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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book Review: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper

Megan grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. You know, the ones who picket funerals of veterans and others with unconscionably cruel signs? They were all over the news about a decade ago. Well you can guess their politics but you'll only be half right. You'll also only be half right about the religion, and in the end you'll be very surprised and happy that Megan got out.

She was raised in the church and community. They didn't live on some compound out in the wilderness, but did live in a very tight-knit neighborhood where they helped build each others' houses and all lives within a block or two off each other. Megan's grandfather was the minister, and she was related to everyone in the church. She was brought to her first protest when she was about five years old--long before she even understood what the signs she was carrying meant.

I was shocked to find out that her grandfather, mother and aunt were all lawyers. In fact, I was gobsmacked to hear that her grandfather had been a strong civil rights attorney, fighting for the rights of African-Americans. He somehow reconciled this with his later hatred of gays, and I suppose they are two different things, not a continuum, but that's a world view I was unfamiliar with to hold both of those ideas simultaneously. Megan's mother and aunt really ran the church and the family law firm. Another thing that surprised me was that the family was very involved in the outside world and not closed off. Megan and her siblings and cousins went to public school. They obviously has to know what was going on, in order to protest as they did. Usually with such rabidly conservative outside-the-norm views, blinders are necessary. But not so here. In fact, as the internet blew up, Megan became the voice of the church on social media, in particular on Twitter.

Lots of people engaged with her there. Some much more civilly than others. And she thought she had an answer for everything unbelievers could throw at her. But a couple of doubts crept in. Especially after an incident involving her mother and the church, she had a hard time hanging onto her beliefs. And eventually, Megan left. Which didn't just mean leaving the church but also her family.

I don't want to give too much more away, but it's an amazing story of realization, understanding, and forgiveness. Megan is so open to others and to really looking thoroughly into herself and her blame in everything and her beliefs and her culpability, it's refreshing. Especially in this day and age when people are just getting more polarized--to hear about someone who completely changed sides and what accomplished that and how she coped with the radical change, was fascinating.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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