When Abrahams turned eighteen, things got even stranger. That's when she found herself married to a man she didn't love, with adultery her only way out. "Disfellowshipped" and exiled from the only world she'd ever known, Abrahams realized that the only people who could save her were the very sinners she had prayed would be smitten by God's wrath.
Raucously funny, deeply unsettling, and written with scorching wit and deep compassion, I'm Perfect, You're Doomed explores the ironic absurdity of growing up believing that nothing matters because everything's about to be destroyed.
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Hark! God's Awesome Promise Is at Hand!
As usual, my little brother had to one-up me. It was the night of my debut performance at the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and I needed to choose the perfect dress for giving a presentation about freedom from demon possession. I was eight years old, but I knew that with the right outfit, I could pass for double digits.
This was my special night and I needed privacy -- mature, demon-free wardrobes don't choose themselves, after all. Yet here was my annoying brother, standing in my bedroom doorway, breathing both in and out. Ever since my father had (on the sly) told him he was smarter than I was, this is how he had behaved. Omnipresent. Gloating.
"Dad said not to tell you, but I'm smarter than you are," he'd told me one afternoon as I dumped Kix cereal into a glass Ball jar.
"You are not!" I screamed. "I'm older than you, anyway, so it's not even possible that you could be smarter than me."
"No, it's true! Dad showed me the test. I got a higher score than you. I'm smarter than you are."
"You're a liar. You're not smart, you're a doof."
That was the end of it. I never found out what this mysterious test was, exactly how much higher his score was, or why my father had betrayed me with this information. In his mind, Aaron was, and always will be, smarter than I am. And now he was soiling my canopy bed by looking at it with his dorky face.
"Get out of my room, Nippy!" I yelled. I'd given him this nickname in honor of the stash of Caramel Nips that our diabetic grandmother, Mom-Mom, secretly kept in a covered dish on the bookcase next to her Herb Alpert records. Aaron was apathetic toward the candy, but he hated the nickname, and that was what counted.
Mom-Mom was the reason we were Jehovah's Witnesses. Born Rose Rubin and, for all intents and purposes, a nice Jewish girl, she left her Brooklyn home to become the wife of a media man named Nathan Abrahams, have three children, and spend the rest of her living days lamenting the fact that Chinese food was never as good as it was in New York.
After a short time, the family moved to Coral Gables, Florida. Here, my pre-dad dressed in khaki shorts and posed for photos in coconut trees. Birthdays were celebrated, avocados were consumed. Years later, I would note that he was always happy when he was warm.
One day, Rose Rubin Abrahams, non-practicing Jew, maker of salmon croquettes, wearer of housecoats, found a Watchtower lying atop a trash can. She then began a weekly Bible study with her local Kingdom Hall, during which she learned that God has a plan for this world and it did not involve owning a separate refrigerator for dairy products. Her children stopped celebrating their birthdays and began reading the New Testament. Shortly afterward, my grandfather died of a heart attack.
I only knew two of my grandmother's siblings, Ruth and Margaret -- spinster sisters who never married, although Ruth supposedly once had "a steady beau." Instead, they moved to New England, became roommates, and began their official career as our great-aunts.
The first thing you saw upon entering the apartment of Ruth and Margaret was a painting of a rabbi holding a Kiddush cup. Below it, on a black-lacquered credenza, was a gray-speckled ashtray filled with lemon drops and a book we were not allowed to play "library" with.
The book wasn't in English. It was in Hebrew, like the first books of the Bible were. The cover was mother-of-pearl, inlaid with a silver-and-turquoise crown and a likeness of the Torah. Once, I was allowed to remove it from its clear plastic case and look inside. The metal hinges creaked like Dracula's coffin. The pages were so thin it felt like running my fingers across the scalp of a newborn baby. When I asked them what it said, they told me they didn't know -- it was in Hebrew.
