What follows is a continuation of a series of articles comprising a book entitled “Passion, Power, and Panties–Confessions of a Businessman” wherein the author describes being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, spending almost ten years at their headquarters in Brooklyn, NY and then entering the “outside” world at the age of 27. For purposes of continuity, I encourage you to subscribe in the column to the right so as not to miss a post. It is free and without obligation.
My parents converted from the Lutheran religion to Jehovah’s Witnesses the year before I was born. My father was a Pennsylvania Dutchman, and my mother was a war bride from England during the Second World War. I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was involved in Jehovah’s Witnesses proslytizing activities from earliest childhood. Later I was often told about the time when I was two years old and standing with my parents outside the local movie theatre waiting for the moviegoers to exit the building and then “place” (Jehovah’s Witnesses’ euphemism for selling) the Awake! and Watchtower magazines. When my offer was rejected by one man, I inquired “Don’t you want to live in the New World?” My indoctrination was well in progress.
At the age of five I gave my first “speech” to a congregation of about 100 persons. Not yet being able to read, my mother read several Psalms from the Bible to me over and over until I committed them to rote memory. I then held up a copy of the Bible and recited these Psalms as if reading, while the congregation followed along. By the time I was nine I was giving short presentations to audiences of well over a thousand persons and I was even interviewed on a TV talk show as this very articulate JW kid who could answer confidently questions as to what we believed and why.
Brooklyn, New York is the international headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses. You might say Brooklyn is to Jehovah’s Witnesses what Salt Lake City is to the Mormons. On weekends male members of the headquarters staff traveled to congregations within a two hundred mile radius of Brooklyn to give speeches to congregations of the faithful. Whenever they visited our congregation, I was always introduced to them as a future member of the headquarters staff. This became my divine destiny. My Purpose was clear from a very early age. I received a great deal of praise for my speaking performances, and this contributed to my self-esteem and was a source of pride to my father, who received the credit for my development.
I was enrolled from the age of five in the Theocratic Ministry School, a one-hour program on Thursday nights available to the entire congregation, including women. All students were periodically assigned to develop and deliver presentations ranging in length from six to fifteen minutes in length on Bible topics before the congregation. Women were assigned in pairs, and unlike men, who stood and faced the congregation, the women sat on the stage, facing each other, and one of them instructed the other. Women were not permitted to address the congregation or to instruct male members of the congregation. At the conclusion of our presentations, a counselor would critically analyze our speaking ability on three separate, specific points, such as Voice modulation, Sense stress, Logical coherent development, Use of an outline, Audience contact, etc. These points of critique were assigned in advance so we knew what we would be counseled on, and we had an instruction book designed to help us develop these various speaking skills. If our progress was satisfactory we could move on to more advanced techniques; otherwise we had to stick to the same skill level until our execution was considered competent. Unknown to me, this program was designed to develop lay audiences into skilled representatives of their faith. As with much of Jehovah’s Witnesses spiritual life, this activity focused on spreading the message of their beliefs. One of our primary beliefs was that the End of the World could not come until our message had been spread worldwide. Our beliefs were both eschatological and evangelical. Armageddon was very real to us and we were imbued with a real sense of urgency. Like medieval Europeans, any bad news was a portent of the coming disaster. Whenever we had violent thunderstorms, we children would quake with fear and wonder if this was the beginning of Armageddon.
The Theocratic Ministry School was a huge success. You should know. You were the ones who hid behind the drapes at the window rather than answer the door and engage us in discourse.
Although my father got most of the credit, it was my mother who spent untold hours with me making me rehearse my speeches. I have vivid memories of holding up my notes in one hand before a make-shift podium composed of a stack of books, practicing my gestures with one free hand while the other held my notes or the Bible, under her eagle eye. I had the good fortune later, when we moved to Westminster, Maryland, of having as an instructor Russell A., who had spent about ten years at headquarters, and who was quite polished and an accomplished instructor. He had a big impact on my development as a public speaker. He also was a great raconteur who told me many stories about life at Bethel (JW’s name for the headquarters organization). One memorable story was about this Bethelite who was recruited from Texas by a prominent member of the headquarters staff. It was discovered this new recruit was mentally handicapped when he prepared a theme for a Theocratic Ministry School presentation which he entitled “Green Grass”. He stood before a group of his colleagues and for six minutes talked about what people could do because they drank milk, and the milk came from a cow, and the cow ate grass, and all this was possible because of green grass. When someone checked to see why anyone so handicapped had been selected for headquarters service, it was discovered his application had been approved because he was stationed as a parking lot attendant at a Texas convention, and he was the only out there during a drenching rainstorm. Apparently he was the only one dumb enough not to get out of the rain and his handicap had been mistaken for zeal.
