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.

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book reviews, religion

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.

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book reviews

Repost: Brock Talon describes growing up JW…

This book review appeared on my original blog on January 17, 2016. I am reposting it as is.

I just finished Brock Talon’s 2015 book Escape From Paradise: Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower after thirty-five years of lost dreams.  Those of you who read this blog regularly may already know that I like to read exit stories from people who have been in certain religious groups.  I often read and review books by and about exMormons, but sometimes I read about the JWs, too.  In many ways, the JWs are a group that resemble the Mormons, though their beliefs are different.  I am less interested in what either group believes and more into how they treat their members and the methods they use to get people into and staying with their belief systems.

I downloaded Talon’s book a few months ago and just now got around to reading it.  Overall, I thought Escape From Paradise was an interesting book, though it’s not the first one I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Indeed, I have read a number of books about the JWs.  I also have a cousin who was a JW for years until he and his family finally left the religion about ten years ago.

Escape From Paradise is one man’s account of being converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was a young child, being raised in the religion, and finally deciding to abandon it.  Brock Talon is a pseudonym, as are the rest of the names in this book.  Talon explains with a touch of humor that the name he chose for himself sounds like a good one for a superhero or a porn star.  But then he explains that he’s just an ordinary guy who grew up a JW and later worked at the world headquarters for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  He writes that he simply wants to explain what it’s like to grow up a JW. 

Brock Talon writes that he was not born into the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  His parents converted to the religion when he was about five years old.  Talon describes his parents as unhappy people.  His father was apparently angry and abusive.  His mother was apparently a very sexually repressed woman who thought of sex as necessary only for procreation.  She was a stay at home mom whose curious son had just started asking questions about God.  One day, Talon’s mother was visited by a Jehovah’s Witness who was going door to door.  Realizing that her son had questions about religion that she couldn’t answer, Talon’s mom let the visitor into her home.  Voila!  Suddenly, a new family of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to be.  Talon also has a much younger brother who was raised JW. 

Do you remember having birthday parties when you were a kid?  Birthdays are different for JWs.  Brock Talon vividly remembers his sixth birthday because his parents threw him a party.  They had promised him the party before they joined the Witnesses.  So they invited a few cousins and non Witness friends over for cake and ice cream.  That was the last time the author celebrated his birthday or any other holiday until he finally left the religion, when he was well into adulthood.   

Talon’s mostly well-written story includes humorous and snarky observations about life as a Witness, their beliefs, and most strikingly, the consequences that befall members who don’t stick to the straight and narrow path.  He writes of being kept very busy by church callings and constantly worrying about being seen by other members who might rat him out to church authorities.  He explains what it was like to be married to his first wife, also a member, and how contentious and difficult their marriage was because of meddling from church officials.  Indeed, Talon made the mistake of confessing to having pre-marital sex with his first wife and they were both disfellowshipped for a year.  While that may not seem like a terrible thing for those not in the religion, when your life revolves around your church, it can be a devastating punishment.  As I was reading about this, I couldn’t help but realize that Talon’s story sounded a lot like many of the stories I’ve read by exMormons.  

Talon tellingly writes about what it was like once he had left the religion as a middle aged man, suddenly having to experience the more worldly things that most people experience as teenagers.  One funny passage is about Talon’s first visit to a strip club with a bunch of work friends, where he got his first lap dance.  Another passage is about a party he and a couple of friends threw that included enough beer for every attendee to have just one.  And he got in trouble because church authorities had heard that the party had gotten “wild”.

