August 2009

Kate Munning

nonfiction

I'm Perfect You're Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams

Most of us have felt that twinge of panic or annoyance when a pair of somber, earnest Jehovah's Witnesses rings our doorbell. We avoid them, debate them, engage them, or pity them. Their kids are the ones who don't say the pledge of allegiance in school and opt out of birthday parties and holiday celebrations. What goes on in their lives outside of the public sphere? Kyria Abrahams would like to enlighten you, and unburden herself in the process.

She divulges her sticky truth about being raised as a Jehovah's Witness at painful and hilarious length in I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, an entertaining memoir about Abrahams' adventure finding herself and her way out of the religion. It will appeal to gawking Gentiles (the Witness term for all non-Witnesses) and apostates alike; although it's probably not a hit in the Witness community.

Thirty-something Abrahams writes in the fast-paced style of her generation: rattling off brand names to set the scene for her childhood in the 1980s, zinging one-liners to amuse us and keep us at arm's length. It makes sense that Abrahams performs as a spoken-word poet, and it's not hard to imagine her telling these stories breathlessly to a group of friends or on stage. The tone teeters between comedy and thoughtful memoir, and it's to Abrahams' credit that she doesn't shy away from the more sanctimonious and self-centered aspects of her adolescent behavior. There's a twang of Sandra Tsing-Loh here, a word-guerrilla in training. Most of us have indulged in teenage rebellion, but Abrahams' is an elaborate game of pinball as she caroms off the various authority figures and many restraints with which she was raised.

Like any teenage girl, her family members are among the chief oppressors. They are sketched as deeply flawed, but with an indulgent affection, which makes their reaction to young Kyria's suicide attempt all the more disturbing. In fact, Abrahams has penned an excellent takedown that's refreshingly free of vitriol, despite her frankness regarding the hypocrisy and absurdity she was raised with, her parents' drearily unhappy marriage, and the author's cries for help that go unheeded by her family and religious community.

The way Abrahams writes about her own ill-advised boozing and sex is equal parts humorous and discomfiting. She recalls her upbringing as bizarre and uncomfortable and communicates this effectively by juxtaposing the pedestrian and the monumental. In one conversation about her young, cuckolded husband, Pert Plus shampoo is discussed with the same gravitas as adultery. Sometimes this humor acts as a smokescreen, and it's no wonder. There are some monstrous issues beneath the patter, but as the book progresses, they surface less frequently.

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed reveals religious hypocrisy, but more often it illustrates the confusion of the faithful trying so hard to follow myopic, iron-clad rules that challenge rational thought and discourage inquiry. Like any child coming of age, Abrahams finds it tremendously difficult to be part of the world at large and yet totally ill-equipped to make simple decisions and operate independently from the fear and paranoia cultivated by her community. While her younger self is piously avoiding music in minor keys and contemplating which suburban homestead she'll claim after Armageddon, she also marvels at the articulate, anti-religious arguments of the punk classmates outside the Dunkin' Donuts and is astonished at the lack of bloody sacrifice at a typical Gentile birthday party.

The last part of the book is less straightforward. Abrahams' immediate motivation for leaving the church is unclear -- teenage rebellion? clinical depression? infernal revelation? -- and the timeline is fuzzy. It's difficult to discern if her fall from grace happens over a period of months or years. The early chapters describe the practices of Jehovah's witnesses in such vivid detail -- there's even a glossary of religious terms in the back of the book -- but the latter pages are a bit of a jumble. Why is she still regularly going to the fellowship hall when she's cheating on her husband and seems to have abandoned her faith? There's little sense of her internal dialogue when everything is falling apart, and that's when the audience wants to hear the narrator's voice most.

Still, I'd love to read a sequel that describes how she hauled herself out of depression and disfellowshipping, treated her OCD, and built a new life for herself. Although, as we've learned from the great works of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, dysfunctional makes for better material.

 

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams
Touchstone
ISBN: 1416556842
352 Pages

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