book reviews, religion

A review of Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself, by Linda Curtis…

I am fascinated by demanding American religions, so last February, I downloaded Linda Curtis’s book, Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself. Regular readers of this blog may know that my husband, Bill, was once a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a highly demanding religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also very demanding. In fact, I have a cousin who was a JW and eventually left the faith, along with his family. I knew a little about the JWs and the Mormons before I met Bill, who officially left the LDS church in 2006. I knew something about how people who leave highly demanding religions tend to get treated… although in Bill’s case, his shunning was only partly due to the religion. He was really mostly shunned because his ex wife is an abusive narcissistic creep who used the church to punish her former source of supply.

Anyway, eventually, Bill’s situation partially rectified. One of his daughters– ironically the one more devoted to Mormonism– eventually reconnected with him. The other daughter remains estranged, but that seems to be more because of her mother’s toxic influence than religion. Still, I remain interested in stories about restrictive religions and what happens when people choose to leave them. Linda Curtis published her true story about leaving the Witnesses in 2018. When I noticed it got a lot of positive reviews on Amazon, I decided to read it.

I started reading Shunned right after I finished reading Fear, Bob Woodward’s first book about Donald Trump’s presidency. I probably would have fallen into this book regardless, but I think reading about religion after reading about Trump’s White House was especially inspired. It took me just a few days to read Shunned, while Fear took weeks. Linda Curtis has a somewhat engaging writing style, and her story is basically interesting. I’m not sorry I read Shunned, although I think it could be improved.

Who is Linda Curtis and what’s her story?

Linda Curtis grew up in Portland, Oregon, one of three siblings. Her mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Her father, Frank, was not a believer until Linda and her siblings were adults. Linda’s family often prayed for her father to see “The Truth” and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Linda fervently prayed for that herself… but when her dad finally came around and decided to join the JWs, Linda was on her way out of the faith. No one knew that watching her dad’s baptism didn’t bring her the joy it brought her mother and siblings, or her first husband, Ross. They were unaware that Linda was experiencing a crisis of faith that led her to question the beliefs she had held dear her entire life.

Linda had always been a devout believer. Parents sent their questioning children to her because she was seen as a good influence. The religion had helped her develop a talent for sales, thinking on her feet, and connecting to people. Like all JWs, Linda went door to door to talk to people about the afterlife. It was something she’d never questioned until one day, when she knocked on her boss’s door. She hadn’t known he lived at that address. She found herself giving him the familiar spiel, telling him in not so many words that if he didn’t see “The Truth”, he was doomed to obliteration. Somehow, Linda realized, as she spoke to her boss, who had also been a mentor and a friend, that she was condemning a man she deeply respected.

After that chance meeting with her boss, Linda somewhat lost her zeal for the religion. Her first husband, Ross, a convert to the Witnesses, realized that his wife’s participation at Kingdom Hall was waning. He confronted her and she admitted that she was having issues with her beliefs. Moreover, Linda and Ross weren’t particularly compatible, and she realized that she didn’t love her husband.

The couple spoke to the elders at the church, but eventually decided that they needed to divorce. The split seemed relatively amicable, although due to their beliefs, they were still considered married in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion teaches that the only legitimate reason for a dissolution of a marriage is adultery or death. That meant they weren’t supposed to have sexual relations with anyone else.

Linda and Ross had married young. Linda didn’t initially go to college, even though she was very smart. The religion didn’t encourage her to get a degree. But she did get a job in banking, and it turned out she was very good at it. She got promotions and more and more responsibility. Her family wasn’t necessarily onboard with her having a career; she was supposed to be a wife and a mother. That family life coupled with strict religion was not what Linda wanted for herself. Linda makes Ross sound a bit whiney and immature, but that might be because of her use of dialogue, which was a bit melodramatic. But he also decided to take a drive in Linda’s brand new car after he’d been drinking during one of their fights. I was surprised by all of the drinking that was referenced in this story. I know JWs are allowed to drink (I don’t think my cousin would have ever been a member if drinking wasn’t allowed), but I was under the impression that drinking was supposed to be done sparingly.