The aunts were never Jewish in the sense of visiting Israel or eschewing light switches after sundown on Friday, but they were Jewish enough for us -- awesomely Jewish, in fact. When they muttered insults in Yiddish or called Bill Cosby "an annoying schvartze," I felt that I belonged to something special. My brother, Aaron, and I read a joke book called How to Be a Jewish Mother, then ran around the house accusing each other of being zaftig schmucks and insisting the other close the window and put on a sweater.
"Dad says not to be mean to me, schmuck, because someday I'm gonna be bigger than you are and then you're gonna regret it when I beat you up," Aaron reminded me.
Sentiments like these were often echoed by Ruth and Margaret.
"Someday, Kyria, when your brother is dead, you'll regret having treated him so cruelly," one great-aunt would croak, putting out a cigarette in the ashtray of their '75 Dodge Dart. This was the way elderly Jewish spinsters responded to squabbling children -- by evoking mortality and regret, then taking us on a Sunday drive to purchase rye bread and macaroons.
The fact that I was an obedient Jehovah's Witness child who thought I was Jewish because I snacked on egg and onion matzo and owned a coffee mug with Yiddish curse words on it was the least of my problems. Right now, I had a performance to give. I needed to choose an outfit. I needed Aaron to leave.
"Come on and get out, Aaron! I'm getting ready for the Kingdom Hall."
"I invented a new color," he announced, repeatedly turning my glass doorknob so it would spring back into place with a door-shaking thud.
"So what, dork?"
"It's called mephamonium."
"I don't care. Plus you can't invent a new color, liar."
He was coming into my room now. Running his sticky hands along my rainbow wallpaper.
"Yes, I can," he insisted. "It's called mephamonium. I invented it!"
"Oh, yeah?" I challenged. "Then what's it look like?"
"It's like white, but kinda orange and purple. Like rainbow sherbet."
Rainbow sherbet? Please. Only our mother ate that. Now I knew for certain he was lying. I yelled loudly for Mom, who was downstairs in the kitchen, microwaving broccoflower and listening to Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson sing "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" on her boom box.
"I have to pee!" Aaron shouted down the stairs in his defense.
My bedroom was directly next to the bathroom. This close proximity to our chipped, claw-foot tub gave me the distinct advantage in case of hide-and-seek, earthquake, or Armageddon. It also gave Aaron the perfect excuse to stand in my doorway. He was, after all, just on his way to pee.
"Go ahead and pee, then! See if I care!"
"Remember," he warned, "I'm smarter than you are."
"You are not! You aren't!"
"Children!" my mother screamed. "Enough is enough!"
My mother did not have the time for this. Or the inclination.
"I have neither the time nor the inclination to come upstairs and separate you two," she yelled. "Don't make me get the yardstick!"
At this, my father was summoned. What Mom merely threatened, Dad usually carried out. Dad stood in the doorway, freshly bathed, with a towel around his neck and a Q-tip hanging from one ear, breathing like a bull. Usually, this was all it took. There was a yardstick balanced above each of our bedroom doors for easy-access discipline. If we continued fighting, he'd reach his hand up to the wood molding, grab the long ruler, and officially end the quarrel.
He glared at my brother. "Find your Bible and your notepad. Lay your suit out on the bed. Get ready for the meeting. Dinner is almost on the table."
This time, Aaron did exactly as he'd been told. He zipped underneath Dad's legs and out of the room.
"And you," Dad said, holding up a frayed bath towel and pointing his finger at my face. "Don't you encourage him."
To help us get to the meetings on time, Mom came home from work and prepared dinner for a family of four. She was retro-gourmet, rocking the Crock-Pot and the Le Creuset Dutch oven in order to present meals plucked straight from the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens from 1965. We owned porcelain eggcups, Tupperware cake carriers, and enamel chopsticks with mother-of-pearl inlays. For breakfast, Mom drew a smiling face and hair on our soft-boiled eggs with Magic Markers. My brother's face was always drawn in baby blue, mine in pink. Then she'd slice the top off the egg and we'd lap the egg person's brains up with a small spoon. This was my mother's idea of what a real family should look like.
