I am often asked why I write Mama’s Club books and why most of my modern-day heroes are ex-JW-internet vigilantes who aggressively expose the unjust policies of the Watchtower Society. The answer is deeply rooted in Marilyn’s Story.
First published in The Ghosts from Mama’s Club, I have rewritten and adapted it to a blog format so that more people can read her story. The latest version, a four-part series can be accessed at:
My sister, Marilyn Kelly, was born September 17, 1948. She was the first of my siblings to have special protection; the kind Mama believed a child has when their parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). Marilyn’s conception was special as well. The ritual involved in the conception process was a gift. It was Mama’s way of thanking Papa for capitulating to her wishes that he become a JW. Papa had fought her valiantly for over two months trying to keep her from joining. But when he realized how fruitless that would be, he decided to join her. Marilyn was the physical evidence, the living proof, of that capitulation.
Marilyn was a drop-dead-gorgeous baby, with thick blond hair, sparkling blue-green eyes and an engaging smile. When my parents brought her home from the hospital, I, nearly five, knew that she was a special gift. When she turned five, she could pass for a human Barbie doll with her soft, pink-white skin sprinkled with fairy-dust freckles. For sure Mama loved her, but Marilyn was Daddy’s Girl. I think Papa took it personally that he helped produce such a beautiful child.
Marilyn made few demands on her parents. Everyone liked her, and those big beautiful eyes and vibrant blond hair made it easy for people to remember her name, Little Marilyn Monroe. She also didn’t cry constantly like our sister Susan did as a baby. Marilyn easily entertained herself and didn’t require lots of work. She had a very submissive nature, which made her easy for Mama to manage and mold. Marilyn also lacked the innate sense of curiosity that most kids possess; but that would change later in life.
As a teenager, Marilyn was not cursed with facial blemish problems like me, who was tattooed with a bumper crop of teenage pimples and blackheads. She had no symptoms of bosom-envy cocooning into womanhood. Breast implants would play no role in her life. Mama kept the boys at bay with heavy doses of guilt so Marilyn’s hormones didn’t have a chance to even make one bad decision.
Unfortunately, Marilyn did have a significant handicap. Abe Lincoln would have called it the slows. It took her forever to do what she had to do or to get to where she wanted to go. While she was definitely a very attractive young lady, that turned out to be handicap number two.
Marilyn learned and easily accepted the fact that girls were second-class citizens in the eyes of Jehovah God. What’s odd about that is Mama and Marilyn didn’t see it that way. However, if you’re one of Jehovah’ Witnesses you’re taught that God has what amounts to a pecking order. There’s Him at the top, after the Big Guy come angels, below winged creatures were men, below males are women and then at the very bottom are animals. Even as a child this didn’t make sense to me and I often challenged Mama. Her pat response was, “Women were made to be a helpmate to men, but God loves us all the same.”
The belief that women were a notch lower than men in God’s organizational chart drove JW policy. Policy that Marilyn and I easily observed, to which Mama fully supported. No woman could have a position of authority at Bethel where JWs are governed or at the local level, the Kingdom Hall. At the Hall, it’s men only for preaching, teaching and praying. If there was an official meeting and a woman prayed publicly because a competent male wasn’t present, she would have to wear a covering over her head out of respect for any<gag> angels that might be visiting.
I wish I could have told Marilyn and Mama what I know today about the history of religious dictates that minimized women. In Jesus’ time, women were treated like chattel. The Jewish religion supported that view: according to Genesis, they were created by God solely for the purpose of serving man as a helpmate. Later in the Ten Commandments, building on this sense of second-class citizenship, women were defined as property in Exodus. Thus polygamy made sense, for a man could have as many wives, sheep, or cattle as he could afford.
In stark contrast, Jesus was non-sexist. He tried to end discrimination. He had female disciples. He traveled and ministered with them. He treated women as equals, breaking the religious rules of his day. In the six books and verses we know for sure that the apostle Paul wrote, he supported an active role for women in the early Christian church. But shortly after Paul died, the ruling clergy thought this policy was ill-advised and went back to the sexist mentality of the Old Testament.
