By Robert Rient, translated from the Polish by Frank Garrett.
Originally appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza: Duży Format [Large Format], September 11, 2014.
He made the decision on the way to school to cut off his penis. Immediately after prayers. The night before, God saw him masturbate. Any enjoyment was quickly snatched away by a sense of guilt that lasted until he begged forgiveness. He avoided that conversation, a conversation with his Father in heaven, though it was only with Him that he could talk about anything. Sometimes he would let himself masturbate for three days, and only then would he kneel by the bed or in the woods under birch trees and beg forgiveness until he felt he had apologized enough. With head bent low, because that’s how you talk to Jehovah. It took a long time. After talking, he felt clean and determined to never again masturbate. The longest he endured was six weeks. “If, then, your hand or your foot is making you stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed or lame than to be thrown with two hands or two feet into the everlasting fire. Also, if your eye is making you stumble, tear it out and throw it away from you”—the words of Jesus as written by the Apostle Matthew. His penis offended him. The decision was made. That evening he locked himself in the bathroom with a knife, holding it at the base of his penis. He lightly dragged the blade; it hurt. A red trickle of blood. He was unable to repeat the movement. That was the beginning of his struggle, but even then he felt that the day would come when he would have to kill Luke Zamilski. He didn’t know, however, that there was going to be a resurrection.
The Truth was brought to them by his great-grandfather returning from Argentina. He had been a missionary and scholar of the Holy Scriptures. In 1931 the currently accepted name “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was adopted. Three years later in Berlin, on October 7, 1934, Adolf Hitler said, “I will eradicate this vermin from Germany.” Purple triangles were reserved for them in the concentration camps. The history of the religious movement began in 1870 in the United States. Currently, the number of followers around the world is eight million, of which approximately 125,000 live in Poland. The biweekly Watchtower is simultaneously published in 212 languages and has an average circulation of 45,944,000 copies, making it the magazine with the highest circulation in the world. Activities of the Witnesses are restricted by law or banned in many Islamic countries (including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Maldives, Syria), communist countries (China, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam), in Buddhist Bhutan, as well as in Singapore.
His father was the only elder in town—a position comparable to a parish priest in the Catholic Church. When he was nineteen, he was summoned to compulsory military service; he refused. A public defense attorney was appointed to him as well as to the nine others in court that day; he refused. He got three years, but left after two and a half. “Thinking about you, that’s one subject that’ll never be exhausted,” he wrote from prison to his future wife, whom he met at the pioneer center before his prison term. Young people packed their backpacks and tents, went to remote villages, and every day they would go from house to house preaching the Good News. Occasionally someone reported them to the police, at times sicced a dog on them. There were arrests. After a brief exchange of views, the majority of people closed their doors with disgust, as it is today. But they fell in love for good. For young Jehovah’s Witnesses pioneer centers are an opportunity to meet a partner. Because of their so-called heresy, marriages to the Worldly or philistines are risky and frowned upon in the congregation. They can pull you away from the Truth or otherwise create disciplinary problems when children are involved.
She was the daughter of the circuit overseer, which is the equivalent of a Catholic bishop. Her brother was also imprisoned for refusing military service. She was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, just like her father and her son Luke. In 1974, Poland announced an amnesty, and the convicted were released from prison. Next year they will celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary.
Luke was born on the first day of the last month of 1980. His older brother wanted him to be a girl, Martha, or at least a dog. They lived in an old house that used to belong to Germans when this was Germany. His mom sewed clothes, his dad painted cars. Besides the family of four, there was a cow, some chickens, a greenhouse with lettuce, tomatoes. In the attic, an illegal religious printing press operated. Few people were privy to this. The printers lived on the top floor and would leave at night. When visitors came over, the printing press had to be shut down and remain still, because the wooden beams betrayed every movement. Sometimes it took a few hours. During unannounced visits, a member of the household pressed a buzzer, which informed those upstairs of a work break. The printed literature found its way to the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where it was studied during weekly meetings. Their religion was called a feline faith. The whole town knew who was walking the streets with a Watchtower in hand. In his congregation there were no more than fifty. They called each other brothers and sisters. In kindergarten he had to write a card for his grandma, but there wasn’t enough time because he counted more than eight of them in the congregation, not to mention the two who had given birth to his parents. The congregation greeted each other by offering their hands; he sometimes liked to arrive right before the meeting started, when he’d have to go up to those fifty hands and shake all of them.
A Burnt House
There was a day when everything burned. And this is his first clear memory. He remembers that they sat him in a chair and covered him with quilts. There had to have been about twenty. And before his eyes, the flames rose higher and higher, engulfing the house. It got hot. Dad was throwing clothes out the living room window; Mama was standing outside. All of a sudden, she began to throw them back because they hadn’t yet been folded, because you don’t throw clothes out the window at night. A few hours earlier he and his brother, laughing out loud, had pressed sauerkraut in a metal washtub with their bare feet. He had barely fallen asleep when the house caught fire. He threw off his blankets and started running. After a few hundred yards, his brother caught up with him, took him to the front of the house, sat him in an armchair, and covered him with quilts. After half an hour the fire department arrived; by then, there wasn’t much left to put out. Afterwards, they drifted from friend to friend. They got housed in an educational center. Some spiritual sister from abroad would send packages with hand-me-downs until his dad built a new house next to where the fire was. Luke locked his most precious possessions in a black briefcase; he kept it under the bed. In case of a fire, he would have something to save besides himself. Unlike before. To this day, he keeps it full.
On May 12, 1989, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland were officially registered; their publishing and related proselytizing became legal. Luke’s parents gave the plot next to their house, where the city’s first Kingdom Hall stood, to the organization. Volunteers came from all over Poland to build it. All the material was purchased with voluntary donations.
In elementary school, he quickly learned that he was different. He neither offered nor accepted candy when someone in class celebrated a birthday. In art class he didn’t draw the Polish flag. In music class he didn’t sing carols. In school assembly he didn’t stand during the national anthem. In language class he refused to learn the ancient Polish hymn “Mother of God.” The only holiday they celebrated was the fourteenth day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar (in late March or early April)—the Memorial of Jesus’s Death. During the hour-long lecture, they were reminded of the events from two thousand years ago, the Last Supper, and the killing of Jesus. Christmas wasn’t even on the radar. Sometimes people came meowing after him. When religion bled over from church to school, he was the only one from the entire class who sat in the front of the room waiting forty-five minutes until it was time to head to history class. When he returned home, he liked to shut himself in his room; he listened to music, danced or looked out the window at the charred remains of the house that burned down, which no one had ever touched in all this time. When he was eleven, he wrote a poem in a notebook with a gray cover and signed it Robert Rientowski. Because Luke was not permitted to write anything. Writing was an occupation for those of the World. Luke’s life was no longer the only one. It was possible to share every rejection with Robert, who spoke out all the more often. This was how a few hundred second-rate poems and short stories were created, and later, several volumes of journals, which he hasn’t yet stopped writing to this day.
Satan Already Knows
When he was fourteen, he decided that he wanted to be baptized. This decision is always voluntary and preceded by meetings with congregation elders who verify the understanding and the motivation of Jehovah’s future servant. The only congregation elders were his father and grandfather. They met every couple of days. He tried to impress them with his knowledge and on occasion wound up feeling tremendous shame. Examinations of faith are difficult. In the end, he was baptized by complete immersion in water at the city stadium in Walbrzych along with several hundred other followers. Congratulations and flowers. From now on, he was responsible for his own salvation. From now on, Satan knew of his existence and would put him to the test. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you. Bear in mind the word I said to you, a slave is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also…”
A Suit and a Bible
In high school it was supposed to be different. He hung out with the loudest guys in class. For a while he fit in. Some vodka in an abandoned car, cigarettes. And then back home. Three meetings a week, along with a suit and a Bible. Feelings of guilt for being accepted, belonging, for sin. And as punishment: loneliness. He wasn’t truthful in either world, yet all he ever really sought had been the truth. He studied a little too well, sometimes doing homework for someone else. He could even copy the handwriting. He felt popular. After his freshman year, he went to the pioneer center for two weeks. In the middle of the woods, tents, outdoor cooking gear, at night a campfire, long conversations. He fell in love with these people; he fell in love with God. He didn’t go back home but instead packed the dirty clothes in his backpack and went to another camp. Every day starting out for field service, that is, preaching work. Evening meals together. Singing. Sleeping in a hay barn with others like him, with whom he shared a common language.
