Synonymous with sex, queerness and pan-gender expression, Prince defied categorization in his art and public persona. People on the fringe of rigid sexual and gender mores felt at ease knowing that a purple-wearing, heel-stomping, chest hair-sporting, makeup smeared iconoclast was letting it all hang out and causing everyone’s tongues to loll lustily over his erotic-poetic creations. A brilliant guitarist who played his instrument like he was making love to it, his lyrics defied people to put him into any box – gay/straight, woman/man – and even the glyph he adopted as his moniker after a fallout with the Warner Brothers label was a confidently confounding combination of the male and female symbols.
So how did someone so progressive, so radical, so ass-out cool say this:
“God came to Earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.'”
The quote comes from a 2008 interview Prince gave to the New Yorker, and it followed a question about his take on social issues, particularly gay marriage and abortion. The above was his answer, along with a few taps on the bible that squatted next to him.
If you’re wondering what the hell happened, where the disconnect is, look no further than his 2001 conversion to the doorbell-ringing, sexually stifling, socially repugnant and spiritually constrictive Jehovah’s Witnesses cult. After two years of in-depth conversations with songwriter-bassist Larry Graham, also a JW, Prince started attending meetings at his local Kingdom Hall and changed his life. He quit drugs, went vegan, stopped singing his more explicit songs in concerts and even knocked on doors in his free time.
A Jewish couple in Minneapolis was surprised and delighted to find Prince knocking on their backdoor one morning; of course, they invited the sexy singer and his proselytizing partner, Graham, inside. Soon, Prince started talking about the Witnesses, and even when the couple said they weren’t interested because, you know, they were Jewish and all, Graham plowed on, reading verses from the Hebrew bible. Eventually, the music duo left the house and left a copy of their pamphlet behind, which I’m sure went unread for a variety of reasons…one being that it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year. But that doesn’t really make a difference to a sect whose main goal is spreading the good news and gathering souls for Jehovah. (Sidebar: Who would trust a group who mistranslated god’s unutterable Hebrew name? For a deity who has strict guidelines on everything from whom you’re fucking to the fibers of your clothes, you’d think he’d get a little bitchy over poor linguistic scholarship.)
Although Prince disavowed his comments about gay marriage to the L.A. Times, saying they were taken out of context, the New Yorker stuck to its story. After all, it’s hard to argue with an argument where the facts are stated in black and white. God says don’t have sex with people of the same sex. God says don’t dress up in clothes of the opposite gender. End of story. There’s nothing to interpret. The bible, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other sects of Christianity, is an infallible document, a literal interpretation of mythic stories meant to inspire the spiritual imagination instead of shackle it to a ship of fools.
And, oh, what fools they are! No birthdays or holidays. No blood transfusions (because the spirit of the individual is in the blood). Only 144,000 souls will gain paradise – the rest are fucked. Don’t associate with nonbelievers. Don’t read worldly books. Don’t vote. Don’t go to a school dance. You can’t get divorced unless the reason is adultery (even getting the fuck beat out of you by your husband or watching him beat the shit out of your kids isn’t enough – more on that later). Don’t wear pants at the Kingdom Hall if you’re a woman. Never greet or speak to “disfellowshipped” persons (i.e. shun those who’ve left the faith, family included).
In an earlier Scourge post, a commenter took the author to task about his sarcastic words on the Witnesses, asking if he’d ever spent any time with them. I dodged that question, but feel confident in answering it now.
I’m married to one. My husband, Jordan Casale, grew up one of the JWs and didn’t escape their clutches until he was 23. He came out a year later. I spoke to him about his experiences, many of which I didn’t know because, as he says, it took him a long time to even acknowledge what he went through at their hands and how it exacerbated a terrifyingly abusive home life.
“I would never speak about being one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he says. “I would intentionally use phrases like, ‘I grew up in a conservative Christian family.'”
While the family was spiritually Christian, the home was anything but. His father regularly beat his mother and the children, and Jordan suspects he was sexually abused by his father, although the memories are dim (he does recall other family members who sexually abused him). Their house’s walls were filled with holes where his father punched them, and bedroom doors were torn off the hinges so that no one could protect themselves from his father’s rampages. Most stingingly, perhaps, is that the church governors, “the body of elders,” were aware of what was going on in the Casale home.
“The body of elders knew,” he says, “and we had attended multiple congregations over 20 some-odd years as my family moved around, further proving that this is a systemic attitude. My mother would show up with a black eye, my brother had a broken arm – that didn’t register to their humanity. My mother would wear sunglasses indoors and extra makeup. [The elders] saw the abuse of kids, teenagers, young adults, women and did nothing about it.”
Jordan’s mother did go to the elders, always men, after his father had one of his outbursts, and the response invariably was to blame the victim. They’d ask her what she was doing to cause the problem.
“My dad would use the excuse of ‘they provoked me.’ [The elders] would read scripture to him and tell him he shouldn’t hit his wife or beat his kids more than the normal beating. While you weren’t allowed to beat your wife, you were allowed to beat your kids, because there’s a quote in the bible about the rod of discipline will move folly far, far away from your boy.”
Jordan says he wasn’t the only one in his congregation to grow up in these circumstances, something he didn’t discover until after he and his siblings left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or “the truth” as they sickeningly call it.
“We would reconnect with people we went to the Kingdom Hall with and found similar stories of abuse, rape, neglect. My sister’s friend – her father was raping her repeatedly, and the council of elders knew about it. There were other families, other young men in the congregation where their fathers were incredibly abusive both to the mothers and their children. One of them was in his 20s when he committed suicide. I know half a dozen young men who killed themselves before 28 who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and suffered abuse at the hands of their fathers, and the elders knew.”
It’s important to remind Scourge readers that this just wasn’t a singular, fucked-up congregation, but multiple ones. When you have a religion where the power rests with men – women are now allowed to be elders – based on a text of a vengeful father god who physically abuses his human children, you’re asking for trouble.
“There was no one to help,” Jordan says through his tears. “You couldn’t go to your parents, you couldn’t go to your friends, you couldn’t go to your church. They were all complicit in the abuse.”
He says he was often told to “pray about it. God doesn’t test you beyond what you can bear. This was your only hope, to talk to God, to pray. So I prayed constantly to keep my family together, to keep us safe, for food, for all the things kids shouldn’t even have on their radar. They tell you to talk to God because your own humanity, your own kind have no interest in helping you.”
Perhaps this is why Jordan became an exemplary JW. At 13 years-old, he started his “auxiliary pioneer” work, which is where a young person devotes 60 hours each month to what the Witnesses title “service.” While you might be thinking service entails helping the downtrodden, you’re wrong. The only kind of service permitted among the faithful is knocking on people’s doors. You actually aren’t allowed to work at a soup kitchen.
Soon, Jordan graduated to being a full pioneer, which meant 90 hours of monthly service, in addition to finishing his high school education through a special part-time program and working a full time job. (His mother finally left his father when Jordan was 12, and shortly thereafter, Jordan began working as a way to help his mother pay the bills.) At special JW conventions, where thousands of devotees would gather over the course of the weekend, he was often trotted out and lauded as a paragon of virtue. In short, Jordan was one of the best Witnesses around.
“It gives you something to brag about to all the other moms – about how your kid’s a pioneer and how spiritual they are. It’s like being in Kentucky and having one of your kids be in the military.”
Eventually, though, the walls of the kingdom came crashing down.
“I became so terribly depressed,” he says through more tears. “I was considered obese. I’d go to the meetings. I felt like I was crawling the walls – there are never any windows in the Kingdom Hall. My options were to see someone and get on medication or let it go. I wasn’t going to put myself on medication just so I could sit there and listen to them.”
Jordan stopped attending meetings, which does come at a terrible cost to someone whose only friends, only community is in the church. As one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, people are not allowed to associate with “worldly” people (i.e. those not in the faith). Adults can’t fraternize with co-workers after five o’clock. Kids can’t join the football team or the art club or chorus. Members are even encouraged to tattle on each other if they see someone going to a movie with a person not in the faith. You are completely isolated from the rest of humanity, and your own community is a den of vipers willing to sell someone down the river so they can slither into the holy land.
“You walk away from everything,” Jordan says. “When you leave voluntarily or involuntarily, you’re the walking dead. There’s a scripture that’s always quoted in this regard – it is better to have died not knowing God, because you have the hope of a resurrection. Those who have had the faith and leave are in worse condition. You might as well tie a millstone around your neck and jump into the ocean.”
And what did Jordan find after he left the Witnesses?
“The world still spun. You thought for certain that if you left, the world would come off its axis. People were still there. People were still people. I went out to restaurants. There were no longer restrictions. You were free to partake. It was the apple [in Eden]. You tasted it. It’s good, so you keep going. Now you do know what’s good and bad. You can see [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] for who they are. The further you get out of the woods, you can see it wasn’t woods at all – it was all a bunch of burning sticks. You can see it was a chasm.”
So whenever you see someone, famous or not, who is wholeheartedly devoted to their religion, look to what the religion actually professes. Not just the white-light platitudes about loving everyone, but the cruelty, the savagery, the murder, the rape, the enslavement, the selling of our daughters and sons, the slaughter of entire races of people in order to gain a tract of land, the demonization of those who enjoy sex, meat, life and the world, because the dark underbelly of any faith is what actually runs religion. And anyone who takes part in the system is complicit in the atrocities that system creates.
What a tragedy that a cultural revolutionary like Prince – someone who, according to singer Janelle Monáe “stood up for the weirdos” – succumbed to the predations of an institution where abuse, misogyny, homophobia and poverty was the daily bread it stuffed down the throats of its anesthetized flock.
Perhaps in all the mourning and the memories, it would be wise to view Prince’s conversion as a cautionary tale. Absolutely anyone, even the most glorious rebel, can fall victim to the nagging doubts in the night that ask why we’re fighting so hard against so much, why we don’t just give in to what so many people believe about morality and the state of the soul, why we don’t lean into the status quo instead of push against it.
“My father was a pot-smoking hippie. My mother had a fucking Buddha statue,” Jordan says of his parents before their conversions. “They sold themselves down the river at the chance for a white bread Christmas, for lack of a better term. They sold themselves out so they could have a guidebook of black and white.”
Me? I’m gonna stick with purple.
Until next Sunday…the heretic’s day.
In other news of the faithful:
A gay Republican (yeah, the Scourge doesn’t get it, either) challenged presidential candidate Ted Cruz on his positions on LGBT issues during a Good Morning, America segment this week. Surprise, surprise, Cruz stuck to his fundamentalist guns about religious freedom bills and said the Supreme Court, made up of “unelected lawyers,” shouldn’t have made the same-sex marriage call. Hopefully that gay Republican turncoat will stop voting for a party that’s trying to destroy him.
The Mormon governor of Utah, Gary R. Herbert, signed two pieces of legislation likening pornography to a public health crisis. Dollars to dildos, Herbert is milk-shaking it to “Sally Does Salt Lake” after his wife goes to bed. (If he does, he better not vote for Cruz, who argued that masturbation was a criminal offense when he was Texas Solicitor General.)
It’s not over ’til you tap out…or a judge sentences your ass for being a sleazebag. So it goes with former Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, who is awaiting his demise for paying hushup money to a man he molested when said-man was but a boy on Hastert’s wrestling team. The Times did an article this week about how that homoerotic sport propelled the creeper into the halls of Congress.
Finally, guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living foundation decided to send a message to ISIS offering himself as a mediator towards peace. They sent him a picture of a decapitated body in return. Negotiations over.