It was an unusual response—something I don’t normally do— triggered by a not-so-unusual email from a Mama’s Club reader, Mariuca Rofick. An ex-Jehovah’s Witness, she told me that she had spent ten years working at Bethel, the equivalent of the Vatican for JWs. I’m not certain why, but I intuitively sensed that she wanted to tell me a story and was fishing for a nonjudgmental listening ear. I was someone who had been there, done that. So at the end of a short email response, I typed, “Now tell me a thing or two about you.” That was a request I’d never made before to anyone based on a single email.
In less than twenty-four hours, Mariuca sent me a heart-wrenching reply. At the end of her email, she wrote, “Sorry! I guess you didn’t ask for my entire life story. Once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I am heading to the car right now, but I will continue later this evening.” When she made good on her promise, I knew I had a whopper of a tale to tell – if she’d let me tell it. It would be a true story with many crazy twists and turns along the way. For some people, it will create a serious “moral dilemma.” For others like me, it’s a heartwarming love story, albeit an unlikely one. And it’s a story which should convince every reader that it’s never too late.
A Life-Changing Knock at the Door
Mariuca was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 7, 1965, two months before my son was born. Her mom claims Mariuca entered this world a lady, a regal child, a quick learner with an even temperament. She took control seamlessly whenever necessary. Now mind you, her three younger siblings didn’t see it that way, asserting that she could be bossy at times. However, when she was just five years old, a strange, against-all-odds event occurred which dramatically changed her life.
Mariuca’s mother was busy working her magic in the kitchen when she heard a loud series of persistent knocks at the front door. Pork chops were browning in the frying pan and potatoes were near their boiling point, but still she decided to stop for a moment to see who was knocking. When she opened the door, a well-dressed woman greeted her with a contagious smile.
“My name is Deanna Smoot and I have some especially good news to share with you. Would it be okay to come inside for fifteen minutes to tell my story?”
Mariuca’s mom said she was preparing dinner and now was not a good time. But if Mrs. Smoot would write down her telephone number, she would call her in the next few weeks. A long-time JW, Mrs. Smoot had never heard that excuse before. But three weeks later, she received the promised call from Mariuca’s mother. A JW style “Bible study” was started.
A year later Mariuca’s family joined what I often refer to as “Mama’s Club.” Why they became members is an important part of this story. But first, you need to know that JWs think how one becomes a member is far more important than why.
Jehovah’s Witnesses love to share interesting and unlikely stories about how this happens. My mother loved to hear those kinds of stories because they reinforced her belief that JWs were the only group that had “the truth” about God Almighty and actually knew how to make the Big Guy in heaven happy. It was even better if you personally told a story at a large convention about a family you converted; it was like the bragging rush one gets at multi-level marketing events when reporting personal sales and recruiting successes. Mama was invited to take center stage many times and always loved the opportunity. Somehow, conversion stories at conventions were the ultimate confirmation that Jehovah works in strange and wonderful ways to bring people into the truth.
And so it was with Deanna Smoot. She became an instant hero with her circuit assembly story about how the Rofick family became JWs. “It was cold when I knocked on her door,” Deanna said. “I wanted to come inside. When the lady said she was too busy to talk, but wanted my phone number and would call me, I was speechless. I’d never heard that excuse before. I gave her my number, knowing it was a waste of time. So when I actually received a call from Mrs. Rofick, it took me by surprise. I told her right away that I hadn’t expected her to call. She, in turn, seemed miffed by my reaction, saying, ‘I told you I’d call, didn’t I?’ Mrs. Rofick didn’t have a clue what the fuss was all about. That would change when she became a JW and learned what the astronomical odds are of a householder calling you back.”
This story received a loud ovation from those attending the assembly. But I wonder how the audience would have reacted had I, Richard Kelly, told the story the following way:
“Mrs. Rofick joined because she wasn’t happy with her life. She had periods of depression and often lost her temper, even in front of Mariuca and her younger brother. She married young with little training on how to raise a family. She had serious questions about God, the purpose of life, and life after death – questions she could not answer. Deanna Smoot claimed she had the answers. Deanna was also very likable, had an air of confidence, and she knew her Bible. Oh how she knew her Bible! At least that’s what Mrs. Rofick thought. She didn’t have a clue how well-trained Deanna was in ‘cherry picking’ verses to make it look like she actually was a Bible scholar.”
I also would have told everyone at the assembly, “When Mariuca’s dad found out his wife was studying with JWs, he was not happy. He was convinced that JWs were false religion in capital letters. Let someone visit with him if they dared and he’d make quick work of their nonsense. He was in good fighting form when an articulate, charismatic married couple met every one of his poorly thought out theological punches. Mariuca’s dad was impressed with the messengers and decided their message must be okay.
