memoir

The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses- Joy Castro

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.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

We’ll Fly Away- Bryan Bliss

It is easy to forgive the innocent. It is the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

                                                                    -Sister Helen Prejean

If you’re looking for a book that reaches out and punches you in the gut until you’re doubled over and gasping for air, We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss is the book you need.

Luke and Toby are high school seniors, two best friends whom every adult has failed miserably their entire lives. Luke’s dad took off years ago, leaving him with his piss-poor excuse for a mother who constantly leaves zero food in the house and five-year-old twin brothers for whom he’s majorly responsible. Toby’s dad uses him as his personal punching bag, something the teachers at school pretend not to notice. It’s always been Luke and Toby, the only ones looking out for each other, and they’ve got plans: Luke’s got a wrestling scholarship to Iowa next year and they’ll both be gone then, leaving North Carolina and all the many ways it’s hurt them behind.

But it’s never quite as simple as that. With the introduction of Annie, a new girl from Chicago, Luke and Toby’s friendship is tested for the first time, and Toby finds himself looking for comfort and approval in places he knows he shouldn’t. Things aren’t getting any easier for Luke, either; he’s got the wrestling match of the year coming up, and his mom has brought home a new boyfriend (an adult who calls himself Ricky; I’ll let you infer what kind of guy he is). Toby’s dad gives him a car, but of course there’s a catch; Mom and Ricky disappear; Toby starts hanging around with an older woman whom Luke knows isn’t good for him. All these events lead up to a terrible conclusion, one that’s made known at the start of the book: Luke is writing letters to Toby, the only way he can communicate with him, because Luke is on Death Row.

There’s a bit of a twist at the end that I think most readers will see coming long before its arrival. What we’re truly kept guessing, though, is exactly what Luke has done in order to end up with a death sentence hanging over his head. There’s an obvious answer, but his life is full of so many horrible people (whom Mr. Bliss is careful to never let become caricatures) that the obvious answer just wasn’t the only one. After I finished the book, I logged it in my Goodreads account, then went upstairs and burst into tears in the bathroom.

This is an emotionally heavy story that will rip your heart out, Indiana Jones-style, and run it over a few times with the lawn mower for good measure. Almost every facet of Luke and Toby’s lives is a tragedy; their only escape from the grueling horror of their everyday reality is their time together, often spent in a secret hideout in the woods. But as things change for them, there’s a new, fresh heartbreak on every page, and you’ll be met with the stark realization of exactly how we treat children who have been failed every step of the way: as so much garbage which we’re eager to be rid of, cheering on their deaths as we do.

Back in the ’90s, I read Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate by Sister Helen Prejean (normal reading for a 14-year-old? Probably not), which sparked a lifelong interest in prison, how prisoners are treated, and an opposition to the death penalty. So when I saw We’ll Fly Away as a suggestion for Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge (as an epistolary novel), as soon as I read the synopsis, I was in. And I wasn’t disappointed, although I’m still in tears over the story, and the injustice of it all. I don’t think this is a book I’ll get over anytime soon, nor do I think I’m meant to. This is the kind of book that stays with you forever, and maybe it’s the kind of book that will have you reconsidering the way you look at the people around you.

We’ll Fly Away reads easy but it isn’t an easy read, and I don’t think there are words for how deeply I recommend this. Read it with a box of tissues nearby, along with some anger management skills, because you’ll need both.

Visit Bryan Bliss’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction

The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander

My first fiction of the year, and it was everything I look for in a novel.

The best kind of fiction, in my opinion, makes me feel something. It entertains, of course, and it educates, but above all, it stirs up deep emotion. The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander does all of that.

Narrated by several characters, The Magdalen Girls is set in Ireland in the early 1960’s. Teagan Tiernan is 16, navigating life with an alcoholic father and a doormat mother, only to find herself the object of the new parish priest’s lustful attention. Nora Craven, a more headstrong teenager, throws herself at the boy who just dumped her, meeting the wrath of her sharp-tongued parents when they walk in on her. Through no real fault of their own, both girls end up tossed away like so much garbage at the Magdalen Laundry of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption, forced to slave away in silence in terrible conditions, with no pay, inadequate food, where every last bit of their identity is stripped away and they are reminded of their status as sinners at every step. Teagan and Nora befriend each other, bringing another girl, Lea, a favorite of the nuns, into their confidence as well.

Escape plans are hatched, implemented and foiled; the entire community and all of society views them the same way as the Sisters do, as irredeemable trash whose only hope is to work themselves to the bone in order for God to forgive them. They’re starved, beaten, burned, sprayed with freezing water, all in the name of God and redemption. Tragedy follows the girls at every corner, and while redemption does finally come for one, it’s at a terrible, terrible cost.

The Magdalen Girls brought tears to my eyes and made my hands shake with rage. I’d known about the laundries before I read this book, but not quite the full extent of their horror. Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up, but- shocker- we were never taught about these. I first learned of them when they were discussed on a parenting messageboard I participated in in my early 20’s (at that point, I hadn’t considered myself Catholic for some time), and was horrified. And my horror has only grown the more I’ve learned about them.

Apparently, sexual sin in Ireland at this time was akin to murder, and even sexual thoughts were enough to condemn a young girl. While some of the women forced into the laundries were prostitutes, others were rape or incest victims; still others were so pretty that they were considered at risk for sexual sin and were locked away on that charge alone. Pregnant women were forced to give their babies up for adoption- there was no other option- and some women were imprisoned in the laundries for life. Those who were allowed out found themselves ill-prepared for life on the outside, with no education, no job skills, and no social skills, since the nuns forbade talking. Many, if not all, left more damaged (physically, sexually, and emotionally) than when they first entered.

When I was twelve, Sinead O’Connor performed on Saturday Night Live and ripped a picture of the Pope at the end of her song, and it was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. She was universally condemned by the elders who surrounded me, but even back then I had questions about her motives. And once I learned that she had spent time in a Magdalene laundry, suddenly, it all made sense.

This book is everything I look for in fiction. It sent me down a path, Googling everything I could find about the laundries. I watched one documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and bookmarked another for when I get time, The Forgotten Maggies. I read article after article after article after article, tearing up, shaking with unabashed fury at the injustice of it all, at a Church so quick to condemn women simply for the sake of being female, and at the utterly complicit society who bought into it all. For a work of fiction to do that, to give voice to so many who were silenced for far too long, that’s a powerful thing, and this is absolutely a book that needed to be written.

V.S. Alexander is a pen name of author Michael Meeske; you can visit his webpage here and follow him on Twitter here.