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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Walking Away With My Head Held High by Mel Lafferty

Contributed by Noel Parsons
I often struggle with telling my story, not only for me but for the sheer thought of how long, difficult and dark it really is to tell someone.  But then, if I don’t tell it, how will anyone know the truth?  So here is the best I can advise without putting you all to sleep or writing a full novel.

I was born into a family of Jehovah's Witnesses as the second of three children, although my younger sister did not grace us with her presence until I was eight years old.  My parents covered up the fact they had given into their urges before marriage and thus entered into the arrangement only due to the need to cover up a pregnancy.  My parents entered into an agreement, so needless to say they didn’t like each other, let alone love each other, as each blamed the other for being in their predicament.

I came along exactly one year after my older sister, and for whatever reason, I became the target for both my parents' hate right from day one it seems, as I required an incubator.  According to my grandparents, they had to plead with my father to finally do something, as he showed no signs of doing anything, but seemed to be willing to simply let me die, if that was what was to happen.  I required the incubator as I had unfortunately had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck during my birth and it had left me in a bit of a state, requiring oxygen and added care.  Unfortunately this was to set the tone of the relationship I would have with my father for the rest of my life.

My father was physically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically abusive.  Often times, it seemed to be a game to him as he took pleasure in it.  My mother did at times, in my younger years, seem to interfere to some extent, but she was cruel to my older sister.  My father ended that and, since he favored my older sister, my mother backed off.  In fact, in some cases, she enticed him to take out his anger on me, so that I became the punching bag and device, upon whom he could take out his anger and frustration.  I knew that if I ever said anything to anyone, I would only make my punishments worse.

My mother left my father many times, packed up her things and retreated back to her parent’s home, but she never took us kids with her.  In fact, this usually meant being left in diapers between the locked inner door and outer door of the home we lived in for more than eight hours, until our father returned from work, when we were toddlers.  At other times, my mother would lock us in the basement, so we would not interfere with her leaving or cry for her to stay.  Yet again, we were left for countless hours until our father returned home.  He would finally figure out that he needed to explore the house to see where we were.

As a result of my mother's constant departures, the elders of the local congregation did get involved.  They tried to solve the situation by advising my parents that they needed marriage counseling by the elders.  Funny, I remember hearing the discussions through the vents in my bedroom above the kitchen and all the elders ever talked about was how to make my father happy and the need for her to stay and fulfill her “wifely role as Jehovah ordained for wives."  I always thought it was odd that there was never any discussion over what she had done or not done with her children when she left, other than the fact that the elders were told where we had been confined.  There was never any discussion on how inappropriate this was.

I used to dread coming home to see my father’s car in the driveway, because walking in the door to see my mother with a cleaning chore to be done carried with it a warning that if it wasn’t done to my father’s liking, there would be a price to pay. My mother was not much of a cook or cleaner, so from an early age, my older sister and I were trained to clean the house from top to bottom and to do the cooking and wash dishes.  I remember being on a stool at the age of four years, and having the back of my legs whipped with a belt if the dish I was washing or drying was not done right.  As we got older, all the household chores and cooking were divided between the two of us and we were not allowed to go anywhere or play with friends or even do homework, until the household chores were done first.  And yes, it felt more like a slave-driven home than a home of love and support.

There were many times I questioned things that not only the elders preached about or advised, but also things my parents did that just didn't seem right to me.  Like a family bible study or going out in field service (the house-to-house ministry) or commenting at meetings to show off to the elders and their fellow brothers/sisters, when in private they were the complete opposite.  I paid dearly for my questioning of things, but I never stopped questioning.  I just got bolder and I guess in some respects, I didn't care what the outcome was.  After all, the abuse was going to be given no matter what I said or did.  I figured, 'why not stand up for something?' 

I had hiding spots for books and other personal items, which were deemed “satanic” or “contrary to Jehovah’s way of life.”  I hid these things, not only in my own home, but in the homes of “worldly” friends. And yes, I paid the price for having such friends, because the elders constantly gave me speeches on what I was doing that was damaging to my relationship with Jehovah and that if I wanted to be close to him or live through Armageddon, I had to sever the ties with "worldly" associates.  I always said I would and I remember the fear and guilt.  How could it not affect me?  But in the end, I would reconsider their words and question how we can be showing Christian love, when we are turning our backs on other humans.  They truly had no right to tell me what friends I could have, especially since the young friends I did associate with in the congregation were into sex and other disapproved things, yet the other young people in the congregation never got caught.

