Brenda Thornlow is an author, animal advocate, & certified Reiki Master from NY. Her books can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, & iTunes.
I never thought about writing a follow-up to my memoir about being raised and exiting my families religion and an abusive marriage until several people asked me about it. The more I thought about it, the more intriguing it sounded. Walking away from a religious cult and sheltered home life comes with more challenges than anyone can imagine.
If you haven’t read my memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect then here’s the condensed version: I grew up a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness with a family holding very high hopes that I would get baptized, become a full time preacher, or work at the headquarters (aka, Bethel). And let’s not forget the most important achievement for a woman, according to every patriarchal religion, getting married, specifically to a man in high standing within the church. Needless to say, nothing went as planned. While I did get baptized at eighteen and married at twenty, he was abusive so I eventually left him. As abuse is not grounds for divorce within the JW community, I was disfellowshipped/excommunicated. This meant anyone who was a member of that religion is forbidden from having any dealing with me and vice-versa.
My memoir documents my life within the church and my escape. This story is the aftermath of adjusting to my new life.
1995 or 96
Robert and I were huddled in one of the empty booths at Earl’s. I had the want ads open in front of me and pulled a cigarette out of the half empty pack. Since my separation from Mark, getting disfellowshipped, and losing the one and only job I loved, I had taken up smoking. No, not a good excuse to start a bad habit, but here we are.
“You should go into sales,” announced Robert while loading up his coffee with sugar. It was 11:00 pm but Robert could drink coffee round the clock and still sleep through 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
“Why would I do that? I hate people.”
“I think you’d be good at it.”
“Why not? You…”
“Stop it. Just stop. My life, not yours.” I explained my background to Robert but unless you’ve lived it, there’s no comprehension. I grew up knocking on stranger’s doors to convince them to read my churches books and magazines and become a member. If that’s not a form of sales then I don’t know what it. There were three things I was certain of: 1: I hated doing it and, 2 : it’s nearly impossible to sell something to anyone if you don’t believe in it yourself, and 3 : I hate convincing anyone to do anything, try anything, or buy anything therefore, I hate sales.
I couldn’t completely fault Robert, though. Despite being significantly older than me (he was in his late thirties) and going through a nasty divorce, he was quite the wide-eyed optimist. Maybe not when it came to his own life, but he loved nothing more than being everyone else’s cheerleader.
Robert refused to let go of his dream of me becoming a sales person as I continued to scan the want ads and suck on my menthol, Jon, the server at Earl’s mercifully approached our booth.
“OK, what do you guys want?” he muttered while setting a pot of coffee on the table and taking a seat next to Robert.
I sighed and grabbed the menu. “Guess I should grab some dinner.”
“French fries are not dinner, sweetie.” John responded.
“I’m getting something else, hold on.” I said. Jon rolled his eyes.
Earl’s Home Cookin’ (or simply Earl’s) was a divey little coffee shop in Orange, California. It’s tagline was “Open 25 Hours.” The clientele mainly consisted of college students from nearby Chapman University, partiers looking for a place to sober, and souls like Robert and myself, attempting to navigate our way through major life transitions. Earls was actually much cheaper than most places in the neighborhood and it showed; the decor hadn’t changed since the 70s and there was a reason I only ate the fries. I almost forgot to mention that it was also a popular hangout for smokers as the area that was once an outdoor patio with booths was now completely enclosed with screens so everyone could smoke.
“I guess I’ll have the fries.” I decided.
“Great.” Jon mumbled in his deadpan Jon way. You couldn’t help but love Jon the Curmudgeon. One of my favorite idiosyncrasies of his was how he would wait until his afro was entirely gray before he dyed it jet black. He simply didn’t give a shit and I loved that.
As for Robert…here’s the story: right around the time Mark and I separated, my girlfriend Katie introduced me to Robert. He was also recently separated but he had four kids. We struck up a very short-lived romantic relationship which turned into a tight, long-term friendship. In the years to come, due to our age difference, Robert would become the older brother that I always wanted. As we stood by each other, he would watch me celebrate my birthday, Christmas, and every other major holiday for the very first time in my life. (For those few unaware, JW’s don’t celebrate any of those.)
