‘I was at the center of a great divide, waiting for the world to end while patiently waiting for mine to begin. That is what it’s like, being raised in a fundamentalist cult and harboring aspirations all the while. As a Jehovah’s Witness who has known I wanted to write since I could hold a pen, I never belonged anywhere. The religious community into which I was born indoctrinated me with the real, stark belief that the world would end at any moment, convincing me by playing on blind faith that it was foolish to have goals while living on a sinking ship.
As I grew older, I became a suspect of dissent, staying up all night to read Virginia Woolf at eleven years of age and catching my English teacher’s attention in high school. Yet I didn’t belong in this arena either. According to the faith of my birth, I was forbidden to seek a higher education. I thus tottered on the edge of two oppositional realities for the duration of my childhood; knowing I had to make a choice, frightened by the alienation I would experience by making my decision: follow my love of literature and writing to college and suffer the loss of my friends and family because of the Witnesses’ doctrine of shunning those who are disobedient; or, submit myself to a life of constant anxiety, waiting for the world to end at the sides of those I loved.
Today, I’m often told I am brave for deciding to pursue my college degree and accepting my family’s and former friends’ decisions to never speak to me again, but I often feel like I made the easier choice.
Perhaps that is because I made the right one.
At 18 years old, I enrolled in community college, armed with a no. 2 pencil and the passion resultant of my newfound survival mode. Instead of trying to equip myself to survive the end of the world, I began learning how to survive in it. I knew since I first entered into school that I was going to major in English and minor in Creative Writing. Often it still puzzles me as to why I’ve never had any doubts, although I believe it was because the external pressures of my religious community made it necessary for me to be sure of myself in order to oppose them.
Now, I realize it is much more than that.’
How Fundamentalist Shunning is Killing Us
The 400 words you just read above formed the beginning of my application to graduate school. I wrote it a few months after graduating from UC Berkeley. I thought I wanted to continue my education, but was too unstable to even finish this essay. Why? Because I repressed the aftermath of what I went through as a shunned Jehovah’s Witness and slowly crumbled to pieces — a process that started long before I began the above essay.
In order to protect myself and those mentioned in this piece, I’m writing this anonymously. This is my story about growing up as a gay Jehovah’s Witness, and life after leaving the cult.
Let’s do a quick recap on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You probably know them as the nicely dressed people who knock on your door to talk about the “good news of the Kingdom”. Or maybe the well-behaved kids in your classroom who don’t salute the flag. Or even those rare hospital patients who refuse to accept blood transfusions. Perhaps your acquaintance with Witnesses has been less favorable. They’ve been in the news constantly for allegations of hiding molestation cases brought up against their elders, or pastor-like ‘shepherds’. They’ve also been featured in high profile cases of JW husbands murdering their wives, and elders not complying with police investigations. Or maybe you know about their most evil practice: shunning.
Founded in the U.S. in the 19th century by a man named Charles Taze Russell, the Witnesses have over 7 million members across the world. They use their own version of the King James Bible, which has been widely discredited as falsely translated. This is important, as JWs use the text as the basis for outlandish, apocalyptic beliefs.
Yes, they believe the physical world will end soon, and as one, you wake up each day wondering, hoping: ‘Will this be the day?’
After the wicked (AKA people who don’t believe what they believe) have been killed by Jehovah God through Jesus Christ, Witnesses believe that the Earth will become a paradise and their believing friends and family members will be resurrected to enjoy it with them. Forever and ever.
I couldn’t make this shit up.
So how do you get people to believe something so insane? You brainwash them with constant inundation of false information, and you base the religion on a complex social hierarchy. Men and fathers are the authorities. Women and children do as they say.
The only reason why the abuse that this breeds actually works is because of the Witnesses’ ace-in-the-hole: shunning.
Shunning is an extreme, abusive form of punishment practiced by cult groups like the Amish and Witnesses. It’s very effective when you are born into one of these cults, because if you decide to leave the group for any reason at all, you are literally not spoken to by the group for as long as you are not within it.
You can also be shunned against your will, if your behavior is deemed sinful.
Sinful actions that can get you shunned include: having sex before marriage, entertaining other forms of religious beliefs, trying drugs or smoking cigarettes, celebrating holidays or birthdays, being LGBTQ, masturbating, or simply deciding you don’t believe in the Witnesses’ doctrines.
How could they possibly monitor that, you ask? They don’t. The elders, or priest-like keepers of each congregation, rely on other people basically tattling on you. But mostly, it’s self-admission. That’s right: the level of guilt you feel doing anything contrary to doctrine is so devastatingly overwhelming that you run to the nearest elder and await their compassionate judgment.
That’s the power of being brainwashed with almost daily reminders of what’s right and what’s wrong, according to whatever they make up.
When you’re afraid of losing the only people you know, not to mention the only reality you know, imagine the levels people will go to hide their ‘unsavory’ actions. Yes, human behavior – the sex, addictions, even occasional heinous crime — doesn’t just stop when you’re a Fundamentalist. It becomes secret.
And my father was an expert liar.
I grew up in California and was born into a highly pious Jehovah’s Witness family. Some families are more important than others, and my father’s side was basically JW royalty. I was raised to fear my dad, an alcoholic who was diagnosed as a sex addict with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
To make matters even grander, he was violent and abusive — but also a highly respected senior elder in my local congregation.
Like most Jehovah’s Witness youth with elder fathers, I studied both the JW translation of the Bible and Watchtower literature for hours and went to multiple meetings per week. Plus, we’d go door-to-door to preach most weekends. I think it all-in-all it was about 12 hours per week of my time.
