I had an idea for coming up with a standard(ish) set of interview questions which members of the ex-JW community could use to provide insights into their lives as a kind of series (yeah, I was thinking of "interview with a vampire", LOL).
Anyway, this is the result to show the sort of thing I'm thinking of (applied to myself) and I'd like feedback on the format and the questions as well as who you'd also like to see "interviewed".
Feel free to provide your own life story as a separate topic or ask any additional questions that I've missed. It's not meant to be rigid so questions / themes can be adapted as needed and split / joined as appropriate. The common questions will hopefully apply to everyone for some consistency and to guide the writing process with additional questions asked that make sense to each subject.
Well, here goes ...
Tell us a little about yourself and your family.
I’m an independent software developer who grew up in Manchester (UK) but now lives in Calgary (Canada) with my wife Angharad and two boys, Liam and Dylan. They are really getting to the ‘young men’ stage though now so I should maybe start changing the description.
Were you a born in or a convert?
Are your parents / family JWs?
How many generations have been JWs?
I was born in. My father was a convert with no other JW relatives and my mother was born in - her mother was a JW but my grandfather wasn’t (the nicest guy in the world ever). My parents were missionaries in Ireland at one point but my father was Df’d and they divorced. I actually don't know a whole lot about their JW past.
I have 2 sisters who are both JWs and a younger half-brother who isn’t.
Did you hold any position in the WTS? (MS, Elder etc...)
No, unless ‘holding the mics’ counts :)
Did you *really* believe in the bible, in spirits (angels, demons)?
Did you get baptised? When and why?
I don’t think I ever really believed it like some others seemed to. I always felt kind of silly and embarrassed hearing anything ‘spiritual’ coming out of my own mouth but you are brought up to recite it and say certain things.
The expectation put upon you is why I ended up getting baptized at 16. What was I thinking? Oh, that’s right - I wasn’t!
I remember hearing one of my brother-in-law’s full of righteous indignation at a wedding reception when the guy doing entertainment (another brother) did some Tommy Cooper style magic tricks (more comedy than magic) and he thought that he was “summoning satan’s demons”. I thought people like that were nuts even when I was in.
What was the initial trigger that made you start questioning things?
I’d had a fairly miserable childhood - my parents divorce combined with the JW upbringing meant I didn’t really have any social network as a child other than with the handful of other ‘weirdigans’ in the same cong. Because you all hung out together at school it made you stand out even more and the inability to join in with practically any activities made you pretty isolated.
Contact with my father was on and off depending on the ever changing rules (which I now know were more about the WTS power and control and them cleaning house in bethel). This always seemed unfair and I think kids have an inherent sense of injustice. I remember being pulled into a back room at the KH by an elder and given a 30 minute lecture on why I should not be talking to my father. I was probably about 12 … who does that to a kid?
Anyway, I stayed in and eventually got married and was one of those middle-of-the-road witnesses … I never did anything wrong but I wasn’t pushing to get ahead or be given any privileges either. I think my refusal to totally cease any contact with my father was always held against me.
I ended up going on a business trip to San Diego and while we were there we went past some JWs sitting on deckchairs in the sun with literature on a table (that was a shock - we had to walk drizzle-soaked sketchy council estates in Salford). The colleague I was with said “oh, those are the people that think they know the star that god lives on”. I announced that I was a witness and that we did NOT believe that at all. The next week he apologised and said he’d based it on something he’d read and gave me a list of WT literature references. I looked them up in the Kingdom Hall library and … erm, he was right?! That kind of shook me a little.
I started researching more and more, reading internet sites (this was mid to late 90’s) and finding out flip-flops in doctrine, crazy and wacky beliefs and misquotes and misdirection in much of the WTS literature. I asked questions and could get no answers from anyone.
My wife was pregnant and because of a blood condition that she has the issue of blood came up. Because of what I’d be learning I wasn’t prepared to risk anything so the next time we saw the doctor at the hospital we asked her to cross off the “no blood” part in the notes and she actually expressed how relieved she was at our decision (even though she would have supported our right to chose).
