SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to Megan Phelps-Roper about her debut memoir about leaving the notorious Westboro Baptist Church …
Before I interviewed Megan Phelps-Roper, I watched all three of Louis Theroux’s BBC documentaries, The Most Hated Family in America, 2007, America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis, 2011, and Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, 2019. They focus on the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), founded in Topeka, Kansas in 1955 by the late Fred Phelps, a radical preacher and civil rights activist. Membership mainly consists of immediate and extended family and a handful of outsiders. Seen by many as a cult, the Phelpses are biblical purists whose constant referral to scripture supports whatever argument they spout – many of the Phelpses are lawyers. They’re known for their inflammatory “hate speech” particularly directed at LGBT+ communities, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and US soldiers and politicians; in their view they’re simply spreading the message of God as they see Him.
Since 1991 the Westboro Baptist Church has travelled all over the US antagonising groups whose ideologies they disagree with. Their formidable matriarch is Shirley (daughter of Fred Phelps) who has eleven children, three of whom have now left, including Megan and her sister Grace. Megan’s memoir Unfollow chronicles her turbulent family history and the factors that drove her towards a new beginning. When I catch up with her, she’s undertaking a juggernaut world book tour.
Once at the coalface of WBC’s social media accounts, including Twitter, Megan spent a lot of time online arguing with strangers who – strangely enough – would be later partly responsible for her awakening. They include David Abitbol (founder of blog Jewlicious), her husband, Chad Fjelland, with whom she fell in love while playing Words with Friends (the Facebook equivalent of Scrabble) and film-maker and actor Kevin Smith whose 2011 film Red State was inspired by WBC and who launched a Twitter campaign to #SaveMegan. How, after a lifetime of indoctrination, did strangers on the internet change Megan’s viewpoint – and ultimately – her whole way of life?
“Online I felt ‘safe’ – which allowed me to be more open and vulnerable than when I was in a physical space with other people,” she says. “It permitted conversations to take place over time, and allowed outsiders to develop a better understanding of Westboro’s theology. When people stopped trying to shame me, started trying to really understand me, and took the time to respectfully challenge my ideas, that was when the magic happened. They helped me see things from their perspective by taking mine into account. We should never underestimate the power of compassionate engagement to change hearts and minds.”
When, in 2012, aged 26, she and her sister Grace (18) walked out the door, the first thing they did with their new-found freedom was re-connect with siblings and cousins on the outside, before running to the black hills of Deadwood, South Dakota and checking into an inn – to read. Megan describes herself as a bookworm, but due to her strict upbringing and constant stream of chores, she never had enough time to read. The sisters thumbed through their literary bucket lists, including The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. In her current pile, Megan has two books relating to Ireland; Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else by Maeve Higgins and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe.
Unfollow was never going to be a light read. However, Megan writes with the focus of an academic; her imagery is elegantly crafted. Her pages feature scriptural quotations to illustrate her views, which gives a flavour of how the Westboro-educated mind works. She is a font of knowledge, not just about her former faith, but about other religions and cultures. Though she certainly delves into the darker corners of her past, she doesn’t appear angry, or bitter. Her tone is measured, matter-of-fact, balanced. Has the process of writing such a memoir been a cathartic one?
“The book actually started as an essay for my husband,” she says. “I felt I needed to explain some things about my past that had affected our relationship. When I finished that essay, I sent it to a friend of mine, a college professor, who edited it for me, then told me that I had to write a book. The process of writing that essay had been both painful and incredibly healing, and I knew I needed to continue.”
Since leaving WBC, Megan has travelled thousands of miles, engaging with groups very different to her own. Her 2017 Ted Talk “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left” has had more than eight million hits on YouTube. Unfollow is now being adapted for film by Reese Witherspoon and Nick Hornby. “At the very beginning, just after I left, there was a little scepticism towards me – but that went away almost immediately. I had lost almost everything and everyone I had ever loved, and the pain of that loss was evident. People understood that I wouldn’t have given up my beloved family and everything else if it wasn’t a matter of deep principle. I’m now an advocate for the people I was taught to despise and dedicate my life to dismantling and overcoming hatred.”
By the third Theroux documentary, the once vivacious and strangely charming Shirley Phelps-Roper cuts a lonely figure. Towards the end of Megan’s time in the church, power shifted to eight “elders” – all male, determined to remove any influence the matriarch and even the founder himself once had. In 2015, Fred Phelps died alone, shunned and buried in an unmarked grave. Has she been in touch with her mother since news of Unfollow was announced?
“I always hope for reconciliation with my family, especially my mom and dad and siblings,” says Megan. “I’ve been reaching out to them in the hopes of reaching them the way that others reached me. Members make it a habit to speak incredibly disparagingly about ex-members. I’m sure that’s how they speak of me now too.”
Louis Theroux has become a mentor of sorts. Megan emailed him on leaving the church and he has endorsed the memoir. “He understands what I came from better than most,” she says. “He read an early draft of Unfollow and had some really insightful thoughts. He thinks about things in such a humanistic way, which the old me would have been dismissive of, but which I now think is beautiful. At Westboro, we disparaged humanity. Humans are capable of such destructive things, but there is so much hope for us to find better ways of living. I want to be part of that.”
What does she think readers will take from Unfollow? “I hope they find hope. And the idea that it’s worth engaging with people we disagree with. That is how change is brought about. That what we do matters, and that our choice to reach out – even in limited ways – can make a huge difference in our own lives and the lives of others.”
Unfollow, €16.99, Riverrun, by Megan Phelps-Roper, is out now.