Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 2)

Continued from Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 1)

Next Year in Jerusalem!

Translation: Jerusalem is ours! We will take it over! And we will rule The World!

For Armstrongites, the meaning of the phrase wasn’t simple. But neither was it nuanced by any long-standing tradition. The meaning had layers, but those layers hadn’t evolved slowly over hundreds of years within a tradition or a practice.

What “tradition” the Worldwide Church of God had (in its mere decades of existence) could be described more aptly as culture. Except, the peculiar cult(ure) of The Church hadn’t grown in ways similar to most cultures and sub-cultures. Ours was constructed for us through authoritarian edicts that came from one person: Herbert W. Armstrong. Those edicts were disseminated through propagandistic publications and a hierarchy of ministers. And they were based on lies, namely a false lineage of Anglo-Israelism, a manufactured “history of The One True Church,” and apocalyptic prophecy.

For members, Jerusalem was an idea – a loaded idea. And invoking it meant a whole host of things not obvious to those outside The Church. For one, it acknowledged our disjunction with “This Present Evil World.” Jerusalem (and our imminent return to it) reinforced that we were out of place, that our place was always some other place, and that we were displaced – always in The World but not of The World.

For another, the phrase and other appropriated traditions gave footing to members and seekers who were stumbling and fumbling for a past (like the Enochs of the previous post). It gave a lift to those who had fallen in The World and to those who had never been up off the ground with any sort of standing in the first place. The appropriated traditions returned those members to an inheritance – a place among God’s Chosen – that they didn’t know was theirs until Armstrong told them so.

Finally, the phrase gave members a future. Its meaning was as much about the destiny of The Church as it was about claiming an Edenic past. Members were promised an eternity of unlimited power. They looked forward to recreating that perfect Eden in The World Tomorrow (Armstrong’s other name for The Millennium). They looked forward to never again stumbling or needing a hand up in The World. They looked forward to the destruction of The World.

“Next Year in Jerusalem!” meant (in the longer version): Next year, the tribulation! Our enemies will be destroyed! In 3½ years, we will be revealed as God’s Chosen! We will be transformed into God Beings! We will sit on God’s Throne in Jerusalem! We will rule The World with a rod of iron for a thousand years!

Cover of The Good News (March 1979). The magazine was published by the Worldwide Church of God for its members. Articles in this issue give a small taste of The Church’s teachings, the authoritarian structure of the group, and the manner in which members celebrated the Passover Season.

The Church observed both the Passover Eucharist and the Passover Seder, although they didn’t call them the Eucharist or the Seder. The Eucharist was commemorated on the 14th of Nisan and was referred to simply as Passover. The Seder was celebrated on the 15th and called the Night To Be Much Observed or, sometimes, The Night To Be Much Remembered.

The Passover Service was exclusive to the baptized adult members of the group, so I never took part in its rituals. From what I gathered second-hand, it was an intimate and solemn service. Members washed one another’s feet and each ate a small piece of unleavened whole wheat bread and drank a shot glass of red wine in commemoration of the broken body and blood of Christ. Women were separated from the men during the foot washing. And there were readings and prayers.

However, baptized adult members could be excluded from the service if they “weren’t right with God.” Ministers were the arbiters of who was included or excluded. If someone was “struggling with a sin,” a minister could refuse that member’s participation. Some members excused themselves from the ceremony (with ministerial permission) if they were “in the grips of Satan,” which meant they were struggling with a visible sin that made The Church look bad. Common reasons for exclusion included: having a bad attitude, disagreeing with Church doctrine, adultery, smoking, over-drinking, working on The Sabbath, being pregnant out-of-wedlock, and being unequally yoked to outsiders. “Not taking part in Passover” was serious and often indicated that a member was close to “being disfellowshipped” – excommunicated and shunned. Members who refused to shun friends or close family members were also threatened with exclusion from Passover, excommunication, and shunning.

Because Passover was a sacred and private event that outsiders – even unbaptized Churchgoers and members’ children – were not allowed to witness, my peeks into the service were only through watching my parents in the preparation – “helping out with Passover” as they called it.

“We’re going to help out with Passover this year,” they’d say. And most years they did.

One year, my father stitched large curtains out of gray canvas to cover the windows of an over-exposed venue. He did this to protect the privacy and sanctity of the service. In other years, he joined some of the other deacons and elders as they retrieved boxes of shot glasses from storage, washed them before the service, rewashed them after, and stored them again. The men also moved stacks of serving trays from another location to our house and then back out again.

