The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses by Joy Castro is another book that’s been hanging out on my Goodreads TBR list for…a while. Ages ago, I had my TBR list in a notebook; then I switched to keeping everything bookmarked in a favorites file on my laptop; finally, after my daughter was born in 2014 and spending approximately 87 hours a day nursing, I used that time to transfer all those books over to Goodreads, and there this book sat, waiting for me to get to it.
I’ve read books by former Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past and other than one (Deliverance at Hand: The Redemption of a Devout Jehovah’s Witness by James Zimmerman), they’ve tended to make me shy away from reading more because they’re all so…bleak. Grim. There’s so little joy in their lives, what with the inability to celebrate holidays, birthdays, etc (every other religion, with maaaaaaybe the exception of Christian Science, it’s enjoyable for me to read about, because there are good things about all of them. Celebrations, feast days, holidays, happiness, joy. All of that is sorely lacking in descriptions of life as a Jehovah’s Witness). Their lives all seem full of nothing but church service after service and drudgery, and although I understood exactly why they left, it didn’t inspire me to read the next ex-JW memoir. The Truth Book is a little different though, as it’s not a straightforward leaving-a-religion memoir.
Joy Castro was adopted into a family that was very active in the Jehovah’s Witnesses church (moreso on her mother’s part than her father’s. He is disfellowshipped- basically excommunicated- for smoking when Joy is young). Her father was fun-loving, always up for a spur-of-the-moment trip to wherever his job with the airlines could ferry them; her mother never ceased to have a sharp, biting comment for or about Joy. Her brother Tony is born when she’s five, and five years after that, her parents divorce due to her father’s serial cheating. It’s when her mother remarries to a man Joy never names that Joy and Tony’s true nightmare begins.
This man is a fellow Witness, a respected leader in their church, but almost immediately, he begins beating Joy and Tony with a belt, punching and kicking them, and of course being verbally creepy with Joy (including in front of Mom, drawing her into these conversations as well). He comes up with complicated rules that the children must follow and beats them if they make a mistake. He holds Joy down and cuts her hair when a piece slips out of place. He comes up with a system of doling out food that ensures the children will starve: he is allowed a double portion of food (because of course he is), Mom gets one portion, Joy gets a quarter of what Mom gets, and Tony gets 1/8 of what Mom gets. If Mom gives him more than that, the stepfather beats him with a belt. In the two years she lives with him, Joy doesn’t grow at all and loses 16 pounds.
The horror doesn’t stop there, and here’s where the trigger warnings come in: while she never writes of explicit, outright sexual abuse, it’s clear that there is MAJORLY inappropriate touching going on, including forced undressing, and some inappropriate photos as well. In one of the most horrifying scenes, Mom professes weariness due to her husband’s sexual appetite and appears to be considering either asking Joy to help him out or offering Joy up to him, when the last time her daughter complained of her stepfather’s touching, Mom’s reply was, “Ridiculous. What would any man see in you?”
I try to keep an open mind, and at first this memoir seemed to be of abusive parents who happened to be Jehovah’s Witnesses (rather than the abuse being related to them being Witnesses), but about halfway through, she tells another Witness family of everything that’s going with her stepfather, and then later tells the church elders.
No one does anything.
Not a single person.
They knew everything that was going on and did nothing. The church elders even told her, after hearing about her stepfather’s physical and sexual abuse, that Joy’s role as a child and a girl is to submit to her stepfather. This, in my eyes, is pure, unadulterated evil, and those who see the abuse and ignore it are no better than the abusers.
Joy is eventually able to escape, going to live with the father whom her stepfather had turned her against, and her brother follows six months later, not without some drama. Life isn’t exactly perfect there either, but it does improve, and the fact that Joy and her brother have survived and become any kind of functioning adults, let alone adults who flourish, is nothing short of a miracle. What they survived was monstrous.
Hearing Ms. Castro recount her stepfather’s horrific abuse and the disgusting way her mother stood by and let it happen made for a rage-inducing read. Multiple times, I had to set the book down and seethe; what kind of parent does that? I would’ve better understood if Joy’s mother had been in dire financial straits before marrying him, but she owned half of what sounded like a successful business (selling it and giving her creep of a husband all the money and becoming a stay-at-home wife at his behest, of course). Due to her church forbidding divorce except in cases of adultery, she stayed, and that infuriates me, for so, so many reasons.
This is another tough read (I seem to be doing a lot of those lately; I think I need a breather after this). I didn’t learn anything new about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness that I hadn’t already known (Deliverance at Hand, which I mentioned before, is a more thorough example of that if you’re interested in understand more about the specifics of the religion), but I now understand how deeply the church can affect a parent and what it makes them willing to tolerate and sacrifice in order to remain a loyal member. What a shame, for all of us, that so many people are willing to forfeit their children’s health and physical safety for the hope of a better afterlife. I don’t judge much, but I do judge that, and harshly, because everyone has the right to grow up safe and protected and loved. I wish Ms. Castro and her brother all the peace in the world, and for their being surrounded only by people who love and care deeply for them.
Visit Joy Castro’s website here.