Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Unfollow chronicles Megan Phelps-Roper’s difficult struggle to leave the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, Kansas, in order to live in the world beyond. In the process, she provides a starkly honest, uncompromising examination of life in the confines of the small community.
From the age of five, she joined the family of ten siblings, parents and grandparents picketing any “sinful” businesses or activities. There was a wide range of these, but dominated by a violent hatred of gays and suspected homosexuals. “God hates Gays” was their mantra.
Any group that the Westboro clan considered was contravening their selected Bible teachings was targeted.
Swept along in the joyful fervour of this, Megan was an ardent participant all through her childhood. She considers it to be happy – respectful parents, though prone to tempestuous rages, tyrannical grandfather to be feared and followed unquestionably. It is surprising to learn she endured this until her 26th year.
Meeting church members from outside the family, Dustin and Lindsey, who had travelled and enjoyed living in the wider world, makes a niggling longing begin. Conversations with them exposes to both Megan and her sister, Grace, the fact that there is much to be explored beyond Westboro.
The book is not an unrelieved account of a bizarre cult/religion. The grandfather, for example, is a complex character. Initially a bullying tyrant, his image alters when Megan relates his untiring battle to defend the rights of black Americans. In Kansas, this further reduced his popularity. Some admired him for this, others sent death threats. He relished his fight against society’s two main evils – black slavery and white supremacy.
On the other hand, his extremist views can be summarised in his slogan: “a little’s good but a lot is better”
With the rise of the Internet, rantings had a new platform. The church’s antics became notorious internationally. The U.K., France, Australia and Germany investigated them. HBO made a series, Michael Moore a documentary. Sweden was vilified.
Megan knew her first loyalty was to the church NOT the truth. However, the brutal beatings from Grandfather and her mother bred thoughts of how their beliefs were drowning logic and rational argument.
So, behind her long arduous path to freedom from this regime. Sympathetic GG texting her on line began her change of direction.
Then, the Elders’ criticism of her mother sealed her intention.
She had loved her family life but a secret, careful preparation begins.
Megan is spurred on by the egregious picketing of the funerals of returned soldiers from Afghanistan. The cruelty and grief this caused was shameful to her. The heartlessness was a stark illustration of their failure to be even slightly relevant to people’s lives.
As a very young child, she was puzzled by the apparent injustice of the fable of Jacob and Esau. Jacob was beloved by God; Esau was wicked and even before his birth was destined to be thrust into eternal flames. This indicates predestination. Human action is futile. God alone decides the destiny of souls. Repentance did not ensure the sinners’ forgiveness.
On the other hand, the chosen must adhere to the path of righteousness.
Unfollow is a detailed testament as to how people can be caught in the web of excessive prejudice thinly veiled in religious belief. Megan’s account of her struggle to come to terms with what the church, in contrast to the world outside has to offer, become quite tense.
Childhood has drenched them all in anger, hatred and intolerance of groups such as gays. It is a huge mental effort to examine and overcome this.
Books are vital in her realising the fallacy of many of Westboro’s ideas. She devours a range of classics, novels and philosophers’ writings.
Their emotional life was deeply affected when growing up. Engaging or arguing with others tended to erupt into rage and confusion. They sorely lacked the ability to engage with reason and restraint.
There is her joyful discovery that it is possible to have friends with differing opinions. She becomes aware that the “one true way” is not limited to religious circles. It dominates the political scene as well.
Unfollow is quite awe- inspiring. It gives a wide-ranging and moving journey of a young woman rejecting a world reduced to “black and white” and even “calcified positions are not impervious to change”.
Like the much praised Educated, this a story of triumph of the human spirit!
By MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER.
Trade Paperback $32.99