Tuesday, July 28, 2015

William Coburn's The Spanking Room... A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah's Witnesses

Last night, I finished William Coburn's 2008 book, The Spanking Room: A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Since it is not available on Kindle, I actually read a physical copy of the book.  Perhaps that's why I was able to breeze through it in a matter of days.  Maybe it's time I got back to reading real books instead of my iPad, which distracts me with apps and Facebook posts.

I read Coburn's book because I am interested in so-called "fringe" religions.  Those who read this blog regularly may already know that my husband was a Mormon convert for awhile.  I also have a few relatives who used to be Jehovah's Witnesses, though they have since given up the faith.  I won't lie.  I also found the title of the book rather provocative.  The JWs are a group that constantly reach out to their communities through door to door harassment.  I have been visited by them in almost every place I have ever lived, including abroad.  I have always been suspicious of them and intrigued by their mystery.  I couldn't resist a title like The Spanking Room.

Coburn's book is about what it was like to grow up the son of a Jehovah's Witness.  His mother was (and apparently still is) a very devoted convert member of the JWs.  His father, who was around for most of his growing up years, is not.  Coburn also has an older brother, Joe, who managed to escape more of the JW indoctrination due to being older and involved in sports.

As a child, William Coburn went by the name Billy.  His mother would call him that.  She also called him an "awful, horrible, rotten child" because he was sinful.  As a toddler, Billy sat in a meeting at the local Kingdom Hall.  A microphone was passed around to members.  Billy's mother took the microphone and spoke, magnifying her voice.  Young Billy was fascinated by the microphone and when it was passed to another person, he said "Bye, Microphone."

That is the type of cute kid thing that usually makes people smile and say "Awww..."  Billy's mother, however, saw her son's goodbye as a slap in the face to the members of her church.  She grabbed Billy and took him to the women's restroom, where she proceeded to spank the living daylights out of him.

According to Coburn, when he was growing up in the 1970s, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses were encouraged to engage in corporal punishment whenever their children did something to warrant it.  Children were expected to be attentive and silent during meetings, even though they would last for hours and met several times a week.  Any child who disrupted a meeting in any way was expected to be spanked.

About a year after his mother became a Witness, the local Kingdom Hall was renovated.  During the renovation, a new room was added next to the women's bathroom.  It was called "The Spanking Room".  The room included an audio system that would allow parents disciplining their children to hear what was being said in the meeting.  It was also stocked with tools the mothers could use for spanking their children, everything from paddles to belts to rolled up newspapers.  There was a coffee table with couches and copies of Awake! and The Watchtower magazines.

Coburn writes that his mother was intent on getting her sons to become devoted JWs.  She would take them to meetings whenever she could, although her husband objected and would sometimes thwart her attempts to indoctrinate the boys.  While their father was sometimes able to protect Joe and Billy from his wife's religious fanaticism, he apparently did little to stop her from employing her excessive discipline methods.  Billy was especially subjected to them on a regular basis.

Coburn offers a very interesting look at what it's like to grow up JW.  He includes anecdotes about going door to door, dealing with kids at school who teased him for being different, information about what JWs believe and why they hold those beliefs, and how his upbringing has affected him as an adult.  Because Billy was a JW, he couldn't celebrate holidays or birthdays.  He couldn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag.  Once, when his mother took him door to door, he got violently ill because he was in a neighborhood on his bus route.  He was afraid his classmates would see him and make fun.  Once his mother realized her son wasn't actually sick from a virus, she slapped him upside the head and yelled at him for being ashamed of being a Witness.  

Coburn now makes his living as a technical recruiter and public speaker.  He originally wanted to be a doctor, but did not take college preparatory classes because his mother told him that when the "New System" began, the world wouldn't need doctors.  They would need people who could build houses.  She told him that nothing he learned in school was useful, yet she would punish him when he didn't do well.  Once, she offered to take a week off his grounding if he got 100% on a spelling test.  He got the 100% from one teacher, but another one gave him a 95 because of his handwriting.  He was beside himself and told her it was his birthday.  The teacher later gave him the 100, but she wrote "Happy birthday!" on his test.  He couldn't show that to his mother, because he wasn't supposed to celebrate his birthday.  She would beat him for it.  So he stayed grounded.  Anecdotes like these offer readers a glance at why being JW as a child can be complicated.  

