Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization widely monitored as a hate group for its anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-American protests. She left WBC in 2012 and has since written about her experiences in Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. This is part two of a two-part episode. Listen to part one here!
What We Discuss with Megan Phelps-Roper:
- What catalyzed Megan and her sister’s departure from the Westboro Baptist Church in 2012, and how do the family members left behind feel about their decision?
- The logistics Megan and her sister faced when they decided to leave the home and family they’d known their entire lives to start anew in the outside world.
- What Megan learned about the human capacity for empathy, generosity, forgiveness — and general goodness — by revisiting people she’d formerly picketed in WBC.
- What Megan’s experiences have taught her about the cognitive biases we all have — about everything from religion to politics — no matter how smart we think we are.
- The four steps others used to break through to Megan and get her to have real conversations, and how we can use them to connect with people who disagree with us on a fundamental level.
- And much more…
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As we get older, most of us become aware of our family’s unique peculiarities that people in the outside world just wouldn’t understand, but we grew up thinking of as completely normal. Maybe we traditionally eat pasta with our hands for Thanksgiving. Perhaps we customarily leave butter out of the refrigerator overnight so it’ll be nice and soft for the morning toast. But if you’re Megan Phelps-Roper, you grew up in a family that denounced the sins of the world with colorful signs and catchy — but hideously offensive and hateful — slogans at funerals, parades, memorials, and other public events.
On this episode, Megan — author of Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church — explains what it was like to grow up in Topeka’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church, an organization monitored as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. She helps us try to understand the twisted interpretation of the Bible’s lesson to “love thy neighbor” that motivates its message, how she went from being a true believer of this message to questioning and rejecting it, and what the consequences of her decision to leave WBC in 2012 have been. Listen, learn, and enjoy! This is part two of a two-part episode. Listen to part one here!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER!
If you enjoyed this session with Megan Phelps-Roper, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Instagram
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Facebook
- Megan Phelps-Roper at Twitter
- I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left. by Megan Phelps-Roper, TED NYC
Transcript for Megan Phelps-Roper | Unfollowing Westboro Baptist Church Part Two (Episode 303)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. As always, I’m here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s most brilliant and interesting people, and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. I want you to become a better thinker. That’ll strengthen your family life, your personal life, your career, and the democracy in which we live. And if you’re new to the show, we’ve got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So, if you’re smart and you like to learn and improve, then you’ll be right at home here with us.[00:00:46] Today, Part Two with Megan Phelps-Roper. She started her life in one of the most infamous churches in the world, the Westboro Baptist Church. They were known for protesting soldiers, funerals, and children’s funerals with signs that say things like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for September 11th” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” It was just horrifying. She and her family were in the news constantly and one of the most visible images of hate in America. Now, she’s left the church negative speaking freely and in a way that will surprise everyone. I just loved this conversation. This is Part Two. If you haven’t heard Part One. Go back and listen to part one, or you’re jumping right in the middle and you’re going to miss a lot of the intro. It’s just now it’s done. Go back and listen. It’s worth it. It’s a two-part conversation. It’s fascinating. I just loved it. I think this is one of the best interviews I’ve done in a long time and big thanks to Megan. It’s just absolutely all her, I loved, loved, loved this one. [00:01:40] And if you want to know why I get guests like this, it’s because I’ve got a kick-butt network. I build relationships, I maintain them over time, and I’m teaching you how to do this for free. It’s a class that I teach to intelligence agencies and business schools all over the United States and elsewhere. It’s in part in my Six-Minute Networking course over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. Come join us. You’ll be in great company. All right, here’s part two with Megan Phelps-Roper.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:11] What was the plan for life outside the church was there like, “Okay, we’re going to these people’s house. We’re going to our brother and sister’s house. They’ve got a room for us.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:02:20] Very shortly before we left, I reached out to one of my cousins who had left, and so we knew that we would go to her house and she had her room that we could share. That was the extent of our planning. All we knew was that we were going to leave. We were going to go there. I had no idea what we were going to do after that. I had no idea what we’re going to do with our lives. There was also this element of how was I going to live in the world? Would I have to change my name? Like I had been such a zealous proponent of Westboro’s ideas. I had the most followers from everybody, all the Westboro members on Twitter. I had been super active there, constantly giving interviews. Would anybody let me ever move on from Westboro from being who I had been? I kind of thought I was going to have to change my name or something. And of course, you realize really quickly, like again, we live in the age of the internet. All of that stuff is out there. I realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t just walk away from it. Like it was something that I was going to have to deal with. And the thing is, I wanted to.