Saturday, April 24, 2010

Visions Of Glory: A Memory Of Jehovah's WItnesses

Most Jehovah's Witnesses today simply wouldn't know who the late Barbara Grizzutti Harrison was. Harrison had been a member of their sect who left the Watchtower after a stint of service at it's Brooklyn, New York headquarters many years ago. As in all cultic movements defectors who leave for any reason at all immediately become personae non gratae among their social circles, unwelcome dissidents whose presence would taint their social circles with intolerable examples of independent thought and noncompliance. Cultism's ability to engage in a purging of its culture's collective mindset guarantees that such people are branded as traitorous non-persons whose views and experiences are painted with scarlet letters and who are people who essentially cease to exist among them.

For many people in movements like the Watchtower, it's easy to turn such people into pariahs whose malcontent alone is proof that they are not to be listened to. This helps guarantee that their troubling insights be no longer heard, let alone believed - and that the control of the sect over the hearts and minds of their people is rendered absolute and complete. Matters of conscience mean nothing at this point. However, Barbara's life - as anyone's - isn't something one can just dismiss at hand, and what she saw and experienced there is a frank testimony to how a sect illegitimately controls and dominates its' own so completely that it can only be called abusive and yes, cultic.

Several years after leaving the Watchtower and slowly reembracing Roman Catholicism, Harrison penned a personal memoir she wrote of her years growing up within the Watchtower organization after being brought into it at the age of nine by an enthusiastically converted mother. Her book was among the first modern exposes of life as a Jehovah's Witness that deserves to not only be remembered but enthusiastically recommended for personal study.
I first came across this book as Joy and I were starting out in our first forays in countercult ministry back in 1993 and was stunned at how one's view from the outside of something not only misses so much detail and context about it, but can make it appear to be what it is not.

It is gripping, reading and can be read in full at this online version of the book by clicking here: if you want to understand what being part of something larger than yourself when it's giant jackboot heel is poised to come down on your head if you slip up, this is a book you'll never forget:

An excerpt of Harrison's writing ..

There was guilt, and there was glory: I walked a spiritual tightrope.

I feel now that for the twelve years I spent as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, three of them as a member of the Watchtower Society's headquarters staff, I was living out a vivid dream, hallucinating within the closed system of logic and private reality of a religion that relished disaster; rejoiced in the evil of human nature; lusted for certitude; ordered its members to disdain the painful present in exchange for the glorious future; corrupted ritual, ethics, and doctrine into ritualism, legalism, and dogmatism.

I was convinced that 1914 marked "the beginning of the times of the end." So firmly did Jehovah's Witnesses believe this to be true that there were those who, in 1944, refused to get their teeth filled, postponing all care of their bodies until God saw to their regeneration in His New World. (One zealous Witness I knew carried a supply of cloves to alleviate the pain of an aching molar which she did not wish to have treated by her dentist, since the time was so short till Jehovah would provide a new and perfect one. To this day, I associate the fragrance of cloves with the imminence of disaster.) ...

.. I rehearse, I jealously preserve preconversion memories; they flash before my mind like magical slides. I treasure a series of intense, isolated moments. I hoard happy images that are pure, unsullied by values assigned to them by others.

Afterward, there was nothing in the world to which I was permitted to give my own meaning; afterward, when the world began to turn for me on the axis of God’s displeasure, I was obliged to regard all events as part of God’s plan for the universe as understood only by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afterward, meanings were assigned to all things. The world was flattened out into right and wrong; all experience was sealed into compartments marked Good and Evil. Before my conversion, each beloved object and event had the luminosity and impurity of a thing complete in itself, a thing to which no significance is attributed other than that which it chooses to reveal. ..

After my conversion, I began immediately to have a dream, which recurred until I released myself from bondage to that religion twelve years later, when I was 21. In the dream, I am standing in my grandmother's walled garden. At the far corner of the garden, where the climbing red roses shine like bright blood against the whitewashed wall, stands a creature icy, resplendent, of indeterminate sex. The creature calls to me. In my dream its voice is tactile; I feel it flow through my veins like molten silver. I am rendered bloodless, will-less; the creature extends its arms in a gesture that is at once magisterial and maternal, entreating and commanding. I walk toward its embrace, fearful but glad, unable not to abandon myself to a splendid doom. The creature seizes me in its arms and I am hurled out of the garden, a ravaged Humpty-Dumpty flying through dark and hostile space, alone.

I understand that dream to have been telling me my truest feelings, which my conscious, waking mind censored for long hard years: I understand it to be my soul's perception that my religion had isolated and alienated me from the world, which it perceived as evil and menacing, and which I regarded, at the bedrock level of my being, as imperfect but not un-good; my religion savaged those to whom it offered salvation.

For twelve years I lived in fear.

One remembers the words of Roy Batty as he watched his antagonist Decker losing his grip on a rain-slickened skyscraper's edge in the film "Blade Runner":

Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave.