An Alignment

Darkness falls. Only the aura of plasma around the sun is visible. The birds stop singing. It lasts for two minutes and twenty-three seconds.

Behind big enough things, you can hide whole people

Image via Library of Congress.

In 1982, a woman, the one giving birth to me, is contending with what becoming a mother would mean: a child, always standing in front of you. It is hard to keep hold of a vision for your life, as well as theirs. By the end of the year, she will be a single parent; my dad won’t disappear entirely, but committing to a family fully is too much. The two of us live for a brief time in a house for mothers and children, and then we get housing in London that she can afford on her salary as a waitress. It takes some time to adjust to immensity—seeing the scale of the universe in relation to ourselves, or the enormous impact of the decisions we make.

Three years later, in 1985, two Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on our door. Let anyone thirsting drink, they say, for the water of life is free. After some months of Bible study, of being embraced by the community, Mum is baptized. And so it is that we begin living faithful lives, waiting for Jehovah to bring Armageddon so he can restore paradise on Earth. Six years later, in 1991, Mum marries a Brother in the congregation. He tells me that I have a lot to learn.

In 1999, I turn 17 and think I have gained maturity and nous. I am friends with D, a Sister in the congregation, who is 27. Our kind of relationship is encouraged by the Elders. Acting as a role model is a Biblical didactic tool. The Greek word in Corinthians is mimesis, which describes the molding and shaping of someone that can be done when you set a proper example for them; in modern times, mimesis describes the psychological process of copying someone else’s desire. In the case of our relationship, it is especially timely because mum’s faith has been waning, and so another woman needs to step in.

One way that people at my high school are growing up is by having sex. I’m not. We don’t believe in that before marriage. Nothing beyond kissing, and then only with someone you have serious intentions for. I admit to D that I feel weird about Worldly people my age doing all that stuff when I can’t. I’m careful to explain it’s not that I ever would; it’s just that I feel conscious of it, and intrigued. D says, When the time comes, remember that it’s meant to be fun, no big deal. Later she casually mentions a book she has, Women on Top, about women’s fantasies and self-pleasure, which is another thing we can’t do outside of marriage. D subscribes to expensive Worldly magazines and wears cool ensembles to walk around galleries in. She is cool, I think. Not traditional at all.

By now my stepdad has become preoccupied with what he perceives to be my bad behavior, with ideas of sexual threat—from others, but also from me, from within me. I don’t know where his sense of my sinfulness comes from; I know it to have no real source in anything I’m doing or have done.

The fact is, over the last fourteen years, I have taken to heart many of the congregation’s ideas of morality. I’ve explored much less than my peers, seen and heard very little for myself. I did kiss someone that time I was allowed to go to a party with Worldly friends from school, after we’d finished our exams. That was a sin, a weakness of the flesh. Still, it was only once.

But my stepdad is convinced otherwise. He says that if I’m going to share my vagina all around town, I can no longer live under his roof. He actually uses the phrase “your vagina,” ­like it’s his, like he has the authority to speak of it. He makes me listen as he evokes an image, tells a story of it that isn’t true. I understand that it is likely I will be asked to move out.

I tell all of this to D, who suggests I come and live with her and her husband, M. I like him almost as much as I like her. I remark to her that I love it when friends become like brothers, totally comfortable and affectionate. We are talking about proper Christian conduct between males and females, and she tells me I wouldn’t be inappropriate, it’s not in my nature. M, who is 31, grooms his facial hair in fashionable ways and wears vintage suits. He’s not like your average Brother in the congregation. But they are considered a fine couple; they both preach full-time.

Let’s go on holiday together as a test run, she suggests. She and M are already planning a camping trip in France for three weeks in summer, so I can come with them. They have planned their travel to coincide with the total solar eclipse that will occur on 11 August; such an event only happens when the Sun, Moon, and Earth are aligned, which is very rare, requiring special conditions. I can sleep in their tent, she says, and they’ll sleep in their camper van, which they have fitted with seats that fold out into a bed spanning its width. I think they are very cool.

The Bible says that when Jehovah’s fear-inspiring Judgment Day comes, the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Many Worldly people wonder whether 1999 will be our last year, because a false prophet long ago said the year 2000 would be the end of everything, and because no one is sure what will happen in Y2K with all the coding that governs our lives.

D says that I should tell her and M about my problems with my stepdad rather than tell my school friends. I reply that I hadn’t wanted to bring my sadness into their happy relationship, to discourage or upset them. Afterward I write in the diary I have kept every day for years: “We’re all such good friends and I can’t wait for France.”