"You're not those kids down the block, you know," Mom would counter whenever we'd complain about the upsetting nature of our meals. "I'm not just going to fill you full of sugar and be done with you, like some ignorant mother who doesn't know any better!"
Although many of our "meeting night" meals were reheated frozen leftovers, there was always the knowledge that the prior week, they'd been better than what the neighbors were eating.
In addition to being Betty Crocker, Mom also took the bus downtown every day, where she worked full-time as a legal secretary. It was hard to bring any subject up with Mom without hearing how she did everything while the rest of us sat on our behinds and watched "the boob tube." So sometimes, like tonight, it was all she could do to crank up the Micro-Go-Round, pour a drink, and boil water.
"More raw spaghetti tonight?" Dad asked.
Mom was half-undressed from work and half-dressed for the Kingdom Hall, wearing a bathrobe, knee-highs, a girdle, and bootie slippers she knit herself 15 years ago. She slammed an enamel lid onto a pot of sauce. "It's not raw, Gerald. It's al-dent-ey."
"Raw spaghetti," Dad mumbled. "You're trying to kill me."
There were many ways in which my mother was trying to kill my father. Leaving half-empty glasses on tables and cooking pasta like a damn European were simply two of her more popular efforts. It would be many years before I realized that raw spaghetti was not an effective murder weapon.
Wiping away a grape-juice mustache, my brother repeated his recent discovery. "I invented a new color. It's called mephamonium."
My father stopped spreading margarine on his microwaved broccoflower and turned a concerned eye toward his son.
"Been getting at your mother's liquor cabinet lately?"
This was my father's sense of humor. He was also fond of referring to my mom's family as "a bunch of illiterate white-trash alcoholics."
Mom lifted a glass of rum and 7-Up and sneered, "Say the prayer, Gerald. Your children's dinner is getting cold."
"Sure. God forbid my heartburn gets cold."
"Well, I'm sorry I don't have time to make the sauce from scratch, Gerald. You know, I work all day, and all I ask -- "
My father interrupted this rant by giving thanks to our Lord.
"Jehovah, God, our heavenly father. Thank you, Jehovah, for this day of life and for the food we are about to receive, Jehovah."
Dad called out God's name so many times during a single prayer that one might wonder if, in addition to being the creator of the universe, God wasn't also suffering from ADD.
"Jehovah, we ask that you bless Kyria while she gives her first talk tonight. We pray, Jehovah, for the arrival of your promised New System of Things in your own due time. Thank you, Lord, Jehovah. In Jesus' name, amen."
"Amen," I agreed.
"Amen," my mother repeated.
"Mephamonium," said Aaron.
I had picked out the perfect white eyelet dress because that night I was officially becoming a member of the Theocratic Ministry School. The "school" took place every Thursday night and was designed to help true Christians excel in the arena of public speaking. It was for both adults and children alike, and was not considered a replacement for our actual elementary schools, which we attended in order to perfect our arithmetic skills and learn how to be hated for being different.
This particular night was to be my grand debut. (Technically, my grand debut was at age five, when Mom-Mom coerced me into doing my impression of Carol Channing singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the community room of her retirement complex. But there was no raised stage in Douglas Manor, only flat linoleum, an American flag, and a handful of tight-lipped elderly women sitting at folding tables. I ran away in tears before I ever got to belt out, "A kiss on the hand may be quite Continental," and my grandmother never forgave me.)
My presentation was going to take place in our church, or rather, the building that we adamantly refused to refer to as a church. Churches were pagan seats of false religion, the Great Harlot -- part of This System of Things Which Is Soon to Pass Away. As members of the only true religion, we were neither part of This System, nor were we ever going to Pass Away.
Instead, our church was unequivocally referred to as the Kingdom Hall (or, for any of the Spanish-speakers who we graciously allowed to hold their own separate service, the Salón del Reino). This admittedly sounds more majestic than it actually was, but the roots of the name were simple. Our main goal as Witnesses of Jehovah was to proclaim his coming Kingdom, and "Kingdom Vinyl-Sided Ranch House" sounded stupid.
