Beyond a few tabloid stories, the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t really hit the news until 2005, when its members started picketing funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War, with signs declaring GOD HATES FAGS, THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS, THANK GOD FOR IED’S and THANK GOD FOR AIDS. The combination of homophobia and anti-military sentiment was puzzling, but once you learned the group’s rationale – that American soldiers were being killed as divine punishment for America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality – you would probably have dismissed them as just another sideshow in the American political carnival, nastier than some, but of no greater interest. The church’s tiny size, seldom above eighty members (most of them closely related), would have confirmed its political and cultural insignificance. At any rate, I wouldn’t have considered the inner workings of the Westboro Baptists worth learning about in those days. But having read Megan Phelps-Roper’s scrupulous, anguished account of ‘loving and leaving’ the church, I’m not so sure I was right. With bigotry and trolling centre-stage in US politics, there is value in anything that can shed light on these things, or on the processes by which groups of people seal themselves into airtight alternative realities.
The church launched its anti-gay mission in 1989 after its founder, Fred Phelps, went biking through Gage Park in Topeka, Kansas, with one of his 54 grandchildren, and saw (or thought he saw) a couple of men trying to lure the boy into the bushes. Members began a letter-writing campaign that quickly escalated from complaints about the park’s management to thunderous denunciations of homosexuality. And in 1991 they embarked on what was to become their signature activity: picketing with deliberately offensive signs.
Megan, another grandchild, was conscripted along with the rest of the clan. She was only five, and couldn’t read the words on her placard, but she enjoyed singing the Gene Autry parody ‘Gramps’ had written, urging gays and lesbians to get back in the closet ‘Where the filthy faggots dwell/while they’re on their way to hell’, and was mystified by the angry counter-protesters confronting them outside the park: ‘I didn’t understand why anyone would reject our message.’
Her own understanding of the message was limited, but Gramps wasn’t shy about instructing his flock in the finer points of fornication, and Megan was paying attention: ‘I could articulate the meanings of “scat”, “rimming” and “golden showers” all before my eighth birthday.’ By then the picketers had moved on to the Topeka Performing Arts Centre, to make a stand against the theatre’s Christmas celebrations with their own seasonal carolling: ‘Three bloody rectums, two shaven gerbils, and a vat of K-Y Jelly!’ Their next target was a local restaurant managed by a lesbian and owned by a ‘Jew lawyer’ (antisemitism, because GOD HATES JEWS, was also part of the brew). There, they took their first serious beating, with eight members ending up in hospital.
Encouraged, they began looking beyond Kansas for abominations and tragedies to mark in their special way. ‘Two whores in a week!’ Gramps exulted after the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana a few days apart. In 1998 members travelled to Laramie, Wyoming to picket the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who had been tortured and beaten to death. It was their first funeral stunt, and its astounding cruelty (Shepard’s parents couldn’t be protected from hearing their jeering chants) got the attention of CNN. They had discovered their own Zelig principle: be horrible enough and you can insert yourself into history. Over the years, in demonstrations, blog posts (‘GodSmacks’) and statements to the media, they came to haunt the fringes of public events, from the World Trade Centre attacks to the 2004 tsunami, the Anders Breivik massacre, the death of Amy Winehouse and the murder of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
At the age of 11, Megan was eagerly propounding and defending the church’s positions. Answering the phone to a journalist calling for comment on Ellen DeGeneres’s recent coming out, she responded calmly: ‘She’s a filthy dyke, and she’s going to Hell for eternity.’ At 13, one of her favourite pastimes was arguing Bible doctrine with strangers in the chatroom on the church’s website, GodHatesFags.com. Her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was the church’s chief spokesperson and indefatigable administrator, and at 14 Megan became her official assistant. The atmosphere in the Topeka compound was energetic and high-spirited; Megan thrived there. They were a well-educated crowd – Fred sent all 13 of his children to law school – and fond of one another. Contrary to what one might expect, the children were encouraged to read widely and ask questions.
