about tribalism, and a total unwillingness to "give a platform" to speech you deem as "harmful", unwillingness to debate, etc, etc. I mean, just two days ago I was on Tumblr and- no joke!- witnessed one of the unironic, infamous instances of "Um, excuse me, I thought I should tell you that this person you're reblogging from is a Republican, Second Verse, Same as the First: Don't feed the damn trolls, kids. Don't do it. And while she spoke in vaguer terms at the end, the author's got a good message about tribalism, and a total unwillingness to "give a platform" to speech you deem as "harmful", unwillingness to debate, etc, etc. I mean, just two days ago I was on Tumblr and- no joke!- witnessed one of the unironic, infamous instances of "Um, excuse me, I thought I should tell you that this person you're reblogging from is a Republican, and that means he's ~problematic~ and you shouldn't be following him/associating with him." And like clockwork, the replies were coming in "Thank you!" "OMG I DIDN'T KNOW!" "I am SO sorry that I've reblogged things from this evil person!" "Golly, I'll unfollow him right now!" It's fucking Orwellian (and very typical of Tumblr tbh), tribalistic, and I give the author a lot of credit for calling that sort of mindset out in the book- I give her even more credit for outlining why "refusing to give ideas you don't like a platform" doesn't really work in this day and age. I mean, it's gonna go in one ear and out the other because- well, y'know: "Me and MY side aren't the problem, they and THEIR people are!" But it's still a good message.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Toni Kely-Brown

    I’ve always had an interest in the human construct of religion (particularly high control groups). Having really enjoyed Tara Westover’s Education (and this being compared to it), I was disappointed. Megan shares her story of being raised in the Westboro Baptist Church (one of those American fire-and-brimstone religions). She was indoctrinated from birth and sincerely believed she was spreading the truth of "God". She left the church (which meant her family and everything she ever knew) when she I’ve always had an interest in the human construct of religion (particularly high control groups). Having really enjoyed Tara Westover’s Education (and this being compared to it), I was disappointed. Megan shares her story of being raised in the Westboro Baptist Church (one of those American fire-and-brimstone religions). She was indoctrinated from birth and sincerely believed she was spreading the truth of "God". She left the church (which meant her family and everything she ever knew) when she was 26. Parts of this were good, but I felt overall it could have been edited tighter and it wasn’t a satisfying read. Whilst I understood the reason for including scripture, I found myself skipping it altogether after a while (it felt repetitive). I don’t feel I got real insight into why Megan was able to question everything she every knew, leave her church and her family and start a new life.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    It’s hard to imagine what it was like for Megan to grow up in a hateful, deluded and arrogant religion that was invented by her Grandfather but then also be part of a clearly loving, intelligent and well educated family?! This memoir is written with gut clenching honesty, I felt physically sick and so angry at times but Megan’s beautiful writing and search for her ‘truth’ carry you through. Up there with Educated and The Glass Castle as some of the best memoirs of people over coming their twiste It’s hard to imagine what it was like for Megan to grow up in a hateful, deluded and arrogant religion that was invented by her Grandfather but then also be part of a clearly loving, intelligent and well educated family?! This memoir is written with gut clenching honesty, I felt physically sick and so angry at times but Megan’s beautiful writing and search for her ‘truth’ carry you through. Up there with Educated and The Glass Castle as some of the best memoirs of people over coming their twisted upbringings.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jultri