Our hall was a modest, one-story building with a handful of parking spaces and one nice bush. There were no spires, gargoyles, or stained-glass windows depicting lepers lounging atop virgins. The interior design scheme boasted burnt-umber motor-home curtains and bland gray rugs. There were no pagan crosses, but we did have hand-painted murals of children hugging lions and eating ripe tomatoes in paradise. The seating was an ergonomic nightmare -- ripped cushions that felt like they were manufactured from concrete and shards of glass.
An outside observer might have noted that our congregation was very punctual, unaware that we were merely vying for the prime, duct tape-free seating.
"These seats are going to kill me!" my father would moan, squirming as we read scriptures evoking the unbearable punishment God would soon rain down upon all evildoers. If we were lucky enough to snag one of the plush yellow vinyl-seated stackable chairs, my father still had something to discuss -- the chair's projected life expectancy while under the care of the Spanish congregation.
"Those Spanish brothers! Look at this -- the screws are loose, half the rubber stoppers are lost," Dad would say, rocking back diagonally and placing a folded piece of notebook paper under a too-short metal leg. "They're well-meaning, but someone really needs to show them how to stack these chairs!"
My mother helped me to understand why the Spanish brothers acted this way.
"They're not used to having nice things, sweetie. They don't know what to do with them," she said. Adding sympathetically, "Some people feel more comfortable when things are broken."
It seemed that no matter what you had, Spanish people would eventually ruin it. I was embarrassed that I knew how to count to diez and ask for a glass of agua in this inferior, chair-destroying language.
The English-speaking congregation attended the Kingdom Hall on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, sitting with scrubbed ears and shined shoes to learn about the end of the world for a few hours. Here was a congregation at attention -- shiny, obedient, 1950s-sitcom perfection.
Joining the Theocratic Ministry School was a mandatory privilege, something we were supposed to do before being allowed to knock on doors and ask people if they knew they'd accidentally chosen the wrong religion. Students would be assigned a simple topic, such as "Is This Life All There Is?" or "Why Does God Allow Suffering?" The performances had a strict five-minute limit, more than enough time to clear up any lingering misconceptions about the ontological questions that have plagued mankind since its inception.
We called these performances "talks." Some people gave the kind of rousing, inspirational talks you made sure not to be in the bathroom during. And some people accidentally shut off the microphone, then rambled on about how Michael Jackson turned his back on the Jehovah's Witnesses after filming the demon-fueled Thriller video.
Talent was a toss-up. The Ministry School was a Jehovah's Witness open-mike night, only without the hairy veteran who always takes his pants off.
It would have all descended into chaos if not for the genteel hand and wide neckties of our school overseer. This position was filled by a prominent brother in the congregation, someone who perhaps had not yet been appointed as an elder, but still owned a variety of powder-blue suits. During our talks, he sat ominously in one corner of the stage, holding a stopwatch, with a facial expression that said, Don't mind me, I'm just timing you! Really. It's fine. You have two minutes left. Don't mind me. Hurry!
After the stopwatch beeped and the spiritual conundrum had been comprehensively answered, the overseer would publicly critique our performance. We would be counseled on points like vocal inflection, diction, and the effective use of gestures (with fear of being critiqued on the latter point often causing a speaker to launch into a series of regal, sweeping arm motions, as if he were on a parade float with the Miss America theme being piped through loudspeakers).
That's five minutes with the eyes of an entire congregation trained on you, followed by a brief session while Brother Pendelhaus discussed your facial twitch and your lisp. Somehow, at the age of eight, this sounded like a fabulous idea.
Most children of Jehovah's Witnesses began to give talks around the age of 12 or so, and were jealous of any prodigies who started earlier. When you're a fundamentalist kid, it's cool to be a zealot. If you can't be bad, you might as well be very, very good. So me and my JW homies had our own crew. After the meetings, we'd hang out in the Kingdom Hall parking lot, not smoking, and brag about how totally unrebellious we were. Then we'd put down a square of cardboard and not break-dance.
