Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kyria Abrahams. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
1. The book begins with a Frederick Perls quote: "Many factors come together to create this specific unique person which is I." Now that you have an understanding of Kyria as a child, can you identify some of the Jehovah's Witness factors that contributed to who she was? Examine her views on finishing high school, getting married, and having a job. What other external factors contributed to her personal development?
2. What prescriptions do Jehovah's Witnesses give for proper parenting (see page 104)? Do you agree with the methods described?
3. Kyria describes her elementary school experience: "Unlike all the other students in the school, I was special. In short, the rest of my class was going to die at Armageddon. I was going to live forever—as long as I refrained from singing the National Anthem or drawing a turkey from the outline of my hand" (page 84). How do the rules of Jehovah's Witnesses compare with the rules of other religions? Which religions are stricter than others in regard to what must be done to achieve eternal life?
4. Abrahams humorously says of her early experiences in the Kingdom Hall, "We all knew what was in our thoughts (intense love for Jehovah possibly coupled with a need to pee) and there was no need to cause problems by talking about actual feelings" (page 34). Does this description relate to Kyria's interactions with her parents while growing up? Why or why not?
5. Discuss Abrahams’ recollection of swallowing a bottle of pills. Why do you think her parents responded the way they did? Compare with their reactions to Kyria's other decisions, such as dropping out of high school, divorcing Alan, and being disfellowshipped.
6. Why do you think Kyria married Alan? What were her reasons for wanting a divorce? Do you understand the decisions she made?
7. Examine the other relationships in the book. How does Kyria's marriage compare with that of her parents? How does she approach her second marriage proposal, this time to Penn? Do these relationships adhere to the rules for being good Jehovah's Witnesses?
8. "I was overwhelmed with the need to interact with these people. I wanted to be them and I wanted to make out with them, possibly both at the same time." (page 289) This is just one of many emphatic descriptions throughout the book that Abrahams gives when meeting new friends for the first time. Discuss the peers she encounters during each phase of her childhood, looking closely at Sarah, Heather, Judy, and her fellow poetry slammers. Examine the effects, both positive and negative, that each of these relationships has on Kyria.
9. Near the end of the book, Abrahams writes, "It didn't feel wrong to have sex with my friend's boyfriend because I couldn't fathom anything being wrong any more. I'd been told that murder was as wrong as eating birthday cake was as wrong as smoking, as wrong as reading books, as wrong as having sex with your friend's boyfriend. I needed time to grade each of these things on their own merit, to make sense out of the world, one ruined septic system at a time." (page 365) How does this description compare with Abrahams’ sense of morality earlier in the book? At what point does she begin questioning the rules of being a Witness?
10. Why do you think Kyria's mother and friend Maya both went back to being Jehovah's Witnesses after they were disfellowshipped? Why do you think Kyria never rejoined?
11. In your opinion, does Abrahams portray her former religion and its members fairly?
Enhance Your Book Club
Learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses at http://www.watchtower.org/. Download a copy of The Watchtower, or another Witness publication and bring it to your book club meeting to discuss.
Visit the author online and connect with other fans at http://kyriaabrahams.blogspot.com/.
Check out more comedic writing at the website for Jest magazine (www.jest.com), where Abrahams was a writer for several years.
A Conversation with Kyria Abrahams
Can you fill us in on what has happened in your life between the end of the memoir and now? How did you transition from performing in poetry slams to performing as a stand-up comedian?
In short: I spent several years making consistently self-destructive life decisions and learning from them at a snail's pace. Someone recently coined it "self-parenting." I think that's a good term. My parents taught me how to be a Jehovah's Witness, but I had to teach myself how to be everything else.
About six months after the point where the book ends, I moved to Cambridge, MA in order to be closer to my job as an administrative assistant. I jumped from one codependent relationship to the next, trying to replace the sense of family and community that I had with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I was very lonely, which I hope is an understandable reaction when your family and friends hold a meeting in which they collectively decide that you are made of demons.
I moved in with the girlfriend of a coworker and proceeded to become the worst roommate in existence. All I did was smoke pot alone in my bedroom, bring home strange men, and complain that my other roommate was a bitch. Then, one day, I realized that I had a third roommate.
I was sitting in the living room watching cable and eating my roommate's food when this strange woman walked in and announced that she had bought a Papasan chair for the apartment. Not only did I not know what a Papasan chair was, I didn't know who she was. Suddenly, I woke up, as if from an alcoholic blackout, only without the plastic bottle of vodka. I realized that I actually had seen this woman in the apartment before, but had been calling her by the other roommate's name. Granted, they were both Asian, but I think this transcends racism and moves into the realm of serious mental trauma. I moved out about a month later. I still can't remember their names, but if you're reading this, I'm so sorry. I promise I will replace your Ramen noodles.
