I didn’t even look back at my dad, waiting in the car, as I walked toward the Kingdom Hall to my dreaded Elders meeting. Anxiety was nestled in the top of my chest like a poisonous plant, a big brown pit burrowed in with tendrils stretching up to my throat, closing in. It was the kind of stress that brought physical pain, a lump swelling up in my throat and threatening to explode in a flood of uncontrollable sobs. I swallowed it back; time to face the wrath of the Elders.
On one hand, it was so unfair. I was restricted so tightly from experiencing adolescence that I was forced to snap. I had no other choice. It was either make myself fit in this little box the church had presented me with all of its rules and demands, or burst free with all of the hysterical, raging anger of a 17-year-old girl who was never allowed to grow up.
On the other hand, I knew that what I did was wrong. I lied. I led a double life. There were two Naomis – the one who dressed in modest skirts and didn’t talk to boys on the phone and knocked on people’s doors, asking if they would like to talk about Jehovah. Then there was the secret Naomi that very few knew of: the one who snuck out at night to make out with a boyfriend in a parked car; the one who filled juice bottles half full of vodka and drank them at church gatherings; the one who smoked weed in the parking lot during intermission of a full-day convention. The one who got caught having sex before marriage. That Naomi was now on trial.
The real Naomi was somewhere in between. I was raised with good morals and ethics, I had loving parents and I tried to be caring and generous. But I knew there was more to who I wanted to be than this. I was determined to be more than just another submissive Jehovah Witness wife, with no goals of my own to work toward.
Brother Shaffer held the door open, his brows furrowed into a disappointed scowl. I wasn’t going to let him shake me. I held my head as high as the tightening lump in my throat would let me and walked in. I followed him to the back room where Brother Hawkins, Brother Sherwood and Brother Wilshusen were all waiting for me.
Brother Sherwood was the kindest. He had always been one of the nicest Elders, very gentle and slow to speak. He began the meeting by reading a few scriptures regarding modesty and fornication. I did my best to nod at him, fighting the urge to roll my eyes and snort at the archaic, outdated scriptures. Don’t braid your hair, don’t adorn your body with jewelry, wives be submissive to your husbands, women are the weaker sex, and on and on. If he was trying to remind me why I wanted out of this religion so badly, he was doing a great job.
Brother Shaffer and Brother Hawkins were up next. They barely let me talk, tripping over each others words, practically salivating at the chance to tell me what a bad thing I did.
“Do you think anyone’s ever going to want you again?” I remember Brother Hawkins asking. “You won’t ever be able to get a good Jehovah Witness husband, once they find out what you’ve done.”
I didn’t even know how to respond to that one. The tendrils wrapped themselves tighter in my throat and I blinked back burning tears. I let his horrible words seep into my brain – he was right, nobody would ever want me.
“We know your mom has severe anxiety issues,” Brother Shaffer said to me. “If you were a better daughter, if you’d behaved, if you did what you were told, she wouldn’t be dealing with things like that.”
I could hardly fathom what he was trying to say. She was battling these issues because of ME? I started to get sick to my stomach. Was he right? Was I too much stress for her? The self-doubt and guilt were creeping up.
Back and forth the two went, hurling accusations at me: I was manipulative; a liar; a bad friend; a terrible daughter; a bad influence. I tried to wedge my defense in just to be shut down again and again by the big, old bullies of men who were volleying insults and abuse about me over the table at each other like it was some sick game. The room started to close in and I sank further and further into my chair, grasping the table to stay upright. Finally, Brother Wilshusen spoke up for the first time, sighing and rolling his eyes, pulling me out of it. He just had one question, “Are you pregnant?” I answered indignantly, of course not. He was quiet for the rest of the meeting, staring at the wall.
Brother Shaffer asked if I was sorry. I said yes, I was sorry that I lied and I was sorry that I broke the rules. He asked if I would do it again, I said no. He asked if I would keep seeing my boyfriend, I said no. Things were looking okay, at this point. I thought I stood a chance to remain in the church, still able to talk to my friends and family. After all, I was a week away from turning 18, and then I could make my own decision to walk away, without the humiliation of having it broadcast from the stage of the church.
Then, they lost me. They said my best friend was a bad influence, that she and I caused each other to do bad things and that we couldn’t be friends anymore. They asked if I was willing to cut her off completely. I considered, briefly, lying and saying yes, but I’d had enough of that. I looked Brother Shaffer in the eye and gave him a firm “No. She’s my best friend.” They all looked at each other and Brother Hawkins cleared his throat. He excused me and said they would call me back in when they reached a decision.
I thought the meeting itself was long, but the wait outside was interminable. I fought the sobs from bubbling up by digging my fingernails into my palms. I chewed on the inside of my cheeks. I bit my lips so hard I drew blood. The door finally opened and they told me to come in.
“We’ve reached a unanimous decision, Naomi. Based on your answers and actions, we feel that you are a bad influence on the members of this congregation. You will be disfellowshipped immediately. It will be announced at next week’s meeting.”
Five days later, two days before my 18th birthday, I was publicly kicked out of my church. I was ostracized from everyone I knew. I lost my best friends; I lost my family. The only community I had ever known was gone. I felt it all as I sat in the first row, where my mom made me sit that Sunday. The final prayer was done, and the praying Elder, Brother Shaffer, asked if everyone would stay for one final announcement.
“Naomi Hagelund has been disfellowshipped.”
Gasps followed and all eyes turned to me. I left my bible sitting on the floor and I blindly got up, unable to see past the embarrassment and shame. I caught a few pitied glances out of the corner of my eye but I looked straight ahead as I beelined for the front door. I got in my little silver car, put it in first gear, and peeled the hell out of there, flipping off the Kingdom Hall as I finally let the sobs rack through my body. I let the humiliation and shame wash through me, and then what I felt gave me hope that I had made the right decision – I felt relief, and I felt free.