For much of Western history, women were relegated to second-class status, with many Christian orthodox churches validating that definition as God-inspired and God-imposed. A woman’s lack of size, speed and physical strength was used to relegate her to a state of childlike dependency. In the most basic relationship in human society, the male met his survival needs by claiming that the female’s lower status was God’s plan in creation. That way if the woman objected, she had to fight against God as well.
I would have vigorously shared this kind of information with Mama and Marilyn. And to Mama I would have asked, “Was the discrimination of women invented by God or man? Could it be that a select group of men created God in their image?” Not that it would have done any good, but it would have made me feel better. Most hard-core believers don’t want facts. Mama had her version of the truth and it wouldn’t change, blind to the damage her truth was having on Marilyn.
To make matters worse, Mama discouraged Marilyn from getting a good education. If Armageddon <God forbid> was delayed and Marilyn reached marriage age, she could always find a hard-working loyal JW. He’d be the breadwinner and take care of her, as Papa had done for Mama. Marilyn didn’t need to excel in school. Though smart enough, she wasn’t encouraged to develop her thinking skills.
Marilyn had no close friends as a child. Perhaps there were kids at school that she met and liked, but Mama treated them as lepers. Worldly kids would get her into trouble. So Marilyn didn’t develop the social skills that she would need as an adult. Not a concern for Mama, as she knew Armageddon could come any day, it wouldn’t be long. All evidence pointed to the end of the world soon, and then, a new paradise world. Marilyn would live forever, which would give her plenty of time to make good friends with people who loved Jehovah just like Mama.
Marilyn and I grew up in Los Angeles, California and the few friends we had were JWs. We didn’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas, but Mama would organize a special JW-party day each year where gifts were shared and games played. She would invite other JW kids and serve cake and ice cream. This was a very special event, especially for Marilyn who was by nature a happy party person.
I do remember an unhappy moment that Marilyn and I shared and it was orchestrated by Mama. While at school I received over twenty valentine cards from classmates. Each of the cards was personalized. I felt special and liked. Now mind you, I knew that I should leave these cards at school. Mama had told me that this was a pagan ritual invented by the Devil. But I wanted to show Marilyn the cards and read to her what other kids were saying about me. I snuck the cards home in my lunch box. When I thought it was safe, I told Marilyn that I wanted to show her something in the back yard. We had looked at maybe ten cards when we heard Mama’s voice as she peered out of my bedroom window, “What are you doing?” When she came outside and discovered that I had been showing Marilyn Valentine cards she lost it. She went and on and on about how bad I was, that I was inviting the Devil into my life and Marilyn’s. Marilyn was three at the time and that look of horror on her face still haunts me today.
I also remember that when Marilyn was three we were playing in the back yard when neighbor kids walked in. Several boys were in the group and wanted to know what we were doing. It wasn’t that we couldn’t talk with our neighbors but we generally did not play with them for any length of time. One of the boys asked if he could use the swing. Another wanted to chat. During my conversation with him, I noticed that Marilyn, who was wearing a dress, was in the early stages of pulling her panties down. Almost immediately, I asked what she was doing. She stopped, smiled and said, “Henry asked me to pull my panties down.”
I looked directly at Henry, who now had his head down. I suddenly had this feeling of disgust. I had not been prepped for this kind of situation but I intuitively knew this was wrong. I thought about hitting him before I erupted, “You get out of here right now and don’t you ever come back.” Moments later I told Mama what had happened and while she was proud of me, she made it a point to claim that this was what worldly kids do, and why we shouldn’t associate with them.