Sixty hours spent walking from house to house. Someone threatened him with a knife. It was a good story to tell about later. In the end, he gained a sense of how it had been for the Apostles. With the same backpack he went to a third camp. He sent his parents a postcard of the mountains from Zakopane. They had three days off, so they hiked the Eagle’s Path and slept in stone huts. He had never been happier. The emptiness disappeared. He asked God for forgiveness for everything, and He forgave him. “My kingdom is no part of this world.”
Armageddon’s coming. There was little time, and you had to warn everyone living in the World, in “Babylon the Great.” Nothing was more important than spreading the Word. Eternal life waited for those chosen by Jehovah. The faithful who had died would be resurrected, and the multitude of the Worldly would be obliterated. They had to be told. “For he will give his own angels a command concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. Upon their hands they will carry you, that you may not strike your foot against any stone. Upon the young lion and the cobra you will tread; you will trample down the maned young lion and the big snake. Because on me he has set his affection, I shall also provide him with escape.” The present wasn’t important; life in the organization meant life for the future, for life everlasting. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not serve in the military, do not participate in elections, do not hold important public posts, shun any commitment that would distract them from the Truth, regardless of whether it’s sports, culture, or business. What’s more, involvement in the life of the congregation deprived one of any free time. Three meetings, and out to do fieldwork, sowing the seeds of the Word. “Moreover, just as it occurred in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of man: they were eating, they were drinking, men were marrying, women were being given in marriage, until that day when Noah entered into the ark, and the flood arrived and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it occurred in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building. But on the day that Lot came out of Sodom it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed them all. The same way it will be on that day when the Son of man is to be revealed… Whoever seeks to keep his soul safe for himself will lose it, but whoever loses it will preserve it alive. I tell you, in that night two will be in one bed; the one will be taken along, but the other will be abandoned.” In high school—as recommended—his social life ended with the last bell. He was looking for the happiness that he had found high up in the mountains surrounded by others like him. But the World was getting in his way. He understood that he couldn’t fit in, but he wanted to fit in. And he understood that their rejection was proof, but he was ashamed when they pointed at him. When everyone in class bragged about the presents they received, he lied and said that he got presents throughout the year. For just once he wanted to be able to feel how it would feel to celebrate a birthday.
