I Was Only Allowed to Play with Witnesses

a story of Religious Abuse

In first grade a girl would walk home from school with me everyday. I think her name was Debbie. She’d stop at my house with me everyday and ask my mother if she could play with me. My mother would say no; “Brenda’s too young to have friends over.” Sometimes Debbie would stay a little and talk to my mother more and try to convince her. My mother always won out. After Debbie left, my mother would tell me that the real reason Debbie couldn’t play was because she wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. I was only allowed to play with Witnesses.

 At the beginning of every school year my mother would come to school with me and tell the teacher that I was a JW and that I didn’t celebrate holidays or participate in sports. She would place the “Jehovah’s Witnesses and School” brochure with them. Mom would come pick me up on the last day of school before Christmas and on Halloween so that I didn’t participate in the holiday parties. The kids at school thought it was weird that my Mom did that and they thought I was weird too. They couldn’t understand why I though Christmas was “bad.”

 When I was in sixth grade I was awkward and depressed. I had low self-esteem and an abusive home life. I had no friends in school because there were no Witnesses in my class. I also thought I was fat. So I started dieting.

 Around this same time I was made a publisher of the good news. I remember the elders asking me why I wanted to be a publisher. In my innocence I replied that it was because my parents were publishers and I wanted to be like them. They asked me a second time during the interview why it was that I wanted to be a publisher. That time I remembered what my mother had told me to say when they asked that. I said: “Because I love Jehovah and I want to do His will.” I was announced as a publisher at the next meeting.

 The beginning of my eight grade year my mother withdrew my two younger sisters and myself from school to attend a home-based private school. I did not mind leaving public school. I always got good grades as my parents’ encouraged, but I was just enduring school.  I had a purple triangle cut out of an old Watchtower tapped to the inside of my locker. There were a lot of fights in the hallways, and even in classrooms during class. Cliques had formed by that time and of course I didn’t fit in anywhere. The purple triangle was to remind me that I would be rewarded later for enduring today.

 I learn quickly and always finished my lessons ahead of time at home. My loneliness intensified. Also, I had a lot more time to obsess about food and my figure and my dieting went over the edge. I became anorexic. The experience of being anorexic is a story in itself. People who knew me at the time later told me I looked as thin as a concentration camp survivor. Because I had a distorted self-image (thought I was fat no matter how thin I got) I have no memory of being that thin. Also, no matter what I did with my time, I always worried that I should be doing more, or something else. This let me to accomplish quite a bit, but I felt terrible the whole time. I was really bad for awhile and the starvation effected my though process and my memory during that time.

 Obsessing about food gave me a welcomed escape from my mother’s antics as well. She and my father where both on Prozac at that time. They switched my mother to a different drug and it knocked her out. She lay in bed all day for months on end. The responsibility of running the house fell on my shoulders. I cooked, kept the house clean, studied for all the meetings, and still managed to come within one credit of graduating from high school when I was 14.

 Because of all the personal study I managed to do, I felt motivated to be baptized. I went through the questions for baptism with the elders, and was baptized at a circuit assembly in May 1993. I was sure to lose some more weight before I had to appear before everyone in a bathing suit.

 By that time my mother was on something else and she had awakened. She knew I was sick. I remember a parade of doctors around that time that suspected I had everything from diabetes to a brain tumor. I was often praised for my figure, but either as she figured out I had an eating disorder or as I got thinner, she started getting on me about food. When she lectured me about eating it was easy to dismiss because she was so over the edge herself. She would say one thing one day, and totally deny it had ever crossed her mind the next. At one point she told me I was the source of all of her marital problems. She denied this passionately the following week. She was also grossly overweight, so I felt she had no room to lecture me on something she couldn’t manager herself.

 Food really got to be a power struggle between my mother and myself. Mom seemed to want to control everything. She used to always tell me how I just wanted to control her. I can't tell you how many things I asked for and didn't get, little things, hugs, chicken instead of beef in my stir fry at the restaurant, and always her reason being that I was trying to control her.

