A Vocabulary for Apostates

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English lacks a word to describe a parental body falling through space. The event renders language unusable to the child, the bystander, the witness. I watched when I was ten. My mother staggered and told me she couldn’t see, then fell on the bed and asked me to call 911. I dialed, but didn’t know what to say, so I pressed the phone into her hand. I would later find out that she was going into shock. I could hear in the subtext of what she explained to the operator that it was more than just a physical problem. With us, there was always a spiritual component.

She hemorrhaged most of her blood that day. It was her spiritual duty as a Jehovah’s Witness to refuse transfusions. At this very moment, somewhere in the world, a set of Jehovah’s Witness parents are seated in court, flipping through Leviticus, explaining why their sick kid can’t have blood, while the judge wonders how long they can afford to debate religious freedom. A small life ebbs away under a web of tubing.

The hospital did what they could to keep her veins from collapsing. I spent three weeks gazing at her through the polyethylene screen of her ICU tent: yellowing and anemic, buried under the equipment, eyes half open. The congregation elders arrived with briefcases full of legal precedent and defended my mother’s right to bloodless treatment. I don’t remember whether she received plasma substitutes or nothing at all. Ultimately, the elders were defending her right to die.

My uncle and I discovered a broken vending machine that returned all the money when we bought a drink. Most visitors to the hospital didn’t realize it, and we fleeced them while they drank away their grief in bouts of orangeade. The family assumed—wrongly—that I was terrified. I was oblivious, either weighing dimes by the pound, or reading the fine print on the “No Blood” card I had to carry with me. I did my homework in the waiting room to the white noise of machine bleeps. I still feel guilty for not being afraid. Was I showing faith or ignorance? Neither is quite right.

Late nights at home with my stepdad were too quiet. He just stared at me, probably in disbelief that he might have to raise a kid by himself. What did kids eat, think, dream, and obsess over? Did we mind secondhand smoke? One night, it hit him hard. Do you realize how close she is to dying? he asked me. Do you have any idea at all? His questions were supposed to slap me aware. The moment was all about him. He sometimes came to meetings, but he wasn’t in the truth.

The truth is a boot camp where kids and converts are guided to speak a lexicon for a new system, to help them put on a new personality. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t speak in tongues. Their sociolect is dense enough that you can still have a hard time understanding them when they thrust literature at you and tell you it’s food at the proper time. When a Jehovah’s Witness kid in elementary school refuses to do a Valentine’s Day craft because it serves the harlot of Babylon, it might give a teacher pause. We had to remain no part of this world and were persecuted for it. Voting and military service were forbidden. My grandfather spent two years in jail as a conscientious objector, blowing his objections into a harmonica to the tune of Kingdom Songs.

We memorized The Watchtower magazine word-for-word. It was written by the Governing Body, a committee of white cis men in Brooklyn who knew better than most. There was no room to interpret the scriptures on our own. Doing so meant we were relying on our own understanding, and we could be disciplined for that. After reading Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation?, we grew so concerned about the missing links in Darwinism that we prayed twice as hard for evolutionists.

As shown in the illustrations of various Watch Tower Society publications, Armageddon will begin with a surge in natural disasters: floods, landslides, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Pandemics will ravage the human species. The nations will turn on each other and false religion will fall like chaff into the sea. Birds of prey will darken the skies and gather for the feast when Jehovah will sweep the unrighteous goats into an abyss by the billions. Then the faithful sheep will clear the rubble and tend the earth to a garden state. According to the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, leopards and tigers will become vegetarian.

I was told that in the new system, my stutter would be cured.

In the resurrection, Jehovah will call the dead by name. The decomposed bodies will break out of coffins and somehow glom back together, regenerating into the same people they once were. We never wondered what the undead would do for clothing.

This good news of the Kingdom we dropped in the snow, shoved into hands, and jimmied into doors to prevent them from closing. We targeted the weak, the sick, the old, the war-weary, anyone in mourning, and anyone looking for stability and structure in their lives. People sometimes mistook us for a 12-Step program. They came to our meetings and conventions; within a few months, they began to speak the way we did.

