Growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness household in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, during the 1980s, Kyria Abrahams found it a challenge to stay on the straight and narrow. According to her parents, evil lurked everywhere—especially in all things popular and enticing to a sheltered young girl, including jewelry (“witch trinkets”), the Smurfs (“little blue demons”), Dungeons & Dragons (especially Advanced Dungeons & Dragons), and “sinful and pornographic” pinup magazines like Tiger Beat and Teen Beat. If Kyria believed her mom & dad, keeping free from the lure of spiritism was a life and death matter, a choice between eternal salvation and a fiery death at Armageddon.
To make a long story short, Abrahams didn’t make the right choice. Upon turning 18, she found herself married to man she didn’t love, committed adultery, and was soon “disfellowshipped”—exiled from the only world she had ever known. In her recently-released book, “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing” (Touchstone), the now thirty-something Abrahams explores the “ironic absurdity” of her youth, and how she was saved, if you will, by the same kind of worldy people she used to pray would be smitten by God’s wrath.
Following is Abraham’s dialogue with Failure, in which she explains the implications of being disfellowshipped, offers her take on organized religion, and opines on how to react if Jehovah’s Witnesses show up on your doorstep.
Most people don’t know much about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Who are they? And what do they believe?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian sect that dates back to the late 1800s. They believe that they are the one true religion that will be saved at Armageddon. If you’re not a baptized JW, you will be crushed by fire and hailstones on the great day of our Lord.
It’s the duty and privilege of Jehovah’s Witnesses to speak to everyone in the world before Armageddon and give them the chance to convert. However—and here’s the plot twist—Satan was cast out of heaven in 1914 and ever since that day he has been trying to trick God’s servants into turning away from Jehovah and following him instead. You can pretty much extrapolate where the religion goes from there.
Is there any method to how Jehovah’s Witnesses determine who or what is possessed? Dungeons & Dragons and Ouija boards are understandable, but the Smurfs?
I believe you can simply swipe your Smurf with a Satanic-detector pen—the ink turns black in the presence of demons. Or, hold your children’s toy up to the light and look for the watermark and a security strip bearing the name of Jehovah. Even as a child, I don’t think I truly believed the Smurfs could be bad. I knew Gargamel [sworn enemy of the Smurfs] was a warlock, so I thought that evil could rub off on the Smurfs due to his proximity to them within the cartoon world. But it was hard to imagine that the Smurfs themselves could harm me. I just nodded my head, agreed they were Satanic, and tried not to rock the boat.
When you were growing up, how did you discern what was acceptable and what wasn’t?
It’s pretty arbitrary. For example, wedding rings are pagan, yet a woman needs to be “protected” by wearing the ring and publicly declaring she’s married. That’s a trade-off JW’s speak openly about. I remember being 10 years old and listening to a discussion about how wearing a wedding ring will keep your wife from getting raped. Not getting raped trumps being pagan.
But there’s no rhyme or reason as far as I can see, because you can’t make decisions about things like Spiderman and modern medicine using a book that was written 3,500 years ago.
What sins rise to the level of getting you cast out of the congregation?
Sex and drugs are the top offenders, but the main reason for disfellowshipping someone is if they lack repentance and have a worldly attitude. So, smoking is a sin, but most people don’t get disfellowshipped for smoking. However, if you slide into the Kingdom Hall, light up a fat Cuban, and start insisting that the rules about smoking don’t apply to you, they’re gonna kick you to the curb.
What are the implications of being disfellowshipped?
Your life gets awesome. But first, everyone you know disowns you and treats you like a pariah. Everyone gossips about you behind your back and ignores you if they see you on the street. It’s high school bullying, which is a very effective form of control and abuse. But after you get new friends, life is awesome.
Have your parents read your book?
I haven’t heard anything from my father, but my mother said she read half of it. She thinks I’m talented but confused, and that a lot of things in the book are untrue. She also wishes I had written a children’s book instead. She says I was always very good at those.