After the divorce, Linda moved to Chicago, then eventually San Francisco, as she continued to excel at her career. Meanwhile, she dated men, and eventually had sex. Admitting to adultery made it possible for Ross to remarry, but it also led to the JWs casting her out of the religion. Fornication is what led to her being “disfellowshipped” by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunned by her family, even though she was legally divorced when she did it. She could have repented and gotten back into “good standing”, but Linda determined that she didn’t want her life ruled by religion. I can hardly blame her for that. Shunning and “disfellowshipping” people for being “disobedient” to a religion or other group is manipulative and toxic… it’s basically asshole behavior intended to control other people. As I am fond of saying, it’s NOT a punishment to be shunned by an asshole. However, when it’s your family and friends doing it, shunning can be very hurtful.

Through it all, her mother kept telling her that all she needed to do was come back to “The Truth” and get right with “Jehovah God”, and she would be welcomed back into the fold. It was the old “carrot and stick” cure. Jump through some hoops to make mom happy, and everything will be okay. It didn’t matter that the religion wasn’t working for Linda’s life or plans for herself. Linda’s brother, Randy, was the first to shun her, which cut her off from her niece and nephew. Her sister, Lory, who had struggled in the faith and got divorced from her first marriage, eventually also turned away from Linda, telling her that the family would never reach out to her (which turned out to be untrue).

Linda Curtis went on to marry her second husband, the late Bob Curtis. She became a stepmother and began to find her way in the world. But she paid a high price for that freedom, as her family and friends she had known in Portland couldn’t completely accept her outside of the religion. They didn’t completely cut her off, as the title of the book suggests, but they had a lot less to do with her. Leaving the JWs and living life on her own terms was a big step with a steep price. It does seem to me that the high cost was well worth it to Linda Curtis.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I managed to get through this book somewhat quickly. It’s a fairly easy read. Linda Curtis is clearly very intelligent and basically writes well. Her story is interesting, if not a bit sad. Personally, I think shunning is a shitty thing to do, especially to a loved one. I don’t support it, mainly because at its core, it’s a power move consisting of emotional blackmail and control tactics. I empathize with Linda Curtis’s situation, dealing with a family that had once been so loving turning on her simply because she didn’t believe what they believed and dared to declare independence and free agency.

However… there are some things I noticed as I read this book. First, Linda Curtis has a fondness for so-called “fifty cent words”. I have two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in English. Several times, I had to look up obscure words she used. I did so because I like to know the meanings of words I don’t know. My guess is that the vast majority of readers won’t take the time to do that, and most of them won’t know what some of the more obscure words mean, either. I don’t mind the occasional fancy vocabulary word, but I think too many of them can have a bad effect on writing. For many people, time is money, and it takes time to look up those fancy words. Those who don’t take the time to look up the fancy vocabulary words are going to miss some of the meaning in Curtis’s story. I wouldn’t mention this if it had only happened a couple of times, but it happened several times– enough times that I found it noticeable and annoying.

Secondly, Linda Curtis’s writing style is a bit “novelesque”, but not in a particularly creative or evocative way. Her writing sometimes comes off a bit like she was trying to set a vivid scene. But instead of using details and descriptions to jazz up her tale, she includes unnecessary details to the scenes that didn’t add anything. Like, for instance, at one point she mentions a fly landing on a dirty plate after a discussion she had. That action had no significance on the story she was sharing. It was an unnecessary detail. More than once, she mentioned getting into a car and putting on a seatbelt. There’s nothing wrong with safety in the car. But it was an unnecessary detail that didn’t add to the story and could have been edited out or replaced with something more pertinent to the story. That quality of her writing was irritating to me. It came off as amateurish.

And thirdly, Curtis uses a lot of dialogue that is a trite and one dimensional. Dialogue can be very effective in a personal story, but I think of it as more of a technique that breathes life into the story. This author’s use of dialogue frequently comes off as stilted and melodramatic. Curiously, she could have added some detail and “spark” to her dialogue, but she didn’t do that often enough. Instead, we get details about clothes people wore or flies on dirty dishes, rather than details about non verbal cues or tone of voice.