Because I had the constant worry of what my parents would do next to me, I used to say things to anyone who would listen or I thought could help.  This always back-fired, because anyone I spoke with about my parents' abuse would go to my parents and tell them what I had said. So much for the help!  I would then find myself picking myself up, treating my wounds and moving on, although many times I prayed for Jehovah just to kill me!  That never happened, so I found the resolve to move on through the belt whips, not across my hands but along my hands and up my arms, being thrown down the stairs, having my father take me out of my bed in the middle of the night and kick me, beat me and throw me down the concrete stairs into the cellar to sleep, going without food for days, and having my head smashed through a glass top table, my hair ripped out till my scalp bled and being kicked in the stomach until I spit up blood.  None of it ever silenced me.  Matter of fact, I would continue to speak up and fight for me!  My father despised me for this because, even though he tried to enforce control over what I said, did, thought and even what I wore or who was my friend, he just never won.  I may have seemed to be quiet when he looked at me, but I always found a way to take him on, and no matter what he subjected me to, I never gave up.

My older sister left my parent’s home due to her need for independence and moved in with my father’s sister. During this time, she spoke of abuse that she was made to endure. The stories she told were mine, but she was good at changing the experiences as having happened to her, and thus she garnered the protection of my grandparents, aunts and uncles.  My parents were, to a point, reprimanded by them.  Still, no one went to the elders or police for that matter. I listened to her stories and never batted an eye.  Instead, my mouth was gaped open or I was later told I looked to be in shock, and as I should, my poor sister.  My shock was more a result of the fact that she had taken my situation and transferred it as having happened to her, and she got what she wanted!

Then my sister began to say things about my mother and how she would never stay with my father.  That event happened when I was fourteen years old.  Someone heard my sister say something about my mother’s plans and that I knew what was going on. This resulted in the elders appearing at the door of our home, advising my father that they needed to speak to me and then with him.  I thought it had to do with the violence, but instead, it was about my mother’s plans to leave my father yet again, although this time, she would take us with her, and away from our father.  Knowing that I probably knew something, the elders came to me for clarification.  When I refused to talk about either of my parents' culpability, my father offered to intercede.  He told the elders I simply needed to know I had a parent who would still love me, no matter what.  The elders relented and allowed my father to take me for a drive in the car to talk to me and to hopefully open up to him.  

I remember panicking, but after one look at my father, I got into the car.  Fear took over, of course, as he drove to the closest secluded area, threatening the whole way that if I knew something, it was my duty to tell him, because he was my father and defying Jehovah when it came to honoring your parents was not something I would want to add to my “list of offenses."  When I still didn't utter a word, he dragged me out of the car, threw me onto the side of the road, took off his belt and just smashed it into me with it.  Of course, he avoided my face (always to ensure I could cover the marks because, once he had hit me across the eyes and that led to questions from my school.)  In the end, I simply uttered the words “check the closets."  On the drive back to our home, my father warned me to stop crying, cover my tears and smile when we returned to the presence of the elders. He went straight to the closets, when we arrived back home.  He checked them all and discovered them empty, because my mother had found a “safe house” and she had been slowly moving things out from under his nose.  She had been planning to take my younger sister with her that night and I was to report to the “safe house” the next day.  Now that my father and the elders knew the truth, her plans were foiled. After all was said and done, my mother blamed me for ruining her life and said she didn't know me anymore, because she couldn't figure out why I told him or the elders anything.  An explanation was never offered or given.  Later, I spent two hours in my room icing my wounds and wrapping up my ribs by myself, once again praying for Jehovah to kill me.

There was so much more I could share on the violence and the unstable childhood I had, but you get the idea.  Once my mother left, my father suddenly switched gears and turned to me as the only one there who could comfort and help him through the situation. It was very odd to me as he suddenly showed love to me.  It turned out that this was just a guise, because the violence still existed and my life became a nightmare of ups and downs and fear, a lot of fear and guilt.  

