When I talked alone with Marilyn, she acknowledged her duplicity. She had lost touch with basic human decency due to poorly thought out JW policy. She regretted that she had shunned me for so many years. She wanted me back in her life. We had a long, candid conversation, shedding many tears. But not once did she say a word about how poorly she had been treated by Tim and Carter, nor why she could now talk and eat with me.
I talked one-on-one with Mama the next day. We had our conversation at her house but Mama’s tone and subsequent reaction was totally different from the one with Marilyn. Mama could not see the world through any other lens than her own. She was cold and hard, with no remorse. She wanted to be in total control of the conversation and refused to answer several of my questions and offered no explanation for why she could now talk with me.
Several hours into my conversation with Mama, I heard the phone ring in the next room. Papa picked it up. Later I learned that Carter had called, yelling at Papa for having the audacity to allow his kids to share a meal with me in the house he owned. He ranted on and on about me being the essence of evil. He thought Papa facilitated the crime and he would hear from the elders about this. Marilyn had told me about Carter’s obsessive hatred for me the day before. Carter blamed the failure of their marriage on me. It made no sense, but Carter needed a scapegoat. Papa listened to him talk without any response for fifteen minutes. At the end of Carter’s tirade, Papa thanked him for calling and hung up.
Papa interrupted my conversation with Mama to give us a full account of the call. When I asked for an explanation, Mama said that Carter could be crazy at times and it was best to let him rant. It was obvious that Mama was getting more upset with each accusation. Finally, she suggested that I leave. She was tired and they planned to go to the circuit assembly the next day. That’s the last time I talked with Mama before she called me five months later to see how I was doing.
When Helen and I arrived back in Grand Rapids, Marilyn started calling me on the phone two to three times a week. On Saturdays, we would talk for as long as two hours at a time. In bits and pieces, I learned about her story. Carter reported to the elders that his kids shared a meal with me in his home. He wanted justice and he wanted Marilyn and my parents to be punished. The elders didn’t talk to Marilyn about the incident, but they talked with my parents. What was said, Mama would never tell me.
Carter started writing letters to Marilyn, asking for reconciliation, saying she needed help, couldn’t she see the damage done to the kids, and more. He cut the power lines to the house once. He disconnected the phone and cable connection several times. Clever enough to make it look like worn wires, he methodically ratcheted his diabolical plan to get her to come back to him.
Shortly after Carter was asked by the court to leave the house, Marilyn enrolled full-time at a local two-year college in Columbus. She wanted to earn an associate degree so that she could be a paralegal. She also started reading books about emotional intelligence, psychology and natural science; all books that good JWs would never read. She wanted my opinion on the new things she was learning. For the first time in her life, she began to think on her own. What a joy it was to be a party to her new world of knowledge. It was like seeing the desert come back to life after a long summer rain. My little sister was coming out of her cocoon.
It’s my opinion that at some point in Marilyn’s life, probably shortly after she was shunned at her Hall, that she started to question for the first time the policies and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, particularly those related to women. Up until then, she believed that her religion owned God’s franchise on the truth. She started looking, albeit very slowly at first, for some new truth. Looking was the key. She should have started as a child, but it was better late than never.
The JW experience for women, especially for girls who grow up in it, is nonstop dogma about God using men to lead, teach, make judicial decisions and govern because men have been gifted with these inalienable rights. A woman’s role in the church is subservience to a man’s leadership. Little wonder that many JW women have this constant, nagging feeling of inadequacy.
After Attending College, the Ghost of Inadequacy Would No Longer Haunt Marilyn
In 1993, Marilyn turned in her resignation notice as a Jehovah’s Witness and she divorced Carter. While Carter haunted her by renting a home across the street from where she lived in Central City, she made the best of a bad situation. It did not stop her from continuing her education and she did her best to raise her two children in an unnerving, dysfunctional setting. And I must give credit to my parents as they tried to help Marilyn as much as they could.
