Jehovah Died on the Challenger

By Sarah Braasch

In Loving Memory of My Baby Brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I was working on this piece when I received news that my beloved youngest brother, Jacob, had taken his own life by hanging himself in my parents’ basement.

I was ten, almost eleven when my mother told me and my brother and sister that she was pregnant again. I didn’t speak to her for weeks. I was a good little Jehovah’s Witness girl back then, but I’m pretty sure that the present day equivalent of my little ten-year-old interior diatribe would be something like, “You stupid bitch.”

Our family was on the verge of cracking open and oozing out onto the ground like a rotten egg. “Was she trying to drive my abusive father to killing us all?” I asked myself. Our financial situation left something to be desired as well. The last thing we needed was the introduction of another stressor, another mouth to feed and another victim. I was so angry that I couldn’t find the words to express my rage, so I just stopped speaking.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And, my baby brother was born. If by born you mean torn out of my mother’s body as a corpse before being brought back to life by a team of doctors. I remember assembling in the school library to watch the news footage of the Challenger exploding in the sky. I remember feeling numb.

I had been so overexposed to constant violence and the constant of impending catastrophe. My Book of Bible Stories was replete with images of apocalyptic mayhem and destruction. I was in full anticipation of being torn from limb to limb by demons at any moment. And, I lived my life in constant terror of my father’s fickle and vindictive temper. I didn’t have anything left to give to the Challenger. My entire world was exploding in a ball of fire.

When I was told that the state had taken custody of my baby brother, I thought, “If only I could be so lucky.” He had needed an immediate life-saving blood transfusion at the moment he came into this world. Of course, my parents refused. Jehovah’s Witnesses view blood as sacred and blood transfusions as a mortal sin against Jehovah God. So, the hospital called a judge in the middle of the night, and my baby brother became a ward of the state.

I blamed my mother. I blamed her for everything. She didn’t protect her children from abuse, so it seemed fitting that her body would try to kill my baby brother in the womb rather than try to nourish and protect him.

I decided that all of our woes were the result of the fact that my parents were terrible and sinful Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were not strong in the Truth. My father’s only interest in Scripture was as justification for his maltreatment of his children. He rarely attended Kingdom Hall meetings, and he never went out in service, i.e. going door-to-door, witnessing the Good News. My mother was not the Jehovah’s Witness she should have been. But, I would be.

My martyr/savior complex reared its ugly head. I decided to show them up. I would be the best Jehovah’s Witness ever. I would keep our house together. I would take care of my siblings. I would be such a good little Jehovah’s Witness girl that Jehovah would not only protect me from demons, he would protect me from my own parents.

I enjoyed the feeling of spiritual superiority. I couldn’t smite my parents, but God could and would. One day. And, I would save my siblings too. And, we would make new lives for ourselves in an earthly paradise in the new system of things after judgment day, free from our parents’ abuse.

While my mother and my baby brother remained in the hospital, I became the mistress of the house. I cooked and I cleaned and I washed clothes. I made sure that my other siblings got to school in the morning. I took care of and fed all of the pets. I worked and I scrubbed and I toiled. And, I imagined that Jehovah was looking down on me from heaven, utterly enamored by my righteousness.

One day, my father said something cruel to me. He said something cruel, but of no great or particular import. He said something about the condition of his eggs. He said something about my obligation to serve him. I don’t know why exactly, but, in that moment, I lost my faith. Or, I started to lose my faith. But, not just my faith in God, not just my faith in Jehovah, not just my faith in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the tenets of their religion or their governing organization, but in humanity.

I turned off the stovetop, and I slammed the iron skillet down hard. I realized in that moment that no one loved me. I realized that my father viewed me as something of a dispensable and replaceable slave, as divinely sanctioned by Jehovah. I realized that my mother viewed me as the property of her husband. I realized that I was storing up spiritual riches in an imaginary heaven for a just future that would never come.

I screamed in anguish at my father without regard to the consequences. I wasn’t really upset by my father’s thoughtlessness. I was heartbroken. I had lost my God. Jehovah had abandoned me.

