Friday, January 29, 2016

From hero to zero... Brock Talon's experiences as a Bethelite... an elite Jehovah's Witness

I just finished reading my second book by Brock Talon, Journey to God's House: An inside story of life at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1980s.  As I mentioned in my review Talon's other book, Escape from Paradise, Brock Talon is not the author's real name.  He uses a pseudonym, one that he likens to something that might be used by a superhero or a porn star.  Journey to God's House was published in 2013, two years before he published Escape from Paradise.  

Having now read them both, I will say that I'm glad I read his newer book first.  For one thing, Escape from Paradise is about growing up JW and that makes it seem like a more logical place to start reading Talon's story.  For another thing, I liked Journey to God's House better than I liked Escape from Paradise.  I'm glad to finish reading Talon's books on a high note, rather than being slightly disappointed.

Journey to God's House is the fascinating story about how Brock Talon came to work at the World Headquarters for the Jehovah's Witnesses, a place called Bethel, located in Brooklyn, New York.  I have read a fair number of books about the JWs, but I had never heard of Bethel.  Talon explains that it is a place for elite JWs.  It's supposedly very difficult to get an invitation to serve there and those who are invited are treated as heroes by their hometown congregations.

Talon writes that none of the JWs in his hometown believed he'd ever get into Bethel.  They laughed at his application to work there.  When he did get the nod, they were all impressed.  Apparently, Talon was also impressed and thought he was going to be doing valuable work for his church.  He flew to New York City and was forgotten at the airport.  Once he made it to the headquarters, where he expected people to be expecting him and perhaps to apologize for forgetting him, he was treated with callous indifference.  That indifference set the tone for Talon's time at Bethel, which he describes as being a period of sheer drudgery and thanklessness.  Apparently, the Bethel experience could be described as going from "hero to zero".

I raptly read page after page of Talon's story, which is liberally peppered with snarky humor and tempered with poignant anecdotes.  Talon was a young man in the early 80s and clearly idealistic about the Witnesses.  He was ambitious and wanted to do something life affirming and good.  Slowly, he came to realize that the work he was doing was meaningless and a waste of his time.  Here he was, a young, intelligent, physically strong and vital man in the prime of his life, working for peanuts putting together literature for the JWs, living in a dorm room with as many as three other men, and allowing other people to dictate how he spent his time, where and what he ate, whether or not he had sex, and even how he recovered from illnesses and injuries.

I really appreciated Talon's way with a story, even though I couldn't help but notice the distinctly disparaging tone he had about many of the people he describes.  Talon uses pseudonyms for the characters in his stories, choosing names that describe their physical appearance.  For instance, he refers to one woman as "Sister Mams" (because she was well endowed) and a man as "Brother Pockface" (because he had a bad complexion).  The smartassed side of me admittedly enjoyed those descriptions.  The more mature side of me thought the nicknames were kind of a cheap shot...  Fortunately, I'm much more of a smartass than I am a mature person.  That's why I'm an overeducated housewife instead of gainfully employed.

Anyway, I found Talon's tales very entertaining and enjoyable, even though Talon comes across a bit cocky...  sometimes quite literally.  He includes a very interesting passage about the dilemma young men at Bethel faced, not being able to masturbate at will.  Like the Mormons, JWs think masturbation is sinful and wrong.  They also prohibit the use of pornography.  Talon explains what it was like to be a young horny man unable to relieve himself and what happens when men can't jerk off when they need to.  I will never understand why people willingly submit themselves to religions that try to dictate that aspect of their lives... but I say that as someone who was fortunate to be raised in a somewhat permissive religion and by parents who weren't totally nuts about God.

Overall, I think Journey to God's House is a better book than Escape from Paradise is, though both are good reads as far as I'm concerned.  Once again, a lot of what Talon writes reminds me of things I've read about Mormons.  It's kind of like he spent two years at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, except at Bethel, people are allowed to drink alcohol, coffee, and tea.  Apparently, drinking is one activity that Bethelites indulge in quite liberally, though JWs are not supposed to drink to excess.  I thought it was interesting when Talon explained that drinking was one way Bethelites distracted themselves from horniness.  The Mormons simply play basketball and eat snacks.

I gave Escape from Paradise 4.5 stars.  I think I'd give Journey to God's House a full five stars.  I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it to others who are interested in a look at the Witnesses.  No, it won't please all readers, but I liked it and learned a lot.  I'm glad Talon is able to look back on his time at Bethel and write about it with a sense of humor.

Weird video about the "waiter crew" at Bethel...

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