  Food was the only aspect of my life I felt I had control over, and I hung on to it because it was all I had. I obeyed my parents—except for when it came to food. I remember one night sitting at the dinner table and not eating anything while my family chowed down. My mother was at the tail end of a monologue about how terrible Sister D was. She looked over and saw that I wasn’t eating and gave my father the look. My father ordered me to EAT.

 I just sat there.

 He repeated the order.

 I sat.

 He backhanded me in the face for not obeying.

 I told him I’d already eaten and I wasn’t hungry.

 He told me I was his property until I turned 18 and I would do as he said, then slapped in the face twice. His first slap gave me a fat lip.

 I sat.

 My mother leaned over at length and got right in my face and said, “If you don’t obey us, we’ll have you disfellowshiped.”

 Before she said that I was almost at the point of caving in. When she said that I got angry. If they would disfellowship me for that on my parent’s request, then they could go ahead. I didn’t eat that night.

 To my knowledge my parents never requested I be disfellowshiped. But I knew at least one elder in the congregation that probably would have pushed it through if my parents had come to him with it. The more I thought about that, the more I hated the organization that would back up any parents, even if they were abusive. I recall going to meeting with bruises all down my arms. A “mature” sister asked me what had happened. I told her the truth. “My mother got angry that I wasn’t sweeping the floor fast enough and slugged me.” The sister gave me a disapproving look and told me I shouldn’t be lazy then.

 Mother started taking me to psychologists, and one recommended that I go back to public school (as my sisters had at that point) because I needed to be with kids my own age. I was a little excited to be going back to school, but also bemused, because I’d always been encouraged to hang out with older people in the congregation as friends since there wasn’t anyone my own age. Now my psychologist told me I needed to be with kids my own age. My mother didn’t even bat an eyelash at the contradiction. Maybe she didn’t even see it. I don’t know.

 When I went back to school (in a different district) they didn’t recognize many of the credits I had earned in the home-based private school, even though many of the courses where more difficult. So I returned to school as a sophomore rather than a senior. I completed my sophomore year there. I valued good grades more than I valued my strict diet. I knew I needed to eat more to be able to think straight (and I cursed my body for that). I felt really guilty about the gained weight, but I felt physically so much better.

 The next year I went into a Washington State program called Running Start. In the program I attended college and received both high school and college credit for it. I don’t know what possessed my parents to allow me to attend college. Maybe they thought I was too smart to stay in high school, and they thought I’d get bored with it and start losing weight again. So maybe they thought they were saving my life. Or maybe they realized that things had changed and I would need some college if I were to get a job in electronics like my father. My father had always wanted a son and had only gotten girls. I know he was proud that I took after him in my liking for electronics. Maybe he thought I would be more “his son” if I went to college and got the same type of job as him. I think it was a combination of the two. At any rate, I was looked down upon for attending college in the congregation. My parents constantly threatened to take me out of college if I misbehaved, and sometimes for no reason at all.

 Despite the sometimes-serious conflicts I had with my parents, the two years I spent in that program have been the best of my life so far. The college I attended was 35 miles from my parent’s home. This gave me a lot more freedom. My parents may have still been able to read my mail and listen in on all of my telephone conversations, but at least they couldn’t know where I was every single moment of the day any longer.

 It was also wonderful because for the first time in my life, I made friends. I might point out here that I didn’t go to college with the intent to make friends. I knew it wasn’t allowed. I was very focused on learning. It just so happened that they was a group of Running Start students in my classes who were also very focused on learning, and we helped each other with lessons and homework. Along the way we became friends. Having friends felt soooo good. Also I was up to a healthy enough weight that I started menstruating again, and for the first time I had to contend with my hormones. I got attracted to one of my friends, and we started dating. I was so nervous about getting caught that our relationship didn’t last very long. Even though, it felt great to have someone to care about me. My mother was self-absorbed and self-centered, and my sisters where really dealing with their own issues. My father never was there for me. 

I spent a couple terms of school at the main campus of the college I was attending to get some courses that weren’t offered at the branch campus that I initially attended. The main campus was much farther away. However, my Uncle (an Elder) lived right nearby it. My Uncle was also into electronics, and we really hit it off. He and I got much closer than I was ever with my father. I stayed at my Uncle’s house for the terms I went to the main campus. Being in college wasn’t as big as a deal in that congregation because many of the young people went to Running Start for vocation training. People just didn’t know that I wasn’t in a vocational program.

