Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

For the first time, an ex-Jehovah's Witness biography has broken into the mainstream. While working Front-of-Store the other day at the bookstore (think glorified Wal-Mart greeter who aimlessly wanders a 20 by 20 foot area offering people book suggestions and directions to the Starbuck’s with a plastered smile hiding the traumatic memory that with a Watchtower and Awake magazine in her hands, she could easily be converting book-lovers into Bible-toting eschatological future-clingers) I came upon this on the “New and Hot Non-Fiction” table.

Written by former Jehovah’s Witness turned stand up comedian, Kyria Abrahams, I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing takes us on the journey of Kyria’s young life through the people-pleasing antics of a child wanting the approval of God and men, the angst of being different because you know the world is going to end any day now, and the inevitable sequelae of a life lived without the advantage of open exploration and a strong sense of self. Sounds like my life. Oh wait, this is my life.

Standing at Front-of-Store with Kyria’s bio in my hands, I smiled. Here was someone like me, someone who had broken free from the constraints of the Jehovah’s Witness world and dared to talk about it. Customers entering the bookstore gave me bewildered looks as I pirouetted around the wooden octagon carrying the new and notables.

I opened the book’s dustcover:

"I'm Perfect, You're Doomed is the story of Kyria Abrahams's coming-of-age as a Jehovah's Witness -- a doorbell-ringing "Pioneer of the Lord." Her childhood was haunted by the knowledge that her neighbors and schoolmates were doomed to die in an imminent fiery apocalypse; that Smurfs were evil; that just about anything you could buy at a yard sale was infested by demons; and that Ouija boards -- even if they were manufactured by Parker Brothers -- were portals to hell. Never mind how popular you are when you hand out the Watchtower instead of candy at Halloween.

When Abrahams turned eighteen, things got even stranger. That's when she found herself married to a man she didn't love, with adultery her only way out. "Disfellowshipped" and exiled from the only world she'd ever known, Abrahams realized that the only people who could save her were the very sinners she had prayed would be smitten by God's wrath.

Raucously funny, deeply unsettling, and written with scorching wit and deep compassion, I'm Perfect, You're Doomed explores the ironic absurdity of growing up believing that nothing matters because everything's about to be destroyed."

Seeing the world “disfellowshipped” in print, in the context of my work-a-day-world, was unexpected. A flood of chemicals rushed through me. Memories of elders and closed-door committees and judgment and shunning came flooding to the fore of my mind. I put the book down and spent the rest of the day trying to get back into my body. I realized it would be a few days before I could read the book.

Yesterday, I returned to work after four days off, and went back to Abrahams book. I held it in my hands, took a deep breath and decided it was time to delve in. I stayed up half the night reading it. I knew that if I stopped at any point I might not be able to pick it up again. The emotional roller coaster of her life, of my life and the added drowsiness of being up til 4 a.m. created an interesting backdrop for the reading. While it brought with it memories, many of them humorous, there was an odd sort of detachment, like I was free-floating above the story, watching her life unfold, watching my life unfold and not knowing if any of it was real. I believe Freud would call that dissociation. I call it my body getting some perspective on the situation.

I cried very little during the read and laughed out loud on more than one occasion. Abrahams has a way of turning a phrase that makes you laugh at the absurd, when really, you should be shaking your head in disbelief. As I pulled the sheets over my head and turned off the light, I was surprised to find myself sobbing quietly. All of it hit me. All at once.

I curled up into a possum-like ball and cried myself to sleep. It was oddly satisfying. Like Abrahams book. I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed is the train wreck you can’t turn away from, if the train were filled with confused, strange and sincerely misguided fundamentalists headed to a panda-filled eternal paradise in some not-so-distant post-Armageddon world.

In the end, the train wrecks, and a woman emerges from the rubble. The world hasn’t ended. It isn’t going to end. And the show, as they say in the biz, goes on.

tall penguin


falterer said...

Heh. I saw the phrase "panda-filled" and knew exactly what you were talking about. Yay for in-jokes!

I've only recently started talking to the uninitiated (you know, "worldly" friends) about my experiences as a JW and ex-JW. That part of my history has become sort of embarrassing to me, so I don't really tell people until I trust them a lot. They often I should write a book about it. I laugh and tell them almost every ex-JW is writing a book about it. Great to hear that someone's book has broken through to the mainstream. I'll have to check it out.

...ooh, looks like it's available on Kindle, too...

Tammie said...

i found out about the book while reading Bust magazine. i couldn't believe my eyes at first.

i loved it! plowed through it in two days then gave it to my mom(!) who finished it in three days.

Kyria Abrahams said...

This was so cool to read and so nice of you to write. Thank you!