It started, I think, with a stupid tweet about her last name. I think I asked her why, in an environment where the men always have the upper hand, was her last name hyphenated? Shouldn’t her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, exhibit submission to her husband in all things?
I was tweeting to Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps and the social media “voice” of the Westboro Baptist Church (you know – the “God Hates Fags” folks).
I don’t even know what compelled me to come up with this. I’d been reading her Twitter page for some time and was simultaneously outraged and fascinated. I knew I wasn’t up to the task of arguing scripture with her; I’d watched the WBC in action enough to know that they had biblical justification for EVERYTHING they did, and having not been quite so immersed in bible study as the Phelpses, despite 12+ years of Catholic education (which they would have sneered at anyway, because – sigh – “Catholics aren’t Christians”), I couldn’t whip out chapter-and-verse from memory the way Megan could. This was a girl who had a KJV app on her phone. You simply couldn’t shout “BUT WHAT ABOUT JOHN 3:16?!” at any member of the WBC; they’d know then that you hadn’t read beyond that verse, and were therefore biblically ig’nant (“…he that believeth not is condemned already.”). And on that point, they were pretty much correct. Let me tell you all right now: most people cannot, and should not, go to the mat with the WBC in terms of the bible; it’s like walking into the annual James Joyce Conference having only glanced through the Cliff Notes of Ulysses.
Despite what people believe about the Phelpses (that they’re a group of backwater, inbred imbeciles), the fact is that they are a shrewd, very well educated lot. And despite the persistent rumors that they’re actually running some kind of elaborate scam, making all of their money by suing counter protestors, the adults in the church are gainfully employed (mostly in law or medicine), and are expected to contribute a certain percentage of their income back into the church. It should also go without saying that they’re not a decades-long performance art piece funded by the Democrats in order to make Christians look bad. None of these rumors are true.
Anyway – I’d read her tweets and sputter and fume and try to find SOME way of getting at her. I was not one for ad hominem attacks; as horrifying as I found the WBC, to call them names seemed counter-intuitive, seeing as part of what was so horrible about them was the way they flung the word “fag” around. And at any rate it didn’t seem to matter what anyone said to Megan; her responses were always measured, and bemused. Which of course was even more infuriating. And yet I began to harbor a grudging respect for her. I saw, in the midst of the gay-and-Jew-bashing lunacy she’d been brought up to believe, a lambent intelligence and wittiness in her. I began to think, “She is WAY too smart for this.”
And then I thought: “I really hope she gets out of this.”
I stopped picking fights with her. I was just one of countless people challenging her belief system, or mocking her, or just trying to figure out why her family did these batshit crazy things. And I went on posting bad 80’s videos and coming up with brittle bons mots like I do.
There came a point when I realized I hadn’t heard anything about her in months. Curious, I popped over to her Twitter account. Her profile picture had changed. Where it had been a shot of her sandaled foot coyly stepping on an American flag, now it appeared to be of a fence bedecked with little white lights. Her bio, which had been the usual Sturm und Drang of “USA IS DOOMED BECAUSE FAGS” found on other WBC Twitter pages, read: “You’re just a human being, my dear, sweet child.”
Her tweets were her typical biblically-sound wisecracking up until around November 2012, at which point they stopped altogether until February. That tweet simply said “Hi,” and included a link to a short essay on Medium explaining that, after a period of crippling doubt and tremendous self-reflection, Megan and her younger sister Grace had left Westboro.
I was floored. And almost immediately, I felt compelled to send her a little message of support. I knew that at this point, she’d had no contact with her parents, siblings, and other family members still at Westboro, as it’s understood that if you leave, you are persona non grata (“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”). I couldn’t imagine how isolated and lonely that would make me feel. And I don’t even remember what I said, but she thanked me.
And so began my rebooted online relationship with Megan Phelps-Roper. I didn’t want to come off as a creeper, so I kept it light at first, until I found myself leaping to her defense when others were still railing at her. I’d send them the link to the Medium piece. Some of them would then apologize to her. I reached out to Grace as well. I told them that if they ever found themselves in Boston, they had a friend here. And somehow, they believed me. Which couldn’t have been easy for them, given that they had been raised to believe that the world outside of the WBC was evil, that those not in the church were hated by God and not to be trusted. And here I was, a 40-something former Catholic who was maybe still praying the Rosary now and then (it SOOTHES me, okay?!), who had a “gay boyfriend” and enjoyed all manner of filthy entertainment, saying “Come on over! I’ll bake a pie!”
