Phelps-Roper is a masterful writer. She writes movingly about the searing pain of separation from those she continues to love, and beautifully about how freeing herself from a theology of hate has given her life greater meaning and purpose. In a time of growing intolerance, Unfollow is essential reading.
... [Phelps-Roper] paints a nuanced portrait of the lure and pain of zealotry, though she leaves many questions unanswered ... for readers who aren’t as familiar with the Testaments, the scriptural passages may be overwhelming ... Unfortunately, the book dodges the overarching question of whether Westboro is an aberration or an extension of the dogmatism of many religious adherents who lack tolerance for theological diversity. As someone so deeply enmeshed in religion, the author is in a unique position to ponder the overlap between extremist and mainstream religiosity, or the ways many mainstream evangelicals have driven the culture wars in the name of their God. She’s also oddly silent on her take on religion now—on whether or not she still considers herself a Christian, whether she believes in God at all.
Phelps-Roper provides a vivid sense of what it felt like to be a child in this unusual family ... increasingly, as she developed her own sense of right and wrong, submission became less tolerable. The author does a particularly nice job charting this growing tension ... One might approach this book wondering how a group such as Westboro can exist in 21st-century America. What feels remarkable, after reading Phelps-Roper’s story, is that she was able to leave at all.
I wish Phelps-Roper were able to tell us more about how her grandfather came to his bizarre theology, especially given that his early career as a lawyer was that of a white man from the South who represented primarily African American clients in Topeka ... what will be difficult for most readers, I suspect, is understanding, as Phelps-Roper writes, how 'people who were otherwise bright and well-intentioned could believe and behave as we did as members of Westboro' ... The story of how Phelps-Roper extricated herself (and one of her sisters) from Westboro unfolds like a suspense novel.
It’s true that Phelps-Roper is in a unique position to dwell on the inner workings of an extremist group—as a once-active Westboro member, she’s familiar with the ways that group dynamics and values can become distorted. But ultimately, Unfollow is too focused on her own escape from the church (and on the family members who remain ensconced in it) to shed much light—or to show much empathy for those whom Westboro so ruthlessly targeted, often at their most vulnerable ... There is, unfortunately, a dearth of real outreach in Unfollow. Although Phelps-Roper believes her experience can help others appeal to people who are immersed in reactionary beliefs, she seems most engaged when she’s talking about her own family members who still belong to Westboro ... her focus on the family highlights what the book is lacking—a sustained effort to grapple with the divisions that Westboro created with a vengeance ... What goes unanswered is how getting her family out of this holding pattern will actively help the communities they’ve spent their lives vilifying ... Despite being an expert on 'communication across ideological divides,' Phelps-Roper rarely seeks out anyone who might truly challenge her ... Overall, Phelps-Roper’s victims don’t factor into the story, aside from the shame that she feels at having participated in their victimization ... At one point, Phelps-Roper draws an analogy between her leaving the church and a gay person’s coming out. But to my knowledge, the New Yorker has not run a profile of someone for simply coming out. At times like this, the author can’t help but reveal who she really empathizes with—her family, and herself. Unfollow is far more concerned with the haters than with the hated. In this sense, the book might be helpful to people who want to lure others out of extremism. As for those who have been tormented by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church—they’ll have to wait for another book.
You get a sense of the church’s insidious grip on its members in the tortured logic of Megan’s account of the way empathy became the instrument for keeping her and others in the fold ... It’s a satisfying story, well told in terms of what happened and the way the church’s various mechanisms of control operated inside Megan’s own psyche. Where it falls a little short (and suffers in comparison with Tara Westover’s recent incandescent memoir of flight from a different kind of fanaticism, Educated) is in its somewhat perfunctory investigation of the underlying forces that drove the church’s behaviour. ‘I needed to believe that our ministry had not been influenced by the pathologies of a human being,’ Megan writes at one point. But clearly they had – and that human being was the man who founded it, Fred Phelps. She half-acknowledges it, but seems still too attached to Gramps to examine the intriguing biographical facts in her possession with any kind of clinical attention ... there is one rather staggering fact about Fred Phelps that would under normal circumstances merit lavish praise, and that even in this context adds an indisputable moral dimension to whatever psychological drama may also have been playing out in his life. This is that...Phelps spent three decades as a civil rights lawyer and activist, a notably courageous one ... Megan reports all this but seems at a loss to adjudicate it, much less reconcile it with the subsequent chapter in her grandfather’s ministry. It looms over her story, a seemingly unassimilable enigma that perhaps can’t be resolved but certainly can’t be ignored.
Phelps-Roper paints a nuanced portrait of Westboro as a group of human beings capable of both spreading hate-filled messages and living out their deep love for one another ... In a time of polarizing rhetoric, Phelps-Roper is a gentle, powerful voice speaking for compassion and thoughtful conversation. She explores the contradictions in Westboro's thinking, and is candid about her own ability (and later her increasing struggle) to gloss over the cognitive dissonance required to remain 'faithful.' By leaving Westboro and wrestling through several dark, lonely seasons, Phelps-Roper has found her way to a different understanding of the world: one filled with humility and hope instead of hatred. Unfollow is a fascinating insider's account of life at Westboro and an urgent, timely call for dialogue and understanding.
[Phelps-Roper] thoughtfully unpacks her gradual awakening to compassion and living from the heart in order to help the very people against whom she used to protest ... A unique, engaging memoir peppered with Bible verses to help illustrate how dogma can both shape and distort the truth. An excellent addition to collections containing Amber Scorah’s Leaving the Witness and Tara Westover’s Educated.
... excellent ... Phelps-Roper’s intelligence and compassion shine throughout with electric prose ... an eye for detail, and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. She admirably explicates the worldview of the Westboro Baptist Church while humanizing its members, and recounts a classic coming-of-age story without resorting to cliché or condescending to her former self. For anyone interested in the power of rhetoric, belief, and family, Phelps-Roper’s powerful, empathetic memoir will be a must-read.
Eloquent and entirely candid, the book offers an intimate look at a controversial church while telling the moving story of how one woman found the courage to stand against the people and beliefs that she held dearest ... A heartfelt and richly detailed memoir.