A History of Protest: Learning to Leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses
I first began my extrication from the Jehovah’s Witnesses some twenty-seven years ago, at eighteen, when I had a practically dissociative flash of insight while delivering a sermon in a Kingdom Hall (“church” for the uninitiated), in Duluth, Georgia, circa 1990. While talking, gesticulating, pontificating, onstage, to a sea of white-haired congregants three and four times my age, I suddenly thought something like: what the heck do I know about life, death, the universe, wisdom, God? The answer was clear. Not much, if anything at all. I was a bookish virgin, in a boxy cream blazer, behind a podium, with a brand new driver’s license in my Velcro wallet, a microphone at my mouth, staring at the sermon notes I’d written a half hour before, penned in probably fifteen minutes. (I was fast, and I was good. I was really good.)
The sermon was certainly about remaining separate from Satan’s secular world, surviving Armageddon, Jehovah God’s holy war, and inheriting everlasting life on Earth after Jehovah destroyed all His enemies—the vast majority of humanity, neighbors, colleagues, kids in my class. I know this because, to some extent, virtually every sermon, every meeting, every prayer, every Witness conversation was, on some level, about or informed by that very same subject. Not long after my dissociative sermon, I stopped attending the handful of weekly, required Kingdom Hall meetings. And yet despite that first step, I remained surrounded by Witnesses, family, friends, and co-workers, even as I was becoming increasingly interested in the secular world. Before long, I stumbled onto and became obsessed with the novels of Don DeLillo (I was a reader, a dangerous habit), which subtly challenged the notion of apocalyptic revelation, and I began going religiously to the local Atlanta hardcore shows. Both had debilitating effects on my faith, and broke cracks in the wall. They let in light. Before long, I began playing drums (badly) in a band peopled by mostly drifting Witness. We covered Bad Religion with not one drop of self-awareness or irony. And but a few years later, I got married at too young an age (young marriage is encouraged in the community), to a Witness young woman, and we moved far away to Southern California, where we quickly found ourselves without a rudder. We did not worship. We did not talk about God. Nor did we talk about Armageddon. We did not pray. And, frankly, it was a profound relief. That said, I was filled with questions: about God, and the Bible, but mostly about child indoctrination. One night my (then) wife said we’d been brainwashed. I got angry. I yelled. She then demanded I look up the word in the dictionary. I did, and the definition read like a close description of what had happened to both of us all our lives. I remember next going into our “music room,” and putting on (probably) a Minutemen record, lying on our long black sofa, and staring at the ceiling for a very long time. In retrospect, it seems my wife and I almost certainly went to California in order to leave our communities, to run away. I have known several ex-Witnesses who’ve made similarly extreme geographical moves, physically extracting themselves from their surroundings, as if pulling ailing flowers from unhealthy soil. Sadly, I did not properly say goodbye to many of my friends, or my family. In some cases, I did not say goodbye at all.
One cost of deliberately cutting ties from your bedrock, from your beginnings, is the blur, fade, and repression of whole blocks of memory. Neuroscientists now say we relentlessly make, remake, and rewrite our memories, including traumatic ones, by actively engaging with them. We remember, shape, reshape, and rewrite our memories every day. In my case, and to my detriment, according to my psychiatrist, anyway, I have most likely protectively ignored the memories of my Witness life. I prefer not to revisit the past, as I find it an intellectually disabling and morally troubling landscape. I am not nostalgic. Often, when visiting family back in Georgia, I am casually asked if I recall a specific, possibly even formative event, person, or place, from childhood. My answer is often no. I do not want to remember, and that strategy has mostly worked in my life. Mostly. If I’m honest, I was a resentful young man for many years. I resented the community who loved me, and raised me, because this same community taught me college was Satanic (a distressing 63% of Witnesses have no more than a high school diploma), that a lexicon of death and destruction was appropriate for young children, that all sex—unless within the bounds of heterosexual marriage—was wrong, that a life of the mind was selfish and unsound, and that one should never question authority, never investigate history, and always surrender one’s will to Jehovah. In truth, I wasted a good portion of my years and energy on that anger, and ran from my past as best I could.
There are flitting memories, however, that I can’t outrun because the dominion of the senses sends us reeling whenever it wants. For instance, when I think of Sunday Watchtower studies, a forty-five-minute-long article-based Q&A session between a seated congregation and an Elder onstage, I see in my mind’s eye eager hands raising to answer simple questions provided at the bottom of the Watchtower pages, answers prepped beforehand, often recited at the Hall by children. I hear the tinny clunk of dropped quarters on a hard wooden surface, as I sat guarding the Kingdom Hall Contribution Boxes. Occasionally, the citric air of flower shops strangely sends me back to the humid, piquant bouquet of a Jehovah’s Witness convention center’s cavernous restroom and the orange-floral-scented cakes dotting their urinals. I remember the sea of seekers in the seats, praying together, singing together, applauding together at every mention of Jehovah striking down evildoers, atheists, Muslims, and Jews, all non-Witness Christians, homosexuals, and countless others, for countless reasons, and my body recoils like a child’s about to be struck with a belt.