I screamed at my father to cook his own eggs, wash his own clothes and clean his own house. I expected to be backhanded, but nothing happened. I think he was in shock at the force of my rage. I stormed off to my bedroom, threw myself on my bed and sobbed into my pillow. I had never felt so alone. No one was going to save me.

I sunk into a deep depression. My insides were turning into poisonous, black lead. My limbs felt heavy. It was difficult to move. I was less than enthused when my father announced that we were all going to visit my mother and baby brother in the hospital.

I sat in my mother’s hospital room. I gazed out the window at the inky black night. I wondered if I would be able to break the glass, if I threw the full weight of my tiny form against the window. I imagined myself crashing through the window and plummeting to the sidewalk below.

I glowered at my mother. She felt the full force of my rage. The sight of her disgusted me. I wanted to hit her. At first she looked at me with incredulity, but her expression quickly morphed into disdain, then irritation and, finally, anger. I wanted to provoke her. I wanted to anger her. I wanted to impose my presence upon her consciousness. I wanted to force her to react to me, to recognize my existence, my humanity.

My father looked at me with more love in that moment than he ever had, either before or since. He looked at me as a kindred spirit, a pained and tortured soul. I understood him as no one else ever had or ever could. I understood everything he had endured during his childhood. I understood his feelings of desperate helplessness. I understood both his longing and disgust for human affection and connection and intimacy. He had made me in his image. I was his baby Frankenstein, an emotional aggregate of all of his childhood traumas and hurts. And, he loved me for it. I was his little girl with rosy cheeks engorged with the blood of impotent fury.

My mother kept harassing him and tugging at his sleeve. “Get her out of here,” she said. “I can’t take this. I can’t stand her right now. Get her out of here. I can’t even look at her.”

I just kept glowering at her underneath a furrowed brow with my chin tucked into my chest. I felt nothing but the purest, most unadulterated hatred for her.

The more hatred that oozed from my pores, the more love I felt radiating from my father’s form.

He responded to my mother, “She’s fine. Just leave her alone. She’s fine.”

My mother kept clutching at my father’s sleeve and nagging him to remove me. But, he refused. He was kind to her, but unrelenting. My mother shot me a look of absolute hatred. My father had betrayed her. He had taken my side. The only time he had ever done so. He had protected me from her.

I finally understood why my mother allowed my father to abuse her children. She didn’t care. She didn’t love us at all. And, worse than that, not only did she not love us, she saw us as a threat, as competition for our father’s affections. In that moment, I think my mother would have enjoyed watching my father strangle me.

I wasn’t concerned about antagonizing my mother. She had dabbled in physical abuse when we were little, but that was no longer her modus operandi. And, at the moment at least, I had my father in my hip pocket.

Our father finally suggested that we leave my mother to sleep while we visited our new baby brother in the ICU.

When I was little, I loved hospitals. I loved staying in the hospital when I had my tonsils removed. I loved being doted upon and cared for by the doctors and nurses. I loved being away from my parents. I envied Jacob.

He was bloated and his skin was a putrid shade of yellow. He looked like a little corpse, as if he had drowned and been plucked from the water a couple days later. He was encased in a tomb-like, clear plastic incubator. He was covered with tubing – in his little arms and legs, in his mouth. Every one of his breaths seemed to require a monumental effort on the part of his tiny body.

We took turns putting our gloved hands through the holes in the side of the incubator, so that we could gently stroke his little bloated body. He grabbed my finger with his little hand.

I tried to communicate with him telepathically. I tried to tell him not to fight quite so hard to live. I tried to tell him not to be in such a hurry to get out of this place. I tried to tell him that the world is cruel and loveless and might not be worth the trouble.

In my mind, I said to him, “I would trade places with you, if I could, you poor, stupid baby. You poor, stupid baby.” But, I could see that he was fixed upon surviving.

And, then I decided to save him. And, I fell in love with him. I focused my attention on his little fingers clasped around my index finger, and I thought, “I will protect you. I will love you. I will take care of you. I promise. Everything is going to be ok, baby.”

I had a reason to live again.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    Sarah, I am so, so sorry. My eyes are welling up . . .

