A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Extremism
The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America.
At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which,
The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America.
At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life.
A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.
- November 2020
- 304 Pages
“[Phelps-Roper] paints a nuanced portrait of the lure and pain of zealotry . . . She urges all of us to reach out in good faith to those we disagree with, to try to understand the experiences and motives that have shaped their stances, and to realize that grievous behavior isn’t necessarily driven by ill intent.” —Ruth Padawer, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] scrupulous, anguished account of ‘loving and leaving’ the church, a satisfying story.” —James Lasdun, The London Review of Books
“Unfollow is an exceptional book: a loving portrait of a fanatical organization . . . Love, it seems, for Phelps-Roper, is not only the answer, but the one thing she knows for sure.” —Grace McCleen, The Times (London)
“The story of how Phelps-Roper extricated herself (and one of her sisters) from Westboro unfolds like a suspense novel, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say, leaving was wrenching, despite its clear necessity. And life after Westboro was disorienting — liberated but also adrift, Phelps-Roper had to face the guilt over “years I had wasted hurting people in a misguided effort to serve an image of a God that seemed less real all the time.”” —Kate Tuttle, NPR
1. The Quarrel of the Covenant
If a mother thinks something is important enough to take a public position about, shouldn’t she teach her children that value? Where else should children be at the time of public debate? At the local video arcade? I don’t think we should pretend that these vital issues don’t affect children.
—Shirley Phelps-Roper, letter to the editor, Topeka Capital Journal, August 26, 1991
I didn’t understand what was going on, not at first. The signs simply appeared one day and never left, like some undeniable force of nature. I’d guess Topekans experienced their arrival that way, as well. My mother’s family had been a well-known and polarizing presence in the city for decades—but in my memory, the picketing is the beginning, and it started at Gage Park.
It sure didn’t look like a park to me. There were no swings or slides or jungle gyms—just an open field that separated the place where we parked from the busy intersection of 10th Street and Gage Boulevard. As pastor of the tiny Westboro Baptist Church, my grandfather would drive the big red pickup filled with signs he’d made, and the rest of the church—consisting almost entirely of my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, and siblings—would follow in a caravan of vehicles. I couldn’t read the messages Gramps had carefully written since I was still a few months shy of kindergarten, but when I saw photos as a teenager, I was surprised by how small and restrained some were compared to what came later: WATCH YOUR KIDS! GAYS IN RESTRMS.
The adults would pick up as many signs as they could carry, walk them across the field, and lean them against the trunks of the two biggest trees. The rest of us just had to walk by and grab one. During those first few months—June, July, August of 1991—our habit was to hold our signs and walk in a big circle just next to the roadway, cars whizzing by in all four lanes of traffic. The baseball hats my dad made us wear always gave me headaches, but I was glad to have them once I was out there walking in the heavy afternoon heat.
As I got older, I came to learn the story of Gage Park and the events that prompted our first protests. In the summer of 1989, two years before we started picketing, Gramps had been biking through the park with my brother Josh, who wasn’t quite five years old at the time. My grandfather’s custom was to ride ahead a bit, and then circle back—ride ahead, and circle back. One of the times he did so, he thought he saw two men approaching my brother, apparently attempting to lure him into the wooded area shrouded by bushes at the southwest corner of the park. Alarmed and livid, Gramps got to work. He spoke with one park official who told him, “At any hour of the day or night, male couples may be seen entering and exiting the area.” The official also mentioned that he regularly passed along citizen complaints to his superiors—but to no avail. My grandfather soon discovered that sex in the park was a well-documented issue in the local media; sting operations conducted by the Topeka Police Department had resulted in a string of high-profile arrests over the years. A nationally circulated gay and lesbian travel guide listed the park as a “cruisy area”—a place where men could cruise for anonymous sex. Even now, Gage Park is listed in that guide, though a warning was added shortly after Westboro’s picketing began: AYOR. At your own risk.
Armed with this information, my grandfather took action. He began by detailing his findings in a letter to the mayor, opening with a colorful description of the problem (“A malodorous sore with the scab off is open and running at the extreme southwest corner of Gage Park”) and concluding with a question: “Do you think Gage Park’s running sore could be permanently fixed? Your consideration is appreciated.” The mayor’s response acknowledged that the city of Topeka was “well aware of the situation” at the park, and that they were “in the process of putting together a program to bring the situation to a halt.” Nearly two years passed, during which time my grandfather monitored the situation, with no apparent improvement. He continued to write letters to city officials and to appear regularly at city council meetings, insisting that they clean up the park. According to church lore, my grandfather accused city officials of “sitting around like last year’s Christmas trees” during one such meeting—at which point the mayor instructed the police to escort my grandfather out of the council chambers.