It was just after midnight when I unlocked the door to my apartment in Anaheim. I was new to living by myself and although I loved it, I was simultaneously terrified. Not at the thought of taking care of myself and standing on my own two feet, but terrified of the crazy, frothing at the mouth, killer that might be lying in wait. Throughout my life I was taught that the world was full of people murdering one another left and right and there was no way of avoiding it if you lived without a big strong man to protect you. While I knew this to be untrue, I still instinctively peeked behind the wall separating the living room from the kitchen, then my bedroom closet, then the shower. My tabby-persian cat and best friend, Beamer, followed me as I performed this nightly routine. Once I confirmed that the fictitious Anaheim Strangler hadn’t broken into my apartment I popped open a can of food for Beamer and went about my other routine of getting ready for bed.
Earlier I checked my voicemail and had two messages from temp agencies returning my calls for interviews and one from the estranged husband. By this point it had been a few months since I mustered the courage to walk out on him. The cheap answering machine I owned beeped only once to alert the caller to leave their message when there were no messages and beeped multiple times when there were already messages. I did not like this feature. Mark had something to say about this whenever he called and noticed that I had messages on there.
“Who’s calling you? Why do you have so many messages?” He would ask. Of course it was none of his business as I made it clear the marriage was over. But as we weren’t officially divorced, in his warped mind, he was still my husband and I needed to answer to him. according to them, he owned me. There was one such message on there from him and although I wasn’t about to return that call, I still carried the uneasy feeling that I was doing something wrong by ignoring him.
Despite the fact that I was relieved to be living life on my own terms, I couldn’t help feeling guilt about a lot of things. In addition, my family and supposed life-long friends felt compelled to shun me thanks to the church, therefore, I couldn’t help feeling alone. At this point in my life, Robert was one of my very few friends. Very few.
I’ve always been socially awkward; I still am to this day. And another common theme my readers will discover is how the majority of my friendships involve men. As well as being awkward, I’ve never been very feminine either. I loathe fashion and shopping. I’ve never had an interest in decorating, in fact, where I live now, none of my furniture matches, the wallpaper in my kitchen is from the 1970’s and I’m perfectly fine with it. For many years I lived without any furniture other than a one or two beanbag chairs and a mattress. I can’t stand jewelry (my tattoos are my jewelry), and I would much rather watch The Hangover or Goodfellas over a romance any day and Breaking Bad over Sex and the City. With the few girlfriends I’ve had over the years, I’ve attempted to play the part of the girly-girl but gave up when I finally accepted who I am. Yes, several of my male friends most likely were initially interested in me for reasons other than friendship, but it usually wasn’t long before I was accepted as “one of the guys,” or the Elaine Benes of the group and most of our free time was spent at Earl’s.
First there was Robert who you were introduced to earlier. As mentioned he was also going through a divorce and currently living with his parents in his childhood home in Orange. Robert was a frustrated musician that built guitars for a living. His kids were living with their mother and her new unemployed boyfriend. That living arrangement would change before long. Through Robert I met several other colorful characters including Craig who was barely twenty at the time and an aspiring drummer and comedian but was currently working as a barista at PJ’s Coffee House. Many years later, Craig would become a successful voice-over actor. Then there was Benny. Everyone that frequented Earl’s knew Benny as he was a regular fixture. Benny was a big guy, a little under 6-feet, weighing around 250-pounds. He worked odd jobs here and there; he was always up for some sort of scheme.
In my memoir I discuss a friend by the name of “Neil.” Actually, Neil didn’t start out as so much a friend as he was a distraction when my marriage began falling apart, although, in time, we did build a brief friendship. In time, through Neil, I would meet others that would make an impact on my post-JW life.
© 2021 Brenda Thornlow