 While I was in school I learned logic, how to properly credit sources, and what stood up as academic (trustworthy, well-researched) material, and what did not. I was often disgusted at the Watchtower after this, because it did not properly credit sources, and often insulted it’s readers by using weak unrelated metaphors to support it’s arguments. I once mentioned this in the presence of my mother, and she told me to get off my high horse and stop thinking I was so great because I was getting a college education. She really grated on me about that point for a long time afterward. I don’t know if she was jealous that I was getting an education, or if she was angry because she couldn’t keep up with me intellectually anymore at all. I don’t mean to sound arrogant when I say that. I suppose I should explain that my mother never graduated from high school. She quit sometime shortly after eighth grade to regular pioneer because 1975 was really creeping up, and she wanted to get some time in service in before the end came.

 At this time I also blamed the organization for my anorexia. I felt that their teaching that we should only associate Witnesses was I reason I had gotten so intensely lonely, which I think was a major contributor to my illness. I understand now that there are a lot of factors that come together to cause someone to become mentally ill, but I still disagree with their teaching about bad associations. I think that scripture means bad associations in a broader sense. I knew supposed witnesses that had committed felonies, and of non-witnesses who were (and are) just better people than many of the Witnesses I knew. Yet, I would be allowed to associate with the felon, but not the non-witnesses. This just doesn’t check out for me.

 I was 17 and I’d just graduated from high school, then a month later from college with an AA degree. I’d begun to sense deeply that there was something really wrong with the organization. I'd met wonderful people in college and had forbidden friendships with "those worldly people." They seemed so kind and caring and clearheaded. I couldn't believe that they'd be destroyed just because they weren't witnesses, as one of the dramas of the last district convention had so emphasized.

 I would not turn 18 until the fall, and I was not allowed to leave the house until then. So, I was stuck home all summer with my mother and father (when he came home). I was on the verge of killing myself because it was bad when I started emailing one of the friends I’d met in college. He told me that they had no right to hit me and hurt me. I’d never though that before. Everyone always told me to obey my parents even if they were bad because Jehovah made them my parents and I should respect that. He told me I needed to stand up for myself and not let myself be hurt. He provided support and friendship and unconditional love. He was everything I needed at that time. He made me feel better about myself, and I stood up for myself for the first time. I refused to let my mother hit me one day. I just walked away. She came after me, but I was in much better shape and she couldn’t catch me. She was furious! I’d never seen her so mad! I was really worried about what I’d done.

 An entry in my Journal from that night:

“Some other people from the congregation showed up for a bit, and they left and bought a bunch of alcohol and came back. I was surprised. It's not that my parents never drink, I've just never seen them buy so much at once before. They had me come out and try some of each of everything. I never thought I'd drink, but I was so floored by how much they had and that they were actually being nice to me that I just did it. After everybody had a few (at that point I was slightly dizzy and a little sick to my stomach) my parents called me over to the picnic table to talk.

 They said I was disrespectful. They said I over-dramatize things. They said I was young and that the world was always going to be like this. I tried to explain that it wouldn't be that way for me, that I wouldn't let people treat me like that. That life is what you make it. They didn't believe me. Since they are older, their whole version of reality is better than mine, and by contradicting them, I am showing how immature I am. Their version of reality is so hardened that they think it is the only one. Yes, I know that life doesn't always seem to be a rose garden, I, a survivor of sexual abuse [for clarity, my parents were not at all involved in the sexual abuse] and anorexia know that as well as anyone. But something else that anorexia taught me is that life truly is what you make it. Actuality truly is subjective. They seem to think that there is only a bad side to most everything, and that you are ignorant (or inexperienced) if you say otherwise. I am both ignorant and inexperienced by the way.

 Mom called me a stupid f***ing b*tch three days ago. She denies it now. But she did. I don't think she is lying, I think that she honestly has blocked out of her head what has happened. It is one of the scariest things I've seen. What if everyone could just do that? Would we know about the Holocaust? Would there even be a word for truth? She honestly doesn't believe that what happened did. I'd wonder if I actually made it up, if it really was all in MY head like she says it is if my sister couldn't back me up.