Convinced that the city would persist in its idleness, Gramps decided that we would take to the streets and demand that it take action.
In hindsight, our protests were bound to elicit an intensely negative reaction—especially because our message went far beyond calls for the cleanup of Gage Park. Gramps was an “Old School Baptist,” he said, and was determined to represent the Scriptural position on homosexuality. He leapt immediately into attacks on the gay community as a whole, blaming them for the AIDS epidemic and proclaiming that they deserved the death penalty. The Topeka Capital Journal published many Westboro letters, including one signed by one of my aunts comparing the United States to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities destroyed by God “[b]ecause of their sin regarding homosexuality.” She declared AIDS to be “a disease for which the homosexual must take the sole blame” and insisted that the blood of straight AIDS victims “should be avenged upon those guilty of introducing and gleefully spreading this deadly disease: the homosexual.” Even during an era in which disapproval of LGBT people was more common and socially acceptable, it took only four short sentences for my aunt to make claims scandalous enough to outrage most readers—and our signs managed to do the same with even greater economy. MILITANT GAYS SPREAD AIDS. EXPOSE GAY-AIDS PLOY. GAYS ARE WORTHY OF DEATH (ROM. 1:32) = AIDS. And soon enough, what would become our most infamous message: GOD HATES FAGS.
The community response to our protests would mystify me for years, thanks to an ignorance borne both of youth and of the religious education I was receiving at home. I was five years old when the picketing began, and I didn’t understand why anyone would reject our message, let alone why our protests would draw counterprotesters—“counters.” They came every week in the beginning, and I was scared of them at first. “Young punks” and “diseased, probably got AIDS,” Gramps would say. The Bible forbade girls to cut our hair, but some of their women came out with cropped manes colored bright reds and blues and purples—“Kool-Aid hair”—and with metal in their faces. There were boys with mullets, others with half their heads shaved and the other half covered by long black hair that hung in greasy strands across ugly faces. Some looked like my dad, tall and skinny in tank tops and the awfully short running shorts in style at the time, and some were fat and bearded, combat boots on their feet and flannel shirts tied around their waists. They’d come out in angry mobs—fifty, a hundred, more and less—and try to surround our group of about thirty, starting fistfights with the Westboro dads who made a human barrier between us and them. Sometimes there were cops and sometimes there were handcuffs and sometimes we were in them—which wasn’t fair, I thought, because we were just trying to protect ourselves from those “ruffians.” I held my breath whenever I walked by them, so I wouldn’t catch whatever it was that was making them such awful people.
The counters would urge drivers to honk and yell and flip us off, which they did en masse. “Hatemongers!” “Nazis!” “Go home!” “Get a job!” “What the fuck is wrong with you?” “I’m gonna kick the shit outta you!” They threw eggs and beer and big plastic Pepsi bottles filled with urine as they sped off down the road. Drivers and passengers would sometimes abandon their vehicles in the middle of the street, car doors hanging wide open, and cross lanes of traffic to come after us on foot. My cousins and I would scuttle away, back behind Mom or an aunt who stepped between us and them. From behind my sign, I watched them approach us to hit and threaten and shove and bellow and spit and grab for our signs, our bodies, our hair. The police rarely seemed to help, but my parents kept us safe. Still, I was alarmed and angry. How dare they, I raged. That’s my mom! What made them think they could do this to us? Why weren’t the cops stopping them?
But my grandfather had a different perspective on the opposition and scorn we faced: it was proof that God was with us. He would quote Jesus, who warned his disciples to expect the hatred of the world: If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. “In fact,” Gramps would roar during his Sunday sermons, “I’d be supremely afraid if the people of this evil city were on our side!” Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
Musical combat became an important front in the battle for Gage Park, and this was one that I relished: I was too small to physically defend the church against our opponents, but by God I was gonna make myself heard. While they were chanting things like Two, four, six, eight, Phelps is always spreading hate, we would sing hymns or this new song Gramps had written, upbeat and so catchy. It was a parody of Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” and because the first and final lines had the same melody, we could sing it in a loop without end. The end of one verse was the beginning of the next.