I also fondly recall an event that occurred when I was eleven after attending two Thursday-night meetings. They were meetings we never missed and we seldom arrived home before 11:00 PM. What with four kids in the family, it could be a challenge for Mama to get us all into bed before midnight and we had school the next day. So on our drive home from the Kingdom Hall one night, Mama said that she would give a quarter for the first kid to get into bed, a dime for the second and a nickel for third. The last kid would get nothing. Being the oldest, I wasn’t going to play this silly game. But when we drove into the driveway my three siblings were totally naked. Jumping out of the car, they raced to get into bed. Marilyn and my brother Tim were so close that Mama gave each of them a quarter; a memory we often shared as adults.
I have no other fuzzy anecdotal memories of our shared childhood, no sweet memorable moments of big brother/little sister conversations, games we played, or treasured walks that we took together. That would come later in life, as adults, but not as children. My role as the big brother focused on protection, which I managed to do several times. And I did my fair share of teasing.
In the summer of 1958, I traveled with Mama to an eight-day convention of JWs in New York City. Marilyn stayed at home with Papa. During the convention, we were told over and over that Armageddon was near, that the end of the world was imminent. However, there were still many people in isolated parts of the U.S. that had not heard the news. We were encouraged to move where the need-was-great. Mama talked at length with a JW official there and I could see what was incubating in Mama’s mind. When we arrived back home, Papa and Mama conferred alone for several days. Finally, we had a family meeting where Marilyn and I were asked if we were up to serving Jehovah in a different part of the U.S., in the Midwest where snow fell in the wintertime. Marilyn loved the idea, thinking it would be a wonderful adventure. That look of pure joy on her face, as fanciful as it was, is a look that I will never forget, a sweet memory of Marilyn’s innocence.
We moved to Columbus, Nebraska, in November of 1958, and like all the homes we lived in while growing up, there was only one bathroom for a family of six. Marilyn would take forever to do her business, so it could be a challenge if you needed to go. One day I pounded on the door, pleading for her to finish so I would not pee in my pants. Finally, she opened the door and walked out. I rushed in and opened the toilet lid. After several seconds of boyish deliberation, I decided that I would start calling her the “Little Logger.” The name stuck until the day she died.
Shortly after Marilyn graduated from high school, she tried to find part-time work in Columbus. But with a basic, minimal education, there weren’t many jobs available except for cleaning homes and offices. She found cleaning jobs at several places, but after a few days on the job, she would be terminated. She never said it, but I knew why. Marilyn still had the slows.
Marilyn lived at home for over two years and could not find work. Because she didn’t help out financially, tension began to mount between Marilyn and our parents. Marilyn also resented the special treatment our mentally-handicapped sister, Susan, received. And she and Susan bickered constantly. Marilyn was desperate and decided she needed a change of scenery.
It was 1969 and I had four years as an ex-JW under my belt when Marilyn called on the phone. Could she move to Grand Rapids, Michigan? Could she live with my wife Helen and me for the first two weeks? She wanted to find a job and a place to live. I talked it over with Helen and we told her yes. It would give us a chance to get to know her as an adult. However, only two days into her stay, Helen wasn’t very happy. Marilyn helped around the house, but you had to ask her. Like Mama, when she visited, she preferred to be waited on. But to her credit, Marilyn didn’t take offence when Helen told her that she needed to take more initiative. Unfortunately, Marilyn was still handicapped by the slows.
Marilyn found a job working for a small Chinese restaurant in the north end of Grand Rapids, about fifteen miles from the house. My brother Tim and Helen’s sister Esther, who were newlyweds, helped Marilyn find an apartment within walking distance of work and she started attending meetings at Tim and Esther’s Kingdom Hall. She began dating a young JW man and all seemed to be going well. Then she informed me that she wanted to go back to Nebraska. She had lived away from home for four months, and she wasn’t happy. She spent more money than she made and she didn’t really like her work.
Six months later she called to tell me that she had met the man of her dreams in Nebraska. They were going to get married and she wanted Helen, me and our two kids to attend the wedding. The man’s name was Jerome Roper and he came from a big family of well-to-do JWs in central Nebraska. Everyone liked the Roper family. She didn’t know what Jerome would do for work, but his parents would help him find a job. They would also pay the rent for their first house. The key ingredients for a responsible husband appeared to be missing. However, if Marilyn loved Jerome and he made her happy, why shouldn’t I be happy for her?
