Title: The Spanking Room: A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah Witnesses
Author: William Coburn
Publisher: Winepress Publishing
• Explains in disturbing detail what can happen in Jehovah's Witnesses families
• Reveals what's behind the pleasant face which Jehovah's Witnesses place on their religion
• Narrative structure is not consistent or linear, so confusing at times
• No footnotes/references to statements about doctrine, teachings, writings
• Author avoids applying lessons to Christianity generally
• Memoirs of growing up in a Jehovah's Witnesses household
• Description of the emotionally, psychologically, and physically abusive tactics
• Exploration of how absolutist religion can be used to control and oppress
I've read a number of accounts from former Jehovah's Witnesses, but few have been nearly so harrowing and disturbing as William Coburn's The Spanking Room: A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah Witnesses. Coburn's upbringing in a Jehovah's Witnesses family was not the sort of family life that anyone should wish on their worst enemy. The entire situation was made worse by the fact that Coburn's family didn't start out as Witnesses, so he retained some memories of what life was like back when his mother behaved in a more loving and kind manner.
The stories of abuse — mental, emotional, psychological, and even physical — fill the book. Despite how many there are, the stories don't repeat — they are always different in disturbing ways. I'll cite just one, which should be more than enough:
I had stopped vomiting, but still shook and sobbed. Mom returned to the room to sit on the edge of my bed. Again she asked, "Billy what's wrong?" "That was my bus route," I whispered when I could get words out. "What if someone I knew came to the door?" "So?" "They'd find out I was a Jehovah's Witness." Mom's hand met the side of my head in a flash of brilliant white light and an explosion of pain. I collapsed onto the mattress while she flailed at me, her rage-clenched fists thudding into my eight-year-old body. "How dare you?" she shrieked. "You awful, rotten child! How dare you be ashamed of Jehovah? I hate you! I hate you!"
Although it might be fair to argue that the abuse which William Coburn suffered was due at least in part to the personality of his mother, it can't be denied that it was something which the Jehovah's Witnesses positively encouraged in all members. The title of the book is derived from the fact that their Kingdom Hall — and this seems to be standard — had a place where women were expected to take their children and beat them if they acted the least bit inappropriately during religious services.
This isn't just about a few swats on the bottom, but physical beatings for which the organization provided a variety of implements. I'm surprised they didn't invest in thumbscrews. This also isn't about punishment for serious transgressions, because even the smallest deviation from expected norms could quickly lead to beatings bad enough to elicit nerve-wracking screams. They justify such abuse and make it easier for parents to suppress all human empathy by teaching that the children are under the control of demons or even Satan, so beating the child is really just beating a demon.
You wouldn't even begin to suspect any of this from the demeanor of the people who appear at your door, looking to "share" their religion with you. Jehovah's Witnesses who go door-to-door learn how to put a smiling face on a religion which teaches eternal death to everyone but themselves, which insists on so much control over thoughts, behavior, and lives that real psychological health seems almost impossible, and of course physical or emotional abuse for those who stray from the true path.
Not all Jehovah's Witnesses families are nearly as bad as Coburn's, but when fanaticism is "built into the religion, woven into the written doctrine, and even preached to the believers as the way to win God's approval," then a family only turns out good despite their religion, not because of it, and they will would be much better off in a different setting. Fanatical, abusive parents can be found in any religious system, it's true, but not every religious system encourages such behavior so readily.
William Coburn remains a Christian, which many former Jehovah's Witnesses do, and he insists that what's true of the Jehovah's Witnesses isn't true of Christianity generally. In some respects that's correct, but not in all — there's nothing wrong in the Jehovah's Witnesses that can't be found elsewhere in Christian tradition, history, practices, or scriptures. The Jehovah's Witnesses aren't unique and didn't simply make up all the negative aspects of their community out of nowhere. It's good that not every religious upbringing is like Coburn's was, but theistic religions have far more potential for such conditions that secular philosophies.
Fortunately, William doesn't engage in any overt proselytization in this book, something that might be expected given the fact that it was published by an explicitly Christian publisher. This book will thus be useful to both Christians and non-Christians who want to learn about the teachings and lives of Jehovah's Witnesses. Because of flaws in the narrative structure I can't recommend it as a first choice on the subject, and the lack of notes and references about the details of Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine prevents it from being a strong learning aid, but for people already interested in it or in the subject of child abuse will find something of value in it.