Transcending JW Abuse

Transcending JW Abuse

It’s such a familiar narrative now, and it’s almost comforting to me to see more and more people testifying to it – to know that what I observed and experienced is pretty much the same from congregation to congregation, and not just a matter of my own family or community in the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the fantasies of a paradise earth devoid of all but other Jehovah’s Witnesses, the fatalism toward the coming apocalypse and the lack of engagement in the world, an almost total lack of compassion, paranoia and fear of others, spankings and beatings “out back” at the Hall, the abusive and sometimes predatory nature of many of the elders, the way small slights divide families while larger issues are ignored, the hypocrisy, the mind-numbing repetition in the many meetings – the smallness of it all.

Joy Castro is now a literature professor – it is very heartening to find that so many of us, who were not irretrievably damaged but instead went on to thrive, were able to save our sanity and navigate a different path if we had something else – like intellectual curiosity, a higher sense of ethics, compassion for others – some private treasure to hold onto like a mantra while redefinining faith and value for ourselves.

Bits from the article “Turn of Faith” by Joy Castro
August 14, 2005, New York Times Magazine

Three times a week in the Kingdom Hall in Miami, my brother and I strove to sit perfectly still in our chairs. Our mother carried a wooden spoon in her purse and was quick to take us outside for beatings if we fidgeted.

My loneliness was nourished by rich, beautiful fantasies of eternal life in a paradise of peace, justice, racial harmony and environmental purity, a recompense for the rigor and social isolation of our lives.

This bliss wasn’t a future we had to work for. Witnesses wouldn’t vote, didn’t involve themselves in worldly matters, weren’t activists. Jehovah would do it all for us, destroying everyone who wasn’t a Witness and restoring the earth to harmony. All we had to do was obey and wait.

Shortly after our return to the States, my father was disfellowshipped for being an unrepentant smoker — smoking violated God’s temple, the body, much like fornication and drunkenness. Three years later, my parents’ marriage dissolved. My mother’s second husband had served at Bethel, the Watchtower’s headquarters in Brooklyn. Our doctrines, based on Paul’s letters in the New Testament, gave him complete control as the new head of the household; my mother’s role was to submit. My stepfather happened to be the kind of person who took advantage of this authority, physically abusing us and forcing us to shun our father completely.

After two years, I ran away to live with my father. My brother joined me a tumultuous six months later. We continued to attend the Kingdom Hall and preach door to door; the Witnesses had been our only community. Leaving was a gradual process that took months of questioning. I respected all faiths deeply, but at 15 I decided that I could no longer be part of a religion that condoned inequality.

I love my mother, but I also love my ”worldly” life, the multitude of ideas I was once forbidden to entertain, the rich friendships and the joyous love of my family. By choosing to live in the world she scorned — to teach in a college, to spare the rod entirely, to believe in the goodness of all kinds of people — I have, in her eyes, turned my back not only on Jehovah but also on her.

Joy Castro is the author of a memoir, “The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses,” to be published next month by Arcade and from which this essay is adapted. She lives in Crawfordsville, Ind.

Here’s a bit from “Farm Use” in Without a Net, in which she writes about mealtimes:

“Food becomes a measured thing. Each mealtime, my stepfather dishes himself up from the pots. Then my mother may help herself to half of what he has taken. Then, while he watches, she can spoon half of what she’s taken onto my plate. A portion half the size of mine goes to my brother. If my stepfather wants a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my brother gets one-eighth. If she gives us more than my stepfather calculates is correct, he beats us with his belt.”

What is it with the belt, anyway? I remember my mother asking my father to hit us with his hand, so that he could feel how hard he was hitting us – but he preferred the belt, followed by a biblical lecture which might well have been a reading from some back issue of the Watchtower magazine. Of course we had all the bound volumes. I remember being beaten one time for standing near to the stereo and looking to him as though I might be thinking about touching it. He wanted his children to be perfect in Jehovah’s eyes – spare the rod, spoil the child. Myself, I always wondered what exactly a “rod” was… I mean, in that context (ha). It always sounded like it might have been a bad translation – anyone know?

Thanks goes to H.K. for alerting me to this.


2 thoughts on “Transcending JW Abuse

  1. Update: I’ve written a review of Joy Castro, The Truth Book at

    A stellar narrative, September 1, 2005
    “Dr. Heidi N” (Atlanta, GA United States)

    I’m a former JW and this book brought back memories both bad and good. In between telling the story of the turns and twists of her JW childhood, Dr. Castro mentions details that are worthy of additional chapters. Even as an academic in my 40’s, it wasn’t until I read this book that I realized how the rhetoric of submission, even slavery, was used to justify control. I never even noticed that “district overseer” and a “circuit overseer” are positions from the language of slavery, not humble Christianity. Castro illustrates numerous misplaced priorities, such as those that punish a smoker but allow a man to abuse his children. Surprisingly, there are even bits of humor, such as an aside on the phrase “Satan the devil.” It’s never just “Satan” or the “devil”, but always “Satan-the-devil.” As opposed to what, “Satan-the-gerbil”? Her opening description of the faculty interview process had me in stitches and set the stage perfectly.

    She honors the goodhearted people in the congregation and gives them credit with specific and sympathetic character sketches, but she also shows the destructiveness and hardheartedness of many of the policies that tell good people to do the wrong thing. There are implicit criticisms of the religion and its cultivated worship of the leadership in Brooklyn. But it is in her descriptions of people that she most excels – they are presented in three-dimensional terms – no stereotypes here. The book rings with authenticity; she is trying very hard to be as fair as anyone could. There is no purple prose. She isn’t pushing any agenda. She reports, and in the process tries to assimilate, understand, get and give insight. Those of us who continue have to do that. She does it with writing, reading, teaching, helping – doing the things that were undervalued but have become all the more meaningful for that now.

    Her stepfather is horrible. Period. Her adoptive mother (and even her beloved father) say things that still make me quiver a little, resonance of a deep chord of empathy. Follow the thread of the brother – concern for him and self-judgment for not doing “enough” for him haunts the text.

    As harrowing as this story is, it also focuses on details of her redemptive experience. It narrows in on the little things that enabled her to navigate her environment, the things she valued and cherished that helped her to continue, to confront certain kinds of situations and, later, to thrive. It offers guidance and hope, and I think that it will be a source of understanding and strength for many.

    Like her, I feel that my love of reading may have saved me. I read the book in one sitting, and finished it deep in the night. I was unresponsive while reading, so absorbed in her story as it evoked – and intertwined with – my own memories, that I didn’t even acknowledge my husband when he spoke to me. Deep in the night when I finished, I let go of my inward world a little. I cried, then laughed, and finally looked up at the stars in wonder and peace. What more could one ask?

  2. Ok..I am on my way out to buy the book. As I find it funny that I am 51 yrs old and my childhood still haunts me as I too was raised a JW at the hands of a cruel stepfather and a mother that let him do this as the brothers and sisters watch what went on.
    I too ran away. I ran and ran but I can’t escape what has happened to me and what was stolen away from me at the hands of a man that did it in the name of Jeh.
    As I have been reading today I get a phone call from my sister who was reinstated last night.
    I told her I am happy for her but I have to much hurt and contempt to even considered going bk to that life.
    I have found that I am not a happy person through the years I turned to liquor and drugs and became numb. also figure that if I stay messed up and the end comes then i won’t
    I must go and get this book and read at how she over comes these feelings.

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