My mum attended a convent school and was a Catholic until a teenager when she met my father. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and introduced her to the cult concepts which she immediately adopted. Myself and all of my sisters were born and raised in the JW cult. We were fed and clothed and materially provided for adequately, for the majority of the time. I do not think we were ever sexually abused. However, I believe my youngest sister thinks differently in her own case. (EDIT: I now understand that the definitions of abuse I was given as a child, were extremely limited and untrue). I am unclear about whether we were ever physically abused. I believe I was loved and cared for, but I think the demonstration of this was often conditional upon us being obedient to my mother, and always conditional to us adhering to the cult rules and regulations.
From birth to the age of 6 I lived with my parents on C.I. and attended a private school in W. from the age of 4. When I was 6, my mum fell pregnant with my sister 2, and we moved permanently to W. and then lived in a large house in an affluent Jewish community. My father earned a lot of money and we were very well-off. When I was 9 my mum had my sister 3, and sister 2 and I were moved to state schools. My mum suffered terrible Post-Partum Depression although I do not think it was well recognised at that time and I don’t know if she had any treatment. I only remember it as I had to physically care for myself and my sisters often.
When I was 10, I took exams and gained entry to a very good public school in S., and despite long hours travelling alone on public transport, began to attend. When I was 11 my mum had an affair with my step-dad who was not a JW but someone interested in finding out more about the organisation and teachings. My mum told me that my father had already had affairs prior to this, but I do not know if this was true. My parents divorced, and for the following 2-3 year my sisters, mother and I lived in more than 10 different locations, as charity cases with my mum’s friends from the JW’s, as well as in caravans and rented accommodation. It was unpleasant and confusing. My mum was eventually expelled from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunned by all who knew her, making her deeply depressed and lonely, and I became her confidant. I was told things about my father that I don’t think are appropriate for any child to hear. Despite the shunning, my mum continued to strongly enforce the all-consuming cult way of life at home, in fact, she became even more strident about this in order to ‘prove her dedication to god’ in order to re-enter the cult.
After 2 years of making a 5 hour round trip to school every day, my mum transferred me to a state school on C.I., where we were now living again. My mum and my step-dad married when I was about 13 or 14, were readmitted to the cult, and when I was 15 my mum had my sister 3. We all lived in a tiny 2 bedroom bungalow. In retrospect, we were very, very poor (choices were often made between heat or food). My sisters and I continued to see my father every weekend from when I was 11-15. My father drank quite heavily during this period and I was responsible for my sisters and their welfare when we stayed with him. My over-riding memory from this time period when with him, is of being frightened and worried that something would happen to my sisters and it would be my fault. He often drove drunk with us in the car and left us for the day with the parents of his friend while he went to the pub. When we left my mum’s each Saturday we were made to line up in the hall and promise my mum that we would tell my dad nothing about our home life. In retrospect, I think she was paranoid about this. It was quite surreal to go from poverty and religious fanaticism during the week, to wealth and being left to our own devices, each weekend. I struggled to make sense of this. My father was extremely uncommunicative with us. I believe he was a coward and also incapable of confronting my mother.
