[This is the true story of my life. I'm posting it in installments. The final installment will include post-script-type thoughts, with acknowledgements to those who've helped me along these last two years, as well as those who've been an inspiration. I hope you enjoy reading. -dp]
Having to leave Bethel was a huge defeat, but it was also liberating. I felt like I had many little freedoms back. However, this wasn’t first on my mind as I wondered what I could do to take care of myself. Not only that, but trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I hadn’t done or wanted anything but to pioneer and serve at Bethel. There was no way I was going to live at home for any length of time, and I made this clear to my mother beforehand. She knew I wouldn’t have been keen on moving back in the first place, and I didn’t think was entertaining any thoughts of keeping me at home. I also felt incredibly sheepish returning to my congregation. They had produced a Bethelite, and here he was coming home after only a little more than a year. For this, and a few other reasons, I decided I would not be staying for any length of time in my hometown.
A couple months before I chose to leave Bethel I had met a woman in a congregation a couple of states away from Wallkill, New York. My brother started dating a woman in the same congregation, and we took frequent trips so they could meet up. One of her friends arranged a day of hiking for us up on a mountain in the countryside with sweeping views of successive mountain ridges. I hadn’t noticed her yet, not romantically, but thought she was fun and interesting. Then, on our last trip, she happened to be at the home of the couple we were staying with and it quickly became apparent that we liked each other. She was more than a few years older than me, but then again I had always felt like I was older than myself. Laura and I immediately started corresponding and decided to enter into a courtship as per the requirements in the Society's literature. She knew I was leaving Bethel; I’m not sure where she thought I would go, or what her expectations, if she had any, were. The same goes for me, I suppose. Throughout my transition of leaving Bethel and returning to my parent’s house, this hung in the background, giving me a little hope and distraction from my circumstances. I treasured the little thing we had, our creation of possibility together, despite its awkward and infantile state.
When James and another friend picked me up from the airport, I felt like I had changed completely but that they were the same. They sat in the front seat and talked about other things which I knew nothing of, people’s names I wasn’t familiar with, places and events that sounded only distantly intriguing after my experience at Bethel. They drove me back home where I was to stay for a few weeks until I could figure out what I would do with myself.
Before I left Wallkill, however, I made a call to a friend who had previously left because his wife wanted a baby. He lived in Florida. I told him I was leaving, that I knew he worked at the Society’s orange groves and that if I moved down there, would I have a chance of working out there too? He said sure, it was possible, come on down. He would help me find a place to live and get set up with the congregation down there, for which he, and his father, served as an elder. He was to be a good friend in the coming year, although ultimately submissive to his patriarchal father in congregational matters, even against his own better judgment.
For a little while after I returned home—as in for a few days—things seemed to be going fairly well. I had to undergo awkward conversations with those in the congregation about how and why I left, but I developed a professional manner and gave convincing responses that were half true. They would never understand. If you’ve never lived at Bethel and had to leave, you’ll never understand. To be so high, and then to fall so low—no matter how melodramatic and arrogant that sounds, it’s true of what ex-Bethelites go through once they’re free from their mother institution.
By answering most questions pointedly and only dodging a few inquiries, I learned how to cope with the disappointment I felt in my own life and also the disappointment of others. One of the hardest things to process, however, was when it finally came out that my step-father truly believed I was spiritually deficient in some way, and that this was why I had been sent home. I was dumbstruck, stumbling over words, trying to explain to him that all sorts of people go to Bethel and find it’s not for them, but he wouldn’t listen. He was a stubborn man; he had come to believe this about his step-son and no one was going to dissuade him from his snap judgment. I’m sure he felt that my leaving indicated a failure on his part. This shared sense of spiritual achievement and failure was to be one of the things that I hated more and more in the coming years. Even if I was forced out of Bethel—that holiest of earthly places, the place millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses looked to as God’s House—the reasons were intensely personal. My successes and failures were personal, and the meddling tendrils of my invasive family compromised my ability to process the meaning of the events of my own life. These words from my step-father were my first real kick in the ribs when I was already sitting in the gutter. The second kick came when my parents found out I was dating someone.
