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My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect - Part 1
Book trailer for Brenda Thornlow's latest novel Life, As Is
My Background with the Jehovah's Witnesses
Being raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW) you have some big responsibilities placed on your shoulders. You have to be a good example to the non-JW kids you go to school with or who live in your neighborhood. You must attend and behave yourself at all the meetings (church services) and participate in the preaching work with your parents. Your mission in life is to make your parents and, most importantly, the JW organization happy, while following its strict rules of not celebrating holidays, birthdays, etc.
When you’re a third-generation JW, born and raised in Brooklyn, home of the famed headquarters of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (aka Bethel) and you actually have family members that are not only pioneers but personal friends with a lot of the people privileged enough to live and work at the headquarters, the shoes you are required to fill are quite enormous! All eyes are on you! In the JW world this is the equivalent of being a member of the royal family, or at the very least, the offspring of Donald Trump. In other words, big things are expected of you!
As a kid, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that I would grow up to be a big success…that is, in the JW world. If you are a female JW this means that when you grow up, you get married as soon as possible, preferably to someone with status in the congregation, and become a pioneer. For those of you unfamiliar with JW terminology, a pioneer commits their life to full time preaching work; the quota has since changed, but for many years regular pioneers served 90 hours in preaching work, auxiliary pioneers served 60. But if a single JW girl could snag herself someone who lived and worked at Bethel (the JW headquarters), in the envious eyes of every other JW woman, unmarried or married, you just landed yourself the equivalent of George Clooney!
The majority of workers that are accepted to live and work at the JW headquarters (aka Bethel), are young men out of high school. All JW's are not required to work there; it's a person’s choice whether or not they'd like to apply. The workers at Bethel (Bethelites) are provided for with room and board but the pay is very meager and they work very long hours, mostly in the factories that manufacture the JW literature. Since we lived in Brooklyn, there were many young Bethelites that attended our congregation. When they are accepted to Bethel they are assigned to congregations by the JW headquarters. Most of these young boys who arrive at Bethel, all gung-ho and ready to work for the Lord, come from all over the country, and many of them from small towns in the Midwest. Therefore, it wasn’t unusual to see a 19 year old Ron Howard-look-alike, circa Happy Days, walking through the streets of, let’s say, Bedford Stuyvesant or Harlem, wearing a suit one size too big for him and carrying a book bag, trying to make his way from the subway to the local Kingdom Hall. Sometimes I got the feeling that the higher-ups in Bethel didn’t leave their cocoon very often and as a result didn’t have much of a clue what some of New York was like…especially in the 1980’s!
My congregation consisted of many Bethelites. You would think that once I hit my teen years I would be living the dream. Not particularly. But the other girls in my congregation who I was friendly with...they were another story. And since their mothers saw them marrying a Bethelite as winning the JW jackpot, the gatherings and parties thrown which the Bethelites just happened to be invited to were non-stop. And in my opinion, non-fun. Although watching my Kingdom Hall peers preen and swoon and make fools of themselves was entertainment in itself. Most of the time, when one of these boys marries a non-Bethelite girl, he gets to bring her to Bethel with him. I’m sure there are qualifications she needs to meet, but the majority of the time that is the case. And what could be a higher honor than to work AND LIVE at Jehovah’s headquarters?
I honestly had no interest…neither in the Bethelites nor Bethel itself. I was being raised in an extremist religion that I already didn’t care for or believe in, why would I voluntarily want to work for and live within the headquarters? They worked long hours for almost no pay and along with the five meetings a week they were required to attend at their assigned congregations they also had meetings within Bethel. In regards to their meager wages, it wasn't uncommon for them to wear hand-me-down clothes donated from people in various congregations. Bethel has an onsite barber shop/salon with mostly untrained stylists who are taught very basic haircuts (the bowl cut that can be swept to the side for the men; the shoulder length cut with bangs for the women).
Keeping the Peace
For a short time I let my family believe that I was all about Bethel – but that was for a very short time. In my mid-teens I made it known, in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t interested in being a JW. Boy, did the proverbial shit hit the fan! My relationship, not only with my parents, but with my extremely devout pioneer aunts and uncles, was very ugly. So after much name-calling and being ripped up one side and down the other for not wanting to embrace my family’s religion, I finally relented and started playing the good little JW girl to get everyone off my back. For now, living my own life was something that would have to be placed on the back burner.
Eventually, my parents and I moved across the country to Southern California. One of the reasons they did this was to start over and put the nightmare I had put them through behind them. It wasn’t completely behind us, though. When you move to a new congregation, the records from your old congregation follow you. This means, if you caused any type of trouble whatsoever, your new elders will know about it and a watchful eye will definitely be kept on you!
One of the first friends I made in our new congregation was a girl around my age, a high school student, who was also a full-time pioneer. To this day I still can’t understand how she managed to go to school, work part time as a waitress and spend 90 hours a month preaching. Of course I’m not going to mention her real name so I’ll just call her Pollyanna.
Anyway, I’m sure my parents couldn’t have been more tickled to death about my new-found friendship with Pollyanna. Not only did they move me from a Brooklyn public high school to a high school in Surfer City where the kids drove Volkswagen bugs to school and said things like “isn’t that neat" but to top it off, the first friend I made was a pioneer! I’m sure they had visions dancing around in their minds eye of how she would teach me how satisfying and rewarding it would be to spend your entire Saturdays going to strange people’s homes and teaching them about God’s kingdom, then getting up again on Sunday to sit through a two-hour meeting.