[00:03:22] I mentioned David earlier who found that first internal inconsistency that was really important, but I think that what he did after I left Westboro was even more important. So, he invited my sister and me to come to this Jewish Cultural Festival in Long Beach, California. And it was one that I had protested three years earlier and it had been these really—You asked about memorable protests earlier. These ones in Long Beach, they’ve been extremely contentious. You know, people coming out and surrounding us individually and screaming, you know, coming after us physically. I had these two old women, like really old women, just whispering the most disgusting, like sexualized things in my ear and I can’t move because I’m surrounded by people pressing in on me. So, this is where David invites my sister and me back to, and I thought, “Okay, like we should meet these people that we learned all these terrible things about and actually see who they really are, what they really believe, how they really live,” and so we went. [00:04:24] He took my sister and me to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. And you know, one of the very first things we saw when we walked in was a Westboro picket outside the trial of one of Matthew Shepherd’s murderers. And we go through this whole thing, and at the end of the tour, David tells my sister and me about this concept in Judaism called Tikun Olam, which means to repair the world. The idea is that it is incumbent upon every human being to see the brokenness in the world and to do everything they can to repair it. When he said that, it was really liberating, it felt like kind of a call to action. And the idea that we could do something to repair what we had done, that we didn’t have to run away and hide. In fact, that it wasn’t the right thing to do, that we could find a way to make amends. [00:05:14] It was extremely powerful, but again, I hadn’t planned any of those things when we left. It was basically a total void other than going to my cousin’s house. He asked about supporting us. We had had some money saved and we got part-time jobs during that first year, but for the most part, that whole first year, we were basically drifting around North America, meeting with these people that we had targeted while we were at the church and reconnecting with my dad’s side of the family who had never been part of Westboro, and that we didn’t really know them or much about their lives and, and what they believed. And then spending time with other ex-members and seeing like what choices they had made and basically just trying to figure this out for ourselves, like what kind of life we wanted to live. [00:06:03] And I should say too, one of the first things we did, so a month after we left the church, my sister, so she finished out her semester at Washburn University where she was going to school. And then the month between semesters, we ran away to Deadwood, South Dakota to read books. And this was largely an attempt to try to understand what is the world like, what are we supposed to be doing? Like what is right? And so, we thought maybe we could find some answers in books. It was an incredibly powerful experience to realize like we had elevated the Bible to this position of unquestionable authority and like the only source of goodness in the world. The realization that this is a human attempt to understand God and the world and our place in it. But that’s what so many books are, you know? So maybe there is goodness and wisdom to be found in there too. So anyway, that was a really long answer to you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:56] That was great though. What surprised you most about the outside world when you first left? I mean, it sounds like Twitter was the beginning of “Hey, not everyone is evil and out to get you and a whore.” It seems like that would have been painted on pretty thick once you started actually meeting, interacting, living with people that were not in the church.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:07:15] Yeah. I mean, the realization that there were so many good people or people trying to live a good life. They were not deliberately doing wrong. They weren’t crazy or delusional. They were just people trying to figure out the best way to live in the world. And at first, I thought like, “Oh man, it’s so lucky we found this person, like, this is a normal, not crazy, delusional, evil person.” And then, pretty quickly realizing like, it’s not just this person that we met, it’s like people, in general, like I think, unless you’re talking about actual like psychopath or sociopath, like people with things wrong, not functioning correctly in their brains. People are generally trying to do what they think is right. But yeah, I just remember being absolutely flabbergasted by the realization and obviously in the best way to realize that not everyone outside of Westboro was evil. It filled me with so much hope.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:10] It reminds me of those stories where kids, unless Sci-Fi or comedy or otherwise, where kids are raised in like a nuclear bunker, and then they finally run away from home and they realize, “Oh, there’s no apocalypse outside. That was just some bullshit my parents fed me to keep me safe.