Anyway, Bethel became my Atlantis, and its members my heroes.
The more praise my father received for my achievements, the more determined he became that I would remain pure and uncorrupted by worldly influences (meaning non-JW). So he issued his famous edict on books. Simply put, I was forbidden to read anything that wasn’t published by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the sole exception of required textbook reading as part of my public school curriculum. He enforced this edict vigilantly. Under his scrutiny I read, underlined, and annotated every Jehovah’s Witness publication he could find. He finally decided that even commingling with other Witness children was probably not in my best spiritual interests. On one occasion when I wanted in the worst way to respond to a party invitation, Daddy told me to produce the copy of the Watchtower we would be studying that Sunday and he examined whether I had underlined key words and phrases in each paragraph of the article to be considered. Then to assure himself that I hadn’t tried to fake him out by randomly underlining anything at all, he quizzed me orally to make sure I knew the answers. Knowing my father, I expected this grilling and was fully prepared. Stymied, he asked me to produce Equipped for Every Good Work, the textbook for the coming Thursday nights service and we repeated the same procedure with it, with the same results. Frustrated at his inability to catch me in some ecclesiastical laxness, my father leafed through the textbook and found several prior chapters that for whatever reason had no underlinings in them, and said obviously my time could be better spent reviewing those chapters instead of going to some social event. My heart sank. I was about twelve years old at the time. Later I realized my father’s dishonesty in not telling me outright that it was his decision that I couldn’t go to the party, instead of pretending that it was my fault for not having some past lessons prepared.
I learned very early that approval was connected to performance, and this was an important factor later on in life when trying to form meaningful romantic relationships. I learned to cope by developing a keen sense of humor, and for many years I was the class clown in public schools. I kept things lively, even for the teachers. By High School I learned that I got more from the female teachers by flirting with them. I really didn’t understand the meaning of flirting except that I enjoyed the attention, and people liked me when I did it. My flirting and my humor were often combined, so I suspect it was difficult for my victims to tell the difference sometimes. Both were coping mechanisms and both were performances and both helped me get through.
Until I was about 13 years old, our family of four lived in a trailer eight feet wide and 45 feet long, for a total of 360 sq. ft. of combined living space. I slept during those years on a sofa-bed in the front part of the trailer. Thus I had no privacy. The good news was no one could tell me to go to bed until they went to bed, as there was no place to go. I remember when my father was converting a man named Bill M., someone who later became a friend of our family and who would have a profound and happy effect on me later in my teen years, Bill used to come visit us in our trailer and sit on my sofa (bed), as it was the only place you could sit. But Bill used to smoke cigars profusely, and being a young hypochondriac, I was sure I was going to get cancer from his cigar smoke, so I sat on the floor under the table to avoid the fumes. As I said, Bill seemed to take a liking to me, and when I was sixteen he took me on a month-long trip with him and his wife to Newfoundland. Bill was kind of wild, and would walk around with a big Bowie knife in his teeth, probably to impress the other campers. But Bill took the time to teach me how to play chess, use a slide rule, play Mahjongg and cribbage. Bill was a talented commercial artist, and he often gave me tubes of paint, brushes and other art materials to play with. He also taught me the meaning of the word masturbation. He was mad at someone one day and called them a “jerkoff.” I asked him what that was, and he said someone who masturbates. Of course, I wanted to know what that was, so he explained that to me as well. At that point in time I had had no experience with the subject and it was of academic interest only.
Bill was an avid reader, and I felt a kinship to him in this love of books. He was the only person I knew growing up who had a personal library of any consequence. I remember him getting really excited about this new book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and it’s descriptions of how man was ruining the earth with his chemicals. Bill was an immediate convert to the incipient environmentalist movement. It was not until almost forty years later that I was to myself own a copy of this book, read it, and form my own opinions on the subject.