Most of us have been approached by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They often come door to door, wanting to spread the news about their religion.  This kind of proselyting is also done by Mormon missionaries, who come in pairs knocking on doors in a bid to get people to hear their message.  It may seem like there are a lot more JWs out there going door to door than Mormons.  That’s because while only Mormon missionaries are expected to go door to door, every Jehovah’s Witness is obliged to spend at least eight hours a month spreading the faith.  Over the past twenty years or so, I have only had contact with Mormon missionaries once.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had run ins with JWs.  They have visited me everywhere I’ve lived with the exception of Fredericksburg, VA (which is when I ran into Mormon missionaries) and Fort Belvoir (which is a place where door to door religion peddling is prohibited).  Not every Mormon is a missionary, but every active JW is involved in spreading the news.  That’s probably why it seems like there are so many of them.

Though this book is about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and what it was like to be one and then leave the faith, I think it’s also about what happens when people allow others to dictate so much about how they live their lives.  People who are brought into strict religious systems often don’t know anything else, so they are more willing to tolerate the lack of privacy and self determination that can come from these groups.  It can be terrifying for people surrounded by church members, who have no outside family or friends, to decide to reclaim control of their lives.

There were a couple of instances where I felt Escape From Paradise could use a round with an editor.  However, on the whole, I enjoyed reading Talon’s story and could relate to it.  He has a good sense of humor that keeps the reading entertaining.  While this book may not be appreciated by faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses and couldn’t be described as an objective account, I do think it’s a worthwhile read by those who are curious.  Talon’s story will ring true to those who know about the JWs and have read other books by people who have been involved with it and later left the religion.

I recommend Escape From Paradise and give it 4.5 stars. 

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book reviews, religion

Reposted: William Coburn’s The Spanking Room… A Child’s Eye View of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

This book review appeared on my original blog on July 28, 2015. I am reposting it as/is on this blog.

Last night, I finished William Coburn’s 2008 book, The Spanking Room: A Child’s Eye View of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Since it is not available on Kindle, I actually read a physical copy of the book.  Perhaps that’s why I was able to breeze through it in a matter of days.  Maybe it’s time I got back to reading real books instead of my iPad, which distracts me with apps and Facebook posts.

I read Coburn’s book because I am interested in so-called “fringe” religions.  Those who read this blog regularly may already know that my husband was a Mormon convert for awhile.  I also have a few relatives who used to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, though they have since given up the faith.  

I won’t lie.  I also found the title of the book rather provocative.  The JWs are a group that constantly reach out to their communities through door to door harassment.  I have been visited by them in almost every place I have ever lived, including abroad.  I have always been suspicious of them and intrigued by their mystery.  I couldn’t resist a title like The Spanking Room.

Coburn’s book is about what it was like to grow up the son of a Jehovah’s Witness.  His mother was (and apparently still is) a very devoted convert member of the JWs.  His father, who was around for most of his growing up years, is not.  Coburn also has an older brother, Joe, who managed to escape more of the JW indoctrination due to being older and involved in sports.

As a child, William Coburn went by the name Billy.  His mother would call him that.  She also called him an “awful, horrible, rotten child” because he was “sinful”.  As a toddler, Billy sat in a meeting at the local Kingdom Hall.  A microphone was passed around to members.  Billy’s mother took the microphone and spoke, magnifying her voice.  Young Billy was fascinated by the microphone and when it was passed to another person, he said “Bye, Microphone.”

That is the type of cute kid thing that usually makes people smile and say “Awww…”  Billy’s mother, however, saw her son’s goodbye as a slap in the face to the members of her church.  She grabbed Billy and took him to the women’s restroom, where she proceeded to spank the living daylights out of him. 

According to Coburn, when he was growing up in the 1970s, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were encouraged to engage in corporal punishment whenever they believed their children did something to warrant it.  Children were expected to be attentive and silent during meetings, even though they would last for hours and met several times a week.  Any child who disrupted a meeting– in any way– was expected to be spanked. 

About a year after his mother became a Witness, the local Kingdom Hall was renovated.  During the renovation, a new room was added next to the women’s bathroom.  It was called “The Spanking Room”.  The room included an audio system that would allow parents disciplining their children to hear what was being said in the meeting.  It was also stocked with tools the mothers could use for spanking their children, everything from paddles, to belts, to rolled up newspapers.  There was a coffee table with couches, and copies of Awake! and The Watchtower magazines.

