When Catherine leaves, no one thanks her or wishes her luck for the future. No one even says goodbye. After twenty-seven years tirelessly door-knocking in an attempt to spread the Truth, she is now an apostate. She has turned her back on her religion and is openly critical of it. As a baptised Jehovah’s Witness who has understood the Truth and then rejected it, she is guilty of a far bigger sin than any committed by those who denied the Truth to begin with.
She is disfellowshipped in front of the congregation at a public meeting, but she’s already left. Leaving is the first important independent decision she has ever made in her life, but she gets no credit for it. It’s the Devil’s work. He has tricked her into rejecting all that is good and he will lead her into suffering and destruction. Catherine is so evil that nobody within the faith is allowed to talk to her.
She welcomes me into her home with a warm smile. She’s pretty and edgy at the same time; relaxed in ripped jeans, a soft pink cardigan and bright turquoise glasses. Her feet are bare; her toenails the colour of blood. We sit outside in the sun on brightly striped Indian meditation cushions. Meditation, I discover, is one of a long list of things the religion bans. Clearing your mind makes room for the devil. She laughs at my reaction. She grips her hair tightly into a ponytail, then shakes it free. She laughs again. What else can you do?
Catherine is interested in everything. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘everything’ is limited and prescribed. For twenty-seven years, libraries and bookshops are torture for her because there is so much she’s not allowed to look at. Gender issues are out. So is religion, politics and sex. When she wants to get into something meaty she is told to read The Aid to Bible Understanding. It’s fatter than a brick, but all leads back to ‘nothing’.
She is bored and frustrated. At her unskilled job she’s forbidden from forming friendships with her worldly workmates whom she genuinely likes. Back at Kingdom Hall she can’t shake the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong when a seventy-year-old woman has to put a scarf on her head to show her subjection to a thirteen-year-old boy. She stops bowing her own head and refuses to close her eyes, looking around defiantly. She walks out.
It’s a massive decision to leave and the repercussions are enormous. She knows exactly what’s in store for her. She doesn’t care about the opinions of the ‘fat men in suits’ who make all the decisions, but she knows her father and two brothers will not speak to her again. Nor will the friends she has grown up with. She is the Antichrist. She must be shunned.
On the plus side, she can reunite with her mother and two sisters who exited years ago. There are still a lot of tears about those wasted years. Ten brutal years when they didn’t speak because Catherine never broke the rules. Jehovah was always watching and he’d know if she did.
The brainwashing is hardwired and impossible to shake when you’re immersed in it. She’s known since pre-school that her job is to get the Truth out there. This Truth is clear. Jehovah is the only true God and must be obeyed. Jehovah’s bible is the only true bible and must be followed. Armageddon is coming. Only the good will survive.
The catch is that only Jehovah’s Witnesses are good. The rest of us – who have been given ample opportunity to convert – will die. Birds will come and peck out our eyes and strip the flesh off our bones. The earth is thus cleansed and there will be paradise on earth. No pain. No suffering. No death.
It must be terrifying to turn your back on an organisation that has convinced you of this. Surely a niggle remains. What if they’re right? ‘Of course,’ says Catherine, ‘you can’t just leap from being in it one day to out the next.’ For her, it is a slow and painful process and it’s life-threatening. It takes seven suicide attempts and many months in rehab before she runs away and catches a bus ‘into life’.
The girl who left school at fifteen because education is pointless when the end is just around the corner, has some catching up to do. She’s overwhelmed by choice. Her first decision is to be a surrogate mother, which she doesn’t follow through with. Her second is to become a doctor. She attends lectures in Chemistry and Physics, which might as well be in Portuguese for all that she understands them. Three years later, she completes a double degree in Anthropology and Women’s Studies.
She’s been out now, ‘living,’ for twenty-five years. She credits her husband with saving her life. They live with their five children, a cat and two quail, high on a hill overlooking the sea. The sunrises are spectacular. Religion has no place in their world. Catherine believes ‘if you’re in it, you’re stupid.’ She tells her children that education is everything.
Catherine has found her own truth by living the best life she can. She has strong opinions and they are all her own. She’s vibrant and funny and insanely motivated. Her mind is full of art and literature, the atrocities in Palestine and what to cook for dinner. She sings in an award-winning Sweet Adeline chorus. She paints, in her shed in the garden. Books are everywhere, in piles all around her house. She reads voraciously and writes like a woman possessed. She’s a good way into her novel for her MA in Creative Writing, about a woman who begins to question everything she once found sacred and fights her way out, slowly, into life.