Surely, by then, I had the language to say that my mom was dying, but only temporarily? Couldn’t I have simply told the 911 operator that she was receiving new light about the earthly hope? Or maybe I had to wait until I edged into an epiphany of my own?

My mom was transferred to a semi-private room where she was allowed to eat non-hospital food. My aunts arrived with an industrial juicer and they made her beet and carrot sludge for the iron content, grinding incessantly. I can still smell the mulch they left in the juicer between rounds. My mother, the Bloodless Miracle, gradually got better. The nurses crossed themselves when she walked out, proud and vindicated.

Why hadn’t I worried about losing my mother? I’m hoping the answer isn’t because I believed; that isn’t the narrative I’ve constructed for myself since the days of beet juice and prayer.

 

New light: The awakening of a mind after years of sedation. The glint of lived experience. The discomfort of critical thinking. Accountability in all its naked states.

New light is an indivisible moment. A prism can’t refract it. They say it’s the ultimate furnishing because it goes with everything. What they actually mean is that it’s an honest conversation outside of a doctrine.

 

“My anxieties were about the fact that language isn’t something we can invent wholesale, and the language we inherit is toxic,” said Garth Greenwell at an AWP 2019 panel event when talking about translating queer terminology for the Bulgarian edition of his novel What Belongs to You, at a time when the terminology didn’t exist. Now, it exists because of the novel. We will always be living between languages, between one describing a familiar world, and one describing the inchoate self, too new to be understood. I needed to reshape the definitions of words that were used against me.

At thirteen, I spent sixty hours a month knocking on mansion doors, telling people they didn’t already have what they needed. At that summer’s District Convention, I stood in a blue, inflatable pool in the middle of a hockey arena in front of nine thousand people, legs shivering. Two hunks in clingy swimwear grabbed me and dunked me. If, outwardly, my baptism marked my dedication to Jehovah, inwardly, it marked a sexual bubbling. Questions Young People Ask—Answers That Work, released that same weekend, says that avoiding hugging your “same-sex friends” quashes any “homosexual feelings” you may have toward them. I tested the theory out: grossly false.

My enlightenment peaked a few years later when I started having sex with men. Each orgasm unfurled in my head like a flash of new light. Slipping into bed with someone felt so right. Each time, I stumbled a little further away from Jehovah. I had started building a theology of queer tenderness. Nerve endings don’t split on ridges of good and evil. Pleasure cascades down both sides.

A day after complimenting a man on his looks at a bowling alley, my home phone rang. It was my congregation’s presiding elder, asking if I was “a homosexual.” I knew that Orwellian surveillance was a fine-tuned fruit machine, but the call still came as a surprise. I assured him of my proclivity for and deepening knowledge of all things homo, but before I could delve into the glories of queer sex, he cut me off with two formal options: disfellowshipping or disassociation.

Disfellowshipping is a savage sport, the customary punishment for anybody caught smoking, fornicating, ingesting blood, celebrating worldly holidays, practicing spiritism, and many other offenses. Being queer is high on the list. The guilty party—sometimes whether they are repentant or not—is cut off from everyone they know, and they can barely speak to family. Shunning is a matter of keeping the flock pure. Some sinners are punished more severely than others, depending on who they are and who they know.

If the disfellowshipped person manages to endure the year without losing their minds or committing suicide, and if they don’t otherwise disappear after deciding it’s not worth the wait, living as if they don’t exist, then they can be reinstated. Endure an emotionally wrecking year of abuse, and you get to come back. Shunning is central to the Watch Tower Society, one of the tools they use to obtain obedience and consolidate power.

Disassociation sounded like a better option to me. Unlike disfellowshipping, it’s a voluntary exit. When a Jehovah’s Witness disassociates, there are no conditions. There is no groveling. They proclaim themselves an unredeemable spirit, an apostate, a force that is poisonous to other Witnesses, and they don’t come back. For active members, shunning an apostate confirms their choice to remain. It allows the community the option to punish a single member, rather than become self-aware.