My mother had cultivated in me an awkwardly-tuned sense of propriety between the sexes. On my own, I could think all sorts of dirty thoughts like anyone else, but when it came to serious matrimonial contemplation, it felt off limits, as if I could never be a sufficient husband. The fact that she was in her fourth marriage and had gone through many negative experiences with men surely contributed to this upbringing. Any kind of exposure I could get with the opposite sex in order to develop skills in flirtation or to exercise playful, pheromone-enhanced scenarios in husband and wife roles had been strictly limited. While I was at Bethel I had come into contact with many pretty girls in many congregations, and it was the first time I experienced shared attraction. Now, thinking I had grown up so much, attaining what I thought was going to be a respected measure of independence, I returned home thinking my parents would treat me with an appropriate measure of loving deference. Trusting in this, and that my parent’s believed in me, I had given Laura my home address before I left so she could send letters. I took it for granted that my parents would respect my independence after I had been out of the house for a year and a half. I was stupid.
I came home one day after working on a construction site for a brother and found my parents sitting formally on the couch, clearing their throats, with papers in their hands. My step-father called me over and asked me to sit down. I knew something was coming; I had gone through this a hundred times before and knew it meant some big thing was going to happen to me, something was going to come down and crush me; but this time at least I felt somewhat like a grown up. He explained that he was going through the mail and inadvertently opened a letter addressed to me. I asked him how that could happen. He said the fronts were turned the other way and he was just going through them as he routinely does. He then explained how he also inadvertently read the first page and realized that it was not, in fact, a letter for him, but for me, and not only that, but that it was obviously a love interest for which I could hardly be prepared for. This is where my mother could no longer contain herself and took over. She used every sort of twisted reasoning to prove this would be the destruction of my spiritual life, that if I didn’t drop this little fling I would be turning my back on Jehovah. I kept silent, letting them get it all out.
It took some extended asking to get the letter from my step-father, as if in addition to the blatant disregard for my privacy, I had to grovel before them in order to retrieve what they had taken and mend the violation on my own. He finally handed it over and I held it to my stomach, feeling some sort of cancerous affectation of its contaminated nature. I knew more was coming and braced myself. My mother went on in an extended frenetic tirade as if she took my love interest personally, with my step father finally interjecting to give me an ultimatum: either I would cut off this relationship or I would not receive the vehicle that he had promised me to help me move to Florida.
The van was my ticket. I depended on it to make my big move. Without it, I had no choice but to stay there and wait for some other opportunity to get out. However, they would hardly allow me to stay if I weren’t going to pioneer. So my only choice would be to revert to my previous state as their subjected, stifled son with no control over his own life.
As I sat silently, they got more and more adamant that I must cut off this relationship. It came out that my step-father had already called Laura's congregation elders—almost 3,000 miles away—and informed them that I was in a spiritually weakened state and a dangerous influence on their young sister in the hall. He had done this during the couple hours between when he could have received the letter and when I came home. Right then, I decided to no longer play their game. I said yes, of course I would cut it off. My mother followed me over to the computer as I wrote a painfully formal email to Laura, watching me as I pushed the send button. She also wanted me to scribble out her name and address from my organizer, only being satisfied until the pen marks bled through to the next page. I then told them I was sorry, and that I need their help to get me to Florida. And that there was just one more thing they could do for me; that I was expecting one more letter from Laura that was in the mail, and if they could just hand this over when they got it, just one last thing for me to keep from her, I would appreciate it. They nodded their heads... yes. My step-father then gave a prayer for us while we all held hands, asking Jehovah to guide my footsteps and protect me from the pitfalls of Satan and his system of things.
“...we ask this of you in your Son’s name, Jesus Christ, amen.”
The next day my step-father signed over the van to me at the DMV. It was now mine. Later that day I called my brother at Bethel to let him know I was on my way out of town, giving him my new address in Florida. We talked for a little while, and I told him what our parents were doing to me, their ultimatums, and what I thought of it. I expressed that I thought it was wrong of our step-father to do what he did, and that I don’t know how an elder could do that, to lie and coerce his own child at the influence of his wife. He said a few neutral words, and changed the subject. Later, I left the house and went to work. I came home in the evening and found both my parents again sitting on the couch, barely containing themselves.
I immediately sensed a dangerous, seething silence pervading the air. It wasn’t going to turn out the way it did before. I knew what it was: my brother had betrayed me. They began hurling accusations at me of slander, that I had slandered my step-father, an elder in the congregation, by my words to my brother. I had known that my brother was easily influenced by my mother, but didn’t realize until now the extent of his trust in her. He chose to not only divulge something I said to him in confidence, but to make it sound like I was slandering my own step-father.