But no friends my age had actually given any talks yet, although we often played "Kingdom Hall" in the backyard while dressed in muddy bathing suits. So it couldn't have been peer pressure that drove me to don my most mature velvet dress (midnight blue) and approach one of our elders after a Sunday meeting to ask if I could be allowed to join the Ministry School. With a timid curtsy, I informed Brother Wentz that I was meant for the stage.
"Joining the Ministry School, are we?" he chuckled, bending over to squint at me like I was a shiny toy lying in a puddle.
Brother Wentz was a round-faced man with a pastel-green polyester suit. His wife shook like a Chihuahua and had a chronic facial tic. When I asked my mother why, she told me it was because of "nerves." And, she added, because Brother Wentz used to beat her up. I was eight, so apparently it was time to start me on the road to vicious slander and inappropriate gossip.
My mother took her upturned hand and jammed a diamond ring into my shoulder, giving me a go on nudge toward the kindly face of spousal abuse.
"Well," Brother Wentz said, grabbing onto his thighs. "Can you read?"
I was "a precocious child," with crisp blue eyes that could have been made of glass and set into a Kewpie doll; the kid who tugged on your jacket and asked if you wanted to hear her spell a hard word like "antidisestablishmentarianism." Now this insolent adult was asking if I could read? The audacity!
Not only could I read, but I had recently perfected the art of carrying around the largest book from the school library, which at that point was Roots. I brought Roots with me everywhere, placing it in prominent "So, I see you're reading Roots" positions. I sneered at the other eight-year-olds in my class as they debased themselves with reading material such as Where the Wild Things Are. No book of mine would bear a Caldecott Medal!
To this day, I have never read Roots. But I checked it out of the Nathanael Greene Elementary School library 179 times.
I rolled my child-star eyes at Brother Wentz. "Yes, I can read!" I snorted. Then I spelled "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
Brother Wentz tried to think of a second, less confrontational question. "Do you love Jehovah?" he asked.
"I love Jehovah with my whole heart, my whole soul, and my whole mind," I told the elder who held my performing future in the palm of his formerly violent hand.
"You're very young, you know," he said, harrumphing and raising one disconcerting white eyebrow.
Young? That was the whole idea! I would get onstage and the entire congregation would ooh and ahh and young at me. It would be no great accomplishment if I waited until I was a teenager. I had to strike while the iron was eight.
The elder considered me for a moment. His wispy white hair was so baby-fine that it moved on its own, as if by a nonexistent breeze in our ever-stuffy Kingdom Hall. "Young Sister Abrahams, welcome to the Theocratic Ministry School!"
A few weeks later, Brother Wentz approached me with a slip of paper bearing the topic of my talk: "Resisting Wicked Spirits." I would be doing research from the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, and I was officially assigned a partner.
The men did not need partners. They spoke to us from behind a lectern like budding high school presidents. The women, however, being of the "weaker sex," were not allowed to teach anything to men. The succession of power was this: Jesus was the head over man; man was the head over woman; and woman was the head over cooking peach cobbler and shutting up.
In order to participate in the Theocratic Ministry School, women performed together in two-person scenes. In this way, the men would not actually be instructed by us, but merely observe while we instructed each other. As long as we gave our talks facing another sister instead of the congregation, we were not usurping man's authority. It was as if two friends had unwittingly found themselves on the stage and began having a private chat about the prophecies of Daniel in front of 80 people who were kind enough to stop their service and listen to them chat for a spell.
Facing the congregation = uppity and sinful.
Ninety degrees clockwise = making Jehovah's heart smile.
Depending on the enthusiasm of the budding actresses, we would either spend five minutes shifting around uncomfortably or be whisked away into a My Dinner with Andre-esque fantasy world of two people sitting together at a table.
So, I was assigned my very own elderly woman. My partner's name was Sister Douglas. Like me, she loved Jehovah, and unlike me, she owned a large collection of vintage flowery hats.
"I'm very pleased to be your partner," she told me. "You're making Jehovah's heart smile."
Why, with my spunk and her silver-haired maturity, we were a heartwarming buddy flick just waiting to happen! This summer, get ready to talk. Paramount Pictures presents "Sister Douglas and the Kid!"