We had our first son by cesarean and the first question my other elder-wannabe-brother-in-law asked was “did she accept blood?” - yeah, real loving concern. He was the kind who would have been first to volunteer as a brown-coat and hand in friends and neighbours because he imagined it would curry favour with the higher-ups and lead to promotion. He started to appear at the door and ask things like “do you accept that the governing body are god’s representatives on earth?” which, because I already had a copy of the elders manual, I knew was a fast track ticket to disfellowshipping. I told him I had a copy and that made him even madder. He was on a mission to get me booted.
Eventually the elders came round to set me straight and address my doubts. Angharad said when they left that it was the thing that most convinced her that I was right and they were wrong - they just didn’t have answers to anything and at the same were making threats about me talking to anyone else about anything.
It was frustrating not being able to really discuss much with anyone and while there were informational sites online and some discussion sites they seemed to be pretty polar in their views (i.e. either very pro-witness, no questions allowed or totally apostate and not welcome to beginners) so I decided to set-up my own forum which I thought could be open to everyone and enable discussion from both sides.
Where did you find information? Internet sites? Books?
I’d found Randy Watter’s FreeMinds site early on and sent away for some books and stuff and these were very useful. Kent Steinhaug’s Watchtower Observer was also useful as well as many other sites about evolution etc.... It’s amazing what the ex-JW pioneers did in the early days of the internet and how many people they helped.
I also set-up another site of my own called "jwtruth" which was a chronology of WT beliefs which I thought showed off the flip-flops in doctrine and relationship between events and rule-changes. I sadly didn’t keep it up but doing the research for it was of great personal value.
How difficult or painful was the process of leaving?
I think it’s important to thoroughly research the beliefs and history so you are confident you are doing the right thing. I can’t imagine leaving but still thinking it might be the truth and living with doubt or fear of the future. So, leaving wasn’t difficult in terms of knowing whether it was right or wrong … but it is still a painful process.
Because I started asking questions I was marked and stopped being invited to family events (which I know my elder-wannabe brother-in-law had a lot to do with). I also had "apostate" scrawled on my car while it was in the kingdom-hall car-park during a meeting. This was just when I started asking questions.
A fine, loving congregation Irlam was … not.
Was it a big dramatic exit or a careful quiet fade?
Eventually my questioning and internet sites caught up with me and I was invited to have another “chat” with the elders which I declined. A week later we had a piece of paper shoved under the front door (we were in, they obviously didn’t want to talk to us!). It just said “we accept your dissociation by your refusal to talk to the elders at the judicial committee”. Sly … I’d never been told it was a judicial committee, just a chat.
I went round to the kingdom hall to see if I could catch any of them and asked the elder there what the hell was going on. His response was to call the police claiming that ‘some guy has come into our hall and looks like he’s trying to cause trouble’ but it may have been a bluff because they never showed - maybe helped by me announcing loudly what my name was and that he knew exactly who I was and why I was there.
Anyway, I eventually got an ‘appeal’ that would be heard by 3 elders from another congregation plus the 3 from the local cong who had da’d me. After 3+ hours with 6 of them they came to the conclusion that yes, I was refusing to speak to them (!) and so the decision was upheld. Not really a surprise but I went down guns blazing, telling it like it was and making them uncomfortable.
They were very concerned about my websites and the bit I enjoyed the most was when they asked how many visitors they got to which I replied “about 20,000 a week” (and leaning forward) “that’s more than you get at a whole district assembly isn’t it?” (grin)
They started giving local special needs talks about apostasy and announced I had disassociated myself. Even though I told her I hadn’t my mother chose to believe the elders and that I’d written a letter and she wouldn't take up my challenge to ask to see the alleged letter.
Did you convince anyone else to leave with you?
Yes, although there was a period when things were a little strained I eventually convincing my wife and we left as a family. I’d also been giving information to my brother so that he didn’t get sucked and so he got to go to university and not get baptised.
How were your family relations affected by your decision?
Were you or are you still being shunned by those who didn't leave?
Yes, I had much less contact with my family and haven’t really seem much of my sisters and mother since we left - helped somewhat by our moving over to Canada. One day I got a phone call and my mother asked if I believed that the governing body was god’s representatives on earth. I said no and the phone went dead and that’s the last time I spoke to her. I can only assume that a more hard-line watchtower rule had come out. What a nice, loving religion, what a ridiculous family.
It was nice to make contact with my father again though and I got to see him a lot more but nothing can ever really make up for all the years that were lost.
Before we emigrated we got shunned by most but not everyone in the KH. I explained our reasons for leaving to them but ultimately didn’t want to cause them any trouble and believe everyone can and should be allowed to make up their own minds about things.
How long have you now been out?
Hard to put an exact date on things but it’s probably about 15 years now.
Was there anything you looked forward to doing when you left?
Some people who leave seem to dive into a life of debauchery and drugs. That didn’t really appeal to me. It was nice just living life and making our own decisions on what to do with our time.
What are you most proud of achieving since you left?
Staying together as a family and raising two absolutely awesome, respectful, considerate kids with a good sense of humor and cynicism. We accomplished our goal of moving to Canada which started when we began coming over to visit my father. I think it’s been a good move and allowed us to make a fresh start.
The forum has been more than I ever thought it would. I really had no great plans and just wanted to ‘do something’. It’s nice when you hear that it’s helped people and while it’s been a lot of work over the years it’s also been an incredibly rewarding responsibility.
Is there anything you miss about life in the congregation?
There’s always the friends you grew up with and there were some fun times and sense of camaraderie which is more due to being a small group that thinks they are being persecuted. But even the good times are only relative though and weren’t really ‘great’, just not as bad as the rest of the time. It’s like if you stop banging your head against the wall and think it’s great. It isn’t really, it’s just all you know.
Red pill or blue pill? Do you regret waking up to reality at all?
I can’t remember which is which but I’d rather know the truth and however difficult and painful leaving was I always know that my kids don’t have to go through the whole JW upbringing and future which I’m happy about.
Leaving isn’t for everyone though. If it was, everyone would leave.
Did you become an atheist or transfer your faith elsewhere?
I did a lot of research into the bible and history and religion in general, not just focusing on the WTS and you basically see the same patterns everywhere. It’s all about power and control under the guise of spirituality with some made-up stories to flesh things out. So I’m a 100% atheist now.
How do you now feel about religion in general?
Mixed feelings - it does provide something for some people: the opium that Marx described it as. It would be nice if they didn’t need that but some do and some thrive on it. Should everyone be woken up? I don’t think so - I remember chatting online to a single mom with 2 seriously disabled children and she was saying how much the people in the local congregation helped her. Do I want to tell someone like that it’s all lies and she should leave? Probably not. Do I think someone else has the right to force that truth on her? No, I don’t.
Do I think the nutter-types who spout nonsense and are in-your-face and pushy should be called out on it? Absolutely - they should be ridiculed mercilessly and shown up for the charlatans they are - no different to fortune-tellers and mystics, just frauds in different clothing. Society now seems open to laughing at religion, it’s definitely lost the revered position and standing that it once enjoyed which is a good thing. As I heard recently: what right to priests have to preach anything about morality when they have covered up so much abuse?
Remember, no amount of laughing at religion will ever be as cruel as what religion has done to non-believers over the years.
Do you feel any guilt celebrating xmas or birthdays or doing any other JW "no-no"s?
The first time we celebrated Christmas was a bit of a thrill - we put a small light-up tree in the window, LOL. Maybe it’s just the habbit from the upbringing but xmas and birthdays for ourselves have never been a big deal still … but the kids obviously love them (I think it’s the gifts though)
We're pretty clean-living so have probably broken fewer rules than many JWs have. Ironic that the only one we broke was to question the authority.
Have you attended any face-to-face meetups of ex-JWs?
Yes, there was a nice group of people in the UK who regularly met up which was nice. We kind of stepped back from that as people moved on and we moved over to Canada. We have met up with a few people recently over here though.
It is nice but I can understand some people being scared to do it. Nothing beats being able to talk things through with people who understand though and the meetups can fill a social void caused by shunning.
Describe your circle of friends - mostly other ex-JWs or regular people?
Do you tell people about your JW past?
Mostly regular people now. I think it’s important to make friends outside of JW / ex-JW land and not allow the WTS to continually define your existence. Normal people are actually pretty nice and not being a JW doesn’t mean people don’t have other issues and challenges to overcome so don’t imagine you’ll be the 'broken' person out of any group.
