Cognitive Dissonance

Megan Phelps-Roper & Jon Ronson

In Conversation

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 the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she was exposed to dialogue on Twitter that caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message. Unfollow traces 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.

Megan joined award-winning writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) at Symphony Space to discuss her journey.

Jon Ronson: I met Megan about four year ago. I had just put out a book about public shaming, and one of the great surprises of bringing out that book was that people whose stories resonated with the book started contacting me. Suddenly I was being contacted by a slew of really interesting people, like Monica Lewinsky, and Megan. I met Megan at the Algonquin Hotel in this neon blue bar and my big memory that night was Megan saying: “We just want to do good but we don’t know what that means.” And it is four years later and now you’ve written Unfollow.

So, you were nineteen when you had your first stirrings of doubt?

Megan Phelps-Roper: Yes. And the thing was, we had been celebrating death and tragedy since the time I was a kid. We had protested funerals before, many times. It had primarily been focused on the gay community, then AIDS victims. Any time there was a shift like this, I’d go along with it, as long as there was scriptural support for it, as long as there were Bible verses to be quoted. I didn’t trust and believe these things just because my family said them, I believed these things because they were stated in the Bible. My mom would go searching for Bible verses that justified why we were protesting soldiers’ funerals, for example.

Ronson: Let’s go back to the beginning when there were no doubts. Now that you’re out of the bubble, how would you describe what was good about being in the Westboro Baptist Church?

Phelps-Roper: Oh, man. There was so much good. There was this sense of camaraderie and belonging. And my family—they’re incredibly intelligent and hardworking, diligent—we spent so much time together. The fact that the whole world was against us was something that intensified and made the bond we shared that much stronger.

Ronson: There are people out there who love being hated, like Piers Morgan. I’m sure most people here know, but for anyone who doesn’t, you were really committed. For instance, one time you had beef with the Swedish royal family, so you didn’t just protest the Swedish embassy and consulate, you also protested a Swedish chamber orchestra, an alcohol distributor that sold Absolut vodka, a hardware store that sold Swedish vacuum cleaners.

Phelps-Roper: That is a fact.

Ronson: Did you know that it was funny? Because some people kind of thought you were a joke.

Phelps-Roper: Yeah. There were some people who thought this was a long running joke, and I think they hoped that it was because a lot of people couldn’t believe that there were actually people living in this time who believed these things. But yeah, absolutely, we knew it was funny. I mean, we had so much fun because we thought our message was the word of God. It was important that we exude this happiness and joy because if we didn’t, then it showed a lack of contentment, which was another thing . . . we were supposed to thank God for everything.

A lot of people couldn’t believe that there were actually people living in this time who believed these things.

Ronson: A term that came into my head a lot when I was reading the book was cognitive dissonance. You touched on it already, the fact that your family was really highly educated, and there’s a heartbreaking moment in the book when you’re walking with your aunt through a university campus. You came from a very highly educated family, but you had these ridiculous signs. People didn’t realize how smart you were and probably assumed you were crazy hillbillies.

Phelps-Roper: After we had left the church, I had a friend say, “Westboro is responsible for their own PR.” So, yes, they are highly educated and in some ways really dedicated members of the community. But the fact that we would put three or four words on a picket sign and go protest, we left that impression with people—that we were these crazed doomsayers.

Ronson: You protested soldiers’ funerals, but you also celebrated the deaths of Mother Theresa and Princess Diana as being two whores dead in a week. When you were eight, your grandfather would give you sermons about gay sex, and he’d talk about how gay people would copulate their brains out and suck around on each other and talk about rimming and golden showers. You were eight. It’s kind of, a little bit, child abuse.

Phelps-Roper: I mean, yeah, I guess you could put it that way.

Ronson: How did you feel when you were eight? You write about feeling like you had some special secret knowledge.

