After Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I Am Writing My Way to the Truth
Like Looking Glass, the ex-Witness interrogator on "Watchmen," I need a way to replace the certainty I lost
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In “Little Fear of Lightning,” an episode of HBO’s Emmy-winning series Watchmen, several youth ministers travel in a yellow school bus from Oklahoma to New Jersey, all wearing the same black pants, white shirts, black ties, and beige bomber jackets. The young men disembark onto the grounds of a carnival, stepping into a frenzy of late-summer lust. Thrill-seeking screams drown out the clatter of the roller coaster while the crowd chokes the last drops of pleasure out of the clear night.
Let us pray.
Dear Father, hold us in your light as we prepare to enter the whore’s den.
One minute to midnight, on the very brink of extinction.
Please open their hearts as you opened ours.
In Christ’s name, amen.
One of the men, Wade, is holding a folded copy of what is supposed to be The Watchtower magazine. The cover shows a photo of the Paradise that Jehovah’s Witnesses say will come immediately after Armageddon: two people cuddle a panda in the wilderness, a reward for having been faithful to Jehovah. It’s clear that Wade and his crew are supposed to be Witnesses, but they also bear Mormon stylings. So which are they? The show seems comfortable with the ambiguity of this code-switching, but within a few minutes of viewing, I can smell the Witness in Wade stronger than anything. It troubles me that he’s not carrying a book bag. I always carried one back when I was a JW, lest we sully our Bibles with cotton candy, saltwater taffy, or the fluids of the wicked.
Wade wades through the fair and witnesses a tableau of Watchtower-style cautionary tales: teens French-kissing before marriage, freaking out to devil music, and thrashing around in leather duds. They smoke cigarettes and throw attitude. It’s a playground for heathens. The scene is the opposite of what would get you shacked up with a panda in the new system. This was Hoboken, 1985—evil incarnate.
Wade approaches a young woman.
Are you ready to hear the truth?
The fuck are you supposed to be?
The doomsday clock just moved to one minute to midnight. At this very moment, the entire nuclear arsenal of our great country is ready to launch at the Russians, and vice versa.
What’s up with the pandas?
The woman is wearing crucifix earrings. Witnesses believe the crucifix to be a pagan symbol, and that Jesus was instead pinned to an upright stake with a nail long enough to go through both hands. The JWs have the hottest Son of God. It’s exquisite BDSM—not as goth as cults get, but close.
She takes Wade into a funhouse of mirrors. We see hundreds of Wades, but he doesn’t. Either light can’t penetrate this deep into the carnival, or there’s no personal insight in his gaze.
Have you ever had sex with a person?
This might be your last chance, Oklahoma. You wouldn’t want to get nuked before you get fucked.
She steals his clothes and leaves. Now Wade’s naked and trying to hide his erection; he finally sees himself in the mirrors. Before he can run out to escape his refracted self, an explosion knocks him to the floor. All the mirrors shatter, covering him in shards.
After Wade regains consciousness and stumbles naked outside, he sees a litany of bodies; the corpses of the wicked. The woman who stole his clothes is dead in a pool of her own blood, her face frozen in horror. The Ferris wheel is laden with casualties. This is exactly what Armageddon is supposed to look like—and what else could this be?—but it still shocks him into a scream. What happened! What happened! We zoom out over the carnage and across The Hudson River, past a flaming and collapsed Madison Square Garden, then past a giant squid clinging to several midtown Manhattan buildings.
Somehow, seeing all this still doesn’t answer Wade’s question.
I used to be like Wade.
I was a young preacher convinced I had the truth. I told people how to live their lives, while to most of them, I was nothing more than a mouthy kid with no authority, too green to have experienced the sin I was lecturing them about.
In grade seven, I carried a Bible through the halls of Pius X High School, tucked under my arm with my textbooks. I felt it protected me. Catholics often mistook me for one of them, and on my shyer and weaker days, I let this misconception go. I sometimes brought an Awake! magazine to science class, the last place you’d expect to find a creationist periodical. It might’ve been a ploy my mother and I had concocted to inure me to lies; the mere presence of Witness literature would act like antibodies and block “false teachings” such as evolution.
