Libby Phelps grew up among one of the worst distortions of Christianity in existence. The granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, Libby was born and bred into a religious culture that is much more cult than legitimate expression of the Christian faith. We know them for their offensive protests and their favorite catchphrase, "God hates fags." To Libby, WBC is Gramps and Gran and a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins. They all live in adjacent houses and, even though they went to public schools and worked in secular workplaces, they live apart from the world.
Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church is Libby's memoir of growing up in the church and leaving it. Libby made it through high school, college, and graduate school as a member is good standing, participating in the pickets and helping with the needs of the church and the extended family (one and the same). Her controlling, judgmental aunt finally pushed her over the edge, and she surreptitiously moved out, breaking ties with her family and pretty much the only life she had ever known.
While Girl on a Wire tells the story of WBC, to a certain extent, it is really Libby's story. Her feelings, her experiences, her perspective. No doubt her book is a valuable document for anyone wanting to compile a history of WBC, but I found it be unsatisfying in terms of the history, theology, and politics of the WBC cult. If you already hate them, Libby won't make you love them more. She does reveal their human side. Fred Phelps may be a vitriolic, blasphemous cult founder to the rest of the world, but to Libby he's Gramps. Libby's dad, Fred Phelps, Jr., may be an incorrigible cult member following in his father's footsteps, but to Libby he's a dad who tried to love his family and raise them well in spite of the toxic environment of the cult.
I'm sad that Libby does not seem to be able to separate the cult in which she was raised from the truth, joy, and transforming power of genuine orthodox Christianity. I never got the sense that she engaged with Christians who could show her what real Christianity is. She jumped in with a leftist group who counter-protests WBC. I'm sure they're good people, but they are decidedly not a Christian group.
Girl on a Wire is somewhat interesting, somewhat frustrating, and a little bit insightful. If you're curious about a behind-the-scenes look at WBC, or cult life in general, pick it up. Just keep in mind that it's the perspective of an immature girl and it's not full of sociological or theological insights.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!