I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. When I left the faith, my family and community shunned me
ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE LAM
Amber Scorah is a Canadian writer living in New York. She is the author of Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.
My mother has no idea where I am, whether I am alive, or sick, or sad, or happy. My daughter has never met her aunt or her cousins. My best friends feel I have betrayed them – a Satan, of sorts. This is because I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I was baptized into the faith at 14, and later, as an adult, did not believe it was “the Truth” anymore.
When I pleaded with my sister after I left the religion, vainly trying to help her see, through her indoctrination, that we could still be family – that I was no different than the sister she had always had, minus a few beliefs – she pointed out, curtly, “The position you are in is because you have put yourself there, not me.”
How could this be, when I was the one who was begging for the relationship?
It is because I have been shunned. I left, I was no longer able to believe and I am now “apostate.” Apostates in my religion are referred to with the following descriptors: mentally diseased, depraved, a dog that has returned to its own vomit, lower than a snake, poisoned, like gangrene that needs to be amputated.
In reality, I am the same person they loved, spent time with, enjoyed, argued with, laughed with – minus the belief. I have my mental faculties, I don’t sin much more than the odd curse word, I am a mom with a pretty regular life. Really, I am not much different than the person they knew before. When you leave a cult, you shed its belief system and, if anything, you are more yourself than ever. Maybe that’s the problem.
These are good people. These are people who love me. I know that they do. But if they saw me, they’d cross the street to avoid me. Nobel prize winner Steven Weinberg once said that “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”
At the age of 30, I was still a believer and had moved to Shanghai to be a missionary, what we called a “pioneer,” because the world had not yet ended, as had been predicted by our leaders, and it was incumbent on me to preach, to save these people in a country where my religion was illegal, and therefore largely unknown.
It was in China, preaching underground, that I began to suspect I had been brainwashed. My indoctrination had happened slowly over a childhood interspersed with terrors of the violent end of the world I heard about at our meetings in the Kingdom Hall. I learned there that the world was evil, and that our religion was where you stayed safe. I heard this, year in and year out, from my parents, at three meetings a week, in a Bible study with a sister in the congregation and from the books they sent home with us – children’s Bible story books that had both pictures of children in paradise cuddling with a lion, and pictures of children dying at Armageddon, depending on which page you opened to.
In the fifties, a psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton began interviewing Chinese people who had fled their homeland after being subjected to indoctrination in Chinese universities. After extensive interviews over a year, Dr. Lifton identified the tactics the Chinese used to brainwash people. Years after I left the religion, I found the list. Each and every item on the list was something the Jehovah’s Witnesses used to keep people in.
Had I seen parallels between my own authoritarian organization and the one I was living under? I might have, subconsciously. After all, it was in China that I woke up. But when you are indoctrinated, it takes a lot to get to a place where you admit things to yourself. Because admitting you were wrong means realizing your whole life has been a waste. It means being thrown out into a world you don’t know how to live in.
Most of us have heard of the five stages of grief. There are also stages of shunning, because it, too, is a death of sorts. I am dead to the people who used to know me, although some people find it easier to forget about someone they love than others. And although all of us who were raised in this religion know what the end result of this has to be – after all, others have dropped by the wayside before – some find it easier to discard me than others. Shunning is a messy, bitter process.
After my apostasy, some friends proclaimed their ostracization. In the case of one of my closest friends, it was her husband who called me, his voice tight with anger, haughty with the unacknowledged pleasure of speaking to someone who was now low, telling me his wife would no longer see me. I was surprised it was he who called, not my friend, but in our religion the men often did the speaking for the women. Plus, she was always the kind one.
One or two of the people I loved, people I had grown up with and spent much of my life with, broke the rules and talked to me, for a while. But after some time, that became untenable, both for them and for me.
The truth with this kind of shunning is that at its core is indoctrination. It’s very hard to be yourself around someone who is indoctrinated, especially when you have muscle memory for that particular flavour of belief. You know what is taboo to discuss, or be, or think, so you must police who you are, even though you’re no longer in the religion that requires it.
