Memoirs are made-up stories based on a subjective version of truth. But if you are a Jehovah Witness the only truth worth knowing comes from the Bible. The literal words of God. Ali Millar’s mum was a Jehovah Witness in the same way I was brought up a Roman Catholic. She was brought up in the truth, but she couldn’t keep up the lie.
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit coming-of-age drama shone brightly. It illuminated the truth of what it is to be neither one thing, nor another, but to be fully human. Tara Westover’s Educated did for the Mormons what Winterson did for a form of Christianity. I can’t think of Sikh or Muslim versions of these stories. The Roman Catholic version follows a similar pattern of elderly men gorging themselves on power and money. Women and girls subservient to their male leaders. We’re well-schooled in where that leads. Women’s rights being overturned. Taliban refusing to educate girls. The rejection of Roe v Wade shows the upswing of another right-wing patriarchy under the guise of religious freedom.
The Last Days reminds us that those buried under male ideology real people struggle and suffer. It’s also a reminder that Jehovah Witnesses’ leaders got the date of The Last Days wrong publicly twice. They have their martyrs and not just from the refusal of blood transfusions. Jehovah Witnesses were in Hitler’s Death Camps. They quietly refused to fight and follow.
Ali Miller didn’t ask to be born into Jehovah Witnesses, in the same way I didn’t ask to be born Catholic. Family and friends indoctrinated us. Crin is an interesting word. A shortened form of crinoline. Those big gowns women used to wear. A cloth ball gown or force field that set them apart. Crin is also short for endocrine. Feedback loops. Force field that make us who we are. Endocrinology is about emotions. We can’t just shuck off our beliefs especially if they’re ties into a sense of self. Our North Star, all of which we know and love coming from our mum.
What that mean for me was Mass on Sunday and some other Holy Days of Obligation and supporting Celtic. We went to a different school from Proddies. We were going to heaven. They were going to get relegated and go to hell. Fuck them.
For Jehovah Witnesses it isn’t that simple. They use the analogy of a burning building. It’s not them or us with a wall running all the way through heaven. They need to try to save us. Even if we don’t want to be saved. Jehovah Witnesses try and save us from ourselves. They need to show their Elders that they tried either by selling the Watchtower magazine, or chapping doors. Even though they shun higher education, choosing jobs were they can devote more time to their real work, they are on the clock for Jehovah. They need to tally up any door they have chapped and how they were received and report back to their Elders. Follow up in potential recruits. Proselytising is part of the package. What they’re selling is certainty in uncertain times.
As a child Ali was scared of the dark but not scared of spiders or creepy crawlies. She had a recurring dream:
‘of war, of Great Tribulations, of clearing the dead from the streets or being one of the dead cleared from the street. I should not be scared of any of these things, but I am scared of them because I don’t have enough faith’.
The structure of her book mirrors her world. Book One: Genesis; Book Two: Exodus; Book Three: Revelations.
The certainty of a child breeds the uncertainty of adolescence. Millar finds certainty in not eating. She wants to disappear. She wants control. She wants to gorge on her newfound sense of self.
Millar matches Janice Galloway in her writing and discovery of boys. Your parents might fuck you up. Boys and later men are happy to help finish the job. She recognises the twisted duplicity of the church and its Elders towards boys’ and girls’ sexuality. She is judged wanting, even after she is married to a fellow Witness and rising star of the Fellowship. The pettiness of wives happy to twist the knife and call her out. Her own judgement of herself is, of course, harshest.
Revelations, of course, uncover feet of clay. The Fellowship is always a test of faith. Ali Millar’s mother can choose to be its church and keep attending meetings at Kingdom Hall. She can choose to visit her daughter and grandchildren. But she cannot do both. Ali Millar is deemed one of the worldly. Outside the Church. Outside of God’s coming Kingdom. Her body will lie on the streets when the great reckoning happens. Her mum chooses the certainty of Kingdom Hall. Ali Millar chooses the uncertainty of real life. That’s one reading of it. What’s yours? Read on.