Book review: Unfollow – a journey from hatred to hope (leaving the Westboro Baptist Church)
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 (google books)
I remember being outraged at the Westboro Baptist Church when they first rose to prominence. I remember reading about some of the hateful, vile things they said about gay people and just sat crying silently in my room. For a very brief while, reading what they said became a form of self-harm for me. I hadn’t come out yet and I hadn’t even fully accepted my sexuality myself, but these people were only solidifying the shame and hatred for myself that I already felt. But I never dug any deeper than that. I never wanted to read anything more about them and I didn’t know any individual names. Now, almost a decade on I stumbled across this memoir by one of the church’s defectors – Megan Phelps-Roper and curiosity got the better of me.
From the very beginning I knew it was going to be a book that would alter my mindset. I read about Megan’s seemingly normal (as normal as you can get when you’re regularly picketing outside of your own school) upbringing and family life. I remember reading a sentence or two where she states that her mother was taught to view all children as a blessing and a gift from god. Megan goes on to say that she felt very loved by her mother and it felt like a punch in the gut. These people who had come to be the epitome of hate loved their children more than my own mother.
What shocked me most about the book – especially the first few chapters which were full of background info – was how unshocked I was by it. I didn’t read about their times picketing funerals of war heroes or about the times they wished for more children to die in slack-jawed disbelief because I already knew that happened. What I found amazing was how very wrong my perceptions of these people had been. They are intelligent and they truly believe in what they are saying. They have been told all of their lives, from the moment they’re born, that their way is the right way and it is their duty to warn everyone who isn’t them that they’re heading for hell. I didn’t flinch at their homophobia; I felt pity and sadness that this small-minded, colourless life is all they may ever know.
Towards the end I was horrified by the church’s treatment of Shirley. I constantly swing between hating her ideals and feeling very sorry for her throughout the book. Her love for her children and her father is apparent and she dedicated her whole life to lifting up the church – no matter how misguided that was. When she was eventually pushed aside my heart broke for her but I also wanted to scream at her for staying put and watching her daughters leave.
Throughout it all I was amazed by Megan’s humbleness and unflinching storytelling. She didn’t shy away from speaking about the horrible, horrid things she had said and done, and she didn’t turn the book into one long condemnation of westboro. She was honest about her disagreement with just about everything they stand for but that they were still her family and she loved them dearly. I was also amazed by the calmness of the people on Twitter who politely countered Megan’s views and ultimately, through kindness and patience, helped her see things from a different perspective. Although I don’t get into twitter spats (more so for my image than not being bothered and being able to let it go) I block and sub-tweet and like argumentative responses to tweets I don’t agree with. It made me realise that, not only do I not have the patience to engage with people like Megan was, I wouldn’t have the right words that could possible change such an entrenched mindset. For all my strong views on certain subjects I’m not very well read on any of them. From this book I’ve realised that my approach to views is closer to that of WBC that Megan’s and the people who helped her. Because of this book I want to do better. I want to educate myself on topics important to me and I want to adopt the level of kindness and compassion seen from the people written about in the latter part of Unfollow. We are all human after all.
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