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:08:25] And it’s obviously like there are parts of it that were really — I mean, I remember just feeling physically crushed with this uncertainty to have come from this place at Westboro where there was an answer for everything. It was all very clear exactly what you’re supposed to do, how you were supposed to live, all of that. There was a path for you like you knew exactly what steps to take. It was all perfectly dictated and existential crises don’t exist at Westboro because they have all the answers. To walk away from that and to feel like I don’t have a leg to stand on, there are no pillars, there’s nothing holding anything up. I was a straight-A student. I was like highly functional. Like I was not a stupid person. It was just that I didn’t know where my life was going. It felt like it was physically crushing my chest and making it so I couldn’t breathe. I don’t want to like paint this like super rosy picture because I was also very depressed when we first left — the loss of my family, mourning them all the time and just feeling completely lost.[00:09:30] And yet it was my experiences with other people — these new people that I was meeting — that was where my hope came from. The realization that there is so much goodness outside of Westboro, and there are so many other ideas and that we needed to explore those things. And the fact that we had to come to our conclusion, our own conclusions and stand on our own two feet — again was terrifying at first. [00:09:55] I also had this really wonderful former teacher. He was the one in my high school English teachers, and he explained this concept of — he said to my sister and me — we had to be existential heroines. That we could decide. We got to decide. So, “Yes, it’s scary not to have all the answers, but it’s also really liberating to realize that you get to decide what you’re going to do with your life. You can’t control the things that happened to you, but you can control how you react to them and what meaning you’re going to make from them.” And that was really empowering and it took time for me to kind of come around to that, but that was an immediately empowering idea. It’s something that was a really helpful paradigm for me, I think when we were transitioning away from feeling like we knew everything, to feel like we knew nothing, and then realized that there were still good things to come from that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:44] Honestly though, it must’ve been a bit of welcome relief that people to whom you had been so deliberately cruel in their most vulnerable moments, actually to a large extent, showed you compassion and humility in one of your most vulnerable moments.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:10:59] Oh my God, absolutely. The idea of facing those people. Like I said, I didn’t think I could do it at first. I said that to David when he first issued that invitation, and I’m so grateful for him because if he hadn’t kind of pushed us. He wasn’t like trying to force us into anything, but he pushed me to think about the assumptions that I was making and to be willing to open myself up to those people. I wouldn’t have had those experiences. And again, the fact that he was there the first time, I spoke publicly about Westboro was at that Jewish Festival. He was incredibly generous. I wouldn’t blame any person who has been unable or unwilling to forgive me and other ex-members of Westboro people, other people who have left, people who were hurt too badly. I completely understand that. I never have expected forgiveness or anything like it. I don’t think I deserve anything like that from anybody that we attacked. But the fact that so many people were able to empathize and to think—So this is one of the things David said at that first talk. He said, “I want to think that if I had been in Megan’s place that I would have left too. That I would have recognized — you know, when I was young that this was wrong — but I know that if I had been raised the way that she had been raised, then I would have been out there protesting with Grandpa Phelps just like her.” It was an incredibly empathetic, compassionate thing for him to do, to model that kind of reaction. And I think, I’m sure that was partly why at least the people sitting in the room that day were able to see outside of the rage I think that a lot of people felt in justifiably so in a lot of cases. Again, it’s absolutely been so moving to me the way that people have responded and the care and generosity that they’ve shown me. They didn’t have to do that, and it’s incredibly moving to me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:00] There’s a throwaway line in the book about you having brunch with these two gay men in New York City before a CNN interview. And I was wondering at that point, when I’m reading the book, are you ever just sitting there, you’re sipping your mimosa and you’re thinking, “Gee, a few years ago I’d be praying for God to smite these men and condemn them to the fires of hell for all eternity. And here, we are splitting some kind of freaking duck confit pasta creme fraiche.” It has to be so surreal for you.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:13:26] It totally is. I mean, it’s really funny because I mean obviously so it’s been seven years since I left and so I was really deliberate about creating new memories and new associations and new experiences. I no longer had those instinctive negative reactions to people that we had protested into — again, those things like the militarian and the American flag and things like that. Somebody tweeted me something like — it was yesterday I think — something like Megan wins the blowup of this decade or whatever. Like thinking back, 10 years ago to what I was doing and where I am now and how absolutely—Can I cuss?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:04] Yeah.