What kind of relationship do you have with your parents and family?
My brother is a very cool guy who, unfortunately, lives on the opposite coast. My relationship with my parents is non-existent. I did keep in touch with my mother for a while, but that relationship mostly consisted of her sending me a card about two weeks after my birthday saying she’d been thinking of me on my “special day.” Then she’d go on to talk about people at the Kingdom Hall who love Jehovah, with no recognition that I’m not actually a Jehovah’s Witness.
Was writing the book cathartic?
At times. But I was so overwhelmed with making my life story accessible and readable that I didn’t really have time to have any personal epiphany. I think the main catharsis took place before I wrote the book, when I thought I was [stand-up comedian] Bill Hicks and wrote a bunch of vitriolic essays about religion and spirituality. Those were very cathartic to write. Then I re-read them and realized they sucked. I’m not Hicks. He died of cancer, much like those essays.
Have you found that readers are sometimes misinterpreting what you’ve written?
Yeah, definitely. Specifically, a lot of people have said they wanted to reach into the book and smack me. But I want to reach into the book and smack me, too. That’s kind of the whole point.
Also, people have said it’s unclear how much of my life was created by being a Jehovah’s Witness. I think it’s great that people are unsure about that, because that’s the core of the book. Was I messed up by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or was I just a brat? The [Frederick Perls] quote at the beginning sums it up best: “Many factors come together to create this specific unique person which is I.”
I was hoping that people would have a dialogue about that, and was surprised when people were annoyed that I didn’t answer the question for them. That’s when I realized that my book is Mumblecore. I know that sounds really pretentious, but what I mean is, people sometimes won’t like a movie because that movie has an unlikable character. I’ve noticed some people have reacted the same way to my book.
What is your stance on organized religion?
It’s creepy, but some people need it. You can’t just take away religion and not have something else to put in its place. Some people can’t function without a very specific set of rules on right and wrong. I wouldn’t take religion away from someone just because I think it’s ridiculous to believe that a Necco wafer turns into human flesh on your tongue.
Personally, I will sit in a church and pray as long as no one else is there. I’m in churches all the time. I love them. The second the service starts, though, I’m out.
How have ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses responded to your book?
The ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses have made writing this book incredibly rewarding. I’ve met some great people online, mostly on Facebook. And I get beautiful emails from people telling me how much they relate to different parts of the book, how they laugh and cry. One woman said that she doesn’t feel like she’s crazy anymore. That really struck me. Somehow, I made someone feel normal, even though I never felt normal myself. That made me feel normal. So it’s been very cool.
You grew up a Jehovah’s Witness but in the end it seems you still ended up possessed by demons. How does that make you feel?
[Laughs]. The only demon I am possessed by is the bronze Buddha in my apartment. Peace and acceptance is just so Satanic.
Do you have any regrets?
I don’t believe in regrets. Everything that happens to us is an opportunity to learn and grow. The only mistake I regret is the one I don’t learn from.
Now some people believe that God creates situations for us. While I don’t believe God is directing my car accidents, I think it’s a good metaphor. I’ve definitely had horrible things happen to me that I now describe as “God” because they forced me to be honest with myself and make changes in my life.
Advise our readers: If Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at their door, how should they react?
Tell them that you are disfellowshipped. Tell them you are an apostate and, if possible, convince them that you are into witchcraft. You can’t argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses. They love to debate—they live for it. If you engage them, they will believe that they are “planting the seed of God’s word” in your brain.
I’d also caution against being mean to them. They’re used to having doors slammed in their face, and it makes them feel like martyrs. Basically, you’re not going to convince them that they are wrong, but you might be able to freak them out.
Are you disappointed the Apocalypse hasn’t arrived?
I am devastated. I was really hoping to live in paradise and own a pet panda. However, I do live in a Japanese garden with a Bengal tiger, a friendly child, and wicker basket with grapes the size of my head. I hope it lasts forever.