Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Losing My Religion

It's Armageddon Week on the History Channel. The end of the world is nigh, people, coming to you courtesy of either a gamma ray burst from the sky, our very human stupidity and ignorance, or the ever popular, ever looming, divine retribution for humankind's supposed wickedness. I don't know what's going on, but lately it seems like I'm being inundated with Doomsday messages. It's Doom and Gloom from my television, Doom and Gloom from my radio - Armageddon it! Yeah Armageddon it! Are you gettin' it? Armageddon it! And I've got to admit - it feels like coming home. Just hearing the word "Armageddon" is enough to bring on waves of nostalgia. It's enough to make me feel like a kid again, as much as, if not more than, the scent of a box of crayons or the delicious smell of playdough can.

The word "Armageddon" rolled off my 7 year old tongue like a nursery rhyme. I rocked myself to sleep every night to that lovely lullaby called Armageddon. You see, Armageddon, in my childhood home, was like the warm apple pie your grandmother used to bake. Armageddon was like the milk and cookies your mom left out on the table for you after school. While you were opening your presents from Santa on Christmas morn, I was unwrapping a big box of Armageddon. When you were devouring your third plate of Thanksgiving dinner, I was getting a big, heaping spoonful of Armageddon. You got Valentines? Birthday cake? Easter Baskets overflowing with chocolate bunnies? Halloween candies? Sparklers on the 4th of July? Me? I got Armageddon.

I don't usually write about the experience of growing up in a Jehovah's Witness home. There are many reasons for that. For one, it's boring. I would think that the only people who are interested in an analysis of a Jehovah's Witness upbringing, are those who had a Jehovah's Witness upbringing. Second, it's painful to think about and analyze. And since it's boring, why suffer through the pain of unearthing the memories? Last but most importantly, it's embarrassing. Nobody wants to admit they were in a cult. Even though it's not my fault, since, you know, I was 5 years old when my mom converted. It's not like you have any authority to challenge your family's belief system at such a tender age. And, of course, by the time you have any sort of wieldable autonomy you are far too effectively brainwashed and controlled by fear to question the lifestyle that has been handed down to you.

Even when that lifestyle is brutally painful, you can't find the right words to talk your way out of it, because the only words you know how to say are the words someone else told you to say. When you finally get wise enough to question the validity of the doctrines, your only choice is to remain mute. The religion is the only thing you know. Growing up in a cult, an "us against them" mentality is just so deeply ingrained. And to go out amongst the enemy would involve learning how to live all over again and learning a whole new language. To leave is to risk everything... you risk losing your entire support system and all the people you love, namely your family and friends, and ultimately dying a horrible, horrible death at Armageddon. A death which you were repeatedly warned involves the tearing of the flesh and the plucking out of the eyeballs by many, many ravenous birds. That's the price of doubt. That's the price of changing your mind in the twisted JW universe.

And despite the terror of it all, Armageddon was the fabric of our lives. It kept us going. It gave us purpose. It was the icing on our unbirthday cake. We sang songs about Armageddon. We prayed incessantly for the swift arrival of Armageddon. We went around neighborhoods trying to tell people about Armageddon, because we loved them, don't you know. Because nothing says "I love you" like an Armageddon-gram. Because nothing says "I love you" like a message of global annihilation by an angry god.

The destruction of non-JW mankind was an event we actually anticipated with disturbing impatience. We just couldn't wait for it's arrival. I overheard shit like, "Sister Reallysick, I know you have cancer but you have to keep pressing on in the work of the Lord. Armageddon is coming!" or "I know you lost your job Brother Self-Righteous, don't worry because Armageddon is just around the corner!" Because you want to know what fixes everything? The Apocalypse.

That was the solution to everybody's problems, financial, emotional, or otherwise. In fact, having a problem that you thought couldn't be solved by the fiery wrath of God, was indicative of a lack of faith, a lack of spirituality. And being told you weren't spiritual was tantamount to what in mainstream religion is referred to as a first class ticket to Hell.

So, in short, I spend a good portion of my psychological energies trying to eradicate fears of this:

Every ex-JW I know says that this picture fucked them up for life. I can vouch for that. I feel like the Apocalypse is in my bones. I feel it running through my veins like a virus, lying dormant but certainly more than capable of destroying me. My pessimism, my negativity, my inability to maintain any consistent level of happiness - that's the consequence of Apocalyptic theology. This is what happens when you expose young minds to that brand of religion.