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:14:05] I would say absolutely fucking bananas. I got to this radio station where I’m recording this podcasts with you and there are these Christmas songs playing, and of course, the Westboro lyrics are coming back into my mind and I’m suddenly flashing back to being on the picket line in Topeka, and it is the craziest thing in the world that all of these memories exist in the same person. And that they’re my memories and that I’m the same person. It’s so hard even for me to wrap my mind around all this stuff. But when I first left and came out, if you will, you know, posted those things, explaining that I had left and, and all this stuff, I didn’t delete all of those old tweets or my old Facebook posts. And so, I still get those like memory updates on Facebook. Sometimes people will occasionally like respond to one of my old tweets. And I left them up because it’s a reminder like that was me. That wasn’t somebody else. That was me. It helps me think to be — because I’m not a saint. Like I get really angry sometimes at things other people say and do, but I cannot help but feel hope, you know what I mean? For other people doing really destructive, cruel things because I know what I am capable of. I have all those memories and I can look back at all the evidence. And so, it is a reminder to me to have hope for other people too.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:15:34] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Megan Phelps-Roper. We’ll be right back.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:18:51] For 15 percent off your first order, go to pela.earth. That’s P-E-L-A.earth and use coupon code JORDAN for 15 percent off your first order. That’s pela.earth coupon code JORDAN, 15 percent off. Save the planet.[00:19:06] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don’t forget we have a worksheet for today’s episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways for Megan Phelps-Roper. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’d like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player so you don’t miss a single thing. And now back to our show with Megan Phelps-Roper.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:44] So are you religious at all? And if so, to what extent? Because I think people are probably wondering, “Okay, did you take, did you switch from Coke to Diet Coke?” Or are you just like, “No, I’m a water drinker?”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:19:54] I’m a water drinker. Yeah. I’m not religious at all. Again, that was another thing where I started asking all these questions and talking to religious people a lot about what they believed and why, and they all kind of had some kind of like, again, internal consistency. They all made sense within their own framework, but the idea of choosing one of those things without sufficient evidence. I just couldn’t do it. And it was really hard to acknowledge that I didn’t believe. And to say it out loud because we know Westboro would say things like, “You’re not an atheist.” Basically, they don’t think atheist exists. They’re just people who hate God and don’t want his authority over them. I’m like, no, no. I really actually don’t believe that God exists at all. I think he’s something that we’ve constructed and trying to understand the things about the world that aren’t knowable or aren’t knowable yet and to find meaning in things that don’t obviously seem to have meaning like death and other difficult things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:56] I’m sure they have a lot of choice bits to say about things that you supposedly believe or your mindset. There’s probably a lot of mind reading going on inside the church to rationalize you having left, and I’m sure that one thing that they’re saying is, “Well, she thought that we were right when she was here, so she changed her mind then, how can she be so certain that she’s right now as a non-believer.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:21:19] Yes, so I’m not certain, and again, I think that’s the main thing that’s different about how I experienced the world now versus when I was at Westboro. Then I had answers and I thought I knew everything or that the Bible could tell me everything, and now I know that I don’t know everything. I know that my experience of the world is necessarily extremely limited. It is limited to the experiences that I’ve had. And there is so much outside of my awareness and my understanding and like I have this need now, of course, I’m still very curious and obviously, we all have to take positions on things. And yet I am constantly seeking out evidence, first to expand my understanding and to allow that evidence to change what I think and how I feel. Again, that’s completely different to how I experienced at Westboro. Westboro, I had all the answers and that there was no questioning them. And now, sometimes I feel like I’m all questions and no answers, but yeah, it’s, I think, completely different.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:24] Westboro’s ideology and beliefs — some of the group dynamics, groupthink, confirmation bias and things like that — they’re not unique or limited to Westboro Church members by any stretch. Do you see these same warning signs or the same dangerous mix in any other group or any other place today?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:22:42] Yes, everywhere. I gave this TED Talk in 2017 about this, specifically applying these ideas to American politics and in politics generally, I think not just in America. That was one of those things, like when I first left Westboro, I just thought that nobody would be able to understand this because the things that we did at Westboro were the way that our ideology manifested was unique in a lot of ways. But then I realized pretty quickly that the forces that made Westboro what they are, they’re not unique to Westboro. They’re very common and they’re very human and yeah, they are everywhere and they’re not just in religious groups. Like I said, it’s in politics, this tribalism, it seems like it’s less about—I don’t want to go too far there. Let me say, it just seems like there’s so much certainty that our side is the good side and that the other side is holy evil and has nothing to offer. That’s what my family would say. “These people have nothing to offer us,” and I think that’s a dangerous position for us to have about literally the entire world outside of Westboro. But I also think it’s not a helpful attitude to have toward the rest of our, or half of our, fellow countrymen. We have to be able to talk to each other. We have to be able to advocate for better ideas. If we think someone is wrong to just completely write one another off and refuse to engage.