The main dilemma I faced was how to ease into a conversation about the spirit realm with a 60-year-old woman. She could be a neighbor, but who cranes their head over the fence to ask, "Excuse me, little girl, but how can I get rid of a possessed doll when it simply won't burn?" I could make her my teacher, but that was hacky.
Most of the other talks took on the same plot -- pretending to have a home Bible study, or helping to encourage a sister after the meeting. Bor-ing! I always yearned for two sisters to meet in Snow White's cottage and discuss the danger of speaking to witches. Instead I got:
"Oh, hello, Sister Easily Stumbled. I notice you've been missing some of the Tuesday night Book Study meetings lately. Is this because you feel overwhelmed by the weight of Satan's world?"
"I do feel overwhelmed, Sister Spiritual. To tell you the truth, lately I am just not sure that the Jehovah's Witnesses are really the one true religion."
"Oh, Sister Easily Stumbled. Of course Jehovah's Witnesses are the one true religion and all other wicked religions will be destroyed at Armageddon. Now let's turn to page forty-seven in the book Happiness -- How to Find It to see why..."
Somehow, sitting in a Kingdom Hall and watching a short play about two women sitting in a Kingdom Hall was underwhelming to me. I wanted to up the ante, and dare I say, I instinctively knew how. This old woman and I would not simply be Theocratic Ministry ships passing in the night. We would be family friends going out for ice cream!
"Hello, Sister Inquisitive. Are you ready to get that ice cream we've been talking about?"
"Oh, hello there, Kyria. I sure am. But first, I wanted to ask you how a true Christian should deal with voices from the spirit realm."
The introduction of ice cream gave me a setting, a raison d'être, an arc. And who knew, maybe after the meeting was over, my parents would celebrate by taking me to Newport Creamery, where I could continue giving glory to God by partaking of a junior butterscotch sundae!
I camped out at the dining room table with a stack of Jehovah's Witness literature, a set of index cards, a No. 2 pencil, an art gum eraser, a calligraphy pen, a set of Hi-Liters, and a sharpener jammed with crayons. First, I invented a family of roller-skating cartoon creatures I called the Pigwees. Once the final antennae had been colored in, I began intently cross-referencing demons. I immersed myself in Watchtower Society publications with names like The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. I found I was especially proficient at numbering my index cards. I excelled in drawing a circle around each number, as well as perfect corner placement. My mother helped with the more involved tasks, such as having the talk make sense.
Sister Douglas even stopped by our house to practice with me and nibble on vanilla ladyfingers with my mother. The air around us crackled as I drew circles around numbers like 9 and 12. Unless it was the white frosting talking, I could tell that Sister Douglas and the Kid were going places.
When the big day came, I could barely sit still in school. As a Jehovah's Witness child who had never celebrated a single sinful holiday, this coming night was the equivalent of an acceptable, non-pagan Christmas Eve. I was wriggly all over. I would, of course, be giving my talk in the main auditorium of the Kingdom Hall. I just had to! I was an attraction, a third grader vocalizing her love of the Bible. P. T. Barnum would have scooped me up and put me in a cage next to his syphilitic Pygmy.
That night, after dinner, we all finished scrubbing behind our ears and stuffed our book bags with reference books, Bibles, and notepads. Then we took a stroll around the corner to the Kingdom Hall. It was less than a five-minute walk, but our family made it into a huge ordeal, packing Kleenex, cough drops, and extra sweaters as if we wouldn't be home for days. In my mother's mind, it seemed, the worst possible thing that could happen to a person was to be caught in an air-conditioned building while wearing only short sleeves.
"Can we walk up Power Road instead?" I asked my father. I was nervous already, and I didn't want to walk past Crazy Louie the Apostate. Apostates were the worst kind of people in the world, even worse than people who had never been Jehovah's Witnesses to begin with, because they once had the Truth and they let it go.
