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Why Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper will be your 2019 must-read

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Sarah Shaffi
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If you loved Educated, this memoir by TED speaker and former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper will be the perfect book for you.

Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir Educated was the shocking and compelling story of the author’s life growing up in a survivalist family. Westover’s parents, who were part of the Mormon community in rural Idaho, didn’t send her to school and didn’t believe in medical treatment beyond natural remedies. It was an extraordinary memoir, the type of book we wish we could read for the first time again and again.

Lucky for us, this autumn will bring a book that sounds perfect for fans of Educated. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in Westboro Baptist Church, and her memoir Unfollow will recount her upbringing in the Christian group — which is well known for its hateful rhetoric — and her path to leaving.

Here’s everything you need to know about Megan Phelps-Roper ahead of reading the book.

Who is Megan Phelps-Roper? 

Megan Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. She grew up in the church, joining her first picket line at the age of five. She spent the next 20 years at numerous protests, and also played a crucial role in the group’s use of social media to spread its messages.

Phelps-Roper joined Twitter in 2009, and said that initially, “the people I encountered on the platform were just as hostile as I expected”. 

Phelps-Roper was part of the church until she was 26, leaving in November 2012, along with her younger sister, and has since done a TED Talk which has been watched more than 7.5 million times. 

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What is Westboro Baptist Church? 

Westboro Baptist Church was opened in 1955 in Topeka, Kansas by Fred Phelps, whose family is still involved to this day. It’s well known for its hate speech, especially against the LGBTQ+ community, Muslims and Jews. It’s monitored as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Centre. The latter describes the church as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America”.

The church has been peddling its rhetoric for decades and one of its main methods of operation is the picketing of funerals. Westboro Baptist Church became widely known when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who died of injuries inflicted in a hate crime in 1998.

Since then the group has gained attention for picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which it began doing in 2005.

Why did Megan Phelps-Roper leave Westboro Baptist Church? 

In her TED Talk, Phelps-Roper explains that her decision to leave the church was “triggered in part by strangers on Twitter who showed me the power of engaging the other”.

She describes a typical interaction when she first joined: “Someone would arrive at my profile with the usual rage and scorn, I would respond with a custom mix of Bible verses, pop culture references and smiley faces. They would be understandably confused and caught off guard, but then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world?”

People she talked to on Twitter had taken the time to understand what Westboro believed, and were able to find inconsistencies that Phelps-Roper had missed.

“How could we claim to love our neighbour while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?” says Phelps-Roper in the TED Talk. “The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe.

“These realisations were life-altering. Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually it made it impossible for me to stay.”

Phelps-Roper said she knew her family would never speak to her once she’d left the church, but she was embraced with “open arms” by people outside Westboro.

“I wrote an apology for the harm I’d caused, but I also knew that an apology could never undo any of it,” says Phelps-Roper. “All I could do was try to build a new life and find a way somehow to repair some of the damage. People had every reason to doubt my sincerity, but most of them didn’t. And — given my history, it was more than I could’ve hoped for — forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt. It still amazes me.”

What does Phelps-Roper do now? 

Phelps-Roper has become an advocate for the people and ideas she was taught to despise, and now works to promote understanding through better discourse. She works regularly with schools, faith groups, law enforcement and more, and has appeared on shows including Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America and The Story of Us, a National Geographic series by Morgan Freeman. And she’s written a book about her experiences, Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope.

When can I read Unfollow?

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

Unfollow will tell Phelps-Roper’s story. She’ll recount her time as a member of Westboro Baptist Church, the activities she took part in there and what led her to leave. Unfollow is out in October, but it’s already being made into a film written by Nick Hornby and produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Unfollow is out on 8 October in the US (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) and in the UK (riverrun, £14.99).

Images: Michelle Wray / riverrun

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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