Picketing everything from the funerals of American soldiers to Broadway musicals, the Westboro Baptist Church frequently makes headlines for their hate speech and controversial protests. For most people, the infamous “God Hates America” signs are synonymous with evangelical extremism, but for Libby Phelps, they represent her family. Her grandfather, Fred Phelps, founded the church in 1955 in Topeka, Kans. and orchestrated the first protest (against homosexuality) in 1991.
“People always ask me if I would describe the Westboro Baptist Church as a cult, but it’s so hard to use such a negative word to describe my own family,” she told PW.
Phelps shares her story as a member of Westboro Baptist Church and her decision to leave both her faith and her family in her debut memoir, Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church (Skyhorse Publishing, Aug.).
For Phelps, the book provides an opportunity to offer hope to others who might be faced with feelings of suppression and shame. It’s also a way to communicate with her parents, siblings, and extended family–all of whom disowned her when she left the church. “I know they’re going to read it,” she said. “It’s hard because I’m sure they’ll make fun of it and get angry. But even though they’ve pretty much disowned me, I still love them.”
According to Phelps, the theology of Westboro Baptist is rooted in a belief in predestination, a lack of free will, and the idea that only a small group of God’s elected people will go to heaven. “Gramps always used to say that it’s a lie that God loves everyone,” she said. “They pretty much think that everyone except those who belong to Westboro Baptist are going to go to hell.”
While she sees those views as extreme today, she says growing up she accepted them as the truth. The hardest part about being raised in the church wasn’t adhering to its religious ideas, holding hateful picket signs, or dealing with counter-protests, said Phelps. It was the strict lifestyle guidelines and the pressure to be perfect. “It was like walking on eggshells,” she said. “You had to be spiritual and Godly all the time.”
Her decision to leave came eight years ago, at age 25, after she was chastised for wearing a bikini and was the focus of a church-wide intervention. Belittled, disappointed in her family for not defending her, and questioning the sanity of some of the church members, the idea that Westboro Baptist Church represented God’s chosen people began to crumble.
After packing everything she owned into a car and moving into a friend’s house in secret, Phelps realized how much of her life had been planned out and controlled by the church, including the clothes she wore and when she exercised. “There were so many simple daily tasks that I didn’t know how to do, like how to pay my bills,” she said. Phelps hasn't seen her family since she left.
The strength and courage Phelps discovered within herself and the support she received from friends is the biggest thing she says she hopes readers take away from her book. “I have lots of gay people reach out to me about how their families shun them because of their lifestyle,” she said. “I want them to know that they can survive without them, that they’re not alone, and that there are people out there who support them. I also want them to know it’s possible for people’s hearts and minds to change.”
Phelps speaks from experience. “I was anti-homosexual, now I’m speaking out for equality,” said Phelps, who lives in Kansas with her husband and children and works as a physical therapist. “I’m raising my children to treat all people decently. I still believe in God, but I focus on attributes like forgiveness and love instead of the hatred that I was brought up to believe in.”
Alexandra Hess, assistant editor at Skyhorse Publishing, credited Phelps’ willingness to reflect on the radical ideas that informed her life up until leaving the church. “Her ability to find clarity and the strength to overcome hate is a revelation of human compassion, resilience, and redemption,” she said.
When asked about concerns over Westboro Baptist Church's reaction to Girl on a Wire, president and publisher of Skyhorse Publishing Tony Lyons said he is prepared for the possibility of backlash. Nevertheless, the publisher is dedicated to finding credible and diverse perspectives, regardless of controversy.
Marketing and publicity for Girl on a Wire, which has a 20,000-announced first print run, will include outreach to mainstream and Christian media outlets such as NPR, Sirius FM radio shows, the Christian Science Monitor, and various Christian radio stations, as well as promotion on social media via reviews, excerpts, and media appearances, and inclusion in Skyhorse’s newsletters to booksellers and librarians.