Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My parents lived in Topeka, KS, during the 90s, and I was born there, less than three miles away from Westboro Baptist Church. During this decade, Westboro started picketing along Gage Boulevard in Topeka and gained worldwide notoriety in the process. Westboro Baptist was primarily comprised of the Phelps family at the time, and the entire family, adults and children, picketed gay people, sin and many other things on an almost daily basis. One of the picketers was only five years old when the practice started, and it was this child, Megan Phelps-Roper, who eventually left Westboro and wrote “Unfollow” about her life in and out of the church.
While I only lived in Topeka for a couple of years after I was born, I have heard about Westboro throughout my life. They made the news often during the 2000s for a variety of terrible things: thanking God for AIDS, rejoicing in the aftermath of 9/11 and protesting the funerals of soldiers. Phelps-Roper and her family participated wholeheartedly in all of these events, never faltering in the face of widespread criticism and blistering media attention.
As an adult, Phelps-Roper was active on Twitter, defending the church on the Internet, when suddenly she stopped tweeting and appearing at picket events organized by the church. #WhereIsMeganPhelpsRoper started going around on Twitter. People knew something was up. Then, on Feb. 6, 2013, Phelps-Roper and her sister, Grace, posted a short statement on the blog site Medium. In the post, Phelps-Roper and Grace revealed what many had speculated: they had left Westboro and were excommunicated by their family and congregation for no longer believing in what the church preached.
All of this information frames the context of Phelps-Roper’s book. “Unfollow” is her personal account of growing up in Westboro and ultimately deciding to leave it. Even while writing about heartbreaking topics, Phelps-Roper’s voice is clear and determined to share her story.
And what a story she has to share. Phelps-Roper grew up working in the church, often directly with her grandfather, Fred Phelps, who was the longtime head pastor of Westboro. As she grew up and saw the church and the world change around her, Phelps-Roper began to question some of her most fundamental beliefs as she started striving for independence from the church. She succeeded, but at a terrible personal and emotional cost.
Phelps-Roper does an excellent job of humanizing each person in her book, whether they are a part of Westboro or outside of it. It helps support what she views as a foundational part of her leaving the church behind: it was people beyond Westboro who treated her like a human despite the horrible things she would say to them. It was the people who never stopped treating her like an equal who made her first consider Westboro might have it all wrong.
Phelps-Roper’s words are important in our current “cancel culture,” which seeks to demonize those who may disagree with you. Phelps-Roper found the people who refused to hate her were the ones who rescued her from her own hate. I think everyone should read this book, Christian or not. Phelps-Roper’s message is one which goes beyond religious belief.
Paige Holmes is a senior journalism major from Topeka, KS. Reading is her favorite thing to do because it teaches one how to think, imagine and live. Paige believes there is no better way to learn something or be entertained than by reading a book. Her favorite genre of books is fantasy/thriller and her favorite book is ‘Opening Moves’ by Steven James.