 It makes me angry that she says that I over dramatize things. To her nothing that happens to me is bad. But, damn, if she is having a bad day, watch out, it's as if the gates of hell where cracked open and everything from hell is pouring out directly into her life.

  I asked Mom why did she think that it was that all any of her children wanted was out. She said that it was because it was normal for all children to only want out. I contradicted her. I told her it wasn't I told her that most of my friends, the only reason they were leaving home was because they didn't want to stay and burden their parents. (this IS true of the majority of my [worldly] friends) They told me that I only thought that because I didn't know enough people.

 At one point Dad actually hit me on the shoulder, but I had drank too much to really be able to run off or fight back. I figure that I had one or so coming from Dad anyway, 'cause he's put up with things in the past from me that I shouldn't have said to him. I was telling them I DON'T want to be hit, that if they hit me after I turn 18 that I could turn them in for assault. They didn't take what I was saying seriously.

 Dad says that I am going to have a hard life, just like my sister. Just like the only other child that will not be stepped on. I was telling them that they treat my sister better than they treat me when I have done everything that they wanted and she has done nothing that they wanted. They told me that they treat her like that because we don't have any hope for her, and that they have hope for me. I told them I didn’t want their hope then. I told them: if that is what your love means I don't want it. If that is what your approval means then I don't want it. Mom told me to stop over-dramatizing things.

 As I walked away out to my room Mom was like that's very generous because you are VERY disrespectful to you mother. Terribly disrespectful to your Mother. HORRIBLY disrespectful to your mother. I wanted to turn around and tell her to stop over-dramatizing things.

  My friend and I talked about everything over the course of the summer. He usually "won" the philosophical discussions we had with his strong grip on logic and sharp wit.

 Sometime near the end of the summer we got around to discussing my religion. We emailed back and forth and I explained some of the conflicts I had with my religion. I told him about the door to door work, and how I felt arrogant when I went to people’s doors. I felt that the society was arrogant to impose American cultural norms on people of other cultures. I told him how it was hard for me to swallow the part of the Bible where God wiped out entire civilizations (Deut 2:26-30; 3:2-4; Num 31:15-18). He got me to think about everything logically. Some excepts from his emails:

I'm sorry that your God does not love all of his creations, only a select few.

 Even though leaving it would mean being without that support, what support do you actually have? It seems to me that you really don't have much... Anyway, you're unhappy now with all the rules that you are supposed to live by. Why should you endure such hardship just to win the support of those who should love you unconditionally?

 Ahh, the all-loving God, eh? It always kills me when I hear people who profess belief in the Bible saying that God is all-loving. God killed more people in the Bible than have ever died at human hands. Some all-loving God. He was pretty free spreading death and destruction about. Killed everyone several times over...

 Do you really believe that God would not forgive you for letting go of a life that made you miserable? That he would condemn all who do not conform to the wishes of the Witnesses to death? This is the very thing that I despise about religion. It tells people that if they do not conform, God loves them less than those who do. A God who loves all of his creations would never love one group less, at least not any God that I would recognize. I would rather be condemned to the Christian Hell then go to a Heaven that had a God like that.

 You did make a good point that you should think about though: "If they didn't follow what they believed was right, at the very least they wouldn't be honorable, if not condemnable." If you continue to hold onto the religion of your upbringing while questioning your belief in it, you should think about where you stand in terms of your integrity.

 I put much credence in the teachings of Jesus. He was a great man who had much to say that was good. However, the mockery of his work that the Christian establishment has made I dislike.

 Yes, but why did God need to test his creations in the first place? He would have instilled in them all that they could accomplish, and since God is supposedly all-knowing, he would have foreseen all that was to come. There is no reconciliation in any of the Bible for the acts that the Christian God blamed on man with the powers attributed to him. He was either NOT all-knowing and all-powerful, or EVERYTHING that could and did happen is both HIS fault and was in HIS prior knowledge. God created all people who were evil, and then, because they didn't change, as he KNEW they wouldn't, he mercilessly killed them, and countless others. Sounds like a boy on a hot sunny day burning ants with a magnifying glass just because they keep traveling in the same path.

