A teenage girl’s perspective

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 birthdays.
No Christmas.
No movies with magic in them.
No yoga.
No unicorns.
No college.
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.

Scrubbing away the “truth”

Some of that religion stays with me, no matter how hard I try to scrub it off. It’s sticky and stubborn. It’s like a virus transmitted by words – by endless lectures, sermons, and Watchtower readings that were crammed into my eyes and ears, smashed into my head and then plugged up with pages of my cheerful bible story book. Stories wrapped up in beautiful illustrations and pretty people, leaving an invisible oil sludge stain through my insides as the words crawled around my brain and heart, looking for any cracks, some way to invade and fester and grow. And they did.

I’ve been scrubbing it away for 15 years, and I still can’t get it all. I find remnants of that scared little girl, an automatic fear I can’t contain. I hear footsteps coming up the stairs, and even now I experience a split-second of terror. Not because I’m doing anything wrong, but because every single day growing up, I was terrified that the footsteps belonged to my mother, coming upstairs to accuse me of some inexcusable sin – I read a demonic book; I listened to terrible, offensive music; I talked for too long to the bad boy at church that morning; I didn’t spend enough time speaking the Truth to non-believers that week – or worse, maybe she opened my diary and found out what I monster I really was. To anyone else, my diary would’ve told a story of a normal, confused, emotional teenager. To the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was an obscenity they quickly weeded out of their flock of obedient sheep, but not soon enough to save me from the toxic effects of their fear-based indoctrination.

Until I was 31, I refused to allow a Stephen King book in my house: demonic words draw demonic spirits. Only in the last few years could I sleep alone in a house without the lights on, because if Satan and his demons were going to come for me, I was going to make damn sure I could see them. I was a 28-year-old afraid of the dark.

I still can’t watch horror movies with my friends because I’m afraid I might think it’s real.

I’ve still never given blood. I want to, more than anything. I tell myself every week I’m going to the Blood Bank and giving something of myself to someone who really needs it.

These are only the things I can see. Where’s the rest of it? The males in my life were a bunch of authoritative, domineering men who viewed me either as a suspicious temptation or a potential obedient, submissive wife. Where is that, inside of me? Where are the people I grew up with, the ones I called family and friends, who kicked me out of their life without a look back? Or the repeated teachings that family is not priority? Or being told that if I question anyone or second-guess the religion, I’m a stumbling block who should be eliminated?

It’s all seeped into my veins, into my brain, all of it. It’s infuriating. I can only scrub so fast, and sometimes it feels like it’s going to take the rest of my life. The anger against the reach these people still have on me doesn’t always win over the panic and tears that well up at the thought of violating one of these rules. Sometimes the only thing that lets me conquer the fear, that lets me rip the toxic sludge out of my veins, is hurling myself into it. Just fucking do it, Naomi.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

I love you and miss you. I wanted to start out by saying that. I think one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my experiences is how to love unconditionally, and how to forgive, even when those who hurt me aren’t asking for forgiveness. I will love you unconditionally until the day I die, and I forgive you for not being able to give me the same.

My heart hurts, regardless of my ability to love and forgive. I feel abandoned and rejected by the one single man that I never in a million years thought would leave me. This has destroyed my ability to trust in others. To believe that I’m really loved by anyone, or that I’m even worth loving. I spent a long, cold, dark winter collapsed in a heap on my cabin floor, crying for this loss of love and support that I so heavily relied on. I grew up being rejected and abandoned by those that I thought loved me – the Jehovah Witness community I was raised in. Because I didn’t fit in their idea of someone who could be loved, I was tossed out. I came to rely on the support system I slowly built up around me – you, my father. My brothers. My friends. But you, you were the one who had always made me believe I was worthy of being loved, despite everything that had happened. You were the one I looked to for strength, validation, support, and praise. And for that, I have to ask for your forgiveness. That’s an enormous amount to put on a person who never asked for it. I put you on a pedestal and heaped my expectations on you. I took what I needed to survive without even asking if you had it in you to give, and then I took too much. I’m truly sorry for that, Dad.

