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Book Review: 'Unfollow'

For people around the world – and particularly in Kansas – Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka is a symbol of extremism and hate.

Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Pastor Fred Phelps, was born into the church, and at age 5 carried signs protesting homosexuality at a park near the family’s home. As she grew, she watched the church – which consisted mostly of her immediate relatives – expand its activities to include protests at the funerals of gay people, military veterans and disaster victims they believed were killed as God’s punishment for the nation’s corrupt values.

In a gripping and richly detailed new memoir, “Unfollow,” Phelps-Roper chronicles her life as part of Westboro and her journey to escape it. She explains how, throughout her childhood, her parents strove to make her understand one idea above all – that God was in charge, and that Westboro’s interpretation of Biblical scripture was absolute truth. “Love your neighbor” meant taking to the street to warn him away from sin.

As the church’s Twitter spokesperson, Phelps-Roper mastered its messaging but also discovered a world of thought beyond Westboro’s walls. Through social media, she began communicating with an anonymous lawyer who engaged her in respectful debate and eventually would change her life.

Phelps-Roper’s candid memoir reflects her struggle against everything she had been taught to believe, her painful departure from the church, and her passage toward tolerance and empathy. In a statement posted online in 2013, Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace offered a public apology: “We know that we can’t undo our whole lives,” they wrote. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on.”

This book speaks eloquently to our polarized times, showing how one woman found the courage to speak up, seek truth, understand others and transform her life.

[Phelps-Roper will be in Wichita this evening for an author talk and book signing – 6 p.m. at Watermark Books, at Douglas and Oliver.]

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.