Like most JW kids, I eventually became adept at "fake ringing the doorbell." "Fake ringing the doorbell" is exactly as it sounds. Of course, common sense is needed when applying this method; if you fake it at every single door you approach when it's your turn to give your spiel to the householder your door-to-door partner will wise to it. I hated going “house-to-house” as JW’s call it. I simply did not feel comfortable going to people’s homes to talk to them about religion. I thought it was rude, I thought it was unsafe and, frankly I never fully believed the things I was being taught, so now I’m going to harass people in the privacy of their own homes to convince them of something of which I wasn’t convinced? I was never good at talking to strangers, too. When I was roughly about ten years old I accompanied one of my pioneer aunts on the house-to-house work and she was far from impressed with my preaching skills. At ten years old my presentation at the door went something along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Brenda and I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. Would you like a copy of the Watchtower and Awake magazines?” My aunt acted as if I just asked the householder if they wanted to see my underwear. Apparently, my preaching skills at the age of ten were not up to her standards! She even had me repeat my presentation to my other pioneer aunt who was equally horrified.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, Pollyanna would take me on one of her Bible studies (people who were actively studying to become JW’s). I preferred those because she would do most of the talking and I could just sit there. Sometimes the Bible studies weren’t all that great, either. One summer when I was still living in Brooklyn and began playing the “good little JW" part, I accompanied a pioneer from our congregation on one of her Bible studies. Her Bible study lived in a pretty shady neighborhood - not a problem, I would still get to sit and essentially sleep with my eyes open while my partner did the work. When we arrived at this girls apartment building my partner, I’ll call her Rosa, tells me to leave my bag in the trunk of her car as I won’t want to bring it inside with me. I thought it strange that she thought it was a good idea for us to leave our bags in the car in this neighborhood rather than bring them with us, but I didn’t think to question her. As we walk into the apartment, I see something scramble across the wall. I look to my left, I see something else running for its life. When you walked into this apartment, the first room you enter is the kitchen, so to the right of me was the stove and I saw yet another creature scurry along the stovetop and into one of the burners. This apartment was completely infested with roaches of which I have a crippling fear! I am terrified of them! How I sat in that apartment for an hour without fainting, throwing up or soiling myself is beyond me. I could have said something such as, “You go ahead with your study. I’ll take my chances by getting stabbed waiting for you outside.” But as every good Witness knows, we don’t want to take the chance of offending the householder, thus losing a new recruit. This would be one of many times I would have to grin and bear it for the family religion.
A couple of years after moving to California I still had yet to get baptized. Dedicating your life to the JWs is, of course, a personal choice and not one to take lightly. However if you’ve been raised as a JW and are already in your mid-to-late teens and have not made this dedication then obviously something is wrong with you! Even though it is considered a personal choice, people in this religion will constantly ask you when you are going to make the plunge....literally. If you procrastinate getting baptized you're considered to be not very spiritual and not taking your role as a JW seriously. It's also not considered wise to associate too much with on a social level with someone who is not baptized and if you start to date a non-baptized JW, expect to be looked down upon. So around 18 or 19 years old I got baptised.
As much as I wanted to get a full-time job, my mother would not stand for it. In her eyes, getting a full-time job and not pioneering would mean leaving the JW's. I just wanted to get a job, a car, a place of my own and...well...live.
One day, while I was still in high school I wanted to do a little job search; checking out different stores, donut shops, etc., the type of places at which your average high school kid works. I still didn't have my driver license at this point; I told everyone it was because I had no interest in driving. In reality it was because I really sucked at driving. I can't fully remember, but I think it took more than three tries before the DMV awarded me with my permit. Even then the instructor made sure to tell me she wasn't comfortable with the decision to issue one to me. Yes, I know you Big Bang Theory fans are having flashbacks to the episode where Sheldon tells everyone he's "too evolved" to drive.
Anyway, let's just say that I had no interest in driving myself so my mother had to take me and she insisted on bringing my aunt along with us. This is her sister who was also a pioneer. No, not the same ones who were horrified at my juvenile preaching abilities in Brooklyn, this was another aunt from the other end of the county who was joined at the hip to my mother. After I went into the different stores and got the applications I needed, my mother and aunt proceeded to tell me what a bad influence the workers at the health food store, the yogurt shop and K-Mart will be for me and how they will steer me away from pursuing my spiritual goals. My aunt even offered to march into every one of those stores and return those applications for me as it will be in my best interest. This was how much control I allowed my family to have over me.
After that, there were a couple more employment attempts, all resulting in long lectures on how I was being “stupid” by wasting my time with non-spiritual goals when Armageddon was “just around the corner." (This was roughly about twenty- five years ago). One of these arguments went so far as to apparently warrant a lecture from one of the congregation elders informing me that my parents knew what was best for me and that it would be in my best interest to listen to them.
Eventually, my mother and aunt got wind of the employment opportunity of a lifetime! Of course I'm being completely ironic. This can't-miss opportunity was housecleaning. To JW pioneers this was beyond the perfect job as it involved minimal association with “worldly” people (non-JW’s) and you weren’t required to work a whole eight-hour day so you could participate in God’s work for a few hours before or after your secular job of scrubbing the toilets and cleaning hair out of the bathtub drains in other people’s homes. Again the word “stupid” was thrown around by my family in response to how I had no interest in cleaning homes for a living.
I was getting a little exhausted. It looked to me as if the only way I could get my family and the elders off my back was to bite the bullet and put my application in to pioneer and make whatever money I was able to by cleaning until I could find a way out. At this point, I accomplished what seemed to be the impossible by passing my driver test and acquiring my license. So I made a plan that while I was out in the preaching work I could sneak in pit-stops at various businesses and apply for a job.
This is only the beginning of my ridiculous story. There will be more to come!
(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow
Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; the short story, The Revolving Door and A Godless Love. Available at Amazon. (Link below)
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Life, As Is
© 2014 Brenda Thornlow