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I don’t believe any of you aren’t actually crazy.
It’s not anything you’ve necessarily done -- yet. I just can’t trust my instincts about you. Because I could love you; you could, in fact, be the person I love most in the world, and you might love me more than I can even imagine, but someday you could still look me in the eye and say, “I worry, Amanda, that you won’t survive the battle of Armageddon and live forever with me in paradise.”
Jehovah: God's name, from the Hebrew Yahweh, feels strange in my mouth now. But as a Jehovah’s Witness, it was a name I heard and said daily. Bedtime prayers read like letters to a pen-pal or a distant cousin who’d sent you a gift: "Dear Jehovah, thanks for Mom, Dad, little sister, Grandma and Grandpa, and [the pets, I added in the pets as they appeared] Jack, Doc, Hickory and Poco. Thank you for giving us life and for allowing us to bear witness to you. Amen."
My grandmother, Grandma Cherry, was a big brass bell. I adored her. Despite being saddled with the grandmother title and excepting her being a bit of a Virgo when it came to marking up a bible (red and blue pencils, double lines, wavy lines -- amazingly similar to how I’d later learn to mark up manuscript as a copyeditor), Cherry was the most fun of anyone I knew. She made up games, baked colorful cakes, cackled; notably, she shared jokes under her breath that made her friends cackle.
I know now that she had been somewhat of a so-called bad girl in her teens, got pregnant with my mother early and married my grandfather quickly. She hadn't taken to religion until my mother, at 16, pressed it on her, but by the time I was born, she had interlocked her carefree love of life with a fixation on the certainty of the world as she knew it ending in a fiery apocalypse.
I didn’t much sweat being a fundamentalist Christian in my early years. It was just a thing we did. We went to meetings two, sometimes three times a week, and on Saturdays we’d get in cars and go knocking on doors. I was a nerdy, obedient kid, and I prepared my proselytizing pitch much as I would a homework assignment.
At meetings, we talked a lot about the end of the world. In the ’80s and ’90s, Witnesses still believed that the world would end by the time the World War I generation died out. If you did the math, by the time French-rolled jeans came into vogue, the remainder of that generation was in their 80s. Everyone around me basically believed we only had five or ten years left to suck up to God.
Perhaps that was what prompted my grandmother to confess her concern for me in 1991, when I was 11. The reason? I’d been busted for writing the word shit in a note passed between me and my BFF -- a note I later stuck in the pocket of my jeans, where my mother found it.
I remember the scene clearly: my mother and grandmother in my bedroom, my mother deliberating over the right punishment (“You know, I used to get hit with a switch from a tree. Maybe that’s what I should do to you.”) and my grandmother sitting on my bed, tears in her eyes. I worry you won’t meet us in the New Order.
My grandmother did not cry; my grandmother was a cancer survivor, stoic. She was rarely stern with us. So this was not an act. She truly believed that an 11-year-old could be crossed off God’s survival list for writing down a four-letter word. Or that it was a first step down a path of destruction -- soon I’d become a Damien, or Courtney Love at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards.
I had already begun having doubts. While artist renderings of the paradise Witnesses prayed for had its appeal (who wouldn’t want to cuddle with lion cubs at a picnic with United Nations delegates?), quite honestly, ideas of “immortality” and “perfection” bored the four-letter words out of me. And if my friends from school, non-Witnesses, weren’t able to be there with me, how awesome could it be?
But I took my grandmother very seriously. And it was in that moment, sitting on my bed with her, that I realized that although I loved her, she was totes crazy. Believing in what we believed in was crazy. How could someone who was seemingly so rational and good and intelligent believe something so insane?
Religion wasn’t the only thing to skew my sense of what and who to trust. Anyone who has had a mentally ill parent, as I did, will attest to growing up more quickly than you should have to, and having to regularly question your own sense of reality -- a habit that’s hard to break in adulthood. But Grandma Cherry was my most trusted caretaker, my unconditional source of love. Though she would pass away four years later, after I had fully rejected “The Truth,” I lost a big part of her that day, along with my faith in the world as she, in both love and fear, had shown me. There was a definitive split -- her on one side, me on another.
So even now, with years of restorative atheism and therapy behind me, I will often, in an argument with someone I love or in a moment of insecurity, see this split vision, right down the middle -- of what I believe and what they believe, of subjective and objective truth. I’ll hobble off balance and wonder if I’m seeing the full picture, or if I’ve had it all wrong all along: if I can trust what I know, if I can trust whom I love.