Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Unfollow - Megan Phelps-Roper UPDATE

I don't normally do this with my reviews. Once they're written, once they're posted, that's it. Apart from maybe a correction for a typo or grammar error. But I feel I just have to add something to this post. Why? Well, I had the incredible good fortune to be in the audience for the conversation between Louis Theroux and Megan Phelps Roper last night at St. James Church in Piccadilly, a Waterstones event. There was a whole synchronicity that led to that moment. I received a copy of the book from Quercus Books. I read it and was blown away. I wrote my review. Fast forward. I was on the train with a friend up to a concert in London. And I was talking about the book for the whole journey, it seemed. We were going to see Gary Numan at the Roundhouse. One of his numbers, I can't even remember which one now, had some images projected at the back of the stage. Some of them depicted the Westboro Baptist Church picketing. I couldn't believe my eyes and I nudged my friend and pointed because it seemed so weird that we'd been discussing the book and the images popped up that same evening. The following weekend my sister came down and I was telling her all about it and I also mentioned how gutted I was that the London event was sold out. Fast forward to last Friday. I was working at my computer when a text message from my sister popped up telling me that the event was no longer sold out giving me a link to click on to get a ticket which I did. Simultaneously I received an email from Quercus Books telling me I had won two tickets in their recent competition! It was SO meant to be.

When the audience cheers seemed louder for Louis Theroux than they did for Megan Phelps Roper my heart sank for her. I worried that many were there to hear Louis not Megan. Even if that were the case Megan's generous heart was untroubled and I have little doubt that by the end of the evening everyone would've left feeling, realising and understanding that they had been in the presence of somebody very special. Megan Phelps Roper is such a very articulate, honest and humble person. We all use words like love and hatred too much sometimes for we don't always consider what those words actually mean. To listen to somebody describe how they've successfully navigated that tightrope from hatred to love was moving and edifying and made me think about those words and how I use them. She fused objectivity and subjectivity so perfectly I defy anyone not to have gone away last night thinking about what they've just heard long into the night. She answered audience members questions so fully, so thoroughly and so refreshingly. Very often people manipulate their answers so they don't always bear much resemblance to the question, and then they ask, "Does that answer your question?" Megan never needed to ask that for she answered everybody's question with candour. She seem to radiate positivity and optimism and hope. I could've listened to her for hours. She has such an easy, gentle style of talking even though what she's saying is potent and serious. I was also delighted because the final extract that she read from the book was the very part I quoted in my review because I thought was pivotal to the whole book. I hope that someone may have recorded the event for a podcast or something? Because so much of what she was saying is important and people should hear it. I want to hear it again!  Everybody that attended the event was given a signed copy of the book! That was that I thought. But no, Megan stayed behind afterwards to personally dedicate a copy of the book for anybody who wanted it. I was really pleased because the copy I read didn't have a signature and because it was the copy I read it seemed somehow fitting it that should be my signed copy and it meant that I got to chat with Megan which was very, very special. I told her that I considered coming to the event with a placard that said God Loves Megan on it, which made her smile and she said she liked the sentiment even if I didn't get around to doing it. She seemed amazed that I had read the book. I told her I found the book profoundly moving and I thought she was a very courageous woman and I loved her honesty. And I don't normally do this but I was so thrilled to have my photo taken with her that I'm going to break my rule and post a picture of myself on this blog. Be warned.

It’s difficult to know how best to approach a review of a book such as this. For me it is not so much how it’s written, structured etc. it’s what is written and the intent within the writing. And I’m not sure a review can adequately express that. But, reader, I will try!

I have to admit that I had always avoided anything to do with the Westboro Baptist Church. What little I knew was abhorrent to me and I was not interested in giving these people any more attention than they were already getting. So I didn’t watch any of Louis Theroux’s programmes. But the buzz about this book intrigued me. And the implications of what was contained between its covers wouldn’t leave me.  I had it on my ‘Books To Look Out For’ radar. So I was thrilled when Ana McLaughlin of riverrun books asked me if I’d like a copy.

I didn’t know what to expect. But I wasn’t prepared for such a profoundly moving, intelligent, honest and brave book by a strong and courageous woman. I read a couple of chapters and then I stopped and watched the first two of the Louis Theroux documentaries because initially I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Such venomous hatred and callous behaviour chilled me to the bone. It’s often occurred to me that the God of the Old Testament comes across as an angry, vengeful God but the God of the New Testament presents as more loving and forgiving. It’s almost as if someone said, tone it down a bit, we’re frightening people! Westboro Baptist Church are firmly Old Testamenteers. Megan seems more New Testament. 

As someone who has a largely open and liberal mind, I hope, I have sometimes been envious of those in possession of a certainty of belief. No room for doubt or indecision. And that’s fine if the beliefs are positive and pure. But what if they’re not? I do not envy a single member of the Westboro Baptist Church. How could such ‘intelligent’, educated people, they’re lawyers for goodness sake, be in possession of such flawed thoughts, such hatred? How can people possess such inflexibility? I returned to Megan’s book hoping perhaps to find some answers.

Fundamentally it seems to boil down to how the Bible is interpreted. The Westboro Baptists interpretation of relevant texts seem to dictate their behaviour. That’s a vast over simplification I know! Unfollow is liberally endowed with many, many Bible quotations to illustrate the standpoint of Westboro but also to show Megan’s questioning and possibly to encourage an alternate interpretation? 

The honesty of this story is astounding. The writer does not attempt to sugar coat anything yet the love she holds for her family whilst acknowledging that their homophobia and anti-Semitism is wrong tells me that she is a special person. I think her account demonstrates that just because people have questionable beliefs it does not make them bad people or people incapable of compassion. For myself I found this the hardest to concept to catch hold of and hang on to. It is such a profound paradox. 

I think one of the main thrusts of the book is examining how conditioning and indoctrination can be overcome. But the journey to do that and come out the other side unscathed is a long and emotional process. Firstly you have to reach the realisation of what has happened to you. And how devastating must it be to question the people you love and who love you ? But more than that to see that the only real way to leave it all behind means leaving your family behind. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about. 

There is one very astute, revealing paragraph in the book that I think it’s worth quoting in full as it sums up the ethos of the whole cult thing. 

‘Westboro is not unique.
The church’s garish signs lend themselves to this view of its members as crazed doomsayers, cartoonish villains who celebrate the calamities of others with fiendish glee. But the truth is that the church’s radical, recalcitrant position is the result of very common, very human forces— everything from fear, family, guilt, and shame, to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. These are forces whose power affects us all, consciously and subconsciously, to one degree or another at every stage of our lives. When these forces are coupled with group dynamics and a belief system that caters to so many of our most basic needs as human beings— a sense of meaning, identity, purpose, of reward, of goodness, of community— they provide group members with an astonishing level of motivation to cohere and conform, no matter the cost.’

Finally I watched the final and most recent Theroux documentary and wept with Megan. That’s after I shed many tears reading the book. This book is written by someone who I’d like to call a true Christian, a very special person. This book is a torch of hope in the often bleak times we live in. It suggests that no matter what, if you have strength and determination, there is an optimism to turn things around for the better. 

This book will stay with me for a long time. It’s so moving. 

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