I did relate to Curtis’s story. I empathized with her sorrow over her family choosing a religion over a loved one. However… I did notice that while Linda’s family had less to do with her, they didn’t completely shut their door to her. She was invited to her grandmother’s funeral, and her parents came to her husband’s funeral. She received gifts from her family when she married her second husband, although no one in her family attended the wedding. I know other people who have been completely shunned, meaning no contact whatsoever, after leaving highly demanding religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My husband, for instance, lost complete contact with his daughters for about 12 years. One daughter hasn’t seen or spoken to him since 2004. That’s real shunning. What Linda Curtis describes is more like disapproval. People still spoke to her, even if there was less warmth and familiarity than there once was.

Much of Shunned was sort of a cut and dried story about Linda’s life, but there wasn’t that much deep insight into how she really felt launching a life outside of the JWs. I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about how she adapted to life “in the world”, as she got used to celebrating Christmas and birthdays. She does write a little bit about that, but not very much. She casually mentions having sex with a lot of men, attending a new age church after trying several different ones, and getting involved with friends. But she doesn’t really write about what those experiences were like beyond the surface. I also think she could have delved more into her relationship with her family and how it suffered when she left the JWs. I felt like much of what she writes is superficial, with a lot more about her successes at work. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this book could use a bit more heart and feeling, and less logic and reason.

I don’t think Shunned is a terrible book. I just think that a good editor could have made it markedly better. I also think that Linda Curtis should have gone deeper than she did. Her story lacks insight and spark. If she traded some of the insignificant details for more personal insights, this book would be much improved and more interesting. As I said, it’s obvious that Linda Curtis is very talented in her job. She’s intelligent and accomplished and yes, she finally did pursue her college degree. She has intellect and drive, and I know there must have been some truly amazing moments in her journey that she left out of her book. At the very least, she could have added some spice to the stories she did include.

Shunned is a serviceable enough read; I just don’t think that writing is necessarily Linda Curtis’s gift or her passion. To use musical terms, her writing is kind of the equivalent to someone with a nice choir voice as opposed to someone who sings solos, if that makes any sense. But with some direction, she could develop more of a “soloist’s sound”.

I am not sorry I read Shunned, and I would recommend it to those who are interested in the subject matter. I think I’d give it three stars out of five.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
law, LDS, religion, true crime

Repost: Rape culture in churches

I am reposting this blog entry that originally appeared on October 16, 2016. I have no reason for reposting it, other than I think it’s an interesting piece. Bear in mind that it was written almost five years ago and I haven’t changed the content, so some comments may be outdated.

I just read a very disturbing article about a lawsuit that was just filed against a Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Weber County, Utah.  The lawsuit was filed by a woman who claims that she was repeatedly raped by a church instructor and JW officials later her made her listen to a recording of one of her assaults.  The woman seeks a jury trial and $300,000 to cover medical care, legal fees, and general damages. 

According to the article I read, the woman may or may not have gone to the police after she was allegedly raped by a church instructor.  The Salt Lake Tribune states that members of the JW faith are encouraged to bring problems to church elders rather than involving outsiders.  Having done my share of reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses and having had a relative who was once a member, I can affirm that this attitude is prevalent among people involved with the Witnesses.

In this case, the assaults against the woman allegedly took place after she went out with the instructor on a date.  He took her cell phone from her and said she had to kiss him on the cheek to get it back.  She refused, so he kicked her out of his car.  Later, he came back for her and the assaults apparently escalated from there.  When the assaults were brought to the attention of JW officials, they began an investigation…  but it was not an investigation against the perpetrator.  Instead, the young woman was investigated.  Below is a quote from the article linked above:

In April 2008, the Roy church formed a judicial committee to investigate whether the girl engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior — “a serious sin” in the religion. During the meeting that included her mother and stepfather, the lawsuit states, church leaders played a recording of one of the purported rapes, obtained from the instructor, for four to five hours “repeatedly stopping and starting the audio tape … suggesting that she consented to the sexual behavior.”