A Regular Pioneer
He preached more and more, and he finally became an auxiliary pioneer by devoting sixty hours every month to walking from house to house. After a few months he became the first regular pioneer in his congregation, at which point he had to devote up to ninety hours every month to teaching the Word. The cities’ streets, their block apartment buildings with their cage-like entrances and houses are carefully divided among the evangelists. Each person is responsible for his or her own share, taking notes about each visit on a sketched-out map of the area. Should someone accept a magazine, return visits to the home must be made; when a home is closed up, you should show up again; if someone isn’t interested, you should encourage further conversation; and if that doesn’t work, visit again after a long time. Jehovah’s Witnesses learn how to do all this during their weekly Theocratic Ministry School. During that time skits take place when someone pretends to be a disinterested Catholic or Buddhist. A second person playing the Jehovah’s Witness has to persuade him to talk. The aim is to start a Bible study. Such a course lasts at least half a year and sometimes ends with the baptism of the interested. The easiest to attract are the lonely, the sick, and those devoid of hope—in the organization they receive a new family and new dreams, including that of eternal life. A well functioning self-help system in which they can count on “brothers” and “sisters” sometimes attracts those pretending to be interested in the religion. Some believe that followers receive dollars from America. No such thing ever happens, but one can always get a warm meal, help weeding the garden or mending a fence, especially when you’re a recluse or elderly. In November 2013 when a typhoon in the Philippines destroyed many followers’ houses, fundraisers were organized, temporary accommodations, and groups of young people from all over the world helped to repair and rebuild the damaged properties. This kind of support is the norm for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He preached more and more. At the beginning of his junior year he transferred to a new high school where he could study advanced economics. He had assemblies on the weekend every two weeks. The teacher asked how many F’s he had at the end of the previous school year. None. D’s? None. Everyone looked at him. C’s? None. Why is that? Once again he didn’t fit in, but now he knew that it was further proof of a life in the Truth. He would have two months to earn course credit in Russian and typing for the previous two years. He caught up with the material and gained some time that he allotted to preaching. He decided to limit watching TV, and in the end he gave it up altogether. If in the upcoming year he devotes a thousand hours to his religious studies, he will be invited to the pioneer school and receive a handbook that he won’t be able to share with ordinary preachers or his own family. He managed to do it. A little more than ten people from the entire region attended lectures and discussion every day. In the evenings he recorded letters to himself on a tape recorder, in which he would ask himself to always remember God, to sin no more, and to never again masturbate. He returned home and began to also teach his close friends, his parents, brother, cousins. None of them had ever participated in a pioneer school. He judged their efforts as lacking; he didn’t understand how they could watch television when Armageddon could come at any minute. He felt superior. “He that has greater affection for father or mother than for me is not worthy of me; and he that has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me.” More and more often he was standing behind a lectern at the weekly meetings; he was invited to the nationwide assembly where he would tell about his experiences.
From time to time an ad appeared in the newspaper: “I hire Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It was common knowledge that they don’t steal, they don’t cheat, and they have respect for life. Though some considered that an exaggeration. Life was sacred, and blood was sacred; transfusions were not allowed. He carried with pride in his wallet a “No Blood” card that declared that he refuses accepting blood even in a life-threatening situation. He saw the future before him. Becoming a ministerial servant, then an elder like his dad, then a circuit overseer or missionary and leaving to preach overseas, in the East. He had the good fortune to be a man: he could lead meetings, assemblies, lectures; he could lead prayers. He could advance. As the neck supports the head, so too does a woman support a man; she could preach, she had other “privileges” besides, like weekly arranging for the cleaning duties of the Kingdom Hall. “Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.”
Yet the more he committed and the closer he got to God, the less there was of Luke. Moments of happiness in the community of believers were interspersed with periods of loneliness. And at that time a yearning for a life without fear made itself felt. A longing for something carefree, ordinary and very now, without expectation. Without shame. Armageddon wasn’t coming. God didn’t strike dead all those who mocked him, those who slammed the door in his face. There was this time he was preaching in one of the city’s block apartments; he read the name of his Polish teacher on the door. He rang, though he would’ve rather run away. For an instant he wanted to pray that she wouldn’t answer. Someone looked through the peephole; it had to be her; she lived alone. When she didn’t open the door, he left gratefully. He felt ashamed walking the city where he grew up. A suit, tie, a bag heavy with Bible, magazines and books, his notes about the houses he visited. He avoided the eyes of his former friends from elementary school. The shame subsided only when he closed himself in his room and Robert would begin to write.
Photograph by Magda Kuc
He spent time at the next pioneer center with a group of similarly inspired kids. They bought beer in the evening, when everyone else had gone to bed; they talked for a long time. They loved God—it was obvious and already proven—so they could talk about how great the dread is when you’re living in the World. And loneliness. Each of them thought with hope about death. In the kitchen, with a knife, he sliced his skin. Later he repeated this procedure a few times. He stifled a scream from his insides. Just his skin hurt—it hurt inaudibly—but it took away the loneliness. When it would no longer cut through skin, he took to using it as a butter knife. If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, it was recommended that you shouldn’t go to a psychologist. Since someone of the World wouldn’t understand his problems and would only try to pull him away from the Truth.
When he graduated, there were two paths before him: to stay with his congregation and study Polish, or to move almost two hundred miles away to Poznan, to his dream of studying education. He left even though they had warned him that it was a trick by Satan, that his studies would steal away precious time. He was afraid to admit it, but he knew that they were right. He knew also that he had to get away from what was familiar if he was ever going to be free. He dreamed of freedom even if the punishment for it was death at Armageddon. More and more he liked the residual effects of his decision. He liked the flavors, the dancing, the trips. He liked how they praised and appreciated him, how someone would gaze at him. Away from the hope for eternal life, away from all those colorful pictures from the Watchtowers, he liked more and more what was happening now. He lived with distant family members but soon moved to student housing. He was assigned to preach at the train station in the evening with other Witnesses because in Poznan almost all the streets were already allocated. Those who wanted could evangelize anywhere there were people; this was called “unofficial service.” He confided in a friend from class; the news quickly spread that Luke was going to the station with Watchtowers. He decided that it was the last time. Someplace beneath the skin where he had sliced, he knew that the Truth had to connect to happiness, that waiting itself isn’t happiness. Even if you’re waiting for Paradise. He went to meetings less often. The elders of the congregation came to him; they warned that he was straying down the path of demons and Satan. They prayed for him; they prayed with him. He was left with a faith that was dying. To stop waiting when he had waited his whole life was like jumping from a speeding train.
Freedom came, but with it, fear. Those who leave the Truth are worse than those of the World. He knew that his family would turn their back on him, that his “brothers” and “sisters” wouldn’t say “hello” to him if they met him on the street. The disfellowshipped have such a status from the organization. Their religion provided security and boundaries. He knew how to dress himself and what the purpose of life consisted of; he knew which words you shouldn’t use and what happens after death. Every month, he would lose another conviction, another person. He lost his foundation. He felt it physically in his body as if he had been hurled again and again from his bed, only there was no floor; it left him sinking and sinking. The demons didn’t come, but maybe that’s exactly what they were.
He had a double major, and even for a while, a triple. He worked, he tried drugs, got to know more and more people, built friendships. But the entire time he kept waiting for something to fill the void. He went to his classes, did his training. He began therapy. At that time, he met with his spiritual “brother,” a high-ranking supervisor of the organization’s development in Poland. They went for a walk. At one point his “brother” picked up a big rock and showed Luke how the worms fled from the sunlight. “These are the people that surround you,” his “brother” told him. “The people of the World.” He felt disgusted and angry because over the last few years he had found people of the World he could count on. Now he thinks that friendship is maybe the only thing in life that has worked out for him. Fear took the place of shame; it was next to him the whole time. The framework of his convictions, his thoughts, habits, the words he used to describe the world had been breaking apart for years. He was constantly waiting for punishment. And if it didn’t arrive soon, he would begin meting it out himself. It was enough for him to confess his love to make him turn on his heels and flee, although he wanted love as much as he had once wanted the Truth, all the while knowing that he didn’t deserve it. One morning he decided to kill himself. Once the thought had became clear, the emptiness disappeared. Once again he knew his purpose and meaning. And that was a good feeling; it covered up everything.
It was a Sunday and all the pharmacies near his apartment were closed. At a gas station he bought several packets of aspirin; he had sleeping pills at home. He wrote three letters, because even then he didn’t know that suicides don’t write such long letters. He swallowed the tablets and washed them down with alcohol. He lived alone in the attic. He left the door open because he wanted someone to find him before there would be nobody left to be found. And his cousin did come. Later he organized his first birthday party. It lasted three days.
In the end, he found the courage to leave the organization. He wrote a letter. “My decision to leave this religion, which I consider false, believing in God all the time, is a deliberate choice. I’m including some of the reasons that have led me to make this decision—they are, in my opinion and according to my understanding, fruits that bear witness of the whole tree: using human interpretation as if it were commandments from God Himself; discrimination of women; tolerance of violence against children (despite recent interpretations of the words “rod of discipline,” leniency toward hitting children in Kingdom Halls as well as at assemblies persists); valuing hierarchy and power above love and charity.” His two-page letter ended with these words, “Please read aloud the contents of this letter and the news of my disassociation from the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses during announcements (I remain aware, however, that my request may be denied, since encouraging followers to think for themselves threatens to topple the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses).” From that time he officially ceased to be a Jehovah’s Witness. He was a nobody. And that hurt like the loss of his legs. Phantom pains lasted for years. At the funeral of his beloved grandmother he and a group of cousins who had left their religion stood on one side; on the other side, those who he had spent a lot of years with, on trips, at meetings. Those he used to be close to. After the ceremony he approached his favorite cousin with his hand extended. She just looked at him. She didn’t offer her hand. All she said was, “You know the rules.” He tried his aunt next; he had been close to her not so very long ago. She turned on her heels. He did succeed with his parents in spite of what the organization taught. Their sons were always the most important things to them, and only after them, God. Even during the time when Luke had put God above them and everything else. They never repaid him in kind.
First Person Singular
He threw himself into psychology, he completed his own therapy in a range of schools; he got the highest endorsement from the Polish Psychological Association. Over the years, he became a follower of a new religion called “I-message.” He changed the narrative with which he described and understood the world, though the mechanism remained the same. He required from his close friends and family conversations about their feelings, expressing himself solely in the first person singular. He expected their understanding and to not be the only one giving it. Once again he knew how to live, how to talk, what to do to be happy. That’s one of the reasons for the breakup of his six-year relationship, for the collapse of his first independently built home. With time psychology changed from a new religion into a practical and non-invasive tool for coping with his problems, for understanding the world of fragments. Later the time came to check out other religions. He went to church for a while, then to a Buddhist community; he became interested in Judaism. Different scenery with the same instruments of coercion, the same lack of truth with an absolute belief in the monopoly of that truth. The same madness of its followers.
More than two years ago I set up a new e-mail account. First name: Robert; last name: Rient. I asked my coworkers, friends, and family to call me Robert; my family and friends are still getting used to it. They ask why. Because Luke died, I answer. I started to write and to conduct interviews with people I admired. I looked for the truth in the stories of Nosowska, Mysliwski, Tochman, Fangor, Glinska, Raczek, Konopka, Rojek, Lipnicka—singers, writers, journalists, directors, painters, people who had achieved success, sold millions of records, or had been nominated for an Oscar. I titled my first novel It Was About Love. I know well this place within me, hungry and restless. I just moved for the twenty-first time. All the time I have inside myself the features of a fanatic who hurls himself into an unknown world. Sometimes it ravages him and casts him aside; sometimes it’s only a sightseeing trip. But if there’s a kernel of truth, I have to completely dive in. My close friends and family call me radical, extreme. Now I like it, this reliable form of blind honesty, though sometimes it turns out that it’s only blindness. I no longer believe; I no longer believe in anything. Because I can’t. And less and less I want to believe. I think so, for the moment. Because there’s no truth. Or it’s that I still don’t know how to stop looking.
“No Blood” is taken from Rient’s book Witness, which appeared in May 2015. The translator would like to acknowledge the valuable help provided by Scott Cheshire (author of High as the Horses’ Bridles), Jola Zandecki, and Marek Miller.
Photograph by Joanna Woźniak
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Rient is a journalist and a psychologist recommended by the Polish Psychological Association. His work has appeared in Polish publications such as Charaktery [Characters], Co
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Frank Garrett holds a PhD in philosophy and literary theory. He trained as a translator at the Center for Translation Studies (University of Texas at Dallas) and at Philipps-Universität Marburg after earning advanced certification in Polish philology from the Catholic University of Lublin. 3:AM Magazine has previously published his critical reportage Augury of Ashes and Projections on a Wall. Outpost19 will publish his translation of Robert Rient’s Witness in late 2016.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 1st, 2016.