Get back in the closet again!
Back where a sin is a sin
Where the filthy faggots dwell
While they’re on their way to Hell
Get back in the closet again!
As time wore on, the counterprotesters’ will to battle us on the streets dissipated along with their numbers. We began to find ourselves alone on the sidewalks. Still, Gramps didn’t take victory for granted. Rain or shine, Westboro members stood vigil along Gage Boulevard every day without fail. We soon wore a path into the lawn, one of the first marks our picketing made on the city of Topeka—this place where the grass suddenly shifted from green and lush to trampled and dead.
My grandfather’s fervor was contagious, and I was proud to stand on the front lines with the church even if I didn’t always understand the message. Yet the decline in direct opposition rendered pickets something of a slog for my young self, and boredom became my new enemy. On days when the counters were fewer and less violent, I’d scan the ground beneath my feet for anything interesting as I walked. Once, there was a small brown mass beside the circle, flies buzzing all around it, and I spent nearly the whole picket trying to figure out what it was. A dead squirrel, I finally realized, making out its once-fluffy tail, now flattened and matted with blood. I was glad the picket was almost over—had it been an hour? Two?—and I reported to Dad, who kicked it away so I wouldn’t have to watch the carcass decay. We’d be coming back.
From the time we first brought our signs to Gage Park, my mom was my most important interlocutor. She spent a lot of time answering questions from my siblings and me, trying to explain what was going on out there: why we were picketing, why everyone was so angry, what it all meant. She had my older brothers, Sam and Josh, memorizing the last fifteen verses of Romans chapter 1—a task I was spared because of my age, but I still managed to get a lot of it down: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly. The only part of my mother’s explanation that really got through to me in the beginning, though, was the overarching theme of it all: that our lives were part of a never-ending struggle of the good guys against the bad. The quarrel of the covenant. This was the eternal conflict between the righteous and the wicked, and we would not back down.
* * *
As it turned out, the vast majority of the righteous had grown up at Westboro and were members of the Phelps family. My father, Brent Roper, was one of the few who didn’t fit this profile: He had grown up Episcopalian. He’d been best friends with my mom’s youngest brother in high school, and as he came to know my mother’s family, he found himself compelled by them. A Tom Petty–loving skateboard stuntman, he ended up converting and joining Westboro when he was just sixteen. It was a big decision. Though the church’s anti-gay protesting was still more than a decade off, its pastor was already a controversial figure: armed with a law degree, righteous indignation, and unwavering antagonism, Gramps had a habit of collecting powerful enemies wherever he went.
My father had seen another side of the family, though. He loved how tight-knit they were, their love and willingness to sacrifice for one another, their dedication to complete fidelity to the Scriptures. Shortly after joining the church, my father took a job at Phelps-Chartered, the family law firm. He would later credit his successful career in human resources to his time working there in his teens and early twenties. The Phelps family taught him diligence, he said—responsibility and a proper work ethic.
He fell in love with my mother, and they married a short four years after he joined the church, when he was twenty and she twenty-six. But only after he’d proved himself worthy to Gramps.
My grandfather demanded that all thirteen of his children and their spouses attend law school and continue the family business, but my mom had always had a special position at the firm. She was dearly beloved by her father, and they’d had a unique relationship from the time she was young. She and Gramps began to work closely together when my mom was just fourteen—and of the seven eldest Phelps children, my mom was the only one who would never abandon the church to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. She urgently took to heart a saying that her father repeated often: “The best ability is dependability.” As a result, her parents leaned on her more than any of her brothers and sisters, and she was entrusted with ever greater responsibility: keeping her siblings in line, managing the law office, taking care of the finances, and more. She learned to run a tight ship, to never settle on her lees. There was always something more to accomplish, and my mother was dedicated to doing it all.
In order to secure my grandfather’s permission to marry my mother, my dad finished high school, worked at the law office while completing a four-year bachelor’s degree in just two and a half years, and, as he told it, narrowly beat out my uncle Tim to get the last available spot in Washburn University’s law school class that year. Neither my mother’s pace nor my father’s slowed after they married. “I hope you will have the joy of the promise of Psalm 127,” Gramps told my parents at their wedding. “As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” It was expected that there would be many children, and it was also expected that those children would be provided for. Understanding this, my father continued working his way through school—next up, an MBA program—and, almost out of thin air, created for himself a second career as an author writing textbooks about legal software and law office management.