Some years, my mother and other Church women baked the unleavened bread for the 200 or so local members taking part in the service. It was the same bread she always baked for The Night to Be Much Observed and for us to eat throughout The Days of Unleavened Bread. My brother and I used to hover in the kitchen and watch her with the rolling pin as she turned lumps of whole-wheat dough into sheets of paper-thin, near-perfect circles. She would put them on cookie sheets and bake them until the edges curled. We loved to eat the bread hot out of the oven. It was delicious smothered in butter – much better than the Triscuits, Wheat Thins, or Matzo Crackers we had otherwise.

If their husbands were “helping out with Passover,” the women would leave later for the service. Sometimes they would carpool together with their long skirts rustling. On Passover, all the women wore slip-on shoes and long skirts or dresses that touched the floor or grazed their ankles. They dressed this way out of convenience and modesty, since their usual pantyhose would have gotten in the way during the foot washing ceremony. Some of the women wore formals because those were the only long skirts they could find. Others stitched their own skirts. In the early years, my mother would have stitched her own. I remember one year when I was a teen, my mother wore a store-bought skirt made out of a gold taffeta that crunched and crinkled when she walked or sat down.

Passover was the one time of year when my brother and I were left on our own or (when we were younger) left with a babysitter. The babysitter was always a non-baptized Churchgoer, never anyone from The World. She was also a woman or a girl. Men and boys were not allowed to be alone with children lest they be tempted to do sexual harm or otherwise “give the appearance of evil.”

Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 3) will be about The Night to Be Much Observed and the High Holy Days. Part 3 will probably be picked up next year.

Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 1)

During the Passover Season, some arbitrary male member would always rise to the occasion and speak the phrase: Next year in Jerusalem!

It happened every year.

This arbitrary man would stand behind some arbitrary Sabbath lectern set up in an arbitrary over-lit school gymnasium or Jewish Community Center. Or, he’d stand at the head of a candlelit table on The Night To Be Much Observed. He’d stand in someone else’s home or maybe his own. He’d hold a glass of red wine up over his head, over a white tablecloth set with silver and crystal, roasted lamb and unleavened bread, vegetables and bitter herbs. He’d make a toast.

He might be a minister or a deacon or maybe our father or any lay member desperate to be all those things: minister, deacon, or father (authority figure of some kind or other). Most often he’d be that goofy accordion player with the very old, Old Testament name – the one named Enoch or Jedediah or Amos or Obediah who annoys everyone with Fiddler on the Roof songs at Church Socials. Every local congregation had an Enoch or two, but not all could play the accordion. Our Enoch played the accordion.

Whatever the case, this arbitrary Enoch would speak with artificial authority as if his words had power to conjure deep traditions that bound us to something other than a manufactured and imaginary past.

The Enochs, they trafficked in nostalgia.

Film still from Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Fundamentalists traffic in nostalgia.

They trace imaginary lineages to pasts that never were and to places they don’t know. They tout deep roots dug-in to a pure and more perfect historical period that contains All The Truth undefiled by modernity or interlopers or dissent.

They claim tradition where they have none.

Matzo Crackers

In the weeks leading up to the Passover Season, members would begin ridding their homes and vehicles of leavening agents, leavened breads, crackers, cookies, and any crumbs that might have fallen throughout the year.

The Church taught us that leavening was not just a metaphor for sin during The Days of Unleavened Bread, but was SIN during the Passover week. If anyone had any leavening agent, leavened product, or missed crumbs on their property or residence or if they accidently ate a sandwich, they were sinning. Like leavening, SIN had power to permeate and defile. It “puffed them up” with vanity and pride. Even a tiny bit could ruin a whole batch of dough or a person or The Church itself.

“The wages of SIN is death,” ministers always repeated.

“Getting out the leavening” was serious business, especially for our already obsessively clean father who could go into a violent rage upon spotting a piece of thread on the carpet or touching his hand to a sticky refrigerator door handle.

As such, he always led the charge against the unholy crumbs. Starting in the basement or garage, he’d have us move everything, vacuum and mop every corner, wipe down every surface, and clear out the deep freeze. He’d have us take all the loaves of frozen bread and all the things with crusts and breading out of the freezer and run them upstairs to the kitchen (to eat or discard later). He’d have us remove seat cushions, vacuum in the cracks, unplug any electronic equipment, wipe down the shelves, and vacuum behind and underneath the shelving. He’d have us read the labels on the bags of dry dog food because SIN could be hiding anywhere.

My brother and I never quite did the work to our father’s satisfaction and standards of cleanliness. Inevitably, he’d yank the vacuum from us and do it himself as we stood there looking at each other sideways, not talking, and getting bored.

Next, we’d detail the cars – remove the floor mats, clear the trunks, lift seats that could be lifted, vacuum every crevice, wipe everything down, and use toothpicks or brushes on the vents. Again, my brother and I spent a lot of time standing around watching our father “do it right.”

