Prompt: A book on a subject you know nothing about.
On weekend in lockdown my husband and I sat and watched some of Louis Theroux’s documentaries. One we watched was called The Most Hated Family in America from 2007. In it Theroux spends some time with the Phelps family and Westblro Bapist Church. We then watched the follow up documentaries including Surviving America’s Most Hated Family. Int he documentary he spent at lot of time talking to Megan Phelps-Roper, a young woman who had been born into ans grown up into the church and had recently left. It referred to a book she was writing which straight away I ordered and read: Unfollow: A journey from hatred to hope, leaving Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper is my choice for this prompt.
What it’s about?
As featured on the BBC documentary, ‘The Most Hated Family in America’ it was an upbringing in many ways normal. A loving home, shared with squabbling siblings, overseen by devoted parents. Yet in other ways it was the precise opposite: a revolving door of TV camera crews and documentary makers, a world of extreme discipline, of siblings vanishing in the night.
Megan Phelps-Roper was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church – the fire-and-brimstone religious sect at once aggressively homophobic and anti-Semitic, rejoiceful for AIDS and natural disasters, and notorious for its picketing the funerals of American soldiers. From her first public protest, aged five, to her instrumental role in spreading the church’s invective via social media, her formative years brought their difficulties. But being reviled was not one of them. She was preaching God’s truth. She was, in her words, ‘all in’.
In November 2012, at the age of twenty-six, she left the church, her family, and her life behind. Unfollow is a story about the rarest thing of all: a person changing their mind. It is a fascinating insight into a closed world of extreme belief, a biography of a complex family, and a hope-inspiring memoir of a young woman finding the courage to find compassion for others, as well as herself.
What I think:
This is an extraordinary book.
Megan Phelps-Roper is an intelligent and gifted writer. She conveys her feelings at different points in her Westboro journey clearly throughout.
Having left the church, her feelings about her actions and the role her family play, particularly in picketing the funerals of servicemen have changed, but she manages to convey the passion and the conviction that what they were doing was just and God’s will.
Two things really stood out for me. Megan’s knowledge of the bible and how Westboro used it to inform their actions is phenomenal. Whatever arguments were thrown their way were easily dismissed. Whenever she struggled to make a decision she was able to find guidance and comfort in scripture. Her enquiring mind and knowledge of the Bible is also what ultimately leads her to reject the teachings of her church.
Secondly, the Phelps-Roper family and the extended Phelps family is portrayed as such as close, loving family. Despite their insular nature, Megan and her siblings never missed out socially or culturally. The church was essentially their extended family and holidays were like a family summer camp. As children they picketed with infamous “God hates fags” signs and then went home to a loving and secure family home.
Megan’s disillusionment with the teachings of the church happens slowly, party because of online friendships she makes through social media. Despite her extreme beliefs, people she spoke to online warmed to her passion and sense of humour, and many of these people provided support for her when she was ready to leave the church and her family.
The journey that Megan goes on, her love for her family and her determination to share her story and be a change for good are really inspiring. This is definitely a book I will read again.
Unfollow can be ordered from:
Waterstones: click here
Amazon.co.uk: click here