Phelps-Roper: Yeah, that’s really what it felt like. The idea was that the whole world was blinded to these truths which God had revealed to us. And because of the way Westboro reads the Bible, very literally, we would spend all this time memorizing Bible verses. It was very apparent to me that we were right; it was very clear. How could these other people not see it if God hadn’t blinded them?

Ronson: You also picketed your own high school at lunch times. You would have lessons and get along with the other kids, then at lunch, they would go to the canteen while you picketed the school, telling them they were all sinners who would die.

Phelps-Roper: Then they would drive by and throw sandwiches at us and stuff. We also protested my high school graduation. Compartmentalization was how we all handled it for a long time. It became a lot harder for people to do that when we started protesting the high school, because we were constantly in people’s faces.

Ronson: Whose idea was it to protest the high school?

Phelps-Roper: Gramps, my grandfather.

Ronson: And did it cause friction with your classmates?

Phelps-Roper: It did. That was the thing that really made high school hard. For a long time school had been this refuge, in a way, away from all of that. I’m one of eleven kids, so a lot of people to take care of, plus all these antics on the picket line. School was like a quiet place away from all of that.

Ronson: And then your grandfather brought it to the school.

Phelps-Roper: Yep.

Ronson: Do you think he was doing it as an act of cruelty towards you?

Phelps-Roper: I don’t think so. We started the protests the year I started high school because the school had started a gay-straight alliance. That was actually the proximate approximate cause of that decision.

Ronson: Was there conflict with the other kids? Because you write about how the other kids really treated you well. You got on well with them.

Phelps-Roper: Yeah, for the most part, because of that compartmentalization. It was just that the barrier started to become a lot fuzzier once we started protesting the high school.

Ronson: Speaking of cognitive dissonance, Louis Theroux, who’s a documentary filmmaker friend of mine, came and filmed you three times. And there’s a clip from a picket in the first documentary that I think is really startling and that turns violent. It shows what life was like inside the church, but it pulls you in a lot of different directions. What kind of stuff would people throw at you at pickets?

Phelps-Roper: Everything. I remember when we first started to see bottles of urine, food, even bricks, occasionally. People would drive their cars at us. It was not an entirely safe environment out there.

Ronson: I couldn’t figure out, by the way, whether or not you were in that clip.

Phelps-Roper: I was not. I was not at that picket.

Ronson: I did an event with Louis Theroux in London where we showed that clip. We had a bit of an argument afterwards as to who we should blame. Louis was very adamant that your parents were to blame. I took a contrarian position and said that the only person who committed a crime in that scene was the person who threw something. Maybe I was being too contrarian. Maybe Louis was right and I was wrong. Where do you stand on that?

Phelps-Roper: I think I’m way closer to your position than Louis’s there. If you change the circumstances there—like there were a lot of women who brought their children to the women’s march, you may take your children out to march for Planned Parenthood—and then say that’s really provocative for people who don’t agree with you and want to come out and attack you. It’s exactly like you said: the person who committed the crime is at fault there. Obviously, I’m not trying to absolve my parents from all responsibility, but I think it’s more with the person committing the crime than with the parents who are trying to teach their children what they believe is right.

Ronson: It’s so hard to watch that clip. You can tell straight away how nice your mother is. It’s very moving—the way she reacts to what’s happened to the boy. Who was the boy, by the way?

Phelps-Roper: My cousin, Elijah.

Ronson: Right. And that’s what I mean by dissonant. It’s very moving to see that.

Phelps-Roper: You can see that she’s a loving, protective mother. I open the book with a letter from her. She saw us children as human beings who needed to learn this important message that God had given us. I just have a hard time—especially knowing that my mother was indoctrinated in the same way I was, but in some ways, for her it was more intense than it was for me. I don’t know. I don’t know where that line is. Where does the blame go there?

Ronson: She must have been hovering over you in your thoughts the whole time you were writing this book. And still, probably. Are you still nervous about what’s going to happen?

Phelps-Roper: They called me an antichrist on Twitter a couple of days ago. So, I have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to say. But these are people that I still really love and still hope to reach. It is really painful to see the things that they say. Although sometimes it is really funny, because obviously I am not an antichrist.

