Indeed, Phelps-Roper describes a childhood that while steeped in religious extremism was also warm and loving. The grandchildren of Fred Phelps grew up together in a family compound of houses arranged around a backyard swimming pool. They attended public schools and were allowed to check out the books they wanted at the public library. There were "pool parties and trampoline jumping and tennis playing in the summer," she writes, and "football and snowball fights and sledding down the little hill behind our garage in the winter."
The eldest daughter in a family of 11 siblings, Phelps-Roper became her mother's "right hand," helping with the legal and logistical work required to carry off the picketing missions. Immersed in her grandfather's preaching, she believed that "Westboro was the only safe haven from the wrath of God, both in this life and in the world to come." But slowly, as she matured, graduating from college and law school, she began to wonder whether her family was right in its theology, its worldview of enemies and sin, obedience and hatred. After a series of internal church squabbles, she writes, "I was beginning to see that our first loyalty was not to the truth but to the church. That for us, the church was the truth, and disloyalty was the only sin, unforgivable."
I wish Phelps-Roper were able to tell us more about how her grandfather came to his bizarre theology, especially given that his early career as a lawyer was that of a white man from the South who represented primarily African American clients in Topeka. Somehow, his fervor for civil rights morphed into a warped ideology of hatred, one in which every disaster was evidence that God hates a morally bankrupt society. She quotes Scripture consistently throughout the book, especially the verses that illuminate why Westboro members felt empowered by the animus they inspired (a BBC documentary called them "The Most Hated Family in America"). But what will be difficult for most readers, I suspect, is understanding, as Phelps-Roper writes, how "people who were otherwise bright and well-intentioned could believe and behave as we did as members of Westboro."
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." Still, past the pain is healing. Meeting and talking with some of her former antagonists (most of whom she had met on the picket line, or in her role running the church's Twitter presence) helped Phelps-Roper confront the contradictions in what she had been taught. She writes:
"We could cease presuming most people were evil and ill-intentioned. The hope that sprang from this realization would become the new foundation of my life, but along with that hope came still more confusion: If there was more than one possible answer, how did anyone manage to decide between them?"
Another realization: "Westboro is not unique." Other groups, religious and otherwise, convince their members that they alone hold purchase on the true way. One thing all those groups have in common is a fear of the other, Phelps-Roper notes. It's for them, including perhaps her own parents, that she writes, at the book's end, "I want to tell them that the world isn't evil. That it's full and complicated and beautiful and good, filled with unknown truths and unbroken hopes, and that it's waiting just for them."
Kate Tuttle is a writer and critic based in New Jersey.
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