  • http://www.edwardlarson.com Ed

    Sarah, when I was nineteen a close friend hanged himself. I wrote this poem about a year later when I was starting to sort through my difficult emotions, remembering one of my own failed attempts as a child.

    Daddy

    On the top bunk, I tied the rope to the safety bar and jumped
    And for a moment I thought it was final
    But the bar broke.
    Daddy what would you have done
    If you had seen my sixty eight pound body still
    Slightly swaying in the bare morning air?
    The note punched on my chest

    I love you
    I love you
    I love you.

    Sarah, I am touched by your courage in making something better from your pain by publicly sharing it. May you find healing, peace and abiding joy.

  • http://yetanotheratheistblog.wordpress.com Jeff

    I hate that these things happened to you, that anybody could do this to a child. You inspire me with your strength.

  • http://theperplexedobserver.blogspot.com/ TPO

    That is a very moving story Sarah and I am saddened for the loss of your childhood innocence and the more recent loss of your baby brother. I hope you have other things or people in your life that will continue to motivate your desire to live.

  • http://dabbleponder.blogspot.com Juliana Marie

    Dear Sarah – I am so very sorry. I hope you can take comfort from knowing you are not alone.

  • jtradke

    Holy shit, Sarah, I’m so sorry.

  • jack

    Everyone who has read your essays here feels close to you, even though we have not met in person.

    My deepest sympathies.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    My deepest condolences on your loss Sarah.

  • Nancy

    There are no words. I’ve read this entry several times..each time walking away from my laptop and busying myself with something around the house. Each time I come back, I search for the right words, only to find that they are nearly impossible to find. I’m angry at your parents, the Jehovahs and society in general over the pain you have lived through. And, I am inspired by your courage as exhibited in your ability to share with us the news regarding the senseless death of your brother. His pain must have be extraordinary. I hope you will continue to stay strong and find (in time) some joy in the “journey”.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    Tears for you and your brother and the dank hole your family had dug itself into.

  • http://reverendredmage.blogspot.com Reverend Red Mage

    Like other commenters here, I only wish I knew what to say to this piece. I hope you know how many people you will touch with this writing.

    My condolences go out to you and your loved ones, and anyone that knew your brother.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The above essay gives insight into the depth of your loss. My sympathies.

  • Hailey

    It has been a long time since I have read something quite so beautiful and moving. You are a living wonder, Sarah. As soon as I started reading this entry I couldn’t tear my shocked eyes away from it. How tragic, how beautiful, how haunting is this? You are a fantastic writer, being so able to put into words such a story as this and leaving me moved that one can find such an honest reason under your circumstances.
    You have my deepest sympathy. Despite never having known you beyond reading your words here on this site, my heart goes out to you.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I’m sorry to hear about your brother, but glad that you could make something beautiful out of all that madness and misery. It reminds me of the Lord Byron quote my father uses to open his books (thinly-veiled memoirs, really):

    ‘Tis strange,-but true; for truth is always strange;
    Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
    How much would novels gain by the exchange!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • JulietEcho

    Thank you for sharing something so personal, at such a painful time. I don’t pray, but you’ll be in my thoughts.

  • Caiphen

    I’m speechless. You’re an incredibly strong woman.

  • Demonhype

    Words seem so useless. If I lost my brother….

    Deepest condolences from one big sister to another. You will definitely be in my thoughts.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Sweetheart, I am so, so sorry. This is entirely inadequate, but if there’s anything at all that I can do to help the coming days, weeks, months and years better, please let me know. All my sympathy is with you, and my heart goes out to you.

  • Jennifer

    I have nothing to say. Except that for what it’s worth, you have my sympathies.

  • Leum

    My condolences and sympathy.

  • http://shelter.nu/blog/ Alex

    Whenever such deep sadness enters my world, there is only one place I find the strength to go on, one place that makes it all worth while; I’ve stumbled upon a spot for life by amazing random odds on this little blue planet, and the wonders embedded in these billions of years of the universe gaining consciousness are too staggering to ignore or overlook. Being alive is a better inspiration for others’ life than just dying.