The woman alleges that she was raped several times.  Realizing the patriarchal culture within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s possible that she felt like she had to do what this man said.  She was likely taught to do whatever the church officials told her to do.  As the attacker was apparently her church instructor, she probably felt that she had no choice.  It really is a shame that people continue to get and stay involved in religious organizations that promote this kind of thinking and do nothing to empower everyone, not just the men. 

This situation among the JWs in Utah sounds an awful lot like the recent hullabaloo about Brigham Young University’s policy of bringing rape victims up on Honor Code violations.  Women who dared to report rape to the police or University officials were getting in trouble for putting themselves in situations where they might be assaulted.  For the record, I think these kinds of policies are disgusting and they keep our society in the Dark Ages.  

Of course people– male or female– who choose to sexually assault others should be held responsible for their actions.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s wrong for people to look out for themselves.  I wish these churches and universities like BYU would do more to promote personal safety outside of the religious sense.  I wish they wouldn’t simply tell women to protect their virginity and purity because that’s supposedly what God wants.  They should be empowering them to protect themselves because they don’t want to be victims of crimes. 

It’s interesting that this subject came on my radar this morning.  I just saw a Facebook post by 11th Principle: Consent about how rape culture develops.  Although I would absolutely never say that it’s okay to rape someone, I do think it pays to be careful.  One young woman made a comment about how she’d gotten very drunk at a party and was raped while she was unconscious.  She wrote that it was wrong that she was raped, but she shared some responsibility in the situation by drinking so much that she passed out.  She got a lot of indignant comments from people who said that no part of the rape was her fault at all; she bore absolutely no responsibility toward the crime perpetrated against her.

At the risk of pissing off a lot of people, I will go on record as saying that I agree that rape is never a victim’s fault.  However, I do think that everyone– males and females– should take some responsibility for their personal safety.  One of the comments I read on the 11 Principle: Consent Facebook page was this:

– if you went for a walk, but someone chose to stab you, should you have stayed in?

-if you decided to go for a drive, but someone drove into your car, is it your fault?

-if you went for a swim, but someone drowned you, was it your fault because you put yourself in a position where you could be drowned?

My response is that in the above examples, precautions could have been taken to lessen the chance of harm or mitigate the harm that did occur.  For instance, when you take a walk, you choose areas where there are people around.  You carry a cell phone that is charged and ready in case of emergency.  You tell someone where you’re going.  You might learn self defense.  These are things you can do to lessen the chance that you’ll be a victim.  You might still end up being victimized, but you will have taken steps to lessen the chance of it.

If you go for a drive, you wear a seatbelt (even though I hate them).  You make sure your car is safe to drive.  You don’t drink alcohol or take drugs before getting behind the wheel.  You make sure you are well rested.  You might still have an accident, but you’ve done your part to lessen the probability.

If you go for a swim, you make sure you can actually swim.  If you can’t, you learn how and stay out of the deep end until you have the appropriate skills.  You take someone with you when you swim.  You use floatation devices if you need them.  You might still drown, but the chances are not as high as they could be.

When it comes to assaults, sexual or otherwise, I think the same responsibilities apply.  Don’t get so fucked up that you black out.  Don’t go to parties alone, especially if you don’t know the people hosting them.  If you do get assaulted, it’s certainly not your fault.  But my guess is that you will learn from the assault and take steps to be sure it doesn’t happen again.  It sounded to me like the young woman who said she shared in the responsibility of her attack had simply learned from it.  She’d made a mistake by getting so intoxicated.  I have made the same mistakes myself on a number of occasions.  There, but by the grace of God, go I.  

Is it ever your fault if you get assaulted?  No.  The person who chooses to perpetrate a crime is always the guilty party.  But the point is, there are things you can do to lessen the chance that you will be a victim.  I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that.  I don’t think that line of thinking promotes “rape culture”.  I applaud the young woman who realizes that she was wrong to get so drunk that she passed out.  At the same time, I think it’s sad that there are shitty people out there who would take advantage of a woman so distressed.

I’m reading the article about the lawsuit against the JWs just as everyone’s talking about Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room” talk.  I have friends of every stripe opining on a potential U.S. president talking about grabbing women by their pussies.  I have a number of very religious relatives criticizing Hillary Clinton because– well, probably because she’s a female liberal.  These same supposedly God fearing people see no problem with voting for a man who brags about forcing himself on women and grabbing their crotches.  But if a woman gets assaulted, instead of being outraged, they look for ways to blame her.  I don’t think that’s right.  But I do think there are things people can and should do to protect themselves.

