I don’t generally do autobiographies1 and I don’t generally do books on religion2, which makes 2010’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, an autobiography of a woman raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, an odd fit for me. Still, I found this an interesting read. Some of this is specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a lot of this is universal.
The cover tells us right off that Kyria Abrahams became disenchanted with her family’s religion. No suspense there. What one might wonder is how this unfolded. As I see it, there are a few likely ways one might react to religious disillusionment: anger at being duped, sorrow at the loss of faith, or amusement at one’s own folly. Abrahams opts for the third.
Mind you, it’s a bitter amusement.
As a very young Jehovah’s Witness, Kyria Abrahams, secure in her faith, knew that the believers would be saved while all others would be consigned to the fire of God’s wrath. Soon enough, she had to learn that her faith would not be rewarded. Her incisive talk on “resisting wicked spirits” isn’t greeted with adulation as she had expected, but laughter from the adults. This gap between what she expects and what she gets runs though her life.
As Abrahams gets older, the gap between how life is supposed to work and how it actually seems to work becomes increasingly apparent. Some of this involves issues that could come up in the life of any young American: her parents’ marriage is obviously shaky, for example, rather than being the secure partnership that is the ideal. Her mother’s explanation of sex leaves Abrahams more horrified than illuminated.
However, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t seem to put a premium on happy marriages. In fact, sticking with a bad spouse seems to be lauded. I was reminded of a conversation in the film Sanjuro wherein a samurai asserts that faithfully serving a bad master is a better test of bushido than serving a good one; serving a good master is too easy. What makes the whole stand-by-your-man thing even more horrifying, though, is that (if I understand the book correctly) marriage isn’t just for life, it’s eternal.
Other issues, however, are faith-specific. Jehovah’s Witness beliefs oblige Abrahams to reject commonplace activities as satanic. Ouija boards are forbidden due to their occult overtones and so are certain medical procedures. The first issue drives a wedge between Abrahams and a close Worldly (non-Jehovah’s Witness) friend (which from the point of view of her faith isn’t actually bad because associating with the Worldly exposes you to corruption). The hostility to conventional medicine means that conditions such as Abrahams’ OCD and her hypoglycemia go untreated3.
By the time she’s a sullen teen, chafing at time spent acquiring an education her religion assures her is needless, Abrahams is pretty sure she wants to escape from her parents’ household into adult life. That has to be better than her life at home. Because leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is still unthinkable, doctrine and custom give her only one way out: marriage to another Jehovah’s Witness. After some false starts, sixteen-year-old Abrahams settles on twenty-four-year-old Alan; Alan has a cornucopia of character flaws but he is male, he is Jehovah’s Witness, and most importantly, he seems to be the only unattached Jehovah’s Witness man available to marry her.
Of course, Abrahams is as prepared for marriage to her hapless loser husband as she is for anything else, which is to say, poorly.
One of the things I liked about this book is that its author is as hard on herself as she is on the people around her. In fact, because this is an autobiography, making her by definition the central character in the book, Abrahams treats herself to more snarky lambasting than she gives anyone else. (I should add that I often felt that she was perhaps too hard on herself.) Sure, her first husband might be a hygiene-challenged ephebophile Magic: the Gathering addict, and sure, her second husband is a sponging leech. Abrahams spends more time skewering her younger self’s own inflated self-image and laying out in painful detail every foolish decision she made than she does dwelling on her husbands’ dumbassery. I was reminded of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which some of you may be more familiar with as the film Christmas Story.…
It would have been easy for Abrahams to write this book as one long bitter screed about her former faith; there is a lot to criticize. She certainly could present herself in a more positive light.She does make the shortcomings of her particular Jehovah’s Witness community painfully obvious: their hostility to education traps them in poverty; some members of the community exploit its rules to abuse those around them (granted, hardly peculiar to Jehovah’s Witnesses); the general air of desperate misery as people submit to cramped, unhappy lives in the expectation of reward in the next one4. However, she elects to present all this as a darkly comic tale of self-delusion and painfully slow illumination. The result is simultaneously horrifying and very, very funny.
I did review some collections of author’s letters. I suppose the letters might be considered a form of autobiography, if not an intentional one.
(Another collection of author’s letters was a bequest: I was given a box of my deceased father’s letters. The letters in which he talked about his deportation were a bit frustrating because he assumed that whoever was reading the letters would know why he had been booted out of Canada. It took me a little sleuthing to find out that he was ejected over folk music. Canada in the 1950s and early 1960s: not only more conservative than you imagine, more conservative than you can imagine.)
When I do discuss religion (which is rare), my take on it is doubtless influenced by my experience of the three Christian faiths to which I have been most exposed. Do they have an elaborate hierarchy? Look to the Catholics! Are they cautious about the social affects of innovation? Just like Anabaptists! Do they really like coffee-cake? Unitarians!
To be honest, lousy medical care thanks to poor parental choice isn’t specifically a Jehovah’s Witness thing but the specifics of the poor medical coverage she gets are. This is a recurring pattern: the general class of bad things that happen to her could happen to anyone but the specifics are shaped by her family being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And also the unparalleled pleasure of knowing they are better than everyone else. Something in no way a Jehovah’s Witness monopoly.