But she, like many ex-JWs, was haunted by ghosts, making it difficult to break totally free from the clutches of a high-control religion. When she graduated with honors at the community college in Columbus, that learning experience helped minimize the damage from the Ghost of Misinformation. The toxic residue from the many years of learning so many things that ain’t so can be debilitating.
The most damaging ghost for Marilyn was not a ghost she could see nor did she fully understand. The deadly ghost was the Ghost of Dependency and her fatal attraction to highly controlling men.
When People Spend Many Years in a High-Control Religion, They Will be Haunted by Insidious Ghosts, the Toxic Residue from the Experience, when They Try to Leave.
The next part of Marilyn’s story is very difficult for me to put on paper. So I will try to be short and to the point when I tell you that she married again. One of the things that she liked about her new husband was that he promised to take care of her. He would be the head of the family, a very loving head. While he was not a JW, he claimed to be very religious and God-fearing. She attended a local Lutheran church with him and they tried to make a Brady-Bunch family—Marilyn’s two kids and his four boys—work. All went well for six months before Marilyn’s new husband let his violent nature, his intense need to control, surface.
Marilyn called me a day after it happened. His anger had not been directed at her, but at one of his boys. It scared her and she wanted my advice. Maybe he was having a bad day. He had more temper tantrums but they were always directed at his kids. Then Marilyn became the target for one of his angry tirades. He agreed to go with her to a counselor. But it would be two steps forward, three steps back. Finally, she decided to file for divorce and moved to Grand Island.
While she was alone in her apartment on April 11, 1998, her estranged husband broke into the house. No one knows what was said or how he worked himself in, but before he left, he had knifed my sister to death. The coroner reported ten to fifteen stab wounds to her body.
When my parents didn’t hear from Marilyn the next day, they called the police. Three days later, Mama called to tell me the bad news. When I asked about the funeral plans, she said coldly, “Marilyn’s been cremated. She’s dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Marilyn’s brutal murder had little impact on Mama as far as I could see.
Unlike Mama, Marilyn’s death strongly affected my life. For a while, I struggled with unanswerable questions: How do you make sense of a senseless crime? How could anyone hate so much that they are willing to kill, to murder someone? I quickly realized that finding answers would not bring her back. I needed to find a healthy way to bring closure to such a devastating loss.
Soon afterward, I attempted to do something totally out of character, something I had no business doing—I wrote a book, then another. If Marilyn’s story could help other people, then I would learn how to write. Perhaps her story, told along with mine and Helen’s, would inspire just one person to alter her or his life course, to do something that she or he would not have otherwise done. That is my hope. I could not be happier that I did it. That is what big brothers do.
It has been fourteen years since Marilyn’s tragic death and I have had much time to reflect. I have forgiven myself for not recognizing the dangerous man who her third husband turned out to be. And maybe, if Marilyn had stayed a JW, she would be alive today. Mama tells people that I facilitated her departure. I have forgiven Mama for raising Marilyn in a man-made-make-believe world. Mama thought it was what God wanted her to do, but it was based on lies told to her over and over by the Watchtower Society. It is the policy makers of that out-of-touch Society of old men that I am unable
to forgive. They are heartless charlatans, a men’s-only high-control religious group that champions a sexually repressive environment. It clings to out-of-date policies for which it is unwilling to be held accountable. It makes bold claims that they are the only group directed by God. It is a very sick group of religious leaders that sets up its followers, in particular the children of its followers, for some kind of fall: whether it’s divorce, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, pedophilia, emotional abuse, adultery, a bad marriage, suicide, isolation, premature death, schizophrenic behavior, or depression.
Would Marilyn’s life have had a different ending had she not been raised as a JW? No one will know for sure. Perhaps her attraction to abusive men was in her DNA. But I don’t think so.
What I do know is that Marilyn would have wanted people, especially girls and women, to learn from her mistakes, from Mama’s mistakes. Looking for real scientific truths should be a life-long journey for everyone. If a person is looking for the ultimate truth about a God, the possibility of life after death and those kinds of things, now that is another thing. In the pursuit of that kind of truth, Marilyn would tell you, “No one knows for sure, and please don’t let anyone, especially a high-control religious group, tell you otherwise.”