Three months after they were married, Marilyn and Jerome came to visit us. Jerome, a carefree sort of guy, seemed disconnected from Marilyn. He hinted about staying in Grand Rapids if I could get him a job at the company where I worked. When I first met his brothers and dad, I had a feeling they had good work ethics, but that’s not how I sized up Jerome.
A day into their visit, he asked if some evening he and I could go to a strip bar. He assumed that because I wasn’t a JW, I liked those kinds of worldly things. While I wanted to smack him, I played along and pretended that I could arrange it. So he let me in on a little secret. He liked pornography. When I asked if Marilyn knew about it, he said yes. She didn’t like it, but they were working on it.
The next day, I told Marilyn about my conversation with Jerome. She was pleased that I had confided in her, but she was disappointed that I hadn’t shamed his poor behavior. Stunned, I told Marilyn she had a problem on her hands. Nothing I could say or do to this guy would change him. He was a self-centered boy, disguised in a man’s body. Leopards don’t change their spots.
Marilyn had an even temperament, making it fairly easy to share bad news. She grabbed my hand and told me how grateful she was for our little talk. It turned out Jerome could also be a control freak and he had been abusive. Not physical stuff, but he could go off on verbal rants that made our handicapped sister’s use of the f-word seem like child’s play. They stayed with us for another day, went back to Nebraska and in less than a week, Marilyn annulled their marriage.
Three years later, in 1972, Marilyn reported to me that she had met the second man of her dreams, this time the guy was the real deal. While on a trip to Georgia, she met Mr. Wonderful, believing him to be an exemplary JW, albeit a new one. Ruggedly handsome, he doted on her and she loved it.
“Does he have any baggage?” I asked.
“Oh, he had a big drug problem while growing up and he hates his dad. But then he found the Truth. People tell me that he’s a changed man. He’s a workaholic, whether working for a living or working for Jehovah.”
Helen and I did not attend the wedding. But Marilyn and her new husband, Carter visited us shortly after getting married. Carter Wilcox bore no resemblance to Marilyn’s first husband, intellectually or emotionally. He seemed totally devoted to her. They were truly in love. Carter was not a big talker but what he said made sense. He had some interesting ideas about how he could make money selling and servicing computers, a business-savvy guy.
On the other hand, I thought he would be difficult to like, especially from a guy’s point-of-view, maybe a bit of a con. And he couldn’t connect with Helen. Not a good sign. I also sensed Carter’s unease about me not being a JW.
Marilyn and Carter bought a home in Columbus, Nebraska. To the best of my knowledge, they were a model JW couple, doing all the things that make JWs unique. Carter started and operated a successful computer business. They did well financially and started a family, a son and a daughter. But having kids didn’t happen until after I was disfellowshipped in 1977, an event that triggered Carter’s decision to shun me. It was a decision Marilyn honored, so I never had a presence in the kids’ lives. Ironically, shunning would not become the official policy for all JWs until 1981.
I had had no communication with Marilyn for fourteen years. That, however, came to an abrupt halt when I received a surprise telephone call from her in the spring of 1991. It was a surreal experience hearing her voice again. She couldn’t apologize enough. She had waited way too long before she dared talk with me. She had heard that my 30-year-high-school reunion would be held in Columbus, in the summer and wondered if Helen and I were going. She hoped we would be there and wanted to have a relationship with us. I hadn’t planned to go to the reunion, but I decided immediately that I would open the door to this opportunity.
Marilyn also invited us to have dinner with her at her house. She and Carter were separated but the kids would be there. My parents and our sister Susan, all of whom I hadn’t seen in over ten years, would also be there. I didn’t say it, but this news was a huge red flag. Marilyn had to be in some kind of trouble; this made no sense. If JWs had a meal with me, they would be disfellowshipped and shunned.