Ronson: Another thing that was quite shocking was that your grandfather could be quite physically abusive. That’s less forgivable—even if you are indoctrinated, to commit acts of physical abuse towards people doesn’t excuse it.

Phelps-Roper: Right. There is no question about that. I did include in the book, throughout the book, Bible verses that the church used to justify everything that they did. And that included verses that talk about the blueness of the wound cleanseth away evil.

Ronson: What book’s that in? Leviticus?

Phelps-Roper: I’m pretty sure it’s Proverbs. But there are so many verses about how you are supposed to discipline your children, and the blueness of the wound, that’s bruising, so that’s the kind of punishment we were subjected to. That’s what I meant, that in some ways it was more extreme for my mom’s generation than mine. My mom was plenty severe, and that definitely ventured into abuse, and it’s hard to say that out loud and acknowledge it, but I think that’s definitely the case. It was certainly true for what my mother was subjected to.

Ronson: Was it skirted around inside the church? Was it talked about when it happened?

Phelps-Roper: It happened when they were younger, so this wasn’t happening when my mom was an adult, it wasn’t like that.

Ronson: But it happened to the kids? And it was worse for the male kids than for the girls, right?

Phelps-Roper: I don’t think so. At least not in my family.

Ronson: So your cousins Mark and Nate . . .

Phelps-Roper: Those were my uncles. They were the ones subjected to gramps. But so was my mom and Margie and all of them.

Ronson: There were lots of schisms that were paid for. You said to me backstage that the people who paid for it the most were members of your own family.

Phelps-Roper: That was something that Louis said. He was basically saying that he would go with us to these protests and realize that yes, what we were doing, what we were saying, was harmful to people, but then we were gone. We were out there for half an hour, an hour, maybe a few hours at once. Then people could go on with their lives. But it was members of the church who had been indoctrinated who suffered the most. They suffer as members of the church. When you’re a child, it’s a very strict physical discipline you must adhere to. When you grow up, there are still constraints on your life. And if you decide to leave the church, you face the loss of your community and family and identity and everyone and everything that had meant anything to you. To walk away and lose all of that is far worse than anything that happens to the people on the outside.

Ronson: When you were in your twenties, you realized that that was probably something you were going to have to do yourself. It’s funny, most people that know about you now know you from that really great Adrian Chen article in The New Yorker where, basically, it made it sound like it was Twitter that pulled you away from the church. This book tells a slightly different story. A bit like the fall of communism: it didn’t just come from the West, it was also corroding from inside. One of the precipitating moments was your mother getting stripped of all her power.

Phelps-Roper: It’s complicated. I think the New Yorker article—in certain ways—just doesn’t tell the whole story. He does mention the elders. What happened is that a group of elders took over and my mom was basically shamed within the church for over a year and a half. It was a year and a half when I left. It was really interesting. I was speaking at a school recently and these students had watched my TED Talk and read that article, and they noticed something that I hadn’t quite put my finger on before—what was happening with the elders. They were becoming more and more alienated from my family because they started to do things that were unscriptural. They were changing things that were clearly against the Bible, in my eyes. And that was happening at the same time as I was being welcomed by this community on Twitter—these individuals who were willing to befriend me, even though we were at odds on so many things. They could see that I was a sincere human being trying to do what I thought was right, and that made them hopeful for me. It was that dynamic. I had always noted the importance of Twitter. There’s just one thing: shame. I was talking to an anthropologist last year, and she defined shame as the feeling we get when we know that we have violated the norms of the community. So, you read that thing that said we said “two whores in a week” when Princess Diana and Mother Theresa were killed. We had been celebrating death, and I had been an absolute believer in the goodness of the divine wrath of God, and I had never been ashamed before I got on Twitter and started to feel like I was part of this community. And then . . .

Ronson: Like Eve eating the apple!

