Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sins of the Father...

At the age of 14, I had a boyfriend.  As a good little Jehovah's Witness girl, I pretended he wasn't my boyfriend, because good little Jehovah's Witness girls don't date until they're ready to marry.  So, for four years I was "not dating" JR.

JR and I spent a considerable amount of time together.  He was my first love, a love that set the pattern for what I was to expect from love in all my future relationships.  Which, unfortunately for me, was not a good pattern at all.

JR was the youngest son of a Jehovah's Witness elder (the equivalent of a priest or pastor).  His mother can only be described as a "Christian martyr" who spent most of her time, when not working, preaching the "good news" of an impending Armageddon to her neighbors.  The rest of her time was spent keeping house.  

JR's father was an abusive man.  He would often get into fist fights with his teenage son or threaten him with a baseball bat.  He and JR's mother slept in separate rooms; his father even kept a lock on his bedroom door.

From the outside it appeared that this was a "spiritual" JW family; a family to be emulated.  But on the inside it was obvious that nothing could be further from the truth.  The first time I went to JR's house for a family dinner, I was struck by the tension in the air.  It was cold and sharp as if a Winter breeze filled the whole house.  As much as I bitch about my upbringing, the home I grew up in was a warm and inviting one.  It felt safe and secure.  JR's did not.  There was always a feeling that something was about to go horribly awry.  And it did.  It always did.

I remember one typical family dinner where JR's father got into a verbal spar with his wife about how distasteful he found the meal she'd made that night. I'd never seen such a display of malice between spouses.  It frightened me. And if I'd known any better, I would have left that house and never returned. But I was in shock.  And that shock kept me pinned to my seat, looking at JR to save me from this uncomfortable situation.  He didn't.  He was as numb as I was.  So I sat there and finished my dinner while JR's parents continued yelling at each other.

Over the four years JR and I were together I became the target of the rage he felt towards his parents.  I would get almost daily phone calls from JR, often drunk, that he'd been kicked out of the house and was contemplating suicide, or worse, leaving the religion.  I spent most of my teen years playing JR's therapist, talking him through another day, while crying alone at night. But JR was not appreciative of my efforts.  I remember so many conversations that would end with him saying, "Game Over.  You LOSE!"  As if every conversation we had was a mind game where he had to be in complete control.

But I loved him.  Or at least I thought that love meant sticking around to help someone when they were down, even to your own detriment.  You see, I was in love with JR's potential.  I thought that if I just loved him enough, he'd turn into this kind person who could love me back.  I even thought to myself "Just stick it out.  Armageddon is almost here.  And after that, God will make him into a better person.  All his flaws will disappear."  But Armageddon never came.  And God didn't make JR into a better person.  And JR wasn't making himself into a better person. And I was coming undone.

As I approached my 18th birthday, I broke up with JR.  I would like to say that the damage ended there. But I had stayed too long.  The mindfuck I'd endured exposed to JR and his crazy family had wormed its way deep into my psyche.  Some days I still feel that cold shiver that pervaded that house run through me, like ice.

In all of my relationships with men since I have fallen in love with their potential and not the reality of who they are.  I see what might be, not what is.  And it has cost me, time and time again.  While I may not have been waiting for God to wave some cosmic magic wand and make the man I love into a person who can fully love me back, I have hung on to wisps of hope that somehow, some way, things are going to change.  But they don't.  They just don't.  People are who they are and when they show you who they are, you should pay attention.

What ever became of JR?  Well, the last time I saw him was at his wedding some 6 years ago.  He was tall and thin and handsome, just as I remembered him.  But nothing really had changed in him.  I was close to his niece then who informed me that JR was as abusive and crazy as he'd ever been, perhaps even worse now.  I took no delight in this, although I was glad that it wasn't me joining him as wife.  JR had wreaked his havoc on my life but at least he would be able to do it no more.  In that I took solace.

But the most memorable moment of JR's wedding occurred when his father and I shared a dance.  

“Who invited you this evening?” JR's father asked me.

“Your son,” I replied.

“I think he still has a soft spot for you in his heart.  I always thought it would be the two of you getting married.” 

“No thanks,” I said.  He looked surprised.  “Your son wasn’t very nice to me,” I said, strangely calm.  

“You never said anything to me,” he said with a tone of empathy in his voice, something I had heard little of in the time I'd known him.  Age and time seemed to have mellowed him in a way I couldn't predict.  

“What was I supposed to say?”  I replied.

“Hmmm…I guess I had something to do with that," he stated, with a glint of regret in his eye. "I wasn’t there for JR.  I worked a lot.  We didn’t get along.”

“I know,” I said, “I know.”   

“So why did you come tonight?  Why didn’t you just tell JR to go jump in the lake?” he mused, laughing.

“Some chapters need to be closed,” I said, with a surprising confidence.  He looked at me and nodded without saying another word.