“He was looking for a community that would embrace him for his cultural diversity. His father was Bangladeshi and his mother African-American. While he didn’t lack for self-esteem, he wanted to feel needed and valued for his uniqueness. He took an instant liking to the well-dressed couple who told him that God had a plan and an organization of hard-working followers that could use a man of his caliber. They answered all his questions, unaware that they were programmed to give him the impression that they really understood the Bible.”
I’m certain I would have been booed off the stage with a speech like that. But the reader needs to be aware of a grievous handicap which JWs exploit well. Mariuca’s parents seldom read the Bible, and yet they passionately believed it was “the sacred word of God.” They had no idea of what reputable scholars had been saying about the Bible for over two hundred years: who wrote it, why each book was written, who decided what books would be included, what books and verses were forgeries and the differing theologies of each Bible book writer. The Rofick’s were ripe for the picking and easily snookered by experts who knew how to take scriptures out of context. JWs are masters at giving people the impression that their group – and only their group – knows the Bible, that God reveals Bible truths exclusively to JWs.
Childhood as a “True Believer”
For the children of parents who decide to become JWs, there are no options. And so, Mariuca was never asked if she wanted to be a member. She was five-years old and had no say in the matter. But as a child, she had no trouble believing JWs had the truth because that’s what her parents believed. She thought Jehovah God directed the men who set policies and rules for all JWs. God would protect her at Armageddon because she followed all the rules. Being a good JW she didn’t experience the angst that many kids have because they think they’re not worthy of God’s protection when He murders billions of non believers at His great day of vengeance, Armageddon. In fact, Mariuca was a relatively happy child with only occasional bouts of typical JW inflicted guilt and depression – and a true believer.
Mariuca also became an expert at JW shtick. If someone didn’t like going to the meetings or in the door-to-door work, “they didn’t love Jehovah.” If members stopped going to the meetings, “they were falling out of the truth.” If a person was thinking about going to college she thought, “Armageddon is only a year or two away. Why would they want to do that?” If some JWs decided they didn’t want to be members any longer then she believed that “shunning is a loving act to help bring them back to their senses.”
I asked if she was ever bothered by the fact that only men had leadership roles in her congregation and at JW headquarters. She said that hadn’t been a problem for her because her writing, speaking and people skills were utilized and appreciated by the men in authority. She was praised for being a “hard worker.”
Then I asked if the Watchtower Society’s obsessive/compulsive stance on sexual sobriety bothered her? Again, she didn’t see it that way as a child. The only thing that bothered her was the Society’s position that “only JWs will survive Armageddon.” She thought there were too many good people, like many of her non-JW relatives, who would be spared. Other than that, she bought into the Society’s lists of “dos and don’ts.” If you kept busy—and she kept busy—you would be blind to their double standards, inconsistencies, bad science and poorly thought out theology.
Mariuca was baptized at age fourteen in 1979. As part of the baptism process, she was obligated to acknowledge the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, repent of her sins, dedicate her life to doing Jehovah’s will, and acknowledge that JWs were “God’s spirit directed organization here on this earth.” As bizarre as the latter sounds to her today, she willingly made that vow to God and to those attending her baptism.
She took those vows seriously, and so even while going to high school, she “auxiliary pioneered”—seventy hours of door-to-door canvassing a month—several times a year. She had an official role at many circuit assemblies. After graduating from high school, she served as a full-time pioneer while working part-time at a company owned by JWs. At the annual district conventions, she was a secretary in the Chairman’s Office.
A New Life at Bethel
When she was twenty-two (and according to her father “not at all ready”) she married a Bethelite—a full-time worker at the JW headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Six days after the wedding, she joined her new husband at Bethel, living and working there from 1987 to 1997. While at Bethel, she worked in the deluxe bindery performing pressroom maintenance, running the tool crib, handling office records and proofreading.
While Mariuca lived at Bethel, she didn’t realize that institutionalized living for any married couple will handicap their potential for intimacy. It is not a place to be – especially for a newly married couple. It even taxes couples who have been happily married for many years. To complicate matters, the high-control religion practiced by JWs relegates women to second-class status. And the Society is compulsive-aggressive about enforcing sexual “dos and don’ts” on its members. If a couple ends up sexually compatible, it will be sheer luck. So while Mariuca was smart and loved her work, she had no idea about the tightrope she was walking while living at Bethel – and she was not prepared for the precipitous fall awaiting her.
