There is a silence I do not penetrate even now. I fear that if I prod it too heavily, it will leak soundlessness into my new life.
The summer before I turn 17, I go to a six-week academic camp where I focus on writing and dance. We talk in one of my classes about psychosomatic medicine, the notion that touch can cure certain ailments and has a distinct psychological effect on us. Whether used for harm or for healing, physical contact is a critical element of human interaction.
There is a form of torture in which the victim is placed in a cell, then the cell is flooded with water. The water levels rise and fall at irregular intervals, generating terror at the threat of drowning. This is one method interrogators may use to change behavior.
I make it into young adulthood without ever learning how to swim. I recognize this as a Black stereotype, so I don’t mention it often. My cousin is a lifeguard and tried to teach me back when I was in high school, but I would always panic as the water crept up my neck. I’ve been studying literature long enough to know all the tropes “queer woman learning to swim” plays right into: water as cleansing, water as clarity, water as pussy, water as baptism, water as inexorable force of nature.
At 20, shortly after graduating from college, I am kicked out of the religion of my childhood for premarital sex and marijuana consumption. I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the age of five or so, then baptized at 15. Baptism is no light matter, either—“serious sin” carries the risk of getting you privately reproved, your commenting and door-to-door privileges removed. If people are “aware” of your sin, a murky metric that tends to vary based on your social status in the congregation, you may be publicly reproved, where in addition to the above, an announcement is made regarding your punishment. Then there’s the worst possible discipline: disfellowshipping. This is what happens to me.
Sometimes torture victims are made to stand, sit, or sleep in fetid shit, the stink leaching into their skin. It’s an unsubtle reminder: You are waste, and just as easily flushed away.
I move back in with my parents after the disfellowshipping announcement. I had been offered a job in Miami, but I had to decline it because my would-be supervisor is a Jehovah’s Witness, too. Back home, I have no friends beyond my co-congregants, and even after I find a job working at a local university admissions office, I try to avoid excessive association with my coworkers. I’ve been warned for years about the pitfalls of worldly associates, so I try to keep to myself.
The disfellowshipped individual is meant to be treated as dead. This requirement is regardless of familial relationship, prior friendship, business partnership, or any other human entanglements. Love for Jehovah must come first. The exceptions are marriage and minors, but I am single and grown.
The night of my 21st birthday, I take myself out to Ruby Tuesday’s because it is the fanciest and nearest drink I can afford. I’m not “celebrating” my birthday, exactly—it’s just legal for me to drink, and that seems like something I should try. I envision myself as a resplendent adult, and even wear a red gown to treat myself to a single glass of sweet white wine. But I am too strung up with grief to enjoy it. In one of many similar scenes, I cry in my car as I drive myself home.
Becoming a Witness involves a lengthy study process. For me, it took two years of closely examining the prescribed literature to feel ready to commit to the Truth. I was something of a golden child, offering extensively researched comments during meetings, giving well-written talks, out in the field ministry knocking on strangers’ doors from the age of 12 onward. People were surprised I didn’t take the plunge sooner.
Psychological torture is often a preferred “enhanced interrogation technique” because it doesn’t leave physical scars. You can effectively torture a victim into whatever truth you want, then drop him back into his society. When he struggles to reintegrate, people may pass him off as crazy, maladjusted, dysfunctional. After all, if he really went through something so horrible, wouldn’t the proof be made manifest in flesh?
There is rage splitting my sternum and I am screaming into the dark cabin of my car as I drive home from the Kingdom Hall. I am listening to Schoolboy Q, and then I am ashamed I am listening to Schoolboy Q. I am screaming, then I am sobbing, then I want to know when I got so fucking angry.
Among the most common and lasting effects of all forms of torture are PTSD and persistent suicidal ideation. Even so, the human survival instinct haunts most suicide attempts. Hesitation wounds are common among people who die by suicide using a sharp object. And for those who opt for suicide by car, even when they are successful, there is often evidence of their feet involuntarily depressing the brake in a final effort to save the body.