Phelps-Roper: Yep. Twitter was the apple. It was this really profound thing. In the absence of Twitter, if the elders had taken over and did what they’d set out to do, I have every reason to believe that I would still be there, that I would have accepted their justifications. It was coming to the understanding that we could be wrong; it was profound contradictions in our theology that I had missed my whole life.

It was coming to the understanding that we could be wrong; it was profound contradictions in our theology that I had missed my whole life.

Ronson: Throughout the book, what you describe is basically a massive, infinite case of cognitive dissonance. You spent your life doing one thing, then you suddenly start to think, Oh, my god, what if it’s not true. People really break down when they have experiences like that, when they have a realization like that. I think it’s certainly the same as realizing you’re in a relationship with a narcissist—it’s very powerful ideas pulling you in different directions at once. Did you think that’s what happened? And did you start feeling bad at that time? I think the way you came out of it so well is partly a testament to your parents: they gave you enough strength to get out of it and come out of it as well as you have.

Phelps-Roper: That period, by far—it was the beginning of a four-month period when I was still in the church and boomeranging back and forth between knowing, and having these things that I could hold on to that I knew were wrong. And also worrying that Satan was whispering in my ear and that this was a test from God. I felt delusional. I felt like I was losing my mind. Most of the reason it was so painful was having these questions and doubts and coming to reject this ideology that the rest of my family believes so passionately and feeling like it was a death sentence. I was walking around knowing that I was going to lose everyone. Even the happy moments were just filled with so much pain.

Ronson: With these people you loved and trusted, you suddenly thought: I can’t trust them. I trust them but I don’t trust them. This can really hurt.

Phelps-Roper: And wanting to tell them all of this. And trying to tell them. I obviously couldn’t tell them how far I’d gone off the path, but trying to give them the little things that started my questioning, and every time I brought it up with anyone—except my sister Grace—the response was, “Go talk to the elders, they’ll set you straight.” Nobody would acknowledge that there was anything wrong or improper about what we were doing. There’s actually a passage in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, that talks about this, that describes anyone who’s close—mother, brother, friend—coming to you and saying, “Let us go serve other gods.” My mom, whenever she would read this passage, would say, “They’re not going to say, ‘Let us serve other gods,’ they’re going to say, ‘I don’t know if this is right,’ casting doubt. Then you’re supposed to stone them. Of course, Westboro’s not going to be stoning anyone. But that tells you the depths of how terrifying it was for me to tell Grace, first of all. That reaction, that instinctive shutting down of any doubts—it’s the avoidance of cognitive dissonance, it’s a very natural thing we do when we encounter something that goes against some deeply held belief. The instinct is to shut it down—it’s too deep to go there.

Ronson: But, of course, you did leave. How long after that?

Phelps-Roper: It was four months.

Ronson: And you didn’t have to run away to the desert. Your parents actually helped you pack. Did you know that once you were out the door you would be excommunicated?

Phelps-Roper: Yeah, completely.

Ronson: They told you that?

Phelps-Roper: Well, it was how everyone else had been treated. I had an example, actually. My brother, Josh—on the morning of my high school graduation, we woke up and found all of his stuff gone. He left in the middle of the night and he left a note. For a short while, he tried to send birthday presents. He came over to the house once. He tried to maintain something. But even before he left—and he was the first person I was close to who left—I knew what had happened. It’s just understood that when this person is gone they are completely out of your life, forever.

Ronson: I love what Megan did. You’ve been in the Westboro Baptist Church your whole life, and you leave—what’s the first thing you’re going to do? You know what Megan did? She went to Deadwood, started hanging around at casinos and bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and just started telling people she had been in the Westboro Baptist Church. They gave her Jack Daniels. You really went for it.

Phelps-Roper: That’s not really fair. We went to Deadwood to read books. It was like a reading holiday.

Ronson: And you read Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and The God Delusion. That must have come as a bit of a shock.