Then we would each take sections of the house like our closets and bedrooms, the bathrooms. We’d move all the furniture and belongings and vacuum behind and under and between everything. We’d come back together to work on the living room. We’d move furniture, take out all the cushions, vacuum everything, and wipe down every surface. In the years we had carpet, we’d shampoo the carpet.

My brother and I did our part, but we also spent a lot of time standing around feeling useless as our father took over.

The last room would be the kitchen. Our mother would take care of most of this herself. She’d clear out all the cabinets starting with the top ones and the ones less used. She’d save one lower cabinet for leavened goods until the trash day before Passover when she’d throw everything out. She’d also take everything out of the refrigerator and clean it thoroughly. My and my brother’s only role in the kitchen cleaning would be to help move appliances around and hand tools to our father as he took apart the toaster and other small appliances and dusted out the crumbs.

Every household in The Church went through the same ritual.

*Next Year in Jerusalem! (part 2) continued in next post.

Houses that Man Built (part 2)

Continued from Houses that Man Built (part 1)

My parents chose a split-level floor plan out of the handful of designs available from the builders. The house went up on the wooded lot at the end of the cul-de-sac alongside others of its prefab kind: the ranch, the split-foyer, and the two-story – all customized from a limited palette of paint colors and bricks or stones and flipped one way or the other depending on buyer preference and terrain of the lot.

No two houses in the neighborhood were exactly alike. The builders had restrictions about that and about adjoining lots and about how close houses of the same design could be to one another. And while I don’t recall the exact rules, the purpose was to balance conformity and cost reduction (things that set limits on the available choices) with variety and some semblance of originality. The goal was to upset the monotony while still giving the appearance of each house “fitting in.”

And maybe this was the project of suburbia and of my Churched parents: to fit into The World in a way that was easy and made prefab, noncommittal sense. In the subdivision, we could live “in The World but not be of The World” as The Church always taught. We could conform so as not to draw attention to ourselves. We could hide behind a veneer of ordinariness where no one need know our true beliefs or take notice of our strange customs. We could surround ourselves with enough trees and yard to muffle the sounds of abuse.

Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

When we moved, I was on the cusp of puberty. I was 12 and my brother was 10. We were both at that tween stage of development where we needed to determine what belongings we’d take with us from early childhood, what we’d give away, and what we’d relegate to other uses.

We both still had the grade school furniture suites that our father had designed and built. We each had a corner desk with shelving and cabinets above. We also had a booth, which included a center tabletop and seating upholstered in orange vinyl (probably purchased on sale and in bulk) with storage cabinets below the seating. The two suites differed only in the color of the wood – mine was painted white to match the head and footboards on my bedframe and my brother’s was stained a dark, near-black walnut to match his bunk bed.

I chose to keep only the corner desk and my mattress and box springs. Now that my room would be covered in wall-to-wall carpet rather than the usual hardwood, I thought a cozy bed-on-the-floor set up would be more teen-like. I replaced the kiddie play booth with a stereo and a beanbag chair. The stereo gave me comfort and hope, not only because it played music, but because I saw it as my ticket out of that house. I figured (probably wrongly) that I could sell it for a couple of hundred dollars if I ever decided to run away. Running away was something I considered more and more as I moved into my early teens.

But I was still a kid in a lot of ways. I liked to tinker and build things and experiment as if I were a scientist. In one experiment, I tried to find out if nail polish would harden on top of water. I filled a glass measuring cup with water and poured the polish in. The polish created a film on top of the water. I wondered if it had hardened enough to support any weight. I discovered it wouldn’t after putting a penny on the film and watching it break through and sink to the bottom. Granted, it wasn’t the best experiment I’d ever performed, but when you’re 12, things like this make more sense.

My father came home, smelled the nail polish, saw the water and the penny, and was outraged. I could always tell when he was outraged because of the way he clinched his teeth and twitched his jaw muscles. He was outraged, not because I’d done something foolish (although often this was enough), but because he was convinced I was “doing drugs” and that someone told me I “could get a high” by putting a penny in water with some nail polish.

I don’t remember what I said in response to his accusations, only that I must have argued about how ridiculous they were. Whatever I said set him off. He hit me so hard across my ear and jaw that my gold earring bent against my head. The cartilage in my ear became sore after that. It was several days before I could lie down comfortably on my left side.

Gustave Doré (1855), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Retrieved from Wikimedia.

We would live at the end of the cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Raleigh for only a couple of years. By the time I was 14, we would move out of state and back in time and Back Close to Home and back under control of the silliest little tyrant of a young minister – a minister who, in the birth announcement for his first child (a girl), lamented his lack of faith and hoped that God would bless him with a boy next time.

We would move to Tennessee – a miserable place where kids from The Church fretted over whether they or I were “too worldly” and kids from The World fretted over The Church kids and I for having such a strange religion and for not being Southern Baptist and “not being saved.”

