Recently one of my sons was visiting me, he’d just finished his tour in the USN as a Nuclear Technician on a Submarine. No easy feat, and something I never dreamed of when I was a young girl in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was never a choice for me to go past high school. The fact that my son had done so much at such an early age, made my heart swell.
My mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1971, lives with me. When she brought out her box of old photos and splayed them on the table, I got excited. She was going to spend some one-on-one time with her grandson. She never asks him or any of my other non-Jehovah’s Witnesses children anything that’s personal, it’s all superficial as if she were at a dinner party trying to make conversation.
We picked through the stacks. Most of the photos old, before I was born, when my mother was a small girl. In the scratchy black and white photos, my aunts and uncles played cards and smoked cigarettes. There were picnics and family outings in the 1950’s Oldsmobile my grandfather used as a Taxi in these pre-Uber days. In my mind, I thought, pre-Jehovah days, before my mother disconnected from those she loved and loved her.
We got to the pictures of my childhood, and they told an interesting tale. I wondered if anyone but me, an adult survivor of Jehovah, would spot what I saw. There wasn’t one picture of the joy on Christmas morning, or the puffed cheeks as I blew out candles on a birthday cake. There were no pictures of me with my older brothers, who did not belong to Jehovah’s family. No pictures with my playful aunts and sarcastic uncles, my cousins, or my sweet grandfather.
My son rummaged through, eyeing each picture, oblivious to my reality as a child believing Satan might take me at any moment. He didn’t know, the picture of me age 8, wearing a handmade dress and my hair up in lopsided pigtails, was taken before an all-day assembly at Soldier Field. He had no clue I’d spend the next four days in a wooden seat taking notes in my little notepad (not draw) and eat cherry Lifesavers. The pictures were all JW events: field service, the first day of an Assembly, the Circuit Overseer’s visit. There were no first day of school, science fairs, school plays, or soccer game pictures.
My kids know I missed out on all those things. I told them why. I explained the level of control on my life and how Jehovah didn’t play fair. He demands 100% devotion for a promise of eternal life in paradise but allows for children to be abused. They know I was punished while the man who hurt me, my stepfather, went unpunished. As we looked at the pictures, I kept this to myself. I wanted to enjoy this fleeting moment with my son and mother.
My son pulled out a picture of me, my long blond hair feathered back. “Is that you?” He asked.
I smiled and picked up the picture. Ran my thumb along the Olan Mills stamp in the corner and remembered the day it had been taken.
“Yep, that’s me.”
“Wow mom, you look like you could be on The 70’s Show.” He smiled, so I knew it was a good thing.
My mother peered over my shoulder. “Oh, that’s my favorite picture of you.”
I wanted to laugh out loud. She had no idea of the irony of her words. The picture in question, was my senior year photo. It had been taken a year after she’d kicked me out of the house for having a worldly boyfriend.
As my son went to find the cards so we could play Cribbage, I cleaned up the stack of pictures. I stumbled across another, my Junior year photo. I stared down at myself, my hair had been cut short and was pressed flat to the sides of my head. My shirt was buttoned up to my chin. I stood out like a sore thumb in the tiny black and white photos lined up across the pages of the yearbook. It had been taken at a point when I was waking up and realized Jehovah didn’t care about me. He didn’t exist, but I was stuck in his world.
I looked at my fifteen-year-old self. My face dull and lifeless. My mouth barely curved up into a forced smile. The hair had been my mother’s doing. Cut to please Jehovah. “Don’t want to look like the worldly girls,” her voice rang in my head. The shirt, also to her liking. Modest and guaranteed not the get any boys to look at me. I’d been taught how I dressed, like showing too much neck, could get me raped. Dinah, always thrown in my face as an example.
I wanted to rip the picture to shreds. I didn’t. Instead, I held it up to the feathered hair picture and noticed the differences in the before and after Jehovah. In the after, my hair was long and styled in a current style, my eyes sparkled, my skin clear. I wore a V-neck sweater, the hollow in my neck showing. No look of defeat.
The pictures put away, my son shuffled the cards and the three of us played several heated rounds of cribbage. My mother told stories about her and her sisters playing cards with their dad. My husband walked by a few times and squeezed my shoulder. He knew how important these moments were to me.
The feathered hair “70’s Show” picture, the one that my mother loves so much, and my son thought was cool, is more than a nice Olan Mills picture. To me, it’s a visual reminder of me breaking free from fear and being another victim of Jehovah.
I was free, but a person can never truly be free from this cult. I suffered for years from the nightmares of being killed in Armageddon. My abusive step-father remained unchecked, unreported, and continued to hurt others, my JW family denying what he’d done. My brothers and sisters, my extended family, all disjointed and ripped apart by a cult that claims to love and support families. It’s just another one of Jehovah’s lies.