Former Westboro Baptist Church Member, S.D. Resident Featured at 2019 Festival of Books, Will Discuss Memoir, Decision to Leave Infamous Church

By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities Council
Editor's Note: A version of this feature story appears in our 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy of the Festival Guide!

Memoir 'Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church' to be Released Oct. 8

As a member of what's been referred to as the "most hated family in America" and granddaughter of infamous religious zealot and Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps, Megan Phelps-Roper grew up on raucous picket lines protesting funerals with messages like "God Hates Fags."

She left the Westboro Baptist Church — and by extension, most of her family — behind in 2012 and now lives a much quieter life with her husband and daughter in small-town South Dakota, where confrontation is the exception rather than the norm. And instead of shouting hateful rhetoric at the bereaved, she now exchanges ideas about how to overcome ideological extremism and improve communication across religious and political divides.

So how does one reverse their life's course in such an extreme manner? South Dakotan Festival of Books attendees will have a chance in October to find out firsthand.

Unveiling Her Message - and New Memoir

As a presenter at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books Oct. 4-6 in Deadwood, Phelps-Roper will tell audiences how she ended up becoming an empathetic peacemaker in South Dakota after spending her formative years as a judgmental picketer in Kansas. It will be the first time she's spoken publicly in South Dakota about her experiences at the Westboro Baptist Church.

The 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books coincides with the release of her memoir "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church," which chronicles her life in Kansas from childhood through adulthood, her departure from the church during her mid 20s, and the unlikely series of events that led her to South Dakota. The book will be on sale during the Festival, which is the first of several stops planned for the debut author.

While she now teaches a message of peace — quite the opposite of the xenophobic taunts still employed by her Westboro relatives who continue to picket funerals — Phelps-Roper is sympathetic towards those she left behind.

"I think they're good people who have been trapped by bad ideas," she writes in the memoir.

Phelps-Roper has already reached many people with her message; her Ted Talk in New York City has been viewed 8.4 million times.

Megan Phelps-Roper gave a Ted Talk in New York City that has been viewed 8.4 million times.

Revealing Reality of Life Inside America's Most Controversial Church

What's it like to grow up within a group of people who exult in demonizing almost everyone else? In both the Ted Talk and her memoir, she shares details of life inside America's most controversial church and describes her decision to leave it. She shares her personal experience of extreme polarization, along with some sharp ways we can learn to successfully engage across ideological lines.

Not only will her story soon be printed in her own words, but Phelps-Roper has announced that it will also be told on the big screen, produced by Reese Witherspoon.

"Update: I finished the first draft of my book a few weeks ago, and now a film is in the works, taken on by some incredibly talented people — Nick Hornby, Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Marc Webb, Bill Pohlad, and Condé Nast Entertainment," she wrote on her Facebook page.

She has already been featured in a 2019 BBC documentary by filmmaker Louis Theroux called "Surviving America's Most Hated Family." On her Facebook page, Phelps-Roper muses about people's reaction to the film and the sense of hope that pervades her life, despite her emotionally traumatic journey.

"There *is* a lot of pain in this footage, and that pain is real and devastating and at times overwhelming. But alongside that pain is an even greater sense of love and determination and impossible joy," she writes.

"These all sit side by side, and I am not—as one reviewer speculated—'wiped out' by my experiences at Westboro. Instead they fill me with an absolutely blazing and fiery *hope*. Because if my mind could be changed from its zealous commitment to extreme ideology after decades of indoctrination?

Then *anyone's* can."

Megan Phelps-Roper's 2019 Festival of Books Events

Friday, Oct 4

Saturday, Oct 5

More About Megan Phelps-Roper

Megan Phelps-Roper is a writer and activist. Formerly a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, she left the church in November 2012, a process she examines in her book, "Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church." An educator on topics related to overcoming ideological extremism and improving communication across religious and political divides, Phelps-Roper lives in South Dakota with her husband, Chad, and daughter, Sølvi.

More About the Festival of Books

To read more about authors who will be appearing at the 2019 Festival of Books, click below to download the Festival of Books guide, which includes information about authors, venues, events and more.