So what is life at Bethel really like for a married couple? Each person is assigned work by a man who most likely has never had professional personnel training. The male supervisor might have poor people skills, as his position in the Club’s hierarchy is paramount to any assignment he may be given to manage people. If the supervisor worked in the real world at a Fortune 500 company, he would be forced to abandon the blatant anti-female sexist personnel policies which are embraced and enforced at Bethel. Otherwise, he’d not only be fired but also subject to never-ending lawsuits.
All new Bethelites are assigned to work in a physically demanding job for five-and-a-half days (forty-four hours) each week. Married couples eat their meals at a pre-assigned ten-person table. They must always sit in the same chair. Only men can sit at the two ends of the table. They are required to get up at 6:30 AM in the morning for six days a week to participate in a morning worship service. It’s like eating and living in a “holier-than-thou” frat house with little intimate time.
All Bethelites are assigned to a congregation in the greater NYC area. Travel time to and from Bethel can be as long as two hours. Bethelites must attend weekly meetings there, participate in the door-to-door work, and do what is needed to help their congregation prosper. For the husband, his resume is enhanced if he serves as an elder and also gives public talks. There is more, but one can quickly see the strain that this constant working for the Lord and trying to impress Bethel leaders—trying to prove that you love Jehovah more than the next guy—can have on a marriage.
On December 5, 1994, at 9:30 am, Mariuca experienced the biggest shock of her young married life – and she didn’t see it coming.
Shattered Dreams – Heartbreak and Heartache
When her husband of seven years said they “needed to talk,” she had no idea what he wanted to tell her. Seated alone in their one-room paper-thin-walled apartment, Charley dropped the “F-bomb.” He admitted that he had committed fornication with one of his Bethel workmates, a married woman – and this wasn’t just a one-night stand. Yes, he still cared for his wife, but now he really loved his new lady friend, Racey Morris. In fact, Mariuca knew that Racey could be a flirt, but going all the way with her husband while living at Bethel—”God’s House”—that was a major shock. It was ironic that Racey was at that very moment giving her husband the same bad news that Charley was reporting to Mariuca.
No one is ever prepared to get that kind of news. Until that very moment Mariuca would have described herself as “a happy person.” She liked her life at Bethel and could not understand how this environment might have contributed to Charley’s poor judgment. She had no idea then of the consequences of the sexually repressive JW policies— policies that described what followers could and could not do in their own bedrooms. While Charley may have had roving eyes, had he and Mariuca been better informed about sexual intimacy from well-trained counselors, this scene might have been avoided.
What Mariuca knew was that Charley had cheated on her, and she was pre-programmed how to respond and what she must do if and when she heard bad news like this. So she told Charley, “Go talk to a JW elder at Bethel and tell him what you’ve done. He’ll know what you need to do.” That’s how one is trained to think in an environment which mandates a prompt confession of sexual infidelity for all its members. You must tell an elder, who is always a man, about your indiscretions and ask for his help. You are forced to get absolution from an unqualified man with no training in marriage counseling – a man who believes women were created only to love and obey their husband.
Charley knew the drill well, as he had already done some serious confessing earlier that morning. But he didn’t tell Mariuca about that. He had a plan and he wanted to be in total control of this conversation. He said, “Yes, I’ll do that. I need to confess right away.” But then he suddenly lost control. Both Charley and Mariuca started crying uncontrollably for nearly two hours. I’m sure that Charley could feel his soon-to-be ex-wife’s pain. She was in shock and maybe in total denial of their situation. He was not proud of what he had done, but he needed to bring closure to his first relationship. At least that was his plan. After all, a good cry never hurt anyone.
An hour before confessing to Mariuca, Charley and Racey jointly admitted their affair to a Bethel elder, sharing all the personal details. They probably described how many times they had sex, where and when it occurred, if anyone might have seen them, if oral or anal sex was involved, and whether they were sorry for breaking God’s commandments. Of course we will never know because what they told the elder was privileged information. If it had been up to Charley, Mariuca might never have learned about the joint confession.
After he and Mariuca stopped crying, Charley told his wife that he still cared for her and that he deeply regretted his poor judgment. Unfortunately, he now loved his new girlfriend and wanted to be with her. For Charley there was no chance of reconciliation.
One can only imagine the pain and shock that Mariuca experienced. There wasn’t anyone she could talk to. Her world was crumbling, and it was all happening at Bethel. As far back as she could remember, Bethel was the place she wanted to be, like Mecca is to a Muslim. This was the world headquarters for the Creator of All Life, Jehovah God. The best people on the earth lived at Bethel. While all of this was a concept that Mariuca had not thoroughly scrutinized, this fantasy world had supported her needs for the last seven years. She thought she was happy and that her life was good, but now all of this was happening to her. Soon she would be a “divorcee at Bethel.” What would people think of her?