[00:24:07] And not everybody can have these really difficult conversations where you’re trying to convince people to see you as a human being — I feel like I’m getting a little bit off here — but it’s absolutely, those forces are everywhere and we are all subject to them. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Those cognitive biases are still there, and there’s a lot of studies that show that intelligence, it doesn’t save you from those cognitive flaws.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:32] Oh, in fact, it exacerbates them a lot of the time.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:24:35] Because you think you’re so smart, like, you know you’re smart.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:38] Like, “Oh, I can’t be influenced. I have a law degree. I’m not subject to this bias,” which therefore shuts off our awareness of this bias, and then it’s more powerful because it goes unchecked. Like, “I’m not subject to confirmation bias. I’m really intelligent.” “Well, okay, now you’re really subject to confirmation bias,” because there’s not a part of your brain going, “Wait a minute, am I just subject to this bias? And that’s why I think this way or is there something else going on?” Plus, we rationalize things so well. I mean, your family, classic example went to law school, therefore much better at parsing arguments and getting the result that they want even if it’s not accurate.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:25:13] Absolutely. 100 percent I’m serious when I say I know that it’s not easy. It’s not easy for me either. The experience that I had of this profound change of mind and heart came from the most difficult kinds of conversations. When I think about the people who were engaging me on Twitter and the incredible amount of patience that they had to have to be constantly coming up to me and just being met with this wall of certainty and frankly arrogance. I didn’t think I was being arrogant at the time. When I go back and watch the things that I said and how I talk to people, it is cringe-worthy how absolutely arrogantly I treated people. It’s amazing to me that they, even in the face of all of those, how difficult I made their lives. The fact that they still were willing to have those conversations. That’s why I’m here today and not on the picket line in Kansas.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:08] What tools do you think you have now as a result of your experience that you can use to help others? I mean, it’s very clear that you’re able to articulate arguments well, having defended yourself a lot, so there’s that. But there’s got to be something else that maybe is a little counterintuitive that you took as a result of that.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:26:23] I think doubt is hugely helpful. I think the ability to, and not just the ability, but the instinct now to really try to see all sides of an issue and to give people the benefit of the doubt. Not that I’m accepting all of their arguments, but that I understand that they’re coming — again generally speaking — from a genuine place, like they’re being sincere. It helps me understand where they’re coming from and to give actual weight to their arguments and try to build those bridges. And then I think just the actual, the skill of communication. It’s that TED Talk essentially and I talked about my story, but I use it as a framework to say, “Here is what people did with me to enable real conversation.” I don’t know if you want me to articulate those here.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:09] Sure.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:27:10] So the four that I mentioned in the talk where the first one is to not assume bad intent, because if you do assume bad intent, you almost immediately cut yourself off from really, really understanding where this person is coming from. You kind of build a caricature of them and their argument in your mind, and then you’re really not engaging with what they actually think.[00:27:27] The second step was to ask questions which both helps you understand where they’re coming from, but also signals to them that they’re being heard. And it almost creates this feedback. So, you ask people questions and eventually, they want to ask you questions too. This is how people asking me about Westboro’s doctrines and I would spill my guts and say all these things, and then eventually you get to this kind of natural place where you’re like, “Well, what do you think?” So, asking questions is really powerful. [00:27:54] The third is to stay calm, which seems really obvious, but it’s not easy to do. When you’re discussing things that are conversations about deeply held values that you’re disagreeing on, it’s really difficult to stay calm and yet it’s so paramount because the more the volume ratchets up, the less you’re actually hearing one another. And it just makes you even more defensive so you can pause and step back and come back to the conversation later rather than trying to push through as you are both may be freaking out a little. [00:28:26] And then the fourth step that I mentioned was to make your argument, which again, I feel like all of these sounds very obvious, but it’s not an easy thing to do. It sounds may be counterintuitive, but like the things that we believe the most, we are sometimes able to articulate the least because to us, like our experience has led us to come to this place where we think that our positions are so obviously good and decent, that any decent person would have already come to the same conclusion. And so if they haven’t been clearly they must not be a good person, so to be able to actually articulate and defend good ideas, better ideas, to be able to persuade other people, we actually have to make those arguments because clearly, they would have come to that position if their experience had led them there. [00:29:09] I use all 15 minutes that they gave me for that talk. If I had had more time, I would’ve added a fifth point, which is to be patient because as you said, yes, people do change their minds. They can change their minds relatively quickly, but it’s almost like it happens very slowly and then all at once, right? Where when you have these deeply held values, you have all of these mental barriers — and again, all of the lifetime of experiences that led you to have those values — to change those take a lot of persuasion. It takes time. It takes patience. So. That’s the fifth point to be patient.