In the weeks before we leave, I take my end-of-year exams. Although I’ve always been able to maintain good grades, I now feel unable to write or to think. My tutor asks me if I’m all right, and I try to explain. She encourages me to talk to someone. She puts me in touch with a counselor, arranges for six sessions. But I don’t call the number. It doesn’t matter much what grades I get: I won’t be going to university. Secular education is of limited value and takes time away from life-saving ministry work. It also puts a person in an environment of immorality and peer pressure. An entry in my diary says, “I feel like I’m not in control of my destiny, whatever that means. I don’t have a chance to think. It’s not going to be as good as I thought (my life).”

High school breaks for the summer. D explains that they don’t actually have a tent, they have an awning, which they’ll attach to the side of the van. The day before I leave for France, in late July, my stepdad says my time away will give us both a chance to think about whether I should move out. I tell him I want to live elsewhere, but I’m not sure that I do. It’s too much responsibility. My Saturday job doesn’t pay enough to cover all my expenses, even if D and M were to take me in. I think to myself that this would be easier if I was attractive, more people would want to help me out then.

When we arrive at the first campsite, D and M explain that they didn’t bring the awning but not to worry, the bed is big enough for three. In my diary I write about the walk we take on the grounds of a nearby chateau, which is in bloom with a kind of daisy that grows taller than me. It is peaceful and beautiful, I write. The only sounds are of insects and gentle running water. The canopy of an enormous tree provides shade, its dark green leaves suffused with purple. Later I learn that the flowers are called Aster laevis or Calliope, named after the wisest and most assertive of all the muses. This is the first of only three diary entries I will make on the trip.

During an eclipse, there are three shadows. The penumbra and the antumbra are half-shadows, where the light is partially blocked. The umbra is a full shadow. If you stand within it, you can’t see the light source at all.

That first night, I go to the shower block to change into my pajamas, and then I get into bed. Later, when D and M get into bed beside me, I see that they sleep naked. I feel stupid, naive. I think it must be considered immature to wear pajamas. The following night, I correct my mistake.

The first phase of an eclipse is called first contact. It’s when the moon’s limb, its edge, is tangential to the sun’s limb. The shadows on the ground grow longer and the temperature begins to drop, as day turns to night.

The day after, M sunbathes naked too. He and D lie together on a blanket outside the van while I read a book inside. At one point I look up and see she is absentmindedly playing with his soft penis while flipping through a magazine.

In the next phase, second contact, sunlight breaks across the moon’s uneven surface to create an effect called Baily’s beads. The moon isn’t a smooth sphere, as it might seem from here, but is marked with high places and depressions. When only one bead of light is left, the effect is called the diamond ring, the last bright flash of sun before darkness falls.

That night, once we’ve gone to bed and our surroundings have grown quiet and still, M reaches across D, and, with his hands and mouth, touches me all over my body, everywhere except my face. I panic; I assume that he’s mistaken me for D. But when he does it again the next night, I grow afraid. I understand that he means to do this to me, not to her. I don’t say anything. I don’t move or open my eyes. D, as with the previous night, appears to be sleeping. It will continue to happen like this every night, until the penultimate one, when something else changes.

These nights are ringed by a silence that defends the day. No one speaks across it.

On the day of the eclipse, day nineteen of our trip, we drive to a viewpoint marked on the map, a limb of Breton land stretched out over a wide expanse of field below. A sea of people are already there waiting and watching the sky. The scene reminds me of the cover of one of the pamphlets we hand out on the ministry. It depicts a future time after Armageddon gives way to the New World and only those who have taken the narrow road have been saved. Across Europe and Asia, 350 million people will witness this eclipse.

The sky is overcast in Brittany, so I can’t see phases one and two as they happen. But the clouds finally clear minutes before the third phase, totality. Totality occurs only in a narrow track on the surface of the earth. The path is typically ten thousand miles long but only one hundred miles wide. It’s the only phase in which you can look directly at the sun without causing lasting damage to your eyesight.

Darkness falls. Only the aura of plasma around the sun is visible. The birds stop singing. It lasts for two minutes and twenty-three seconds.

Hours later, when true night comes and M begins again, I sit up and look directly at him. Without intention, without awareness, I kiss him. For the past few years, I have loved this man as a brother, thought he loved me the same way. Now I am starting to like some of what my body is feeling.

