4.5 rounded up to 5
Scott Terry’s recollection of growing up in a household dominated by people claiming to adhere to the precepts of being Jehovah’s Witnesses is harrowing reading. What the author as a child longed for, more than anything, was acceptance and attention. Not because he was gay, as that was still something he was barely aware of, but first and foremost as a person and as a child of a father whose love he longed for. Everything changed when his mother left and he gained the stepmother from hell, Fluffy.
In some ways, the author’s life paralleled that of Cinderella. The evil stepmother and the step siblings who received everything that they craved for and the father who lurked in the background, unwilling to stand up to his new wife and preferring to remain ignorant to the way she was mistreating his children. At times, the deprivation of food and love to which the author was subjected took on almost fairy-tale horror proportions, but I have no doubt that the account reflects reality.
Being young and not comprehending the reason for this, his treatment filled him with confusion and resentment as much as anything. Later in life, his main questions were about why this was done as much as condemnation for it. Finally, he was able to escape and find love and acceptance from other relatives.
The fact that the abuse he received was not sexual didn’t lessen the damage it did to his spirit and his growth as a person. The fact that he continually struggled to fit this mistreatment with a love and loyalty that lingered for his cowboy father and even to extent the religion he was brought up in made the memoir more poignant. Thankfully, the author doesn’t seem to have been consumed by rage toward either. Anger and bitterness still survive but, at the end, these morphed more into disappointment. Both father and religion suffered because they weren’t what they could have been or should have been.
The book didn’t rate a perfect score for me as I would have preferred more reflection in the aftermath as to the reason for these shortfallings in the religion and his parents rather than a catalogue of their failings. From what I gather, he mainly wanted to document exactly what he had been forced to suffer for the benefit of the people who had helped him. Almost as if this litany of memories was evidence at a trial. The trial being, in essence, trying to deal with the guilt of rebellion against the fact that he could no longer respect his parents and uphold the religion and beliefs he was told to revere.
In some ways, growing up is all about finding your own path in life, unfortunately for Scott Terry the grip of a religion that thrives on fear and a stepmother that also used fear to exert control threw him into a deep pit that needed a steep climb to escape.
Using fear to hold people in your power is just another form of bullying and just like bullying it exposes the fear inside the perpetrator that this is the only way they can maintain control. In no way does it reflect on the person who is being bullied. In this case it was a vindictive stepmother jealous of love being given to anyone but herself or her progeny and a cult needing fear to ensure people’s obedience.
It certainly appears to have taken the author a long time to overcome the abuse and make peace with his guilt for doing things he’d been forced into in an effort to survive. Children should never have to endure this sort of treatment. The effects last long afterward and that fact alone makes it difficult to forgive the perpetrators, whether people or religion.
His exploits after he finally escapes his childhood and grows into a man who accepts he is gay are barely touched on, but are nevertheless interesting. Especially as it took him some time to comprehend that not all gay men are effeminate. His account of arriving in the Castro back in the late eighties reminded me of accounts of people “finding religion” later in life. He was presented with a new Truth.
Confessing his gayness to himself and the relative who had taken him under her wing was a huge step in his life and led to my favorite lines in the book.
“I’m gay,” I blurted.
She stopped chewing for a few seconds.
“And how are you doing with that?” she asked.
Memoirs are made up of memories and, as such, they consist of a jumble of things that have stuck over the years. To an outsider, these memories can seem irrelevant and at times unbelievable, but they are a valid and necessary way to show to those who didn’t live these memories what exactly happened.
The debate between nature and nurture never denies the profound effect of the latter. In this case, nurture didn’t make the author gay, but his experiences certainly shaped who he is today. You can feel a lingering sadness at the way he feels cut off from his sister who is still a Jehovah’s Witness. Thankfully, as he recounts at the end, he found someone who taught him to love himself and thus he was finally able to love others.
Apart from the horrors mentioned, the memoir draws a vivid picture of the Okies, a cult religion and a past era.