Did you watch Shiny Happy People on Prime Video? If not, it is a must-see for PIMO and former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Shiny Happy People is a docuseries that examines the teachings of Bill Gothard at the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The series is an exposé of the abuses and extremism of numerous evangelical sects and the real impact of those teachings on the lives of women and children in families like the TLC darlings, the Quiverfull Duggars. There are interviews with women who have lived under this bizarre cult, former devotees such as Tia Levings and Jill (Duggar) Dillard.
My family did not study Gothard’s IBLP teachings, and yet, watching that series was akin to visiting my past. Perhaps, because this exposé was about a white-centered, misogynistic, high control religion, and the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ that I was born into was and still is a white-centered, misogynistic, high control religion that subjugates and marginalizes women.
I know firsthand how Witness women are conditioned to become appendages to the men that have so much power over their lives. Their fathers and husbands are their “heads,” and this patriarchy leaves limited spheres for girls and women to negotiate identity formation and expression. Among Witnesses, women are policed and repressed; ignored and silenced. It is no wonder then, that just as in the IBLP, Witness sisters, daughters, and wives are quite often subjected to verbal, sexual, and physical abuse. The power dynamic in the Witness religion is toxic and as always, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Shiny, Happy People brought back so many memories of a time when my life, my choices were very, very different. Gentle readers, here is an opportunity to enter another dimension, the mindset of a Witness wife.
A Day in The Life of Ellie, The Elder’s Wife
When the alarm clock rings, Ellie sits up groggily and shuts it off before it wakes her sleeping husband, Dan. So much to do. Waking their two children, Caleb and Sofia. Making breakfast. Packing lunches. Dinner meal prep. Taking the kids to school. She would give anything for another half hour of sleep, but Proverbs 31 says that a capable wife rises while it is still night to provide food for her household.
Two hours later, Ellie has dropped the children off at school and heads into work herself. As she drives, she remembers the “daily text” that Dan read to them before they left the house; the brief scripture and interpretation of scripture that is simply a recycled excerpt from a dated Watchtower magazine.
“Let your light shine before men, so that they may . . . give glory to your Father.” Matthew 5:16.
Dan used the text to admonish the kids to “stand up for Jehovah” in school today. Ellie is a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, born into the religion, but Dan didn’t become a Witness until he was in his late teens. Ellie is sure that is why Dan is so blithe about what their kids face at school. Ellie vividly remembers how isolating and even humiliating it felt to “give a witness at school.”
To have to stand silently with her arms held stiffly to her sides when the other kids in elementary school saluted the flag to prove that she did not worship idols. To have to ask to be excused when her classmates distributed birthday treats or paper Valentines; to have to explain that she could not paint a jack-o’- lantern in October or trace her hand to make a turkey in November. And the month of December was a virtual gauntlet of forbidden activities: holiday carols in music class; Christmas decorations in art; not to mention the recess conversations when the other kids discussed the holiday gifts that they wanted, and she was expected to tell them that she didn’t want a Lisa Frank unicorn, a Furby, or a Spice Girl doll because Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. “Giving a Witness,” meant standing out as religious fanatic when all she wanted was to fit in with her peers.
Ellie would give anything to shield her kids from that type of anxiety. But their entire extended family are Witnesses. Their dad is an elder. They must set an example.
At work, Ellie sorts the mail and makes coffee at the doctor’s office where she answers phones and organizes patient records. The work is repetitive, and the pay is abysmal, but they need the insurance that it offers. Dan’s office-cleaning business pays the mortgage, but it doesn’t provide health insurance benefits.
When she was in high school, a teacher encouraged Ellie to accept a scholarship and pursue a pre-med undergraduate degree before applying to med school. Her grades in biology, calculus, and chemistry were really impressive. But her parents and grandparents expected her to pioneer, to work 60-90 hours each month in proselytizing. If she had even hinted at wanting to spend 8 years in college to get a medical degree, she would have been sternly rebuked for her worldly desires. Her parents had been adamant. The End was just around the corner. They were living in the final part of the last days. Why would anyone climb to the top limb of a tree if they knew that it was scheduled to be cut down? So why would anyone pursue a professional career in a world that was soon to be destroyed? There was no way that teenage Ellie was going to pursue a course that would shock and disappoint her entire family.
