Part 58: The Great Escape
Today is Sunday, December 27, 2020. In local news, there's still a snowy owl from the Arctic hanging out in our neighborhood. She favors a roof two blocks away. In national news, an American dies every 30 seconds from COVID-19. Ten Million Americans are at risk for losing their unemployment benefits, as Trump dithers instead of signing the relief package. The "voter fraud" claims have failed to get any traction.
Christmas was two days ago, and I spent some of the holiday scanning photos that were in the "lost boxes" that belonged to my father. I've never had photos of my "nuclear" family prior to being reunited with Dad's boxes. This is the only snapshot of all of us, my half-sister Lisa, my mom, and my father, Riley, who kept these and other photos hidden away in a file folder. No matter how many times we moved, he kept these photos packed away. He never kept family photos out, not in his office, or in any of the places he lived. It was as if he wanted to present himself to each new person as having no past, and no attachments.
In 1976, Riley was managing a restaurant near an old motel in Port Hueneme, California, and someone snapped this picture of us in the booth (we always sat in this one when the place was closed). Dad was the manager, the cook, and he planned the menu. The menu was focused on his southern upbringing; biscuits and gravy, eggs and grits, soups and stews, pies, cakes, you name it. Lisa washed dishes and bussed tables, and I did, too. I also filled in waiting tables, but I was a disaster. I could blame that on being a kid, I was 11, but I was never a good waitress.
Once, Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock on "Star Trek", sat at the counter and had lunch. I missed that event because of school. My father got his autograph for me, but I quickly lost the scrap of paper it was on.
I emailed this photo to Lisa, and she'd never seen it, either.
The person who photographed us that day had no idea they were taking the rarest family photo of all time.
I didn't remember Jan's paintings hanging on the walls, but there they are. Lisa is in the light hat, my mother is standing. Dad has cigars and pens over flowing in his shirt pocket like he always did. This snap shot is a Christmas surprise for me, a long lost family photo. We were living in Oxnard when Dad worked at this diner. By 1979, we left town in a rush, and ended up in Porterville.
The holidays are a hard time for many people, even without a world wide pandemic. It can be a lonely or depressing time. A few days ago, I exchanged messages with my friend Dianna, who I've known since we were both confused teenagers living in Porterville, California. She and I talked about those days, and how far we've both come.
Dianna and I met in high school when we were both 14. We ended up in drama class together, although she was not allowed to perform in some of the shows. She had very strict foster parents. I remember that the foster mom was young, and that she was a manicurist in town. These foster parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, and kept Dianna on a tight leash. For instance, they allowed her to be in "The Music Man", "The Sound of Music" and "Matchmaker", but she was forbidden to be in "Grease" (too sexy) or "MASH" (because it had a military theme). I remember they let her do a dance number with another drama student named Mark, and the performance was terrific. She had to beg them to let her do it. I, on the other hand, had literally no leash. I had free range, whereas Dianna wasn't allowed to have friends unless they "studied" with her.
By the time I'd met Dianna, my family had moved more than a dozen times, and she'd been in multiple foster homes--- plus a detention center and a halfway house. She was originally adopted by a couple who were devout Jehovah's Witnesses, but they were an older couple and they both died when she was only seven or eight years old.
Dianna's baby picture, below.
Next, Dianna was passed around from family to family, all members of the Jehovah's Witness faith, then fostered by a man named Leonard, who wasn't a JW, but his wife was. Leonard was kind, and they stayed close until his death, but his wife was a nasty, mean woman, and ended up throwing Dianna out on the street during our sophomore year in high school--- with no place to go. The police showed up at Dianna's geometry class, and took her to juvenile hall, where she was processed as a runaway. She was incarcerated for non-criminal offenses, then placed in a receiving/halfway house for non-criminal juveniles with no placement prospects. Finally, in her junior year, she was placed with a Jehovah's Witness manicure lady and her husband. They did not have children.
One school day, Dianna pulled me into the bathroom between classes and pleaded with me to "study" with her, and she didn't mean homework, she meant Jehovah's Witness stuff. I said no at first, but then I realized that she literally couldn't go anywhere or do anything with me unless her new foster parents, and the other "JWs" as we called them, thought I was going to be converted. I also needed friends, having moved so many times--- I knew what it meant to feel isolated. I also fancied myself immune to proselytizing. Dianna recognized I was rough around the edges. I had a hostility towards religion, a foul mouth, and I wore all the tight clothes that Dianna was forbidden. There were few rules at my house, so it's interesting that we gravitated towards one another.
I reluctantly agreed to go along with Dianna's plan. Right then and there, she started in with the "Awake" and "Watchtower" magazines and the shorthand version of the basic tenets. I remember we were standing close in the bathroom stall, and she was trying to get through it all. I'm a visual person, so my eyes focused on Dianna's long, fake nails, as she rapidly turned the pages of the magazine. I thought it was so strange that her foster parents were so strict, and Diana wasn't allowed to date, or wear anything revealing, and yet because the foster mother was a manicurist by trade, she gave Dianna these shiny, red talons.
