Growing up J.W.

A new book about being raised among Jehovah's Witnesses sends these SN&R writers down memory lane

Sacramento News and Review/May 6, 2009

A small religion, Jehovah's Witnesses have less than 2 million members in the United States, and statistically (according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey), almost two-thirds of Jehovah's Witnesses children decide not to remain members. That's true for us, two former Witnesses here at SN&R. So when a copy of Kyria Abrahams' new book, I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing, arrived, we decided to discuss it—and our experiences growing up among the door knockers.

Jenn Kistler: This book is hilarious. Like her, I tried to convert my friends. In the second grade, I placed the Bible Stories book with one friend. The next day she brought it back and never spoke to me again.

Kel Munger: Abrahams says the belief that the world would be destroyed any minute kept her from forming attachments with people outside the J.W.'s.

J.K.: I was afraid to make friends. Even aside from not being able to hang out with them outside the school, the idea that they were going to die very, very soon was pretty traumatizing.

K.M.: She also makes clear how people who've been disfellowshipped [expelled] are completely shunned. She shunned her disfellowshipped mother, then when she was disfellowshipped, her mother shunned her.

J.K.: It was the same for me. When my parents got divorced, my mom wasn't going to meetings regularly and she got remarried, so the elders came to my dad's house and told us that we had to stop talking to her. I was 12 or 13.

K.M.: I was 8 when my dad was disfellowshipped. We weren't supposed to talk to him about anything that had to do with "spiritual matters." But we also had the experience of being semi-shunned by other members of the congregation—treated like lepers—because our dad was disfellowshipped.

J.K.: We weren't allowed to hang out with kids in my congregation, at their house, if one of their parents was disfellowshipped.

K.M.: Yep. Now, on the good side, going out door to door made me an extrovert. I've got no stage fright and could sell space heaters in hell—if there was a hell.

J.K.: I'm confident when speaking in front of people, but I still have a hard time developing personal relationships. I left in my late teens, and making connections with people, close connections, just wasn't something that happened in the organization.

K.M.: Abrahams thinks it's a cult. I'm torn about that. Their doctrine isn't that far off from things like the Bible Students and some of the Adventists groups. And they sure don't have charismatic leadership.

J.K.: Uh, no!

K.M: But it's a very rigidly controlled group that uses social isolation—and the threat of social isolation—to keep people in line. Abrahams nailed that; her fear of leaving, or even of changing too much, because then she'd lose her family and friends. It takes a lot of personal courage to walk away when you know your family is going to reject you.

J.K.: I define the term cult loosely. Any organization that tries to prevent you from integrating into society and being part of your own community and tries to control everything you do is a cult in my eyes.

K.M.: Yeah, it's just that nobody ever tried to put me in an orange robe. So are we doomed to be weird? I'm Perfect, You're Doomed. No, really.

J.K.: No. Maybe. A little. You can't get rid of everything that was ingrained in you as a kid. When I pass by a Ouija board in Wal-Mart, all the stories I was told come back. Or the Smurf stories. I love those. I've still never watched Smurfs to this day. [There is a body of urban lore among Jehovah's Witnesses about the Smurf characters being demon-possessed.] Laughter helps, especially if you've got family members who are still in it.

The pressure to "witness" was constant. Every time I had a science teacher, I had to give her the Evolution book at the beginning of every year, or anti-evolution book rather. In fifth grade, the science teacher was so awesome. We gave her the Evolution book and she sat down with us and said, "Thank you for bringing your beliefs to my attention, but I'm not going to be teaching from this book."

K.M.: I didn't take an Evolution book to the biology teacher, but then I knew that she'd already gotten about a half-dozen copies. That's because every year, the next Witness kid who had to take biology would give an "experience" at the meeting about "witnessing" to the biology teacher. Poor Miss Bailey!

And I was too old for My Book of Bible Stories. That came out after I'd left home. When we were kids, we studied the Paradise book, which has such disgustingly frightening pictures of things like Jezebel being thrown to the dogs, or a Canaanite getting ready to toss a baby onto this fire in the lap of their idol. The worst was part of a big, panoramic picture of Armageddon: this little girl, her doll, her dog and her bicycle all falling down into this big chasm in the Earth. Gave me nightmares. It's probably why I was afraid to learn how to ride a bike.

J.K.: Growing up, I had terrible nightmares, and that's probably why—those are intensely graphic pictures in those books.

K.M.: And we call the books by shorthand names, but they all had these ridiculously long names—Babylon the Great Has Fallen: God's Kingdom Rules!—with lots of exclamation marks, so we'd be sure and know it was important.

K.M.: Abrahams is also pretty good at describing that superior attitude toward "worldly" people—basically, anybody who isn't a Witness in good standing.

J.K.: You have to get baptized. That's one of the things Abrahams writes about that was just exactly the same for me. You're not an adult unless you're baptized.

K.M.: See, I didn't do that. I was afraid to, because my dad was disfellowshipped, so I knew what could happen. Screw up, get hauled before a judicial committee and try to convince them that you were repentant before they threw you out anyway. Well, what I was pretty sure was going to happen, because I knew I'd never be able to follow all the rules. So I'm in the "never-dunked" club. You can't disfellowship me. I never joined!

J.K.: In my congregation, getting baptized was like joining an elite club of cool kids. You would not get invited to the cool parties or get to go to the movies with the group that had the cute guys unless you were baptized. Now, they were doing stuff they weren't supposed to, like dating each other, but you couldn't be a part of it unless you were baptized. So I got baptized in a cattle trough. It had wrapping paper on one side of it to make it look nice, and it was plopped right on the stage at the Kingdom Hall.

Now, try and explain all that to someone who doesn't know any of the lingo.

Sometimes I wonder what those "cool Witness kids" are doing now. I know my two best friends from that time are also no longer Jehovah's Witnesses.

But if you're baptized, you got a "No Blood" card, which was sort of a membership card for Jehovah's Witnesses adulthood.

K.M.: Oh, yeah. I remember how rumors would go around that there were "blood products" in Hershey's chocolate or in Dairy Queen ice cream, so we weren't supposed to have it. Notice that it's always something that tastes good, right? Because you can't be righteous and theocratic if it's easy. Just tell me that they used blood in processing broccoli, please! [Jehovah's Witnesses refuse transfusions of whole blood and consider eating blood a major sin.]

J.K.: I stopped going the minute I turned 18, and so did my sisters. My sisters and I are not the bad kids people said we would be; we've all gone to college and we've got our lives together and we've got jobs and great relationships. We've never been in trouble. But you'd think we were the black sheep of the family anyway, the way they act toward us. They'll call to preach to us and get us to come back because they don't like the lifestyle that we're leading. I think they would be happier if I was a high-school dropout and cleaned houses, as long as I was a pioneer [that's a Jehovah's Witness who spends a particularly large amount of time going door to door].

K.M.: I get you. When there's only one answer, anything I do is wrong.

J.K.: This isn't a big religion, but I don't see it getting any bigger. It's just not self-sustaining; most of the kids leave.

K.M.: And then laugh about it, if they can!

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