Finally, after approximately six months of being his housekeeper and sole child care provider for my younger sister while in high school, I broke down.  I had been considering what I would do and how much more I could take.  When he came home one night in a rampage, I stood up to him and defied him to lay one finger on me, as I was leaving and I would scream and tell the police, the world, the news, anyone who would finally listen to me about what kind of a man he truly was.  He became even more enraged and tried to block me from going down the stairs or leaving, but I kept defying him and pushing my way through.  Once I got out onto the doorstep, he suddenly became the devil personified, swearing at me and threatening that if I ever came back I would pay and no one would care what happened to me.  He also swore he was going to the elders for my bad attitude and he would get them to order me to return home. 

I couch-hopped with family (which was a nightmare), until I was offered a place to stay with an elder and his wife.  I never returned home and although the Presiding Overseer, the Circuit Overseer and the elders constantly encouraged or pushed me to reconsider what I was doing to my father and to go home, I never did.  I used to explain to them what he was really like and yet none of them believed me until three years later, when he snapped in an elder’s meeting, which I had called for, because he owed me money.  In that meeting, in which the elders kept asking me where my compassion was and why I couldn't see his hurt, my father went from tears and begging the elders to make his daughter return home, and in a split second, he changed into the devil incarnate, with anger and fury, when the elders told him that I was, in fact, in control of the meeting since I had asked for it.  I will never forget the looks on those elders' faces when they finally saw what he was like.  They never apologized for not believing me, but I know they felt shame and were quite uncomfortable around me after that, perhaps realizing they had been wrong all along. Too little, too late!

After my mother’s plans fell through when I was fourteen years old, my parents did eventually get divorced.  My mother left my younger sister in my father’s care. There was a Judicial Committee formed by the elders to address the abuse and several other Judicial Committees set up to address their divorce and other issues.  The only one I was asked to be a part of was the one dealing with the abuse.  In fact, for this meeting, the Presiding Overseer took the reins and he spent hours with me, asking me questions and just letting me tell my story, and he was keen for me to tell him everything of the fourteen years I had lived through.  It took months and I wish I could say he was a support for me, but he really was there only to document my story.  

The elders on the Judicial Committee took seven days to make a final decision on what they were going to do about my parents and their abuse. After the elders made their decision, my parents were simply reprimanded, and I was to receive an apology from both of them regarding their anger and loss of control.  That was it!  I felt angry and betrayed all over again, and I got upset and told the elders this had to be a joke, especially as some of my testimony had brought them to tears or disturbed them, yet all I was to accept was an apology?  I got nothing else and they told me that my parents love me and they were sorry for everything, words I never heard directly from my parents, just "sorry for loss of anger and control." 

At the time, I was hoping to hear that the Judicial Committee would move to get the authorities involved or at least something more than just an apology, which they had minimized down to loss of control of their anger. By the time they made their decision, I had been on my own, living with an elder and his wife for almost a year.  Considering all their investigation and my weekly sessions with the Presiding Overseer regarding my story, it appeared they were going to do something, not only as an example but to ensure my protection and the fact my younger sister was still in my father's care.  In the end, they did nothing, just the apology.  

I did go to CAS (Children's Aid Society) to report my father, but the statute of limitations prevented them from intervening.  All they could do was document it, in case my younger sister reported our parents, which she never did.  With the extent of the child abuse and with the ongoing investigation into what my parents had been doing for many years, I and many others who were there to help me expected both of them to be disfellowshipped.  When the Judicial Committee said that was not going to happen, I thought perhaps public reproof in front of the whole congregation with loss of privileges was to be their punishment, but that also did not happen.  As I indicated, it was a slap in my face and I got angry, because all they did was minimize what I had gone through.  I felt that the first time I was able to voice what had happened, they victimized me again by silencing what had happened.

Only one elder outside the Judicial Committee gave me any words of comfort, which I still remember.  His words became somewhat of a driving ambition for me – “I know you are hurt!  Remember that no matter what your parents have done, you are stronger than them. No matter what happens to them going forward, find yourself and be true to you. Make your own path."  And I did!  

