I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
Although over 90 books from the second half of the year are already on my radar, I’ve managed to narrow it down to the 15 July to November releases that I’m most excited about. I have access to a few of these already, and most of the rest I will try requesting as soon as I’m back from Milan. (These are given in release date order within thematic sections; the quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads.)
[By the way, here’s how I did with my most anticipated releases of the first half of the year:
- 16 out of 30 read; of those 9 were somewhat disappointing (i.e., 3 stars or below) – This is such a poor showing! Is it a matter of my expectations being too high?
- 10 I still haven’t managed to find
- 1 print review copy arrived recently
- 1 I have on my Kindle to read
- 1 I skimmed
- 1 I lost interest in]
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal [July 23, Pamela Dorman Books] Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (2015) is one of my recent favorites. This one has a foodie theme again, and sounds a lot like Louise Miller’s latest – two sisters: a baker of pies and a founder of a small brewery. “Here we meet a cast of lovable, funny, quintessentially American characters eager to make their mark in a world that’s often stacked against them.”
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton [August 6, Grand Central Publishing / Headline Review] As soon as I heard that this was narrated by a crow, I knew I was going to have to read it. (And the Seattle setting also ties in with Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book.) “Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a foul-mouthed crow whose knowledge of the world around him comes from his TV-watching education.”
Inland by Téa Obreht [August 13, Random House / Weidenfeld & Nicolson] However has it been eight years since her terrific debut novel?! “In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives collide. … [L]yrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West.” The synopsis reminds me of Eowyn Ivey’s latest.
A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman [August 27, Little, Brown and Company] I loved The Submission, Waldman’s 2011 novel about a controversial (imagined) 9/11 memorial. “Parveen Shamsa, a college senior in search of a calling, feels pulled between her charismatic and mercurial anthropology professor and the comfortable but predictable Afghan-American community in her Northern California hometown [and] travels to a remote village in the land of her birth to join the work of his charitable foundation.” (NetGalley download)
Bloomland by John Englehardt [September 10, Dzanc Books] “Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. In this richly textured debut, Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters.” (print review copy from publisher)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett [September 25, Harper / Bloomsbury UK] I’m more a fan of Patchett’s nonfiction, but will keep reading her novels thanks to Commonwealth. “At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous [Philadelphia] real estate empire … Set over … five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past.”
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty [September 10, W.W. Norton / September 19, Weidenfeld & Nicolson] I’ve read Doughty’s previous books about our modern attitude towards mortality and death customs around the world. She’s wonderfully funny and iconoclastic. Plus, how can you resist this title?! Although it sounds like it’s geared towards children, I’ll still read the book. “Doughty blends her mortician’s knowledge of the body and the intriguing history behind common misconceptions … to offer factual, hilarious, and candid answers to thirty-five … questions.”
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer [September 17, Farrar, Straus and Giroux] “A week after her forty-first birthday, the acclaimed poet Anne Boyer was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. … A genre-bending memoir in the tradition of The Argonauts, The Undying will … show you contemporary America as a thing both desperately ill and occasionally, perversely glorious.” (print review copy from publisher)
Breaking and Mending: A doctor’s story of burnout and recovery by Joanna Cannon [September 26, Wellcome Collection] I haven’t gotten on with Cannon’s fiction, but a memoir should hit the spot. “A frank account of mental health from both sides of the doctor-patient divide, from the bestselling author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie, based on her own experience as a doctor working on a psychiatric ward.”
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson [October 3, Doubleday / Transworld] His last few books have been somewhat underwhelming, but I’d read Bryson on any topic. He’s earned a reputation for making history, science and medicine understandable to laymen. “Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories, The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological makeup.”
The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be by Thomas Lynch [November 26, W.W. Norton] Lynch is such an underrated writer. A Michigan undertaker, he crafts essays and short stories about small-town life, the Irish-American experience and working with the dead. I discovered him through Greenbelt Festival some years back and have read three of his books. Some of what I’ve already read will likely be repeated here, but will be worth a second look anyway.
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell [August 29, Profile Books] The Diary of a Bookseller was a treat in 2017. I’ve read the first two-thirds of this already while in Milan, and I wish I was in Wigtown instead! This sequel picks up in 2015 and is very much more of the same – the daily routines of buying and selling books and being out and about in a small town – so it’s up to you whether that sounds boring or comforting. I’m finding it strangely addictive. (NetGalley download)
We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer [September 17, Farrar, Straus and Giroux / October 10, Hamish Hamilton] Foer’s Eating Animals (2009) was a hard-hitting argument against eating meat. In this follow-up he posits that meat-eating is the single greatest contributor to climate change. “With his distinctive wit, insight and humanity, Jonathan Safran Foer presents this essential debate as no one else could, bringing it to vivid and urgent life, and offering us all a much-needed way out.”
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie [September 19, Sort of Books] Jamie is a Scottish poet who writes exquisite essays about the natural world. I’ve read her two previous essay collections, Findings and Sightlines, as well as a couple of volumes of her poetry. “From the thawing tundra linking a Yup’ik village in Alaska to its hunter-gatherer past to the shifting sand dunes revealing the impressively preserved homes of neolithic farmers in Scotland, Jamie explores how the changing natural world can alter our sense of time.”
Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper [October 8, Farrar, Straus and Giroux / riverrun] Ties in with my special interest in women’s religious memoirs. “In November 2012, at the age of twenty-six, [Phelps-Roper] left [Westboro Baptist Church], her family, and her life behind. Unfollow is a story about the rarest thing of all: a person changing their mind. It is a fascinating insight into a closed world of extreme belief, a biography of a complex family, and a hope-inspiring memoir of a young woman finding the courage to find compassion.”