‘I became a photographer – at work I felt free,’ says Jodie.
Her childhood had no birthdays, no parties, no Easter, but Jodie Chapman didn’t want her children to have that life. The decision meant she risked being cut off by everyone she loved
I was 35 when I first went to a birthday party. Looking around at the happy smiles, I searched for the evil I’d been brought up to believe stalked moments like this. Of course, it wasn’t there. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, a prohibition on birthday parties was the tip of the iceberg when it came to the strict beliefs that governed every aspect of my life until I made the decision to step back from the religion a few years ago.
It’s one that has cost me dearly. Some members of my family no longer speak to me, and I’m now an outsider in the only community I’ve ever known. I’ve had to reflect on my identity, figuring out how I want to live my life now I’m finally in control of it. Despite the people I’ve lost, the tears I’ve shed and the nights I’ve lain awake, I have no regrets. After becoming a mother, I just couldn’t bring up my children in this all-consuming way of life that I felt so much doubt about.
I grew up in Kent, the youngest of six – four half-siblings from my dad’s first marriage, then my sister and me. To an outsider, we appeared a typical family. Dad ran a double-glazing business, Mum was a housewife but did some part-time telesales, and we lived in a converted Victorian rectory in a rural village, where my sister and I went to the local primary.
Behind closed doors, however, our family life was very different to most people’s. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, every moment of every day was governed by the rules of the faith. And they were endless. Witnesses are Christians who believe the Bible is historically accurate and interpret much of it literally as the basis for how they live their life. They believe the end of the world is coming and only they will survive Armageddon, passing into Paradise, while everyone else is killed.
The Watchtower magazine is distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses
As a child I used to stand in the middle of the playground and imagine all the children around me lying dead on the ground. I felt so sad for them but not frightened, because I believed I was going to live for ever. So many normal childhood experiences were off limits. I never had a birthday party nor was allowed to attend a friend’s, because there’s no evidence in the Bible that Jesus celebrated his. School discos were a no because Witnesses aren’t meant to associate with unbelievers, and trick-or-treating at Halloween was forbidden because of the associations with paganism. With an emphasis on living a nonmaterialistic life, I never yearned for new things and although my home life was happy, it was patriarchal. My father was head of the house, because that is the Witness way, and Mum would never have questioned his decisions.
Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter – they believe both are based on pagan customs – and I’d be taken out of school in the days leading up, so I didn’t participate in themed games or concerts.
It would be easy to look at a childhood like mine and assume I must have been desperately unhappy. Truthfully, I wasn’t. I knew I was different and didn’t always fit in, but I was taught, both at home and at the weekly ‘meetings’ at the Kingdom Hall, where we worshipped, that it was good to be different because it meant I’d be saved when Armageddon came.
Something I never enjoyed was ‘ministry’ – going with my parents every weekend from house to house, trying to convert others. Standing in the cold, while one door after another was closed in our faces, I just wanted to be at home. Most people were polite but uninterested, some screamed at us to get off their property. Occasionally someone would be interested in learning more. I was taught that anyone who shut the door on us was rejecting God’s message and was doomed when Armageddon came. It never crossed my mind to allow so much rejection of our faith to cause me to doubt it. I pitied them.
As I became a teenager, my outlook began to change. I started to look at my life with more mature eyes and I saw so many paths closed to me. Friends from school were planning gap years abroad but I couldn’t do that because I’d miss weekly meetings and ministry. University was also discouraged because it’s seen as an improper use of time in the last days before Armageddon.
My career ambition was to be a film critic, but one of the congregational elders – who were all men – told me that was impossible as I’d have to watch movies with violence and sex in them. Witnesses are encouraged to dedicate their life to God and only work to pay the bills. I just couldn’t imagine myself taking on a job I had no passion for, and knocking on doors for the rest of my life.
I felt on the outside of teenage life. Getting drunk was forbidden, smoking banned and casual dating was off limits because going out with someone is meant to be a step towards marriage. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do these things, but I knew it would never be my choice. I’d never have the freedom to live life on my own terms.