The Witness convention has proven an especially anxious source of memories for me. I can still hear the drone of homely hymns, the rote clapping, the amplified and echoing voice of the Elder onstage, and his, to me, rather creepy childlike tone, and the opening and closing prayers for Armageddon, in Jesus’ name, amen. Perhaps most palpable are the memories of so-called apostate protestors, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, men and women of all ages with handmade signs, marching, shouting in unison, and making themselves heard. Their signs displayed announcements like: The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Dangerous Cult; The Jehovah’s Witnesses Have a Pedophilia Problem; Jehovah’s Witnesses are Anti-Education; The Watchtower Corporation Took Away My Family; The Watchtower Society Has Blood on its Hands. They were passionate, loud, fearlessly critical, respectful, but angry as hell. I have great respect for their mission, now, for their dedication, their suffering. But I was a kid, then. They terrified me. After all, the Organization (the Witness term for the Watchtower body, corporate, social, and religious, in its entirety) repeatedly told us, especially children, the protestors were demonic. They were Satan the Devil’s material foot soldiers, “apostates,” and no force on earth was more evil.
On November 13th, 2018, the network A&E, and Leah Remini, aired a two-hour investigative documentary television special on Jehovah’s Witnesses, which preceded the season three premiere of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. I found out about it because another ex-Witness contacted me through Facebook, asking if I’d seen the show. I hadn’t heard of it. I should also say, this ex-Witness asked that I please not reveal details about our conversation, to anyone. I won’t. Leaving the Witnesses can be a delicate, protracted affair. Not everyone can quietly disappear, like I did. Some fear the Organization’s punishing response for dissent: public disfellowshipping (akin to Scientology’s “declaration of a suppressive person”), which demands absolute shunning on behalf of family members and friends; or public reproval, a milder form of open shaming that doesn’t require full official shunning on behalf of the congregation. I was lucky, and was never publicly shunned, although I have been told I was privately shunned by several Witnesses: for listening to “Satanic” music, for “associating with worldly people,” for having short hair that “looked gay,” for spending un-chaperoned time with my fiancé. That said because I simply, abruptly disappeared, either they had no official recourse for public shunning (I was out of jurisdiction, so to speak), or they simply forgot about me. Perhaps it was a mix of both. Some dissenters voluntarily disassociate themselves, in person, by phone. Some do it legally, by attorney-drawn letter. Some refuse to recognize the Organization’s authority and just never return. Others precariously question the Witness system, while remaining embedded within their communities, as outsiders. Some are afraid to leave, and never do. Many do not know how to leave, especially those born to the Witness life, as they are largely unprepared for the outside world. I have known Witnesses who were leaving for years. Some exit because they fear for the mental health of their children. Some leave because they want to go to college, or want their children to go to college, or want their children to engage in extracurricular activities, like school sports (all explicitly forbidden by the Witnesses, certainly the case when I was a member), or perhaps they have awakened to the Organization’s inherent misogyny, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, sex abuse problems, suicide problems, or the apocalyptic death drive central to their theology, taught to children as early as possible. My sister’s departure from the Organization, for example, for the safety and health of her family, involved a five-year plan. All of which begs the questions: Why stay at all? Why join? I can only mostly speculate. I know this much, when I was a Witness, ensconced, protected from the “world,” for many years I did not think of death. It did not exist, not realistically. We called it “sleep.” To quote Harold Bloom and his study of American-born religious movements, The American Religion: “When death becomes the center, then religion begins.” If this is true, then one might imagine the more orthodox, the more separatist, the more punishing a religion becomes, the more unhealthy its relationship to the reality of death. I believe the future Witness, to a great extent, joins, remains, thrives, as an act of deep investment, a commitment to the mythic narrative that death, in the end, will not come for them, or for their children.
Regardless, for me, after I left, I suffered apocalyptic nightmares for decades, and I have subsequently come to learn, from friends, from therapy, that such dreams are quite common to adults raised in apocalyptic cults. I can’t help but quote Bloom again, here, on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their “intellectually weak, spiritually empty” literature, which reminds him “why very small children cannot be left alone with wounded and suffering household pets.” To Kate, my wife (my first wife and I divorced), not a Witness, not a fan of Witnesses, and decidedly not religious, all of this stinks of the sinister, the malicious. When she and I finally sat down on our sofa to watch the show, one week after it aired, not five minutes passed before I was completely, emotionally overwhelmed. I began to weep. Kate paused the show. I took a long sip of wine, got up, and paced about the room until I regained my composure.