Early Teen Years
From the age of 12 or 13 I started to internally question why other families did not live in the same way that we did. The lives of my sisters and myself were regulated and entirely dictated by the rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were raised to believe that everyone in the whole world who was not a JW was being operated and used by the devil, even our grandparents (my mothers’ parents), therefore we should always be on guard. There were rules about what we could wear and how we should dress, including our hair, make-up and jewellery. We were not permitted any friends who were not JWs nor allowed any social life outside of the cult. We could not listen to music or watch anything on television nor read anything that had not been pre-approved. We were not allowed to date, nor to celebrate Christmas, Easter or birthdays. If our grandparents bought us gifts for these occasions, my mother put them in the bin. Women were considered weak and inferior to men and should be submissive to them. We were taught that racism was wrong but homophobia was right. We were taught that it would be better to die than to accept a blood transfusion, which was against god’s will. Masturbation was a sin as was any sexual experimentation outside of marriage, and even then, only certain types of sex were permitted. We had to pray and study the teachings of the cult at home daily, and 3 times a week at organisational meetings. These meetings were the highlight of our social life, the only interaction permitted without pre-approval. We would be tested on our knowledge regularly. We also had to engage in ‘field-service’ regularly – that is, publicly trying to recruit and convert new followers. This was excruciatingly embarrassing as a child. We were encouraged and praised when we gave performances demonstrating how to recruit converts, or if we participated in the meetings by giving a scriptural answer. Any form of education beyond the state minimum was severely discouraged, therefore college or university was never discussed as an option. The reason for this was that JWs firmly believe Armageddon (the end of the world) is imminent, as in, it could arrive at any moment. Any moment not spent devoted to God is a selfish waste of time. We were taught that we would never be deserving of God’s love, and that we could never be certain that we had it, but that was not an excuse to stop trying. Any attempts to question how we lived and the purpose of it all were met with a withdrawal of love and approval, and dire threats about what would happen to us, mainly death and total ostracism from all our friends and family, if we left the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My only other frames of reference during my teenage years were weekends with my father, and school life. I was somewhat of an outsider at school until I learned how to make people laugh. I then gained a measure of acceptance, although I had no-one to talk to about my home life (I was far too frightened and did not know how to verbalise my situation). As my other frame of reference was my dysfunctional, uncommunicative father at weekends, I felt enormous responsibility for the physical and emotional wellbeing of my sisters and unable to do anything about the situation there.
Throughout their marriage, my mum and step-dad were continually verbally and physically violent towards each other. I can remember my step-dad threatening to leave, and my mum throwing herself across the car bonnet to prevent him from driving away. He still drove off with her clinging on to it. I can remember my mum shoving my step-dad through a glass partition dividing our sitting-room and hallway and shattering all the glass. When they verbally and physically attacked each other, my sisters and I would try to retreat to a safe area until it was over. Sometimes my mum would try to involve us in their confrontations. In 2003 my step-dad asked me if I remembered stabbing him in the shoulder-blades with a kitchen knife in an attempt to defend my mum. The confrontation only ended when my grandfather arrived. Until my step-dad asked me this, I had had no memory of it. I felt terrible and very guilty when I remembered what I’d done.
When I was 14 or 15 I started to ‘be a problem’. I desperately wanted to fit in so I began skipping school and smoking and drinking and dating. I did these things in secret and I was always terrified of being found out. I started to lie to school friends about celebrating Christmas and birthdays because I wanted to be the same as everyone else. I used to climb out of my bedroom window at night to go and meet friends. At times, I would get found out and my mum would confront me. Sometimes she would physically try to force me to take off make-up, wear the clothes she wanted etc. Other times she would bargain with me. If I did certain things for her she would give me concessions (such as being allowed to have a Saturday job in a shop owned by a JW). Once I was allowed to go to a disco. A lot of my memories from this time are negative and confusing. I started to refuse to go to visit my father.
I ran away from home on 4 or 5 occasions and the police always brought me back. I don’t remember anyone ever asking me why I ran away or if anything was wrong. Every time I came back my mum would ostracise me within the family and make my sisters do the same. I wasn’t allowed to socialise with my sisters or play with them or talk to them alone. I believe this is one of the reasons why they treat me as they do even today, and think it’s acceptable. The last time I ran away, I was 16 and I had a boyfriend and went to stay on his mum’s sofa. I think she felt sorry for me. A week later my mum came to her house and said the police told her as I was nearing 17, it would be better to let me go off alone. My mum told me she had paid the rent for me for a room for a month in a house-share with 3 men and told me if I didn’t want to live by god’s rules then I was alone. I was not allowed to see my sisters or talk to them without my mum’s presence. I moved into the house with 3 men I did not know and tried to find work. I didn’t have any frame of reference really on how to relate to people who weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses or how anything in normal life worked, so I just tried to pretend that I knew how other people lived. I felt worried, alone and hopeless. I also felt guilty and ashamed. I do not know why. I worked 3 jobs – cleaning toilets from 6am-9am in a horrible pub, waitressing from midday to 3pm, then again serving drinks in a club from 6pm-midnight.