Phelps-Roper: It was a really eye-opening experience. Even before I had actually read the books, my sister and I packed some boxes of books to read and stopped at the public library in Lawrence, Kansas, to stock up on books. My sister went out to the fiction section and I went to the philosophy books. And yes, I picked up Hitchens’s books, but I was just standing there, looking up at the stacks of centuries’ worth of human attempts to understand why we are here, our place in the world, what it means to live a good life. Even just staring at those books for the very first time and thinking: “How did we ever think that we were the only people in the whole world to have the truth?” This sense of humiliation and shame came over me. How could I have not recognized the absolute hubris and arrogance of that position that we had taken?

Ronson: One of the first things you did was telephone your father’s mother, which was very moving. Can you recount that conversation?

Phelps-Roper: One of the first nights we were hanging out at the casino with a bartender, drinking hot chocolate. She did give us Jack Daniels, but we were just sitting there, talking. She asked me about my family outside of the church and I realized that my dad’s family had never been part of the church. It hit me that I hadn’t yet reached out to his parents. I recognized that it was because I had left. I had left and rejected so many things about the church, but it’s not like a switch that gets flipped and suddenly everything is different. You have to recognize that you have feelings and instincts that were instilled in you at the church and you have to actively work against those. I called my grandmother and she asked who was calling. I said Megan, and she said “Megan who?” My family had cut her off several years earlier because they believed that divorce and remarriage is adultery. They thought she was an adulteress and wanted nothing to do with her anymore. It has been really amazing reconnecting with my dad’s parents and realizing how much goodness in my dad came from them. The gentleness of my father was such a counterpoint to my mother’s vehemence. She is a very passionate person and that could lead her to be really hardline in ways that could be painful for me sometimes. My dad’s parents were so demonized in the Church. Realizing that, even in their absence, they still impacted me so much.

Ronson: They are still in Deadwood and you’ve left. And at that point you were thinking that no one would want to accept you. People had noticed, on Twitter, that you weren’t at the pickets anymore, and there was a hashtag asking “Where Is Megan.” You realized that you had to say something. So, you decide to address an apology.

Phelps-Roper: Yes. I’ll read part of that apology and then the response:

We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt. We know that we dearly love our family. They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them. We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.

• • •

As I flew back to Rapid City from New York, my eyes traced the final version of the “statement” again and again, until I was on the verge of vomiting. I knew that the only people who might care about these paragraphs were my family and a handful of curious Twitter followers, but I was still terrified of how they would be received. Public apologies in the age of social media could be brutal, every word parsed to ensure that no unacceptable sentiment remained in the offending party—and anything less than full repudiation of one’s “sins” would exacerbate the public flogging. Twitter mobs could tear a person’s reputation to shreds, demanding that they lose their job over an errant tweet or a joke that didn’t land—transgressions that were far less egregious than the dedicated campaign of condemnation in which I had been a willing participant for many years…Both in tone and in magnitude, the response to what Jeff and I had posted was nothing like I had expected. Messages of encouragement and well-wishing flooded my Twitter account, and I was floored by how rare were the people who chose to denounce Grace and me. To tell us that we could never be forgiven. People from across the country and all over the world offered my sister and me friendship, places to sleep, and invitations to church by the hundreds. Particularly moving were the messages from those with whom I had sparred on Twitter over the years—people I had come to know and like, people who had seen me regularly sling around condescension, condemnation, and words like “fag” and “whore.” Chad Darnell was one such person, a gay man living in Los Angeles. His response read in part: “Dear Megan: Hey girl, hey. When I woke up to messages from family and friends that you had left the church, I literally burst into tears. I sat in bed for 20 minutes reading your letter with ugly tears (like bad Oprah crying) streaming down my face and I couldn’t stop. I am so proud of you. I am so happy for you.

Ronson: You write that everyone on Twitter is a linguist now, studying apologies for clues to their success. Now everybody is a linguist. It’s rare but it is true that people accepted you. Have you figured out why?

