Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No.1 January February Combined Issue 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

The Scars of a Religious Upbringing

(Editor’s note: Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine, was baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness in 1963 when he was 5. Michael was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and was active in meeting attendance and preaching until his disassociation in 1987. He died June 25 at age 50.)

In the early 1980s, the primary preoccupations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were Armageddon, Smurfs, Michael Jackson and demonic attack, but not necessarily in that order. As a young Jehovah’s Witness, my worldview was what you might describe as surreal.

Smurfs were little blue imps disguised as Saturday morning cartoon characters. They were capable of murder, rape, violence and general mayhem and, as such, all Smurf paraphernalia had to be either banished or burned or both from any respectable Witness’ home. Armageddon was regarded with frenzied anticipation. We couldn’t wait for the bloodletting of the wicked to begin. Demons roamed the earth, along with Satan the devil. They lurked behind every corner, literally, just waiting for an invitation to wreak havoc on one’s mind and body.

And Michael Jackson was the subject of many rancorous sermons at the Kingdom Hall. Michael Jackson and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” replaced the Smurfs as the most blatant signs of the end times, the last days of this system of things.

I didn’t know who Michael Jackson was when I began to hear his name breathlessly bandied about with great agitation and interspersed amongst the cautionary tales of Smurfs and demon-possessed antiques. I knew I didn’t have any of his tapes or records. I felt much relief. When news of the Smurfs’ demonic nature had come to light, I had to rid my bedroom of Smurfs, and I wasn’t able to sleep for months thereafter. I was convinced I had inadvertently invited demons into my life.

Apparently there was something quite different about this Michael Jackson. He had been one of us. He had been a Jehovah’s Witness.

This information blew my little mind. What?! How could a Jehovah’s Witness do the horrible things the elders accused Michael of having done? How could someone abandon Jehovah God after having learned the truth? Was he demon possessed?
We were given explicit instructions in how to handle the Michael Jackson situation. He was definitely not a Jehovah’s Witness. We were told to deny him. A Jehovah’s Witness would not do the things he did. A Jehovah’s Witness is not merely someone who claims the identity. A Jehovah’s Witness must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. A Jehovah’s Witness demonstrates his identity by his behavior. Michael might have attended a few meetings. His mother might be a Jehovah’s Witness, but that did not make Michael one.

Deny, deny, deny. We were read an official letter from the governing body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in New York.

All of this commotion was very exciting and titillating. We had a betrayer in our midst. He was the purveyor of worldly sex and sin and demonic imagery. We secretly relished the notoriety and the attention his fame brought us. What good was it to be God’s chosen people, the only ones with the truth, to be better than everyone else, unless everyone else knew of our superiority? Battle lines were drawn. There was a fight to be had, in the public eye, in the center of a scandalous controversy. It was so delicious.

It was also a matter of life and death and demons. Witnesses love to whip themselves up into a veritable frenzy. They love to terrorize themselves and their children. Everything is a cosmic battle to the death between the forces of good and evil — even Smurfs and Michael Jackson and Indiana Jones.

One day, I was the odd but accepted fixture of Lincoln Elementary School in White Bear Lake, Minn., and the next day I was the cool kid. Everyone was jealous of me. Not despite the fact that I was a Jehovah’s Witness, but, miraculously, because I was a Jehovah’s Witness. That was something new. I was supposed to denounce and disown Michael Jackson, but, suddenly, everyone wanted to know me and be near me, because Michael Jackson was also a Jehovah’s Witness. I remember little girls telling me, “You’re so lucky, because you’re a Jehovah’s Witness just like Michael Jackson.” All of the little girls in my grade had huge crushes on him.
I felt torn. I loved the attention and the admiration, but I was terrified of being attacked by demons if I strayed from the organization’s instructions. I strived to achieve both aims. I milked the association for all it was worth and denounced his worldly ways at the same time. I convinced myself that I was doing this in order to proselytize to as many of my classmates as possible. That was the other thing.

We were told to take advantage of this situation to spread the good news to people who were now open to hearing it.

While I was able to withstand the siren charms of M.J., I knew another little J.W. girl who was not. My sister and I often played with a little Jehovah’s Witness girl named Sandy, whose mother was also named Sandy. I found that so strange. I found that to be the height of arrogance for a mother to name her daughter after herself. It seemed almost like self idolatry. I was both intrigued and aghast.

Their family was particularly devout. They sold their home. They moved into a mobile home to simplify their lives, so that they could devote more of their time to the preaching effort. They gave us their dog, Yickey (some kind of weird Swedish name —only in Minnesota). They didn’t want to spend time taking care of a pet that they could spend out witnessing the good news. Sandy and her little brother were not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio without adult supervision. Their every move was monitored.

But, Sandy’s and her little brother’s parents had both previously been married and divorced — to other people. I was scandalized by this information. Sandy had led a pre-Jehovah’s Witness life. Her family’s righteousness was newfound. Sandy had a hard time conforming to her newly strict and ascetic lifestyle. She had a secret life in which she indulged in wicked worldliness. But, just a little bit. I was both repelled with fear and disgust and wholly enthralled by more than a little fear and disgust.

Sandy and I bonded over this shared attraction to the dark side. My mother had not been a Witness until she married my father. As such, she was far more lenient than most Witness mothers. I was probably worse for the wear for it. It almost made me Catholic, the extreme guilt that I felt. But it was even worse, because my guilt was coupled with sheer terror because I was certain that I was deserving of demonic attack.