What had been dropped in Marilyn’s lap? She acted like all was business as usual. She and Carter were separated, but that’s all I knew. I had no idea of how low our brother Tim had stooped to uphold an inhumane JW policy. To tell this part of the story, I must go back in time and share events before Marilyn’s call.
A JW policy that Carter cherished most is that men are allotted special privileges over women. A man is the head of his house, king of his home, regardless of his intellectual or emotional status. This gives him certain rights. If he wants to verbally abuse his wife, he can do so with immunity, as long as he, <choke> does it with his wife’s best interests in mind.
Early in their marriage, Carter had been verbally abusive to Marilyn, ratcheting it up ever so slowly as the years passed. Verbal abuse was not a new experience for Marilyn. Ironically, Mama had a talent for it and performed her verbal magic on Papa for as long as I can remember. Papa tolerated it; so why couldn’t Marilyn do the same? After all, Carter provided well for her physical needs, and he was a good JW.
However, three years before Marilyn called me, Carter physically abused her for the first time and that scared her. While he did not abuse her regularly, he was not averse to threats and she later learned that these bouts occurred shortly after he took several long swigs from a bottle of hard liquor hidden in the basement.
He was verbally abusive about Marilyn’s poor housekeeping, being late and getting on his nerves for no good reason early in their marriage. With the addition of children, his tirades increased. Marilyn handled constructive criticism well and I’m convinced that if Carter had picked his battles and not attacked Marilyn’s self-esteem, it could have been a win-win. The bottom line is no woman, no person, should be treated the way Marilyn was treated. What made Carter’s abuse even worse was that around other JWs he acted like a perfect gentleman. He would go into his abusive rants only when the two of them were alone, although a few times he had gone on short they-may-not-hear-me rants when the kids were around.
In an effort to get him to stop, she said that she planned to go to the elders at her Hall and report his abuses. But what made that strategy dicey was that our brother, Tim, served as one of those elders. Carter knew Marilyn would do it and decided to help his cause. He asked to meet with Tim alone. He told Tim how delusional Marilyn could be, particularly since they had kids. Carter explained how any effort to help improve her parenting or housekeeping skills were met with the complaint, “You’re abusing me.”
Carter wanted to stack the deck in his favor, and he did an effective job of painting Marilyn as a wacky woman. She was fighting Carter’s leadership, he was the head of the family and Marilyn wasn’t cooperating. Tim believed Carter, convinced that Marilyn was the problem.
When Marilyn met with the elders, she told them everything, her primary concern being the day-to-day verbal abuse. But Carter had physically hurt her several times. She believed that it wasn’t beyond him after drinking too much and in a wild, frenzied state to kill her. The meeting continued for over an hour. Tim spoke first and suggested that she might be imagining some of this.
“What if he kills me? What happens then?”
“Marilyn, that isn’t going to happen, but if it should, you will always have the hope of a resurrection if you’ve been a loyal and faithful wife.”
“Okay, but I think a trial separation would help both of us.”
Tim again responded with, “Marilyn, Carter is the head of your house. If he decides that’s an appropriate response, so be it. But it will be his decision.”
Exasperated by the meeting, Marilyn went home scared for her life. She knew Carter would soon learn about the meeting and the elders’ recommendation. The next two weeks were a living hell. Carter took his abuse to a new level, threatening bodily harm if she went to the elders again. Marilyn’s self-esteem slid to a new low. She tried praying, hoping Jehovah would intervene. It helped to talk to Mama, but Marilyn had been doing that for years. Mama had a standard pat response: “Let’s just wait on Jehovah. He knows all and will take care of it in His own due time.” Another two weeks passed. Marilyn could no longer go on living with Carter in her house. Like living with a serial killer, she knew it was only a matter of time before he exploded.
In desperation, Marilyn called a local Columbus attorney and asked if she could meet with him. It took over an hour to explain what her life had been like, particularly for the last five years. A second meeting was scheduled, and a third. Marilyn finally summoned the courage to do what she knew she had to do. She didn’t want a divorce, knowing that adultery and death were the only two ways to end a marriage, per JW rules. But she did not want to live with Carter and she did not want him in her house.
