MMost people know that Jehovah’s Witnesses are obligated to spend their free time distributing a magazine called the watchtower, that they don’t celebrate Christmas and believe that the apocalypse is imminent, even if the exact date of the Second Coming is slipping a bit. From time to time the newspapers also remind us that even in a medical emergency, members are forbidden from accepting a blood transfusion from doctors, a doctrine followed on the grounds that it is God’s business, and His business alone, to do so to do get life. But all this stuff seems to be only half of it. Thanks to Ali Millar and her first book, I now know that there are many other obscure rules a Witness must live by if he or she is not to be “excluded” (translated: shunned) by the elders down at the Kingdom Hall.
In early The last days, her memories of her childhood as a Witness in a Scottish Borders town, Millar describes a luncheon at the home of her maternal grandparents, a couple who do not share their daughter’s faith. For Millar, such occasions are usually a source of great pleasure: her mother, a former teacher, is impoverished by her faith – Witnesses are discouraged from work – and even the smallest luxuries are scarce at home. On this day in 1986, however, something goes wrong. When her grandfather finds a piece of buckshot in his pheasant, her mother goes insane and screams that the bird was not “bled dry,” as Jehovah said all should be flesh when his people were in the wilderness, and that now she Must leave table Call elders to confess. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Millar hears her say when absolution is given over the phone, arguing that she had been tricked and her “sin” was therefore unintentional.
Four years ago I interviewed Daniel Kokotajlo, the director of an autobiographical film about Jehovah’s Witnesses; like Millar, he had left the Church and now reckoned with its influence, turning life into art. I remember him telling me that those raised in the faith tend to quarrel with accounts of it written by outsiders – he was thinking of Ian McEwan’s novel The Children’s Law, in which a boy refuses life-saving treatment for medical reasons — and I can’t help but wonder if Millar chose to tell her story at least partly because of this: to get the detail right, in other words. But if so, that’s not unproblematic. Unfortunately, while their accounts of the cheerlessness in the Witness world, not to mention the bizarre sophistry of their leaders, are fairly detailed, they are also repetitive and unrelenting. After a while you start to feel as suffocated and bored as she once must have – and while that may be half the book’s truth, the reader doesn’t enjoy it much. I sometimes had trouble turning the pages.
The triumph of Kokotajlo’s film apostasy was that it inspires audience sympathy for characters whose beliefs we can’t understand; Somehow he was able to effectively convey the cognitive dissonance between what the witnesses think and what other people do, and the (for us improbable) weight of such beliefs. Millar has a hard time doing these things in her book, perhaps because she portrays herself as a little girl as a skeptic — a potential apostate — and we only see everything that happens through her eyes. The Witnesses, as she describes her, are never anything but extremely controlling, a bit stubborn and slightly creepy (when she strays as a young married woman, they ask her to tell them how turned on she was by this other man) .
I also found it difficult to fully sympathize with their adult inability to leave the cult. In her family, only her mother and sister are witnesses — her mother, who bounces from one bad relationship to the next, uses church to ease her emotional disappointments, and has a tendency to “sin” herself when she feels like it is — and Millar made friends and allies in her grandparents. She also wins a place at Edinburgh University, an escape of sorts in itself. What keeps her in faith? What does she think will happen?
Either because she has hidden things or because she has to be careful about identifying people, many of what she describes are outlines; I couldn’t quite picture her mother, her husband, or the elders who visit to discipline her when she “misbehaves,” and that made them seem the opposite of powerful to me. This is not to disparage their history; the heart fills with sorrow at the passages where she describes her anorexia, a condition which the Witnesses regard with embarrassment, if they notice it at all. It’s awful – even hateful – that her mother cut her off completely when she finally left the church. For some, much of what she tells will be fascinating; this is the age of the sects after all. All information is welcome. But her narrative is strangely sluggish to me: a listlessness that suggests her childhood still hurts too much to properly explain.