As for the woman suing the JWs, I don’t think it’s wrong that she’s filed a lawsuit.  This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a pervert ending up in power.  It’s not just the JWs, either.  Lots of churches empower creeps who then victimize their supposed underlings.  I’ve read about plenty of religious organizations who don’t do enough to keep bad people from powerful positions.  I think they should be held accountable when these things happen.  Again, from the article:

A leader from the congregation apparently warned the girl’s parents in November 2006 that the instructor — who previously attended church sessions in Ogden and Oregon — was a “bad kid” who had “engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a female member of the Clearfield congregation.” The plaintiff says that warning wasn’t enough.

How did the guy end up a “church instructor” if church leaders knew he was a “bad kid”?  One has to wonder.  At the same time, isn’t it crazy that someone like Donald Trump, who openly admits to being a pervy creep– even if it was privately– might end up leading the country?  No wonder we have issues with so-called “rape culture”.

Standard
book reviews

Repost: A review of Brianna Karp’s Girl’s Guide to Homelessness…

Here’s a repost of my review of Brianna Karp’s Girl’s Guide to Homelessness. I wrote it in 2013 for Epinions.com. I’m posting it here as/is.

In 2011, I read an article about Brianna Karp, a California woman who’d published The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness: A Memoir that year.  This e-book has been on my Kindle since May 2011 and I just finished reading it.  The article I read made Karp’s story sound fascinating, but I just never got around to picking it up until now.  I’m glad I read Karp’s story, for it turned out to be as compelling as promised. 

Who is Brianna Karp? 

Brianna Karp is a former Jehovah’s Witness, raised by an abusive, bipolar mother and her stepfather, whose surname she adopted when her abusive biological father left.  Karp was raised to be a devout Witness, adhering to the religion’s strict rules and taking her place as a helpmeet to a faithful male Witness.  As Karp was a thinker and questioner, she left the Witnesses and got an education, then landed a job working for Kelley Blue Book.  She earned $50,000 a year and rented a cottage in Orange County, California.  She had a dog, a horse, and a car.  Then she got laid off. 

Karp lost everything and moved in with her parents.  Her biological father died and she inherited his truck and trailer.  Then she had a fight with her mother, who kicked her out on the street.  Karp was then forced to live in her inherited trailer. 

Brianna Karp became homeless, like an increasing number of other people as the recession continues. The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness is her story of a year spent living in a WalMart parking lot, using free wireless Internet at Starbucks, purchasing cheap gym memberships for showers, looking for work and blogging. 

Karp would eventually find love and heartache, fame and infamy, and even travel abroad.  She learned that some people are not as good as they seem.  And she learned that other people are much better than expected. 

My thoughts 

This book has scathing reviews on Amazon.  I’m disinclined to be so harsh.  Brianna Karp’s book is very engaging and readable; she comes across as mostly likeable and resourceful to me.  I did shake my head reading about her relationship with a Scotsman whose two flights to California she paid for and for whom she borrowed money to make an ill-advised surprise visit to Scotland. Besides the tremendous expense, the Scotsman turned out to be completely unworthy of the gesture.  

Though some people felt Karp wasn’t really homeless because she had access to a trailer, phone, laptop, and transportation, I could definitely say she was severely financially challenged.  I credit her for being resourceful enough to be a witty and entertaining blogger, which ultimately led to interviews on CNN and The Today Show, as well as publishing a book. 

Maybe Brianna Karp isn’t your stereotypical skid row bum, but she does write a compelling memoir.  I learned new things reading about her experiences.  Her book is worth reading and I assume she could really use the money from book sales.  At least it might help keep her off welfare, right?

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
book reviews

Review of Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine

I just finished my latest book today. I know I’m on vacation, but I like to review books right after I finish them because otherwise, I will forget important details. Aside from that, there’s a storm going on in Italy and some of the people with kids have decided that now is the time to be loud. So, with that in mind, here’s my review of Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, written by Paul A. Offit, M.D.