I went with Dianna to the Kingdom Hall, (they don't call it church) and each time, the entire time, I'd place my thoughts elsewhere. I've always had the ability to completely check out, all without the help of drugs, just the power of my mind, to block out things I didn't want to hear. I literally have no idea what was said at those meetings. I only know that soon I realized that my friend was being abused. For one thing, her foster mother thought she'd scored a maid instead of a daughter. Dianna was expected to clean constantly. She was not allowed to participate in any holiday themed activities, birthday parties, and other limitations were placed on her. Christmas was a pagan holiday, so that was a no go.
Over a year ago, I began interviewing Dianna about her experiences as a foster kid, and being brought up in Jehovah's Witness households. What Dianna wrote is in italics and quotes. I asked her about the JW views on dating.
"The teachings of the religion were very clear: no dating outside the faith, no dating until marriageable age, no dating without a chaperone. Those were the rules, and so that precluded any possible dating in high school. I didn't need to be told that."
Dianna met a Catholic boy named Mario. Soon she found a way to see him. After the manicure lady and her husband went to bed, Dianna would slip out her bedroom window. I knew Mario back then, he was intelligent and kind, and has grown up to be a fine man. Back then, Mario always met Dianna late at night, after she'd "escaped". He would be waiting, parked nearby on a side street. They had several dates that way, once parking on top of "Luis Hill" in town, where they literally talked all night long. Eventually, Dianna got caught and had to be questioned by the "Elders" a bunch of creepy old guys that sat her down, in the middle of a room, the men sat in a circle around her. They asked her all kinds of questions about what she and Mario had been up to. I'm sure it was their sick, perverted way of getting off.
"Being hauled in front of a group of older men and having to tell them your most intimate of sins ... even if they're good people, is a horrifying and traumatizing experience, especially when you're 17 and totally embarrassed and mortified. You know your eternal life hangs in the balance and it's terrifying. The elders do feel the weight of their "judgements" too. They know that people can be destroyed in these situations. Committee meetings are what everyone dreads, and no one ever wants to be the target of one.
For better or worse, I didn't have a family that cared about me, but I'm sure it's probably worse for people who do. Disfellowshipping happens because a person has committed crimes that they have been judged unrepentant for. It's a very bad state to be in. NO ONE will speak to you, you are completely shunned. Immediate family members living at home are allowed to converse with you minimally, but not about anything spiritual. There are strict rules. Non-immediate family (aunts, uncles, cousins, adult siblings that live outside the home, etc.) are not allowed to have any association with a DF'd person. A disfellowshipped person can be reinstated, but there's a process for that too, that can take years in some cases. If you are in a disfellowshipped state when Armageddon comes, you will be destroyed by god, an eternal death from which there is no return. There's not much worse. Plus the shame and condescension you have to live with too."
It was bad before she got caught sneaking out at her foster home, but after, it was terrible.
"I was yelled at (a lot) by foster mother. She told me that I brought shame to their house. She yelled at me and pushed me down the middle of the street halfway to Olive Avenue. Her husband was kinder, but I was in the deepest of trouble. The process I went through was the same for everyone. A committee meeting of elders was formed and they met with me on several occasions. I had to tell them everything I did with Mario, even the fooling around details (we didn't have sex though). They had to decide if I was to be disfellowshipped (that would have meant total shunning), publicly reproved (an announcement to the congregation that I had been reproved/formally disciplined), or privately reproved (disciplined, but done in private with no announcement). I was very remorseful and felt terrible about what I had done with Mario ... I begged for forgiveness, I was very sorry. I promised I would not see Mario again.
After taking everything into consideration, the elders decided on private reproof. They worried that public reproof would mean essential shunning for me anyway, for no one would have had someone reproved as a friend (practically speaking). And because no one in the congregation even knew about me and Mario, they felt there was no need to discipline me publicly. If what I had done had been public knowledge, then they would have felt that public reproof would have been more appropriate. But they didn't want me to suffer public humiliation if I didn't need to. I think one or two of them just felt sorry for me, as they had known me for years and knew something of what I had been through.
My foster mother was furious. She felt like I got off "light" and her full-on hatred for me came ripping through. She was disappointed I wasn't disfellowshipped. She told me that she had never liked me. There was nothing about me that she liked. The way I talked and dressed were things she specifically said she didn't like. She wanted me OUT, she stormed around the house slamming doors. She drove away in a dramatic fashion. It was so scary for a while. She didn't feel one shred of human kindness or empathy for me at that time. We had no relationship after that. Her husband was kind though, and he felt for me."
Below, Dianna's high school year book picture, senior year. I still have it.
Mario, not knowing what Dianna had been through, agreed to "study" the JW stuff, too, and attended many services in hopes that he could see Dianna again. It was young love, but they were not allowed to see one another without a JW chaperone. Mario went away to college, where he tried to keep up with "meetings", but after a while, he faltered. He felt that he had let Dianna down. He never saw her again.
People come into our lives when we're young, and a half a lifetime later, a deeper understanding is delivered. This can be painful and unsettling. I thank Dianna and Mario for giving me permission to write about what happened.