    My deepest sympathy, and I wish you a symphony. When my best friend killed himself I wrote him a whole symphony, not because I knew he’d ever hear it, but because I needed to hear it, his friends and family needed it. And every time I hear stories such as this, I know I need to tell people to go write them, just like you did in words rather than music. We’re all artists in need of expressing our losses and gains. The world is too precious to be ignored, even in your most desperate hours.

  • Heidi

    I am truly sorry for your loss. It saddens me to think that a baby who fought so hard to be in this world grew up to be a young man who stopped wanting to be here.

    @Alex: You wrote him a symphony? Wow. That is mind-bogglingly, chill-inducingly awesome.

  • Lyndi

    I have no words.
    You’re in my thoughts, and heart, and tears.

  • KShep

    Add my sympathies to those already expressed here for the loss of your brother. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story with us here. You are an amazing woman. I feel so privileged.

  • Danikajaye

    I am so sorry for your loss. It is heartbreaking to even read.

    I hope that everybody who has read this always remembers the story of your family and uses it as motivation to push the influence of religion into submission. It is used to strike fear, hate and self loathing into the hearts of children and used by adults to justify their own hateful and inhumane actions. I hope you keep on writing and pushing and live to see the lies, dogma and superstition that make up the religious institutions crumble into dust.

  • Wednesday

    It must have been incredibly difficult for you to post this. But thank you for posting it, and my sincere condolences for your loss. Take care of yourself.

  • Maynard

    I would like to second all the kind words above.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Thank you so much for all of the love and support.

    It means the world to me.

    I don’t know why, but I just don’t want to grieve privately. I want to scream Jacob’s name from the mountaintops. I want the world to know that he lived and how much I loved him.

    Please don’t let your friends and loved ones become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do everything in your power to try and stop them. That religion destroys families and lives.

    And, tell your loved ones that you love them. Every day. I can’t remember the last time I told Jacob that I loved him. And, it’s killing me.

  • Adele

    Sarah: my best friend while I was growing up was a Jehovah’s Witness. It was always mildly funny, sort of a class joke – until in high school, when she killed herself. We all believe it was partially as a result of her association with the cult.

    I still have a lot of the pamphlets she gave me over the years (titled things like, Is There a Creator Who Cares About You?). I tried to burn them years back, but couldn’t. Ironically, it’s all I have left of her.

    I feel your pain so deeply, Sarah, and don’t have the words to express to you my sorrow.

  • Julia

    My heart goes out to you, Sarah.

    My little brother also committed suicide. I believe it had a lot to do with him being told how useless and worthless he was his whole life by my father and not being protected by my mother. The difference is, my dad didn’t use religion as a excuse to be abusive.

    I also felt the need to shout out, to try and make the world acknowledge the loss. I found the normalness of the world infuriating when my world had just changed so radically. I also felt the very strong need to stop being silent and expose my family for what is actually was. It made a lot of people very uncomfortable, particularly those who were friends and family, but I needed to be honest for a change. 4 years later I still feel this way.

    I don’t know you, expect through your eloquent essays I’ve read here. I hope you have people who will not shy away from you when you express your pain and loss, even if you have to voice it repeatedly. If you do not, please feel free to email me if you want to. I hope that doesn’t sound too weird coming from a stranger.

    Again, I am so sorry for your loss.

  • Nes

    Sarah,

    Words fail me… give yourself a hug.

  • Michelle Wenk

    FIRST- Sarah, that was probably on one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. I watched you in my mind as I read this. I could see everything. AS we are the same age, I know the exact time you write about, in 6th grade. I had a horrible childhood so on some small level I can relate to you. But I found this piece the most beautiful the moment I read about your brother grabbing your finger. I feel that it was you who saved him, that he could feel your love and he reached out to you. And you gave him life. Thank you so much for sharing this Sarah.

  • sara

    I remember you from Lincoln. I remember you as a sweet, quiet, beautiful girl. I had no idea of the pain you were going through, and I wish now I had been a better friend, so maybe you would not have felt so alone. I recently heard about Aaron, and am devastated to find you have had so much grief and sorrow not just these last two years, but your entire life. Be well, Sarah, and know that may people you don’t even realize are out there still care…


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