Megan Phelps-Roper’s new book Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is an elegant masterpiece of non-fiction that exposes the truth of the WBC through humanization, offering us all a lesson in compassion & humanity the whole world desperately needs today.
In this literary review, we’re going to explore Phelps-Roper’s narrative through the critical lens of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey.
Literature nerds will already be familiar with Campbell’s work, but for anyone who isn’t, here’s a brief synopsis. Essentially, the Hero’s Journey is a pattern our story structures follow in which a hero receives a call to action to leave their “ordinary world”, generally refuses, but is ultimately forced to venture out into a “special world” i.e. a far off land ruled by an evil overlord, where the hero must quest, overcome trials, and defeat the story’s antagonist. Perhaps the best example to imagine is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but we can find this same pattern echoing in practically all of our stories, and yes even in our daily lives.
There is no better way way to prove we carry out this pattern in the real world than through analyzing non-fiction through the lens of the Hero’s Journey.
There’s something very interesting about Phelps-Roper’s narrative in Unfollow that inspired me to tie it to Campbell’s work. For Phelps-Roper, the antagonist isn’t in the special world. It is inside herself and the church she left behind in the “ordinary world” and thus, while her story very much follows the Hero’s Journey pattern, it does so whilst turning the structure of the pattern on its head.
It’s typical in our tales for our heroes to venture out to protect the status quo of the ordinary world. Perhaps a strange illness falls over the hero’s village and they’re called to action to venture out to challenge the source of the illness or find and return with a cure.
However, in Phelps-Roper’s tale, the status quo is itself the antagonist. There are certainly challenges and trials that await her out in the special world, but the antagonizing forces which threaten the ordinary world exist back and home, left behind in her wake as she leaves the church.
Reading Unfollow, I found myself deeply impressed by the compassionate quality of Phelps-Roper’s prose. Even though this review is likely to rebuke the church and the Phelps-Roper family for their antagonistic qualities, Phelps-Roper herself does no such thing. She has only kind and loving things to say about her family, the church, and its teaching, and that’s a huge part of what makes this book so powerful.
It begins with her childhood, where we see the young Megan and her siblings indoctrinated and bent to the will of her grandfather’s, certainty. She shows us how, surrounded by certainty, in an environment free from questions and doubt, the whole of the Westboro Baptist Church came to believe as they believe, in the literal, infallible truth of specifically the King James version of The Bible.
They are told there are two types of people in the world per the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacobs, who have God’s favor and are predestined for heaven, and Esaus, godless, hopeless, immoral beings bound for hell.
It’s difficult to describe the ideological trap they fell into and I certainly can’t do it justice in this review, but Phelps-Roper certainly does in her prose, but I can say, with ironic certainty, that certainty was the trigger mechanism. Through a lens of absolute, unquestioning certainty, they knew that they were right, and their enemies who questioned and antagonized them were wrong. God was on their side, and how can the infallible Word of God be wrong?
They truly believed that homosexuals were damned and would spend eternity in hell. They saw society’s acceptance of them as a celebration of their damnation and believed that only they truly loved them as the ones who were working to change their ways and save their souls.
A little known fact about Fred Phelps, Megan’s grandfather is that before he became the leader of Westboro, he was a lawyer who took on civil rights cases fighting for the equal rights of black people in a time when practically no one else was willing to come to their defense. He used the same logic to challenge the status quo then that he would later use to derive the church’s most well-known slogans, “God Hates Fags,” believing absolutely that The Bible vindicated both his support of black people and his condemnation of homosexuality.
Knowing this, it becomes easy to see how Westboro would feel vindicated by antagonism against them. They were once on the right side of history and experienced similar antagonism for challenging the status quo at both points in history. Challenges from outgroups only strengthened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs, especially when those challenges turned violent.