Dianna was forced to stop communicating with Mario, and her punishment lasted months. She lost out all drama and band performances, and anything else she once loved. She was basically under house arrest and forced to study bible stuff daily, pray constantly, and as she put it, "repent, repent, repent."
In December of 1982, Dianna was kicked out by the manicurist lady and her husband, even though she'd accepted her punishment and had done everything that was asked of her.
"I paid an enormous price for that relationship with Mario, but looking back, I'm glad it happened. The memory of it makes me smile and I don't regret one minute of it. I was a person who hadn't been shown love for years before he came along...he rescued someone from oblivion. And he was totally worth being ground into the dust for."
With six more months left of high school, she had to get a full time job at a pizza joint so she could pay rent on a room she rented from another Jehovah's Witness lady. Most mornings, she would come to our house on Jaye Street (our fourth rental in Porterville in four years) to get ready for school. Later, she went to grad night at an amusement park out of town where she met a boy from San Diego. It was a romantic night, and it quickly became a long-distance romance. The boy lived in San Diego with his parents. She told that boy her plight when they met, and he ended up being her ticket out. His family welcomed Dianna.
"I think I ran off in August or September of 1983. I didn't have to sneak out a window. I just packed my shit up and left one day when that roommate Lynda was at the Kingdom Hall and I stayed home "sick." I was already out of foster care and on my own by that time."
Dianna lived with the boyfriend and his family in San Diego for a while. People would come to my house asking about her, and I had this practiced look of "I know nothing", and "I'm as shocked as you are" on my face. I was happy that Dianna was finally free, but she wasn't really. I was too young to realize how long it takes to get over early programming.
In this quote, she talks about her "heaven mom". That's the woman who adopted her as a baby, raised her to believe everything "JW" but had died when Dianna was a little girl.
"My shame is because I wasn't smart enough to see through my prison of belief at the time ... I wasn't an independent thinker, I had no natural rebelliousness, and I was deeply afraid of God killing me and my heaven mom's disappointment in me. I had no family, I had lost everything many times over (death, rejection, abandonment), the thought of God also rejecting me was just too much. Yet at the same time I was so lonely and craved friendships and love with people I resonated with, you being the foremost of those in high school.
It took me about 10 years to completely detox from religion and unpack and reject the indoctrination. I still feel embarrassment and shame that even that took me so long. It should have happened a lot faster. But it was hard to fully let go of when my only connection to my dead adoptive parents was through religion. Letting go of faith meant letting go of them, and learning to live with their existential rejection."
A few days ago, Dianna and I texted about the upcoming holiday. She asked me about the house on Jaye Street in Porterville.
"Is your house still there?" she asked.
"We never owned anything. No clue what became of that poor old house," I texted.
Dianna reflected back on her many foster homes:
"My house on Olive Avenue was torn down, my house on Cobb Street burned and was condemned, my house on Kessing is still there but now derelict. Fuck. My childhood feels like a wasteland with a few bright spots."
She's been out of that JW situation for more than 30 years, but it took her a long time to "detox" as she calls it. She now has her own family, and can celebrate that pagan holiday, Christmas, in any way she chooses. Here's what Dianna texted to me on Christmas Day:
"I still feel a little twinge of shame in losing my faith in God. You probably can't relate to that. I know I'll never have it again because it's thoroughly dead in me. But the scars from the abuse of indoctrination are real and never fully go away. Anyway, I'm glad I have you to laugh at it with me because objectively it's completely ridiculous. May his noodley appendage be upon you! And merry pagan Christmas! And here's my drunk owl in my Christmas tree.-- "
Side note: "noodley appendage" is from the Pastafarians.
I texted Dianna back that I did kind of know what she was going through. Not because I ever believed in God, but rather it was finding out that my father had this other side to him that I couldn't... or wouldn't believe for so long. Even after the "Hidden Brain" episode aired, I felt guilty that I'd said those things in my outside voice, and on National Public Radio. I back peddled after the show aired, saying to my friend Joe, "What if I'm wrong?" I think recording things in this blog is my way of "keeping it real", by documenting what actually happened, not what I wish would've happened. My magical thinking might not be based in religion, but it exists.
Below is a photo Dianna took for me of her "drunk owl" on her Christmas tree. It's perfect, because the snowy owl is still hanging around our neighborhood, drawing a crowd. The real owl does look a bit like this ornament, gold eyes and all.
I love Christmas. Even with this virus, and there isn't much going on, I still love it. Here's to Christmas, whatever that holiday means to you.
"I love it and I love you. What a fascinating project. I want the title to reflect the fact that for people with broken or non-existent families, it's friends that save us. It's always friends. They are not obligated to be there for us, but want to anyway. The choice they make makes them more precious than family." ---Dianna
If you'd like to support a Northwest nonprofit that supports kids in foster care and foster families here is a great one: Tree House For Kids. The link is here.
Another is Covenant House, a nonprofit organization that has multiple locations and gives shelter to homeless youth. The link is here.
In Southern California, The Eili Home is a nonprofit that focuses on breaking the cycle of child abuse, and shelters abused children. They are a Catholic charity but aren't preachy or "Judgy". The link is here.