My mother would be miserable. She’d end up on sedatives too desperate and friendless to care about The Church’s prohibition on medications and medical care. She’d be okay though and would learn soon enough how to fit back in with the pious crowd.

I’d be miserable and stay miserable. My drugs of choice would continue to be black tea and iced tea and cigarettes. I wouldn’t care that The Church “didn’t believe in” tobacco products or that my father beat me for smoking.

We would move because I smoked. That’s what my parents would claim.

We’d move (not because my father had grown weary of flying to the west coast or overseas and elsewhere every two weeks, but) because “fathers need to be present in their homes as role models to provide structure and discipline.”

We’d move (not because my father had been having a years-long affair with a young Church Widow and my mother had given him an ultimatum, but) because I had “fallen in with bad company” and needed to be removed from their influence.

We’d move because my parents wanted to be closer to Home. This much they’d admit. But the official story would remain that we had to move because I’d become “too rebellious” or “stiff-necked,” as my father was fond of saying.

And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people. And, behold, it is a stiff-necked people. (Exodus 32:9)

My father loved to use Biblical language.

He also loved to cast himself in the role of God The Father of the Old Testament. I was cast as the stray stiff-necked child of Israel, which I guess made my mother Moses, the sometimes intercessor, and my brother Aaron, the assistant intercessor.

My father loved to tell the story of his first fight with me. It was but one of many stories that made him laugh as he told it. He had a skill of making jokes of traumatic events and getting others to join him in laughing off his cruelty. There was the one about how our pet Cocker Spaniel used to get into the trash on trash day and how when my father kicked him “the hide on that dog’s back rolled” and how his foot came down on the rolling flesh and he lost his footing and was thrown into the street. Though his bare feet and bony knees were scraped up, the dog was fine, my father would tell.

This was the same Cocker Spaniel that my brother and I found as we were leaving the driveway for school one morning. We found our pet dog half-hanging out of a black garbage bag on trash day. Set on the curb with the rest of the garbage, not even given a burial.

But my father particularly loved the story about his first fight with me because it proved just how stiff-necked and rebellious I was by nature from birth.

I don’t remember the fight, but the story goes like this:

I stood up in my crib and refused to lie down. My crib was in my parents’ bedroom and my father had to get up and go to work the next morning. I had no reason to stand up. I wasn’t sick or hungry. I wasn’t crying (until he started hitting me). I was standing for no reason, holding on to the edge of the crib rail, and looking at my parents. For reasons not included in the story, my father didn’t like me looking at them. And so he fought with me all night like Jacob with The Angel of The Lord. It was an epic battle with yelling and spanking and crying and restraining.

And yet, after all that, I still wouldn’t lie down.

He lost.

And his loss spoke my character: I was incorrigible, beyond rebellious, mean, and selfish.

I was a bad seed.

And maybe my father is right. I have sometimes wondered myself what good could have been conceived from such a bad person.

Houses that Man Built (part 1)

My parents began shopping for their first house when I was around 11 or 12 and my brother was 9 or 10. My mother had grown weary of living in old places, mopping and waxing hardwood floors, and trying to make out-of-date styles look fresh. Both she and my father wanted something cozily carpeted with resale value that they could turn over quickly when the time came to get on the planes for Petra before The Great Tribulation set in. They were still giving up to 30% of their income to The Church (as all members were), but the financial hardship had lessened as my father moved further along in his career.

According to the strictest doctrines of The Church, my parents were becoming “worldly in their desires” – obsessing over things like neighborhoods and floor plans, cabinet styles and fixtures, and carpet and wall colors – but so had other members. By the mid- to late-1970s, many families had begun buying homes and televisions. They’d begun wearing stylish clothing. As a group, we started to “blend in” with The World (if only in appearance). The odd, old rules meant to “set us apart from The World” were slipping out of Church teachings.

According to the old rules: When pipe-legged pants are in style, put your shoes on before your pants. If you cannot get your pants over your shoes, do not wear those pants. They are “too worldly.” When bell-bottoms are in style, again, put your shoes on first. If you can get your pants on over your shoes, do not wear those pants. If “worldly women” are wearing pantsuits, “godly women” must wear skirts. Do the opposite of what The World is doing and never try to “blend in” – never try to pass as one of “them.”

Some men and boys had begun to let their hair grow long enough to touch the collars of their shirts. Some women, my mother included, cut their hair short in stylish shags. The Church lifted its ban on make-up and many women began taking pride in their appearance. Once dreary Church Services became fashion shows of sorts with adults, teens, and children parading the latest and best they could afford and handing out compliments as they would have Tic Tacs and chewing gum.