For as much as my heart feels cracked wide open from being abandoned by the person I thought cared about me more than anyone else in my life did, I know I’ve caused you hurt, too. I know how close and private you like to keep our family problems. I know you’re ashamed that those stories are out there for others to read, and you’re angry at me for putting them out there. I need you to know that I never intended to cause you anger, hurt, or shame. I knew it was a possibility, but it was worth the risk, in order to heal myself. Maybe that sounds selfish to you, but Dad, I was inches from considering ending my life. I was so deep inside the anguish in my heart and head and I couldn’t get out of it. Writing these stories, experiences, and feelings down, it healed me. Receiving validation of my feelings from others healed me. Hearing that it wasn’t anything that was wrong with ME that caused this estrangement from the church and my mother, it healed me. Hearing that my stories were helping others who are going through the same things I went through, that healed me. Hearing from others that I AM worth loving, regardless of what the Elders said, it healed me. It brought me back out of that deep, dark, dangerous hole I was in, where I thought the world would be better off without me.

You might not ever be able to forgive me, and I have to find a way to come to terms with that. But you have to know that I did it to survive, and to help others survive. I hope that we can both get past our anger and hurt and come to trust each other again, and show the love I think we both have for each other. I think life is too short to hold on to that pain and anger. But even if you can’t, I’ll still be here, loving you, and mom, and the rest of my family, as hard as I can for the rest of my life.

Your daughter,

Naomi

Still afraid of the dark

DemonsJehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah. Six-year-old Naomi squeezed her eyes shut hard, sealing out the darkness, whispering God’s name over and over like a verbal amulet to ward away Satan’s soldiers. She paused her chant, straining to hear anything at all. Was that a rustle? A creak? Maybe the swish of a demon floating by, taunting her. Her eyes snapped open, taking in the blackness. She could just picture it. Demons looked just like men, she was told, but they were pure evil. She imagined if she ever saw one in real life, she’d be able to see the foulness radiating from its dead eyes.

The boys told her to stay put in the family room. “Keep your eyes closed and count to 100.” They scurried away, and with a rising level of panic, she rapidly fired off the numbers in her head. They made a game out of her extreme fear of the dark and everything she imagined haunted it. Brothers. She had to make it to the other end of the house in the pitch black, and they’d turn the lights back on.

Jehovah’s Witness rules for demons were simple: they’ll appear if you invited ungodly things into your house: yoga, Ouija boards, smurfs, troll dolls, unicorns, any Disney movie that had magic in it, the list was lengthy. If you said Satan’s name out loud (the original Voldemort), if you had a bad thought or did something against the rules, they’d sense you on their demonic radar and slither their way into your presence. What would the demons would actually do when they got to you? They were able to influence thoughts, manipulate things, even cause death. Their only goal is to sway you to Satan’s side, and any misstep could throw you into one of their snares. Your only method of defense was to repeat God’s name over and over again: Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah. You could fortify that repellent by opening your bible to a page that had his name written in it. It would send the demons into a painful, screaming fit, and they’d be banished to wherever they came from – like a vampire reacting to a rescinded invite.

Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah, she whispered again, eyes darting around in the darkness, trying to gauge the ideal time to sprint through the room toward the hallway. The house wasn’t huge, but the path through the laundry room, down the stairs, and into the living room seemed agonizingly endless. She crept forward slowly, heartbeat speeding up with every inch. She waved her arms out around, like she could scare them off. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was surrounded by evil. Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah, she whispered through terrified tears as she clung to the wall, inching her way through the hallway.  She made it through the laundry room and ran face first into it, one of Satan’s horrible monsters! It leapt out and wrapped it’s creepy, wiry arms around her, shoving her against the wall. “JEHOVAH, JEHOVAH, JEHOVAH…” she yelled, she screamed, she wrestled out of it’s grasp and ran full speed to the end of the house. Her eyes were flooded with light and there was one of her brothers, hand over his mouth, doubled over with laughter. The other brother walked in from behind her. HE was the demon. Anger, and then relief, flooded her tiny little body, and she pummeled her older brothers with her fists, crying as they begged her not to tell Mom and Dad.

She carried that demonic burden for the next 21 years, well into adulthood. The lights would go out, and she’d have this automatic, overwhelming fear that something was out there trying to get her. Something dark, ungodly, and evil. For years, she slept with the lights and TV on. Even at 27 years old, she’d still whisper “Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah,” over and over, not really believing that it would work, but unable to control the impulse. From the moment she stepped foot inside the church as a four-year-old, any time she wanted something against the rules, she was warned about demons. It was repeated in the church’s monthly publications, in the children’s books, in the weekly Elder’s talks. She had it pounded into her head that they were all engaged in spiritual warfare with an actual army of wicked spirits. It was a real, living thing for her, this fear.

