In Unfollow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct.), Phelps-Roper recounts her experiences growing up in and eventually leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.
What led you to write this memoir?
In 2014, as a Christmas gift, I wrote an essay for my husband, about our story. Writing that showed me there was value in interrogating my experiences while they were fresh—especially because I was terrified of forgetting. There were other reasons to write, too. Since leaving the church, I’ve been working with law enforcement involved in counterterrorism and deradicalization. I hoped that illuminating Westboro’s ideology— and especially the unraveling of that ideology—would be useful to the people doing that work. I wrote for outsiders who didn’t understand why I stayed, and for people at Westboro who didn’t understand why I left.
What was the hardest part about writing the book?
Writing about the period when my faith unraveled was the hardest part. Things were changing, and it didn’t make sense. I couldn’t understand how the people in the church were going along with this, especially as I started to see the contradictions. All my life we had claimed that we were loving our neighbors, and yet we were praying for people to die. “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” [Isaiah 44:20]. That whole process was so awful, and when I was writing about it, my husband would come home and find me weeping in the fetal position on the couch. There are certain members of my family who looked at that writing process and asked why I was doing that to myself. While it was painful, it was also important to me to write about it and process it while it was so fresh. It has allowed me to move forward fairly quickly relative to others who left Westboro and still struggle with the relational patterns that we learned there.
What do you most want readers to take away from your experience?
I would just say: I think that hope is incredibly important. When we lose hope that there is a possibility of reaching the other side—I don’t even like to say the “other side” because there are so many sides, and breaking it down into us/them is oversimplifying—it allows us to treat people in a way that’s incredibly destructive. That situation is exactly what’s happening at Westboro. We had so otherized outsiders that we lost all hope for them. They were doomed, and that’s why we could pray for them to die. It pains me to see this attitude in public discourse now, and so I hope that people can take away from the book that if even Westboro members are well-intentioned and can change, there’s hope for everyone. Take heart, and be patient; change takes time but it is possible, and it’s way more likely if we can reach out and disagree without demonizing.