One couple became more attracted to me after my apostasy became clear, and secretly invited me to their home for dinners (a terrible thing for them to do, as even eating with a person like me was a sin) in the hopes of saving me yet. I learned, over our forbidden shared food, that they, too, had had doubts about the religion, at some point along the way, but had pushed them aside.
“Stay in,” they said. “You can still go to the elders and repent. Being in the truth is still the best way of living, and even if it’s not all true, surely it’s closer to true than anything else.”
They had been reduced to hedging their bets. And no wonder, since leaving was unbearable in many ways. We lost our identities, our history, our families. And beyond that, we who had been raised in this belief system did not recognize that we were more than what we believed. Without the belief, there was only oblivion. And now, my apostasy was like a door opened, and they were bargaining with me, because my leaving threatened the life they thought they had made their peace with.
And finally, one day, they, too, stopped calling, because for me, pretending was impossible. The only means of staying in would be to hide the fact that I didn’t believe in it any more.
Most of the rest of the people in my life just disappeared, overnight. A few spoke badly of me, trying to obliterate me, the person I was, the purpose of which was to make me into the Satan they were taught I was, to justify their hatred.
This hatred, of course, was called love by those who taught us. Over and over, we learned in our Watchtower magazines and at our meetings, this process of shunning people was in fact an act of love. Surely, if we were kind to those who sinned, or no longer believed, the sinner would never wake up and see the wrongs of their ways, would never repent and return to the group. And thus, when we shunned, our minds told us we were performing an act of love, even if our hearts knew different. We were trained to ignore internal dilemmas such as this.
What kind of shunner would I have been? I know what kind, because I, too, used to shun. I shunned people who committed sins, and whose names were announced from the meeting platform as “disfellowshipped.” I shunned a man named Dale, who was disfellowshipped for being gay and was later found hanging from a noose in the forests of a university campus nearby, an area that was part of our preaching territory, the place we drove around all day, trying to save lives. He didn’t hang himself at home, because no one would have found him there – no one was allowed to go to his house. In our religion’s no man’s land, he ceased to exist.
I felt bad when this happened, but our community needed us to hold up the scaffolding of this world we were a part of, as our parents before us had, and our grandparents before that, and we had a responsibility to pretend that Dale hanging himself in the woods near the University of British Columbia was something sad but acceptable. After the meeting at which his death was announced, much like his disfellowshipping had been months before, we all went for coffee and talked about Dale, then we went home and numbed our feelings, to forget about him, and live with ourselves.
ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE LAM
Now I am on the other side, the shunned.
Interestingly, my mother, who shuns me, is not even an active Jehovah’s Witness herself any more. But she, too, does not speak to me. When shunning is taught to you as a means of dealing with conflict, it becomes an easy out.
Because shunning really is a way to protect yourself. It’s mandated by my old religion for that very reason: so that the gangrene does not spread. We shun because it’s too painful to not. It’s easier to cut someone out than it is to feel challenged by their unbelief. To feel judged by their rejection of your life course. To face the fact that there is a divide between you and someone you love that is too great to conquer. To face the humiliation that you may be wrong. To discover that your whole life was wasted on something that isn’t true.
Ironically, like my mother, I, too, have a lost child, except that my child was lost through death. The loss of a child is intergenerational: my son will never have children, descendants. I will never have grandchildren from him in my life. The loss of my mother’s child – me – is the same, in a way. I do not have a mother. My daughter does not have a grandmother. Her great-grandmother does not want to meet her, nor see me one last time before she dies.
I wonder, sometimes: Does my mother’s loss of her child feel to her different than mine? My child, unlike my mother’s, is dead. Unlike my son, I am alive. I would give, quite honestly, anything to be able to hold him even once again. I don’t have a choice.
Do the brainwashed have any more of a choice? I’m not sure.