Book Reviews: 2 about the Jehovah’s Witnesses

I have always had a fascination for whack-a-doodle religions and what makes them tick (hello Scientology and FLDS!!). I didn’t really know TOO much about the Jehovah’s Witnesses other than that they knock on your door on Saturday mornings and want to talk to you about their pal Jesus (my mom’s solution? “Tell them you are Roman Catholic and shut the door in their face!” How Christian of you Mom!).

In reading these two very-different-from-each-other books I figured out that yes, door to door is a big part of this religion– converting non-believers to what they call “The Truth”– but there is also a lot of very intense bible study, an old-fashioned patriarchal structure of society and a huge opposition to governments in general. Their goal is to convert as many of the non-believing and “worldly” masses as they can before Jesus comes to offer his chosen people God’s Kingdom on Earth (reminds me of the 80s comedian Drake Sather’s joke when the Jehovah’s Witness came to his door: “She said, ‘But sir, don’t you want eternal life?’ To which I replied, ‘Yeah, but not with a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses!!!'” HA HA!).

385243The first one was an autobiography called The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses by Joy Castro. We got to know Ms. Castro in our Critical Era on-line Book Club and she is the sweetest woman alive! We are great fans of her crime solving journalist character Nola Céspedes– both Hell or High Water and Nearer Home were awesome Book Club picks and we are looking forward to the third instalment coming soon! We had NO IDEA that sweet Joy came from such a nasty back ground!

From GoodReads:

The personal account of a young girl who endured abuse and the disturbing effects of religious hypocrisy within one of the most enigmatic sects of Christian fundamentalism. Joy Castro is adopted as a baby and raised by a devout Jehovah’s Witness family. As a child, she is constantly told to always tell the truth, no matter the consequences, for she must model herself on Jehovah, and Jehovah does not lie. She dutifully studies the truth book, a supplemental religious text that contains the principles of the faith. When Joy is ten years old, her parents divorce. Earlier, her father had been disfellowshipped, or excommunicated from the congregation, for smoking. When Joy is twelve, her mother marries a respected brother in their church. He has an impeccable public persona, but behind closed doors at home he is a savage brute. Joy and her younger brother Tony are forbidden from seeing their father and are abused mercilessly – to the point they both think they are going to die. Their battered mother does nothing to protect them. Nor does their church, to which Joy voices her appeals. For two years they suffer, until one day Joy reaches out to her father, and together they plan and execute the children’s daring escape. 

Joy tells her story in a matter-of-fact and honest way– offering no flourishes or opinions– just stating the facts. She neither hacks nor praises anything to do with the Jehovah’s Witness religion– she lets the reader see both sides and make their own judgements. The book is hard to read at some points– the creepy step father priming to make his pervy moves, the brutal physical abuse of her and (especially) her rambunctious little brother and the psychological abuse by their mother, both fathers and the elders of the church.

Aside from outlining what she went through in the church and at the hands of her brutal mother and step-father Joy also uses this narration to work through her feelings towards her charismatic father’s suicide some years later. Her journey of acceptance and forgiveness of her father’s actions is as heartbreaking as the abuse. It is a bit awkward in its writing style at some points (flipping back and forward from past to present and back again often within the same paragraph or part) but an over all great read. 3.5 stars for Joy Castro’s brave truth.

walkWatch How We Walk was a very different story. Canadian poet/author Jennifer LoveGrove writes about the JoHos fictionally rather than autobiographically (she was also raised in the JW religion though so knows what it is all about).  It is the tale of Emily Morrow and her struggles dealing with life in and out of the Jehovah’s Witness religion and her beloved sister’s disappearance. From GoodReads:

When Emily was a little girl, all she wanted to be when she grew up was a Full-Time Pioneer; in her Jehovah’s Witness family, the only imaginable future is a life of knocking on doors and handing out Watchtower magazines. But Emily starts to challenge her upbringing. She becomes closer to her closeted uncle, Tyler, as her older sister, Lenora, hangs out with boys, wears makeup, and gets a startling new haircut. After Lenora disappears, everything changes for Emily, and as she deals with her mental devastation she is forced to consider a different future.

Alternating between Emily’s life as a child and her adult life in the city, Watch How We Walk offers a haunting, cutting exploration of “disfellowshipping,” proselytization, and cultural abstinence, as well as the Jehovah’s Witness attitude towards the “worldlings” outside of their faith. Sparse, vivid, suspenseful, and darkly humorous, Jennifer LoveGrove’s debut novel is an emotional and visceral look inside an isolationist religion through the eyes of the unforgettable Emily.

Thanks so much to Sarah at ECW Press for sending us this book! I picked it up one night and found myself reading well into the night to find out what was going to happen next! The narration fluctuated between Emily now and Emily then; Emily before and Emily after Lenora disappeared.

Emily “then” was told in third person. She is still young, living a sheltered life believing in everything she is taught during family bible study and at The Kingdom Hall. She spends her days reading Trixie Beldon mysteries, playing “Hall” with her stuffed animals and working in the school library to avoid the “worldly” kids and bullies. She has a hard time ministering door to door– always worrying about running in to classmates– but she is trying. Why can’t it come easy like it does for perfect Lenora? She dreams of the day she will be baptized and things will become easier.

Emily “now” was narrated in first person. She is doing all kinds of things that are totally against the JW rules– moving away from home before marriage, cutting herself in a ritualistic and pagan way, attending college and working part-time as a funambulist. She struggles with keeping it together, often becoming “possessed” with the spirit of her sister. Has she become disfellowshipped? Who has she become? Is she strong enough to survive?

The blending of the narrations of the “Emilies” unfolds at a perfect pace! You soon learn that Lenora is not so perfect, her father has a deep, dark kept secret that may (or may not) explain his religious obsessiveness, her mother just participates to make her father happy and Uncle Tyler is only pretending to be devout to meet new boyfriends. This was a great mystery that I thought I had all figured out until I didn’t!  Jennifer LoveGrove is a beautiful writer and I look forward to reading more from her! 4 stars!!

Note: if you are a music fan, particularly of the post-punk/new wave movement of the 80s, read this article from The National Post before starting this book. LoveGrove provides her playlist of songs that accompany the novel and (for me) it brought a lot to the table (just ignore the HORRIFYING photo of The Cure’s Robert Smith they used for the article! *shivers* He has NOT aged well!!).