It was easy to transition to standup comedy, because I was delusional and thought I was hilarious. Performance poetry was an exceedingly supportive environment that allowed me to feel a lot funnier than I actually was. I remained delusional long enough to get a little better at it – which I guess is the key to succeeding in any art form.
While working as an administrative assistant, I taught myself enough about PhotoShop to get a job designing websites. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but this was during the dot-com boom, and there was so much startup money floating around that companies could hire an entire department without having any work for them to do. No one really noticed that I wasn't very good with computers. I was just the weird girl that brings her own lunch, sits alone in her car and seems like she could snap at any minute. I came to work, checked my email, got paid, and thought this was what happened at every job in corporate America.
After I’d caused enough wreckage in Boston, I moved to New York. I thought everything would get better immediately because no one would know all the mistakes I'd made while living in Boston, such as marrying a man 20 years older than me on a whim. Unfortunately, wherever you go, there you are. I realized you can't just trick people into thinking you're not insane. First, you have to actually attempt to become a normal human being, and then you have to wait five years for the people who watched you act insane to bother to believe that you've changed.
It's been a process, but I feel very blessed and happy at this point in my life. I landed a great job with the United Nations (aka: ‘The Wild Beast’ as foretold in Revelation which will help bring about the Apocalypse) and, of course, I was given the opportunity to write and publish this book. I'm also lucky to be surrounded by amazing, supportive friends.
I now live alone in my own studio apartment, so whenever anyone brings home a Papasan chair, I almost always pinpoint who did it.
How does living in New York City compare with living in Rhode Island?
Rhode Island has all the same things that New York has, it's just that as a New Yorker, you don't have to go as far to get them. I ate chicken vindaloo when I lived in Providence, but now that I live in Queens, I practically have an Indian restaurant in my bathroom.
I have noticed that people outside of New York are overly scared of New York, for which I blame Rhinestone Cowboy. There's a misconception that all of New York looks like Times Square, which is like thinking that everyone in Paris lives in the Eiffel Tower. On the same token, it's also easy to dismiss small New England towns as if they're nothing but unpaved roads with an Applebees and a gun show filled with toothless yokels in the center. I know for a fact that's only in Pascoag.
As a New Yorker, I don't think I have any right to feel superior when I don't even have a washing machine in my home. I have given up a lot of my humanity in exchange for living 15 minutes away from important museums. People in Rhode Island like modern art, but they also realize that it's equally important to have clean underwear.
I do miss the smaller comforts of Rhode Island, but I don't think I'd ever move back. I've gotten too used to getting Pad Thai delivered to my bathtub.
The book reveals that you have an amazing amount of self-awareness, as you write about a child and then a teenager who often makes hilariously wrong decisions. How are you now able to mock the very decisions that seemed perfectly logical to you when they were made?
Time heals all wounds. Believe me, I used to be exceedingly pissed off. I was resentful that I hadn't been taught how to "act right" and had to teach myself the words to the Star Spangled Banner.
I have changed so much since I was 16 that it was like writing about a different person. There were times I was writing about myself and I was thinking "God, this is so pathetic!" but it wasn't in a self-pitying way, it was more like I was writing about a character outside of myself. Maybe that's not healthy. Maybe they call that "denial."
When I first started writing the book, I wrote a series of petulant, didactic essays. I printed them out, read them, and realized I sounded like an ignorant, ranting teenager. Once I had the “anti-religion” stuff out of my system, I was able to write the book with a little less resentment and a lot more honesty. I'm not Richard Dawkins and I'm not trying to tell people how to feel about God. It's just a personal memoir about my own life, from which people are welcome to draw their own conclusions.
In the end, if I wasn't able to get honest about my own mistakes, I'd have remained that same dysfunctional teenager; I wouldn't have been able to change. I'd be too busy getting drunk and writing bad poetry to be able to apply myself to writing a whole book. It feels good to read the book and realize how much I’ve changed.
You bare all in this book, detailing your attempted suicide, struggles with OCD, and first sexual encounters. Were any experiences harder to write about than others?
Writing about the attempted suicide was harder than I expected. I never realized how scary the whole thing was. It was the impulsive act of a child – the sudden decision to swallow a bottle of pills with no thought for actual consequences. The experience was also quite painful, physically. I was sick for weeks. As I wrote about it, I realized that I couldn't find any good reason for why it happened. For example, I have no idea why no one took me to the hospital. I think they knew I couldn't die from it and decided to just let me experience the dire consequences of what I'd done.
