Elevate Difference

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing

Kyria Abrahams’ searing, if flawed, memoir about growing up in a deeply-observant family of Jehovah’s Witnesses calls to mind Karl Marx’s quip that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Her original voice is by turns funny, whiny, clear-eyed, and churlish as she chronicles the Witness’ blind obedience to religious dogma.

Abrahams’ writing is deft, even evocative, as she vividly describes the purple haze in which her community languishes. As she tells it, Witnesses are oblivious to history and remain untouched by the feminist and civil rights movements of the past four decades.

It’s Ozzie and Harriet, without the heartwarming laughs. Although Witnesses throughout the world pray and preach as they have since the sect’s founding in 1914, the book zooms in on the Abrahams, spotlighting a family that buries its troubles in simplistic discourse about sin and worldliness. Rather than openly communicating, regular Watchtower reading sessions bring the family together for a forced exegesis of that week’s tome. Meanwhile, dad is often out of work, mom is visibly miserable, and neither parent pays much attention to the children they’ve sired.

While Abrahams’ brother is mentioned, he’s merely a blip in the landscape, an odd omission given the siblings’ closeness in age. Yet this is Kyria’s narrative and she is comfortable in center stage. Readers will watch her tumble from early academic promise—special classes for the gifted—to adolescent self-loathing and mental illness.

When she ultimately withdraws from high school to marry a twenty-four-year-old Witness she barely knows and doesn’t love, the story becomes cringe-worthy. Still, Abrahams’ sass in extricating herself from this morass is fascinating, if sketchy.

That is, the process of disfellowship—think Catholic excommunication or Jewish shiva—that results from her divorce could have been more graphically described. At the same time, her account of the problems endemic to entering secular society is powerful: “For the past twenty-three years, I’d been told that it was not possible to survive outside the safety and guidance of God’s organization. Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be like leaving the haunted cabin in the woods to check on that strange noise. Never again would a disfellowshipped person find caring friends or experience true love, as these things do not exist in Satan’s world.”

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed gives the lie to these absurdities. What’s more, it sheds light on a religious group—some say cult—that is basically unknown to those outside its reach. Abrahams painstakingly demonstrates how Witnesses manipulate members into abject fear of life beyond Kingdom Hall. Small wonder that few members leave, no matter their doubts. This makes Abrahams’ book especially important.

That said, she’s an uneven tour guide—simultaneously bold and quirky and desperate and demanding. Nonetheless, readers will find much to cheer in her ascension. Left to fend for herself—with little-to-no contact with family or former friends—she is the proverbial stranger in a strange land. Alone, she is forced to confront adulthood without the opiate-like promise of everlasting life. As she succeeds, she becomes a phoenix, scarred and trembling, but aloft.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, June 30th 2009

I use to be a Jehovah's Witness, got disfellowshiped. All those people that called me friend, wouldn't talk to me anymore, and my family is no better. I understand what she means by with a loner in a new world. It is scary, and it does mess with your head, but getting disfellowshiped was the best thing that ever happened to me :)

What a fantastic review! As someone raised in the Southern Baptist Church, I have sympathy for those brought up under the tyrannical standards imposed by fundamentalist religious viewpoints. I look forward to reading this book - warts and all.

Thanks, from fellow reviewer M. Brianna Stallings

As a man, one issue I had as a Witness was the treatment of women. Many Witness women have a better understanding of the Bible (at least the Witness view of it) and Watchtower doctrines than the elders. I was disturbed that their voices were ignored simply because they were considered the "weaker vessel"s in the congregation (the Bible's words, not mine).

Thanks, Natalia, for your enlightening response, and for sharing the pain of your upbringing.

Juhani, could you clarify what you mean by "heretical?" Heretical in terms of what? Greek Orthodox? Scientology? Roman Catholic? That word frightens me, for it suggests that there is one right and true way to worship someone or something, and that all others are wrong and condemned. To me, that's the problem, even above and beyond belief in something for which there remains not a shred of evidence.

I have several family members who adhere to that religion (cult?) and they're really ... intense about it. What the author says in the book is all true.

I attended my youngest cousin's wedding, and the congregation speaker man referred to my cousin's husband as the "pilot" and my female cousin as the "co-pilot." Then he made a joke about how she would was all the dishes, iron the clothes, etc. I was RED. I was freakin' livid. I was about to start screaming at them. Jezeus Christ!!

When I asked my oldest, already married cousin about it, she said that it's nice because that way you feel "protected." And that -- get this -- when women pretend to be independent they get into trouble. HEADDESK

I cannot even tell you how frustrated I felt. It was like a time warp. Suddenly it was 1876 again (when the religion was founded, not 1914).

Adherents are not allowed to date outside the religious community. They often marry young because they cannot do anything sexual before marriage! (Come on, that's some strong incentive!)

When my mother, very very fortunately, decided to leave the religion at 19 or so and married my father, she was exiled from the community. Extremely frowned-upon, my aunt stopped speaking to her completely (my Jehova's Witness uncle had already married), and so on. Also, university studies are disencouraged because, well, the world is about to end anyway, right?? Or at least, my mother was encouraged to ignore academia and learning other languages; she finally went to college and grad school after having me, in her late 20s/30s.

The Jehova's Witnesses part of the family? Perpetually broke, plagued with psychological and physical illnesses, and even drama from my youngest, pathological liar cousin. It's safe to assume, then, that their religion breeds a healthy mindset and lifestyle, huh? ...

One more thing: anyone who does not belong to the religion IS GOING TO HELL. I always think this when I have to see them, which is thankfully an infrequent phenomenon.

Thanks for letting me vent! Phew!

Jehovah’s witnesses are heretical cult and this article tells it very assertively.