Even the higher-ups in The Church hierarchy had grown lax as the old man Herbert Armstrong faded into the background and a leisurely life of jet-setting around the globe and having his picture taken with world leaders. By the mid 1970s, Armstrong’s handsome son Garner Ted had taken over the radio and televangelism. By 1976, Garner Ted was singing on Hee Haw with Buck Owens, hobnobbing with country music stars, and bringing them on stage with him to perform during The Feast. By 1977, he had even done an interview with Penthouse magazine.

This “worldliness” wouldn’t last. Herbert Armstrong would “get The Church back on track” in the 1980s, but for a small window we would have a tiny bit of freedom – the same abuse, but with a little more autonomy.

garner_ted_playing_guitar_1979
Garner Ted (with guitar on the left) performing at the Feast of Tabernacles in San Antonio, Texas. Retrieved from Wikipedia.

During the house hunt, my parents, my brother, and I – dressed and looking like any worldly family – met in the offices of realtors and builders after school when my father wasn’t traveling for work. During one of these evening meetings, we were looking at floor plans when my brother and I spotted a city map on the wall. We ran up to it and started pointing to places we knew and talking about routes to get from here to there. Nothing extraordinary. Maybe we were less inhibited than usual. Maybe we were excited about choosing a house. Maybe we were just expressing curiosity the way “normal kids” did.

Whatever the case, our father took notice. And when we left the office, he praised us, saying, “I’d like to see more behavior like that from the two of you.” That’s what he used to call us: The-two-of-you.

I suddenly felt self-conscious and regretful that we had done something so out of the ordinary that it merited scrutiny and special mention. What did that say about who we were in every other circumstance and social interaction? His praise (which was rare) didn’t feel like praise as much as a backhanded criticism. After all the isolation and abuse (which hadn’t stopped), were we now expected to be vital and engaged participants in The World?

Something had changed. Before, we had only needed to keep up appearances for The Church. Now, it seemed, we were expected to care about what The World thought of us too. It may have been my age, but I noticed a change in my parents’ and my own relationship to The World. We were trying to fit in.

neighborhood-aerial
A current aerial of our suburban cul-de-sac. Image taken from Google maps.

My parents settled on a wooded lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs where our house would be built. The neighborhood was one of those subdivisions that crept in multiple directions as bulldozers pushed dirt lanes through trees and wildflower fields. Dirt lanes turned into paved streets and concrete curbs notched with driveway stubs. Families with a mom and a dad and 2.5 kids (like us and so unlike us) bought the lots and tied bright orange plastic ribbons around the trees they wanted to save. Builders came in and decided which of those trees were convenient to keep before they bulldozed the rest, laid the foundation, and slapped up one of the 4 or 5 prefab designs that the family had chosen.

The newness of this place was striking – so different from the old houses to which we’d grown accustomed. Yet, I would come to enjoy suburbia. I’d make friends there. My brother and I would explore the streets on bicycles and skateboards and follow the trails and creeks on motorcycles. We’d become allies and look out for each other. We’d learn to tell lies when we had to protect ourselves.

Suburbia would be the place where my childhood anger would bloom and grow fertile with teen rage. Its streets and woods and remaining fields would be my new refuge. I’d learn how to escape into them and wander aimlessly, smoking Marlboro reds and picking wildflowers. Picking flowers would become my go-to excuse for getting out of the house, my consolation for sadness, and my first practice in converting anger into things of beauty.

Houses that Man Built (part 2) continued in next post.

New Year / Old Fights

snow-12-30-16

It’s year’s end and the snow has covered the ground and trees. After a week of eerie and unseasonable warmth, our promised winter storm has finally come and gone. And it’s stunningly beautiful. I’m sitting in the dining room, looking out the window with my laptop and my notes sprawled across the table, planning the next stage of this memoir project.

My notes are written on anything and everything, whatever was at hand in some inspired moment in the middle of the night or whenever. I’ve scrawled on envelopes (unopened junk mail mostly) and prison letters from my father (opened and read but unanswered) and paint chips and sticky notes and tuition bills and medical statements and store lists and birthday promotions and printed drafts of this project. I’ve written palimpsestic notes over notes about alternative and herbal insomnia remedies (because when you write about this sort of thing, sleep isn’t restful and doesn’t come easily) and about home repair and remodeling plans and about titles or approximate titles of books my father wanted me to research and send to him.

I haven’t sent my father any books recently. I haven’t taken his phone calls either, not since weeks before the presidential election when the stress – set off by traumatizing similarities between the Republican nominee’s bullying and gaslighting and the things I endured as a child and young adult – became too much to bear. Even now, I have too many thoughts intruding at unwelcome hours and interrupting what little sleep I get. I can’t talk to my father when I’m having nightmares.

I’m sure my father knows why I’ve refused contact and why I make no attempt to explain myself. He’s not stupid. He knows the history. He and my other relatives will do as they’ve always done. They’ll be dismissive, they’ll laugh it off, and then bond over how “she needs to just get over whatever her problem is.”