My second diary entry from the trip consists of a few words about the gouffre de Plougrescant. The gouffre, French for abyss, is a natural phenomenon where water and wind combine to howl through gaps in the rocks. I write that the landscape looks dormant, like God hasn’t come there yet; that although the sea can be perilous, it is strangely still. The weather is warm but there is a very fine rain. The sky is absent, an empty pale blue. The air smells of rot. Erosion has shaped the shoreline into pebble spits and piles of boulders known as a “chaos.” Nearby there is a crooked chapel painted all over with charming, cartoonish Bible stories named after the child of a saint who migrated from Britain to Brittany and was venerated as a model of Dark Ages motherhood. The only other diary entry after this one isn’t even in words, it’s just a sketch, half-drawn, of a plant.

After we kiss, I touch him back. As I do this, I am able to look at the situation differently. I have put something else in front of what was there. No longer am I being wronged; now I am a wrongdoer. This is a position I am more comfortable occupying.

On the ferry home, twenty-one days after our arrival in France, M and I stand on the deck, in the wind, while D takes a nap inside. I want to make sure he thinks, as I do, that we should stop here, go back to how it was before. He agrees. I will want to do things I hadn’t thought of before we came away, I tell him, but I will force myself not to think about it. He explains that he and D almost never have sex. Sometime between their engagement and their wedding, she realized that even though she loves him, she’s not attracted to him. He says he feels that his heart is dead. He says he worries I will hate him. I promise him I won’t. I tell him that our age difference has made me feel more confident. I tell him I will be all right. He says, I love you—but then, I can’t love you that much or I wouldn’t have done to you the things I’ve done. I say, I don’t know about that, and he says, No, I don’t either. I hold him and look away, because I understand he is crying.

Back home I resume writing in my diary every day. But the tone of the entries has changed. I sound more adult now. I state the obvious: that I won’t be able to move in with M and D. I wonder if there is anywhere else I can go. I describe my feelings for M. I miss him, I want to be with him. I self-flagellate: I am selfish, undisciplined, and immature; my actions inexcusable. If I could go back to the beginning, I would prevent it from happening. I’ve ruined everything.

I notice that D is not present at the Kingdom Hall for the first meeting after our trip. M gives me a lift home afterward. D is pregnant, he tells me. He says he has to sort himself out for the sake of the child. He says he feels bad for me, that I must feel abandoned. I explain that I haven’t been managing as well as I expected. He says he would be devastated if I ever left the faith.

The next day, D stops by to tell me about the pregnancy. I act surprised, happy. While I was away, my stepdad came up with the idea of moving to the Bahamas with my mum and brother. He thinks he can get a job there. I wonder if maybe I can go with them.

Later M calls the house phone and asks for me. Some years ago, he explains, in a previous congregation, he’d had an affair with another Sister. They’d kept it a secret but now she’s having a crisis of confidence and is going to the Elders to confess. He has to tell D tonight, he says, before it comes out. What happened between me and him might come out too. Perhaps it needs to, perhaps that’s why Jehovah moved that other Sister to confess now.

I pray for them to get through it. I whisper Psalm 26:1 out loud, over and over. Test me, o Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; Do not take away my soul along with sinners, my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands are wicked schemes.

When I finally get into bed, I leave my clothes on and try to stay awake, in case something happens, something I can’t prevent if I fall asleep. I repeat, Redeem me and be merciful to me. When M calls the next morning, he tells me that he has confessed everything, and that D has forgiven him. D has promised to forgive me too. He says he told her I was the victim and that she mustn’t be hard on me.

It has now been seven days since we returned from France.

A Judicial Committee is made up of three Elders. In a few days’ time, M and I, the two sinners, are to testify separately before them. The hearing will take place in M and D’s home, though D is exempt from the process and will spend the evening with her parents. After some deliberation, the Elders will decide on a course of action.

For the majority of an eclipse, the more than five hours that aren’t totality, it’s not safe to view it directly. You need glasses with a special filter. Or, you can use a pinhole camera, and just look at the projection. But care must be taken not to look directly though the pinhole.

I take part in a preliminary hearing with one of the Elders at his home, in the garden. He asks me a series of questions, some of them very intimate. He listens, then tells me that although I didn’t initiate the relationship, that although I was in some ways a victim, I was wrong not to have stopped it. He suggests I write D a letter apologizing, repenting. I have no idea where to start.

Before I am able to write it, D asks me to come round. Too nervous to go in, I stand outside her house for ages. Eventually she sees me from the window and comes out. She tells me she wants it to go back to how it was, that she forgives us, that it was just a mistake. In my diary, I write that she is amazing, perfect.