Megan’s first serious questions concerned the picketing of military funerals. She was 19 by then, and perplexed by the decision. Her mother reminded her about a pipe bomb that had been set off in their driveway ten years earlier, damaging a fence, and suggested that the death of soldiers, many by IEDs, was proof of divine vengeance, as per Psalm 7: ‘His mischief shall return upon his own head.’ To her credit, Megan found it hard to believe the US was at war entirely because of the Phelpses’ fence. Her mother also supplied her with lines from Deuteronomy and Hosea listing bereavement – specifically the loss of children – as a punishment for corruption and iniquity. That helped. But it was hearing her mother admit she had been moved to tears after hearing the father of a dead soldier speak about his son that finally persuaded Megan they were doing the right thing. It had evidently been easy to forget that their justification for taunting bereaved families wasn’t in fact hatred – or, God forbid, the addictive kick of indulging in guilt-free sociopathic aggression on a daily basis – but the loving desire to save souls. You get a sense of the church’s insidious grip on its members in the tortured logic of Megan’s account of the way empathy became the instrument for keeping her and others in the fold:
I had begun to feel hesitant … Family and friends of the fallen were passing by a hundred feet away, and it was impossible not to see their heaviness. Breaching that grief-stricken silence so that we could bellow our defiance made me feel – unwillingly, involuntarily – like a terrible person. I would talk myself out of it, buttressing our position with Bible verses to justify the behaviour – but my mother’s tears gave me permission to feel the empathy I’d been afraid to acknowledge. I was relieved to know it wasn’t wrong to do so.
In 2006 the Snyders, one of the picketed families, brought a lawsuit against the Phelpses for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury issued a $10.9 million verdict against the church, but the appellate court set aside the judgment, citing First Amendment protections, and in 2010 the case went before the Supreme Court. An explosion of media interest followed, and the church revelled in it, stepping up the protests and sending Megan and her mother on speaking engagements across the country. In 2011 the court ruled eight to one in favour of the Phelpses. A clearer sign of celestial approval could hardly be imagined. Pickets were quadrupled and ‘a spirit of triumphalism and invulnerability took hold of Westboro. I found myself completely in its thrall, blind to the peril until it was too late.’ But under this sheen of elated commitment, the tensions that brought about Megan’s crisis were already present, and quietly mounting.
Unlike other fundamentalist sects, the Westboro Baptists embraced the state education system, while also treating it as another opportunity for confrontation. For a gregarious child like Megan, this created obvious conflicts: ‘My classmates saw me as some sort of weird hybrid of a person: a friendly girl who enjoyed helping others with homework on the one hand, but a hateful religious fanatic who believed everyone was going to hell on the other.’ Doubts ensued: ‘Were my classmates really as bad as I’d been taught?’ As always, the Bible was there to keep her on message (‘Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee?’), and within a few years she had learned to shuttle with ease between her two worlds, cheerfully picketing her high school graduation ceremony before heading inside to accept her diploma. But her fundamental decency obstinately persisted and kept colliding with Phelps family doctrine, which, while it might acknowledge the existence of feelings such as compassion, categorically rejected them as a basis for action (GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS was another slogan). Bursting into tears next to her mother one day, Megan pointed to the image of a starving Somali child on her screen, perhaps expecting another moment of shared empathy. ‘Would you send me that link, hon?’ her mother asked. ‘I’m going to write a GodSmack about it.’
There were other pressures. Defections had always been an issue for the church. Total ostracism was the usual response, accompanied by florid, North Korea-style demonisation. The four uncles and aunts who had chosen not to spend their lives being vile for the Lord were ‘criminally rebellious’, ‘vain and whorish’, ‘an idolatrous witch’, ‘an entitled manipulator’. In 2004 Megan’s beloved older brother Josh fled their home in the middle of the night. ‘We picket these people and they hate us for it and I have had enough of it,’ he wrote with touching simplicity in the letter he left behind. Vilification was instant: on the next day’s picket he was being referred to, gangsta-style, as a ‘punk’ and a ‘little bitch’. Megan reminded herself of Jesus’s words – ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you’ – which allowed her to think of Josh as a coward, but the incident took its toll, as did the later expulsion of a favourite aunt for fornication. (The church also voted out loyal members from time to time, in scenes which again suggest that uninhibited collective sadism was a motivating force: ‘Anguished sobs racked her … she begged for mercy and forgiveness. Her young son, also, not yet a teenager, pleaded through tears.’)
