I am often asked why I wrote Growing Up in Mama’s Club, why I blog and why most of my modern-day heroes are ex-JW Internet vigilantes who aggressively attack the unjust policies of the Watchtower Society. The answer is deeply rooted in Marilyn’s Story. First published in The Ghosts from Mama’s Club, I have rewritten and adapted it so more people can benefit from her story, as follows:
Marilyn’s conception was special as well. The ritual involved in the conception process was a gift. It was Mama’s way of thanking Papa for capitulating to her wishes. Papa had fought her valiantly for over two months trying to keep her from becoming a JW, convinced that they were a cult. But when he realized how fruitless that would be, he decided to join her. Marilyn was the physical evidence, the living proof, of his capitulation.
Marilyn was a drop-dead-gorgeous baby, with thick blond hair, sparkling blue-green eyes and an engaging smile. When my parents brought her home from the hospital, I, nearly five, remember how pretty and happy that I thought she was. When she turned five, she could pass for a human Barbie doll with her soft, pink-white skin sprinkled with fairy-dust freckles. For sure Mama loved her, but she was Daddy’s Girl. I think Papa took it personally that he helped produce such a beautiful child.
Marilyn made few demands on her parents. Everyone liked her, and those big beautiful eyes and sweet smile, framed by her bright yellow-blond hair, made it easy for people to remember her name, Little Marilyn Monroe. She didn’t cry constantly like our sister Susan did as a baby. Marilyn easily entertained herself and didn’t require lots of work, seeming to genuinely enjoy life. But she lacked the sense of curiosity that most kids possess. She also had a submissive nature, which made her easy for Mama to manage and mold.
As a teenager, Marilyn was not cursed with facial blemish problems like I was – tattooed with a bumper crop of teenage pimples and blackheads. She had no symptoms of bosom-envy cocooning into womanhood. Breast implants would play no role in her life. Mama kept the boys at a safe distance with heavy doses of guilt so Marilyn’s hormones didn’t have a chance to make a bad decision. Few crimes in Mama’s mind were worse than sex before marriage.
Unfortunately, Marilyn had one significant handicap; Abe Lincoln would have called it “the slows.” It took her forever to do what she had to do or to get to where she wanted to go. While she was definitely a very attractive young woman, that turned out her handicap “number two.”
Marilyn had no trouble learning or accepting the JW “truth” that women are second-class citizens in the eyes of God. Okay, Mama and Marilyn would not have used the words “second class.” But if you are a JW, you’re taught that God has what amounts to a pecking order. There’s Him at the top, after the Big Guy come angels, below winged creatures were men, below men are women, and then – at the very bottom – are animals. Even as a child this didn’t make sense to me and I often challenged Mama. Her pat response was, “Who am I to challenge God and what He tells us in the Bible? Just remember, He loves us all the same.”
The belief that women were a notch lower than men in God’s organizational chart drove JW policy. It was a policy that Marilyn and I easily observed – and one that Mama fully supported. No woman could have a position of authority at Bethel where JWs are governed. Nor could they even at the local level, within their own Kingdom Hall. At the Hall, it is “men only” for preaching, teaching, judicial hearings and praying. In fact, if there was an official meeting and a woman prayed publicly, she would have to wear a covering over her head “out of respect for any angels that might be visiting.”
I wish I could have told Marilyn and Mama what I know now about the history of religion and its role in minimizing women. In Jesus’ time, women were treated like chattel. The Jewish religion supported that view: according to Genesis, God created women solely for serving man as a “helpmate.” Later in the Ten Commandments, building on this sense of second-class citizenship, women were defined as “property” in Exodus. Thus polygamy made sense, for a man could have as many wives, sheep, or cattle as he could afford.
In stark contrast, Jesus was non-sexist. He tried to end discrimination. He had female disciples and traveled and ministered with them. He treated women as equals, breaking the religious rules of his day. In the six books and verses we know that the apostle Paul wrote, he supported an active role for women in the early Christian church. But shortly after Paul died, the ruling clergy thought this policy was ill-advised and went back to the sexist mentality of the Old Testament.
For much of Western history, women were relegated to second-class status, with many Christian orthodox churches validating that definition as “God-inspired” and “God-imposed.” Because of a woman’s lack of size, speed and physical strength, she was relegated to a state of childlike dependency. In the most basic relationship in human society, the male met his survival needs by claiming that the female’s lower status was “God’s plan in creation.” That way if the woman objected, she had to fight against God as well.
I would have vigorously shared this kind of information with Mama and Marilyn. And to Mama I would have asked, “Was the discrimination of women invented by God or man? Could it be that a select group of men created God in a man’s image?” Not that it would have done any good, but I would have felt better.
Most hard-core believers don’t want facts. Mama had her version of the truth and it wouldn’t change, blind to the damage her truth was having on Marilyn.
To make matters worse, Mama nixed getting a good education or reading any non-JW books. If Armageddon was delayed and Marilyn reached marriage age, she could always marry a hard-working JW man. He’d be the breadwinner and take care of her, as Papa had done for Mama. Marilyn didn’t need to excel in school. Though smart enough, she wasn’t encouraged to develop her thinking skills as that could breed pride; the pride that always comes before a fall.