The elder who phoned me must have seen other young Jehomos ripen under his watch, because he seemed to know I was a lost case. He ended the call by saying, I love you; be careful of AIDS. If this was love, it was weaponized. So, not love at all.

I wrote a letter in pen and on looseleaf paper. I’ve forgotten the words and didn’t make any copies, but I know it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, a planet forming in a cloud of dust, the language of goodbye transfused with desire. It was a breakup letter to Jehovah, the first proof I’ve ever had that I could think for myself. After mailing it, I had to speak to my mother before that Tuesday’s meeting—before they announced my departure and she found out publicly that her son was going to die at Armageddon. Better to hear the news from me.

Because of our schedules, I had to come out to my mother from a payphone while I was waiting for the bus. So this was what the end of times felt like: fishing for a quarter in the ‘burbs, hands shaking. When she picked up, I told her I was leaving the truth. There was something knowing in her sobs. I felt ungrateful. Here I was, rejecting the beliefs she had been prepared to die for eight years earlier. If that wasn’t a slap in her jaundiced face, what was?

 

Last Days: A 2005 film by Gus Van Sant, American homosexual director, chronicling the final week of a fictional musician we are to understand is Kurt Cobain. He paces the house with a shotgun. We, the viewers, are the sleeping roommates he points it at. Two boys from the Church of Latter Day Saints fail to convert or save anybody.

In the literature on the film, there is disagreement about what the last days should look like (see Literature).

 

Literature: Written works that can be produced outside the Watch Tower.

Literature may include: three-act plays in which the queer is not burned at the stake; novels told by an omniscient third-person narrator who happens to be an atheist; works containing characters who are neither singularly good nor singularly evil, but rather, lavishly complex; epics with kind-hearted dragons that have long, curly eyelashes; reference materials that cite actual scientists; niche books with first printings of fewer than twenty million copies; parables about finding God in a sublime fuck; parables about not finding God; stories that roam through the apostate soul and create wind out of stillness.

 

When I lost my Jehovah’s Witness friends, it felt like Armageddon. I was trained to expect the worst, but it was still a shock. When the people in your life suddenly disappear, your history becomes a whisper in the tailwind. It took me almost two years to find new friends, ones who would take my birthday virginity with a chocolate cake and an obscene number of candles. I savored the icing and flecks of hot wax, the delicious toxicity of a new world. With Deleuze and Guattari, cigarettes and Foucault, and slow-ass nights of Sontag and too much coffee, we built not only a history together but also a philosophy for misfits. My stutter became a creative distinction, not something to be cured; lovers gave me tongue-twisters to ear-fuck them with during ice storms and blackouts. I lost sight of the mark of the beast sometime after trick-or-treating in a dollar-store ghoul mask, the sacraments of my very first Halloween. Given my newfound taste for freedom, I’m shocked that with my first vote—the 1995 Quebec referendum—I cast a ballot against independence.

Awakening is a slow process when you’re first learning to think for yourself. It took me almost a decade after leaving to reach out to other ex–Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Having an internet connection helped.) We discussed the effects of a lifetime of homophobia, and the complete erasure of trans and nonbinary people. In the Kingdom, it’s all about cishet men: men raised to believe they are kings. In her memoir Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, Amber Scorah elaborates on the culture of patriarchy and misogyny that permeates every aspect of the faith. “After all, a man created me. A man died for my sins… The man I married was in charge of me, and the men in the congregation delivered sermons to me each week at the Kingdom Hall. Men wrote the books I read.” Women are not allowed to speak directly to an audience from the podium, which is why it’s particularly satisfying to watch Scorah onstage giving a TEDx talk about all of this.

I learned about the numerous false predictions, including 1975. It’s good to know I was born the year after the end of the world, when thousands of Witnesses quit their jobs, cashed in life insurance policies, and moved into motor homes to prepare for the great tribulation. Of course, the Society gaslit them when nothing happened.