Phelps-Roper: I was a little wary to talk about the love for my family and to call them well-intentioned because there were a few people who seized on that and thought it was a stupid thing to say. “Clearly they are evil. They are all evil. We have seen them on the picket line.” There were a few people who seized on that but for the most part, people were able to recognize what we came from and what it took to leave. That empathy was maybe undeserved, but it had a huge impact on my life moving forward.

For the most part, people were able to recognize what we came from and what it took to leave. That empathy was maybe undeserved, but it had a huge impact on my life moving forward.

Ronson: I guess people could tell that you were sincere. That is pretty much where the narrative in the book finishes, but since then, things have been kind of extraordinary. Louis Theroux has written a movie, you did a TED Talk—I checked last night and it’s got eight and a half million views. You’ve had a baby. When we met four years ago, you said that you wanted to do good. It has really been about being good, about trying to bridge the divides. I think one of the reasons people love this book so much is because it’s a book about bridging divides in a time of total polarization. That really is you. That’s what really drives you.

Phelps-Roper: It is, and I feel so passionate about these ideas because they completely transformed my life. Initially, it’s more occasional now, but initially, I would have these flashbacks to certain aspects of Westboro that I feel so incredibly grateful not to still be in the midst of. Any time there is a tragedy or something—the first time it happened was a month after I had left, when Sandy Hook happened. I saw my family celebrating on Twitter and I just felt so sick, but also so full of gratitude that I was not taking part in that. To know how awful and constraining those ideas are, how much they hurt the people that believe them and the people that are targeted by Westboro and similar groups. To know what transformed me. The power of human connection is incredible and it just feels important to talk about that.

Ronson: Do you still think about things like compassion and empathy in terms of God?

Phelps-Roper: I don’t believe in God anymore. At least, not in the way that I used to.

Ronson: Dawkins, wow. Dawkins.

Phelps-Roper: It’s really funny. David Abitol was one of the people that I met on Twitter. He was the one who first found that contradiction. But even after I left, he was still this huge force in my life. He was the first one who asked me to talk about it publicly, at an event at which I had protested a couple years earlier. It was really important because part of me had just wanted to hide forever and never talk about it again. One of the more important things that he taught me was a concept in Judaism called Tikkun olam, which means to repair the world. He said “You and your family have added to the brokenness in the world. You should try to repair some of it.” That was something that immediately resonated with me. Less in terms of sinning against God, but in that I had hurt people. There was hope. There were things that I could do to try to make amends. That was really motivating to me. It still is. There are a lot of religious ideas that still resonate with me. I just don’t consider them divine and I accept them more in how they show the divinity of human beings.

Ronson: Is it rare that you are doing an event tomorrow evening in Topeka, Kansas?

Phelps-Roper: It’s my hometown.

Ronson: Are you nervous? That they will picket?

Phelps-Roper: Their M.O. is generally to try to pretend that we don’t exist. “We” meaning ex-members who speak publicly about it. The one exception to that is when someone gets a lot of attention. Since this book is getting attention, this is why they called me an antichrist. They are trying to seize on the publicity to redirect it be about their message. So, although they generally don’t protest ex-members, this could be an exception. Again, it’s painful, but I know that they are not going to do anything to try to physically hurt me. It’s an emotional thing.

Ronson: It’s funny—when you were telling that story about the second reading with the cognitive dissonance and the agonizing realization that anything you thought you knew was wrong and that the people you loved may have misled you, what popped into my mind was Michael Cohen in tears after leaving the Trump empire.

Megan Phelps-Roper is a writer and activist. She left the Westboro Baptist Church in November 2012 and is now an educator on topics related to extremism and communication across ideological lines. She lives in South Dakota.

Jon Ronson is an award-winning writer and documentary maker. He is the author of many bestselling books, including So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, The Psychopath Test, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats. The Men Who Stare at Goats was adapted as a major motion picture, released in 2009 and starring George Clooney. Ronson’s first fictional screenplay, Frank, co-written with Peter Straughan, starred Michael Fassbender. Ronson lives in London and New York City.