I was born and brought up in the Church of England, which is part of the Anglican/Episcopalian Communion. My father, a man of great intelligence, love and integrity, was an Anglican priest. Once I became a Christian at age 15, I would love to sit with him for hours, talking about all the different questions I had about my faith and life in general. He allowed me to develop my own views, whilst providing support and loving guidance. Very tragically, he died when I was just 17 years old.
At that time, I had a strong but very immature faith. I was young, idealistic and very intolerant of the flaws I saw in my church, so I started to seek fellowship elsewhere. I ventured into Evangelical and even Roman Catholic groups, before deciding to explore the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My path may seem unusual to many, but I was young and very impressionable; easy prey to those who sought to influence and control me.
Eventually, after associating with the Watchtower Organization for just over 3 years, I began to see the terrible mistake I had made. I felt deeply ashamed for “allowing myself” to be indoctrinated by them, because I didn’t understand how Mind Control had been used against me. I see now that when they discover a young, impressionable and idealistic mind, they do everything within their power to bring you to baptism, no matter what it takes. In my case, they “love bombed” me with seemingly genuine affection, at a time when I was extremely lonely; I was finishing my last year of University, thousands of miles away from my fiancé (now husband).
Desperate to find meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging, I was enticed into the cult. As my heart was still grieving the loss of my father, it was no trouble for me to give up things like Christmas, Easter and birthdays, because they all reminded me of him. Being able to skip over these celebrations meant that I could numb the grief and avoid feeling the deep pain at my core.
During my time in the cult, my personality changed notably. I became harsh and judgmental, driving many of my closest friends away with my incessant and unrelenting attacks on their cherished beliefs and observances, such as Christmas, heaven and the Trinity.
My poor mother was at her wit’s end. The warm and affectionate young woman she had raised had transformed into an argumentative, proud and irritating Pharisee. I managed to ruin at least one Christmas with my toxic criticism and constant reminders of its “pagan” origins.
First my mother lost her beloved husband, then within just a few years, her own daughter slipped through her fingers to join a cult. She quickly realized that debating with me about the Scriptures or giving me books to read was going nowhere, as I was skilled in the art of refuting Bible verses and simply refused to listen to reason. I would hide the books she had lovingly purchased as they felt like dangerous kryptonite in my hands. One day I filled a whole shopping cart with my old Christian books and ornaments that I believed to be “demonic”, and threw them all away.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt, this was one of the hardest periods in the whole of my mother’s life. She felt powerless to help or influence me and simply didn’t know what to do. She has always been a woman of faith, and one particular day back in 2007, she knelt down to pray, in desperation. Much later, she shared with me that on that occasion, an image came into her mind while she prayed:
“I saw a very large rubbery web-like structure that Emily was stuck onto. The cables were as thick as an arm and very sticky; covered in powerful glue and crisscrossed like a web. I knew that I had to get her out and tried very hard to pull at her but she was firmly stuck and bounced back. I got help to cut through the thick bonds but it was impossible, as under the rubber was an extremely strong metal cable that we couldn’t cut through with anything. I was dismayed.
A few days later, while praying with other believers, I experienced God saying that I could not pull my daughter out or cut her free but that that His mighty love could completely melt away the bonds that were holding her.
It was an enormous weight off my shoulders and I knew my job was to join with the Lord in loving her. I did not have to worry about researching books about Jehovah’s Witnesses or arguing Bible verses with her but just love her and not worry or be afraid as God had it all in hand.”
My mother obeyed that voice, and within just 3 years I began to open my eyes.
Some people are fortunate enough to have an extreme “awakening” experience, in which they suddenly become aware of the true nature of the Cult or High-Control Group they have been enslaved to. On the other hand, it can be a much more gradual process spanning several years. Such was my case.
The first “red flag” that I can identify was on the very day of my baptism. I was standing in the changing rooms with the other young girls and women, getting ready to go out and take the plunge. I remember noticing how silent everyone was, and how afraid they all looked. There was no joy on their faces or excitement in their eyes. Nobody even glanced at me with a smile. It was an eerie, troublesome feeling.
Another observation that I made was regarding some of the elderly people that I had met. I thought to myself: if this is the ‘One, True Religion’, it stands to reason that the older people, who have dedicated decades of their lives to this Organization, should be the most spiritual, holy and loving people around. However, I found that many of them seemed to be embittered, unfriendly and prone to gossip.
Sadly, I ignored these red flags, and continued to associate with the Witnesses for an extended period. There were other “warning signs” that should have awakened me from my indoctrinated stupor, but somehow, I couldn’t get free straightaway. One of these was during a Congregational Book Study, back in 2007 or 2008. We were studying a rather frightening, red book called “Revelation – its grand climax at hand!”
I found most of it to be somewhat irrelevant and even ridiculous, but one concept particularly shocked me. I can’t remember the precise details, but it had something to do with locusts with women’s hair and stings in their tails. The explanation of this was abhorrent to me; absolutely antithetical to a God of love, so I quietly got up and walked out.
I should never have gone back after that; why didn’t I have the sense to stay away??? The truth is that I did start attending less regularly and never returned to the Book Study, but it was a while before I could break free altogether.
There were two main reasons why my husband and I kept falling back into the arms of the Watchtower, despite becoming increasingly aware of their shortcomings.
- You can find yourself explaining away many things, when you’re seeking a “higher goal”. We were willing to turn a blind eye to many of the darker aspects of the Organization, because we couldn’t identify any other religion that was preaching the “Good News of the Kingdom” in the same way. At several points on our journey, when we were sick of the Watchtower, we would venture into other churches. We found most of them to be close-knit “social clubs”, who seemed to have no interest in seeking the God’s Kingdom. In each place, we felt afraid to reveal our true identity as “ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses”, to avoid being judged or misunderstood. Therefore, we were perpetually outsiders, looking in with semi-indoctrinated eyes. This meant that it was easy to return to what was familiar and where we felt we could be useful.
- The instructions in Hebrews 10:25 not to “forsake meeting together” hung heavily over us for a long time. It’s incredible how these words can be used to manipulate and coerce people to go back to a Group they are deeply unhappy with.
Thankfully, I started to realize that when I was out preaching from door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness, I wasn’t actually sharing the ‘Good News’ with people. In fact, it was an indoctrination exercise, designed to bring people into association with the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. When that dawned on me, it was much easier to walk away for good.
Another very significant, eye-opening moment was at a large Convention, in which one of the speakers mentioned “Serving Jehovah’s Organization”. When my husband heard that, he was deeply shocked and troubled. Jesus’ words in Luke 4:8 came to his mind powerfully, reminding him that: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”
We were also encouraged by Jesus’ promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). We finally saw that we don’t need to be part of any church or organized religion at all to be a follower of Christ.
That’s not to say that we don’t long to be part of a church family where we are loved and accepted for who we are. As John Donne wrote in his famous poem: “No man is an island”, and we are no exception. Some ex-cult members are lucky enough to find a congregation where they feel at home and are able to enjoy meaningful fellowship with others; this is something that we have finally discovered. Sadly, it’s not that easy for everyone. In addition, it can be recommendable to avoid throwing yourself into another Group before processing what happened to you and giving yourself time to heal. Otherwise, you risk perpetuating the cycle of hurt and disappointment.
In the following chapters we’ll explore some ways we can break free from destructive thinking and habits and move towards true happiness and freedom.