If that wasn’t bad enough, she and Charley were required to meet with a three-man judicial committee at Bethel several times over the next two days. Their testimony would be analyzed and scrutinized by that small group of old men who would ultimately decide Charley’s fate. They would also consider the role, if any, that Mariuca had in holding back from satisfying Charley’s sexual needs during their marriage.
“Fair and Balanced” – Facing a Judicial Committee
At the first session held the following day, Mariuca and Charley sat together in front of the three judges. One of the elders wondered if Mariuca should be present while another elder believed it would be better if she was there to hear Charley’s testimony. They stopped, excused themselves and went outside to reach agreement one way or the other. When they returned, Mariuca was asked to leave. Later they called her back in and asked several personal questions. Over the next two days, Mariuca and Charley were never present together at any of the judicial meetings.
Mariuca remembers how quickly she accepted the decision to have separate meetings as something Jehovah must have wanted. But over the next few months she could not stop thinking how unfair it was that she was never asked to comment on what Charley may have said about her and their marriage. In fact, that decision continued to haunt her for many years. It was a small chink in the armor, a tiny leak in the dam, but still she believed JWs had the truth and anyone who was not a JW was controlled by the Devil.
During the two days of interrogation, Charley moved out of their room. He and Racey were communicating with each other like they were a couple. Racey even called Mariuca’s room on one occasion and asked if she could speak to him. Mariuca said “no” because the elders told her that Racey and Charley should not be communicating with each other.
While reflecting on that call from Racey, Mariuca asked me, “I wonder what would have happened if I had put down the phone, walked to the elevator, gone up to Racey’s room, knocked on her door, and when she opened it, I’d punched her in the nose? Would the Bethel elders have simply given me a slap on the wrist?” She double-winked at me and said in jest, “I bet they would have.”
Mariuca also recalls that two months after Racey was dismissed from Bethel, a picture of her appeared in The Watchtower magazine. Racey had posed for it before she and Charley confessed. No one seemed the wiser when Racey’s image was inadvertently published. Mariuca was at the Monday night Watchtower Study and carefully placed a song book over the image when that page was up for discussion. A friend in the Graphics Department knew how offensive Racey’s picture would be to Mariuca and called to apologize for the faux pas.
I’m sure that story was told many times at Bethel, but only in private. After all, “God’s organization” could not possibly make a mistake like that. To suggest anything otherwise would only “bring reproach on Jehovah.”
On Mariuca’s last meeting with the judicial committee, she was asked if she would take Charley back or planned on divorcing him. Mariuca informed them that Charley had been very clear that he loved Racey and wanted to be with her. She asked, “How is this choice actually in my hands?” But still, they needed a decision. As painful as it was for her, she remembers almost laughing because it seemed that the elders could not seriously think she had any real choice. Perhaps she could leave Bethel with Charley and later hope to convince him to stay with her. But she told them that her only reasonable, logical and realistic choice would be to divorce him.
When the judicial meetings concluded, the verdict was unanimous. Charley and Racey would not be disfellowshipped. The judges decided that they were “sufficiently repentant,” and only a minor reprimand was necessary – although they would have to leave Bethel. No one normally gets reprimanded that lightly, so the verdict was a big shock to everyone at Bethel.
The decision was a jolting and emotional blow for Mariuca. What had Charley said that allowed the elders to make that kind of decision? That was not standard protocol for JWs at Bethel – or anywhere else. Instead, it actually cast suspicion on Mariuca, leaving the impression that Charley had some good reason to be unfaithful to her.
The “Joy of Sex” – or Lack Thereof
Today, Mariuca thinks about that very challenging time in her life and is embarrassed to remember how naïve she was when she and Charley were first married – due in large part to the Society’s policies related to sex.
“I did not know much about sex other than what I had read in the Family Book and Youth Book. Only that a man and woman should lie close together, how the man’s organ fits into the woman and they derive pleasure from it. It seems impossible today that I could have been so child-like, knowing nothing about sex, let alone my own sexuality. But growing up as a JW, I was forever being warned about Jehovah hating masturbation, sex before marriage, adultery and oral sex. ‘Sex’ was a dirty word and, at best, a distraction to pleasing God. If you were strong, you could resist and pretend the sex drive didn’t exist. That’s kind of how I was. The Watchtower advised men to get married if they ‘burned with passion.’ (1 Cor 7:9) But it was all about the man. A woman’s sexuality and needs were never addressed. For her, ‘any port in the storm’ will do.