    4.5/5. There are many parallels to be drawn between this book and the remarkable Educated. Both are autobiographies written by exceptionally intelligent and highly articulate young ladies who grew up in fundamentalist Christian households. Despite their respective oppressive and strict upbringings, both still manage to look back on their childhoods and families with fondness. This is where the similarities end as while Tara Westover's family were happy to practise their beliefs in the seclusion 4.5/5. There are many parallels to be drawn between this book and the remarkable Educated. Both are autobiographies written by exceptionally intelligent and highly articulate young ladies who grew up in fundamentalist Christian households. Despite their respective oppressive and strict upbringings, both still manage to look back on their childhoods and families with fondness. This is where the similarities end as while Tara Westover's family were happy to practise their beliefs in the seclusion and relative privacy of rural USA, Megan Phelps-Roper's family belongs to the infamous and widely despised Westboro Baptist Church, founded and led by her grandfather. This abrasive Church delighted in media publicity by staging loud and offensive protests targeting a variety of groups including homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, and European royalty. They grotesquely celebrated the loss of lives after 9/11 and also rejoiced at military funerals interpreting these tragic events as God's punishment against sinners. The author was recruited from early childhood to be an active and vocal participant in these protests. She became one of the main faces of the Church in her early twenties until developments within the Church and outside influences led her to question the Church's previous infallible teachings. Megan Phelps-Roper's story is absolutely riveting. The Church's beliefs and their highly public expressions of these beliefs were so outlandish and repugnant, it was hard to fathom that such educated people (many were law graduates working for the family law firm) managed to hold on to these fanatic and distorted convictions while still studying and sometimes working alongside 'normal' Americans. She frequently inserted biblical passages to illustrate the Church's justifications for these extremist views. These recitations of the scriptural quotes gave us a clear insight into the zealotry of the followers, demonstrating the effectiveness of the Church's brainwashing such that they all rehash the same quotes, the same verses to justify the Church's teachings. They also made me wonder, how much of the the Westboro Church's biblical interpretations are still ingrained in the author's mind, even now years after leaving the Church, for while she questions many of the Church's most offensive and controversial doctrines, there were many others that she left unchallenged. The author did a splendid job narrating her own memoir. She imparted an earnest yet intense quality to her words that felt just right. "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. Certainty sees compromise as weak, hypocritical, evil, suppressing empathy and allowing us to justify inflicting horrible pain on others." “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.”

  30. 4 out of 5

    ❤️

    This book had me feeling things I did not expect to feel... I remember years ago watching Louis Theroux's two documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church. Before that, I had no idea these people even existed. Watching the documentaries for that first time, I can remember feeling uncomfortable and intensely angry, and I remember even laughing at some moments because I just couldn't believe the nonsense coming out of these people's mouths. See, it's always been easy for me to dismiss and even ri This book had me feeling things I did not expect to feel... I remember years ago watching Louis Theroux's two documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church. Before that, I had no idea these people even existed. Watching the documentaries for that first time, I can remember feeling uncomfortable and intensely angry, and I remember even laughing at some moments because I just couldn't believe the nonsense coming out of these people's mouths. See, it's always been easy for me to dismiss and even ridicule the highly religious. I grew up, for the most part, with a sense of having a choice in what my beliefs (religious and otherwise) were. I was baptized as a baby because my parents felt pressured by my mother's family, but other than that, religion was not something that had much of a place in my upbringing. However, when I was in middle school, while my father was dealing with depression, intergenerational trauma, and a severe workplace injury that all led to addiction issues, he temporarily found god in the hopes that replacing his addiction for religion would be his cure. I remember him suddenly talking about Jesus all the time and the bible and bringing me Left Behind books in the hopes that I'd take on his newfound (though, ultimately, thankfully, short-lived) beliefs. But I never took to it. I'd been raised to be a curious child, a knowledge seeker, and an independent thinker. And I did think about what my dad was telling me, but it didn't sound right to me. It didn't make sense. And frankly, even as a twelve year old, I felt strongly about rejecting any type of god, any form of religion, and I was confused and upset that my father could fall victim to it (even if just temporarily). Having family who suffered through residential school at the hands of priests and nuns, my lack of belief didn't just come from the fact that I was genuinely skeptical of the existence of any type of higher power, but also from the resentment I felt due to the trauma I saw in my paternal family and felt within myself which stemmed from government-sanctioned religious conversion. But I was a lucky girl. My family allowed me to discuss my feelings on religion openly with them, and my dad (who mellowed out on the whole Jesus thing and therefore didn't push me to believe in the god he was trying to believe in) eventually realized religion wasn't the answer he was looking for. And that was that. So, yeah, religion, nevermind religious fanaticism, has always been something I have freely rejected. And it was easy for me to dismiss the people behind these beliefs as simply being stupid. I didn't even remember that Megan, the eldest daughter of the Phelps-Roper children, had left the Westboro Baptist Church until I heard that this book was coming out this past autumn. Immediately, I put it on my list of books I wanted to read, and I started to read it as soon as I had a copy of it in my hands. Going into it, I assumed that I wouldn't have much of a reaction to her memoir aside from my previous emotions regarding Westboro. I went into it with a prejudice against Megan. Sure, I was glad that she'd left the church, but I judged her for having been a grown twenty-seven year old woman before she came to her senses. I questioned why it took her so long. I went into her book ignorant of the fact that I was judging her for that. I'm not a cold-hearted person though, so I anticipated feeling some kind of empathy for her, but I didn't expect to feel it in the way that I did, or that I'd come out of having turned the final page with the awareness that I started off the book without a true understanding of religious extremism at all and how it gets passed on through younger generations who know nothing else but those beliefs. Megan writes of her upbringing in the Westboro Baptist Church with an elegance and clarity that surprised me. Where one might expect her to justify or shift blame for her past actions (like protesting funerals and holding up the most vile of signs that I will not repeat here) or to even try to claim that she was always doubtful of her family and church's beliefs, she instead gracefully details her day to day life and her thought processes during her childhood, teenage years and early adulthood, explaining how she made sense of what had been taught to her. The fact is, Megan, like all of her siblings, were raised from birth with Westboro's crazy ideologies taught to her as fact. Since birth she had been, frankly, brainwashed. The fact that she was able to start asking questions and thinking for herself and to eventually have enough strength to leave is actually quite astounding. It's something, until reading her memoir, I didn't truly appreciate - in fact, I don't think I appreciated it at all. It was easy for me, someone who's always had a choice in her beliefs, to not have to consider how difficult breaking free of the sort of upbringing Megan had truly is. It's easy to think, initially, "why is it so hard to ask questions? Why is it so hard to see that this is wrong?" But you have to understand the enormity of the effects of religious extremism, brainwashing and, well, cults to recognize that that's not as simple of a question as you think. And yeah, it's hard to fully grasp that enormity. I still can't wrap my head around how people can come up with and believe some of the wackier religious beliefs they have. How they can so vehemently spew hate and abuse and then call it love on behalf of 'the one true god'. How they can say these things and do these things and live their lives by these words and rules and never ever question it. But through her words, I think Megan helped me to understand in a way that I am able to. At the very least, I sincerely empathize with what questioning her faith and coming to the realizations that she did must have felt like for her as someone who for all of her life didn't even realize that was an option or thought that even the tiniest niggling of doubt or curiosity would send her straight to hell. And I have an enormous amount of respect for the bravery she had when she first left and that she still carries with her today as she continues to take her story to the public and participates in discussions on how to mitigate religious extremism. There's nothing that she can do to take back the utterly hurtful things she said and did while still with Westboro, and there's only so much apologizing a person can do before it starts feeling overdone and meaningless. But using her platform the way she does shows me that she not only is a changed person but a good person. This is a memoir that is fascinating (in a multitude of ways), maddening and sad and eventually heartening. And it's eye-opening, also in a multitude of ways. Like me, you may not think that a book about the life of an ex-Westboro Baptist Church member could be both full of empathy and capable of making you feel empathy ('Westboro' and 'empathy' are usually not words that coexist in the same sentence). But it really is. The subject matter, which is Megan's life, is complex, but she expresses herself and her past with a writing style that is affecting and easy to fall into. I found this to be a beautiful, thoughtfully written memoir that is extremely timely and important. A strange choice, in some ways, I think, to kick off a new reading year, but I am grateful to have read it, and I'm sure it will stick with me for a long, long time.

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