It was the basis of everything she was taught. She was raised with a deep-seated fear of demons; of displeasing Jehovah, or even more terrifying, displeasing the Elders; of being disfellowshipped; of Armageddon. Armageddon, the day of fireballs and destruction, when all of the evil, people and demons alike, would be burned and destroyed, but the smiling, happy, obedient Jehovah’s Witnesses would walk through unscathed, with no regard to the burning flesh around them, ready to live in a perfect paradise earth. As kids, they even made it a game of picking out which unbeliever’s house they would live in come Paradise, when the godless buildings were all up for grabs.

The fears that had been so deeply embedded in her soul gradually weakened, as she left the religion and saw not one demon; had not one eerie, unexplained experience. She had her palm read once, and her heart was pounding in her ears the entire time, but she walked away safe and sound. She warily practiced yoga for the first time, and to her surprise, no demons invaded her opened mind. She even has a Stephen King book in her house, along with a Buddha statue and movies chock-full of magic.

Things that used to send her into a deep, tearful panic, begging for Jehovah to save her, were now just regular, normal things. They don’t want you, unless you hold on to that fear. She let go of the fear, and they let go of her.

She was my person.

She’s been an Elder’s wife for a while now. I see pictures of her here and there, though I try hard to avoid it. She’s always got her shiny, Mississippi-sun-kissed hair tied up in a ponytail. She’s much more fit than she was when we were kids. Her toned arms are tan, usually hauling around a blonde-haired, red-cheeked kiddo on her hip, sporting her same full lips and famous hazel Hagelund eyes. It breaks my heart every day that I’ve only met two of the three little ones. It’s been at least three years since I was allowed to see them at all.

She used to be my person. We fought, to be sure. We had full-on nail-scratching, hair-pulling blow-outs over silly things, like stealing each other’s clothes or flirting with each other’s crushes. The kind of stuff that happens when you’re sisters with only a year between you. But she was my person.

For 18 years, we lived in the same room. We knew everything about each other: annoyances, favorite junk food, which boy at church we thought was cute. We also knew every single one of each other’s firsts: first period, first bra, first kiss. She was always way ahead of the game in that regard, although I was older. Maybe that’s why I raced her to the rebellious stuff. She knew when I smoked my first Marlboro light, when I drank my first cheap, nasty vodka, when I snuck out for the first time to meet a guy. She knew when I dipped my toe over that line into leading a double life, and she knew when I dove in.

And I knew when she crossed that line. After all, I was her person, too. I knew when she lost her virginity to her now-husband, the Mississippi Elder. She and I, we crossed that line at the same time. I did it recklessly, with a racing heart and no looking back. She was more careful. She slid under the radar just as I busted through, loudly declaring my rebellion and waving my arms. I realized I could never fit their idea of a good Jehovah’s Witness woman, and she realized that’s all she wanted to be.

I was kicked out of the church for breaking the same rule that she never got caught for. She stood by me for a few months. She’d go into town with me and glare at the gossipy old Elder’s wives at the store who’d see us and whisper, calling me a stumbling block and a bad influence. I felt closer to her, then. My friends were shunning me, in routine Jehovah’s Witness fashion, and I had nobody left but my family. I clung to them.

A few months after I was kicked out, an article appeared that instructed Jehovah’s Witnesses to cut family ties with the disfellowshipped. A bad influence is a bad influence. “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” From then on, Mom made damn sure my little sister kept her distance from me, arms crossed and both eyes on us, monitoring our interactions every second of the day. As if I’d infect her with my worldliness. My dad just let it slide, like he always did – there was never any use fighting Mom on religion.

My sister eventually cut me off on her own. She married and moved to Mississippi. She stopped returning my calls. She threw fits when Dad tried to invite me to family gatherings when she was in town. Once, I called her on her hypocrisy – how could she hold against me the same sins she committed? She told me Jehovah’s forgiven her, but I still need to be punished.

I broke the rules, indeed. For that, I’ve been ostracized from my family for 12 years and counting. I’ve been cut off from my younger sister and brother, five of my nieces and nephews, and my parents, not to mention all of my childhood friends. When I tell this story, I usually get pity and an, “I’m sorry, that’s awful.” Like I’m the loser in this awful, twisted game, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But I haven’t lost.

It took time, but I found my family. The ones who call every week to check in. The ones who fly me home for the holidays because they miss me. The ones who listen to my radio show every Monday from wherever they are, because it makes them feel close to me. The ones who’ve seen me make mistake after mistake and be selfish and completely lose myself, and stand right there next to me, believing in me. I found family and unconditional love. I’ve won.