Living Without Friends
As a child, Marilyn had no close friends. Perhaps there were kids at school that she met and liked, but to Mama those kinds of kids were “lepers.” Worldly kids would get her into trouble. So Marilyn didn’t develop the social skills that she would need as an adult. That was not of any concern to Mama, as she knew Armageddon could come any day, it wouldn’t be long. All evidence pointed to the end of the world soon, followed by a new paradise world. If Marilyn followed Mama’s advice, she would live forever in that new world and have eternity to make many good friends with people who loved Jehovah just like Mama.
Marilyn and I grew up in Los Angeles, California and the few friends we had were JWs. We didn’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas, but Mama did organize a special JW “party day” each year when gifts were given and games played. She would invite other JW kids and serve them cake and ice cream. This became a very special event for Marilyn who was by nature a happy person who loved parties.
I do remember an unhappy moment that Marilyn and I shared, an incident orchestrated by Mama. While at school I received over twenty Valentine cards from classmates and each card was personalized. I felt special and liked. Now mind you, I knew that I should leave these cards at school because Mama told me that this was a “pagan ritual invented by the Devil.” But I wanted to show Marilyn the cards and read to her what other kids were saying about me. I snuck the cards home in my lunch box. When I thought it was safe, I told Marilyn that I wanted to show her something in the backyard. We had looked at maybe ten cards when we heard Mama’s voice as she peered out of my bedroom window, “What are you doing?” When she came outside and discovered that I showed Marilyn my Valentine cards – she lost it. She went and on and on about how bad I was, that I was inviting the Devil into my life and Marilyn’s. Marilyn was only three at the time and that look of horror on her face still haunts me.
It wasn’t too long after that when Marilyn and I were playing in the back yard and three neighborhood boys decided to join us. They wanted to know what we were doing. It wasn’t that we couldn’t talk with our neighbors, but we generally did not play with them for any length of time. One of the boys asked if he could use the swing while another wanted to talk. During our conversation I noticed that Marilyn, who was wearing a dress, was in the early stages of pulling her panties down. Almost immediately, I asked what she was doing. She stopped, smiled and said, “Henry asked me to pull my panties down.”
I looked directly at Henry, who had his head down. He was embarrassed and I was angry. I had not been prepped for this kind of situation but I intuitively knew it wasn’t good. I thought about scolding him before I erupted, “You get out of here right now and don’t you ever come back.” Moments later I told Mama what had happened and while she was proud of me, she made it a point to claim that this was what worldly kids do, and why we shouldn’t associate with them.
An Unusual, Repressed Environment
I also fondly recall an event that occurred when I was eleven after attending two Thursday-night meetings. These were meetings we never missed and we seldom arrived home before 11:00 PM. With four kids in the family, it could be a challenge for Mama to get us all into bed before midnight and we had school the next day. So on our drive home from the Kingdom Hall one night, Mama said that she would give a quarter for the first kid to get into bed, a dime for the second and a nickel for third. The last kid would get nothing. Being the oldest, I wasn’t going to play this silly game. But when we drove into the driveway, my three siblings were totally naked. Jumping out of the car, they raced to see who could get into bed first. Marilyn and my brother Tim were so close that Mama gave each of them a quarter. It’s just one of those crazy events that we often remember as adults.
On a serious note, Marilyn and I were raised in a “sex-negative environment.” In other words, we were bombarded with guilt based on a strict interpretation of sexuality in the Old Testament. Mama never said, “Have I taught my kids how important sexual fidelity is to God?” But that’s how it was. We were thoroughly indoctrinated in how to harness the power of the sex drive to please God. Mama preached it to us., we read it in The Watchtower and we heard it at the Kingdom Hall – everything from masturbation to the role of women, from conception to sexual pleasure.
Sex before marriage was an onerous crime and one of God’s big no-nos. If a person should do the unthinkable, he or she was expected to report it to an elder. A judicial meeting would be scheduled and presided over by men who didn’t trust psychologists. During the hearing, details were shared – depth of penetration, how many times it was done, where it was done, whether oral sex was involved, etc. Then the elders would caucus to decide how repentant the person was and would they do it again? Then the committee would mete out the proper punishment for the crime.
While we were growing up, Marilyn and I didn’t have a clue that we were sexually repressed. We never talked one-on-one about this subject – nor any other serious topic that I can remember. We had no sweet or memorable moments of “big brother/little sister” conversations about the games we played or our treasured walks we took together. That would come later in life when we were adults, but not as children. My role as the big brother focused on protection, but I also did my fair share of teasing.
A Change of Lifestyle
In the summer of 1958, I traveled with Mama to an eight-day convention of JWs in New York City. Marilyn stayed at home with Papa. During the convention we were told over and over that Armageddon was near and the end of the world was imminent. However, we also heard that there were still many people in isolated parts of the U.S. that had not heard the “good news.” We were encouraged to move “where the need was greater.” Mama talked at length with a JW official there and I could see what was incubating in her mind.
When we arrived back home, Papa and Mama conferred alone for several days. Finally, we had a family meeting where Marilyn and I were asked if we were up to “serving Jehovah” in a different part of the U.S., in the Midwest where snow fell in the wintertime. Marilyn loved the idea, thinking it would be a wonderful adventure. That look of pure joy on her face, as fanciful as it was, is a look that I will never forget, a sweet memory of Marilyn’s innocence. In the end, it was Mama’s decision, and her decision alone, that would dramatically change our lives.