I found this book in the Duggar Family News group on Facebook. Someone was interested in reading about extreme religious beliefs and a poster recommended Dr. Offit’s book, which was published in 2015. I love a good non-fiction read, especially when it’s about unusual religions, so I decided to download it. Paul Offit is a pediatrician. In fact, he’s Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He has also served as Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Obviously, he’s more than qualified to cover this subject, at least in terms of the medical details.

This book is mainly about cases of people whose religious beliefs prevented them from seeking appropriate medical care for their children, resulting in the children’s premature deaths. Offit mostly covers people who are Christian Science believers, but he also includes commentary on other groups such as the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and certain fringe fundamentalist Christian groups. He focuses on groups popular in the United States, so they’re mostly of the Christian persuasion, but the kind of “Christians” that some Americans would take a few paces back from. We’re not talking mainstream Methodism or Catholicism.

Dr. Offit clearly has little patience for the parents who let their extreme religious beliefs put their children in danger. I can sense disgust as he writes about how parents have the power to veto medical treatments that would cure their children– some of whom with bacterial infections that could be cured with a simple round of antibiotics– simply because they’d rather put their faith in God. Frankly, I understand his frustration, particularly given that he’s a medical doctor. Many physicians I have known don’t like to be argued with, but some of the cases outlined in Offit’s book really could and should have been easily saved. But instead of seeking medical attention, some parents prefer to call their pastors or prayer groups and pray to the Almighty… and they are SHOCKED when that does nothing for their child and they end up having to plan a funeral. One family Offit writes about lost two of their eight children to bacterial pneumonia. The parents were on probation after the first child’s death and finally got sent to prison when a second child died.

Well… I myself rarely visit doctors. However, I do have faith in medicine, and I do think it’s important to seek proper medical care when it’s clearly needed. On the other hand, I have to admit to being a little bit leery of Dr. Offit’s tone at times. He seems to think that good parents who don’t agree wholeheartedly with doctors are universally negligent. In one case, he writes about Amish parents whose daughter got cancer. The chemotherapy she needed made her very sick, so her parents decided not to make her get more treatment. A nurse, who happened to also be a lawyer, filed for limited guardianship of the girl, because her parents weren’t submitting to doctors’ orders for their child. Initially, the court sided with the parents, but that was overturned on appeal. When the hospital won the right to force the girl to get treatment, a taxi was sent to her home to pick her up… but her parents had taken her and gone into hiding. Four months later the hospital dropped the case. Offit seems disgusted that the parents won, after all… although I’m not sure what happened to the girl.

I do think this is an important subject. It’s one that needs discussion, particularly right now, as we face a pandemic and people are spouting off a lot of unscientific bullshit to support their “rights”. However, Offit comes off as a bit biased, and his tone is rather impatient and unsympathetic. I get that he’s passionate about this subject, especially since his job is to save children’s lives, but I was kind of turned off by his tone, which seemed to promote an anti-religion agenda. As much as I understand not liking some religions– I am not a fan of Mormonism, for instance– I do support people’s rights to their religious beliefs and, within reason, decisions regarding how they will raise their children. On the other hand, I also understand that sometimes children really do need to be protected from their parents. I guess it was Offit’s outraged tone that put me off. It seemed overly biased, as if he wouldn’t even try to understand where most of the parents were coming from. Instead, he just dismisses them.

Anyway… I did find the book readable and mostly interesting. This is a timely subject, even though I think this book could have been better. It will definitely appeal more to people who put all of their faith in medicine. And, for the record, I have more faith in medicine than religion.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

Standard
book reviews

Repost: From hero to zero… Brock Talon’s experiences as a Bethelite… an elite Jehovah’s Witness

This book review appeared on my original blog on January 29, 2016. I am reposting it as is.

I just finished reading my second book by Brock Talon, Journey to God’s House: An inside story of life at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1980s.  As I mentioned in my review Talon’s other book, Escape from Paradise, Brock Talon is not the author’s real name.  He uses a pseudonym, one that he likens to something that might be used by a superhero or a porn star.  Journey to God’s House was published in 2013, two years before he published Escape from Paradise.  