 He made us like we are. You understand what you understand because he gave you the capability to. Use it the way you know, because that's the capacity he gave you NOW. If you doubt, then there is a reason. If things are inconsistent to you, find something that is consistent. Unfortunately, most religions don't like questions that can't be answered, and the Witnesses are the harshest major Western religion there is on those who do not conform.

 Damn, they've got you hook, line, sinker, and most of the pole, as well. There's really nothing that I can say to help you here, or really in any of this. I don't think that most anything I could say would register with the part of you that this is all coming from. Sure, your brain might comprehend the logic that I'm using, but there's this little part of you that has been hurt so badly, and then all of this shoved down your throat, that the only way you'll heal and even live a semi-normal life is to figure out what you really believe. As for being held accountable, you seem to have pretty much made yourself accountable for everything. There's really nothing that I can see that would have kept me from killing myself in your position, even now. What do you have hope in? What is it that keeps you going, because from what you've said in this letter you have left yourself little room for hope. This is the thing that really irks me about strict religions. It has effectively destroyed your life, self-esteem, prospects for the future, everything, unless you let go, or give in to it completely.

 You know, I thought it might be a little higher than normal, but the rate of mental illness in the Witnesses is 4 times the average. I'd say that's a pretty good indicator that something's wrong.

Generally, people that have that much of an identity problem with their religion either break away or just break. I don't want to see you break, but there's really not that much that I can do about it, because it's all up to you. I also don't want to see you completely embrace it, because that would mean losing one of my best friends. That part is completely selfish, I know, but that's the way that I feel about it. I just hope that you can figure out what's right for you to do.

 A realization: It's occurred to me that it's rather strange that they would only want us to associate with other Witnesses. If it is the truth, then why does it need to be sheltered from the scrutiny of others? If it's about picking up bad habits from others, can't we identify people who it would be unwise to associate with ourselves? After all, we have God's spirit with us. . .

 At one point he told me he didn't expect the religion to last too long with that kind of belief system. I told him that it was actually growing every year and I quoted him some statistics from the most current yearbook. That sparked his interest. He later told me that after receiving that email he stayed up all that night and most of the next day researching Jehovah’s Witnesses. He sent me a reply and told me that he'd been researching the Witnesses and he couldn't accurately paraphrase what he'd found. He sent me some links to various websites. I visited them very briefly. I was afraid to read “apostate” material. The Society had made them look like monsters. He was very patient. He asked why I should be afraid. After all, if the WBTS had The Truth, nothing apostates could say would make any difference. He attached a story from the Women's Room on Randall Watters’ site. I read it mostly because I trusted my friend with my life, not really because I was convinced apostates were okay.

 The story blew me away. The women told about all the times the WBTS had prophesied things that didn’t happen, like in 1975. I thought about the scripture that says if the prophecies of a prophet don’t come true that the prophet is false and not to fear him (Deut 18:21-22). She also pointed out that the WBTS’ “New Light” sometimes went back to “Old Light” and back to “New Light” again (sometimes several times). She had a whole bunch of specific instances and cited the places she got them from. I checked every one of the references she listed that I could. She was right! I had to know more. I went to Randy's site and read everything I could handle for one night. I felt so betrayed and angry at the society.

 I’d gone from:

 I don't want to leave and I don't want to stay. There is no place to hide.

 To:

 I don't consider myself to be a Jehovah's Witness any longer. You know, this is way worse than being sexually violated. Sex is /very/ personal. But what's more personal than that is your spiritual beliefs. They shape your personality. What could possibly be more personal that who you are? Thank you so much for being there for me. . . this has all been terrible. And now I have to start over. It's all blank now. I am so glad to know I have you right now.

 A little later that day I went down to my spot the river and cried and screamed and just about got sick. I did that for three consecutive days. Then, I was calm again and I felt so free. Like a bird, unbound, so far above the pain. So very happy to be free of the organization. Of course there was a lot more healing and issues and people to deal with after that. But I will never forget that brief period of euphoria. I was in so much anguish, it was quite welcomed.