M calls and tells me that at his preliminary hearing, an Elder used the word abuse to describe his actions. “Poor thing,” I write in my diary.

When I tell my stepdad what I did, I use the Greek word for fornication, porneia, as is common among Jehovah’s Witnesses. He seems shocked but not angry. He says, I’m grateful you told me. I say, I wanted to because you’re my spiritual head.

On the night of the hearing, I wait for two hours in another room while the Elders speak with M. They spend only forty-five minutes with me. They listen as I go over the details, answer all of their questions. They speak kindly and say that I have been an asset to the congregation. They use the word adultery to describe what’s happened. They explain that it’s a farming term: when a little bit of poison gets into the milk, it spoils the whole pail. D and M’s marriage is the milk, they say, and I have been the poison. But my punishment is lenient. For one month I must not speak during the congregation’s meetings.

I write the letter of apology to D, and another to her parents, who know all about it because D’s father is an Elder, as well as one to my own parents. I tell all of them I am grateful for this community and its love. To myself, I write that I am sorry for hurting everyone, including the Elders, that I can hardly bear to be anyone’s friend.

My stepdad says I shouldn’t tell anyone else what happened. If you tell your Worldly friends, he says, it will bring shame on Jehovah.

For a while I grow more religious. I worry that my mum and stepdad are going to make me pay for what I’ve done, but I’m unsure how or when. In my diary I write that I feel like someone else, never imagined I could be in this position.

My stepdad reminds me that the congregation has shown me mercy. I desperately want to prove myself worthy and work hard to be faithful, but I feel very tired, and sometimes worry that it will be too hard for me to live a righteous life. But then I walk outside and see a sunset. The tops of the clouds are blue, the undersides bright orange. I think of Jehovah’s hand in everything beautiful.

Months after the trip, I work out what it is I should have done. I should have been kind but assertive: kissed M’s hand, put it back, and spoken to him nicely about it the next day. When Joseph faced advances from Potiphar’s wife, he knew to refuse. I ask myself why I didn’t do the right thing, too.

I see D and M almost every day, if not at the Kingdom Hall, then at one of our houses. M sometimes comes round alone to play chess with my stepdad. They tell me that when the baby arrives, I will be the chief babysitter. We are trying to resume a sense of normalcy, since that is what D wants, and no one else around us seems to object. But when D and M propose moving into a pretty cottage directly across from our house, my stepdad tells them not to. I am relieved; I continue to have a close friendship with D, and M still meets me alone to update me on his feelings, but the idea of living opposite them feels like too much.

I work out that if I were to pursue another kind of life, if I were to go after what I think I desire, I’d find out it’s all worthless. But if I always do things for other people, do what others want me to do, I won’t be a waste.

In winter, M tells me that my stepdad has advised him not to contact me anymore. My stepdad had arrived at this conclusion after reading my diary. I thought you’d want to know that he looks at it, M says. That night, I dream my stepdad is outside with a mob of people screaming for my blood.

I do some calculations, try to make the money from a part-time job match the money needed to rent a flat, but it doesn’t go very well. My stepdad says that when we are comfortable and have lots of things, we can’t be truly inspired by the Truth. That’s a real spiritual journey, I think—transcending material things.

The Elder from my preliminary hearing tells me that the two have come out from under the shadow and into the sun. D is out on the ministry making new friends and writing about culture on the blog she keeps. M is slowly returning to witnessing too. He is healing, he and D are now a happy couple. In my diary, I write, I’ve got so little in me and I’m no use to anyone.

Their baby is born in March.

As the summer holidays approach once more, nearly a year after the eclipse, I make plans to go and stay with my dad’s side of the family. The Elders don’t approve. They warn of the risks of associating with Worldly people at this impressionable stage of life. I go anyway, for the whole summer.

When I return, I get a part-time job and begin working toward a full-time preaching schedule, but within a year, I leave home for good. I find a last-minute place at a university in another city, and in three weeks, I’m gone. I drift away from Jehovah and begin to wander out in the World. I live in many different houses, find new things to hope for. Every body is dirty and divine.

In 2003, two years after leaving home, I read about sexual assault in a book, what it is, how frequently it happens. The moon, as it moves through space, always casts an umbra. This means that somewhere out there, a total solar eclipse is happening right now.

Often a Jehovah’s Witness who commits sexual assault won’t be punished by the Elders. Judicial policies state, as per Biblical guidelines, that absent a confession the testimonies of two material witnesses are required to establish the incidence of any sin—even though for certain kinds of sin it’s rare for there to be any witness but the accuser. But Jehovah’s Witnesses deem the custom a necessary precaution against false accusations.