By thirteen, I was witnessing alone to people who lived in mansions, telling them that the Paradise they’d built for themselves wasn’t the real thing. Because I wasn’t yet baptized—a step that marks formal dedication to the movement—I couldn’t officially be an “auxiliary pioneer,” a category of JW missionary who clocks 60 hours a month in preaching time. But the congregation let me do it unofficially, with an asterisk; here’s this kid with energy, let’s not discourage him and may he be an inspiration to all.
I didn’t hang out with any worldly friends and had no other life except for rescuing neighbors from impending death at Armageddon. I was proud every time I suggested to an adult that their worldview might be missing a key component. I used openers like we’re asking your neighbors if they think politicians tell the truth, and can mankind’s governments really offer lasting solutions to our problems? My audience often slammed the door, which I figured happened to all messengers. I still racked up an impressive number of return visits with people who seemed open to what I was hawking.
I checked the boxes on the field service sheets: Not at Home, Call Again, or Do Not Call. The latter was reserved for hostile encounters. I remember one guy opened the door looking bedraggled in a housecoat, rambling about how he was Jesus Christ. He had a cult-leader aura, but I couldn’t recognize it at the time—I was in a cult myself, one that had no self-awareness. I retreated down the walkway and notched my first Do Not Call.
We Jehovah’s Witnesses were told many lies: We weren’t in a cult, just a strict religion, even though we weren’t supposed to question the doctrine or leadership, associate with non-JWs, attend university, or otherwise engage in “independent thinking.” We were free to leave at any time, even though doing so meant being shunned by friends and family and dealing with the trauma that induces. The world was an evil place devoid of love, even though we saw evidence of good humanism everywhere. The truth sets us free, even though our minds shrank to tiny enclosures and we lived in constant fear. We were told these lies so often, we began to own them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t be in the truth while being in the world—it’s a binary choice. They have to exist on the planet while pretending not to breathe its air. This creates cognitive gaps that are difficult to bridge. In her memoir Leaving the Witness, Amber Scorah writes, “I had performed mental contortionism to reconcile the irreconcilable so that I could feel comfortable. I had been ‘in the truth’ because I was afraid of the truth.”
I can think of no better place to reverse engineer my own contortions than on the naked page.
Wade now works for a market research company. He observes focus groups through a one-way mirror and reports on the gaps he notices between what participants say they like about a certain TV ad, type of cereal, or perfume brand, and what they really think. It gives him pleasure to reveal these discrepancies to company executives.
They despised your commercial.
No! They all said they loved it.
You didn’t hire me to tell you what they said. You hired me to tell you the truth.
We can assume that Wade is no longer a JW. Maybe after having lived through a real Armageddon, he can’t possibly continue believing in a fake one. But he remains as committed as ever to the idea of truth-telling. If it’s a permanent mark of his past, at least he has repurposed it.
Wade’s other job is as a vigilante named Looking Glass who wears a mirrored mask to interrogate people suspected of being in The Seventh Kavalry, a white supremacist group. Wade, who’s white, is sensitive to racism and knows how to root it out. I’m sure he remembered the hypocrisy of Watchtower magazine covers, ones that showed a utopian veneer of racial harmony. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, over a quarter of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States are Black and almost a third are Latinx, but the group’s hierarchy has almost always been exclusively white. The week George Floyd was killed by racist white cops, the lead article on JW.org suggested passivity and silence: “Although some protesters may accomplish their aims, God’s Kingdom offers a better solution.” What the Witnesses don’t understand is that if Armageddon does come and they survive it, systemic racism will survive along with them, because it’s baked into their policies and practices. In the meantime, Witnesses of color have to fight for their very lives, and they have to do it either alone, or with the help of people they’re forbidden from associating with.
Wade’s work—as at the focus group—is to be a human lie detector. He deploys tautologies and other traps to peer into hearts with uncanny skill. White supremacists stare into the mirror of Wade’s face—the Looking Glass—and are confronted by the ugliness within.
I wonder if Wade realizes he’s found a way to remain in the Hoboken funhouse without getting cut.