We’ve been very fortunate to make some absolutely amazing friends and they have been very understanding about any quirks we may have such as as having to explain social situations or hang-ups about things. It’s been nice getting to know their families and getting to enjoy weddings and births and all the ‘life’ events that you otherwise miss out on when your friends and family shun you.
Do you feel animosity or pity toward current JWs?
How do you respond to witnesses when they call at your door?
It’s difficult - some JWs are captives, some are guards, some are both and don’t know it. It’s easy to think of all JWs as “the enemy” but they are not. Many are really nice people and just misguided and fooled into being cruel to others while believing it’s the loving thing to do. There are people who run the show and make the rules and absolutely know that it’s all a man-made construct and I wish that there really was a hell that they could burn in … for the vast majority though they will likely suffer various hardships at the hands of their religion before they die or wake up. The best thing we can do is be there to help them if they do start asking questions.
I’ve had some interesting chats when they have called round and I’ve been open about being brought up as one.
Storm the barricades or tend to the wounded? (do you favor activism or support)
I don’t think trying to force people to see the truth helps and it shows a certain arrogance to imagine that now we have woken up then everyone else needs to follow us and wake up too whether family, friends or people we’ve never met.
Most of us left when something happened to us which then made us start questioning and putting the pieces together. Why didn’t we leave 5 years earlier than we did? Because we weren’t ready and any attempts to convince us likely made us more determined to resist - JWs are brought up to be immune to persecution and taught how to counter arguments, however sound and logical they may be.
Of course activism is always going to work for some people but I think it provides most help for the people doing it to feel like that are doing something but I’ve seen so many people get eaten up by trying to bring the WTS down and it is realistically never going to happen - maybe the world will be different in 100 years and religion banished but it’s not happening now. I personally don’t believe that the people chanting and waving banners outside assemblies really convinced any or many other than that what the WTS had told them was true.
Just as current JWs believe that the world is focused on them so do a lot of newly exited ex-JWs but the reality is that JWs are nothing more than a punchline of occasional jokes for most people. They don’t care and can never understand why JWs would behave as they do so trying to educate the world is a bit of a lost cause. I think time and effort is better spent providing support for the people who are leaving and have suffered.
So for me, support is the best form of activism.
The Amish seem to be getting a lot more TV time and they are a lot less numerous. Maybe they are ironically better at PR in the new information age. The trouble with JWs is they are less visibly different, just mentally separate.
What do you think is the most effective approach to reaching people still in?
Ask thought provoking questions just as we were taught as JWs (the reality was that the goal was to pounce on personal / family tragedy).
My favourite type of question has always been “is there anything that would ever convince you that the WTS wasn’t the truth?”. I think most people deep down know that if they are saying “no, I’ll believe it’s the truth no matter what they do” to that then they have a cult-like mentality. If they do actually say something then there’s normally something to start talking about (e.g. child abuse cover-ups like the Catholic Church). Ultimately though, just being non-confrontational and not out to fool them, or so openly convince them that their faith is wrong is the right approach. Sometimes seeds take a long time to grown and it takes a lot of little pieces of knowledge to grow into a greater awareness.
I’m sure like most people my own feelings are based on my own experience. Some may have been convinced by a very head-on approach but most of the experiences I’ve heard and read over the years tend to mirror my own which is why I feel like I do. Hey, as long as no one is being hurt or attacked then anyone is free to follow whatever course they want. They maybe shouldn’t assume to be speaking for everyone though.
Do you think the WTS can or should be destroyed, will continue on as-is or grow / change?
I think any religion that reaches a critical mass becomes self-sustaining. Even if they don’t grow much they survive because of the born-ins and population growth. The WTS growth is still happening in the west but slower than it might without the information that many have provided. They are growing in more developing countries … but then so are cigarrettes. The reality is that if you have a belief system to peddle then someone, somewhere will buy it - heck, look at scientologists and mormons - equally fruit-cake and even more successful.
Imagining that the terrible treatment we’ve had to endure will convince the world to dismantle the organization is so pie-in-the-sky it’s insane. None of us is that important although some individuals have shown tremendous fortitude and successfully legally challenged the WTS but normally for much worse experiences than the majority of us have had to endure.
Some ex-JWs misread “cannot be destroyed” with “shouldn’t be destroyed”. If I had a magic button that would obliterate the WTS or all religion then I would press it for sure. Unfortunately, there is no such button.
