"How is it possible that we could at once think that we are loving our neighbour and then at the same time are praying for God to kill them in all sorts of terrible ways?" asks Megan Phelps-Roper. She’s the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the late founder of the antagonistic and controversial Westboro Baptist Church, and left the organisation in 2012 – two years before her grandfather died.
Surviving America’s Most Hated Family sees celebrated documentary-maker Louis Theroux on his third visit to Kansas to reintroduce us to the notorious religious group. We meet those who remain part of the Westboro parish and continue to picket funerals and promote hatred, and those like Megan, who have since left what Louis exposed to be a huge community that has thrived for years on upsetting, contradictory messaging and indoctrination.
Since leaving the church, Megan has become one of Westboro’s biggest, most vocal critics. Her TED talk on why she left the religious group famed for its anti-LGBTQ, Muslim and Jewish rhetoric went viral. Her second book, Unfollow, is due for release later this year and a film about her life is already in the works, to be produced by Reese Witherspoon.
When Megan meets Louis in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, it’s been more than 10 years since she and her younger sister Grace turned their backs on Westboro and, as a result, years since she’s had any contact with her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper. When Louis joins Shirley on a picket line to ask about having lost three of her kids to the outside world, she says at least she’s got some left, although half-jokingly remarks that they too could get up and leave. If that were to happen, she wouldn’t be allowed to have contact with them, either.
Past @louistheroux visits to Westboro left you baffled at the psychology behind their church, but #SurvivingAmericasMostHatedFamily carries a real sadness by showing ex-members after leaving their families - which must have been a heartbreaking yet incredibly brave decision.— Rob Chinnery (@robchinnery) July 14, 2019
It's this point that really struck viewers on Sunday night, with many taking to Twitter to express just how sad the reality of the broken family is, despite the controversy and hatred that their circumstance is surrounded by. "Past @louistheroux visits to Westboro left you baffled at the psychology behind their church, but #survivingamericasmosthatedfamily carries a real sadness by showing ex-members after leaving their families - which must have been a heartbreaking yet incredibly brave decision," wrote one user. "After watching #survivingamericasmosthatedfamily I feel genuine sadness for Megan," tweeted another.
Another viewer tweeted that "seeing the change and growth in Megan since the last doc is beautiful", but her courage and progress away from the dangerous environment she had felt trapped in came at a huge emotional price - one which audience members spotted in Megan's mother Shirley, who was "visibly broken" and will hopefully find it within her to move away from the toxicity that she's so long been a part of.
Over the course of the documentary, Louis digs into the reality of Westboro without its founding member and most influential figure. Pastor Fred Phelps, known within his community as Gramps, died in 2014. Louis learns, however, that Gramps was supposedly exiled from Westboro after adopting a more lenient attitude that contradicted the aggressively hateful messaging his organisation promoted. His family who still operate within the church are reluctant to confirm or deny that this happened – let alone whether they prompted an internal vote to get rid of him – but Megan tells Louis that not long before he was kicked out, Fred had walked out onto the lawn outside their house and shouted towards the rainbow-painted 'equality house' across the street that its inhabitants were "good people". Megan says this public acceptance of the LGBTQ house triggered his expulsion from the church.
It doesn’t take long for Louis to note that, although the message of female subservience and the complete intolerance of diversity remain at the core of Westboro’s twisted and hateful operation, its execution seems to have softened slightly without the fierce venom of Fred's original leadership. It doesn't make their cause and existence any less awful or any less upsetting, though. And while Megan still has hope that she might get her mum back one day, momentum behind the church remains. The new recruits that flock to the community from all over – even Britain – can’t help but make you nervous about the influence they continue to hold, despite documentaries like these that expose them for what they really are.
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family is available on BBC iPlayer now