Having now read them both, I will say that I’m glad I read his newer book first.  For one thing, Escape from Paradise is about growing up JW and that makes it seem like a more logical place to start reading Talon’s story.  For another thing, I liked Journey to God’s House better than I liked Escape from Paradise.  I’m glad to finish reading Talon’s books on a high note, rather than being slightly disappointed.

Journey to God’s House is the fascinating story about how Brock Talon came to work at the World Headquarters for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a place called Bethel, located in Brooklyn, New York.  I have read a fair number of books about the JWs, but I had never heard of Bethel.  Talon explains that it is a place for elite JWs.  It’s supposedly very difficult to get an invitation to serve there and those who are invited are treated as heroes by their hometown congregations. 

Talon writes that none of the JWs in his hometown believed he’d ever get into Bethel.  They laughed at his application to work there.  When he did get the nod, they were all impressed.  Apparently, Talon was also impressed and thought he was going to be doing valuable work for his church.  He flew to New York City and was forgotten at the airport.  Once he made it to the headquarters, where he expected people to be expecting him and perhaps to apologize for forgetting him, he was treated with callous indifference.  That indifference set the tone for Talon’s time at Bethel, which he describes as being a period of sheer drudgery and thanklessness.  Apparently, the Bethel experience could be described as going from “hero to zero”.

I raptly read page after page of Talon’s story, which is liberally peppered with snarky humor and tempered with poignant anecdotes.  Talon was a young man in the early 80s and clearly idealistic about the Witnesses.  He was ambitious and wanted to do something life affirming and good.  Slowly, he came to realize that the work he was doing was meaningless and a waste of his time.  Here he was, a young, intelligent, physically strong and vital man in the prime of his life, working for peanuts putting together literature for the JWs, living in a dorm room with as many as three other men, and allowing other people to dictate how he spent his time, where and what he ate, whether or not he had sex, and even how he recovered from illnesses and injuries. 

I really appreciated Talon’s way with a story, even though I couldn’t help but notice the distinctly disparaging tone he had about many of the people he describes.  Talon uses pseudonyms for the characters in his stories, choosing names that describe their physical appearance.  For instance, he refers to one woman as “Sister Mams” (because she was well endowed) and a man as “Brother Pockface” (because he had a bad complexion).  The smartassed side of me admittedly enjoyed those descriptions.  The more mature side of me thought the nicknames were kind of a cheap shot…  Fortunately, I’m much more of a smartass than I am a mature person.  That’s why I’m an overeducated housewife instead of gainfully employed.

Anyway, I found Talon’s tales very entertaining and enjoyable, even though Talon comes across a bit cocky…  sometimes quite literally.  He includes a very interesting passage about the dilemma young men at Bethel faced, not being able to masturbate at will.  Like the Mormons, JWs think masturbation is sinful and wrong.  They also prohibit the use of pornography.  Talon explains what it was like to be a young horny man unable to relieve himself and what happens when men can’t jerk off when they need to.  I will never understand why people willingly submit themselves to religions that try to dictate that aspect of their lives… but I say that as someone who was fortunate to be raised in a somewhat permissive religion and by parents who weren’t totally nuts about God.

Overall, I think Journey to God’s House is a better book than Escape from Paradise is, though both are good reads as far as I’m concerned.  Once again, a lot of what Talon writes reminds me of things I’ve read about Mormons.  It’s kind of like he spent two years at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, except at Bethel, people are allowed to drink alcohol, coffee, and tea.  Apparently, drinking is one activity that Bethelites indulge in quite liberally, though JWs are not supposed to drink to excess.  I thought it was interesting when Talon explained that drinking was one way Bethelites distracted themselves from horniness.  The Mormons simply play basketball and eat snacks.

I gave Escape from Paradise 4.5 stars.  I think I’d give Journey to God’s House a full five stars.  I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it to others who are interested in a look at the Witnesses.  No, it won’t please all readers, but I liked it and learned a lot.  I’m glad Talon is able to look back on his time at Bethel and write about it with a sense of humor. 

Touring Bethel.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales through my site.

Standard