I remember that Saturday afternoon quite well, so many years ago. I was driving through a nearby town here on the west coast of Florida when I pulled up to the gas pumps at a local 7-11. As I turned off my car, I looked up, stopped everything I was doing, and started to cry.
Let me back up and explain; the area of Florida where I live is rather quiet and without many nightclubs and fancy restaurants, so it attracts a handful of vacationers but mostly local families looking to spend a lazy afternoon at the beach. Nearby businesses cater to that quiet beach and camping crowd, so quite a few stores have heavy-duty car vacuums set out in their parking lots, for cleaning out all that beach sand.
That Saturday afternoon, I pulled next to a pump and looked up to see what could only be described as a typical family outside of their typical SUV, parked several yards in front of me. The parents had the back of the vehicle open, cleaning it out, emptying the cooler, whatever else they were doing.
Next to that little section of pavement was a small strip of grass, where the family’s two sons were occupying themselves while mom and dad cleaned out the vehicle. The boys were probably 12 and 9, doing nothing more than kicking around some rocks and dragging a stick in the dirt.
THAT’S IT; THAT’S MY TRAUMA
If you’re waiting for the big, shocking event that caught me off-guard and got me crying, you’re in for a disappointment. There was nothing shocking, nothing horrific, nothing even out of the ordinary about that family, that 7-11, or that Saturday afternoon in Florida.
Which is why I began crying. I sat in my car and watched an ordinary family having an ordinary Saturday in an ordinary parking lot, and couldn’t help but stare at those two very ordinary boys doing what boys often do when they need to be distracted for a few minutes. I realized, in just glancing at that family, how important those everyday moments are, and one of the many, many things taken from me because of being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For those unfamiliar, in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, members in good standing are only allowed to marry within the religion. Marrying, dating, and even having close friendships with those outside the religion is strictly forbidden, and even cause for disfellowshipping [excommunication] and subsequent shunning on the part of everyone you know, including family. The religion’s leaders have even chastised women into only considering marrying someone with some authority in the religion.
Many Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself included, find this demand very restrictive, as the religion is quite small and offers limited opportunities for finding someone you might marry. For myself especially, the entire “headship” arrangement demanded by the religion’s fundamental beliefs, wherein men are the “head” of their wives and women need to be silent and “submissive,” was always nonsensical to me. From age six, I saw the abusive nature of this whole arrangement and knew that I could never live with such a daily insult. No way was it even possible for me to spend my life being “silent” and “submissive” to anyone, especially not in my own home and marriage.
Relationships for me were tough even after leaving the religion, as the damage done by its teachings stayed with me for years. I remember clearly sitting across the table from every man I dated outside the religion, waiting for him to start yelling at me, laughing at me, chastising me for not being “submissive,” and so on; you know, all the things I had seen and heard while inside the religion. It took decades before I realized that I was punishing men for crimes they had not committed, but I lost the best years of my life in the process.
I know that, in some ways, being uncomfortable around men in the religion and then running away from long-term relationships after leaving has actually been a protection for me. Being married to a condescending, overbearing, controlling, misogynistic JW man would be a nightmare for us both, and I was far too messed up in the head to maintain a healthy relationship with anyone else for many years after leaving. Being tied to a man I resented, or to a healthy and decent while having no clue as to how to maintain a good relationship, would have been a punishment for us both. Bringing a child into the world under those circumstances would have also been a nightmare for everyone, including that child.
GIVING UP WASN’T THE ANSWER EITHER
Well, pin a rose on my nose; I guess I deserve a medal for being so brave in giving up my rights to a child. I’m being sarcastic, of course. To this day, I’m angry at allowing that stupid religion to dictate my feelings, my relationships, and my life choices. I’m angry that I didn’t walk away and correct myself, didn’t heal my thinking sooner.
Giving up on the chance to bring a child into this world wasn’t the answer, and that’s what hit me that afternoon at that 7-11. I wasn’t angry at the religion as much as I was angry at myself, for having dismissed and abandoned my own children. I gave up my rights to my children, I wasn’t brave enough or strong enough to bring them in the world, and I will never forgive myself for that. Those two boys could have been my own children, that afternoon at the beach could have been my family. I gave that up, I allowed myself to give that up, to never see my own precious children into the world, and that’s unforgivable.