Thinking about it, the teacher probably should have known better.  Coburn writes that every school year, his mother would speak to school officials about the family's religious beliefs.  She always brought pamphlets because, like any good Witness, she saw speaking to the school officials as an opportunity to convert them.  She believed that everyone wanted to be a Witness; they were just stymied by the devil.  The more vehement their response against the religion, the more the Witnesses thought the person wanted to be a Witness.  Coburn explicitly explains how people can get the Witnesses to leave them alone, which may be worth the price of the book.

Coburn's writing is very conversational.  At first, I thought his style was a little unpolished and whiney.  But then, as I got into the book, I started to enjoy his writing style more.  He demonstrates a snarky sense of humor that I liked.  Also, I thought the book was easy to read, both in terms of writing style and font.  The type is comfortably large.

While I don't think a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses will appreciate this book, I do think it's a good read for the curious.  I would bear in mind that Billy's mother's actions may have had little to do with the religion, even though Coburn claims Witnesses are encouraged to discipline their children physically. Frankly, his mother sounds a bit like my husband's ex wife, except Billy's mother was more willing to use physical punishment to get her way.  When she eventually divorced Billy's father, she engaged in a lot of the same destructive parental alienation techniques my husband's ex wife did, although she did at least allow the boys to see their dad and his second wife.

I will admit that I still don't know a lot about the JWs.  I have read some books and known a few, but I've never sat down and talked to anyone about what being a Witness is like.  My cousin who was a Witness only told me that the religion pervades everything in one's life and that others discriminated against him and his family for being members.  According to Coburn, many Witnesses believe that if you are enjoying your life, you're living the wrong way.  He explains that only things related to being a JW should make one happy.  If you take pleasure in something else, you're too worldly.  I felt sad for Coburn as I read about that.  It sounds like a horrible way to go through life, which is certainly tough enough as it is.  Coburn offers some evidence that growing up JW can be very difficult.  I recommend his book, The Spanking Room.



6 comments:

  1. If you lived in communities heavily populated with military personnel while growing up, you possibly had limited exposure to jWs because of their ban on military service. my mom says many jWs chose prison over the draft in the 60's even when offered positions as medics.

    in central CA, jWs have a marginal presence.. It seems like every non-catholic school I was in, there was probably one jW kid or so in every grade. Sometimes they were in my classes, and sometimes they weren't. i had a girl in my grade in middle school who used to be allowed to come to birthday party slumber parties after the "birthday' portion wrapped up. Because the girl couldn't really bring a present, her mom always sent chips and drinks or a dessert or something to contribute. this girl's parent probably went more out of her way to give her kid a normal life than did most of the jWs i knew.

    My mom said there was one official pamphlet that is still in circulation about JWs and the schools. at the last district for which she worked, a copy was kept on file in the doistrict office. teachers were encouraged not to take the pamphlet when it was given to them, and to say that the school already had a copy. teachers could take one and read it if they wished, but were told it wouldn't tell them anything they didn't already know, and firthermore, was condescending in regard to all of us who are not JWs, so tended to cause the teacher to like the jW parents less.

    Official policy was that teachers were to provide a week's notice for any holiday or patriotic activities to aLL parents. If witnessses chose to remove their children for that day, so be irt, but they would be subjexct to school Attendance review Board just as would anyone else if the children's absences were excessive.''

    I didn't realize they were so heavy-handed with corporal punishment.

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  2. I only spent three years on an installation when I was a kid. Religions are not allowed to proselytize there. We never dealt with religion peddlers on a Fort Belvoir, either... Until Bill resigned, that is.

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  3. The morg never realizes how valuable a person is until they leave.

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    1. Neither do vindictive ex spouses.

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  4. By the way, is your background pic from the Azores?

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    1. No, I believe that is a picture of Ireland.

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