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:48] Yeah. Wow. These are powerful. We’ll put these in the worksheet for people that are furiously taking notes or driving and wish they could take notes. Do not take notes while driving, people, thank you. Or bench pressing or whatever you’re doing right now.[00:30:00] Taking in the totality of what’s happened to you during your time in the church and afterward up to now, taking that all in. Do you feel like it was fortunate or unfortunate that you were born into that situation?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:30:12] It just is. You know, at first, I could have become buried in regret when I first left. I think I had to just come to the place where I understood that I didn’t control any of that. I didn’t choose to be born there. And to steal from my former English teacher, Keith Newbery, again about the existential heroines, like all I can do is take what happened and do all of the good that I can with it. So maybe I choose to see it as I really don’t choose to see it as fortunate though. Again, it just is. It’s just a fact and it’s just my life and I’m grateful for all of the good things and I’m grateful for every lesson that I’ve learned. And I guess that’s kind of all I can be.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:31:00] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Megan Phelps-Roper. We’ll be right back after this.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:41] Are you able to speak to your family at all? Obviously the ones in the church, the ones who are not, I assume you’re in touch with.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:35:46] Obviously, the people in the church, they’re not allowed to have any communication with me at all, but I do still reach out to them. I send messages, I leave notes in the door or when I’m in town, things like that. Well, first I believe that they can be reached because I was, so I know that change is possible. Leaving them alone and following the rules about not communicating with them doesn’t change anything. So, I send messages of love and care and updates about my life, but I also make arguments the same way that people did for me. I have two brothers now and a sister who are out of the church and lots of cousins and I am frequently in touch with a lot of them. And it’s a really kind of wonderful, if a little bit complicated, support system because we all had different experiences at the church and we all kind of had different experiences leaving. And also, we learned a lot of really awful relational habits, like if you disagree with somebody, then you just completely cut them out of your life. So there’s definitely kind of this weird patchwork, I think, of alliances sometimes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:48] Do you find that stuff creeping up with your husband? Like, “Oh, I’m having a little bit of a disagreement with him,” and then it’s like reflex ostracize, or are you like, “Oh, wait a wait, I can’t do that. That’s church dysfunction creeping in. Let me reset. Calm down. Take a breath and step back.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:37:03] I’m really lucky that I don’t really struggle with that because when I left, I was really grateful to not have to do that anymore. I say it in my TED Talk this way. I said that it was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that constantly ran through my mind about other people. So now I get to be curious about my reaction and other people’s reactions and how we behave and how we think and not have to say like, “You’re wrong. I’m not going to speak to you anymore.” It’s a real relief to me not to have to do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:33] Do you think your mom would ever leave?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:37:35] I do. You know, when I first left, I thought there wasn’t any chance. And then I realized again like the obvious counterpoint is that I changed and I was incredibly dedicated. I think obviously it’s very difficult, I think even more difficult for her first because she has been in it for even longer than I was. She’s 62 and so she’s had a lot more years in it and all the public, the very, very public positions make it really difficult. The fact that she has so many children and now grandchildren in it. I think all of those things make it extremely difficult and maybe less likely, but do I think it’s a possibility? Absolutely. I mean, especially if my dad became convinced and left, you know, I think it’s possible, but yeah, I cannot not have hope for them because I know my own mind. How absolutely dedicated I was, how toxic the idea of leaving or getting kicked out, like that was my absolute worst nightmare. And yet I know that under the right circumstances, change is absolutely possible. I have to have that hope for her too.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:39] You’re totally right in my opinion. I think it is tough for your mom because there are so many grandkids that are in the church, but there’s hope for some catalyst where people just go enough people, even if it’s just to just say, this is insanity. This just makes no sense. And there are probably other people in the church that are thinking about similar things and are afraid to be ostracized. And as soon as there’s a critical mass of people that say, “This is just whole hog bullshit. I’m out.” There’s potentially enough. I hate saying there’s going to because we don’t know. But there is hope for people to say, “You know, I’m doing it because you’re doing it and we’re all doing it because they’re doing it and this isn’t worth the effort and the hate.