I first allowed, and then willed my hatred to come up into my chest, coveting the source of my own rage and defiance. I blew up. This was it, the end, all the years they had taken my own dreams and treasures from me, trampling me, controlling, forcing, shoving, pushing, pushing, pushing, was going to come to an end. This was the only way I knew how to stake my claim to my own heart: I devoured the scene, raging at them, telling them that I used them, I lied, I lied to their faces to get the van so I could leave them forever. I told them I didn’t feel bad about it; in fact I hated what they had done, and was absolutely confident that they had committed a sin.
They looked at me like it was inconceivable that they could have spawned such a monster. My mother burst into cacophonous wailing and my step-father glared at me with eyes of borderline senility. I then asked them what happened to the letter that I said was on its way. I knew it must have arrived, what had they done with it? They didn’t answer; I knew what happened. I could just see my mother opening the mailbox, finding it inside, tearing it open, greedily reading every word, and then burning it in one of her cleansing rituals. I asked them again, looking directly into my mother's eyes. She couldn’t deny it before Jehovah, so she kept silent.
I screamed at them that I would never spend another night in their house, that I could never trust them again. I stormed away into my room and immediately began packing. I punched the screen out of the window and began tossing things out into the bushes to quicken the process. I heard my mother’s maniacal reaction in the background, alternating between well-practiced self-pity and her own unique brand of spiritual rage. Luckily, she could not handle herself and needed attendance, so I was not to confront my step-father. If he was younger, I have no doubt he would have used physical means to detain me. A few minutes later I heard my mother tromp down the hallway and announce some scriptural-based denunciation behind the closed door. As was my inclination, I quelled my ardor and ignored her. But then I realized, no, I was making a stand; I was defending myself, that sin of all sins within our household. I hurled the door open, screaming “FUCK YOU!” into her face. She recoiled like I struck her. I slammed the door closed but it bounced back open. I plunged my fist through it. It was a cheap door. Next thing I knew, my step-father was demanding payment for damages. I got brief satisfaction by immediately writing him a check for fifty dollars and handing it to him. Shortly thereafter, I was as packed as I was ever going to be under the circumstances and drove off into the night. Damn, it felt good.
I couldn’t leave town right away. A couple days earlier, before the first debacle, my best friend James decided he was coming. He was ready to leave home himself, and told me he would go wherever I went. I was tremendously relieved to have him come with me, and excited beyond all measure; I wouldn't be alone. I waited a few days for him to get his affairs in order, sell off a few things, and pack his belongings.
I slept nights in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Until then I had never realized just how many people sleep in their cars in Wal-Mart parking lots. Some people pulled their cars around in a wagon-circle, making a little protected courtyard in the middle with lawn chairs and radios. Seeing this helped me to not dwell so much on my own drama. I needed less drama in my life. I had a taste of normalcy at Bethel, but now it was all on my shoulders; I needed to create my own life’s balance.
I was trying to get over the drama of my family, now being comfortably emotionally distant from them. But it was still not over. They left a message with a friend of mine whose house I hung out at during the day. They said that I was expected at the kingdom hall the next evening at 7:00pm. They had arranged an elder’s meeting to meet with me and address my act of slander against my step-father. Two elders from my old congregation would be there, waiting.
It was almost comical. By this point, it seemed like just one more hurdle to extricate myself, one more little episode of silliness. I showed up, not wanting to offend the brothers who I knew were going to be there. We all sat down in the back room of the hall, opening with prayer. The elders re-capped the situation, speaking calmly and reasonably, and then my mother, fidgeting in her seat with handwritten notes on her lap, burst open. It was, in her mind, an unforgivable act of betrayal on the part of her own son. That I had slandered my own step-father—an elder in Jehovah’s organization—was simply inconceivable, a grave sin. She shuffled through her notes, making sure she wasn’t forgetting anything.
Unfortunately, none of this was going to be settled until I explained the whole situation in its entirety, meaning that I had to divulge to two more people my feeble attempt at having a relationship with Laura. It was just one more thing to twist whatever the two of us had into something irretrievable. I told them about my parents violating my privacy, and that they must have even taken one more letter which I knew was in the mail, one which they had promised to hand over once they got it. I told them my mother had promised that she would give it to me, but didn’t. I also recounted the conversation with my brother.