I found out how many times the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine on blood has flip-flopped over the years, based on technicalities and ways to describe how a patient’s own blood is stored prior to surgery. I wonder how many Witnesses, drained and colorless, had to die during one of the pendulum swings of Watch Tower doctrine. Intraoperative autologous blood collection or acute normovolemic hemodilution? Between which clauses had my mother slipped, practically comatose?

When a Jehovah’s Witness is accused of child sexual abuse, it takes two witnesses to convene an internal judicial committee. The perpetrator can be a witness if they confess. But if no witnesses other than the victim come forward, nothing happens. The child is not believed. In some US states, congregations are subject to mandatory reporting laws. When abuse is suspected, elders are instructed to contact the Watch Tower legal department, who, as Reveal News and ex-Jehovah’s Witness activists have uncovered, often use legal loopholes to discourage elders from calling the police. In 2020, Montana Supreme Court upheld the Watch Tower’s “right” not to report information they receive confidentially through confession and other acts of clergy-penitent privilege.

The Witnesses are loath to involve law enforcement because of the reproach it will bring upon Jehovah. In 2019, the Atlantic reported on a global database of abusers maintained by the Watch Tower and numbering in the tens of thousands, which still remains secret. Currently, the Witnesses are being investigated, prosecuted, and sued in numerous countries for policies that enable abuse. Since New York’s Child Victims Act became law in 2019 and removed the statute of limitation on abuse suits, many Jehovah’s Witness victims have sought justice. That same year, Quebec Superior Court authorized a class-action lawsuit against the Society compensating Witnesses who were abused as minors. Even though the Society pays millions every year in damages, its members perceive the charges as “fake news” and “attacks from Satan.” Persecution is the proof they are doing God’s work. They dig in, further entrenched. They shun those who speak out—victimizing them all over again.

 

New light: It was always around you. It was the sliver of sun behind the eclipse. The welder’s arc. You never looked. It was a question and a doubt, locked in a half-formed thought. You never reached far enough to touch it.

Now, in the ultraviolet glow, you are permanently lit.

 

Many of us never went to university because higher education—the cultivation of our intellects, our interior lives—was seen as a threat to the faith. In a mind colonized by Jehovah, there is no room for critical thinking. In The Truth Book, another piercing memoir about growing up a Witness, Joy Castro writes about the taboo of reading non-Watch Tower material, how she used to smuggle library books onto the school bus and hide them in the lining of her coat. She remembers a book that “features a girl who goes to college, something Witnesses do not do, something no one in our family has done. College, as forbidden as sex… I’ve begun to plot a private future.”

I’m intrigued by this articulation of escape. Every apostate must build their own library of contraband texts to slip into their coat. In many cases, the texts will not exist and the apostate will have to write them, redefining words as they go along. The point is that one cannot imagine escape until there is a language for it. By decoupling the language of apocalypse from religious meanings, I can learn to verbalize personal revolution, and I can think about climate without hitting a wall. Ex-Jehovah’s Witness—and others who’ve left doomsday cults—are primed for denial. We need a way to recognize crises without dismissing them as the alarmism we’ve left behind. In other words, we need to reinvent apocalypse in order to survive it.

My thinking isn’t always so bold. Armageddon clouds hover over me, a permanent sense of dread that something other than climate crisis is coming. I fear that somehow, I will always belong to the Society. The idea drives me mad and I protest it with every breath. I’m still trying to figure out what happened: What is the psychological effect of teaching a child to believe that everyone around them at school will be incinerated on Judgment Day? How could a therapist ever make sense of the silos I’ve created to reconcile not living in the world while living in it?

I hope that when I found writing, I didn’t rediscover religion, but I’m not sure. I will just keep typing new symbols to replace the ones I’ve left behind. I’ve decided to keep writing breakup letters to Jehovah. He can get you, even after you leave.