Later in the evening as I prepared to leave, it was JR's father that met me to say goodbye.  He shook my hand, hugged me and whispered into my ear, “You told me the truth tonight. I’m glad you did.”  

They say that the truth sets you free.  I don't know about that.  But once in a while, if you're lucky, it lets you experience a moment of grace where the past doesn't seem as suffocating as it once was. And perhaps, that is enough.  

tall penguin

13 comments:

Ricercar said...

Touched, Awed and Inspired :)

Thanks for writing this Penguin! Made me want to pick up the phone and connect, for one fleeting fraction of a second - funny! I can identify with a lot of strands in the story.

Wonder what happens to his wife.

Do you feel like you had closure? Hope it helps you let it go. Atleast you have de-personalised from it all enough to look at it abstract and think of patterns and lessons. Which is so amazing!

tall penguin said...

Thanks Ricercar. Great to hear from you.

Closure? Yes. Free? No. I no longer hope for any apology from JR. That moment with his father felt like closure on the issue. But the damage JR did to my psyche during those four years is still in the process of being undone even now, some 18 years later.

But I've learned a valuable lesson; in some relationships (or perhaps in all relationships at some point) it is necessary to ask: how much damage is being done by staying here that I will need to undo later? This question could've prevented me from staying as long as I did with JR, or in any number of other unhealthy relationships, including the one of being in the Jehovah's Witnesses.

One of my big laments in this life is definitely: I stayed too long.

Ricercar said...

so much i wanted to say in response to that but where to find the words :-)

maybe closure is more important than apology in your own healing process? i don't know. when in similar places i have felt that a large part of my holding on is because i want to at that point. because my attraction to that situation is big enough for me to either want to gamble the damage, or be powerless.

:(

Jonathan Mendelsohn said...

That was quite the story. And what an amazing end with JR's father.

I think, though, much of life is a cruel lack of closure. It's why we so often require it of our stories. Precisely because we don't get it in our daily lives.

tall penguin said...

"I think, though, much of life is a cruel lack of closure. It's why we so often require it of our stories. Precisely because we don't get it in our daily lives."

Yes, indeed. When we read, we're always waiting for the "happy ending", or at least some kind of closure that leaves us feeling satisfied. Life offers nothing of the such. It's one of the hardest life lessons to face: not everything gets wrapped up so nicely; there will still be stuff in your emotional inbox when you die.

Anonymous said...

"People are who they are and when they show you who they are, you should pay attention."

Truer words? I have heard none

R. F. Scott said...

Very creative, you had me believing the tale was autobiographical until the scene with JR's father at the end. We're to believe that dialogue occurred with the man described earlier?
Pull the other one, it's got brass bells on.

tall penguin said...

"Very creative, you had me believing the tale was autobiographical until the scene with JR's father at the end. We're to believe that dialogue occurred with the man described earlier?"

Believe what you want. This is indeed the dialogue that occurred.

"Pull the other one, it's got brass bells on."

I don't understand this comment.

Anonymous said...

"They say that the truth sets you free. I don't know about that. But once in a while, if you're lucky, it lets you experience a moment of grace where the past doesn't seem as suffocating as it once was. And perhaps, that is enough."

Just wanted to say that this was one of the most beautiful things I've read in a long time. I've spent my whole day at work browsing through your blog. I'm currently dealing with facing the reality that my entire life up until recently was based on a series of lies. Your stories are cathartic to read. Thank you!

tall penguin said...

Thank you Anon, for your kind comments on my writing.

"I'm currently dealing with facing the reality that my entire life up until recently was based on a series of lies."

Not an easy reality to face. It takes courage to question what we once thought to be true, which is why so few people do it. I wish you well in your journey.

Bill P said...

Growing up in a crazy JW family I can assure you that you are not alone. I would only say as a crazy teen I found a good wife that helped me through all of this kind of stuff. In my mid thirties we have both left and are doing better in many ways. This father was the norm in the rural midwest that I grew up in. My wife still defends the dubs and says it was a country thing. I dunno? This kind of thing happens a lot in cult stories. Wherever JR is in his journey to adulthood, i hope he makes it and I am glad you don't have to be part of that situation. Sometimes they don't ever change, sometimes the jerks (my grandpa) just get old and medicated. After that everyone thinks they have been benevolent family leaders who serve Jehovah. Truth is they just get too old to pull all the fake suicide stuff. Good thing about dissassociation is you don't have to talk to them either.

tall penguin said...

One part of the story I left out was that I stayed with JR as long as I did because I sincerely believed Armageddon was just around the corner and once it came, JR's abusive tendencies would be made right by god and then we'd live happily ever after in paradise.

After four years though, I realized I couldn't bank on that happening. Good thing that. Or else it's quite possible I'd have married JR and still be in the cult.

tall penguin said...

"Good thing about dissassociation is you don't have to talk to them either."

A wise statement, Bill. This is something I've come to realize of late. The shunning used to hurt me deeply. But once I worked through the grief of these lost relationships, I realized that their not speaking to me is really a blessing.