I’ve heard it all before.

“Get a life,” my father would say.

Like the time when I was riding in the back seat of my parents’ car not soon after I had left The Church and I complained about the hate spewing from the Rush Limbaugh radio program my father was playing.

My mother asked, “Why don’t we just turn it off?”

“Get a life!” was my father’s answer as he turned the radio up louder.

If he could no longer squeeze the breath out of me by my own dress bows, he could at least drown me out.

My father found an abusive idol in Rush Limbaugh as he did in Herbert W. Armstrong. (That both bullies used radio as their pulpit seems significant.) And were my father not in prison and thus able to vote, I have no doubt that he would have supported the current president-elect (especially since he was running against “that bitch”). It’s these small-time authoritarians like my father who are willing to make heroes and saviors of celebrity hatemongers and propagandists. They’re eager to hang on to the coattails of abusers with false promises and determined to stand behind bullies rather than in front of them. These are the people responsible for this current political nightmare we’ve all woken up into.

And their political acts are less forgivable than any personal abuse I might have endured.

writing-table-with-notes-1

My scattered project notes live in a manila folder. The folder is scrawled on every surface: front, back, and inside. I hadn’t meant to keep a folder of notes. I have a lovely little cork-bound notebook (half-full by now) for that – a gift from my department when I gave notice to spend my last few months of this year on a sabbatical (of sorts) to work on this memoir. The notebook, which I began with handwriting as neat and tidy as I could muster, has become as disorderly and indecipherable as the folder notes. Both sets of notes are much like this year has been: chaotic, productive, and predictably unpredictable – planned one way but then detoured by that inevitably messy turn.

The year hasn’t gone as I thought it would. I’d anticipated that it would be a year of forward progress, not regression. I had faith that my narrative would fold into some larger triumphant coming-out-of-Egypt story. I was wrong. I hadn’t thought (only feared) I would be writing this project about escaping authoritarianism while living in a country about to be taken over by far-right extremists. I didn’t want to believe that my tiny little hell of bullies and abusers and silencers and narcissistic cult leaders could ever play out on a national scale. But now that I know it can, I’m more fearful and less hopeful than when I began writing.

I also thought I would be further along in this project, but there’s too much that needs to be said and so much writing that’s taking place behind the scenes of this blog. Things are moving slowly. Thus far in the narrative, I haven’t even written myself out of latency yet, which seems fitting as the real rebellion in my story begins in puberty.

So, I’ll be writing about my early resistance against The Church as a majority of this nation learns how to resist and survive the neo-fascism that’s ahead of us. This time I won’t be alone in my rebellion. And yet, I still don’t look forward to that. I don’t like these fights fueled by righteous indignation.

But I do know how to have them.

Interlude: This Election, Empathy, and Personal Narratives

open-book

1.

I spent the week before and after the presidential election reading hundreds of personal narratives on social media. Most of the stories were shared within the safe confines of secret groups formed around political goals and the shared desire of members to protect civil liberties and fight hate. The stories (and the generous, empathetic responses to them) are a lifeline of hope in what has been a cruel and abusive election season. They will continue to be so in what promises to be an even more abusive presidential administration.

And, yes, this presidency will be as abusive and cruel as the president-elect has promised. Trust me, I know. When a narcissistic authoritarian shows you who he is, it behooves you to believe him.

I’ve marveled at the outpouring of empathy and respect (I would call it love, even) in the troll-free safe spaces, but I’ve also been outraged by the bullying and hate-spewing elsewhere on social media and in the physical world. I’ve witnessed people (whose bodies, marriages, and very lives are at risk) be threatened for speaking up, for being visible – for merely existing. I’ve seen their allies mocked and ridiculed for daring to shed tears or speak angrily over the rise of Neo-Fascism and mob violence.

I’ve watched people gain more support from strangers than from their own family members, coworkers, or “friends.”

2.

Personal narratives hold power. If they weren’t powerful, then a narrative wouldn’t garner an outpouring of love and empathy from some while inciting mockery and violent threat from others.

What would happen if everyone stepped outside of the big sweeping ideological narratives imposed upon them? What if they let go of the scripted and certain tales and began to tell their own small stories? And what if they told them honestly? What if they allowed themselves and others to express vulnerability? And what if they sat with that shared vulnerability – that humanity?

3.

About 15 years ago, my father began writing a memoir. He wrote every evening and emailed his drafts to me for revision and feedback. (I was living in California at the time; he was living in Tennessee.) His writing was quite good and he had a strong voice. He also had the temperament for the work, which is to say he wrote impulsively – without inhibition or filters. The language and all it revealed came easily to him.

But then he began a pattern of self-censorship.