It took me some time to realize why. I was not sad. I was not mad. I was weirdly, tearfully ecstatic about seeing adults like me, who, unlike me, now had a powerful voice helping them tell their stories. We let the show play on. The ex-Witnesses being interviewed had been variously disfellowshipped and disenchanted, but all of them openly spoke of the wreckage done to their families by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were stories of suicides—in one family’s case, there were two; stories of public and prolonged shunning of daughters and sons, even grandchildren; of the secretive bureaucratic practices, wholly and currently conceived of by eight men, always men, known as The Governing Body; the rampant misogyny; the lethal blood transfusion controversies; spousal abuse problems; the Witnesses’ well-publicized sex abuse problem, and the unabashedly shameful Organizational response of blaming the victim. If there were not two witnesses to the abuse (a rule anachronistically based on an ancient biblical text; the verse before inconveniently demands the execution of sinners by stoning), the Organization’s institutional decision has been, apparently, to remove abusers from one congregation, only to quietly appoint them in another.
As a young boy of fourteen, after discovering a peeper’s hole in the bathroom wall of a trusted Witness minister’s apartment, a friend and I told the friend’s mother. We were disturbed not only because we knew we’d almost certainly been watched, but also because this minister was known for entertaining the young boys from our Kingdom Hall. The minister always had the latest video games, and provided lots and lots of soda. We’d seen him holding and caring for the youngest boys, four, five, and six years old. So we told my friend’s mother. I can see the kitchen table, the grim light, and her frizzy, red hair. I remember her dropping her chin, and saying: No, no, not again… She then confessed he’d been found guilty of child molestation before, it was public knowledge, and he’d been moved to a different Hall. Mine. This disturbing practice is accompanied by yet more subtly insidious and debilitating behavior. Much like other religious groups, the Witnesses privilege jargon, but in many cases the lifelong use of specialized language approximates institutionalized brainwashing. I have known several ex-Witnesses who continued to use the phrase “The Truth”—the inside term Witnesses use for their religion—when referring to the Witnesses, long after leaving. An ironic phrase, since, in practice, Jehovah’s Witnesses demonstrate little use for facts. There is anti-social conditioning, like the tragic impractical life training that leaves one ill prepared for the secular world, and mostly prepared for apocalypse and a sequestered life of door-to-door preaching. After dating for some time, Kate was palpably unnerved that I had not gone to college, and that I had already been married and separated in my early twenties. Not to mention much of my time before her had been desperately spent on drugs, alcohol, writing terrible short stories, and working mostly incidental, menial jobs. I was a dishwasher at a pizzeria, that summer we met. I didn’t even have a bank account. Why save? We were dying.
Such characteristics are common, obvious, and actively studied by cult deprogrammers across the globe because, well, the Witnesses are global. Founded in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell as a publishing arm for his personal eschatological readings of the Bible, The Watchtower Society has now published well over two hundred million Bibles in more than 160 languages, and has become, by far, the largest magazine publisher in the world, a corporation largely funded by donations from its over eight million members in some two-hundred-forty countries. Their actual net worth is protected, but conservatively estimated in the low billions. They are vast. To quote author and activist Lloyd Evans, one of the ex-Witnesses interviewed on Remini’s show: “Take Scientology, add eight million members, and you’ve got Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The Witnesses have successfully, thus far, avoided effective public scrutiny, unlike Scientology, partly due, I think, to their politically neutral and affable public image. Also unlike Scientology, the Witness persona is not especially glamorous. There are no bright lights. They privilege modesty, long skirts, “heck” instead of “hell,” all this despite the fact that, like the Mormons, they routinely grant offices of leadership to strapping young men, which seems in retrospect a rather deliberate strategy for enlisting young women into fantasies of early marriage, as the gay men remain Witness bachelors and quietly enjoy the show. It should be said, here, too, friends of mine, ex-Witnesses included, have reported widely on the “down low” gay aesthetic and subculture of the Organization. Ex-Bethelites (workers in the Watchtower headquarters) infamously talk of clandestine gay sex, straight sex, and adulterous sex in bathrooms, stairwells, and basements. This is predictable. Sex in the Witness world is pathologized, repressed, and buried. According to Pew Research Center, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a decidedly low retention rate when compared to other religious groups in the U.S.; of U.S. adults raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, some 66% “no longer identify with the group.” I would not be surprised if this had largely to do with their puritanical stance on sex. This has not, however, stopped the Witnesses’ historic growth.