When writing about my experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness, I noticed dissonance in my memories of when I first recognized I was being deceived. Since I was writing discrete but overlapping essays, I was able to remember my “awakening” in manifold forms. Depending on which essay you believe, I either came to my senses: when I started playing guitar; when I affirmed my queerness by having sex; when my roommate Mat took me to the roof of our apartment building to explain astronomy and philosophy and that we were alone in the universe; when I started writing stories as compelling and believable as the ones used to brainwash me, and I was finally able to prove—through mimicry—that they were fabrications; when I realized that as a card-carrying white JW, I had spent years perpetuating the group’s model of white supremacy.
At the time I remembered them, each of these events felt like the single, defining moment I stopped believing, but they must be read as a collection; awareness is a gradual dawning. Kim Barnes writes that “memoir is not about what happened, but why you remembered it the way you did. That’s where the story is. That’s what we talk about.” You could say I found components of truth—whether factual, emotional, or aesthetic—in each of these scenarios. My awareness remains incomplete. I still don’t know when I realized that truth outside of human experience—such as the absolutes Jehovah’s Witnesses peddle—isn’t even something we can access.
There is probably much I’ve forgotten, or memories I’ve altered by remembering and retelling them too frequently, drawing them a little further away from their genesis each time. I’ve cataloged certain life milestones through the lens of a singular overwhelming emotion, where some details are remembered too brightly, and others not nearly enough. Why did I insist at the start of this essay that as a JW, I always carried a book bag, when I later admitted to tucking a Bible under my arm at school? What comfort does this difference enable? In his book The Truth of the Matter, Dinty Moore writes, “A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives.”
Memory isn’t everything, but memoirists and other writers working in narrative nonfiction already know that. We complement memory with research into our own lives and pasts. We plumb journals, study photographs, and interview third parties who may remember things differently than we do. We use words, sounds, and other stimuli to trigger memories we thought were lost, but were simply waiting for the correct recall code. When I stumbled across documents I hadn’t seen in years—field service sheets, songbooks, the No Blood card that JWs carry to ward off unwanted transfusions—so much history came flooding back. We “braid the clays of memory and essay and fact and perception together, smash them into a ball, roll them flat,” as Carmen Maria Machado puts it in her memoir Into the Dream House.
Truth-making is not the writer’s work alone. In the essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy,” T Kira Madden writes, “Consider the writer bulking pages with the Full Experience, true and accurate to every degree—exact wording, exact description, complete dialogue transcription, every person and their backstories and histories and traumas (because, of course, this is what we carry every moment of our lives, what we bring forth to every interaction) filling the scene. There is no room within that scene for the reader.”
Readers are collaborators in the writing process and are germane to it. In his essay “By Telling New Stories, We Build a New Future,” Matthew Salesses writes about “how easy it is for the audience to forget that it has a role in the story, to forget that it has power.” Desirae Matherly’s “Final: Comprehensive, Roughly” is an essay in the form of an exam that illustrates this point. The instruction, With a magic marker, blot out statements you consider to be true is followed by song lyrics such as You’ve got to pick up every stitch, and You can’t always get what you want. Jenny Boully’s “The Body: An Essay” is a blank canvas the reader must build from the footnotes, one of which refers to an illustration that doesn’t exist except in the reader’s mind. These pieces annotate how a reader compares the text to their own experiences, mouthing the words over an inner narrative to find resonance. The truths that linger are the ones that are co-created.
Writer and reader will need each other to figure out bigger problems. What happens when the writer doesn’t want to discover the truth, despite saying they do? For example, do I really want to know if I’ve been permanently brainwashed by Jehovah’s Witness teaching? Do I want to know if I’m unable to shake the guilt of the group’s bogus moral code, or the fear of Armageddon? An engaged reader will be able to point out a glaring lack of questioning; they will know when an essay doesn’t push the writer to confront something difficult. In the Wham! song “Careless Whisper,” George Michael reminds us that There’s no comfort in the truth. It’s a line I consider to be true. I blot it out, as Matherly suggests, by writing as deeply into it as I can.
The next time I put on my mirrored mask, I will wear it inside out.