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:39:16] Yep. No, absolutely. And that’s I think partly why the importance of like not hiding, right? They have all these narratives about ex-members and how meaningless your life is and all the terrible things that God’s going to do to you dah, dah, dah. So for them to see, but like I’m not a basket case. I didn’t leave and turn into a really terrible person, due to some selfish, hateful, whatever? Like, of course, they don’t agree with me and it’s just another way of contradicting what they’d been taught.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:42] If someone listening right now has doubts about the religion or the family or the environment that they’re in, what would you suggest they do to start looking for the strength to change that.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:39:53] Oh so well, I would say first of all, like if you’re really doubting, like whether you believe the right thing or you’re acting the right way, I think there are so many different ways of seeing the world. I think exploring those things, you know, reading, watching videos, like one of the wonderful things about the era that we’re living in is that there are so many people who have gone through similar things, and maybe not like leaving your particular group of people who had the exact same beliefs that you did. But there are so many parallels, and again this is something that after I left talking to people and realizing — I recount in the book this scene of a month after I left when I ran away to Deadwood to read books, walking into this casino and sitting down at the bar in having hot chocolate and the bartender describing experiences that sounded so much like my upbringing at Westboro, even though like the circumstances and the context couldn’t have been more different.[00:40:50] Like the realization that human beings like we share so, so much and trying to find answers by Looking to other people, other sources of information than the ones that you have been given and the ones that you have been focused on in your community, in your group, in your belief system. So, examining other ways of thinking and other people’s experiences, I think is just incredibly helpful and is the first thing that I would do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:17] I can’t believe I forgot to ask this, but how does your family react when they got that email saying, “Hey, Megan’s going to bounce. She’s going to leave.” Was it like immediate blow-up or was it like, “Hey, let’s talk her out of this? She’s young, it’s fine.”
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:41:31] Oh man. It was an immediate blow-up. I mean, so my dad got the email and immediately came to my room where I was sitting with my sister and talking and we were both already crying because again everything was falling apart. Even before the email came in, like the prospect of leaving, so we were already a total wreck. And then my dad came and said that we needed to come to talk to him and my mom. We followed him to another bedroom and sit down in this little sitting area and he starts reading the email out loud and the sense of urgency and kind of frantic, you know, I looked at my sister and I was like, “We need to go.” And my mom heard and just was completely shocked and it was absolutely awful. We stood up to go to our rooms and pack. Immediately, some of the elders, aunts, uncles, cousins, came to try to talk us out of it. But it was, there was yelling and there was a lot of emotion and a lot of crying. But it was immediate like we knew we had come to the end of the line and that it was all over.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:35] Oh my gosh. And you’ve just never spoken with them again, since then?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:42:42] Okay. Can we not include this part too? I’m sorry. Just the way, the way that you said that. So, shoot a couple of things. I mean, I guess, shoot. Okay. Okay. Okay. And we can include this. I’m sorry. I did call my mom twice in the first year after I left. Several months after I left, I was in the shower, just a total mess, just crying, and all of a sudden, I thought I want to talk to my mom. And so, I got out and I called her. And you know, it was not a terribly long conversation. At first, I was just so happy to hear her voice and she was basically saying that things were better there and that things had changed. This was only a few months after I left. I didn’t really think that things could have changed that much since I left and so mostly, I was kind of listening and then I realized like, “Oh my God, like I’m on the phone with her. Like I should say, I should explain more of the reasons why I left, like what I think that they’re wrong about.” And you know, I brought up the thing about, you know, praying for people to die and the Bible passages that I thought showed that that was very wrong. And I actually got her to say at one point like, “Oh, it’s like, well. I’ll talk to dad about that.” I was very grateful for that, but shortly after that she got off the phone and then I called once more. It was when I was in Canada staying with a Jewish family there, and I think she just didn’t know that it was me calling. I called her on her birthday. It was very short and very acrimonious with both of my parents were yelling, but at the end, I felt so terrible. I thought, “Oh my God, I shouldn’t have done this.” And then my mom, right before she got off, she said, “Well, goodbye, doll.” And when I hung up the phone, I was so happy, like she called me doll.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:27] Does the church listen to everything that you’re doing? Do they watch all your media?
