“Petting Tigers: My Life as a Witness of Jehovah” by Shelley Smith Jones
Review by LOU MANDLER
For the Gazette
Shelley Smith Jones’ memoir, “Petting Tigers: My Life as a Witness of Jehovah,” is a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction category of the High Plains Book Awards. The title is taken from an appealing vision of Paradise that Smith Jones saw in a Jehovah Witness book when she was a child. It promised a paradise where the saved would play with tamed — previously wild — animals, and young Shelley dreamed of a heaven where she would pet the orange and black stripes of a tiger. Petting Tigers proceeds to detail Smith Jones’ life as a child, teenager, mother, and wife within the constraints of a religion variously called the Organization, the Truth, or Jehovah’s Witness, the name known by outsiders.
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Jones says of that life, “Doing God’s will involved many things, but mostly it meant going by the rules set forth by the Organization.” These rules applied to dress, speech, and prohibitions on friendship, romantic liaisons, and any activity such as standing for the National Anthem or cheerleading that honored an “ungodly organization.” Readers of this book reach an understanding of why an intelligent, personable, attractive woman such as Shelley Jones acceded to “psychological bondage” for 39 years. In each place she lived — Montana, Idaho, Florida, California — she was surrounded by the dicta and expectations of the Organization. The thought of leaving was terrifying: “What would I do if I wasn’t in the Organization? ... all my life I had been admonished that there was nowhere to go if I left the flock.” The fact that a disfellowshipped person was shunned by family and friends made departure even more terrifying.
Although the writing in Petting Tigers is marred by wordiness and clichés, the book is an absorbing look into the private language, culture, and beliefs of an isolated religion. Shelley Smith Jones’ difficult journey from a life of circumscribed thoughts and actions to one of independence and freedom is an inspiring story.
Lou Mandler, a retired educator, has written a memoir, “This Storied Land,” and articles on Ernest Hemingway and Billings Mayor Willard Fraser. She is currently writing a biography of Fraser.