My girlfriend Danielle asked a really good question today: Are apocalyptic nightmares passed down through DNA? I'm really starting to wonder if it's possible that doomsday anxiety is genetic, because this picture my daughter drew....

Reminds me a lot of this....

I mean her picture is basically an apocalypic nightmare with a smiling person in the forefront. And this other picture, which is from one of the major JW study books, depicts smiling people also in the forefront of an apocalyptic nightmare. I would never expose my daughter to this sort of shit. I let her watch a lot of things, South Park, CSI, Criminal Minds...but I would never, ever expose her to the type of horrific images and doomsday philosophy that I was. So how the hell did she know? The more I look at her picture the more freaked out I get by her clairvoyance.

I realize there is a certain depressing element to all this. And while a lot of what I write is really confessional, I try to at least find the levity in every fucked up situation. I just had to get this out. Maybe it's just one more step towards healing. I know that freedom of religion is important. I do fully and wholeheartedly accept that people have the right to practice their chosen religion. But I have a heart that mourns the loss of innocence experienced by all children brought up under the dark cloud of Armageddon. Somewhere tonight, a little girl is having a nightmare about the end of the world.

The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that once God destroys everyone in the entire world who doesn't meet his criteria for "everlasting life", they'll get to live forever in paradise. So when you see them walking away from the destruction in that picture above they're fully aware of the suffering being experienced by all humanity, including little babies, and yet they still manage to have big smiles across their faces. It makes me sick to my stomach. They have these pie in the sky ideas about lions and lambs relaxing together, and people being able to pet carniverous animals. There are pictures in their literature of people frolicking in the green fields of paradise, of people holding big fruit baskets by sparkling bodies of water. And for a while, I bought into this idea. I thought I wanted to live there so badly. But after a while, I started to think about the fact that this entire, beautiful, fantastic world would be populated solely by Jehovah's Witnesses. And I thought, "I'd rather take my chances with the birds." This was the turning point. I just made up my mind that I'd rather have my eyes eaten by birds than live in that Stepford world full of smug, self-righteous, judgemental people.

Maybe Armageddon is coming. Maybe it's not. I'm leaning towards NOT. Truth be told, I'm a lot more afraid of global warming, serial killers, and reality show fame whores. But there are moments...moments where I'm just so full of dread, so full of despair. And I realize that it's Armageddon welling up inside me, bubbling up from out of my subconscious, wreaking havoc on my heart. It's just there and I'm sure it always will be. I know that my childhood wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst either. I'm not mad at my mom; she was the victim of a radical ideology. I couldn't blame her for what happened, even if I wanted to.

I guess, to varying degrees, we all carry within us the burden of wounds incurred in childhood. We all have these crosses to bear, these heartbreaking legacies to unravel, these tenacious religions to lose. So now you know why I am...the way that I am. This is my core. The core from which all my words, and stories, and poetry, and prose flow out like so much molten lava. I guess you could say, from all that catastrophe...a Gwen is born.


  1. Breathtaking, my friend. I am going to share this at The Cheek.

    I had an aunt who was a JW. It about killed my fundy grandmother. I remember her deliberately going against my aunt's wishes and baking my uncle, her son, a birthday cake. Man, that was a tense moment . . .

    Don't ever stop writing . . .

  2. Ty's Daddy - Thanks so, so, so much. This was my first post where I was actually candid about that painful aspect of my upbringing. It was hard to write; It took a lot out of me emotionally. I think you're the only whose read it :) Thanks for the encouragement to never stop writing. That thought did occur to me last week, I'm not going to lie. But it's been really therapeutic for me in a lot of ways. So I think I'm here to stay :) Thanks again!

  3. I have to admit that I have not known a lot about JW. When I was being raised in a fundamentalist home, they were a cult, according to my Mom, but then so were Catholics. The witnessing part was something to tell jokes about.

    I recognize that more Christianity, by definition, is a threat based religion, but, in my life, Armageddon was never considered with the glee that you depict here.

    I hope that you are able to move beyond this and that writing about it is a strong step forward. It is hard enough to move beyond one's childhood religion, whether it is into a more personal version of that religion, a spiritual journey of discovery like tysdaddy seems to be doing so well, or something comletely different (atheism in my own case), when one's childhood religion was not as negative as yours.