It was disconcerting to dredge up those memories and have no more clarity than before I started. I didn't realize how I had stuffed it all inside until I had to outline the exact details for other people.
You candidly write about your parents, humorously revealing their faults and weaknesses. Have they read the book? If so, do they agree with your portrayal of them?
As far as I know, they are not aware that the book exists. They're not supposed to read the book because it's "apostate literature" and they're not supposed to talk to me because I'm the apostate who wrote it.
If they do read it, I am, of course, concerned that they will be hurt. I tried to write about them honestly and lovingly, but there's only so much space. Ultimately, I want to say: "Hey Mom and Dad, I think you were great parents, thanks for everything!" After all, they helped form me into the kind of woman who wrote a book. I did not do that despite them, I did it because of them, because they always loved and encouraged me. Just by the fact that the book exists, their parenting skills should be made visible.
Do you keep in touch with any friends who are still Witnesses? If so, do you feel they understand the choices you've made?
No. Nurturing a friendship with people who think I am going to be destroyed at Armageddon is not on the top of my to-do list. I'm certainly curious about what my old friends are up to, and I'd love to catch up, but at the same time, I doubt we'd be able to relate to each other at this point. After all, I don't plan my life around an impending Armageddon and they don't think I’m worthy of living forever in paradise. It kinda puts on a damper on having a meaningful, trusting relationship with someone when they don’t think you’re good enough for God.
Your brother is mentioned early on in the book but we don't hear much about him after that. What made you decide to leave him out of the second portion of your memoir?
He wasn't in the book because he wasn't really in my life. He used to come over to our apartment occasionally after Alan and I were married, but it didn't move the book forward, so there wasn't much point in mentioning it. We were distant for a few years, especially while I was learning how to survive outside the Jehovah's Witnesses, but we've reconnected now and are good friends. He's a great guy, my brother!
Your mother and friend Maya both rejoined the Jehovah's Witnesses after being disfellowshipped. Have you been tempted to follow their lead? What has helped you succeed outside the Jehovah's Witness community, without the support of the people you grew up with? Was establishing yourself independently harder, or easier, than you thought it would be?
I was never tempted to get "reinstated," although I did have fleeting moments where I missed the security of the community. It was very safe and easy to be a part of, and, of course, it was nice to believe that nothing mattered because the earth was going to be made into a paradise.
I was able to succeed solely because I was eventually able to learn and grow from my mistakes. I've been through some excruciatingly painful things, but I don't regret anything. My mistakes took the place of advice from my parents. The people I grew up with didn't "support" me, but rather enabled me. The real support came from the new friends I made, who told me straight out when I was acting like a fool.
The Jehovah's Witnesses want you to believe that your life is going to fall apart if you leave the religion. And the irony is that it does, but not for the reasons they think. It's not because I left "the truth" and became worldly, it's because I hadn't been taught how to live in the world.
There was a point in my life where I tried to hide my past. It took a while, but I'm finally proud of where I've been. I’m happy with who I am, and I consider that to be the only measure of success I need.
You said in the book that sleeping with a friend's boyfriend didn't seem particularly wrong because most everything had seemed wrong as a Jehovah's Witness. What do you base your morality on now that you no longer adhere to the rules of a religion?
I follow universal wisdom about love and compassion, the things that religions are based on before people start exploiting them. I take the commonalities about how to be a better person and apply them to my life. Unless you’re a sociopath, everyone knows right from wrong – it’s just a matter of actually living in it. I would never be comfortable choosing a single religion. Even if there was one true religion, there's no way that I'm smart enough out figure out what it is.
Writing a memoir is a revealing experience, putting the most personal parts of your life down on paper for all to see. How does it feel to have your past wrapped up into a book that strangers are now reading? Who did you write this book for?
My only wish is that I could have more of a dialogue about it. I was so wrapped up in writing and publishing the book that it never occurred to me that people would be judging me once it came out. Not only that, but that people would misunderstand parts of it. It’s weird to have people misunderstand parts of my life and then make blanket assumptions about me based on that. I never thought about how that would feel.
My initial target audience was people who don't already know what it was like to grow up this way. Every time I would tell someone I had been raised as a Jehovah's Witness, they would always say the same thing: "What's that like? I don't know anything about them!" It was clear that people had questions, but no answers.
But as I was writing the book, I realized the audience was a lot broader. Anyone has ever felt like an outsider will be able to relate to this, whether their parents were atheists or orthodox Jews. If your parents raised you with a strict, unyielding view of the world, this book is for you.
Do you have any plans for another book? If so, what will it be about?
I would love to write a second book. I have a few ideas, but nothing concrete yet.