“Anyway, for the seven years we were married, it was all about Charley. I thought I had done my wifely duty. Unfortunately, the magic spark some couples achieve was beyond my reach. So when Charley said he had cheated on me, one of the first things I asked him was, ‘Did she have an orgasm?’ This is embarrassing to admit today, but I thought maybe he had tired of me because I couldn’t reach one.
“If you’re curious, Charley didn’t answer my question. However, the last thing he said to me before packing and leaving our small room at Bethel was, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’ Small consolation, but I have chuckled about that ill-timed comment many times over the years. He just couldn’t have his cake and eat it too, and somehow he thought I would be flattered with that parting shot.
“Most of the members in the congregation Charley and I attended in Bedford Stuyvesant appeared to be hurt over the fact that Charley was dismissed from Bethel. Like, ‘Oh, we know Charley and Mariuca; we like Charley.’ The presiding overseer came to Bethel the day Charley left and helped him pack his car for the trip home to Michigan and his phone number was circulated among the elders and ministerial servants so they could call him. Not one of them said a word to me for several weeks after that.”
Mariuca asked for, and was granted, a leave of absence to return home to spend the next three weeks with her family in Detroit. While there, Charley served Mariuca with divorce papers, which was very upsetting to her. Charley didn’t waste any time getting the legal mechanics going. He was in a big hurry so that he could get married and spend bedroom time with Racey, to get through all of the hoops that JW policy forces on a person so he or she can be “right with God” and His Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You Organization, the Watchtower Society.
When it was time to go back to Bethel, Mariuca was nervous and feared that she would be met with stares and be the subject of gossipers. While JWs claim that gossip is something that is not found among their group, those that “have been there and done that” know better. JWs have turned their style of gossiping into an art form. Mariuca had already heard rumors from other sisters that implied that everyone felt that “she HAD to know something was going on.”
The women she shared a locker with at the Factory (all cleaning personnel) were especially kind during her first week back at Bethel. They pooled their money and bought stamps and paper that she could use to make greeting cards—a popular activity at Bethel. With the help of her brother Randy, also a Bethelite, several of her friends sneaked into her room and gifted her with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a “Welcome Back” sign. She was allowed to live in her room without a roommate.
One of Mariuca’s close friends introduced her to Judi Dee and explained what just happened. A year before, Judi’s husband of many years was the cheater – and she then cheated. The guy was quickly dismissed from Bethel, but unlike Charley, he was also disfellowshipped. Judi recommended a book that had helped her titled How to Survive the Loss of a Love. Judi also arranged for her brother in the legal department to offer Mariuca advice. Shortly thereafter, a Bethel lawyer was assigned to handle Mariuca’s divorce.
In his haste to get back into the bedroom with Racey, Charley neglected to do his homework. The divorce papers served on Mariuca were not legal because Charley had not been a Michigan resident for at least sixty days prior to filing. The Bethel lawyer contacted Charley and reported that a New York divorce would have to be filed unless he agreed to pay Mariuca alimony. However, New York was not a “no-fault” state, so a divorce could easily last years. That meant that all the dirty details would be aired during the pleadings and Charley, being the adulterous party, would be put in a bad position. Being that it was a “no-fault” state, Charley preferred Michigan for his divorce.
Charley didn’t have an attorney and called Mariuca right away, complaining that this was “blackmail.” Mariuca told him he should talk with her attorney. In the end, Charley paid $7,000.00 in alimony. The Watchtower’s Legal Department did not take a cut from the settlement.
Although $7,000 wasn’t a lot of money even then, for a Bethelite it was big bucks. While working in construction at Bethel, Charley learned several trades and those skills allowed him to make extra money on the side. During the years they were married, Charley often made good money in his spare time – money they used for vacations. So the alimony, while a pittance, was acknowledgement that he owed Mariuca something. By the time he made a lump sum payment more than sixty days had passed. So he again filed for a Michigan divorce and it was finalized in August 1995.
Return to Bethel
Mariuca fondly recalls a sweet memory about something that took place shortly after her return to Bethel. She is 5 feet 9 ½ inches tall - and Charley was only 5 feet 7 inches. She decided to go shopping to buy some beautiful high heels – later throwing away most of her flat shoes.
That event did not go unnoticed by her coworkers and friends.
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three part series written and reported by Richard Kelly. Mariuca’s story of her life as a Jehovah’s Witness is both typical and yet unique – like the lives of so many former Witnesses. Dick Kelly looks forward to your comments on this and future installments.