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.