When the papers were served and Carter was forced to move out of the house, Marilyn heard from the elders at her Hall immediately. They wanted to meet with her right away. What she had done did not match with the Bible and JW rules. If she expected to stay in good standing with Jehovah, the elders advised her to take him back. She and Carter should then take this problem to Jehovah God and He would help them mend their marriage.
Marilyn again asked, “So what if I take him back and he really does kill me this time, then what?”
Tim responded with, “You will be resurrected in the New World.” To him, it was that simple. But Marilyn had the courage to stand up and tell him that option did not sit well with her.
Tim then explained that if she did not take him back, the committee would not be able to disfellowship her. However, the elders would be obligated to shun her while she attended meetings and in social settings. It would be their way of helping her see God’s great wisdom in this matter and that their actions could ultimately help save her marriage and her standing with God.
I have never heard of a ruling where shunning was an option without a person being disfellowshipped. I am certain that someone from JW headquarters advised Tim in this matter. But no one would talk with me about it. So I imagine this decision came from the Bethel legal department, concerned about how poorly it would play out in the court of worldly public opinion. Neither Marilyn nor Carter committed adultery. Marilyn did not want to live with Carter, the elders said she couldn’t kick him out of the house, and Marilyn did not listen to their advice and used the U.S. court system to remove him.
What happened during the next six months tested Marilyn’s faith as a JW. When she attended meetings wither kids, the elders and their families would not speak to her. They treated her as if she were invisible. Carter also attended all those meetings and was treated as though he had been abused. The one exception was my parents. They knew what Carter was like and decided to take a stand. They wouldn’t be disfellowshipped for talking to Marilyn, but their actions were taken as an indication of a big disconnect to having a loving relationship with Jehovah. Papa was removed as an elder and told that he could no longer give public talks.
My parents consulted with other respected JW members and asked their advice. There was a loophole, if they were willing to use it. By moving to another congregation, one in Central City, forty miles away, the members at the Hall would not shun Marilyn. Papa would not be eligible to serve as an elder, but he could worship Jehovah as he saw fit. So plans were made and within three months, Marilyn’s house—in spite of Carter’s protests—and my parents’ house were sold. Marilyn and my parents purchased new homes in Central City and it appeared that the dark side of Carter and an unjust JW policy were just a bad dream.
These events were shared with me after the fact, and only in dribbles and drabs. Just when I would think, “My God, can this get any worse?” I would learn of new developments. In retrospect, I do not know who I am more appalled with, Carter, the Governing Body and Policy Makers for JWs or my brother, Tim. Yes, my sister was harmed, but her son and daughter would bear the brunt of the emotional damage.
Mama knows the damage done to Marilyn’s children is irreparable but she is able to live with that fact. She believes that in the New World Marilyn’s kids will grow back to perfection, their childhood trauma will be forgotten and they will live forever on a paradise earth. They were inconvenienced in this lifetime, but it will be well worth the wait.
When I met Marilyn at her Columbus home in August of 1991, I knew that she and Carter were separated. But I had no idea of the ordeal that she had gone through or would yet encounter.
Shortly after Helen and I checked into our Columbus motel, I called to get directions to Marilyn’s house. As we drove to her home, we passed the Kingdom Hall on Highway 81, the same Hall I had attended from 1959 to 1962. Many unpleasant memories flooded my mind and suddenly, I noticed Carter mowing the lawn. He did not see us, but I wondered what he would do if he knew we would soon be meeting and spending time with his children.
Marilyn knew we were coming and stood on her lawn, jumping up and down as we parked the car in front of her house. Tears were streaming down her face. We had been separated for over fourteen years. The joy of that initial hug cannot be put into words, I cry every time I try. Neither of us wanted to let go. Finally, she said, “Please come in. I want you to meet my kids.” That, too, was an emotional experience and difficult to write about.