One day at Sandy’s house, she led my sister and me into her bedroom to exchange confidences and demon attack horror stories.

Then, she revealed her deep and abiding love for, of all things, Michael Jackson. I think I might have shrieked. Then she opened up the top drawer of her dresser and flung her undergarments onto her bed, revealing a huge stash of Michael Jackson pictures that she had cut from the pages of magazines. How she had escaped her mother’s watchful eye long enough to do so was beyond me. Pictures of Michael Jackson in concert. Pictures of Michael Jackson in his videos. Pictures of Michael Jackson posing for photo shoots.

She handed some of the images to my sister and me.

I didn’t want to touch the photos. I was literally terrified. It was as if she had pulled voodoo dolls or a ouija board out from her dresser. (Nothing is more terrifying to Jehovah’s Witnesses than the satanic ouija board.) I thought demons were going to appear at any moment. I thought I was being possessed at that moment. I almost fainted. I started to cry. My sister looked scared too. I begged her to put the pictures away. Scaring one another with tales of bad Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been rightfully tormented by demons was one thing. But actually inviting demons into our lives was something else entirely. And that’s what those pictures were. They were portals to the spiritual world, the evil spiritual world. They were doorways, and demons were waiting on the other side, itching to get in through my fingertips.

It’s truly amazing and horrifying how brainwashing and inculcation as a child stays with you throughout your life. I am an adult. I am well educated. I have not been a Jehovah’s Witness for many, many years. I am an atheist — most of the time. But, sometimes, especially when I’m stressed out and tired, I’ll start to feel that old sense of panic and anxiety. I’m sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I will still call out to Jehovah to protect me from demons, but only every once in a blue moon. And, I feel the need less and less. These moments of psychosis become rarer and rarer. I’m really looking forward to the time when they will stop altogether, if that ever happens.

I became addicted to the drama. It was such a rush, such a high. A constant battle with demons. The ever-incipient apocalypse. The community-wide martyr complex. I sometimes wonder if maybe it permanently damaged my brain. I was constantly pumped full of adrenaline, high on terror, living on a knife’s edge, waiting for the next demonic attack.

That lifestyle has maintained its grasp on me in myriad ways. I overreact. I am hyper-emotional. Every­thing’s a matter of life and death.

The problem is twofold. I’m addicted to the rush of chemicals in my body, and I never learned how to distinguish between the real emergency and the fake one. When pictures of Michael Jackson might contain demons, something about your life is slightly skewed.
I fell into something of a depression when he died. I was unbelievably sad. I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I had enjoyed his music, but I had never been a huge fan. I had never purchased any of his albums. I had never seen him in concert. I had never met him, of course. But, his death opened up a lot of childhood wounds. I felt like I knew a part of him. Like I understood in a way that few others would.

I knew the pain of growing up in an abusive Jehovah’s Witness home with a subservient and submissive mother and a domineering father. I knew the pain of loving a mother who will not protect you, because she believes that God will condemn her for doing so. The pain of loving a mother who will not leave the man who believes it is within his God-given authority to beat you. The pain of loving a mother who would rather watch you suffer in misery than expose Jehovah God or his organization to public scorn and shame.

Growing up, I loved my mother more than anything, but she didn’t love me more than anything. She loved her religion more. It still makes me cry. So when Michael died, I cried. I cried for the little girl who was terrified that demons were going to rape her in the middle of the night. I cried for the little girl who begged her mother to leave her father. I cried for the little girl who begged Jehovah God to kill her, so that the pain would stop. And, I cried for the little Jehovah’s Witness boy that Michael had been.

I worry about Michael’s kids. I know that sounds silly, but I think about them. I hope they are safe and well. I worry that they are being inculcated in that apocalyptic cult of demonology and terror that is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not a healthy environment for children.

The Witnesses espouse the subjugation of women and girls as part of Jehovah’s divinely ordained plan. Raising children as Witnesses is abusive, especially for girls. The Witnesses provide a safe haven for pedophiles, abusers and molesters. I imagine that Michael suffered greatly as a result of having been raised as a Witness.

I worry about Katherine Jackson raising those kids as Witnesses. I don’t know her. I’ve never met her. But, I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint for remaining with her tyrannical husband all of these years. I am tired of hearing her spoken of as if she were some kind of saint because she’s religious, because she’s a woman of faith, because she’s spiritual.

My mother was spiritual. My mother was a woman of faith. My mother was religious. My mother is still married to my father. They still live together. I haven’t spoken to either of them in nearly 20 years.

My mother chose her husband and her religion and her God over her children. She stood by and did nothing as her children suffered at the hands of her husband. She stood by and did nothing as her cult terrorized and tortured her children. She sacrificed us for her faith. She sacrificed us for her loveless marriage.

I got down on my hands and knees and begged my mother to protect me. I begged her to choose me. I begged her to love me. And she said no.

So, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t think women should be canonized for holding their faith in higher regard than the protection of their own children. And, I’m not sure they should be rewarded with even more children to neglect in this way.
I don’t want Michael’s kids to have to beg.

Sarah Braasch was the Foundation’s first legal intern, in 2008. She’s a recent graduate of Fordham University School of Law in New York City and works in Paris, France, with Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a women’s rights group that combats gender violence and discrimination by promoting the values of secularism, gender desegregation and gender equality.

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