TRIGGER WARNINGS- Homophobia, abuse, sexism, religious extremism, antisemitism.
‘ I want to tell them that the world isn’t evil. That it is full and complicated and beautiful and good…and that it’s waiting just for them. That I’m waiting just for them.’
Unfollow is an astounding memoir from Phelps-roper who left the religious sect of the infamous Westboro baptist church. Westboro is famed for its extremist views- anti-semitism, homophobia and the praise of natural disasters, AIDs, soldiers deaths and school shootings amongst them. Phelps-Roper was born into the church (her grandfather set it up) and publicly picketed for the first time aged five. In 2012, aged 26, she left the church and her family- this is her story.
I have had a somewhat morbid fascination with Westboro since watching Louis Theroux’s documentary The Most Hated Family In America when I was in my early teens. Since then I have watched a vast number of follow up documentaries and read numerous articles by those who left the church. Yet, one question always nagged me- how? How can people believe this? How does it make sense? Of course, the obvious and simplest answer to this is that Westboro is essentially a cult- one that most people are born into and are taught that to leave is to burn in hell. Beyond this, though I always wondered how does this extremity extend into the doctrines of hate that Westboro promotes and more so how does it seem normal? – Unfollow answers this.
Phelps-Roper details every aspect of life as a church member- from the daily routines, to who had which jobs to the family meetings that occurred every morning. She goes one step further than this as she details the horrific abuse both physical and verbal from her grandfather to her uncles, aunts, grandma and mother as well whilst also calling into question her parents behaviour to both her and her siblings. Throughout these ‘mundane’ incidents the realities of living in Westboro emerge- answering the how along with it. Phelps- Roper encourages us to see that this goes beyond a cult- this is family and a way of life and no matter what they are hard ties to break. Couple this with detailed accounts of the bible verses that were interpreted in such a way to support Westboro’s beliefs and you begin to grasp how to those caught up within it there really are no gaps- until someone informs you there are.
The second half of Unfollow centres on Phelps- Roper leaving the church, mostly looking at how her time on Twitter encouraged her to explore, question and eventually separate from what she had been taught. This is where the book really picks up for me- Phelps-Roper takes a deep dive into what it means to no longer have contact with your family, what it means to have said some truly terrible things and how to counter both of those with still loving your family yet wholeheartedly standing against everything they stand for. Her ability to acknowledge the wrong she has done alongside the newfound empathy she has is what makes this book so beautiful- heartfelt, nuanced and inspiring this is a five star read.