More things were said during the meeting, but in the end, none of it was of any consequence. The elders quickly realized this was a family issue, and that the accusation of slander wasn’t accurate. I had no malicious intent to ruin the reputation of my step-father. Even then, I thought, what does that matter when my words were in confidence to my own flesh and blood brother? It was never a question of how or why my brother had chosen to divulge what I said to my mother, and in those implicating terms. Whether he or my mother imbued them with the added component of slander, to this day I don’t know. Needless to say, my relationship with my brother has never been quite the same.
The meeting slowly ended. At this point my mother was in a flurry of tears, again wrapped up in self-pity. This was a profound moment, as I realized how much damage my mother could inflict on her own life. Ultimately, she was the loser, the one who paid most dearly, as whomever she used Jehovah against receded from her association. We prayed again, and then we all walked out of the kingdom hall. One of the elders walked up beside me and gave me a loving pat on the shoulder and nodded to me silently. Then my mother turned around, with a different look on her face. She wrapped her arms around me, her head buried in my shoulder. With tears in her bloodshot eyes she told me to be safe, to drive safe across the country, and let them know as soon as I arrived. My step-father gave me one of his rough, vigorous hugs. I told them not to worry, that we would be OK.
Unfortunately, I was not able to patch up the misunderstanding resulting from my email to Laura. She took it hard, and due to other complications used it as a means to extricate herself from our relationship, at least in a formal sense. It wasn’t really to end, however, for another nine months. The sane, rational part of our relationship ended with the malicious meddling from my parents, and a mutilated, co-dependent relationship rose up in its place. We hung onto each other unhealthily, despite the fact that any possibility of an honest and serious relationship had passed.
We drove to Florida. It was a grand excursion, a breaking out, a sweet taste of freedom. For me it was another much needed beginning. Although my transition from Bethel life had been rocky, I still felt generally positive about my direction. I clung to the hope of possibly working at the Society’s orange groves in Florida, working side by side once again with my fellow former-Bethelite friend. Everything and anything was still possible.
The drive was largely uneventful. We kept the windows rolled down as we drove across the endless expanse of open land. James had an old cowboy hat from his father which I wore while driving to keep the sun out of my face. I twirled a toothpick on my lips, my sleeves rolled up. We laughed and he took a picture of me, my eyes squinting in the glare of the open desert.
Each night, we pulled into the first Motel 6 we could find, got a room for two, and then went out for fast food. James would always get worried about our van being broken into. It was the least of my worries, however. I fell asleep quickly each night, shouting in my dreams. When I woke up James would tell me which cuss words I used and how many times.
It took us five days to get to Florida, finally arriving after driving down most of the swampy peninsula, by then a little deflated by the ugliness of our new surroundings. My friend from Bethel had helped me secure a condo which a sister in his congregation managed, and that—ironically enough—a single Bethelite sister owned. My rent payments would go to give her spending money in Brooklyn. It was a little shabby, but it would do. It was in a small complex behind a Circle-K; we realized this would be a convenient amenity in the coming months.
The sister who managed the place was still in the process of cleaning it from the last tenants when we arrived. There were stains on the carpet, walls, and some of their belongings had been left behind. We were eager to have a resting place from our journey, so we helped them finish. My shower looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years, but I got to work. I was so tired that I almost passed out scraping the scum off the walls. This was probably the first signal I had that all was not well with my body.
We slept in our sleeping bags in our respective rooms. That night, I awoke to uncontrollable bleeding out my nose and down my throat. I thought it was some sort of allergic reaction from my new surroundings, and reassured myself that it was nothing to worry about.
The very next morning I had to take James to meet some brothers that promised him a painting job. I dropped him off at a McDonald’s parking lot where he was to be picked up. After he left, I went in to get breakfast. As I bit into my McMuffin sandwich, I suddenly felt a gushing sensation down my throat and rushed to the bathroom. The blood came streaming out my mouth and nose as I leaned over the sink. I could tell it was no ordinary nose bleed. For half an hour I tried every means to stop it. Blood was splattered all over my clothes as I tried to clean the mess I was making while also quelling my panic. I held a bundle of towels to my nose as I ran out, jumped into the van, and drove myself back to the condo, shifting gears and driving with one arm.