When my father wrote something evocative and vivid from his childhood (like the time he found a cotton nest of baby mice in a bedroom wall), he would then stop sending drafts for a few days. When he’d return to the writing, he’d take the beautiful narratives he’d begun to unfurl (like how he kept the newborn mice as secret pets and called them his baby pigs because they were pink and hairless) and dutifully fold them back into trite summations about Family or Loyalty or Hard Work or Sacrifice or What it Means to Be a Man. Rather than push through the difficult parts of his own story (like when his older brothers found his secret nest of baby pigs), he gave up on his own voice. He stammered. And rather than talk through the stammer (the feelings of loss and anger), he let others step in and speak for him.

He turned his childhood caring into adult sadism. Why love something when it can be tortured and killed? He disciplined himself out of his own unique story because it was easier to adopt misogyny than to admit that his mother abused him.

Eventually, he stopped writing.

4.

I’ve spent years trying to write my story without having to own it.

I didn’t want to own my story because I was ashamed of it.

So, I disguised it as scholarly research.

I tried to write it as fiction.

Then, on November 14th, 2015, I woke up to a notification scrolling across my phone from The Guardian saying that bombs had gone off in Paris. This attack – of all the horrifying attacks and heartbreaking murders that had scrolled across my phone in recent months – this attack on secularism, urbanity, and diversity – devised as a wedge between communities that by some “natural order” should not enjoy one other’s company – this attack – meant to split relationships into their most crass binaries: Us/Them, Believers/Infidels, Winners/Losers, Strong/Weak… and by extension, Masculine/Feminine and Straight/Gay – this attack became the final straw.

I knew I had to speak up and share my narrative.

I started with a Facebook post that read:

This is going to get personal, but necessarily so. I’m thinking about Paris, about religious fanaticism in general, and my own upbringing in particular. I grew up in an apocalyptic cult – a contorted blend of Judaism and Christianity – under a rigid and controlling hierarchy. There were so many abuses (particularly of women and children) in this environment, but, for me, the worst was how this group isolated us from human culture and took away any hope we had in the future.

I had no future. From the time I was a baby, I was told the world was going to end. There were dates set and dates missed and new dates set. My parents said I should be grateful that I’d never have to go to school and be in “this evil world.” When I did go to first grade, I was completely unprepared. I knew how to read and do some math, but that was about it. I knew nothing about how to navigate “the world.” My parents assured me that I didn’t have to worry about school for too many years because “the tribulation” (a time of war, enslavement, and extreme torture described with such specificity as to give children nightmares) would come before I reached middle school. And because I was one of “God’s Chosen” by fact that my parents were “Called” (meaning converted to this crazy religion), I would be swept away to a “Place of Safety” in some cave in the Middle East, probably in Petra.

When the world didn’t end by middle school, I was told I wouldn’t go to high school and then that I’d never graduate, never go to college, never marry, never have children. They told us to be thankful that we wouldn’t have to grow up, to be thankful that the world and all its inhabitants would be destroyed, to be thankful that we would be spared while other children and their parents were being killed and tortured, and to be thankful that (by some magic wave-of-the hand) God could make it all new again – that nothing or no one of value would really be lost. They took such delight in the anticipated destruction of everything and everyone except their tiny sect.

I went to college and read art history books. I felt so outside of human culture. I had no culture of my own, no history, no tradition. I didn’t even feel human. At 24, I left the group and my first husband. My mother stalked my art studio and my friends. She threatened me with the loss of “God’s protection,” with being “burned up with the rest of the world!” and with “getting killed!” My brother joined in by claiming that he had “always looked up to me” but had now “lost all respect.” And, predictably, my father called me “a disgrace,” as fathers in oppressive patriarchies do.

So, when I see/hear/read statements from ISIS or attacks on sites of secular culture or the destruction of cultural objects or the degradation of educational institutions or Zionists staking their claim as “rightful heirs” or U.S. politicians calling for a Christian Theocracy or any religious fundamentalists casting themselves as players in some “End Time” drama, I recognize and remember.

I received a flood of support for writing about what had been difficult for me to own and accept. I had kept the details of this piece of my life so secret that people who had known me for decades had no idea about my past.

In the midst of this empathy, my brother interjected himself at the center. He made what had been a painful (and politically important, which had been the whole point) post to write into something about him and his hurt feelings.

He sent a single text telling me: what I wrote “must have somehow sounded good in [my] head, but didn’t sound so good outside,” that I was “difficult to love,” and that I was on my own.

That text was painful. Losing my niece and nephew has been even more painful. But that text set me free. That text reminded me that my narrative is powerful. And for that, I’m deeply grateful.

I’m no longer ashamed.

This is my story.

First person.

And I won’t stop writing it.