I think the WTS will change though as time goes on. Already, the people are not the same as 50 years ago when they were very devoted (at the time it appealed to a very small group). They now seem to be aiming to transition into more of a lifestyle-religion and less of a doomsday group - settling in for the long haul.
How has your life been impacted by your JW past?
Are there things in your life you blame the WTS for?
Yes. I was a bright kid and frequently top of my class and even the school in most subjects and without much effort. I should have absolutely had the chance to go to university and would probably have done well but that was denied to me because of the WTS. Of course this is going to impact your life.
Same for my family - like many ex-JWs I feel like I’ve been messed up a little because of my upbringing. It’s hard to get over 30 years of indoctrination and even when you “know” something it may not stop you feeling a certain way as an initial reaction.
Without the WTS beliefs I think I would have focused on my career earlier and maybe started saving for retirement sooner. Fortunately I’ve been lucky with my field of work and hopefully made up some lost ground but still, hurdles stop you getting as far as you otherwise would even if you do manage to get over them.
There are other things that they ‘steal’ from you. You’re less likely to be going to high-school reunions for instance or reminiscing with old friends. They even poison your memories - who can enjoy flicking through their wedding album and seeing all the “friends” that now shun you?
JW upbringing - a protection or a curse?
This is an excuse I heard a lot - “even if it’s not the truth then it’s still the best way to live”. Except religious people don’t have a monopoly on being nice or having morals just as being a JW doesn’t stop people committing adultery or stealing.
I think it’s a curse. I have seen many JW kids grow up as hoodlums and taking drugs, getting into trouble with the law or generally messing up their lives. I don’t believe it’s healthy to ever bring kids up to be tightly controlled with little freedom and also to be taught to have blind obedience to an absolute authority of any kind.
They should be brought up to question, question, question absolutely anything and everything they hear and especially things they are told. I think that helps them see through religions, politics, peer-pressure and everything in between far more than trying to be shielded from everything which is unrealistic. You can’t be there to protect your children 100% of the time so you need to give them the mental tools to make the right choices for themselves.
How do you fill your time now it's not filled with meetings and field service?
Wow, TV is sooooo good! Lost, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Coronation Street (oops, but erm, yeah). Man, I sound like a right couch potato!
I like reading a lot but still love programming so it’s mostly technical books and blogs - it really is still a hobby as well as a job and it is always changing so there’s always something new to master. Right now I’ve been ramping on Google App Engine which may be a future platform for the forum to run on.
And of course spending time with the family and friends is always good too. A couple we know had a baby recently and I just can’t get enough of new-baby-hugs!
Do you still have an interest in JW beliefs and doctrines?
Not so much as I used to but of course with family still in then I’m still impacted by it so like to keep up with changes. I find it hard to be interested in endless debates quoting scriptures as though they mean anything though - it’s just as nonsensical as me quoting passages of Lord of the Rings to argue some point about life choices even though Lord of the Rings is much better written book.
How much of your time is still spent on JW related matters?
Quite a lot - the forum takes up quite a bit of time both to have a presence on the site and doing behind-the-scenes maintenance but that is my choice as it’s also a side-project / hobby that I learn from.
What do you think of the ex-JW community?
Well, it’s certainly diverse! For me it’s had high points and low points. Being able to travel to Florida and meet so many wonderful people - Steve, Joy, Barb and others from all over the world was amazing and all the other meetups we had (singing Karaoke!) were fantastic and great fun. I’ve learnt a lot from many people who are infinitely more knowledgeable than I am (and certainly much more patient). We‘ve been touched by people’s lives who are sadly no longer with us and also enjoy friendships with people we’ve yet to meet.
Unfortunately there is also at times a lot of unnecessary vitriol which is disappointing which I put down to a combination of things:
Damaged people coming together and talking about the cause of their pain, religion and often politics (great combination e?!)
Personalities that were conditioned for years to believe they are 100% right about things leads to dogmatism (I know I can be very opinionated)
Black and white thinking where people take lack of support to mean opposition (“who isn’t with me is against me” is maybe burned into our brains)
The inability for most of us to really fight the WTS*
*By this I don’t mean that people can’t do things but they will never have much satisfaction of achieving things because the WTS will never provide that feedback. However much work, effort and energy is spent the WTS will largely ignore you and not even acknowledge your existence which doesn’t validate the work any of us do so for some I think this creates an underlying feeling of anger and resentment that is then directed toward others in the community.