DRAGGING A STICK IN THE DIRT
Looking back on my childhood, raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and by an abusive stepfather (not a JW) and a mentally ill mother, I don’t remember ever being happy, ever. The only exception was when we would have our annual vacation at a little cottage on a lake. I remember to this day the gravel driveway, the screen door that creaked open and slammed shut, the big screened-in porch, the smell of fish and the sight of the twinkling lights coming from the porches of all the cabins around us. I also remember walking across that rustic yard surrounding the cottage, doing nothing but dragging a stick in the dirt.
I don’t remember ever being happy when away from that cottage because religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses do nothing but take… and take… and take. That religion took my childhood, replacing simple joys and family closeness with snarling insults hurled at women like my mother, with demands for constant preaching and worship and meetings and study and anything else involved with furthering the religion, with a sense of self-righteous indignation at anything that detracted from an obsession with the religion itself.
More than the snarling insults, the religion made sure to strip away all your individuality, lest you do or say or think anything that was your own, and that wasn’t for the betterment of the religion. I wasn’t allowed to express myself, to talk about what was important to me or what I wanted for my own life and my own future.
Even in all that pain, I do remember the simple things of my own childhood, small things that wouldn’t be suffocated by the demands of the religion, or the degrading and demeaning attitude of my parents. I remember the crunch of that gravel driveway, the feeling of dust against my feet, the smell of fish and the lake that permeated all our things and especially the coolers we used for picnicking, and the sound of dragging a stick along the ground.
People often think of the children they’ll bring into the world and imagine all those big things they’ll share; seeing their child score that game-winning touchdown or graduate from some prestigious college, admiring the new home or car the child just bought. I never imagined those things for my children; growing up, we were never allowed to participate in sports or spelling bees or attend college, and personal achievements, especially those involving academics, sports, and the like, were frowned upon rather severely.
None of that mattered to me anyway, in truth. I think of my children, my son, and I think of spending time in nature, walking in the woods, hearing the crunch of gravel under us, spending a day on a sandy beach, dragging a stick on the ground. Those are the things I know I would share with my own son, had I the courage to walk away from that shitty little cult sooner and bring him into the world. Let other families look forward to the big things in life; the winning goal, the awards, the big homes and fancy cars. Let other families brag about the degrees on their child’s wall and whatever else they think gives them prominence and satisfaction.
I think of the children I didn’t bring into this world, and I think of how I would spend lazy Saturdays at the beach with my boys, making sure they had time outside, in nature, doing nothing special but dragging a stick in the ground. Of course I regret all the big things I miss from not having children… the family dinners, holidays, school plays, graduation ceremonies, the prospect of grandchildren… but sometimes it’s the smallest things, the everyday routine, the lazy Saturdays that also remind me of my loss. No, not my loss… my theft.
See also: Family Members Are Not Yours to Take
If you’re looking for a big dramatic conclusion to this story, there isn’t one either. I’m not sharing this story to remind parents to appreciate the simple things, or to cry on someone’s shoulder because of my past and my loss. I cried enough at that 7-11.
I honestly don’t know why I’m even sharing this story, except maybe to remind people of the depths of depravity of a cult like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They take the big things from their followers; a woman’s rights to speak up and be treated as equals in her own marriage, everyone’s rights to pursue higher education and find a fulfilling career, their rights and abilities to think critically and to stay in touch with family who may have left the religion.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also take the small things; maybe that’s what hit me so hard, that afternoon by the gas pumps. There was nothing special, nothing “big” about what that family was doing that Saturday, about how those boys were spending those few minutes waiting for their parents. They were kicking at the ground, hearing the crunch of rocks under their feet, feeling the dust against their ankles, noticing the smell of fish from the cooler, dragging a stick in the dirt.
I never wanted to hug two little boys so much in my life.
I don’t know if that family, those parents, those boys will ever understand the importance of something so simple, but if they don’t, it’s okay; I recognize it enough for the both of us.