First, I picked up Edith, a plump, smiling little girl, as pleased to see me as I was to see her. Whatever Marilyn had told Edith about me had to be very good. Edith was the spitting image of Marilyn at the same age, just bigger boned. But what concerned me was that she stuttered big time. No one is born a stutterer. Something had happened, maybe something Carter did.
Marilyn then dragged me into Martin’s room. A very handsome boy with curly hair, he looked like I imagined Papa as a child. He knew we were there, but he was more interested in finishing the painting project he was working on. I suspect that we could have walked out of the room and he would not have noticed. But I decided to sit down with him, asking if I could help. He looked up, pleased that I wanted to help. Suddenly, we were friends and he did not want me to leave.
After playing with Martin for several minutes, I excused myself as I knew Marilyn wanted to show me her house. As she directed the tour, she told me that she had called my parents and Susan. They were on their way, looking forward to seeing me after all these years. They would join us for dinner. I had been excited about connecting with Marilyn, but I was still not sure how I would feel about meeting with my parents who had shunned me for over ten years.
When Mama and Papa walked into the house, they were as excited as I can ever recall. Mama rushed to hug me, saying how happy she was to see me. I looked older, but as handsome as ever. Papa seemed just as pleased to see me and kept asking how I was doing. No tears were shed and I had an ambivalent feeling about the whole thing. Mama had told me ten years before that unless I decided to love Jehovah as she did, she would never talk to me again. It was like nothing had ever happened. I did not know why she could now greet me or share a meal.
I remember eating dinner, a meal Marilyn had worked long and hard to prepare. The over-cooked chicken was hard to chew and tasteless, the vegetables bland, the potato as hard as a rock, and she served a mediocre salad. It seemed bizarre that Marilyn and my parents belonged to a cult that made it a big-time crime to eat food with people like Helen and me. But for one time, they decided to break the rule, and my God, they could not dish up a better meal than this?
Our conversation during dinner was nothing more than general chit chat, stuff that works well with strangers, but not with people who once were immediate family. Marilyn and my parents appeared oblivious to this disconnect. I wanted to have one-on-one conversations with Marilyn and then Mama, and I eventually did, but this kind of table talk unnerved me.
When I talked alone with Marilyn, she acknowledged her duplicity. She had lost touch with basic human decency due to poorly-thought-out JW policy. She regretted that she had shunned me for so many years. She wanted me back in her life and I could see that was she speaking from her heart. I knew how high-control religion works. We had a long, candid conversation, but not once did she say a word about how poorly she had been treated by Tim and Carter.
I would talk with Mama one-on-one at her house the next day. But my conversation with her and subsequent reaction was totally different from my talk with Marilyn. Mama could not see the world through any other lens than her own. She was cold and hard, with no remorse. She offered no explanation for why she decided to share a meal or why she could now talk with me.
Several hours into my conversation with Mama, I heard the phone ring in the next room. Papa picked it up. Later I learned that Carter had called, yelling at Papa for having the audacity to allow his kids to share a meal with me in the house he owned. He ranted on and on about me being the essence of evil. He thought Papa facilitated the crime and he would hear from the elders about this. Marilyn had told me about Carter’s obsessive hatred for me, fueled by an unjust cult. Carter blamed the failure of their marriage on me. It made no sense, but Carter needed a scapegoat. Papa listened to him talk without responding for nearly fifteen minutes. At the end of his tirade, Papa thanked him for calling and hung up.
Papa interrupted my conversation with Mama to give us a full account of the call. When I asked for an explanation, Mama said that Carter could be crazy at times and it was best to let him rant. It was obvious that Mama was getting more upset with each newsy tidbit. Finally, she suggested that I leave. She was tired and they planned to go to the circuit assembly the next day. That’s the last time I talked with Mama before she called me five months later to see how I was doing.