I still respected the faith and didn’t want to lead a double life, so aged 17, I decided to step back from the religion. However, when I confided in a close family member what I was contemplating, I was told that if I left, they’d cut off contact with me. I knew if they were prepared to do that, the rest of my family could too. That emotional blackmail is seen as tough love by Witnesses. They believe cutting off someone who leaves is the best way to bring them back into the fold.
But at that young age, the idea of being shunned by the people I loved most in the world was too much. I stayed, trying to push my doubts and frustrations to the back of my mind. In 2005, when I was 21, I married my husband Greg, now 37, who was also a Witness. In private, we were honest with each other about the parts of the religion we doubted, but we did our ministry and attended meetings because our concerns did not feel great enough to rock the boat.
As time went on, my doubts began to increase and I started to question more of the rules. I became a wedding photographer, travelling all around the world, which was at odds with the expectations on me to have a low-paid job and focus on my ministry work. At work, I felt free, a more authentic version of myself. Seeing into the lives of other people broke down the mental walls I’d built against the outside world. Women are meant to be submissive, but I became known as a ‘sister with opinions’, questioning the ban on women wearing trousers to meetings, or the plan to install uncomfortable seats at the back of the hall for breastfeeding mothers.
But I loved my family and didn’t want to lose my relationship with them. It was only after becoming a mother myself that I realised I had to put my own family first. My first two children were born in 2013 and 2014, and realising I had to pass this way of life on to them, without questioning the rules, I felt ill at ease. Greg and I would take them door to door every single weekend, and I felt wretched doing it. I was forcing them to live in a way I didn’t know if I believed in myself.
In 2015, the church was plunged into a child sex abuse scandal after an investigation in Australia revealed over 1,000 allegations had been reported to elders there since 1950 but not one passed on to the police. This didn’t surprise me, as Witnesses believe the authorities are controlled by Satan. But the idea that children had endured such horrors because members chose to protect one another made me feel sick.
When my eldest began school, he started being invited to birthday parties. I had to say no, even though I felt sad that my children would miss out on such normal milestones.
I decided it wasn’t right for me to ban things from their lives unless I fully agreed with the reasons. My becoming ‘inactive’ didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow burn, but the final straw came in 2017 when I was pregnant with my third son. At a Sunday meeting with Greg, I read a pamphlet that encouraged battered wives to ‘endure’ any abuse, in the hope their violent, unbelieving husbands would become Witnesses. Glancing at my innocent sons, my blood ran cold. I couldn’t raise them to become men who believed this was right.
That was the last meeting I ever attended, my ministry work having already stopped the year before. There were many sleepless nights as I considered the reactions of my family, knowing they could choose to turn their back on me for ever. I knew I was risking a lot, but I had to do this – for my children, if not for myself. Greg supported my decision and now neither of us are active members.
Today, I remain close to my parents, who live just a few doors down, but we don’t talk about religion. My mum still lives within the faith, but we’ve found a way to come together and I’m so thankful for that. Only two of my siblings are still active in the faith.
Jodie aged three: ‘every moment of every day was governed by the faith
I have contact with one but, sadly, one of my sisters has cut me off. I love and miss her, and that’s never going to change. She believes she’s doing the best thing and, although I disagree, I have sympathy for her. Black and white thinking is a requirement in that world.
Now when I bump into a Witness, some will chat to me but most recoil and walk on. When my children point at someone in a photo who no longer speaks to us, and ask, ‘Who’s that?’ I reply, ‘That’s such and such. They only want to know people like them.’ As the children get older, I’ll have to explain more, but for now that’s enough.
I don’t wish I hadn’t been raised a Witness. Like every religion, there is good and bad in it, and I did have happy times among many good people. But it’s a religion that demands all of you, that generally favours obedience over truth, and I struggled with its lack of flexibility. Ironically, being taught I was different gave me the self-belief to take a step back and put myself and my family first.
Now I’m different in another way, and although it has brought sadness and rejection, it’s also brought me a great sense of peace that I am finally living life, and raising my sons, in a way that I choose.
Jodie’s debut novel Another Life is published in hardback by Penguin Michael Joseph, £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74 until 18 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20