I go into the first months of my expulsion convinced that if Jehovah sees my contrition, He will wipe all this woe away. All my childhood mentors and friends will throw their arms around my neck and welcome me back. I will again have a chance at Paradise, and my mother will maintain at least some semblance of a relationship with me. After all, who am I if my existence is severed from hers?
Though we aren’t terribly close, when they find out I can’t swim, my coworkers Alicia and Chanel take it upon themselves to teach me. We start going to the university pool after work, but eventually Chanel gets too busy to join us, so it’s just Alicia and I.
There is a guilt I do not penetrate even now. My relationship with faith is an abusive one, and all my justifications sound the same. You knew he might hurt you—you saw his anger enacted in the lives of others. Why didn’t you just leave?
Yes, I have a plan. No, I don’t have a timeline.
The rules are clear: if you want to be reinstated and regain your relationship with Jehovah, you must regularly attend meetings for a considerable length of time. This is how the elders can see that you are truly repentant. Clearer still is that your relationship with Him will never be the same. This is what Sister Bo— tells me when I inform her that I am being removed from the congregation. “He’ll forgive you, but He’ll never forget.”
An unintelligible dimension of the pain of my year of silence emerges as I try to confine it to a sheet of paper, to pinpoint what happened. Here, I want to say, is the bridge. Here is the fog. Here is the melancholy. A therapist might say that is the slippery nature of trauma. But then, a therapist told me it wasn’t really trauma. And who am I to contradict an authority?
Alicia’s arms buoy me as I fight the dread clutching at my throat. “You’re gonna float. Calm down.” We’re in five feet of water, so even if I don’t float, I’ll still be head and shoulders above the surface standing up. I let the chlorine scent wash over me and try to breathe. But then I panic and sink my feet to the floor of the pool. I just don’t think it’ll happen today, Alicia.
I sit in the back room of the Kingdom Hall, reserved for latecomers, families with small children, and pariahs. A family comes in, plops their older relative in the back, then proceeds to the front auditorium. The old woman’s fingers grasp stiffly at the crisp leaves of her Bible, but her hands cramp when she tries to turn individual pages. She is sitting next to me, so I help her. I turn to Scriptures and share my Bible the way I would with anyone, the way I would even if I weren’t disfellowshipped. We sing the final song together, then the service ends and she squeezes my hand. This is the first time anyone has touched me at the Hall in months. “Thank you, sweetie. What’s your name?” I’m Natalie, I say, but then I have to tell her, because that’s the responsible Christian thing to do: But I’m disfellowshipped. She is shocked, then annoyed, then finally, silent. She drops my hand and turns away from me. Her family comes to the room and retrieves her. They all walk past me without a word.
But I deserved it, didn’t I? My tongue aches like a phantom.
I love my mom. Really, I do. I know she is only shunning me because it will bring me to my senses, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize her own standing before God. She is a good mother. She doesn’t want me to die.
Dan E— is not allowed to spend time with my little brother because he has a history of “problems with children,” as the elder who warned my mother framed it. He is referring to child molestation. Dan was disfellowshipped a long time ago, but came back to the Truth and now is liked well enough.
I commit myself to personal study every day, to hours of Bible reading, anything to excise this wickedness from within me. I go hours without speaking to anyone—not my family, who see me as a spiritual danger, and not coworkers, whom I assume will try to pressure me into taking hard drugs on my lunch breaks.
There are no street lights on the back roads away from the Kingdom Hall, and because I leave immediately after each meeting, there are almost no other vehicles. I take both my hands off the wheel and accelerate. But then I remember a conversation with my mother from several nights before, when I confessed that I wanted to die and I figured I’d drive my car off a high place. “What if it doesn’t work?” she asked. “What if you become a vegetable? Did you even think about that? We’d have to take care of you for the rest of our lives.” My life has always been marred by the specter of success. I put my limp hands back on the wheel. I rarely attempt anything if I think I won’t be good at it.