I know I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years as I’ve struggled to balance the need for personal healing with the desire to ‘do something’ and the frustrations of dealing with people who I’ve perceived as trying to interfere with that along the way. All of us try and do the best we can with the information we have available but can’t get everything right. I think it takes a certain amount of dogmatic arrogance to keep running websites etc… which is necessary determination in one way but can be a handicap if you’re not aware of that side of your personality enough to try and contain it.
I think some people stay around too long and become too caught up in their animosity against the WTS and revenge which isn’t healthy and is sad to watch but on the whole I think the community is strong and continually invigorated by new people joining and contributing, each in their own way. It’s sad when people move on but also great that they do - I really enjoy when people pop back just to say “hi, I used to post as ...” years later though.
There are lots of people who put themselves out to give some support and say a kindly word without any fanfare or praise and I think they underestimate the power they have and what they achieve and how much they help people who may never post but read and identify with their stories and experiences.
Do you see yourself still being associated with the ex-JW community in 5 or 10 years time?
That’s a tough one. I did try and walk away before and seriously thought about quitting a few years ago but right now I’m finding it interesting enough to keep on with. It probably get’s harder to ever leave the longer you stay around and part of me is jealous of the people who can and do move on. I’ve always said it should be the aim for everyone to become an ex-ex-JW and stop allowing the WTS experience to define your life.
But it’s difficult and slightly different when you have family still in as you’ll always be affected somehow and of course running the forum is a responsibility because it wouldn't feel right to just turn it off. The first step will be to make it much more community driven which is something I’m working on.
Do you fear the future?
Like most people, I have concerns about retirement savings, safety and well-being of family and friends, concern for world events and instability in certain regions and the environment.
I don’t have any concerns about being zapped by an angry god or being caught on the khazi when Armageddon arrives though.
What advice would you give to anyone starting the journey of leaving the WTS?
Take a second and think before you decide how to act. And when I said "a second" I really mean weeks or months.
Find out as much as you can about what is likely to happen and what you want to happen and try to control things as much as you can but accept that the deck is stacked against you and much of it will be out of your control.
Be cautious and careful about who you talk to and work on keeping contact with loved ones. Research as much as possible so you have answers and confidence in your choices.
Get as much advice from people who have been through it and been in similar situations as you are in. You really can't ask too many questions and no questions are silly.
You never know how anyone is going to react or what doubts they may be having themselves so you need to approach each family or friend differently and be prepared to be surprised.
Just don’t be too dogmatic or too eager to convince everyone else of your new truth and accept that you simply won’t be able to convince everyone or possibly even anyone. Some people know it's not true but chose to stay for their own reasons.
What would you change in your life if you could go back and talk to yourself?
Don’t take so much shit from people. I guess I couldn’t tell a 12 year old to punch an elder in the face but I would have liked to have made better choices sooner.
At the same time I would also like to have been more measured in what I said and did and could maybe have made a slower more planned exit but the past is what it is.
It almost feels like it was a (bad) dream or a different life completely. I'm not sure I'd even recognise myself.
Do you have any regrets about life since you left?
None at all about leaving ‘the truth’. I have never even thought about going back or had any doubts whatsoever about it being true or not. I still feel anger and frustration about the past and of course don’t make the right decisions on everything but it’s OK to be wrong as long as you learn from the mistakes and apologise if you need to.
Overall though I’m glad my children will not be having the life I did.
Can we read your life-story anywhere? (links to online or books)
Sure, I posted it here:
- My life and how JWD came to be Part 1
- My life and how JWD came to be Part 2
- My life and how JWD came to be Part 3
- My life and how JWD came to be Part 4
- My life and how JWD came to be Part 5
I'm far too lazy and spelling / grammar challenged to write a book so sporadic posts will have to do.
Hopefully I got details consistent… some of the dates and sequences get a little muddled as things overlapped.
Want to share your own story? Please use the Interview with an Apostate: Template and post it in the Personal Experiences & Reunions section with the title "Interview with an Apostate: [your name or alias]"