Eventually, Fred Phelps who believed he would never die as he would live to see Jesus return, met health issues, and on top of them, legal and financial issues, which forced him to relinquish power over the church to a council of elders. It’s only at this point in the story when the young Megan begins to doubt Westboro’s infallible certainty.
Her doubts were her call to action, beginning the Hero’s Journey cycle.
After seeing the council’s abominable treatment of women in their debasement of both her mother and sister and catching them in the act of willfully lying for political gains, she began asking questions. At first, they were questions kept to herself. Secret doubts that she buried away as she began the next phase of the Hero’s Journey: Refusal. The idea of her beloved family and church being wrong was too much to bear, and she was trapped between an ideological rock and a hard place.
Either the church was right, and she was bound for hell like Esau, doomed for an eternity without God, or the church, and everything she had ever known and loved, was horribly. horribly wrong and had done unforgivable harm to the world.
The nagging questions and doubts were too much and like all who walk the Hero’s Journey and refuse the call to action, she reached a point where she could no longer refuse and began asking those burning questions, both internally to her family and church members, as well as externally to connections she’d made via Twitter and other social media.
This led her to the last phase in the ordinary world (though sometimes this can come in the special world) meeting the mentor. Typically this mentor figure will be the one to actually give the call to action. Think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, but in this case, the mentor was a simple, kind, and cautious guide who called himself simply C.G.. Her relationship with C.G. began as a friendship, grew into a mentorship, and eventually would blossom into a romance. Phelps-Roper writes extensively about C.G.’s behavior and why his approach was so effective.
He didn’t antagonize her like the outsiders she was used to. He was friendly and compassionate from the very beginning. He only wanted to be a friend and to listen and learn. In doing so, Megan was transformed. C.G. didn’t see her as the monster others saw. He saw the flawed human being underneath and through his humble actions, she began to see the same, not only in herself, but in others like C.G. who occupied the special world. He never rebuked her and refused to fill her head with any ideas of his own making. Instead, he encouraged her to follow her heart and see where it led.
It was only a matter of time before she could no longer refuse the call. She, together with her sister Grace who had also fallen out of favor with the church, crossed the threshold into the special world together left Westboro.
There, she would embark on a quest for truth, seeking answers for her still-burning questions. She would face trials, befriend allies, and overcome enemies. The interest in this review lies primarily with our analysis of the nature of those enemies. If you want to experience the whole of the adventure and not miss out on all the fun parts, I highly recommend reading the book.
Those “enemies” faced by Phelps-Roper in the special world were internal. They were the demons she had inherited through her upbringing in the church and her own unaccounted for flaws. When you’re brought up to not doubt anything and to believe that your way of thinking is infallible, you’re bound to lack key survival skills and tend to be very shortsighted with regard to your own flaws.
Phelps-Roper writes, “I started to understand that doubt was the point—that it was the most basic shift in how I experienced the world. Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error.”
This concept epistemological humility, was foreign to me upon first reading Unfollow but it’s a powerful concept that I wish I had understood long, long ago. If I had, it might have helped me face some of my own enemies. Basically, practicing epistemological humility means never being afraid to say, “I don’t know,” and “We might be wrong.” It is humbling your flawed nature before the immensity of the universe and realizing the truth that certainty is nothing but a comforting trap for fallible minds.
Phelps-Roper continues, “Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth. It teaches us to ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas, and encourages us to defend our position at all costs, even as it reveals itself as indefensible. Certainty sees compromise as weak, hypocritical, evil, suppressing empathy and allowing us to justify inflicting horrible pain on others.”
When we lie to ourselves and to others to claim to be certain of unknowable truths, such as the nature or will of God, we fall into a destructive pattern that follows the behaviors Phelps-Roper describes above. If this pattern is followed to its logical conclusion, it leads to not only damaging the one carrying those flawed ideas, but also to become a destructive force in the world around them. It can lead one to unquestioningly participating in deplorable acts such as picketing funerals with “God Hates Fags” signs or praying for God’s wrath to fall on your enemies.