 

Armageddon: The ocean acidifies. Coral reefs are bleached from memory. The cryosphere melts. Antarctica and Greenland pass into legend. There is flooding in cities that had never needed sea walls. The permafrost thaws. Our imaginations widen to horror. The fourth angel from the Book of Revelation pours his bowl upon the sun and scorches us with fire. The rainforest ignites. At the fifth trumpet blast, smoke ascends from the abyss and darkens the sun. Pipelines gush. We open our mouths to protest, but all that comes out is carbon. Unpredictable storms disrupt food production. Many starve, begging for loaves and fishes. The lion lies down with the lamb: they’re the only creatures left alive. Millions ridicule Greta Thunberg as they turn to pillars of salt.

 

Last summer, my old friend Stephen drank himself to death after years of family shunning that had finally become unbearable. Three quarts of hard liquor on a single night. I wonder what that looks like in the bloodstream. His family wouldn’t hold a funeral, so his friends organized a life celebration at a nightclub where no current congregation member would venture. I couldn’t believe how many of my Kingdom Hall friends showed up, how many had also left the truth. We hadn’t seen each other in twenty-four years. We stood staring, incredulous at the circumstances that had brought us back together. We were each a monolith, a reminder of a distant world. We danced our grief to the beat of Chicago house, to lyrics about love and what love accepts. Love not weaponized. It was a violent opening of closed hearts.

Ian was also there, and thank God, because we couldn’t have gotten through grieving Stephen without him. Ian was big energy and his laughter filled the room. He had always been a troublemaker; his love was bratty and all-consuming. At the end of the night, he took me aside and reminded me to enjoy life because it was short. We made vague plans to meet again in the coming months, then we hugged it out and scattered to catch the last metro.

Ian died a few months later, in a fog of unknown substances. First Stephen, then him. It was hard not to feel like the universe was fucking with me. Who’s next? Would I be able to tell if accumulated pain was trying to kill me? I’m still trying to shake off that summer of death, the stench of flowers and embalming fluid.

 

I’m grateful that the Bloodless Miracle doesn’t shun me. I hope that one day, I can ask her why she allowed the shunning to happen, and express the anger I know I should feel. My mother and I wrestle, alternating attention and avoidance, taking turns silencing each other and listening as we should. Thankfully, most turns are loving. We’re a long way from the day I handed her the ultimate apostate text, Crisis of Conscience by former Governing Body member Raymond Franz. When she refused to take it, I informed her she was in a cult, letting the word hang in the air a few moments before we devolved into a screaming match that would set the tone for the next twenty years of our relationship.

Now, we use a light touch to keep the peace. We tiptoe around the truth, whatever that is. Special days go by unmarked. What right does she have to deny me wishing her a happy birthday? Our small furies eventually pass. I cannot imagine what it was like to be a single mom in the 1970s, when we first started going to meetings. All I know is that her beauty is unchanged.

She will occasionally message me that Armageddon is coming, there is still time to return to Jehovah. How do I respond to a text like that? I showed it to a friend and he cried because it reminded him of his own Witness mother’s texts, the same tone and punctuation.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been worried about her death. I’m more scared now than I was watching her eyelids flit in the ICU. I’m scared I will lose her forever before we can find a meeting place. I’m worried she will die believing in all of this—any of this—having handed her life over to con artists. I’m all for chasing the sacred, for finding moments of beauty in the ineffable. I’ve spent a career encouraging such mysteries. Minority expression needs to be protected. But the sacred has to be free of manipulation, or there can be no sense of discovery; free of dogma, or there can be no awe.

My mother and I don’t have a common language anymore. We use the same words, but now we use them differently. For her birthday, I want to take her on her first trip overseas. I want her to see landscapes so stunning that they steal her breath and she loses all frame of reference. I want her to realize that these places belong to her, that humans—not angels—are responsible for what happens to them. I want her to know the pleasure of finding five currencies in her pocket and not knowing which one to pay with. I want her to feel time pulling against us, gamely and inviting. And us pulling back.

I want to text back: There is indeed still time.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Daniel Allen Cox's essays appear in Fourth Genre, Lambda Literary, The Rumpus, and in a forthcoming collection about Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is the author of four novels published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is past president of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Daniel lives in Montreal. Find him on Twitter at @danielallencox. More from this author →