Unfollow is an exceptional book: a loving portrait of a fanatical organisation. In fact, “family” may be a better word in this case: Fred Phelps was Megan’s grandfather. He founded the church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955 and it consists primarily of Phelps’s family. Now, apparently, it has just 70 members.
No amount of compassionate reflection, however, can change the fact that Phelps-Roper and her siblings grew up in an abusive environment.
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.
It’s a gripping story, beautifully told, and one offering an extraordinary insight into the minds and thoughts of rational, bright, generally decent people who have been brainwashed into believing crazy, cruel things. Phelps-Roper’s years of voracious reading were not wasted. In clear, readable prose, she moves between remembered scenes, vivid descriptions and reflection to paint a fascinating portrait of the family she loved and had to leave.