Bill died in 2001, alone and in his wheelchair. He had been the victim of a stroke years earlier, and I visited him a short time before he died, and I was appalled at his living conditions. His house was in a state of considerable disrepair, with old electric wires hanging out of the walls, and an old wood stove in the kitchen. He was still active as a member of the congregation in that he still attended meetings faithfully when someone would transport him. What I found particularly appalling, however, was that he was in the same congregation as a number of my relatives, who were trades people, carpenters and such, and who were more than capable of repairing what was defective and dangerous in his house. As a matter of fact, some of these believing trades people traveled to indigent third world nations to build Kingdom Halls but could not be bothered with human need close to home. I do not know if Bill ever allowed himself to reflect on such incongruities before he passed away. Probably not. Bill was as much of a believer as the rest of them.
My father believed in corporal punishment, and the behaviors that warranted spankings were many and varied. My father’s punishments most certainly qualified as child abuse today, but that was another time, and his ministrations to my backside with a belt were quite memorable. I often exacerbated the situation by refusing to show pain and maintaining silence, which quite predictably elicited more strenuous ‘laying on of the hands’. It seems to me that most of my parents’ arguments were over the issue of my beatings. One of the last such was when my father found a secular book I was reading, which I had carelessly and uncharacteristically left laying out. It was H. G. Wells The Time Machine. As my father was fond of reciting in later years during discussions with the faithful over the dangers of allowing subversive influences into our homes, he picked up the book and opened it at random and read a phrase, in his words: ‘So there I was, hacking my way through a solid wall of human flesh, dragging my canoe behind me.’ To this day I have no idea if any such phrase exists in The Time Machine (I’ve never checked; I don’t even remember if I ever finished the book, but I do remember the beating that followed). Over the years, my mother had flouted my father’s authority by clandestinely taking me to the public library each week, where we would fill at least one, and sometimes two brown paper grocery bags with rented books, which we took home and hid beneath the mattress of my bed, safe from my father’s view. My mother kept me supplied with flashlights and batteries (my father would notice anything brighter than that turned on at night). Through these books my imagination soared far and wide, and my vocabulary grew. I read classics, histories, biographies, romance novels, mythology, everything in fact I could find. Once in fifth grade, when I was home sick, my teacher noticed that the lid of my desk wouldn’t close and discovered no less than thirteen library books as the reason. I read during class, I read on the bus, and I read through the night. This was my escape. In ninth grade when other students were finding the shortest novels possible to complete a reading assignment, I chose the thousand-page tome The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I can still remember adding hegemony and megalomania, among some forty other words, to my vocabulary from that book.
Generally speaking I remember school as being more boring than anything else. If I was interested in the subject I would usually read the textbook in the first week or two, and then more than likely would never open it again. If I got a poor grade it was almost always because I didn’t bother with the homework. There were no advanced classes for gifted children back then, and it just seemed like we were always and forever waiting on someone or a group of someones to catch up. Reading a book below my desk was usually much more interesting than listening to the teacher try to coax an answer out of a slow student. If things really dragged, I would seek relief by stirring things up. I rarely got in trouble with the faculty because I usually had them laughing.
My mother was the intellectual of the family and she was my salvation. My father once admitted to me that he had never read a book all the way through in his entire life. Like all non-readers, my father viewed all book lovers with suspicion, as if they were up to something vaguely menacing. At his best he was intolerant of readers and knew their time could be spent far more wisely, doing almost anything–but reading. My mother was an avid reader and an increasingly vocal critic of some of the things the church taught (my choice of words; Jehovah’s Witnesses would never agree to the use of the word ‘church’ in connection with them). The first bone of contention between my parents was of course the Scriptural admonition for women to ‘be in subjection to their husbands as to the Lord.’ My mother had some biting remarks to make about the author of those words, the Apostle Paul. My mother and father argued often, and yelling, tears, and chaos were common in our home. I have memories of my mother chasing my father around the dining room table, throwing plates at him as she went. Once she had a knife in her hand. Between the ages of seven and twelve when we lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I have many memories of being home with my mother while my sister and father were attending some church function or other. My mother would be home with a severe migraine headache and I became her caretaker and surrogate significant male. I was not emotionally prepared to handle the role, but I remember well the internal anguish listening to my mother’s sobs as she discussed my father. Usually I was a third party witness to these conversations she would have with Louella M., a sympathetic sister from the congregation who would call to inquire how she was. Louella was a nurse and a naturally cheerful person, and she would spend a long time listening to my mother on some of these nights. I would have been hard pressed to explain exactly what my father’s faults were, but I certainly sensed that he was to blame for my mother’s distress. When I was about thirteen years old, my mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and was spirited away to Uncle Billy and Aunt Dolly’s apartment on Poole Rd. in Westminster. My sister Joan and I were not permitted to see her for a few days. I don’t think my father was either. I’m sure the stress from our dysfunctional family life was the source of her difficulties.