 The day after he sent me that email I decided not be a Witness anymore. That was the day of my 18th birthday. My parents kicked me out of the house 10 days later for my refusal to attend meetings. They told me that people who didn't love Jehovah weren't welcome in their house. My 16-year-old sister, who had been refusing to attend meeting for some time, left with me mostly because she wanted out. She was on the verge of marrying her worldly boyfriend to get out.

 I’ve always admired my sister’s guts. Watching her refuse to go to the meetings was what gave me the courage to refuse as well. She never needed anyone to tell her about all the lies and mistakes the organization made and then back it up with their own literature. She knew it was garbage on her own, and stood up to say so. At one time she had been made a publisher, but at the most a year before I decided to leave she asked to be removed. She faced four elders and didn’t flinch. What is more, the congregation we grew up in was started by the efforts of our father’s parents.

 That’s a sad part. My grandparent’s spent their lives Witnessing in several western states. They started many congregations and brought many people into the “Truth.” My grandparents are good people. But here I am wishing that no one ever had to be brought up in a cult, and wishing that the organization would be exposed for what it is and would end. I feel guilty for wanting to undo what my grandparents spent their lives doing. At the same time I’m angry that they didn’t see though it.

 The month after my parents kicked me out was the worst of my life. I was in shock that they did it. Sunday morning I refuse to go to a meeting. Sunday afternoon they come home and tell me to pack my things and leave. It happened with no warning. And I was so hurt. It’s a good thing my sister left with me. Two days after we were kicked out she came in with her boyfriend and interrupted my suicide attempt. It really hurt so badly that I didn’t care about the rest of my life, I just wanted it to stop.

 A few weeks later I got a great job back in the town I’d gone to college in. I had been working with my sister in an apple packing shed. It was the only thing that we could get up and do the next day to get money to pay our rent. Working that job seemed to hurt as bad as getting kicked out, but that might have been partially due to the fact that I totally lost my appetite for about three weeks. It’s hard to do a lot of physical activity when you haven’t eaten in a day or so.

 At first I was really nervous at my new job. I felt as though I didn’t deserve the job and I was afraid I was going to get fired at every turn. I got more confidence back as time went along. My whole life brightened. I was very proud to be out on my own, doing things my way, and doing very well. I had a well-kept apartment, a good job, and I started taking night classes at the college here and there to keep myself busy.

 Everything since then has pretty much been good. I had a go-in with my parents when my youngest sister ran away from home. I feel bad that she’s still home with them. They literally lock her in a closet at night. I’ve called Child Protective Services several times, but they haven’t done anything. When I decided to go back to college, my parents refused to release their financial information to me. They refused to support my on-going education due to their “Christian consciences.” So, I petitioned for financial independence, which was difficult, because I didn’t have too many people who knew me and knew enough about Jehovah’s Witnesses to back up my story. I managed though, and my petition was accepted. I initially went back to school to go into psychology, but it didn’t take long before I knew that I just didn’t have all my issues dealt with well enough to do counseling at this time. It was also really hard for me to stomach the cases of child abuse and neglect. I would get physically sick. So now I’m thinking of getting my degree in mathematics. I’ve always loved math. It’s so pure, logical, and clear.

 I really miss hearing from my Uncle. It hurts that he never calls, but I guess we don’t think on the same plane anymore anyway. Right now I’m also struggling with an anxiety disorder but it hasn’t been nearly as debilitating as my past disorder. I foresee overcoming it before too long.

 I’ve noticed a lot of people who are thinking of giving up being a JW ask, “Where is there to go?” That’s a hard question to answer. I think that some of us leaving can’t imagine not having some big “mama” telling us how to deal with every aspect of our lives. We can’t imagine making all the calls ourselves and thinking for ourselves because it’s never been that way. Reconstructing your belief system is a massive undertaking. It will change who you are. But you will be a stronger person and happier person when the storm subsides.

 I still have a lot of scars from having been a Witness. I still have trouble saying “no” to people. I still sometimes feel as though my life is just beyond my control. But now I understand where these feelings come from. Things are going to be okay now. Now I’m free to play with whom I want. And I’m free to think for myself and act for myself. I can’t think of higher freedoms.

 Brenda

fendra@hotmail.com


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