A friend of mine posted on her Facebook today that Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper (granddaughters of the infamous Fred Phelps) left the Westboro cult in November (and, of course, were shunned, as I was). I’m not sure of the exact date, but only that last Sunday was her first day in a different church. The news article brings back a lot of memories for me. After I read it, I started crying…I was in similar shoes, and it was really hard to leave. It’s hard to leave the place you’ve grown up in, the family you love, and the beliefs you’ve been brainwashed into. It takes a long time to retrain your mind, and knowing the place of hate they are coming from, I know it’s going to be a really difficult road. I hope they connect with other ex-cult members, and that they never go back. It’s hard to leave, and sometimes hard not to go back. The world can be a really scary place for people who were sheltered, and even though the environment they left is unquestionably toxic, it is at least something they know.
I first met Megan in the summer of 2011, when I went to Topeka to spend a few days with the Westboro folks for my book project. During that visit, we talked about faith, we talked about church, we talked about marriage (and Megan’s feeling that, given the prospects, it would require no small amount of divine intervention in her case), and we talked about Harry Potter (for the record, she’s a fan). She seemed so sure in her beliefs, that I could not have imagined that some fifteen months later, we’d be having a conversation in which she tearfully told me that she was no longer with her family or with the church.
Forget what you know of the church. Just imagine what it is like to walk away from everything you have ever known. Consider how traumatic it would be to know that your family is never supposed to speak to you again. Think of how hard it would be to have a fortress of faith built around you, and to have to dismantle it yourself, brick by brick, examining each one and deciding whether there’s something worth keeping or whether it’s not as solid as you thought it was.
As we talk, Megan repeatedly emphasizes how much she loves those she has left behind. “I don’t want to hurt them,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt them.”
Her departure has hurt the-m already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay.
A few years ago, probably 08-09, Scottie suggested I should move out of my parents’ house. I told him “I could never hurt my dad like that”.
She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature “is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,” Megan explains. “All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”
Pretty much my dad’s words, besides the thing about the church’s interpretation of the bible (we didn’t go to church while I was with him…since then they have decided to go to a local Baptist church and ingratiate themselves with the pastor and congregation). One of his favorite lessons was:
Fact, Faith, and Feelings sat on a fence. Feelings fell off first, dragging Faith with it, but Facts don’t change and he pulled Faith and Feelings back onto the fence.
This, of course, paves a broad road of enablement for abusers.
[Megan and Grace] decided to disappear for a while, and found rooms in a house in a tiny Midwestern town. They needed space—to think, to read, to imagine what had previously been unimaginable. Their lives had largely been scripted, and “now that we’re writing our own script, everything seems a lot more tenuous,” Megan says. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”
When I was on my own, the first thing I did was go to the store and buy a prepaid phone and talk to my “lifeline” (aka Scottie) while wandering around WalMart in a daze. It was the first time I had been anywhere on my own. Ever. I was too shook up/elated to be scared of strangers. It was a really weird experience. It’s crazy when all of a sudden your world opens up and you can do anything you want without someone breathing down your neck and criticizing every move you make. You really can’t imagine it until you’ve experienced it. It’s incredible.
That’s not how the message was received. “I think I’ve known that for a long time, and I would talk to people about how I knew the message was hurtful,” Megan says. “But I believed it couldn’t matter what people felt. It mattered that this was what God wanted.”
This is exactly what my dad thinks. In fact, he says if it’s god’s message, it probably will be hurtful, because “the world” is so steeped in wanting comfort that anything that’s uncomfortable (aka god’s word according to him) is going to hurt.
Now that those boundaries are gone, “I’m trying to figure out which ones were good and smart, and which ones shouldn’t be there anymore,” she says. “I don’t feel confident at all in my beliefs about God. That’s definitely scary. But I don’t believe anymore that God hates almost all of mankind. I don’t think that, if you do everything else in your life right and you happen to be gay, you’re automatically going to hell. I don’t believe anymore that WBC has a monopoly on truth.”
She hopes to emerge from this season “with a better understanding of the world and how I fit into it,” she says, “and how I can be an influence for good.” This all sounds lovely and rainbows and unicorns, but really? You may believe it or you may not, but Megan won’t budge on this—and a trace of the characteristic Westboro stubbornness that I experienced in Topeka resurfaces. She is emphatic: “It’s true! I wanted to do good! I thought I was. And that wish hasn’t changed.”
When I push her to articulate what she wants for herself, she reminisces about an interview, in her Westboro days, in which a journalist asked her what she wanted her legacy to be. “I had only a few seconds to think while my mom answered the same question,” Megan says. “And then I said: ‘That I treated people right.’ That’s still true.”
That’s pretty much the conclusion that I came to — that I want to help people. Back when I was bullying people with bible verses and debating fiercely about stuff that didn’t matter…I thought I was doing good as well. But like the conclusion she found out…no one person (or group of people) can have monopoly on the truth…and just because you think you’re doing good, it matters how others perceive it.
Megan and Grace, you are not alone. You still have so much of your life to experience, and I celebrate with you. Date, drink, take a peek at a naughty novel. I, and the other people who understand where you’re coming from, are rejoicing in every new thing you experience.
ETA: “I almost think I was brainwashed into thinking I wasn’t brainwashed.” That’s my family right there. Libby Phelps escaped four years ago.