In Britain we say nous to mean common sense. But nous is a Greek term from classical philosophy that refers to the faculty of mind necessary for understanding what is true or real. For Aristotle, this source of knowledge was distinct from mere sensory perception, from thinking influenced by the body, which includes imagination and memory—distinct because the animals have sense perception too. Now though, much mainstream thinking doesn’t tend to take this dualist view. Worldly knowledge does indeed keep changing. As Ecclesiastes says, To the making of many books there is no end. In the Bible, nous is used interchangeably to mean both the mind and God’s will. In Ephesians, non-Christians are said to have a worthless nous, to walk in the futility of their thoughts.

In 2009, I pass through the age of 27, and then in 2013, 31—the ages they were when they took me with them on their trip. During an eclipse, scientists are able to observe violent magnetic storms in the outer atmosphere of the sun. The planetary alignment makes it possible to see more clearly what is happening.

That day on the ferry, M said that D had once told him that, when D was a child, her mother had talked to her too much about her problems and that now, because of this, D doesn’t like sex. The mechanics inside this idea are partially obscured for me, and I did not receive a firsthand account, but something from the past seems to have been working on the present then. Her mother spoke too much. As an adult, D decides for herself what she has to hear, when she herself will speak. I remember that, after it all came out, D’s mother found me alone in the cloakroom at the Kingdom Hall, embraced me, and said, I know how hard it can be when you’re not happy at home.

I wonder if D wasn’t made to account for herself because we don’t have a word for what she was doing. I recognize now that she should have had to, though I still don’t have a word for it. I know that if it were me, I would see what was happening, what I was doing. But I cannot know what was in her mind, what is in another’s experience. There are too many other possible phenomena at play.

And that third adult, the Elder with the overreaching questions that still ripple imperceptibly across today—what is the name for what he did?

I may not have words for their actions but I can still feel angry—that they made projections onto me, and asked questions to satisfy themselves, as if I had no sovereignty over my body; that she was able to frame herself as without responsibility; that in so many situations I still find it difficult not to hold myself accountable—feel guilty—even when I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. That my experience is by no means singular.

A planetary conjunction is not an alignment of celestial bodies along an objective line but rather an apparent phenomenon, determined by the observer’s perspective. It’s how the planets line up from a particular vantage point, under a favorable set of conditions. Behind big enough things, you can hide whole people, hide them from themselves even. Sometimes all that is perceptible is an aura of shame.

I see now that people took without asking, which led me to conclude that to make my life deserving, I had to keep giving to others whatever it was they needed. In love, it has taken me a long time to gravitate to someone who doesn’t overshadow me. I wasn’t noticing the visible reflection all those times I set myself back just as I was about to go somewhere new. During an eclipse, light filters through the tiny gaps between overlapping leaves on trees, and these create natural pinholes, which in turn create mini–eclipse replicas all over the ground.

As of this summer, I have now lived outside the community longer than I lived inside it. I try to find the right amount of space between myself and each of my three parents; these distances are not fixed. I have made new friends whose orbits will now always run along beside mine; we see each other in every phase and carry parts of one another from long ago.

Living without community doesn’t always make sense, but then, in high-pressure groups, it’s not just the Elders who maintain the equilibrium—everyone is exerting constant, silent control upon everyone else. And as for faith? God may well still be somewhere, even if I can’t see Him from where I am. It may be that He’s behind something else, that there’s a body between me and him. A human body. The Governing Body, which is Jehovah’s Earthly “channel for new spiritual light.” My own body.

In the minute just before, and then just after, totality comes the appearance of shadow bands. These are ripples seen moving over the ground or on the sides of buildings, somewhat like the wrinkles of sunshine you get at the bottom of a swimming pool. The bands are faint and jumbled to begin with, but then become more organized and visible; as totality ends, the pattern reverses. In any given eclipse, what you see of these will depend on where you happen to be. Some say the phenomenon looks like flames, others, like prison bars. It is easiest to see on fresh snow and always almost impossible to capture on film. Children sometimes try to run after them and hold them in their hands. Shadow bands are caused by Earth’s atmospheric turbulence refracting the solar crescent when it has narrowed to just a filament of light. This would be the same reason stars appear to twinkle—they are far enough away from us—and why the sun and moon never do. But this is only the most probable explanation. We don’t know for sure what causes the phenomenon.

Out in the World, people continue to gather, under words and bodies, as a way to be connected, a way to be divided. There are so many different viewpoints and visions. They so rarely align.

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