Meanwhile, my mother managed the Phelps law firm and cared for our growing family. Her role in the church was ever-expanding, as well. She gave interviews to reporters, organized cross-country picket trips and the scheduling for the whole congregation: the daily pickets in Topeka, the mowing, the daycare, the weekly church cleanings, the monthly birthday parties—her contributions were without end. The dynamics of my parents’ marriage never fit with the paradigm commonly associated with conservative Christianity: that of an authoritarian father dictating to a mealy-mouthed mother who just needed to stay in her place and recognize that her husband always knew better. Wifely subjection was certainly in the Bible, but in practice, my parents operated as a team. My father couldn’t have been further from authoritarian—gentle, intelligent, hard-working, so respectful of my mother’s thoughts, and so undeniably in love with her—and my mother couldn’t have been further from mealy-mouthed. My father never weaponized his husband status to demand my mother’s silence or obedience, and their mutual respect was an example for all. My parents had each found a perfect counterpart in the other, and even Gramps—who hadn’t wanted to believe anyone could be worthy of my mother—was impressed.
By the time my dad finished law school, there were three of us kids: my two older brothers, Sam and Josh, and then me. Over the next sixteen years, eight more children would be born into the Phelps-Roper household. It took me several years to stop shaking my head in bewilderment each time someone would ask “Are you Catholic?” upon learning that I was one of six, seven, eight, nine children. Birth control wasn’t something I realized was even possible, let alone widely practiced. I just knew the verses. Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
“The womb business is God’s business,” Mom summarized. “You can’t outsmart the Lord!”
The Catholic stance against artificial contraception was a relatively fringe position, but—in a pattern that would extend to virtually every aspect of our lives—Westboro Baptist Church was prepared to take it even further, to the letter of the Scriptures as we understood them. And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. It was for God alone to give or withhold children, and even the “natural family planning” endorsed by Catholics was unacceptable. The single time I heard about an aunt of mine attempting to defy God and “counting the days” to avoid pregnancy, it was in the context of her miscounting. She and her husband had been struggling to provide for the six children they had already, but when she’d tried to take matters into her own hands, she’d ended up pregnant with twins. God was teaching her a lesson, my mother said, because my aunt had failed to trust Him. It wasn’t for her to decide when or how many children to have, it wasn’t for her to have any feeling or opinion on the matter at all, except to be grateful to the Lord for each one.
And oh, was my mama grateful. I remember feeling it most in the music, when she would sing to us, always singing. Before I turned five and had to join in with the rank and file for Saturday morning cleaning marathons, my little sister Bekah and I would dance on matching window seats in the living room, mouthing along as Christopher Cross or Fleetwood Mac blared from the big stereo while the others cleaned. Dad would pick us up and twirl us around, and Mom would sashay over with a dusting rag in one hand and a can of Pledge in the other—that sickly sweet scent of chemical lemons filtering through the whole house—and she’d lean in to kiss our cheeks, serenading us at the top of her voice: “No, I will never be the same without your love / I’ll live alone, try so hard to rise above.” This was the same era in which I sat just to her left during church, when she belted out the hymns so high and so loud that it hurt my ears. I discovered that to protect myself from the sonic onslaught, I could stick a finger into my left ear, press myself into my mother’s side, and listen to her sing from inside her body. It was so soothing, the warmth and the vibrations and the feeling of her arm holding me close as I tucked into her. I didn’t know then that this special place at her side would always be mine. That as her eldest daughter, I would become to her what she had become to her father—and as that relationship had defined my mother, so this one would define me. For I was tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother.
Samuel. Joshua. Megan. Rebekah. Isaiah. Zacharias. Grace. Gabriel. Jonah. Noah. Luke.
Sam. Josh. Meg. Bek. Zay. Zach. Grace. Gabe. Jonah. Noah. Luke.
It would be entirely reasonable to expect that my mother’s dedication to doing it all might wane with the birth of each additional child, that it would be impossible for her to maintain that commitment to having her children, her legal career, and her work for our church. Instead, the opposite was true. As our family swelled with each passing year, so, too, did the church’s profile and the added pressure we all faced as a result. I’ve never known another woman who could have stood up under the strain of the burden my mother carried, not without collapsing under the weight of it. She had an inexhaustible supply of strength, tenacity, and resourcefulness—whose origins, it seemed to me, must surely have been divine.
Copyright © 2019 by Megan Phelps-Roper