This was the first time I left the organization and had a chance to discover me for once, although my father continued to write to those I lived with trying to get them to “return me” to him.  When that failed he accused them of “mind controlling me,” as if I couldn't make my own decisions.  My mother was gone and had told me that no one was to know I was her daughter.  She told me that we could be “friends," to which my response was that she was no friend of mine!
Contributed by Debbie Kotte

For three years, I was on and off with the Jehovah's Witnesses as I struggled to find myself and figure out what I wanted.  I was not entirely inactive, but I was not exactly active either, as I only did the minimum, regarding meeting attendance and field service (peddling Watchtower Society publications door-to-door) and then I would turn to other things to keep me busy.  I did get into the occasional situation, which made me think that I needed to return.  Finally, I would somehow come to the conclusion that perhaps I held on and was so strong because I had Jehovah and his organization in my life during my ordeal.  I look back now and cringe at the thought, but at the time, it made sense, because staying in the organization seemed to be my saving grace.  Because of this, I returned to it.

I had support during my inactive period and Jehovah's Witnesses' support came into full force when I decided to return.  By the time I was twenty years old, I had made peace with what had happened and I had married a man in the organization, someone I thought was my everything.  Somehow I had moved on and was a survivor!  

However, four years later, truly my husband would betray me, take my three children away and flip the story on its head to make me the issue and the one responsible. Unfortunately, it was the same old story just in a different venue and this time I had no support from the elders or those that I had deemed my friends, and I was suddenly already disfellowshipped or disassociated, even though there was never a Judicial Committee regarding this, nor had any elder informed me of my status.  Finally, I could see the hypocrisy, the lies and deceit of men who stand for a man-made religion, and will do anything to protect it, even if it is wrong!

Years later, my father committed adultery and although divorced under “Caesar’s law,” he was still married under Jehovah’s law.  He blamed everyone but himself.  He ripped off money from brothers and sisters, even the elders, and never got caught as no one reported it.  He was never disfellowshipped, only reprimanded or reproved.  He is remarried and active and considered a “great brother” in western Canada.  My mother is in eastern Ontario.  She, too, never received more than a reprimand and is also in good standing.  

My sisters are active on and off, but they remain under the control of my father, who seems to control aspects of their lives or views, even though they are married or in relationships. I call them his “marionettes” and I have more of a pen pal relationship with both of them and need to be careful of what I say to them. 

The rest of my family on either side has long since cut me off, as if I am considered to be the “black sheep” of the family, since I never took a side during my parent’s divorce, but decided to focus on me.  This resulted in each side assuming that I supported the other side.  I have not been in contact with any relatives or distant relations since my marriage ended when I was twenty-four years old.  Even then, contact was only with closer relations I had seen here and there. 

My ex-husband is also in good standing, has legal custody of my three children and is remarried to my step-niece.  My older sister married a man the same age as my father who had five children from his first marriage, and my ex-husband is now married to the oldest.  Remember, only within the organization, since she is also divorced, they say it is harder to remarry, even though it is rather sickening to know this!

As for me, I bargained to see my children in the courts by lying on the court documents by saying that I had committed “adultery,” so my ex could have what he wanted, a scriptural divorce.  I wanted to protect my children from the further pain and suffering of seeing their parents battle and fight, as they deserved a better childhood then I had.  Even though I never was required to meet with a Judicial Committee (required by the Watchtower Society regarding disciplinary matters), nor was I informed that I was disfellowshipped, I assume that the court document was all the proof my ex-husband needed, so I sealed my own status.

I struggle with all that I went through and in a lot of ways, I feel like I survived a war or a major battle and have signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It was not until I was going through my own divorce that I realized there was so much I had to address and face, which I did.  The pain of what I lost as child and everything I went through consumed me for some time.  Now I have finally broken free of all that and decided that I have suffered enough, cried enough, have had enough inflicted abuse, both psychological and physical, and I'm going to stop allowing myself to be a victim over and over again.

True, also, is that it hurts to have lost those I looked to as friends and extended family, but since they failed to love me, respect me and help me, I owe them nothing, not even tears.  Some of my decisions and what I gave up may not make sense to many, but I did what I thought was best at the time to protect my children, and for me to sacrifice that was not easy, but it was the best I could do to stop their pain, even though it added to mine, because there is nothing I wouldn't do for them!   I long ago discovered that I was the one person that I could count on, I had internal strength and I could endure the pain more than them, even if I was broken inside.  After the end of that part of my life, I decided I deserved better and I can walk away with my head held high!  I have freedom!