Meanwhile the mood at the compound had been darkening, as moods at compounds tend to. The Snyder lawsuit had introduced a note of paranoia, at least while the Phelpses thought they might lose. Fred Phelps – Gramps – was particularly spooked. ‘The Lord could just kill them, you know,’ he reflected aloud from the pulpit one day, referring to Snyder and his lawyers. In no time his flock were prostrating themselves on the floor, ‘making elaborate prayers to God to kill these men that very weekend’. God refrained, but one wonders what would have happened if the Supreme Court verdict had gone the other way. Fred was an End-Times man, convinced that the Last Days were imminent, which is never good news for a cult when things start going wrong. In any case, murder, even prayerful murder, hadn’t been on the agenda until then, and the development rattled Megan. As usual, she fortified herself with scripture – ‘And shall not God avenge his own elect?’
A more serious change was also underway. Although the Phelpses didn’t proselytise, they were willing to accept non-family members who shared their flinty-hearted vocation. Among these was Steve Drain, a film-maker who had come to make a documentary attacking the church but ended up joining it. Megan felt from the start that Drain wanted to take over the leadership of the church, and in due course he made his move: a series of strikes against Megan’s mother while she was recovering from an operation, contriving a situation in which she was formally shamed, stripped of all her responsibilities and threatened with forcible shunning by her children. The pretext was her abrasive management style (or, scripturally, her ‘undisciplined tongue’), but it became clear that her real crime was being a woman who wielded power. She is hardly a sympathetic character, but the drawn-out humiliation and meekly submissive decline of Shirley Phelps-Roper is painful to read about. (In a TV interview with Louis Theroux, made after Megan and her sister Grace defected, she gives an impression of ravaged bewilderment that is all the more pitiful for her seeming inability to relent or fault the church in any way.)
After neutralising her, Drain proceeded to replace the consensus-based governance of the church with a system of top-down decrees from an all-male group of ‘elders’. New standards of modesty were imposed on the women, who were now required to take direction from their male guardians. The old community spirit gave way to mutual suspicion, with covert alliances and betrayals among members, and constant fear of denunciation. Suddenly we are in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.
Drain may have become the Westboro Baptists’ St Paul – the convert who stiffens the creed and seizes control – but he is a ludicrous figure even by Westboro standards. You can watch him and one of the uncles on YouTube, being nimbly tormented by Russell Brand: two pudgy doofuses you’d think twice about accepting a pizza delivery from, let alone instruction concerning your immortal soul. And yet not even Drain, whom she clearly loathed, was enough to push Megan over the edge. In her twenties now, she had become adept at ‘batting away’ troublesome feelings. Old habits of blind obedience and biblical justification suppressed her doubts, and when that stopped working there was fear: fear of being shunned by her loved ones, fear of being unfit for survival in a world that was surely not going to be well disposed towards her, fear of spending eternity in hell. Among the more potent ideas holding her in thrall was the Westboro version of Calvin’s Doctrine of Election, which held that, while one’s fate in the afterlife was predestined, willing obedience to the church was a sure sign – in fact the only reliable sign – that one was among God’s chosen. This seems to have had a crippling effect on Megan, who dispelled mutinous thoughts before she could even articulate them. Much of the book’s fascination lies in its depiction of this prolonged state of agitated paralysis.
What force, you might ask, could possibly succeed where intelligence, innate decency and total disillusionment with the church had failed? In a word, Twitter. Megan became Westboro’s official Twitter voice in 2009. The job, which involved educating people about the church and defending its actions, compelled her to communicate with the world in a new way. Twitter followers, unlike bereaved parents, could silence her with a click if she annoyed them, so she began to cultivate a friendlier persona. People responded, and she enjoyed the sparring, bantering relationships that developed. The film-maker Kevin Smith, who had based a movie on the church, engaged with her on the platform, launching a campaign to #savemegan, and carrying a sign at Sundance that read ‘GOD THINKS MEGHAN’S [sic] HOT.’ For a woman who at the age of 24 had voluntarily installed a tracking app on her own phone so that her mother could keep tabs on any ‘concupiscent’ tendencies, and had submitted to being ‘kindly chided’ by an older brother when she showed signs of interest in a salesman at the local mall, this could hardly fail to have an impact.
