A few weeks ago, I did a reading for St. Patrick’s Day as part of the Show and Tell Show in Brooklyn. This was super fun and convinced me I should do stuff like this more often. (If you have any suggestions about how to do that, I’m all ears.) This also reminded me that there was a time in my life when I would speak in front of other people very often.
When I was a kid, my mom was a Jehovah’s Witness. Only in retrospect does this seem strange in any way to me. On the few occasions I talk to other people about it, I must receive a few quizzical looks before I remember Oh, that’s right, that was kind of weird.
I wasn’t just along for this ride. I believed in everything I was told, for a huge portion of my childhood. Witnesses refer to their faith as The Truth, and I believed it was The Truth. How did this jive with my intellectual curiosity? It really didn’t, but somehow I compartmentalized the two, making sure the part of my brain that asked questions and the part of my brain that was set in stone would never speak to one another.
Everyone knows that Witnesses go door to door, which I couldn’t stand. As much as I believed, I did everything in my power to not evangelize. I found it terrifying on 80 different levels. Aside from the normal I could get killed by a stranger possibility, there was also the mortifying embarrassment felt by any teenager who’s forced to do something odd in public. I lived in terror that I’d see somebody from my school while out In The Field. It never happened, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
What a lot of people don’t know is that Witnesses also do a lot of self-training in public speaking. They had one meeting a week that encompassed both the door-to-door work and speech writing/delivery. At the age of 12 or so, I started to participate. About every other month, I was assigned a Bible passage that I was supposed to use as a springboard for a five-to-ten minute talk.
This I not only could do, but enjoyed immensely. The verses were occasionally obtuse, what with being Biblical and all, and it could be difficult to interpret just exactly what you were supposed to take from it, spiritually. Like an excerpt from Leviticus about how you were not supposed to eat animals split hooves that did not chew the cud, or vice versa. (The Old Testament God had odd food-related OCD.)
But I enjoyed the challenge. I would write up something on a manila notepad, practice it at home, then deliver it to a small group of congregants. After the talk, an Elder would give me some feedback in front of everyone. That could be terrifying if you were afraid of rejection or doubted your own abilities, but I felt neither fear in this environment, even though I felt that way pretty much everywhere else.
This exercise was a good preparation for high school, when you’d be asked to give a speech or recitation in English class. Other kids would moan and groan and worry about the dreaded specter of PUBLIC SPEAKING. Me, I knew I could do it without breaking a sweat. Once you’ve had to prepare 10 minutes on a big depressing chunk of Ecclesiastes, talking about Hamlet is nothing.
I wrote these speeches for years, throughout junior high and high school. Elders would always compliment my writing and speaking abilities. They counseled me to try and channel some of that enthusiasm into going door-to-door. I countered by saying I tried (and I really did), but that it just didn’t come easy for me. They told me to pray for strength. I did. Strength didn’t come.
As I grew older, my faith began to wane. I wish I could say girls were the culprit, but, c’mon. Really, it was that intellectual side of my brain wondering why I could question certain things but not others. Like, for instance, why I was basing my life and future on a book that had been translated 8000 times by people who still believed in goblins, at the behest of kings with a vested interest in squashing people’s dreams. Not to mention that Witnesses had their own version of the Bible, which was itself translated to jive with their own theology. One by one, bricks fell out the wall in my head, and soon there was enough space for ideas to slip through.
How did this begin? I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but I do know when I first began to resent the Witnesses.
My senior year of high school, if my faith wasn’t what it used to be, I still wrote and performed my speeches with enthusiasm. It was around this time that I decided to grow a neckbeard. Nowadays, a neckbeard is nature’s way of saying SOCIOPATH. But back in the mid-1990s, I had never seen anybody with one outside of Abraham Lincoln. One day while shaving, it occurred to me, “Hey, hair grows over here. I wonder what would happen if I shaved everything but this?”
Hell, I wasn’t getting laid anyway. I ate lunch with one kid who gelled his hair into crazy, Johnny Rotten-esque spikes and another who wore a lab coat to school every day. The distance between me and the deep end wasn’t too far. So I let the neckbeard grow in. The first thing I noticed was my facial hair was red. Oh boy, I’m a Viking!
The second thing I noticed was that a neckbeard looks awful. Really, truly terrible. But it looked terrible in a transgressive way. I already felt weird, and weird looking, so the neckbeard was a way of saying “Let’s see how twisted this whole thing can get.” (In this case, thing = my face.) The neckbeard got me a small amount of attention from classmates who’d never seen such facial hair before, some positive, some negative. That wasn’t really the point, but I guess it wasn’t really not the point, either.
It also got me the silent treatment at Witness meetings. I began to notice that, whereas I used have many of the Elders talk to me after Sunday services, they no longer did. And the speech assignments dried up. Months went by and no new verses came across my transom. It took me forever to figure out that the neckbeard was the culprit. Witnesses weren’t against facial hair per se. There were congregants with mustaches and beards and various lengths of hair. But there was a vague requirement to be “clean cut.” My neckbeard must have crossed that line.
What bothered me about this–both back then and thinking about it today–is that nobody said a word to me about it. If an elder had come up to me and said, “We’d prefer if you shave that thing off,” I probably would have (in part because I already suspected it looked fucking terrible). Instead, they addressed the “problem” in a passive-aggressive manner, shunning me half-heartedly and leaving it up to me to figure out what I’d done wrong.
Witnesses use the word “Christ-like” a lot. A Witness is supposed to aspire to live their lives in as Christ-like a way as possible. To this day, though I’m no longer religious, I use this word to mock quote-unquote Christians who act in a very un-Christian manner: How Christ-like of you.
To me, the way my neckbeard “issue” was handled by the congregation was not Christ-like. I feel like if Jesus had a problem with my facial hair, he’d take me aside and say “Shave that thing off, wouldja?” It may seem a small, petty, selfish thing to focus on. But it also made me think of ex-Witnesses who “fell out of the faith” and were never spoken of again. The tactic of just pretending they never existed, that too struck me as not Christ-like.
The neckbeard was itchy as hell, but I kept it through my senior year and over a very hot summer, out of defiance. I waited for someone to tell me to shave it off, and if they had done so at any point, I probably would have. They never did. I could never figure out exactly why they took this stance with me, but I did know I didn’t like it, and that I didn’t want to be associated with people who would play head games like this.
I gave Witnessing one last shot. Freshman year of college, one of my very first weekends at NYU, I gathered up enough courage to try and go to a Sunday meeting. I was freshly de-neckbearded, and it’s very hard to give up something you’ve lived with for so long, even if everything within you tells you desert it. The closest congregation was on Avenue C, so I put on a suit, slid a small Bible into my jacket pocket, and took an M14 bus to Alphabet City.
Unfortunately, I’d been misinformed. I arrived just in time for Spanish language services. The English meeting wouldn’t be for another 4 hours. Avenue C was still very much Avenue C back then, by which I mean stabby. Not knowing a word of Spanish, and not wanting to get mugged. I hopped on the bus that took me back to the Village.
I didn’t try to go back, later or ever again. I wonder sometimes what might have happened if I’d caught the English service, or if anyone at my old congregation had the courage to ask me to shave. But if I don’t think things happen for a reason, I do think you manage to find yourself with the people you want to be with. And I want to be with people who would tell me to shave that damn neckbeard.