Suddenly, it seemed that Megan and I were actually friends. Like – she has my cellphone #/knows personal bidness about me/drops me a line to check on me if I tweet something depressing. Friends.
I dug through bins in my dark, dank basement looking for a paper I’d written in graduate school about Emily Dickinson’s influence on Marilynne Robinson (a writer we both admire) so I could scan it and email it to her. As I pulled it out and stumbled around my basement yelling “Ah HA!” – triumphant – I had to pause and reflect on how I’d gone to the trouble of doing this for someone who, not just a couple of years ago, had so confounded and enraged me. It’s hilarious. It’s utterly insane. It’s amazing. Friends.
I find myself checking in on her like a meddling auntie – Are you okay? Don’t be sad. Well, BE sad, but be hopeful. When are you coming to visit? – like she doesn’t have people in her own family (those who’ve also left WBC, as well as those on her dad’s side of the family that she’s now connecting with) to do this for her. But I feel compelled nonetheless. I see the things that some people still say to her, and I cringe. She is, of course, an adult, and certainly “used to” the verbal assault by now, but it cannot be easy to see, every day, the anger that still erupts from her past actions in the WBC, almost three years after leaving.
Several weeks ago, I got a message from her saying she was going to be speaking in town, and could we meet up? After a lot of back-and-forth and juggling of calendars and such, we finally were able to meet for dinner (as an added bonus, I also got to meet the very lovely, and very ripped, Lauren Drain). We spent a good few hours laughing. Laughing about some of the more absurd signs the WBC has produced (my personal favorite is “Bitch Burger,” which Lauren and Megan found hilarious). Laughing about not knowing how to pronounce half of the stuff on the menu. Laughing like a group of people who’d found some common ground, and were just genuinely enjoying one another’s company.
But there were some tough moments, too. What strikes me now about my friendship with Megan is how we both came out of dependencies which had us painting ourselves into corners. We both had to come to terms with how something that had provided a means of coping, and a way to define ourselves, had ceased to work. For me, it was alcohol. For Megan, it was the WBC. Not knowing how else to maneuver through our lives without these things, we remained stuck, and fearful. And when something becomes too painful, you have to make a leap of faith that you can move forward, and then make the move.
Of course, my quitting drinking didn’t result in my family never speaking to me again; I don’t want to make light of the very real sacrifices Megan, and the others who have left, have had to make in order to do the right thing. But the other thing we spoke at length about was gratitude. Megan has learned that people outside of the WBC are not evil, that many in fact have been unfailingly kind and generous. And even with the daily pangs of missing her parents and siblings and friends who remain in the church, her life is largely one of enormous opportunity. She travels. She has a boyfriend whom she absolutely adores. She is incandescent with possibility. And she is grateful.
The easiest route to take sometimes is one of outright dismissal. A lesson that my father has repeatedly imparted on me and my siblings is this: “Consider the source.” And I get that the majority of people reading this don’t feel they particularly need to do this when it comes to the Phelpses, the Drains, the Hockenbargers, and the others who make up the WBC’s membership. That’s understandable. The protests, the signs, the indoctrination – these are indescribably awful to those of us who weren’t born into this and can’t for the life of us imagine how it’s in any way good or right. And it isn’t good or right, but yet that’s what they believe. What they’ve been taught from birth to believe. And that’s something I’ve frequently said about the WBC: “They’re not EVIL; they’re FRIGHTENED.” And fear can make one do some pretty – well – batshit crazy things.
Sometimes I send a tweet or two to Shirley, Megan’s mother. I’m always polite, the way one is with a friend’s mom, even though I completely disagree with her church’s doctrine. I know that someone who’s raised a person as frigging delightful as Megan simply cannot be a terrible person. I’d like to think that someday I’ll get to meet Shirley, too. In an interesting moment at dinner, Lauren looked at me, then looked at Megan, and said, “Your mom would TOTALLY get along with Lisa.” I didn’t find that insulting in the least. And if I do get to meet her, I would tell her that as far as Proverbs 22:6 goes (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”), here – in Megan – is no failure.