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.
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.