My religious upbringing ended the same way it began: inside of a building so iconically and unmistakably from the 1990s that our collective mind has preserved them like a gestalt. You see the white, popcorn-painted walls, adorned with the thick or thin stripe of purple. The teal green of the baseboard and the sense that, even though it’s been cleaned often, this building is perpetually dirty. There are some sticky spots that you just can’t mop away. You see this, and you know where you are, and when.
Those who have been inside of a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses can attest to the fact that they all share the same design. It is as if they have gone out of their way to look nothing like a church, lest they be associated with the more acceptable forms of Christianity. Instead of pews, they have rows of rearrangeable chairs, all patterned like the seats of a coach bus, but stackable and impermanent. It is impossibly bright inside of a Kingdom Hall. All the lights are fluorescent, and you wonder after a while if you’re allergic to them, just like you might be allergic to them at school, or any other place you don’t want to be.
But you feel that way at home, too, so it can’t be blamed on the lights.
Under the brightness there’s no hiding, there’s no opportunity for a quiet, personal relationship with God. In the rank and file of the chairs, you are on display along with the rest of the congregation, your every move, your every twitch and yawn visible to the Elders. You fear their judgment more than God’s, because you’ve been told that, even though there is a heaven, it’s already been decided that you can’t get in.
The unhappiness my family felt during these first ten years of my life was normal to me. We existed in a fog. We had all the standard features of a normal family: two parents, and three children in a comfortably descending order. A nice home, a station wagon with the faux-wooden panelling on the side. We appeared like one of Tolstoy’s mythical happy families: exactly the same as every other happy family on Earth.
But like every unhappy family, our unhappiness was unique. It makes for a very good story. When I meet new people, I have the whole Jehovah’s Witness thing in my back pocket. It’s my ace in the hole for seeming interesting. It is just unexpected enough to shock my new friends, but not tragic enough to make it awkward with their sudden pity. There are many joyless childhoods which were objectively worse than mine, but mine was joyless all the same. Most people I meet cannot fathom the first ten years of life with no birthdays, no Christmases, and weekends spent knocking on the doors of strangers, holding religious literature, dressed pretty like a prop.
I’ve not been fair: there were little joys. There were little escapes, like standing beneath the lilac bushes in my yard in early spring, thus finding out what my favorite scent would be, forever. There was the divine advent of the Sega Genesis, the distinctly exhilarating terror of riding a boogie board on our annual beach trip.
There was a certainty to these things. Still, as an adult, I cling to certainty and routine with a level of determination that some could find insufferable. My uninterrupted, quiet, thirty minutes of breakfast. I cannot go on until the plants are watered. The day must pass without incident. At four, I must sit down at my desk and write. At five, a glass of wine. I shower in the evenings, sleep for at least eight hours to keep myself from feeling like the world’s about to end, and then start the process over again. I need sameness. I need to know what I’m getting. Any uncertainty, any wrench thrown into the perfect machine, and I am struck with a fear I struggle to explain even to those who love me best.
When I found out we were leaving the Witnesses, it was over the same meal, another little joy, that I ordered each time we went to Taco Bell. Two soft tacos, chicken, nothing on it. There was comfort in the plainness.
I guess my father, for all his lack of emotional intuition, knew enough about children to butter us up with a favorite meal before dropping the bomb. The first of many, as this trip to Taco Bell would be the apparent catalyst for the next unhappy chapter of our lives. The crumbling of the family unit, the ripple effect of divorces and fallings-out that followed our departure from the Witnesses. And my sister and I, trapped in the middle and too young to have control over our own situation, too young to know that it didn’t have to be that way.
“We’re not going to be Jehovah’s Witnesses anymore.”
I moved on to my second taco and slurped my Sprite. I knew, even at the age of ten, that the end of something was supposed to make you sad. But all I could think about was how my Thursday evenings would be free, and maybe I wouldn’t have to squeeze my feet into buckled patent leather shoes anymore, and maybe I could have a tenth birthday party because it wasn’t April yet. I could make friends without any guilt. But, if only because of the nervous look on my father’s face, I feigned some level of solemnity.
Weeks later, sitting with him before our family computer, its breath heavy with the burden of Windows 98, I asked him what we were now, if we were no longer Witnesses. I needed something new to call myself. Until then, the oddness of being a Witness had been part of my identity. It was my opener, my excuse. Maybe I feared that, without it, I would have to try and be a real person. I would have to find another way to be weird, and it would have to come from me.
My father took a long pause, thinking it over, deciding if the answer he had for me was something I could handle hearing.
“Nothing,” he said. Thank God.
Aaron J. Muller is a transgender author from Kingston, NY, where he lives with his husband and cat. He is a quesadilla enthusiast who spends thirty-six hours a week watching the many rhythms of the human heart. He has an upcoming horror fiction chapbook which will be published by Weasel Press.