Coburn writes that his mother was intent on getting her sons to become devoted JWs.  She would take them to meetings whenever she could, although her husband objected and would sometimes thwart her attempts to indoctrinate the boys.  While their father was sometimes able to protect Joe and Billy from his wife’s religious fanaticism, he apparently did little to stop her from employing her excessive discipline methods.  Billy was especially subjected to them on a regular basis.

Coburn offers a very interesting look at what it’s like to grow up JW.  He includes anecdotes about going door to door, dealing with kids at school who teased him for being different, information about what JWs believe and why they hold those beliefs, and how his upbringing has affected him as an adult.  Because Billy was a JW, he couldn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays.  He couldn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag.  Once, when his mother took him door to door, he got violently ill because he was in a neighborhood on his bus route.  He was afraid his classmates would see him and make fun.  Once his mother realized her son wasn’t actually sick from a virus, she slapped him upside the head and yelled at him for being ashamed of being a Witness.   

Coburn now makes his living as a technical recruiter and public speaker.  He had originally wanted to be a doctor, but did not take college preparatory classes, because his mother told him that when the “New System” began, the world wouldn’t need doctors.  They would need people who could build houses.  She told him that nothing he learned in school was useful, yet she would punish him when he didn’t do well.  Once, she offered to take a week off his grounding if he got 100% on a spelling test.  He got the 100% from one teacher, but another one gave him a 95 because of his handwriting.  He was beside himself and told the teacher it was his birthday.  The teacher later gave him the 100, but she wrote “Happy birthday!” on his test.  He couldn’t show that to his mother, because he wasn’t supposed to celebrate his birthday.  She would beat him for doing that.  So he stayed grounded.  Anecdotes like these offer readers a glance at why being JW as a child can be complicated.   

Thinking about it, the teacher probably should have known better.  Coburn writes that every school year, his mother would speak to school officials about the family’s religious beliefs.  She always brought pamphlets because, like any good Witness, she saw speaking to the school officials as an opportunity to convert them.  She believed that everyone wanted to be a Witness; they were just stymied by the devil.  The more vehement their response against the religion, the more the Witnesses thought the person wanted to be a Witness.  Coburn explicitly explains how people can get the Witnesses to leave them alone, which may be worth the price of the book.

Coburn’s writing is very conversational.  At first, I thought his style was a little unpolished and whiney.  But then, as I got into the book, I started to enjoy his writing style more.  He demonstrates a snarky sense of humor that I liked.  Also, I thought the book was easy to read, both in terms of writing style and font.  The type is comfortably large.

While I don’t think a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses will appreciate this book, I do think it’s a good read for the curious.  I would bear in mind that Billy’s mother’s actions may have had little to do with the religion, even though Coburn claims Witnesses are encouraged to discipline their children physically. Frankly, his mother sounds a bit like my husband’s ex wife, except Billy’s mother was more willing to use physical punishment to get her way.  When she eventually divorced Billy’s father, she engaged in a lot of the same destructive parental alienation techniques my husband’s ex wife did, although she did at least allow the boys to see their dad and his second wife.

I will admit that I still don’t know a lot about the JWs.  I have read some books and known a few JWs, but I’ve never sat down and talked to anyone about what being a Witness is like.  My cousin who was a Witness only told me that the religion pervades everything in one’s life and that others discriminated against him and his family for being members.  

According to Coburn, many Witnesses believe that if you are enjoying your life, you’re living the wrong way.  He explains that only things related to being a JW should make one happy.  If you take pleasure in something else, you’re too worldly.  I felt sad for Coburn as I read about that.  It sounds like a horrible way to go through life, which is certainly tough enough as it is.  Coburn offers some evidence that growing up JW can be very difficult.  I recommend his book, The Spanking Room.

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