To provide scale, according to some reports the Witnesses are two-hundred-and-fifty times larger than The Church of Scientology, and yet despite the several upsetting similarities, they remain the “nice people knocking on doors,” to paraphrase Remini’s initial impression. And yet, like Scientology, the Witnesses openly encourage fear, disgust, even cruelty for those who leave and dare criticize the Organization. Apostates. As a boy, the word alone, especially when spoken, froze me with terror and awe. No more, of course. Though, it’s likely I’ll pay a price for writing this essay. Which is strange, I admit. Some might wonder why I have not paid that price by now. Frankly, I have been lucky. I keep my mouth mostly shut. My criticisms have been subtle and respectful, even timid. I invented a new religion in my first novel to save myself from explicitly writing about Witnesses. My parents have been patient. As for other family members, I have effectively removed myself from them already. In some cases, they have removed me. Nevertheless, I’m sure some family members and friends will call me apostate, now. They will cut me off. Some already have. And I’m at peace with that, finally. But it has taken years. Among the footage on Remini’s show were photos of those late twentieth century “apostates,” men and woman protesting with signs in front of Kingdom Halls, and Jehovah’s Witness convention centers. I watched them and thought of other protestors I’d seen as a boy, in front of Bethel, Watchtower World Headquarters, once in Brooklyn, now located upstate in Patterson, Wallkill, and Warwick, New York. I paused the show, sipped my wine, took a breath, and said: Those people with the signs, protesting. I used to be scared of them. Kate said: Those people are heroes, every last one.
Ironically, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were born from protest, and their theology is inextricably defined by apostasy. Aside from the plain fact that they are fundamentally an American Protestant Christian movement, as a millenarian restorational nontrinitarian group they were born not only as a deliberate protest to Catholicism, but in vigorous protest to traditional Protestantism. God was not triune—and, more, Jesus was not God. Jehovah is God. There is no other. Famously, at least according to Witness lore, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Witnesses fiercely protested, in public, in a highly coordinated fashion, with signs, and loud voices, against religion itself. Signs boldly read: Religion is a Snare and Racket. They were not Catholics. They were not traditional Protestants. They were not even traditional Christians. The Witnesses, at least at the time of my leaving, continue to proudly own this history. This is rare, as the average Witness knows little of their story. Organizational history is rarely talked about at Kingdom Hall meetings, and when it is, in my experience, and the experience of more recent dissenters, it is cherry-picked for exegetical gloss. The image of early Witness protest, however, the Witness apostasy from traditional Christianity (apostasy merely means to set one self apart from a group; the original Greek means “to stand away from”) is owned, employed, cherished in their rhetoric. It is a defining personality trait.
More interesting to me, though, is the Organization’s penchant for protesting its own legacy and historical practices. Most notable and well known are the dozen or so dates of failed apocalypse intimately tied to the developmental history of the Organization, or directly prophesied by The Watchtowerin print, by Elders from the Kingdom Hall stage. I certainly recall, as a child, the announcements of a world coming to its end in 1980. I recall, as a young man, promises of Christian apocalypse come 2000. Unfortunately, Jehovah’s Witnesses generally do not know much about this long trend, which stretches back to the late 19thcentury. They certainly do not talk about it, as these aborted endings have caused fissures and mass departures in membership. In most cases, the Witnesses smilingly deny the prophecies completely, I have witnessed this, as they offer a biblical explanation, creatively interpreting Proverbs 4:18—“But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light that grows brighter and brighter until full daylight.” Apparently, the days of failed prophecy were darker times, and we’re in full light, now. I’m told they don’t make predictions anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Organization soon claims they never made prophecies at all, as they willfully, disturbingly, once again, disown their own history, and their present story: that of a fascinating, and unique American invention, unwholesomely marked by secrecy, and thus riddled with the problems secrecy engenders: deception, betrayal, contention, and abuse.
I should say here I have come to learn in my short forty-five years that ignoring one’s story is a seriously dangerous move. My psychiatrist will back me up. It seems, I ignored the apocalyptic beliefs, biases, and perspectives imprinted on me from infancy, and ignored my resentment for having them. I ignored my anger—until, one day, it boiled over. In early 2016, after an overwhelming breakdown, I was hospitalized, and thus began my struggle with a mental illness that has predictably dovetailed with an examination of my own history. The mind will have its way. I wonder if now is the time for Jehovah’s Witnesses to face their story. I know for a fact Remini’s show had lots of people shaking with concern. I received notes from old friends, colleagues, and neighbors who watched the show. They were shocked. On other hand, I’ve heard loyal Witnesses called it lies, lies, all lies. What more would you expect from apostates? Then again, perhaps daylight is here, finally here. In world no longer conducive to secrecy, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. The Internet knows, shows all. I am confident that social media, the ubiquity of online information, and our access to that information, will eventually light every dark corner of the Witnesses’ considerable Organization. I hope so—for their health, my family’s, and mine. I know this much: Remini’s show awakened something within me, and as a result I feel compelled to publicly, officially separate myself from any organization, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that knowingly endangers its most vulnerable members, which sets me squarely, proudly in a rich, and complicated, historical tradition of protest.
Scott Cheshire is the author of the novel High as the Horses' Bridles (Henry Holt), and teaches at Queens College, CUNY.