Crazy Louie sat on a fence across from the Kingdom Hall and glared at all the members of the congregation as they walked by. He'd been disfellowshipped a few years ago, and was now to be shunned by all us true Christians. I heard he'd been cast out for smoking, but my father told me that Louie had never really had a full set of stairs leading to the attic, and smoking was just a small part of his whole attitude problem.
Louie could repent if he wanted to. He could go sit quietly in the back of the Kingdom Hall, then leave just before the service ended so as not to attract attention or "stumble" anyone. There were different ways to stumble someone. If a person was weak in the Truth, you could stumble them by sinning, because they might be tempted to copy your behavior. Or you could stumble someone who was very spiritual by being known as a sinner and simply being near them; they could be so offended and upset by your presence that they actually suffer emotional harm. Louie was not allowed to speak to anyone or be spoken to. If he did this for a year or two, the elders might see signs of repentance and consider allowing him to come back. Instead, he sat on a fence across the street from the building, three times a week, and glared at the congregation members as they passed in and out. My father said this was because Crazy Louie knew in his heart that Jehovah's Witnesses were the true religion, but Satan was in his head and wouldn't allow him to make the final step across the threshold to come inside. Louie the Apostate was like a real-life monster with Satan right inside him, and he scared the living Hades out of me. In my mind, being disfellowshipped was right up there with getting bitten by Dracula. You may have been a nice person once, but now you needed a stake through the heart.
Fence-sitting apostates aside, my main concern was which outfit to wear for my debut. I'd eventually chosen a white lace dress and a white wicker hat adorned with a pink bow and other fineries that stopped just short of a cigarette holder and a monocle. I felt stunning. But I was eight, and my current idea of haute couture was a tiara, a hula hoop, and a ball gown made of emeralds.
When we arrived at the Kingdom Hall, I discovered I had been relegated to the basement auditorium, located next to the cloakroom and storage closet. Downstairs, there were no microphones, no windows, and no people. Since most people preferred to stay seated in the non-damp, non-dark main auditorium, I would be performing for a mere handful of our congregation members.
I wanted to jump directly onto the stage and launch into my soon-to-be-legendary performance, but I first had to sit through someone else's talk, one that would almost definitely not mention dessert. I distracted myself by faking tuberculosis until Dad offered me a Smith Brothers licorice drop. My mother handed me a steno pad on which she had written, "Jehovah, Jesus, Angels, Armageddon, Paradise, and New System of Things." I was to make a checkmark next to each word when it was said from the stage. But I was too excited for checkmarking, so I shuffled my index cards and crunched my licorice drop until it was time for Sister Douglas and the Kid to take the stage.
When they called my name, I seated myself onstage in a plush, yellow seat and spread my index cards out next to my Bible on the faux-wood mini-conference table. Sister Douglas and I sat with our hands folded in our laps while the brother whose responsibility it was to adjust the height of the microphones did his job.
"Are you ready to get that ice cream we've been talking about?" Sister Inquisitive began. I answered immediately, because people were watching this time.
"Yes, I certainly do enjoy ice cream. But first, I wanted to ask you if you've ever thought about what we should do if we are contacted by a demon spirit."
My feet dangled off the seat. I emoted, I gestured. I loudly read each scripture, which my mother had helped me bookmark with paper clips. But none of it meant anything to me -- it was all filler, just the rambling verse leading up to my toe-tapping, catchy chorus. Four minutes and 52 seconds later, when it was time for my big finale, I lifted my head high and crowed, "Now let's go get that ice cream!" I couldn't have been more proud if Jehovah himself had come down from heaven, grabbed my steno pad, and made a checkmark next to his own name.
It was then that something rather unexpected happened. Everyone in the audience laughed.
Had I mispronounced "cream"? Had I accidentally said "ice milk" and not realized it? What had I done to deserve this?
I climbed off the stage, confounded by the applause and laughter. People were smiling at the young sister with the love of Jehovah and the cute hat. My mother reached over to grab my shaky little hand in hers. "Great job, kiddo," she said, chuckling. I spun around in my seat. Chuckles! The entire audience was suffused with them. Those people. They were laughing at my art!
