An Atheist’s Confession

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

My beloved baby brother, Jacob, hung himself last year in my parents’ basement. I wouldn’t wish my pain on my worst enemy. It’s been a year and a half, and, sometimes, I still can’t get out of bed or stop crying. I’ll be in public, and I’ll inexplicably, to anyone else, burst into sobbing, jagged tears. I blame a lot of people for his death, especially my parents. But, mostly, I blame myself. I walked away from my life to save my life, when I was still a child myself, but, in doing so, I walked away from Jacob. I had promised to take care of him, to love him, to keep him safe and well, and I broke that promise. Now, I am broken. I will never forgive myself.

I would make a Faustian bargain, I would sell my soul to the devil, I would torture myself, to get five more minutes with him, to be able to tell him one last time how much I love him, to tell him how sorry I am. I would gouge out an eye. I would hack off a limb. I would sacrifice my life.

I would try to contact his spirit. And, I did try. When I was in Paris still, in the months following Jacob’s suicide, I spent my days curled up in a fetal position on the floor of my apartment, screaming, and intermittently vomiting. At first, I couldn’t even get up off the floor to go to the bathroom to vomit. I would just vomit on the floor and lie in it. It was the one time I was grateful for the indifference of my Parisian neighbors. I thought I would die of grief. I wanted to die, but I was stopped from killing myself when I thought of the pain I would be inflicting upon my remaining two siblings.

I begged Jacob’s ghost or spirit or essence or alternate version living in a parallel universe to visit me, to communicate with me, to contact me in some way. I promised not to be scared. As I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is a demon and occult-obsessed cult of demonology, not being scared of demons or evil spirits is not something that comes easily to me, even decades after leaving the religious community. They believe that demons are real. They believe that demons can hurt you physically, sexually, and psychologically. They believe that demonic attack is an ever-present threat. They don’t believe in hell, so they have to bring hell to earth. I was already in hell, and I would have let a demon rape me, if it meant being able to see my baby brother again.

I tried everything. I bought all the books. I lit the candles. I did the research. I burned his ashes. I prayed to his picture. I cast a sacred circle with salt after I swept it clean with a broom. I built an altar to the four directions/elements. I cast the spells. I recorded my ceremonies and played back the video/audio, searching desperately for a message from the beyond.

I sat in my fucking sacred circle of salt, before my altar, and I screamed for Jacob to haunt me, even if he wanted to hurt me, even if he was mad at me, even if he hated me. I cut myself.

But, he didn’t come.

I am slowly creating a new life for myself. Each day is a struggle. I can’t tell you how maddening it is to want justice for your loved ones and for yourself when there is none to be had. You go crazy, you kill yourself, or you continue on. I sometimes envy my other beloved baby brother, Aaron. He’s a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic. I sometimes just want to let go and lose my fucking mind too.

I’ve decided to devote the rest of my life to trying to fix all of those things, which hurt me and mine so much. In Jacob’s honor and in Jacob’s name. I am going to leave a glorious legacy for the both of us. I am going to live for the both of us.

Jacob is my savior. Jacob’s death gave me back my relationship with my baby bro, Aaron. Jacob’s suicide released me from my fear. It enraged me, and I am using that rage as motivation.

And, in a funny way, Jacob helps me to be less afraid of the dark and less afraid of demons.

Because, if there is a spirit world, then I know that Jacob is in it. And, I know that he would never let anyone or anything hurt me.

I know he would kick a demon’s disembodied ass before he’d let him touch me.

I will always love you, Jacob.

And, you can come visit me anytime you want.

SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
Weekend Coffee: March 28
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Photo Sunday: Stone Wall, Winter
About Adam Lee

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

  • FreeThoughtCrime

    Sad and touching story. But honestly, this doesn’t sound like anything an atheist would write. It’s a confession, all right, but it certainly is not an “An Atheist’s Confession.”

  • Xanthe Wyse

    so sad yet powerful.

    I didn’t realised the JW’s believed in demons but not hell.

    When I first suffered from clinical depression, I was still involved in pentecostal christianity. When I admitted to a christian I wanted to die, she said if I killed myself I would go straight to hell. I was told I was possessed by demons. I got judgement, not love.

    Those that have been through hell on earth don’t fear the hell of religionists.

  • Andrew Hall

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I have found that a good therapist can do wonders with managing life’s traumas.


  • Steve Bowen

    Is it really a year? Anniversaries like this are hard, so stay strong, I’ll be thinking of you.

  • Cheryl

    Sarah Jane — please seek professional help to address your guilt. His death was not your fault. I don’t know all the particulars (nor do I need to), but you DID NOT kill him. He would have wanted you to save yourself, and, I bet it was hard enough to save yourself.

    That you are motivated to fight the good fight — for two — is a good sign. But the guilt will still eat away at you. Please, go talk to someone who is trained and can help you work through this. It won’t be forever that you need counseling, and it won’t take away the pain. But you won’t be able to thrive until you do. Do it for yourself and for your siblings – all of them. –Cheryl

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Thanks, guys, for your kind words and your concern.

    I think that I should say:

    I’m ok. I am embarking on a whole new life.

    I moved back to the West Coast, and I’m starting grad school soon. I have ambitious plans for the future.

    I do intend to do some therapy as soon as I am able.

