It’s been three years ago this month that the bad girl of the Westboro Baptist Church crowd deserted the group with her sister. This month, the New Yorker came out with a huge piece on how and why she left. The lead photo shows Megan Phelps-Roper posed in something with black straps with a tiny nose ring in one nostril. Obviously something’s changed big time.
We've reported on Westboro before, sometimes in the context of whether to cover their bizarre antics. One doesn’t decide to leave such a famous group -- and one’s own family -- lightly, especially when you’ve been picketing the funerals of AIDS victims since age 5 and giving interviews since age 11.
Lo and behold, we find that it was Twitter, of all things, that eased Phelps-Roper out the door. From the middle of the story:
Phelps-Roper first considered leaving the church on July 4, 2012. She and (her sister) Grace were in the basement of another Westboro family’s house, painting the walls. The song “Just One,” by the indie folk group Blind Pilot -- a band that C.G. had recommended -- played on the stereo. The lyrics seemed to reflect her dilemma perfectly: “And will I break and will I bow / if I cannot let it go?” Then came the chorus: “I can’t believe we get just one.” She suddenly thought, What if Westboro had been wrong about everything? What if she was spending her one life hurting people, picking fights with the entire world, for nothing? “It was, like, just the fact that I thought about it, I had to leave right then,” she said. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.” …
Phelps-Roper spent the summer and the fall in an existential spiral. She would conclude that everything about Westboro’s doctrine was wrong, only to be seized with terror that these thoughts were a test from God, and she was failing. “You literally feel insane,” she said. Eventually, her doubts won out. “I just couldn’t keep up the charade,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do the things we were doing and say the things we were saying.”
She largely stopped tweeting and tried to avoid journalists on the picket line, for fear that she might say something that revealed her misgivings. At one protest, a journalism student cornered her and asked if she ever got tired of picketing. “I honestly replied no,” she wrote in her journal. “It’s not about being tired, it’s about not believing in it anymore. If I believed it, I could do it forever.” In October, Megan finally persuaded Grace to leave. At the end of October, the sisters started secretly moving their possessions to the house of one of their high-school teachers, who agreed to help them. Many of Megan and Grace’s young relatives who left the church had slipped away quietly, in order to avoid confronting their families. But the sisters wanted to explain to their parents the reasons behind their decision.
After you read this article, go to @meganphelps on Twitter and you’ll see a different human being than the young woman who was the acerbic voice of Westboro. Now she’s tweeting:
Now start reading the story and you can see what all those three-hour conversations led to. Phelps-Roper was one of 11 children and a legal aide at the family’s law firm when she discovered Twitter. Westboro had been active on the Internet since 1994 with its godhatesfags.com web site.
She had gotten into Twitter back in 2008, but it wasn’t until Dec. 1, 2009, when she tweeted a message about God’s wrath bringing on AIDS, that she saw her followers jump to 1,000 in one day. When celebrities began picking up her tweets, more out of mockery than admiration, she knew she had a straight line to the public without the nuisance of going through the media.
Eventually she began aiming her tweets at specific individuals, among them David Abitbol, the Israeli founder of the Jewish culture blog Jewlicious. She and Abitbol threw venomous tweets at each other but eventually became friends, as did many others who saw more humanity in Phelps-Roper’s tweets than in anything else she did.
The article goes into how her friendship with Abitbol and others developed through Twitter’s direct messaging feature and that unbeknownst to the rest of the Westboro clan, she was beginning to think outside of the box. What was happening with her is something that would have never occurred with her parents’ generation; Twitter had enabled her to quietly seek out opinions from elsewhere and she was quite unsettled as a result. And she had made friends with someone called C.G., an attorney with whom she was becoming smitten.
I won’t go into how the article ends, except to say that she’s now living with C.G. in South Dakota and she isn’t sure if she believes the Bible is inspired by God. Which is an amazing admission for the reporter to dig out of her. Obviously Phelps-Roper wanted her story told but still, it took some good reporting to dig out as much as he did. The reporter patiently explains Westboro’s doctrinal oddities in a way that readers can understand and outlines the inside politics that made the group start fracturing in 2011. Grace and Megan Phelps-Roper bolted about 18 months later.
I was impressed with how the reporter reported the community’s inner workings without any snark and in a way that showed the humanity of those still in the Westboro group. He also explained the inner workings of Phelps-Roper’s mind in a way that sounded naturally like her. The strength of the story is that it weaves her tweets and emails into her quotes so that it's hard to distinguish what's on social media from the person herself. Which is apt, being that she's become a creature of Twitter. We haven't heard the last of her and this article insures that when she next pops up, we'll feel we know her.
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