At age 11, my dad sat down with me and told me that everyone expected me to be baptized. The act of baptism is what supports the punishment of shunning: if you’re not baptized, you can’t be disfellowshipped, or shunned. But, likewise, if you’re not baptized, your association with other Witnesses becomes limited. You’re not treated equally.
I accepted baptism.
But there was just one little problem: this was around the age I realized I was gay. I remember being at restaurants with my family and other Witnesses as a child and I would just burst out into tears because I thought the waitress was cute. I had long conversations with my parents about it because I hated myself. I thought something was seriously wrong with me. My parents basically helped me to repress it by telling me over and over again that it was just a part of sexual development, to have feelings for the same sex.
I made myself believe that, but of course it wasn’t true. I am a gay woman, now out and proud.
I went along with the Witness thing through my teenage years until I met my first boyfriend, which is a big deal when you’re a JW — particularly if you’re also secretly gay. Jehovah’s Witnesses only accept dating when it leads to marriage, and a chaperone is always required. He was 12 years my senior and, even though technically illegal, we winded up fooling around. Guilt consumed me. I told my father what happened.
The boyfriend was shunned. I was “publicly reproved”, the JW equivalent of shaming without shunning, which is equal to purgatory on earth. Many stopped speaking with me anyway. My entire family treated me differently. My father’s family — who hold major positions in the organization — all began to talk down to me. It was the lack of love and rejection I felt, as well as the inability to even seek closure with my first dating experience — that led me to attempt to commit suicide.
My parents had separated just a day before. My dad stayed at his parent’s large home, while my sister, mother and I remained in ours. My mom, shamed and pressured by the local elders, told me she was getting back together with him and he’d move back in. That did it. I barricaded myself in my room (my father wouldn’t allow locks on our doors) and took 300 over-the-counter pills with a bottle of rum. My mother found me and I kept telling her it was going to be okay. I felt the life leaving me. Darkness encroached and I began feeling warm even while growing cold. My mother was in shambles. She called 911 as my sister called my father. His reply was disturbing silence.
When I awoke in a hospital, I came-to while spitting up coal from the nurses pumping my stomach. It took my father 2 days to come to the hospital and, when he did arrive with one of his brothers, he didn’t even enter the room. They didn’t speak to me or even approach the hospital bed. We exchanged looks. They left.
That’s the last time I saw my dad, almost exactly 10 years ago. I was placed in a psych ward for 3 days before the court decided that my mom either leave my father with me and my sister, or they would place me in a halfway home until I reached 18. The psychologist experts insisted I was sexually abused by my father, and even confiscated a letter he wrote to me because they felt the content was romantic in nature. But I have no memory and there remains no proof of such.
My mother took my sister and I live with her family. We tried to stay Jehovah’s Witnesses for a time, but I had one foot out the door after surviving my suicide attempt. My 14-year-old sister started experimenting with sex and self-mutilating. My mother was sexually harassed by her first boss at her first job in the ‘real world’. I got another boyfriend, this time not a JW, who ended up being the worst possible choice for me. When new elders shunned my sister for her behavior, clearly born from her pain, it was the last straw for all of us – particularly my mom, who was not about to risk losing another child.
I want to be clear about how difficult it is to adapt to a world outside of the Witnesses. You’re vulnerable, in pain, confused, and don’t recognize abuse because abuse used to be your everyday life. You know few, if any people. You have zero points of reference for how to live, behave, start a career.
Witnesses use this fear of ‘the World’ (yes, that’s how they refer to life outside of the religion) to keep people in the organization, couching it as a dangerous place that’ll consume you. In reality, the only danger is failing to adapt because it’s so tremendously painful. Many suicides, self-harm and substance abuse occur during this time period, when ex-Witnesses try to adapt to real life, but cannot escape the pain and isolation. For some, it’s too much and they return to the cult.
Even so, after I left the organization, quickly followed by my mom and sister, I felt my life really began.
We were now truly the three musketeers. All we had in the world was each other. That is when my drive — described in the first passage of this op-ed — really developed. Yet slowly I was crumbling. After I went to Berkeley, I entered a new phase of disillusionment. I was lost, as if I was an exposed nerve simply reacting to everything that happened to me. It was something I was strangely able to maintain until graduation a la the unfinished essay you’ve already read.
My experience of loss, depression and self-harm is why I am making a plea — to whatever powers that be — that the shunning practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses and similar fundamentalist cults be made illegal. I understand that freedom of religion is an incredible part of why our nation was founded, but it is an inarguable fact that the practice of shunning is a crippling horror that destroys lives and families on the purported merit of biblical direction.
In reality, it is the Watchtower Society’s chokehold; without it, they will not be able to so wickedly control and brainwash their members.
My purpose in writing this piece is twofold: 1) to those reading who are ex-Witnesses or thinking of leaving, know that it is possible to rebuild your life outside of the cult and that you are not alone; 2) I wish to become and radiate yet one more voice in opposition to the legality of shunning.
I believe that every person on this earth has the right to believe as they choose. But what happens when those beliefs oppress the natural bonds of humanity? Our media is rife with discussion of religious extremists because they’re physically violent, bombing and killing innocents all across the globe.
What about social violence? What about the destruction of people’s mental health, familial ties and emotional well-being? Why are we not discussing the erasure of innocent children who grow up to become — despite everything — freethinking adults who lose their entire lives vis-a-vis the natural process of maturation?
No more unfinished essays. No more suicide attempts. No more silenced voices.
These are conversations we need to have – now.