But it was a subtler approach, from a mysterious follower who asked to be called ‘CG’, that proved her undoing. Unlike some of her other followers, CG was both remarkably well intentioned and genuinely interested in the way Megan’s mind worked. Their exchanges, in which CG gently probes at the self-serving illogic of Westboro theology while Megan observes herself growing steadily more susceptible to his flattering curiosity, take on the quality of a courtship in a very old-fashioned novel, where surface enmity fuels mutual attraction and careful chasteness provides the accelerant. The two give each other insulting nicknames. They play Words with Friends, spelling out words like ‘unrequited’ on the virtual gameboard. Megan dreams of CG, pines for him when he goes quiet, stalks him online, fantasises about converting him, all the while (and this is the joke in the book’s title) being steadily and helplessly converted herself, from Phelps dogma to the more agnostic way of being human that CG comes to represent. It is Beauty and the Beast with the genders reversed. Eros was the missing element, and its incursion via the Trojan horse of Twitter finally – gloriously – brings the whole Westboro edifice crashing down in Megan’s mind. Darkness is banished, at least from her life (in Westboro itself the hate still marches on). The gay and Jewish communities embrace their old enemy. Romance blossoms.
It’s a satisfying story, well told in terms of what happened and the way the church’s various mechanisms of control operated inside Megan’s own psyche. Where it falls a little short (and suffers in comparison with Tara Westover’s recent incandescent memoir of flight from a different kind of fanaticism, Educated) is in its somewhat perfunctory investigation of the underlying forces that drove the church’s behaviour. ‘I needed to believe that our ministry had not been influenced by the pathologies of a human being,’ Megan writes at one point. But clearly they had – and that human being was the man who founded it, Fred Phelps. She half-acknowledges it, but seems still too attached to Gramps to examine the intriguing biographical facts in her possession with any kind of clinical attention. These facts certainly fall into suggestive patterns. Groomed for a military career by his father, Fred ‘got saved’ at a tent revival meeting just before he was due to start at West Point, in 1947, and decided to become a preacher instead. One can imagine the complicated emotional repercussions of this revolt; at any rate, his fiery style as a preacher, his use of brutal corporal punishment on his children (revealed by his son Nathan, an early defector), his regimentation of his clan into a defensive shield against the principle of change in any form (‘promise me you won’t ever change,’ his wife says to Megan as she reaches puberty), and of course his panicked homophobia, all suggest a man neurotically afraid of being thought too soft for soldiering. In which case, arguably, the whole maniacal Westboro enterprise could be understood as the outward manifestation of one man’s epic Oedipal rebellion.
Whatever the case, Megan’s reluctance to pathologise her grandfather, problematic though it is, may be less problematic than her understandable fear of seeming to praise him. Because there is one rather staggering fact about Fred Phelps that would under normal circumstances merit lavish praise, and that even in this context adds an indisputable moral dimension to whatever psychological drama may also have been playing out in his life. This is that before the Gage Park incident in 1989, Phelps spent three decades as a civil rights lawyer and activist, a notably courageous one, taking discrimination cases no one else would touch in the face of harassment and death threats from his fellow white Topekans. Post-Gage Park, when the Phelpses became America’s ‘most hated family’, there were accusations that he had only been doing it for the money, but his work was publicly recognised and acclaimed by the NAACP.
Megan reports all this but seems at a loss to adjudicate it, much less reconcile it with the subsequent chapter in her grandfather’s ministry. It looms over her story, a seemingly unassimilable enigma that perhaps can’t be resolved but certainly can’t be ignored. Only at the very end of Phelps’s life does an incident occur that, though it explains nothing, suggests he was more than just one of those ‘pure products of America’ who according to William Carlos Williams ‘go crazy’; that he was more like a figure out of classical tragedy, who had stumbled into colossal error through an overweening regard for his own convictions, and lived to regret it.
In 2012 a non-profit called Planting Peace bought a house opposite the compound, painting it with an LGBT rainbow. In 2014 Phelps, who had been ill for some time, stepped out of the church door and shouted across the street: ‘You’re good people!’ It was a cataclysm in three words. Drain and his followers stripped him of his role as pastor, expelled him from the church, and ordered him shunned. He died a few months later and was buried in an unmarked grave.