Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, which has been designated a hate group by civil rights organizations. She ran Westboro’s Twitter account until she broke with the church in 2012. Most of her family remains in the church and hasn’t spoken to her since. She credits conversations on Twitter for shifting her beliefs, and she later married a lawyer with whom she had sparred online. She now works to combat extremism. She spoke with the Monitor’s Riley Robinson.
Q: How did you find common ground with your opponents on Twitter?
Functionally 100% of people who came to my page were angry and hostile. But people could tell I was sincere about what I believed [then]. They started asking questions, and that changed the dynamics. Then I started asking them questions and they’d say something about their day or their pets or their children.
On Twitter there was time and space to develop that rapport. It enabled me to empathize with the perspectives of other people. That was a huge part of my ability to challenge what I had been taught and then eventually walk away from it.
Q: How do you reconcile your love for family members still in the church while you no longer accept their beliefs?
I believe that they are good people who have been trapped by bad ideas.
The vast majority of people in the church are people who grew up in it, who had it spoon-fed to them the same way that I did. And I know that it was not isolation or hatred or cruelty that made me change. It was continued engagement – persistent, gentle, kind, compassionate engagement from people who believed differently.
I’m not necessarily hoping that now they’ll read the book and completely change. I know that that’s not how it works. But I do hope that it will cause them to at least think about things even slightly differently.
Q: This book began as an essay you wrote for your husband. Why did you write that essay and why did you continue it as a book?
I needed him to understand the puritanical culture I grew up in, so I wrote this essay – it was 14,000 words – as a Christmas gift. Before I gave it to him, I sent it to a friend who is my writing mentor. He [said], “You have to write a book.” When I finished that first draft, all of a sudden it hit me that I had stopped reading Westboro’s tweets every single day. I hadn’t read them for three weeks.
Q: Some readers might compare “Unfollow” to Tara Westover’s “Educated,” this genre of people leaving the faith they were raised in.
Reading Tara’s book, especially as she’s describing the physical danger that her father put her family in, where he said, Oh, the angels will take care of us, you’re like, “What are [they] doing?”
I realized people are going to read my book and think the same thing [about Westboro church members].
It doesn’t matter how well you explain it. There’s just such a fundamental disconnect between how you see something and how this other person doing these extreme things sees that thing.
Q: What makes understanding Westboro salient at this particular moment?
It’s important to see people as being on a journey. If you look at who you were a year ago and aren’t somewhat embarrassed, you’re not growing as a person.
If you can see these people ... as human beings and capable of change, there is hope. We should be willing to reach out. Imagine what could happen if we kept reaching out to people like Westboro members? There’s so much power in seeing the possibility of change.