Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper

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Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church
by Megan Phelps-Roper

Genre: Memoir

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: October 8, 2019

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Synopsis: 

The activist and TED speaker Megan Phelps-Roper reveals her life growing up in the most hated family in America

At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb—which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point—and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life.

A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.

ratingfive

This post will be a little different than most on my page; I’d like to post less of a formal review and really talk more about why this book is so important to me. In terms of quality, I’ll be brief. Megan is eloquent and this subject matter of her memoir is totally riveting. Every time I had to set this book down to take care of real life felt like a chore.

But beyond being an enjoyable read, a lot of what Megan had to say feel so terribly timely. We live in truly weird times. The internet is forever and a ruined reputation can be increasingly difficult to escape, especially for anyone remotely in the public eye. Strangers snipe at each other on Facebook in public comment sections. Ten year old tweets are dragged from the depths of Twitter to discredit people who have long since grown out of and apologized for the attitudes they expressed at the time.

Let me be clear; this is not anti-accountability. People who mess up or hurt people should apologize and see if there is a way to make amends to those who were harmed. But implicit in Megan’s story is a message that is, at its heart, simply pro-empathy. Megan left her church in large part because of people who were able to stop seeing her as a cog in the Westboro machine and engage with her as a human being. They pushed back against her harmful ideas, but treated her as a person who was capable of improvement rather than a person who needed to be punished.

It is never the responsibility of harmed parties to try to change the extremist views of those who have hurt them. But for those who do have the ability and emotional energy to do so, we must first empathize. We cannot change views that we don’t take the time to understand. We cannot change people whom we treat as inherently unworthy and irredeemable. Megan was raised in a church that, like many extremist groups, taught her the world would reject her forever because of the way she grew up. If we want more people to experience the growth that she did, we must always be prepared to prove them wrong about us. buy

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, by Donna Freitas (Review)

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Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention
by Donna Freitas

Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: August 13, 2019

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Synopsis: 

Donna Freitas has lived two lives. In one life, she is a well-published author and respected scholar who has traveled around the country speaking about Title IX, consent, religion, and sex on college campuses. In the other, she is a victim, a woman who suffered and suffers still because she was stalked by her graduate professor for more than two years.

As a doctoral candidate, Freitas loved asking big questions, challenging established theories and sinking her teeth into sacred texts. She felt at home in the library, and safe in the book-lined offices of scholars whom she admired. But during her first year, one particular scholar became obsessed with Freitas’ academic enthusiasm. He filled her student mailbox with letters and articles. He lurked on the sidewalk outside her apartment. He called daily and left nagging voicemails. He befriended her mother, and made himself comfortable in her family’s home. He wouldn’t go away. While his attraction was not overtly sexual, it was undeniably inappropriate, and most importantly–unwanted.

In Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, Donna Freitas delivers a forensic examination of the years she spent stalked by her professor, and uses her nightmarish experience to examine the ways in which we stigmatize, debate, and attempt to understand consent today.

rating

four

My thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Consent was a difficult read in some respects; it was difficult to see the author recount her trauma, but more than that, it was difficult to think about the excuses she internally made for her stalker before things escalated out of control. Most women have been there, with varying degrees of severity. (Maybe he doesn’t realize he’s being inappropriate? Maybe I’m being overly sensitive and he’s not actually being inappropriate at all? Maybe I said/did/wore something that made him think this behavior would be welcome?)

This memoir is a an engrossing exploration of blurry lines of consent and the harassers who rely on plausible deniability to get away with their behavior. Donna Freitas was an enthusiastic student who loved getting to know her professors. This is probably part of why it took her a while to see that her abuser’s intentions were less than innocent. But a large part of this was probably also due to the professor’s intentionally chipping away at boundaries slowly, so as to acclimate his target to his attentions. By the time things escalated to the point that Freitas felt the need to get outside help, she’d already been in over her head for quite some time. The memoir does an excellent job of illuminating the process abusers of all sorts often use on those they target; things start small and often escalate slowly, all while the victim is questioning whether they’re crazy to feel uncomfortable at every step.

While this was at times an emotionally taxing read, I definitely recommend it to fans of memoirs and feminist works. The author’s exploration of consent, gaslighting, trauma, and institutions that shield powerful men from consequences are all important and timely.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any good memoirs lately? Share in the comments! jennabookish

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