The Feast (part 3): Pith Helmets, Spanking Tents, and Healing Trailers

Continued from The Feast (part 2): Memory, Water, and Protection

The first service always occurred after sunset on the eve of the first High Holy Day of The Feast. We and thousands of other Jekyll Island feastgoers would put on our finest clothes and drive in from our respective campsites, beach houses, or motels and descend upon The Big Tent, our meeting tabernacle for the next eight days.

Men wearing white safari pith helmets and reflective vests over suits would colonize the spaces surrounding The Big Tent. They would direct traffic with flashlights and white-gloved hand signals – divide the sheep from the goats as it were by Feast Sticker color. Feast Stickers were small diamond-shaped bumper stickers with the black letters ‘FT’ floating on a ground of day-glow orange, red, or green. Cars with orange stickers belonged to ministers and were reverently waved through to the best parking lots surrounding The Big Tent. Cars with red stickers were guided to the spaces reserved for the handicapped and elderly just outside the tent’s edge. The remaining hordes of green-stickered cars were directed into fields and sandy outer lots typical of state fairs.

Some years, my father volunteered to direct traffic. Volunteering was a steppingstone for men like him wanting to move up in The Church hierarchy, but it was also a way to experience the exhilaration of bringing large crowds to order and the power of telling individual drivers where to go and how to get there. Like every other volunteer opportunity within The Church, parking duty was a platform for exhibiting godliness and appeasing authority.

big-sandy-aerial
The Feast tent at Big Sandy, Texas. The Jekyll Island tent was similar, only green and beside the ocean.

Once parked, families did the usual collecting of materials from their trunks. The men gathered their briefcases full of Bibles, notebooks, and song hymnals. The women gathered their purses, diaper bags, paddles, and sleeping pallets. Then this army of smug, strutting tyrants dressed like little businessmen holding briefcases led their straggling crew of abused, stumbling children and overburdened, diaper-bagged wives toward The Big Tent.

What a ridiculous spectacle we must have been to the locals.

The Big Tent, we were told, was the largest of its kind. Bigger than any circus tent, they said. Our tabernacle rose stories above the tarmac, which in other seasons could have supported street fairs, Ferris wheels, cotton candy vendors, and 4-H animals. But for us, it was our own carnival of parking lots, spanking tents, healing trailers, mothers’ rooms, and portapotties.

As we made our way past the portapotties and through the parking lot just at The Big Tent’s edge, I could see them – the people we weren’t to look at. They were especially visible in the daylight.

“Don’t stare,” my parents scolded.

I could see them: “the infirm” fanning themselves in cars with the doors open, “the crippled” in wheelchairs sitting outside of vans, and the “mongoloid” children with dark, freckled skin hiding in their parents’ car behind bamboo blinds. They were like the “hard of hearing” with earphones and sign language interpreters near the front of the stage. They were like the rest of us.

They’d come a long way from all up and down the Eastern U.S. and Canada. Some made the pilgrimage with hopes of touching the hem of a healing garment “like back in Christ’s Day,” only symbolically. They’d ask ministers to pray over them and to hold anointed cloths drenched in olive oil against their foreheads, not in some public stage show, but privately in healing trailers and motel rooms.

chair-set-up
The Good News magazine (Jul-Sept, 1973) article “The Early Crew” (page 10). Volunteers setting up folding chairs for Feast Services.

Once inside The Big Tent, we would go-find-our-seats.

Members spoke the phrase as if it were a single word: go-find-our-seats. We have to go-find-our-seats. We need to go-find-our seats. Let’s go-find-our-seats.

Or singular: I’m gonna go-find-my-seat. I need to go-find-my-seat.

Or to children: Go-find-your-seat.

My father always found his seat on the aisle. It was the natural place for fathers. All the fathers sat protectively on the aisle seats with their brief cases on their thighs like lap desks with Bibles and notebooks on top. No matter that their wives had to balance crying babies and diaper bags and struggle past them and their lap desks and Bibles and notebooks to get to The Mothers’ Room. No matter that their wives had to drag crying children over them and their lap desks and Bibles and notebooks to get to The Spanking Tent.

Fathers had to be on the aisle at the ready when their wives “lost control of the children.” They had to be ready to throw their Bibles and notebooks into their briefcases, snap them shut, and leave their seats without fumbling or embarrassment. They had to be free to grab rebellious kids by the upper arm and quickly get them to The Spanking Tent. Fathers had to be able to drag children – wailing, forearms dangling, hands wringing in despair – without looking pathetic, flailing, and out-of-control themselves (which they always did).

Children had to try not to make-a-spectacle of themselves or their parents.

My parents spoke the phrase as if it were a single word: make-a-spectacle. Don’t make-a-spectacle of yourself. Try not to make-a-spectacle this time.

Or the past tense: You really made-a-spectacle of yourself.