Alicia and I sit outside of the Enrollment Management building, watching the sunset. We’ve changed back out of our swimming clothes and we’re eating Girl Scout cookies. “There’s this woman, and I love her so much, but she keeps going back to her man. He hits her. I’ve just had to go hands off.” Nothing about Alicia suggests that she’s straight, but this is the most she’s ever hinted at being otherwise. I know it’s not so simple, I begin, but why don’t you try telling her how you feel. It seems like you really want to be with her. “What would I tell my momma?” Alicia says. “It’s not like I was dating boys when I was younger or anything but…Nah. It’s too late for me.” She’s only 32. You can lead a woman to water, but you can’t make her swim.
On average, a Jehovah’s Witness in good standing will attend 156 meetings per year—that’s three a week for 52 weeks. At two hours per meeting, that’s 312 hours of active shunning. Toss in the passive events—folks turning on their heel when they see you in the grocery store, your mother seeing you in the kitchen and bypassing it to go to her room and lock the door, one of the teen girls you used to mentor refusing eye contact—and the number of hours goes up. Becomes impossible to count.
At my behest, my girlfriend reads a few passages of my study journal from that awful year. “You were 20 here?” I nod. “God, you don’t sound 20. You sound 15.”
On one of the notecards I make after emerging from a half-hour of prayer, I write, In Satan’s world, I am undeniably, painfully, inescapably disposable. This is God’s unassailable dispatch to me. I had enforced for myself, even then, that I would be easily removed from people’s lives, and that had largely been proven. Wasn’t I a sudden ghost among my childhood friends, my former Bible study teacher, my own family? Hadn’t I soaked myself in the shit of Satan’s wicked system? To this day, I am confused and surprised by others’ affection.
I have been attempting for years to write about my atrophied heart, the strain of silence on my throat. At first, I tried to break the experience into weeks. This week I learned. This week I noticed. But eventually all the air bled into itself. I still choke on the stench of the wound, the space my family used to occupy.
In one video shown at the 2016 District Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a disfellowshipped young woman calls her parents. The video utilizes the typical split-screen approach to displaying telephone conversations, except this barely counts as one. The woman, in her early 20s, is on one side, anxiously waiting to hear her parents’ voices. Her parents, on the other side, look nervously at the phone, then turn it over. At the end of the video, the young woman returns to the congregation. Following a montage of her sitting demurely in the hall as the seasons change, she is reinstated. Everyone rejoices. An audience of 10,000 Witnesses applauds.
Six months into my disfellowshipping, the fog of over a decade of indoctrination begins to lift. It is painful and necessary, all my nights in the fetal position envisioning my destruction, then half disbelieving God will do anything at all. I devise a test: I will ask the lesbian barista from my favorite local coffee shop out on a date, and when she pushes my hips against the car door and bites my bottom lip, I will confess my wetness to her. I will ask to see her again, then again after that. If under these conditions I am reinstated, Jehovah is not in control of the disciplinary process at all, and if that’s the case, maybe the Witnesses are wrong about other things, too.
People who’ve known me since I was 12 but didn’t acknowledge me for an entire year hug me tightly. “We’ve missed you so much!” they enthuse. “We knew you’d come back.” Like I wasn’t there all along.
In the five years since my disfellowshipping and return, the two years since I came out to my parents, my relationship with my family has become unrecognizable. In mid-2018, my mother’s needless knife-twist arrives in a text message. This is the first contact she’s had with me in two years. “Although you may not think so, I think about and miss you every single day. Yet above all, Jehovah and his principles, laws, and commands will always come First in my life. Without Him, there is no me. I love the person I have become.” She may never know who I am now, that I learned to let my fear propel me into the kind of love that doesn’t dry up in the face of disappointment.
My favorite thing to do in the pool now is lie on my back and drift. I still won’t swim in a lake or any other body of water with uncontrolled depth, but some of that old apprehension has subsided. I’m less worried that I’ll drown simply trying to look up.