When Helen and I arrived back in Grand Rapids, Marilyn started calling me on the phone two to three times a week. On Saturdays, we would talk for as long as two hours at a time. In bits and pieces, I learned about her story. Carter reported to the elders that his kids shared a meal with me in his home. He wanted justice and he wanted Marilyn and my parents to be punished. The elders didn’t talk to Marilyn about the incident, but they did have words with my parents. What was said, Mama would never tell me.
Carter started writing letters to Marilyn, asking for reconciliation, saying she needed help, couldn’t she see the damage done to the kids, and more. He cut the power lines to the house once. He disconnected the phone and cable connection several times. Clever enough to make it look like worn wires, he methodically ratcheted his diabolical plan to get her to come back to him.
Marilyn had started to attend a local two-year college in Columbus, a no-no for good-standing JWs. She planned to get a graduate degree so that she could be a paralegal. She was reading books about emotional intelligence, psychology, and more. She wanted my opinion on subjects that JWs frowned on. For the first time in her life, she began to think on her own. What a joy it was for me to be a party to her new world of learning that had for most of her life been tabooed. Marilyn started growing as a person and I became her biggest supporter.
The JW experience for women, especially for girls who grow up in it, is nonstop dogma about God using men to lead, teach, decide and govern because men have been gifted with these inalienable rights. A woman’s role in the church is subservience to a man’s leadership. If she must pray at the Hall or before the door-to-door work, she must cover her head, be it a hat or a Kleenex tissue. Little wonder that many JW women have this constant, nagging feeling of inadequacy.
Marilyn ultimately made a clean break from Carter and her high-control religion. While Carter haunted her by moving across the street after she bought a home in Central City, she persevered. Much can be said about her character and determination during those difficult times. And to give credit to my parents, they helped Marilyn financially and emotionally as much as they could.
But like many ex-JWs, they will be haunted by ghosts who make it difficult to break totally free from the clutches of a high-control religion. When Marilyn graduated with honors at the community college in Columbus, that experience helped her minimize the damage from the Ghost of Misinformation. But the ghost that would due her in, she could not see its nagging presence. Her deadly ghost was the Ghost of Dependency and her fatal attraction to highly controlling men.
The next part of Marilyn’s story is very difficult for me to put on paper. So I will try to be short and to the point when I tell you that she married again. While her third husband was not a JW, he claimed to be very religious. She attended a local Lutheran church with him and they tried to make a Brady-Bunch family—Marilyn’s two kids and his four boys—work. All went well for six months before Marilyn’s new husband let his violent nature, his intense need to control, surface.
Marilyn called me a day after it happened. His anger had not been directed at her, but at one of his boys. It scared her and she wanted my advice. Maybe he was having a bad day. He had more temper tantrums but they were always directed at his kids. Then Marilyn became the target for one of his angry tirades. He agreed to go with her to a counselor. But it would be two steps forward, three steps back. Finally, she decided to file for divorce and moved to Grand Island.
While she was alone in her apartment on April 11, 1998, her estranged husband broke into the house. No one knows what was said or how he worked himself in, but before he left, he had knifed my sister to death. The coroner reported ten to fifteen stab wounds to her body.
When my parents didn’t hear from Marilyn the next day, they called the police. Three days later, Mama called to tell me the bad news. When I asked about the funeral plans, she said coldly, “Marilyn’s been cremated. She’s dead and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Marilyn’s brutal murder had little impact on Mama as far as I could see.
Unlike Mama, Marilyn’s death strongly affected my life. For a while, I struggled with unanswerable questions: How do you make sense of a senseless crime? How could anyone hate so much that they are willing to kill, to murder someone? I quickly realized that finding answers would not bring her back. I needed to find a healthy way to bring closure to such a devastating loss.
Soon afterward, I attempted to do something totally out of character, something I had no business doing—I wrote a book, then another. If Marilyn’s story could help other people, then I would learn how to write. Perhaps her story, told along with mine and Helen’s, would inspire just one person to alter her or his life course, to do something that she or he would not have otherwise done. That is my hope. I could not be happier that I did it. That is what big brothers do.