As human beings, we are hard-wired for certainty. It’s in our nature. When lost in the woods, if we see a rock shaped like a bear, our brains automatically put us on guard and we will naturally assume that said bear-shaped rock is certainly an actual bear and we will prepare to defend ourselves accordingly. If we did not have that natural sense of certainty, even when we are wrong, we’d have long ago wandered into many a bear’s jaws.
Doubt, on the other hand is nurtured. It is a skill we have to learn through continuously mistaking rocks for bears or worse, bears for rocks! But when we’re denied doubt, as Megan was, the consequences can be disastrous.
Imagine if an individual operated on pure, unabashed certainty when spotting that bear-shaped rock. They might maintain such a powerful degree of certainty that they would be paralyzed by the experience. They might never grow the courage to cross the woods for fear that the bear, which they were certain was there, would eat them. They might turn back and the food found on the other side would never make it back to their family. They might fail in their Hero’s Journey and starve. Such is the consequence of absolute certainty.
The skill of constructive doubting is the reward Phelps-Roper garnered through her ordeals in the special world. It’s the One Ring. The Master Sword. The Holy Grail. The Scepter of Domination. The Artifact. The Aegis. The Genie’s Lamp. The Book of Prophecy. The Elder Wand.
Phelps-Roper writes, “In this environment, there is a growing insistence that opposing views must be silenced, whether by the powers of government, the self-regulation of social media companies, or the self-censorship of individuals. At the heart of this insistence lie several false assumptions, including a sentiment that Westboro members would readily recognize: We have nothing to learn from these people.”
Westboro’s flawed but certain human nature led them to paint many a false picture of reality, but none quite so damaging as the above. The idea that we should ever put our certainty above our need for compassion and communication is akin to holding our certainty that bear-shaped rock will eat us above our family’s need for food.
Thus, it was time for the final phase of the Hero’s Journey. The return to the ordinary world. However, unlike most heroes, this one never set out to protect/restore the ordinary world’s status quo. For Phelps-Roper, the status quo is not something to be protected and/or restored, but transformed. In fact, I’m sure if we asked her, she would say that the special world she’d entered into transformed into the ordinary world around her as she herself transformed through raising doubt above certainty.
Now, she must embark on a whole new Hero’s Journey. The journey home– back into the old status quo, equipped with the elixir to turn the status quo on its head and transform it.
That story may yet remain largely unwritten, but the ending of this one offers glimpses of what’s to come with Megan returning home to face her dying grandfather, only to find that he had already transformed on his own without her. What follows is one of the most touching scenes I’ve ever read in non-fiction, but I wouldn’t dare spoil it here.
In closing, Phelps-Roper leaves us with another touching scene in which she and her sister purchase ad space outside Westboro to communicate a message that only their family left on the inside would understand, “Goldbugs forever,” and a solemn hope for a transformative future.
We all like to believe that if we were drawn or born into an extreme ideology, we would be like Megan. We would have the courage and good sense to criticize the wrongdoing around us and rise above our own flawed nature to challenge and transform a harmful status quo, but the truth is most of us wouldn’t.
We wander beaten paths, following in the footsteps of many. We are content with our safety in numbers, certain it’s US who are right in our ordinary world, and THEM who are wrong in their special world.
I’d like to leave you with a reflection on the current tribalistic state of the world. The impulse to collapse under the weight of our own certainty and conform into a paradigm of “Us” versus “Them” are stronger than ever.
It’s a terrifying, uncertain world out there, and those who beckon, “Come join us. We are certain. We are safe. They have nothing to offer,” are becoming easier and easier to follow into certain hell.
But if we pay attention to the world around us and listen for our calls to action, we all can walk our own Hero’s Journey. We can develop new skills. We can unearth new artifacts. We can change the status quo. We can make the special world ordinary, or the ordinary world special.
This is how we change minds.
This is how we become heroes.
This is how we save the world.