My mother and father were grossly mismatched, but even worse, lacked even the most rudimentary framework for bridging the differences between them, which would eventually have allowed them to establish mutual accommodation or more likely, a much-needed divorce. Real communication was not possible because none of us had any idea how to live life on a conscious level. We were totally incapable of identifying our feelings, much less articulating them, and in any event, even if we could have done this, I doubt any of us at the time would have had the courage to do so. To do so would have required change, and we were all comfortable in our pain. To have identified our true feelings would have condemned us within our social world and even more importantly would have contradicted and conflicted with our self-image, our identity. Our world and belief system would not sustain much scrutiny, so we raised non-look and non-identify to an art form, as a means of avoiding what would have been unbearable conflict between what we believed and the reality of our lives. How could we practice avoidance of reality in one part of our life and not be equally dysfunctional in all other parts? How could we accept the contradictory and irrational on the one hand by suspending judgment, and then practice self-esteem and clear judgment in other compartments of our life? We who prided ourselves in our strength of character in the face of adversity were totally unaware of our own lack of integrity, i.e. our failure to intransigently require all new information to be evaluated against the body of whatever else we already knew to be true. Any such effort would have been futile anyway since our most basic premises were flawed and contradictory, and the entire body of which rested upon faith. Since much of what we believed did not integrate, but rather conflicted with other rational elements of what we knew to be true, like all believers everywhere we had learned to suspend judgment and accept, on the basis that a higher power could simply overpower natural law and make it so. How?? He just could. End of argument. Accept. Failure to do so implies you have a bad heart. A terminal event in the necrosis of your soul. Faith as well as belief in the supernatural were essential to our survival as believers. We needed to believe in both the supernatural metaphysically and epistemologically; we needed to believe the supernatural could impose it’s will on nature, even overrule it when necessary, and also that the supernatural had ways of knowing what we could not possibly experience as humans, therefore making us subservient to and reliant upon the supernatural to survive. With belief in the supernatural of course, comes the corollary need for human higher authorities, to transmit the content and meaning of the supernatural to the rest of us humans. The first task of such self-appointed intermediaries was that of establishing their own legitimacy in the minds of the rest of us. This, I discovered later, is the first task of all who would rule their contemporaries.
My parents’ difficulties frequently stemmed from the fact that my father was a true believer and he practiced his faith sincerely. He sacrificed frequently, with contempt for those of his fellow believers who were not sacrificing to the same extent as he was. This made my father an excellent foot soldier of the organization, for unquestioning obedience and discipline make for great efficiency, as any school teacher or military instructor can tell you. So my father willingly and happily sacrificed his career (he was a competent cabinet-maker and craftsman), sold his home, and moved frequently, every 5-7 years or so, at the behest of the organization. He sacrificed his family life in that he was seldom home, and when he was, he made his presence known by vigorously enforcing organizational dictums upon the family. My mother complained about Daddy’s absences, but for the most part I think we breathed a sigh of relief when he was gone because the pressure was off. I don’t think we as a family sacrficed, because we had no choice in the matter; we were sacrificed. There’s a difference. We, like everyone else, were afraid of Daddy. My mother used to call him a spiritual Nazi. Years later she told me that after all the scriptures were quoted, all she saw was cruelty.
The emotional payoff for Daddy was organizational recognition and commendation. He got respect and fear, and he got freedom from his self-doubts; all he had to do was follow the script; he was a sergeant in a spiritual command economy. Everything was driven from the top down; and if ever the script failed you, you were expected to ask someone above you, certainly not to take it upon yourself to take a chance and think for yourself. Such behavior would be highly suspect. You were expected to run tightly with the herd.
To be continued.