I felt a ticklish, allergic sensation in my nose and my eyes, not unlike rolling around in a field of dusty cats coated in pollen. I choked on gobs of wet air. I did not want to be crying, not immediately after accomplishing something so grown-up. I pulled my wicker hat down over my eyes so no one could see the tears. Sister Douglas sat next to me, her hands folded in her lap, focused intently on the next speaker. When my galumphing sobs became something she couldn't ignore, she grabbed my shoulders and asked if she had done something to make me cry.
If she didn't know, I certainly wasn't going to tell her. Ice cream was not humorous! This was high-concept. The talk began with ice cream and it ended with ice cream. At eight years old, I had done what even the adults failed to do. I'd had plot resolution.
"I don't know why I'm crying," I told Sister Douglas.
"She's just excited, Elaine," my mother whispered to Sister Douglas, adding far too loudly, "She gets like this."
It was true, I did get like this. I was excited. Excited to take the stage. Excited by didactic five-minute lectures, swooping gestures, and perfect diction. So excited, in fact, that I never, ever wanted to do it again.
Copyright © 2009 by Kyria Abrahams
Reading Group Guide
I'm Perfect, You're Doomed
Questions and Topics For Discussion
- The book begins with a Frederick Perls quote: "Many factors come together to create this specific unique person which is I." Now that you have an understanding of Kyria as a child, can you identify some of the Jehovah's Witness factors that contributed to who she was? Examine her views on finishing high school, getting married, and having a job. What other external factors contributed to her personal development?
- What prescriptions do Jehovah's Witnesses give for proper parenting (see page 104)? Do you agree with the methods described?
- Kyria describes her elementary school experience: "Unlike all the other students in the school, I was special. In short, the rest of my class was going to die at Armageddon. I was going to live forever—as long as I refrained from singing the National Anthem or drawing a turkey from the outline of my hand" (page 84). How do the rules of Jehovah's Witnesses compare with the rules of other religions? Which religions are stricter than others in regard to what must be done to achieve eternal life?
- Abrahams humorously says of her early experiences in the Kingdom Hall, "We all knew what was in our thoughts (intense love for Jehovah possibly coupled with a need to pee) and there was no need to cause problems by talking about actual feelings" (page 34). Does this description relate to Kyria's interactions with her parents while growing up? Why or why not?
- Discuss Abrahams’ recollection of swallowing a bottle of pills. Why do you think her parents responded the way they did? Compare with their reactions to Kyria's other decisions, such as dropping out of high school, divorcing Alan, and being disfellowshipped.
- Why do you think Kyria married Alan? What were her reasons for wanting a divorce? Do you understand the decisions she made?
- Examine the other relationships in the book. How does Kyria's marriage compare with that of her parents? How does she approach her second marriage proposal, this time to Penn? Do these relationships adhere to the rules for being good Jehovah's Witnesses?
- "I was overwhelmed with the need to interact with these people. I wanted to be them and I wanted to make out with them, possibly both at the same time." (page 289) This is just one of many emphatic descriptions throughout the book that Abrahams gives when meeting new friends for the first time. Discuss the peers she encounters during each phase of her childhood, looking closely at Sarah, Heather, Judy, and her fellow poetry slammers. Examine the effects, both positive and negative, that each of these relationships has on Kyria.
- Near the end of the book, Abrahams writes, "It didn't feel wrong to have sex with my friend's boyfriend because I couldn't fathom anything being wrong any more. I'd been told that murder was as wrong as eating birthday cake was as wrong as smoking, as wrong as reading books, as wrong as having sex with your friend's boyfriend. I needed time to grade each of these things on their own merit, to make sense out of the world, one ruined septic system at a time." (page 365) How does this description compare with Abrahams’ sense of morality earlier in the book? At what point does she begin questioning the rules of being a Witness?
- Why do you think Kyria's mother and friend Maya both went back to being Jehovah's Witnesses after they were disfellowshipped? Why do you think Kyria never rejoined?
- In your opinion, does Abrahams portray her former religion and its members fairly?