‘No going back’: Ali Millar on life beyond the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Ali Millar was in her twenties when she realised there was a world beyond the religious regime she had been raised in. Ahead of the publication of her memoir, The Last Days, she tells Simran Hans how she got out.

“The story starts before I’m born,” says Ali Millar. In her gorgeous, haunting memoir The Last Days, the 42-year-old author re-lives growing up in a small town in the Scottish Borders. It begins in 1979, the year her mother met her father. “That was this really pivotal moment in her life, when she was made very vulnerable and put in this really difficult situation by a powerful man,” she says. “I still believe that if that hadn't happened, it's highly unlikely that she would have become a Jehovah's Witness.”

We’re on the fifth floor of a glass skyscraper overlooking the River Thames, and Millar is distracted by the view. Normally, the writer and mother of four works from her kitchen table, grounded by its green walls and open shelves lined with pots made of clay. The kitchen is a cosy, private space that she was able to cocoon herself in as she confronted some of her darkest memories. Discussing them in a corporate meeting room under fluorescent lights, she’s more exposed.

“I've never wanted to speak about growing up as a Witness. I had no desire to do it,” Millar says.  But five years ago, at a spoken word event, she performed a piece she told everyone was fiction. In it, the protagonist is quizzed about her sex life in uncomfortable detail by an all-male panel of ‘elders’. “I didn't tell people that it was something that had happened to me,” she says. The audience loved it. The experience of sharing something she had buried left Millar feeling euphoric, too. Sitting across from me, she’s warm and open, softly spoken but with an unmistakable quiet intensity.

That scene, which appears late on in The Last Days was a lightbulb moment for Millar. “I didn't ever think, ‘There's something wrong with the religion’, until that happened. Until I was subjected to their discipline,” she recalls. Instead, she had thought there was something wrong with her.

'I started to pull away from the religion, but the relationship that I have with my mum always pulls me back'

Ali Millar

Millar’s writing is bracing, raw and immediate. So too is her storytelling, using vivid, present-tense narration to take the reader through her childhood and her teenage years. She begins dating, and drinking. “I start, at that stage, to pull away from the religion, but the relationship that I have with my mum always pulls me back.”

Growing up, Millar wasn’t allowed to read “worldly” books that had the potential to corrupt her. During an internship in Amsterdam, she lived in a flat that belonged to a Dutch actor. “He had all the Beat poets. He had philosophers. He just had so many brilliant books.” Millar would sneak paperbacks into her handbag, so her then-husband wouldn’t see, and read them on the hour-long train journey to and from work. “I would just read and read and read. That whole summer, my head was just completely blown because it was just all full of ideas. I got so hungry after that. Just absolutely starving for books, and other minds. It really was just this complete awakening.”

She married young, at 21, and treated her twenties like a second adolescence. “I start going off the rails, in a delayed way. I don't get thrown out of the religion, but I'm no longer seen as a ‘good associate,’” she says of the book’s turbulent second section. After learning she has had an affair, the congregation begin to treat her with cold contempt. “I realise there’s space in me,” she writes, reflecting after a snowy, contemplative walk. “Maybe everything that’s gone wrong in the past was because of this space I didn’t know how to fill, and God couldn’t fill it either.” Eventually, she stopped going to meetings.

Ali Millar. Image: Desiree Adams/Penguin

Millar attended her last Witness meeting in 2009, but it would take another 10 years before she could write about what happened to her. An aspiring novelist who’d never been permitted to express herself, she applied for a Masters in Creative Writing within a year of leaving the organisation, working on fiction manuscripts that wouldn’t stick. There were a lot of complicated mother-daughter relationships,” she remembers of those early drafts. “The problem was that I was still limited by the Witnesses' beliefs,” she says. She was trying to write things her mother would approve of. It was only in 2016, when her mother cut all contact, that she felt “free to be able to explore” her own story.

Millar had initially wanted to expose the inner workings of an organisation that most people know almost nothing about. “When I was thinking about telling the story, I plotted quite hard-hitting nonfiction,” she says. But to “make a polemic” and “really sort of bash somebody over the head” would have been too obvious. A personal story felt like a more elegant way in. “I needed to say, this is where I've come from. It's not like I’m a journalist who's just observing something.”

The memoir format didn’t come naturally. “Originally it was all second-person. I was trying to create some sort of distance – some kind of protection. I was pushing the reader away,” she says softly. Eventually, she summoned the courage to centre her own perspective.

The Last Days is narrated in first-person present tense, the narrator’s voice shifting deftly from vulnerable child to haughty teenager and wounded, questioning adult. It is a masterclass in the art of ‘show, don’t tell’. Millar describes navigating that shifting voice through a process of intense rewriting. She would record herself reading aloud to check the tone and cadence of her sentences: “At times, the child was too knowing, at times the adult wasn't knowing enough. I see it a bit like a mixing desk, and you've got to get all the different volumes right.”

Revisiting her teenage years – a period marked by an eating disorder – was particularly gruelling for her as a writer. “When it came to the teenage years, particularly with anorexia, I really wanted to take the reader inside that experience, because it's so deeply misunderstood, and misconstrued in popular culture as well.” She describes her attempts to control her body as a way of taking back control from the organisation. “It became an almost metaphysical thing as well. I was sort of trying to reason out spiritual problems and the existence of being,” she says. Inhabiting her teenage self’s voice had a visceral effect. Writing the first two drafts of the memoir, she admits she probably wasn’t okay. “It would make me sick, I'd have panic attacks. I'm not sure you can do it without re-traumatizing yourself.”

The rigorously controlled and deeply patriarchal environment Millar was raised in meant thinking for herself was expressly forbidden. Once she was free of the organisation, she had to build her own belief system from the ground up. “That was exceptionally difficult,” she says. “Writing was a process of working out what I thought and what I believed.” She says she still struggles with trusting her ability to reason. “If somebody said to me convincingly enough, that sky out there is orange, and they said it often enough, I'd be like, ‘Oh my goodness, how did I not realise the sky is orange?!’” she says.

Millar’s natural intelligence is obvious, but she doesn’t take knowledge for granted. “If you're born into an organisation, you don't have the chance to think of yourself as a feminist,” she explains. “What you think is, when I grow up, I'm going to be a mummy, and I'm going to make cakes because that's what you see happening around you.” Things are not much better for the boys growing up in the organisation either, she says. They learn that “girls should be mummies and make me cakes,” she says. Gender roles become entrenched early on, something that can make the organisation feel like a “regime”.

It bothers Millar. “As a society we are moving, once again, back to much more right-wing values,” she says. In the days before we meet, news breaks that the Supreme Court decided to overturn its historic Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights. It is Millar’s hope that showing “what life is like under those regimes,” where women’s minds and bodies are controlled, will allow her work to be used as “a means of resistance”. She would like Witnesses to have a chance to read it.

In speaking out, the stakes are high. As she puts it, there is “no going back” now she has committed her last days as a Witness to paper. “I had the responsibility to tell the truth in relation to God. I feel that I have that same responsibility in relation to an organisation that is masquerading as God's mouthpiece.” It turns out, those last days are just the beginning.

Photo at top: Desiree Adams/Penguin

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