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:44:31] Yes, they do. And I would say it’s really funny, I was going to say that I don’t know how they could possibly keep up just because we know around the book tour and everything for the past three months has been so crazy and there’s been a ton of it. But I know they just pay extremely close attention to everything that ex-members do and say, because, well, part of it is curiosity, but also they feel like they have to give an account, like to be ready when people ask about the things that we say and the assertions that we make in the arguments that we make.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:05] Humans are really afraid to make changes. And you made a lot of big changes all at once. I just want to commend you. I mean, do you know how rare that is? It seems like you’re so much less imprisoned by your past than I would expect.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:45:18] That’s so funny. I don’t think anybody has ever put it quite that way that, I mean, the last thing that you said, I think I just, I understand that I have been shown an enormous amount of grace. I think maybe it also has to do with the fact that at Westboro, our view of the world was so incredibly negative. There was no hope for anyone outside of our doctrines and then to leave — I mean, it’s like you basically can only go up from there, right? Like, things can only get better when you have that kind of a really dim view of the world.[00:45:51] But again the understanding that they’ve shown me, and I think also not running away from it. I absolutely had the instinct to run away. I thought that was the only way that I could live in the world after the life that I led at Westboro and I’ve come to the complete opposite conclusion. Like if I hadn’t addressed it and dealt with it, and I know I still am, I’m still trying to make things better for the people that — I was going to say the people that we targeted — but it was literally everyone. Like I just have this intense desire to do good in the world, and I should also acknowledge like that was something that I think that was instilled in me at Westboro. It’s just that now I can do it in a way that other people actually experience as being good.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:35] You’re really a brave person. I’m just so impressed by what you’re doing and this is one of the best interviews that I’ve done in a long, long, long time. Thank you so much for spending this time with me being so open and thank you for what you’re doing. I think it’s just incredible.
Megan Phelps-Roper: [00:46:49] Thank you so, so much, Jordan. It’s really great talking to you too.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:54] All right, everybody, thanks for hanging in there for a two-parter. I know sometimes people are like, “What? I’m halfway done and it’s not out yet.” I hope this was worth it. I certainly thought it was. I just loved this episode, man. She is just amazing. A lot of people are probably wondering now, whatever happened to the founder of the church, Fred Phelps, her grandfather, Megan’s grandfather. Well, amazingly, and I don’t have all the details on this, and they’re a little scarce, and she was kind of not cagey about it, but it wasn’t something we wanted to focus on. He had a change of heart late in life. And this is a guy with very strong beliefs, obviously, and if you’ll remember from Part One, he actually was a civil rights activist and he was very, very firmly anti-racist, which is kind of hard to wrap your mind around given everything else that’s going on here. And he got very sick. He was put in hospice and the church actually ended up excommunicating him, voting him out from the church, and they wouldn’t let anyone visit him when he was dying and Megan snuck in there. There’s a personal story here, but she basically was able to go in there and then they found out she was in there and wouldn’t let her go see him again. It’s just heart wrenching, and Megan is married now, but she never thought she’d be able to get married because when she was growing up, most of the church was just her family. There were very few outside members, as you might’ve expected from a church that spouts this kind of stuff. So, she’s married now. She’s happier now, but yeah, she’s still cut off from her family and everyone she grew up with. She’s a strong believer in free speech rights, which makes sense, even though she disagrees with and speaks out against her views of that right, the right to free speech in this sort of terrible, hateful way, she’s still a strong believer in free speech rights. What a complicated but amazing, just a brilliant soul. I just and I hate using the word soul in an episode about this. I hate myself for that. She’s a great, great, great, great interview, and she is just an amazing person and I’m laying it on a little thick, so I’m going to leave it right there.[00:48:53] But the book is called Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. I just find this whole thing mind-blowing. And the show notes also have worksheets for this episode so you can review what you’ve learned from Megan Phelps-Roper. We’ve got transcripts for this episode. Those are found in the show notes as well, and if you want to know how I built a network that includes people like this, well, go take our free course — no credit card required, no tricky BS — jordanharbinger.com/course. It’s called Six-Minute Networking. It takes a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. It was the biggest driver of business, the small change that made the biggest difference. jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find that. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. Come join us. You’ll be in smart company. I’m not selling you anything. You’ve already bought it. You’re listening. I’m selling you this content in exchange for your attention. Pretty good deal, right? In fact, why not reach out to Megan? Tell her you enjoyed this episode of the show. Show guests love hearing from you, and you never know what might shake out of that. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out to me on social media, @JordanHarbinger, on both Twitter and Instagram. Make sure you follow the one with the blue checkmark, not the ones with the numbers that are trying to sell you Bitcoin or whatever. [00:50:07] This show has created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger, Jason DeFillippo, and our engineer, that’s Jase Sanderson. Show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I’m your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. Yeah, I’m a lawyer. I’m not your lawyer. I’m not even really a good lawyer. I’ll be candid. I’m not a doctor nor a therapist. Do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. I barely hold myself together just like everybody else. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, that should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don’t. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we’ll see you next time.