Because of that, I can be there for the rest of my family, even when they can’t be there for me. My dad, who I used to be so close to; my mom, who I’m so much like it’s scary; my little sister who I shared everything with for so long; my little brother who I miss more than he probably knows; they’ve been devastatingly absent in my life, and they probably always will be. But I’ll be here, holding them all in my heart, whether they want to be there or not. I refuse to let them go. I’ve got no limits on my love. I didn’t learn that from them, but I can share it.

This is my story to tell.

Now that I’ve got your attention, maybe you’ll hear me.

This is MY story to tell. I didn’t ask for it.

When did I get a choice?

You raised me in a religion devoid of love, family and trust. You didn’t ask if I wanted that.

You sat back while it burrowed a hole in my heart, while it destroyed all of us.

You let them shake their fingers at me, blaming my damaged heart for all of the upset in our family.

I was 17 years old. You sat in the car while the Elders manipulated me, abused me and took everything from me.

For 13 years, you have kept completely quiet.

I’ve been isolated, alienated, ostracized, shamed, humiliated and bullied.

You watched my own family treat me like dirt. Like I’m not fit to be under the same roof.

You watched, and nothing else.

And now you call me a bully and a coward, for telling my own story? My own truth?

I didn’t ask for this. You gave it to me. I’m not going to fucking carry it anymore. You can have it back.

I’m strong enough not to hide anymore.

I’m strong enough to put this out there, so I can help someone.

You wouldn’t risk the upset to help me.

I’m going to risk it to help others.

The religion that saved her, tore them apart

She reads her bible every night, gleaning what affirmation she can about the path she’s on. She has Watchtower illustrations framed and hanging where her kids’ pictures used to be – except the daughter who married an Elder. Her smiling family is framed and hanging on the wall, next to the pictures of how paradise earth will be after Armageddon.

Twenty-five years ago, she had no pictures to hang on the wall. Her kids were still young, from two to nine years old. Instead of reading the bible every night, she was at the bar shooting tequila. She’d go on three-day benders and come home covered in hickeys, red-eyed and mean. She never took it out on her children, just her husband. Once, she tried to attack him, so he duct-taped her to a chair.

It got worse. He gave her an ultimatum, finally. It should’ve come earlier. She gets sober, or he takes the kids. The next day, she started studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

She’s been sober for 25 years now. She is clean. She is on a path of righteousness. She’s on her way to the new system, where alcoholism doesn’t exist and she won’t have to make the choice to be clean. Her kids, though, they’re all damaged. She sucked up all of the strength she needed for herself and left nothing for them. She will survive, but they might not.

By all appearances, they’re fine. They all have jobs. They all have families. They work, they play, they live. But they’ve all got a seed of doubt in their hearts that they’re not really worth loving. The religion that saved her tore them apart. It clenched their hearts with an icy hand, whispering in their ears, “You’re not good enough to love. You’ll never be good enough.”

The religion gave her the strength to bottle all of her pain and seal it in her heart. Day after day, it lends her strength to keep a tight lid on it. The kids all witnessed it slip, occasionally, growing up. Sometimes it was released in a small, slow hiss and sometimes it was an explosion. Maybe she’ll be strong enough to keep it inside forever, but is that really strength? Maybe she’s the weak one, for refusing to greet her pain. She stuffs it inside until it leaks onto everyone around her.

It’s easy for her to blame the kids for the dysfunction in the family; it’s what the Elders tell her to do. They made the choice to walk away and destroy their lives in the World. They abandoned her. She’s alone on her island of Truth, desperately wishing they would acknowledge their mistakes and join her. Can’t they see that she needed someone to give her a box to fit in, a set of rules to follow? She would’ve spiraled into an alcoholic destruction, had it not been for the rigidity and rules. She doesn’t have to think; she just follows. She hasn’t touched a drop in 25 years. Doesn’t that count for something?

It doesn’t matter what they think. She has a body of ten Elders, a congregation of hundreds, a worldwide community of 8 million validating her choices. They’re in her head, constantly congratulating her for accomplishing God’s will. Meanwhile, those kids are still trying to catch the crumbling bits of their hearts where that icy hand still lingers, watching her spiral into a kind of destruction she can’t even see.

One day, she’ll look at her wall of bible pictures instead of family, and she’ll realize she let everything that mattered go.