Twenty years later, after nearly a dozen odd jobs – cleaning houses, data processing, retail cashier, Ellie was staring at middle-age and making coffee for the doctors in the office, while deep down, she still yearned to be one.
After starting her office desktop, Ellie sees a familiar name in the new patient portal, a sister from a neighboring congregation, and her heart skips a beat. She has always been apprehensive about discovering that one of her fellow Witnesses had become a patient at the clinic where she works. What if she were to learn that one of them had accepted a blood transfusion or had an abortion? She would be duty bound to report the Witness patient to the elders so that he or she could be brought before a judicial committee. Yes, she was supposed to obey HIPAA privacy laws, but the Governing Body clearly taught that God’s law (as interpreted by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society) is superior to Caesar’s (secular) law.
On her lunchbreak, Ellie pulls out her notes and prepares for her presentation at the meeting, later that evening. Not that she would ever give an actual “talk” from the platform. The idea that a woman would stand at the podium and address the congregation is unthinkable. Witness women can never teach in the congregation or even correct a man. Even wanting to teach would be considered indicia of an independent, Jezebel spirit. Women are to submit to males who have headship. Any baptized male. The newly converted man with literacy deficits; her 12-year-old son. How weird that her Caleb, who had recently been baptized was now her “spiritual head” even though he couldn’t drive himself to school, tie his own necktie for meetings, or even cook his own dinner. Still, Ellie is now expected to cover her head when she prays in his presence to show her subjection. And her son is already starting to speak condescendingly to her; mansplaining in their family study as if she were not the person who taught him to read. It’s ludicrous and humiliating. But that isn’t something she allows herself to dwell upon.
Tonight, her “presentation” will be a role play where she pretends to chat with another woman in the congregation about a Bible subject. Afterward, an elder will grade the pitch of her voice, her modulation. The theme that she’s been assigned is familiar, a reminder for women to remain modest and mild-tempered.
There are always reminders for women to remember their place. Reminders that they are “weaker vessels.” Reminders that it is her duty to ensure that the children behave well. Most meetings, Dan has to supervise the literature counter, coordinate the agenda, and see to a dozen other duties, so it falls to her to sit with her energetic kids for the two-hour meeting that keeps them up past their bedtime on a school night.
There are frequent reminders that Witness women’s skirts should cover their knees, that they should not speak too loudly, nor miss meetings or field service. “Transgressions” can lead to an elder’s reproof either in person or from the platform in a local needs lecture, although now that Dan is an elder, any of Ellie’s transgressions would be reported directly to him. And, honestly, that would be worse. It would look as if her husband could not control his household, and he would lose face with the other congregation elders. He could be passed over when it was time for elders to choose speakers for regional and district conventions. Those sorts of “privileges” mean the world to Dan.
After work, Elie rushes to pick up the kids and to get dinner ready while Caleb and Sofia speed through homework assignments. It’s always a mad scramble to get everyone fed and dressed in suits and dresses with the books needed for the evening meeting. And Dan is a stickler that an elder’s family cannot simply show up in time for the opening Kingdom song. They need to be in their seats at least ten to fifteen minutes before the meeting -setting an example.
At the meeting, exhaustion washes over Ellie like a wave. Her mind wanders and she thinks about the types of evenings that her coworkers describe. How would it feel to come home from work and relax on the couch with a glass of wine and binge her favorite home improvement shows? To be free to take a yoga class at the Zen studio near her home?
Ellie’s days are filled to the brim with her everyday duties – work, laundry, grocery-shopping, cooking, cleaning, supervising homework and somehow, she still has to make time for meetings, family study, daily Bible reading, and field service. Then there are the monthly activities-preparing meals for visiting speakers, taking her turn at Kingdom Hall cleaning. Preparing for and attending the conventions that are held several times annually that use up her limited PTO. Each week; each month; each year; rinse and repeat. Ellie cannot remember when she last had an hour to do something that resembles self-care; an entire evening of relaxation defies imagination.
But the full schedule is better, really. It is her responsibility to be a capable wife who watches over her household. She cannot “eat the bread of laziness.” And if all of the duties that she is assigned render her weary, lethargic, and too busy to think; well, if she did have time to reflect; to ruminate, where would that even lead?