As the editor of several websites I am frequently approached by former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have written a book about their life stories and experiences while involved in The Truth™ or escaping from it. Often I get news releases announcing that “a former JW has written a book about his life and how he left the Watchtower cult after discovering the ‘real truth about the Bible…’ ”
I will make an effort to read at least a sample of these books. On the other hand, I refuse to waste my time on any that are clearly stories of “evangelical awakening” by writers who claim to have “spoken to God” or have been “infused with Holy Spirit.” However, if I find that a book is truly interesting – even if flawed in some ways – and I think it has value for my readers, then I will try to write an honest but mostly positive review.
On very rare occasions I’ll get a book that is that is truly unique like The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp. If I can “see the story” and imagine that I am right there “going along for a once in a lifetime ride,” then I will make the time to read it, write an honest review, and share it with my readers. It’s Going to be OK (but not like we thought) fits perfectly into that category.
Written by Pamela Powers Lawson and her husband, Phil, It’s Going to be OK… will be especially appealing to present and former Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their description of the years they spent as full-time pioneers. As fully dedicated Witnesses life can be hard – and just “getting by” is never easy. But an unexpected chain of events while they are serving in a small congregation blocks them from achieving their life-long dreams of serving Jehovah in expanded capacities.
As one reviewer [“stb”] accurately reports on Amazon.com, “This book is a combination of two books…[the first] is a detailed look into the culture of the 1970’s South, as seen through the eyes of someone inside a conservative, Christian sect…[the second part] is the story of Pam and Phil trying to reinvent and rediscover themselves.”
Because of my schedule over the past four months, I had very little time to set aside and read the book straight through. I had a copy of the Kindle edition that I would read on my SmartPhone while waiting in a doctor’s office, killing time while my wife shopped, or whenever I was otherwise “indisposed.”
Around Christmas time, I decided to set up an email interview with the Lawson’s to help me fill in some of the blanks. They agreed and on New Years day I received the wonderful exchange below that proves what a truly delightful and interesting couple they are.
1. Can you point to one incident or personal “revelation” that made one of you decide to break from the JWs, what would it have been? Which one of you were the first to decide you wanted out?
PAM: Not one. It was many incidents over time, living in many locations. It was a dawning that these incidents — that happened to us and others like us — were a reflection of something systemic within the organization. Within its structure and methods. We could stick around and self-destruct. Imagine we could help inspire change (we did attempt that.) Or, recognize we no longer fit. Accept that our connection with this institution, that had channeled our aspirations and formulated our beliefs since childhood, had run its course. That growth would now happen another way.
PHIL: We left at the same time, at age 39. Pam wrote her way out, during the process of documenting our experiences. I analyzed my way out. I was a prolific researcher. But I had become aware of my own sensibilities, too. I stopped fixating on dogma details and zoomed out. Got past the bombardment of projected “truths” and paid attention to what I saw, to what I felt.
2. What were your personal feelings about the failed 1975 prediction?
PAM: We were 20-year-old pioneers on a great adventure when 1975 came and went. We were committed to that path regardless of a failed date. But it was mysterious to us when the Society attempted to disappear that date from its history. We both had childhood memories of ‘countdown to 1975’ posters displayed during service meetings.
PHIL:In the early 90s, when I consulted at Bethel as a businessman, I referenced the “1975 thing” in a conversation with a senior member of the writing department. He replied: “What 1975 thing?” I balked: ‘You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. People made life decisions based on it.’ I even created a 35-year micro-data timeline analysis of baptisms versus net publisher losses and sent it to Bethel. It showed a big spike in numbers, then rapid decline, in the years surrounding that date. It included productivity stats before and after. Sometime later an acknowledgement of 1975 turned up in a Watchtower article. But, if memory serves, it was characterized as over-zealousness by individual members.
3. Were you aware of the Ray Franz incident and the purge at Bethel that followed?
PAM: Yes. Overall paranoia set in. Immature elders, on heightened alert, searched for dissenters and often misinterpreted the actions of dedicated creative thinkers. For instance, during a trip to Bethel in 1984, an attempt on our part to do the right thing backfired when we met with two elders there.
PHIL: To explain, we had earned the trust of many publishers in the congregation. They felt safe to share, with both Pam and I, details of personal struggles they were experiencing. Some involved child sexual abuse. We also had firsthand experience with the local elders’ inability to handle those complex issues. We were overwhelmed and seeking guidance.
The elders at Bethel instead, informed the circuit overseer of our visit. He in turn contacted the local body. A short time later, they staged a bizarre hearing in which I was ‘on trial’ for my failings as an elder. We had just moved to Texas and I flew back for it. Suffice it to say I did not receive a positive recommendation for reassignment.
4. Now that you look back, do you feel that all those years you spent in full-time pioneering and living on the raw edge of poverty were worth it?
PHIL: The poverty wasn’t fun. And life on the fringes of society takes its toll. But it did force us to hone skills that have benefited us in incredible ways. In 1974, we were living in poverty in a trailer in Alabama. In 1984, we were working for a fast-track company in Dallas that bought us Volvos and a trendy condo. In 1994, we were traveling on business internationally, while living in the Hollywood Hills. By 2004, we were living in a rocky mountain cabin. I had just co-authored a book and filed a U.S. patent on a new type of evaluative technology that displays the interconnected whole of any complex system. We did all this with no college degrees.
PAM: When we were pioneers those efforts were genuine, the labors of love, real. It fortified us for what followed: Our journey of discovery; the blazing of a new trail. Because the rules of life, the one’s we’d been taught by our relatives and spiritual leaders, were no longer working.
5. Is there anything that you would want to say to current JWs, their born-in children, or those who are studying with JWs now?
Phil: About three years ago, I unpacked my JW books — which included a sampling of most all the books published by the Watchtower Society — and placed them on shelves in my library along with my secular books. I was shocked to realize how few JW books there really were and how tediously repetitive and limiting the information in them was. Our world today is complex, but it’s also amazing. If you’re not excited about life, fully engaged in life, do something about it right now.
PAM: We associate with belief systems for a reason. They reflect our needs, hopes, perceptions of reality, our people. I spent a long time preserving and protecting the beliefs I had inherited. But my compartmentalized religious experiences eventually taught me this lesson: The importance of seeking the “whole” picture. The root word for holy is whole, you know. That has become our mission ever since.
6. If you were 20 years old again, what would you do differently now that you know what you know?
PHIL: We wouldn’t know what we know, we couldn’t do what we do, if we hadn’t gone where we’ve gone.
I found It’s Going to Be OK… to be a very enjoyable read. This couple experienced a lot of highs and lows in the years they’ve been together, but have a joy for life unmatched by most couples I’ve met that have histories as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They aren’t bitter about what they had to endure all those years and, as Phil clearly shows at the end of the interview above, are pleased with the way things eventually turned out for them.
If you would like to read a well-written story that provides a very unique look at the life of very active and dedicated missionaries, read this book. I found the first half of the book interesting from a historical view. African-American readers, Jehovah’s Witnesses or not, should find the Lawsons’ experiences while serving in the “Deep South” especially interesting and enlightening in connection with regional inter-racial relationships. I could also relate to some of the times and places they describe because I also lived in Dallas and Hollywood when they did.
It’s Going to be OK (but not like we thought) is available in paperback and Kindle editions. For more information about this great book and its authors, check out their website: