The Last Days by Ali Millar review – a rebellious Jehovah’s Witness memoir | Autobiography and memoir

Most people know that Jehovah’s Witnesses are forced to spend their free time handing out a magazine called the Watchtower, that they don’t celebrate Christmas and they believe the apocalypse to be imminent, even if the precise date of the second coming does have a somewhat tendency to slip and slide. From time to time, newspapers are also apt to remind us of the fact that even in a medical emergency, members are forbidden to accept a blood transfusion from doctors, the doctrine on the grounds that it is God’s job, and his dele alone dele , to sustain life. But all this stuff, it seems, is just the half of it. Thanks to Ali Millar and her dela first book, I now know there are many other arcane rules by which a Witness must live if he or she is not to be “disfellowshipped” (translation: shunned) by the elders down at the Kingdom Hall .

early on in The Last Days, her memoir of growing up as a Witness in a town in the Scottish Borders, Millar describes a lunch at the house of her maternal grandparents, a couple who do not share their daughter’s beliefs. For Millar, such occasions are usually a huge treat: her mother, a former teacher, has been impoverished by her faith – female Witnesses are discouraged from working – and even the smallest luxuries are scarce at home. On this day in 1986, however, something goes wrong. When her grandfather finds a piece of shot in his pheasant, her mother goes mad, shouting that the bird has not been “bled” as Jehovah said all meat should be when his people were in the wilderness and that she must now leave the table to ring the elders to confess. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Millar hears her saying from her as absolution is telephonically granted on the grounds that she was tricked and her dela “sin” therefore only inadvertent.

Four years ago, I interviewed Daniel Kokotajlo, the director of an autobiographical film about Jehovah’s Witnesses; like Millar, he had left the church and was now reckoning with its influence by turning life into art. One thing I remember him telling me is that those who have grown up in the faith tend to quibble with accounts of it that are written by outsiders – he had in mind Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act, in which a boy, for medical reasons, refuses treatment that will save his life – and I can’t help but wonder if this is why Millar, at least in part, has decided to tell her story: to get the detail right, in other words. But if so, this isn’t unproblematic. While her accounts of the joylessness of the Witnesses’ world, not to mention the bizarre sophistry peddled by its leaders, are fairly detailed, they’re also, I’m afraid, repetitive and relentless. After a while, you feel as stifled and as bored as she must once have done – and though this might be half the book’s point, it isn’t much fun for the reader. I struggled, sometimes, to turn its pages.

The author in her school days. Photograph: Courtesy of Ali Millar

The triumph of Kokotajlo’s film apostasy was that it stirred in its audience sympathy for characters whose beliefs we cannot understand; somehow, he was able to effectively convey the cognitive dissonance between what the Witnesses think and what other people do, as well as the (to us, unlikely) weight of such convictions. Millar, in her book, struggles to do these things, perhaps because she presents herself as a skeptical – a potential apostate – even as a small girl and we see everything that happens only through her eyes. The Witnesses, as described by her, are never anything other than extremely controlling, a bit thick and slightly creepy (when, as a young married woman, she strays, they ask her to tell them how turned on she was by this other man) .

I found it hard, too, fully to sympathize with her inability, as an adult, to leave the sect. In her family, only her mother and sister are Witnesses – her mother, who bounces from one bad relationship to another, the church to save her emotional disappointments and has a tendency to “sin” herself when the mood takes her – and Millar has friends and allies in her grandparents. She also wins a place at university in Edinburgh, in itself an escape of sorts. What is it that keeps her in the faith? What does she think is going to happen?

Either because she has blanked things out, or because she must be careful about identifying individuals, many of those she describes are outlines; I could not quite picture her mother, or her husband, or the elders who visit to discipline her when she “misbehaves”, and this made them seem, to me, the opposite of powerful. This is not to denigrate her story; the heart fills with sorrow at the passages where she describes her anorexia dela, a condition the Witnesses regard, if they notice it at all, with embarrassment. It is horrible – hateful, even – that her mother dela cut her off completely when she finally did leave the church. For some, much of what she reports will be fascinating; this is the age of cults, after all. All info is welcome. But her narrative, for me, is oddly inert: a listlessness that suggests her childhood dela still hurts too much properly to be accounted for.

The Last Days: A Memoir of Faith, Desire and Freedom by Ali Millar is published by Ebury Press (£16.99). To support the guardian and observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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