I was part of the fourth generation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my family. Legend has it that my great-grandmother ran into some Russelites who were out street witnessing one day and brought home a Zion’s Watchtower. The rest, as they say, is history.
I grew up “PK,” or what is commonly referred to as a preacher’s kid. My father was an elder for most of my childhood, at least until I was about 15 years old. My mom would vacation or auxiliary pioneer (put in 60-90 hours per month in the door-to-door ministry work) when she could – if she wasn’t working. This meant, as we were reminded often by my father, that we lived “under a microscope.” Our family had to be above reproach in the congregation, because any misstep on our part would not only bring shame upon Jehovah, but it could cost Dad his position in the congregation. That would be really bad. A man with no position in the congregation was dismissed as a slacker, lazy, unmotivated, and certainly not “leadership material.”
An elder’s wife had to dress modestly, be in subjection to her husband, always have the children dressed properly, have meals on the table, support her husband in his congregational duties, and pioneer as often as possible. My own mother was expected to be a regular June Cleaver with a meek attitude.
As an elder’s child, I was always told that I was “to be seen and not heard.” My brother and I most often kept each other company in our childhood, as there was only one family that my father considered “approved association” for us. We were exuberant on those rare occasions that we would be allowed play dates on short school days with the sons of this family. Only twice was I ever allowed to spend the night at another girl’s house. My father was too worried that some ill might befall me or that they weren’t quite up to snuff in the spirituality department. It was a sad and lonely existence to have no one to confide in. My only alternative was imaginary friends and animals, which I kept a deep secret lest I be declared “demonized.”
By the age of five I had my own magazine route, complete with regular return visits. I was a bright and articulate child, so the elderly folks in our area were quite fond of me, happy for my visits, and eager to buy my magazines. Sometimes they even gave me a tip, but I was expected to put those extra coins in the contribution box. By age nine I joined the Theocratic Ministry School where I excelled in preparing scripts that always had two women sitting on the stage conversing with one another on some pre-assigned Biblical topic. Women were not allowed to teach, only demonstrate. But being a natural-born extrovert, I handled the stage with ease and always got good marks on my slips. Any time I could be part of a skit, demonstration, or assembly drama it brought me particular joy because it gave me an opportunity to gain approval.
Only being allowed to have a couple of friends in our congregation, I was a lonely child. Thus school became my haven. I was driven and excelled at education, and teachers favored me because of my enthusiasm and good behavior. I beamed under their praise. The challenges were always a heartbeat away, though, with schoolyard bullies ready to poke fun every time I couldn’t salute the flag, eat a birthday cupcake, participate in a holiday art project, join a sport, sing a Christmas carol, or participate in a school spirit day. One of the hardest holidays for me as a child, was Valentine’s Day. While all of the students would run around the room passing out little hearts with sweet sayings, I would sit there unable to participate. Always there were one or two classmates who would take pity on me and pass a paper heart my way. I would try to be stalwart in my resolve to reject it, but in my secret heart I was so pleased someone cared.
Little did they know that while I wanted desperately to be their friend and share their secrets, I knew that one day soon they were all going to die horrifying deaths. Every time I sat in a meeting at the Kingdom Hall or at our family Bible study I saw gruesome images portrayed in the pages of the Watchtower magazines and other publications produced by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. You see, they don’t have Sunday school or other provisions for the young in the congregation. Everyone in the congregation meets together to hear the same message. There are no filters for young ears, minds, and hearts. We were taught that our non-believing neighbors, family, classmates…all would be destroyed at Armageddon in a most gruesome manner, their corpses left to the birds to peck at. I would take my publications to school and attempt to have short Bible studies with classmates during recess. It was my obligation to save them.
We were taught that we would be persecuted like the Nazis persecuted the Jews, and how to prepare ourselves mentally for torture. Yes, those were the thoughts we went to bed with at night. No fairy tales for us. I prayed I would be strong enough.
Discipline in my home was swift and harsh. I was a creative and curious child, often daydreaming and enthralled with nature. My parents said I was willful and disobedient; I’d say I was easily distracted and forgot what I was told to do more often than not. Disobeying was the last thing I wanted to do. I knew the penalty – and it was never pretty. If I wasn’t punished promptly at the Kingdom Hall (generally for wiggling too much or nodding off), then I was promised punishment promptly upon arriving at home…and it was never forgotten. To expect a young child to sit for two hours while adults yammer on about topics that are not the least bit interesting to a child is unrealistic at a minimum and very close to abuse. I still find it difficult to sit still for two hours straight.
The back of our hall had a room officially called “the library.” While it is true that it contained reference books, everyone knew that it was rarely used for that purpose. First and foremost it was most often referred to as the “spanking room.” It was also used for the “second school” on Ministry School nights and when necessary, for the dreaded “judicial committee meetings.” During a meeting, it was normal to see a regular parade of parents taking their children to the back of the hall kicking and screaming, followed by whacks and pitiful wails. Needless to say, no child ever wanted to go to “the library.”
My story as a Jehovah’s Witness child is not at all uncommon. As a matter of fact, I’d say it’s probably quite typical. Most children who grow up this way are robbed of their innocence at a very young age, exposed to horrendous images and talk of adult matters that are better left behind closed doors. Instead of enjoying sports and band and clubs and cartoons, they are studying Watchtower publications and knocking on doors to peddle their religious beliefs. I, like other average Witness children, was bullied, stigmatized, and isolated from normal societal encounters. I also suffered from loneliness and depression. It was demanded that I trade in my childhood dreams of becoming a ballerina or a gymnast for the dream of serving Jehovah 90 hours a month in the door-to-door ministry. I would have to knock on doors and peddle magazines for the prize of some day being able to “play with a panda in paradise.”
I can tell you that the price was far too high, and the trade-off was not fair.
Before you accept that “free home Bible study” that Jehovah’s Witnesses offer, take a moment to think about what the real cost might be to your family’s well-being.
Steph Le Gardener is active on Facebook and has her own YouTube channel. Steph was a born-in 4th generation Jehovah’s Witness who has been out of the organization since 1992. For the past 7 years, she has been an admin in an exJW recovery group on Facebook and has recently become a very active volunteer with A.A.W.A.