I have to find recordings of this comedian!
Ex-Jehovah's Witness Deborah Frances-White on door knocking with Michael Jackson and ditching the 'cult'
Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and writer. She was born in Australia after being adopted, where she was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. After graduating from university, she ended her relationship with the Witnesses and began pursuing a career as a comedian and writer.
In her Radio 4 series broadcast last year, Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice, the Australian-born, British-based comedian came clean about her teens and twenties when she would knock on doors as a Sister in the Jehovah’s Witness. The broadcast caused a stir, not only winning her a Writers’ Guild Award for Best Radio Comedy, but also triggering a huge postbag from fellow ex-Witnesses about how they, too, had suffered in the fringe Christian organisation that she now unreservedly labels a religious cult.
But it prompted only one letter from an existing Witness, a 23-year-old from Vancouver, called Ryan. He had broken the rules by even listening to a podcast of her show. It is a measure, Frances-White says, of the mind-control techniques used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that members are obliged to turn off their radios and TVs if they so much as hear their church being discussed.
But Ryan was prepared to risk it because, as he told Frances-White during a subsequent four-hour transatlantic chat on Skype, he felt so disillusioned and trapped. “He was the fourth generation of his family in the Witnesses. He didn’t know anyone on the outside. If he left, his family wouldn’t be allowed to speak to him. So it would be an enormous, terrifying leap to leave.”
In Saving Brother Ryan, part of the new series of her radio show that started last Friday, Frances-White recounts the remarkable story of how she dropped everything at the north London home she shares with her partner, the producer Tom Salinsky, hopped on a plane to Canada and eventually liberated her letter-writer. While the tale is told as comedy, the content touches a raw and disturbing nerve – in listeners, and deep inside Frances-White herself.
And that same uneasy combination of funny and dark is in the air as we sit talking on a sunny roof terrace. In her late 30s, with big eyes and a wide mouth, Deborah Frances-White has a fabulously expressive face – wasted on radio, you might even say, though her other credits include stand-up, motivational speaking and the popular live podcast, The Guilty Feminist.
There is something about how she looks that puts me in mind of the Australian actress Toni Collette. “You’re not the first to say it,” she laughs, pointing out that the connection is stranger still since Collette’s breakthrough role, as the eponymous heroine in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, was set on Australia’s Gold Coast, the setting for Frances-White’s teenage door-knocking.
Often, she recalls, she would share the task of making converts with a Brother Peter from a neighbouring kingdom hall. “I ran into him a couple of years back in a studio in London, and we recognised each other at once.” Brother Peter is now better known as Peter Andre, singer, reality TV star and ex-husband of Katie Price.
“We got talking about why we eventually left. I was saying how it became very difficult to reconcile my values with a patriarchal religion. Peter just looked at me and replied: ‘Yeah, yeah, I just really needed to have sex.’” That’s another no-no for Jehovah’s Witnesses, unless it’s heterosexual and within marriage.
There is such an energy about Frances-White that it is easy to get carried away on tangents – such as famous Jehovah’s Witnesses. She also went door-knocking, she throws in, with Michael Jackson. At 18, she had escaped Australia for a gap year in the UK and was having her doubts about the Witnesses, but still attending their kingdom hall in Chelsea. One night, during a visit to London, Jackson joined the congregation and then went out door-knocking with them.
“We called him ‘Two Doors’,” she remembers, “because while we walked, he went in his limo, got out to knock on the door, then got back in, did one more door, and then left.”
How would it be to open your front door to Michael Jackson asking if you wanted to get to know God better? Sadly, Frances-White wasn’t close enough to provide a first-hand description.
But what about Brother Ryan? Did she really go all the way to Canada? “Oh, yes,” Frances-White replies as she settles herself. She is a natural story-teller, even with an audience of one. “There was something weird about him when we were talking by Skype. I said to him, ‘You’re 23, this must be very exciting. You’ve worked out that what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say is not the truth. That’s great. So why don’t you sound hopeful?’ And he said, ‘I know I should be, but I’m not.’”
He was, Frances-White diagnosed, deeply depressed, and was being remorselessly hounded by the elders at his kingdom hall because they suspected he was planning his escape. “He was reaching out for help. I just felt compelled. So I said, shall I come out? He kept saying, ‘I don’t think you will.’”
She did - and it was just such a soft landing that Ryan was seeking.
But if they are, as Frances-White alleges, prescriptive, controlling and full of bizarre rules (no trousers for women, no yoga, and – infamously – no blood transfusions), wouldn’t anyone leaving be glad never to see them again, whatever silly word they use to label heretics?
“Some people feel that. They put it all behind them. But for Ryan, and, at the time, for me, if your whole family is still in the cult, and then you are disfellowshipped, you are giving the elders the power to say you can never speak to your family again. That’s the rule. If a family member leaves, you must shun them. But if, like me, you never formally leave, its more up to your family if they continue to talk to you. There is a fluidity there.”
Which is the path she has navigated so far for herself, even though many in her family back home has followed her lead and turned their backs on the kingdom hall. And it is also the route she managed to plot for Ryan.
Those wanting to know the exact details, this story-teller insists, will have to listen to the show. She is not about to give away the ending, but suffice to say when she took Ryan to a kingdom hall, posing as his aunt and intent on persuading the elders to allow him a little space to clear his head (so that he could then slip away unnoticed), they turned on her, locked her in a back-room and interrogated her.
“It was like being questioned by the FBI,” she jokes. “They could see I knew the sort of language Jehovah’s Witnesses use, but I wasn’t nearly submissive enough to make them think I was still a member.”
Her tone may be light, but the look on her face makes clear that she didn’t find the experience funny. “It was risible in some ways, but my heart was beating because I haven’t been to a meeting for years. It is like plugging back into the mains because I had been so brainwashed when I was in it.”
When the questioning became menacing, she stood up and demanded to be let out. “Unlocking that door, taking control, walking out of the hall, all that was for me a massive revelation. It released a lot of stuff. I didn’t know how much of my past I was holding.”
Saving Ryan – who had also escaped and was waiting for her on the street – was, she has come to realise, also about saving herself. “I thought I had already got so far away from it. What I hadn’t realised how many of my behaviours were from that time I was a Jehovah’s Witness. It was only when I said, ‘Let me out, unlock the door’ that everything changed. I now see that I was throwing off an enormous weight.”
Deborah Frances-White Rolls The Dice is on BBC Radio 4 from Friday September 16, 11.30am