As a child, I was often told that I was “difficult”. You are so argumentative, they would say. If the sky is blue, you will say it is red. Always say something different. Always ask questions when you already have the answers. Difficult, it’s you.
There’s a side of me that loves healthy debates. But it gave me a label before I found out who I was, stuck. I quickly realized that a strong spirit was not welcome. In the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses where I grew up, a woman’s opinion didn’t really matter. “Sweet and submissive” were favorite female attributes, a phrase common in literature or cited by the ancients, who were all men. I knew very early on that my journey in this patriarchal environment would not go smoothly.
When I was 19, I wore pants to the weekly book study at someone’s house. Women are prohibited from wearing pants to meetings or preaching door to door, and I knew that would raise eyebrows, but part of me thought why not? The pants were chic, comfortable, and certainly more modest than the bare legs. Where does the Bible say women cannot wear pants? “Are you coming straight from work?” Someone asked when I entered. “No,” I replied. Their raised eyebrows said it all.
Aside from sex, it is common in closed groups and some social structures to stifle the voice of the individual. This ensures the cohesion of the group. It was normal in my community to put aside personal desires for the seemingly greater good. You’re not going to college, because what’s the point of a career when the end of the world is approaching and lives have to be saved? You don’t dye your hair a wild color, because what if it offends the master of the house and he ignores the message? You do not report any allegations of child sexual abuse in the congregation to the police because would that not bring blame in the name of God?
Fortunately, this last example that I only heard about and never experienced, but got used to crushing personality traits that didn’t fit my credo. Yet my frankness meant that I became known as “a sister with opinions” and my job as a wedding photographer marked me as a “career girl”. I laughed at these labels, acknowledging them as ridiculous and sexist, but I also felt sad that the parts of me that I loved the most were unacceptable within my tribe.
When I started having children, the doubts I had always felt about my faith resurfaced. I threw myself into reading the Bible and organizational literature, hoping to prove to myself everything I had been brought up to believe. But doubts have multiplied.
There were countless rules to follow and many that I didn’t understand. I couldn’t see myself raising my children in such a tightly controlled existence with little room to maneuver and find their own way.
Walking away was a terrifying prospect. From birth, I had been encouraged to cultivate only friendships with believers, which meant that I had little connection with the outside world. The unbelievers were “worldly,” controlled by Satan, and portrayed as people who would end up hurting me. My family would be encouraged to cut contact if I was no longer an active member. I spent many days and nights crying as I debated the best course of action; stay and live a lie, or follow my doubts.
There has always been a tendency within the community to label anyone with doubts as “weak”. This is how I was described. Weak in spirit, weak in faith. It contrasted with people outside of religion who called me loud. You are so brave, they would say. Courageous. Strong.
These two opposing views were liberating. I realized that I couldn’t please everyone, that no matter what path I chose, someone would always say I was making a mistake. I had no choice but to listen to myself.
There was no clear path to follow. I was leaving both in the darkness and in the light. As my life began to fall apart, I knew there was a danger of being consumed by the pain of being rejected by loved ones. When my gut told me to come up with a creative project, I sat down and started writing the novel that was burning inside.
When I started struggling with my doubts, I enrolled in a fiction writing class in London and started a 1930s love affair. I had loved writing when I was a child, nurturing dreams of doing it professionally, but I lost the habit after leaving school at 18. community. I immersed myself in the novel, but even as I wrote it, I knew I was treading water. It was a facade, a smokescreen, and the words I wrote rang hollow.
Two years later, I was finally stepping away from everything I knew and decided to start the contemporary novel that I felt compelled to write. Yes with sex, yes with swear words, yes that would probably shock the ones I loved. But I was done with the fear. How could fiction inflict worse pain on me than taking over my life?
I started to write and the words flowed. For a while, I had nurtured the idea of a story of two brothers who face the common traumas of childhood in different ways. Nick and Sal felt real to me, their pain coming deep into my subconscious, and their relationship immediately came to life. Nick’s story was woven throughout their history with Anna, a girl from an apocalyptic religion who cannot love an unbeliever. In Fictional Anna, I poured cups from my own experience; conflict, confusion and pain. These two different sections essentially explore the same theme: what is to love? Do you risk being rejected for the life you want?
Writing distracted me from the chaos of real life. This thirties romance will never be printed, but its purpose was to find my writing voice and so not a single word was wasted. Rather than spending time regretting, I apply the same thinking to the 20+ years I have spent in this world. My voice might have been lost, but it was up to me to find it.
And so, I started another life.
Another Life by Jodie Chapman is published by Michael Joseph