What was it like as a teenage girl growing up Jehovah’s Witness? Did I follow their teachings blindly, or did I really, truly believe? Did I only disagree with their rules and policies, or was I against it all?
I could make a list a mile long of rules I didn’t understand. Some that I still don’t.
No movies with magic in them.
No saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.
No saying “good luck”.
No competitive sports.
No donating or receiving blood.
I never really had a chance to agree or disagree with the teachings. I just…followed them. That’s what you do. You don’t question, you don’t wonder. You soak in the lectures, the talks, the bible scriptures, and you just accept it. It just is. When you start questioning out loud, they start viewing you with suspicion. You become a stumbling block. So you don’t. If you have doubts, you lock them up in some safe space inside your mind. You’re kept busy enough to keep them there. I went to church three times a week, and “out in service”, or knocking on people’s doors, once or twice a week. Sometimes three. They teach you that “the end” won’t come until everyone has a chance to learn about “the Truth”, so our lives revolved around making sure we did our part to let everyone know.
I questioned from my young teenage years on. I kept those questions to myself, but it was a daily internal struggle. I read books and watched movies and had enough awareness to know that there was more out there than just us Jehovah’s Witnesses and our “Truth”. I would ask myself the same question I ask myself today: how does one know for certain that what you believe is the only truth? I’ve never been able to answer that. “Faith,” people say. That’s a cop-out to me, an easy answer that explains nothing at all. Just pick something and go with it and hope you’re right.
I’m an information gatherer. I need to know how things work, why things work. I need to learn all of the answers. I thrive in fields where I’m thrown challenging problems and I can take what I’ve learned and shape it into a solution. This made me a bad Jehovah’s Witness. I needed answers. I needed to know why. As a young baptized female, that wasn’t my right.
When I was 15, one of my best friends died. We were a very close group of kids, mostly because we weren’t allowed to associate with anyone “worldly”. He was one of my favorite people. It hit us all so hard. It was the first time I’d seen my dad cry, as he looked at us kids and the pain we were suffering. I don’t even really remember the next few months. Everything was hazy. I woke up crying most mornings. I had spent time with him almost every day, before he was gone. We skipped classes together, to go play hackeysack and drink giant root beers in the commons. We would swing dance together at church functions on the weekends – we were both the best dancers, so we always gravitated toward each other. We’d go out in service to leave bible literature at people’s doors, but instead we’d just drive around listening to Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion and other offensive music, and drink coffee and quote Monty Python. And then he was gone. It didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t comprehend how such a thing could happen. The world suddenly seemed so pointless.
I remember that summer following his death, I looked at the clouds a lot. It seemed like they were extraordinarily beautiful, like there was always some scene of the Gods in the sky. I found comfort in it. I looked for him everywhere, and I found him in the clouds. I found him in the eagle with tufted feathers on its head that circled the bonfire we had in his memory. I found him in the waves at the beach. I found him in every single song I heard, in every cup of coffee I drank. I made a decision to believe. I couldn’t fathom a scenario where I wouldn’t see him again. So I chose to believe in the Jehovah’s Witness offer of paradise earth. I chose to believe that I would see him again, and I believed it as hard as I could.
But you can’t just choose to believe. I couldn’t, anyway. No matter how badly I wanted to, I couldn’t. Things happened that eroded the confidence I had in that choice. I wanted to go serve at Bethel, the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in New York City, as a sign language interpreter. But they wouldn’t take me because I was female. Women distract the men there and cause problems, I was told. Several girls came forward at my church and accused a Ministerial Servant of molesting them, and it was covered up. It became clearer to me that the women I’d always seen crying in the back of the church who were whispering in hushed voices were abused, and told to wait it out, not to provoke their husbands, because the bible says being beat is not a good enough reason to leave. I watched my strong, capable mother meekly cover her head in the presence of men so that she could properly pray. I watched all of the young men in the church gain more and more privileges, proudly performing the church prayer or operating the sound booth, as I was relegated to standing in line next to the other girls who were getting old enough to be married. Wives were to be submissive to their husbands. To acknowledge that women are the weaker sex. To always support and build up their husbands, and trust that they will make the best decision for the family. To never withhold sex: sex is a wifely duty.
If anything erased my desire to believe, it was witnessing the way women were treated. They took strong, smart women and turned them into empty-headed followers. I couldn’t suppress my strength, my fierce desire to learn, or my self-confidence enough to be the woman they needed. I still believe the elders recognized that, and that’s why they were so quick to get rid of me. I had self-awareness and passion and intelligence, even at 17 years old, and that wasn’t welcome. At the time when they turned me out, I had given up trying to believe in their truth, anyway.
My childhood friends from the church, my sister…maybe they’re happy. Maybe being elders’ wives and teaching their children to blindly obey and preaching their truth to their neighbors is a satisfying life for them. I may not have the comfort and support of that community anymore, but I’m pretty happy where I’m at: donating blood regularly, practicing yoga, watching all the Harry Potter I want. Free to believe or not believe in anything. Free to find answers or not find answers and be at peace with myself in this world.