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"I gained new perspective from fiction": Jodie Chapman reflects on her upbringing as a member of the Jehovah's Witness community.

“I gained new perspective from fiction”: Jodie Chapman reflects on her upbringing as a member of the Jehovah’s Witness community.


I used to visit people’s homes and warn them about the impending apocalypse. I would explain that as flawed beings, we would eventually face a day of reckoning known as Armageddon. Those who were virtuous could earn a place in Paradise, while those who were wicked would face annihilation. It’s no surprise that people would shut off their lights when they saw us approaching.

My love for stories has always been a part of me. For a long time, I lived my life according to how they would end. Being raised in the UK as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught that we were living in “the time of the end”, the final chapter of Life’s tale, and that I would eventually receive eternal life on a perfect Earth as a reward.

John Hurt as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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All Witness children received a hardcover book called My Book of Bible Stories that was heavy and yellow in color. I was taught the story of Abraham, who almost killed his son as a test from God, from a very young age. The depiction of Isaac tied up on an altar while his father held a knife over him was frightening. Another story I learned was about Lot’s wife, who was turned into salt for looking back at her burning hometown. I never doubted the validity or lessons of these stories as they were taught to me alongside my ABCs. They were my understanding of what was considered “normal”.

My entertainment was heavily vetted. Anything with ghosts or witches was banned. Christmas and birthday colouring pages were ripped out. Looking back, I struggle to think of books that would have been more shocking than the Bible. Babies’ heads dashed against rocks, entire nations murdered by an angry God, an upcoming worldwide genocide of billions 
 yet it is a tree with coloured lights that was deemed offensive.

I had the freedom to select my own reading material, but my religious obligations took precedence over leisurely reading. I went to a traditional school and completed my A-levels, but typically, Jehovah’s Witnesses only receive a basic education and are encouraged to prioritize preaching. Pursuing higher education is not looked favorably upon. While I was never pressured into dedicating all my time to preaching, there was little encouragement to prioritize my education. Throughout my life, books have been my preferred way of exploring new places.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four gave a label to the “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime” that I accepted as normal. When I read it in my early 20s, I had a genuine watershed moment. The way that “The Party” alters beliefs and insists followers accept these changes without dispute mirrored my community. The story of Winston, who knows the truth and yet must conform for his own survival, opened a door I had never dared to touch.

The TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.

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The novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood brought to my attention the threat of a male-dominated society that portrays itself as advantageous for women. As a new mother, the ideas of oppression and lack of control in the name of religion evoked a strong emotional response. This book intensified my existing doubts about my religious beliefs and caused them to escalate.

Perhaps because my imagination was forged in such bloodthirsty fire, stories have always felt more alive and memorable than nonfiction. What could be a more devastating teacher on the subject of slavery and its subsequent trauma than Toni Morrison’s Beloved? Parts of the story left me so angry that I had to keep putting down the book to compose myself. I read it after I had stepped away from my community, but it only confirmed my doubts. How could a powerful god stand by and watch this happen and not feel compelled to intervene?

One rule that I found difficult to come to terms with was disfellowshipping, where individuals who have done wrong are completely cut off from the community and even their own family members are not allowed to have any contact with them. It is also common among Jehovah’s Witnesses to shun those who choose to leave the group. Reading literary works like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, which depict characters being rejected for supposedly going against societal morals, helped me see the injustice of this practice.

In my society, ostracism was seen as a caring gesture meant to help the shamed individual see the error of their ways. However, I came to understand that this is not an act of love. It resembles the actions of a cruel stepmother in fairy tales, who would confine a child until they pleaded to be set free. The child would cry out, willing to do anything for their freedom from the isolated and somber space.

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In my initial book, “Another Life,” which I wrote after leaving my community and losing several friendships in my thirties, the main character Anna is exiled from her religion for no longer holding beliefs. In my second novel, “Oh, Sister,” I delve into the challenges faced by three women in a strict patriarchal religion inspired by the Witnesses. The characters, Jen, Zelda, and Isobel, have names that can be rearranged to form an anagram of Jezebel, a notorious biblical figure who was thrown out of a window, trampled by horses, and devoured by dogs.

In my past community, female characters were not given a voice and the leaders were all men. They had control over decision-making and the women, known as “sisters,” were expected to follow their rules. I was often referred to as “a sister with opinions” and remained an active member until a few years ago when I could no longer ignore my doubts. Despite being able to speak up, I have always struggled with talking about myself and being the center of attention. Growing up constantly being told that I was inferior to men, it was difficult not to internalize that belief. Perhaps this is why I chose to write about these women, as a way to process the unfamiliarity of the world that was once my home.

According to reviewers, Oh, Sister is referred to as both a “horror story” and “dystopian fairytale”. This has been unexpected for me because the world these women inhabit is what I considered to be normal. Without the impact of fiction, I may have remained in that world.

Source: theguardian.com