    I didn’t write this as a plea for help. As a catharsis, yes. (Probably because I feel like I am being gas-lighted, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Which is why I chose to get the F out of Dodge, yet again.)

    But, my main point is that I think it entails a powerful message.

    The point is that wishing for something doesn’t make it so.

    Because there is no one who wishes that she could communicate with the dead more than me.

  • TommyP

    Atheist here, but I wouldn’t be surprised too much if there’s some sort of imprint we leave behind. No Gods necessary for that after all. It could simply be a characteristic phenomenon of this universe. Not that I believe this; I’d like proof before I go that far. But I wouldn’t be surprised, and I sure wouldn’t make the leap to a God.

    And perhaps, if there’s not an afterlife now, we may be able to deliberately build one in the future. Who knows just how far our species can go, anyway? First order Gods evolving is certainly a possibility, and we’re currently still curious and creative enough to reach that, or something close enough that it doesn’t matter.

    If anything, the pain and fierce love of people just like Sarah could drive us to create an afterlife from scratch, yeah? Love and pain are great motivators. Don’t give up hope Sarah, even if it doesn’t exist now, very little, aside from extinction, will keep us from making it someday, simply to spite the cold Universe and, probably, just because it would be a good thing to do.

    Ok so that was a lot of rosy-lensing, but it’s a lot more likely to happen that magic :)

  • Cheryl

    Thanks for the follow up. I can’t help myself, sometimes. I spent 12 years volunteering on a rape crisis line and the self blame is so prevalent that it can be heartbreaking. It gets my hackles up (not for you, but for what must have happened to make you internalize the huge burden of your brother’s well-being).

    “Wishing for something doesn’t make it so” is a message I wholeheartedly agree with.

    Thanks for sharing it.


  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Thanks so much, Cheryl. You are doing a beautiful thing.

    I’m just so sick and tired of everyone saying, “It was no one’s fault. There was nothing that anyone could have done.”

    It bloody hell was someone’s fault. And, I know whose. And, I’m not going to be quiet about it, just to make everyone else feel better. I don’t feel better. I don’t want to feel better. I loved my brother.

    I am going to own up to my culpability, even if no one else will own up to theirs.

    I am going to pay my debt.

    I am going to make Jacob’s sacrifice mean something. Everything.

    Jacob took his own life, so that no one could pretend anymore.

    And, I sure as hell am not going to let them pretend away his suicide.

  • TommyP

    Good, that’s awesome to hear, Sarah. Damn I bet he’d be proud of you for that.

  • S Emerson

    Hello Sarah,

    While the sympathy of strangers may be scant comfort, I’d like to offer my condolences and thank you for sharing your story. We can’t always replace what is lost to us, but sometimes through considered action we can compromise with our losses and create some good in the process. I wish you a good life.

  • (Ani) Sharmin


    So sorry for your loss and for all the difficulties you’ve been through. Despite all of that, it’s good to hear that you are motivated to make a new life for yourself and to do good. And as Cheryl said, it is not your fault.

    As for the “confession” part, if you are referring to trying to use supernatural means to contact your brothers, I can sort of understand where you’re coming from. It’s very tempting, especially in difficult times (and most especially when something horrible has happened to someone we love), to want there to be some supernatural world.

    All the best, and I hope that your life gets better and continues to improve as you move forward.

    -Ani Sharmin

  • KShep

    I won’t ramble on here. I lost my mother in June ’09. A lifelong anorexic, she finally succeeded in starving herself to death. I spent most of my young adulthood trying in vain to get her to eat something, and since I failed I have an idea how that guilt feels.

    I have no advice to give, and you’ve probably heard it all anyway. But I would like to say that I admire your determination to make your brother’s legacy mean something. All I did was write and give my mother’s eulogy. Your idea sounds much more fulfilling.

  • Jeff

    @Xanthe Wyse: When I admitted to a christian I wanted to die, she said if I killed myself I would go straight to hell. I was told I was possessed by demons.

    Fundies simply shouldn’t be allowed to speak – to anyone, at any time, about anything. For that matter, they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children – theirs or anyone else’s.

    Sarah, so sorry for your loss. If your parents, or their pastor or church leaders, were responsible, I hope you can hold them accountable, legally or otherwise. I’m so tired of people getting away with this crap. Purveyors of religion get a free pass unheard of in any other field of endeavor.

  • jack

    Dear Sarah,

    The pain you describe will probably be with you always, to some degree, but I hope it diminishes with time. I hope you find peace and fulfillment in life, because you deserve it. I come from a mildly dysfunctional family — trivially so compared to your JW upbringing — but dysfunctional enough that there were and still are some longstanding and painful rifts in the family. My father is dead and my mother is senile, but I often catch myself wishing I could converse with them. It’s a very natural and human thing to do, even for atheists.

    It is also natural to feel guilty. I don’t know all the details, but I suspect you are shouldering far more than your reasonable share of it. Talking to a good therapist should help.

    Although we have never met, I feel I know you from your many guest posts here. You are a good person.

  • Christine

    I found this blog completely by accident, but since I don’t believe in accidents I want to comment. The immensity of the loss of your brother must be devastating for you and your family. I’m deeply sorry for all the pain you have experienced in your past and my heart breaks for you as I read your story. Nobody should have to go through this and I commend you for not crumbling with grief (you’re doing better than you think!). I know you don’t believe but since I stumbled upon this I have to tell you that I’m going to say my rosary for you tonight.