Playful approach lightens account of growing up as a Jehovah's Witness

The Providence Journal/April 7, 2009

Kyria Abrahams, author of I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, says her Jehovah's Witness religious instruction involved "more people directing me than a NASA shuttle launch."

What Kyria Abrahams says is serious, but how she says it is funny: I'm Perfect, You're Doomed.

The new memoir, published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, looks back at the author's life growing up in Pawtucket, which gets a bit of razzing. But the bulk of the book is about being a Jehovah's Witness.

"People don't know anything about it," said Abrahams in an interview. "And what they know is wrong: ‘So, you can't drink tea, right?' No, that's Mormon. People didn't have information."

Abrahams, 35, now living in New York, decided to provide that information through a personal account, and a personal catharsis.

"The catharsis is in the book you don't see. When I started writing essays, they were vehement and angry. I got that out of my system. Then I could sit down and write the story in a way that people could actually enjoy reading."

The story is playfully and satirically told. It moves chronologically from when Abrahams is 8 and receiving religious instruction, which she notes sometimes involved "more people directing me than a NASA shuttle launch."

The story ends when she's 19, having left home, school and church, becoming an apostate - an anti-Jehovah's Witness whom Jehovah's Witnesses, by church tenet, are to avoid.

Abrahams says she wrote her book for two reasons: "To redeem myself for the things I had done. I wanted to explain to the world why"; and to help other Jehovah's Witnesses.

"If people are thinking about leaving but are afraid to leave, thinking their life would be hell ... yes, it would be hell for a little while. But I'm alive and standing and enjoying my life now."

Two weeks ago, Abrahams stood in the Borders book store at Providence Place. She gave a reading. And to her surprise, she says, her estranged mother showed up and told a store employee that what Abrahams reports in the book about her upbringing isn't true.

After the reading, Abrahams says, she and her mother spoke briefly.

"We hugged and that was it. She left."

Abrahams' mother did not respond to our phone message requesting comment.

The life of a Jehovah's Witness, Abrahams says, is one of isolation from society, with little contact and exposure to nonmembers. Abrahams, however, fondly remembers having one childhood friend who wasn't a Jehovah's Witness.

"Samantha was like a free HBO trial that the cable company forgot to shut off after a week," Abrahams writes. "My parents reserved the right to terminate her service without warning, so I had to enjoy her while she lasted."

Jehovah's Witnesses, according to Abrahams and the church Web site, don't participate in patriotism or nationalism, such as saluting a flag; they don't acknowledge secular holidays; and they don't accept blood transfusions.

What Jehovah's Witnesses do accept is the principle of proselytizing, a door-to-door campaign, which Abrahams says is not particularly fruitful.

"Sure, getting doors slammed in your face is a great adrenaline rush, but most people don't even open their doors wide enough to slam them," Abrahams writes. "Most often we'd see the rustle of a curtain."

In doing door-to-door proselytizing, Abrahams made some sociological observations of Rhode Island. Affluent towns, such as Lincoln, weren't so receptive to solicitations. "They had finished basements and therefore very little need for living eternally in paradise."

But in poor places, such as Central Falls, "residents were not blinded by satisfaction with their lives and actually wanted the world to change."

In her book, Abrahams talks about all kinds of characters she encountered as a Jehovah's Witness. There was the church member who ate several cloves of garlic a day.

"Like all factories, Sister Blanche belched. She became increasingly huffy with each passing eruption. ‘Ex-cuse me!' she'd exclaim indignantly, as if she'd had just about enough of these shenanigans."

And there was Abrahams' partner in door-to-door proselytizing who regularly and unpredictably vomited.

"My partner stood up, wiping her mouth. Then she lowered herself back into the foliage, leaving only the unmistakable sound of someone puking in an irate stranger's bushes."

Abrahams occasionally performs as a stand-up comic in New York. Initially she thought her Jehovah's Witness history would lend itself to that.

"Every time I tried to tell a joke, there was so much back story that people wouldn't get. A book is the only way to tell the story."

So three years ago, Abrahams began the process - finding an agent and a publisher, and doing the writing. Abrahams, who never graduated from high school, wrote in her free time from her job as a Web producer and editor.

"When I go to an interview, no one thinks I don't have a high school diploma. I don't mention it. So it's fine."

Abrahams says her strict and repressed life as a Jehovah's Witness took a toll on her, leading her to rebellion and depression, a suicide attempt and a mental breakdown, alcohol and drugs, and two early escapist marriages.

"Jehovah's Witnesses spend a lot of time explaining to people why they're not a cult," Abrahams says. "That should be a sign that they're a cult."

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