I was born heterosexual. This meant I never had to struggle with being told that my sexual identity was sinful, and that if I wished to avoid being killed by Jehovah I had to be celibate for life.
I was born male. Therefore I never had to deal with being treated as though I was second class, a talking rib best suited to submissively taking care of the family and not to taking the lead.
I was not (as far as I know) born into a congregation with a hidden child molester, who was waiting for the right moment to strike. Therefore I never experienced the trauma of having my claims of molestation be dismissed for lack of two witnesses, or be accepted but then dealt with via a terribly flawed Judicial Committee process that may have left my abuser in the congregation with just a slap on the wrist.
I was not born into a family that subsequently experienced a disfellowshipping, and as a result had someone I loved torn away from me by religious edict, forbidden to even speak a word in passing to them on the street.
I was never told that the person I was in love with was someone I was not allowed to marry, and that my choice was either to give up my romantic love on the one hand, or give up all the friends and family I loved on the other.
I was never thrust into any of these situations, but the sad fact is that many Witnesses are, and on January 10 of this year, six of them came together to tell their story.
Six ex-Witnesses tell their story
That night I walked through the winter urban chill of London, across Waterloo bridge. Brightly lit landmarks climbed up around the glassy dark water of the Thames as I made my way towards the distinguished University of Kings College. Once inside, I hunted through its long corridors and tracked down the old anatomy lecture room, a small half-amphitheater with tiered seating around a central lecture area. The room had once been used for anatomy students to observe dissections, and in a way that was quite fitting. For the stories that we would hear that night would be much like a dissection; simultaneously grisly yet fascinating.
The event was hosted by the organization Faith to Faithless, a group that works to support people who are leaving their religion under difficult or dangerous circumstances. They have worked with “Ex’s” from all faiths and walks of life, from former Jehovah’s Witnesses undergoing shunning and mental abuse, to former Muslims who are literally at risk of death because of their choice to change their religious beliefs. The goal of the organisation is to give a voice to such ones, and to advocate for their rights.
The event was chaired by popular comedian Deborah Frances White, who also happens to be a former Jehovah’s Witness. Deborah’s presence on the panel worked wonders in two ways; firstly her own story of leaving the religion is a compelling one. Secondly, Deborah is very, very funny, and this humour served well to bring a some needed lightness into what turned out to be an evening with some real gut wrenching moments.
Faith2Faithless have released the videos of the panel and can I just say right now that they are essential viewing. The full video playlist is available below. Go watch them, and them come back and finish this article.
The Seventh Tale
I do want to relate one extra story which was told that night but which does not appear on the videos. It came from an audience member who spoke during a Q&A session that followed; from a gentleman who had been carrying a secret for his entire life growing up as a JW.
He was gay.
He had repressed his sexuality for decades, being told day in day out that a core part of his identity was an abomination to Jehovah and that his only hope was to remain celibate and devoid of romantic love. This had caused him so much accumulated distress that he had recently tried to take his own life. As he was recovering in hospital, he came out to his family; both as a gay man and as someone who no longer believed the faith.
It would be nice to think that in his time of extreme vunerablility and endangerment, Watchtower’s rules would have allowed his family to gather around him in support and help him to heal. But no; apparently the shunning had already started, and so a man in such emotional pain that he’d tried to die was having to rebuild his life without the ones who should love him the most.
Nonetheless, it was clear that being free to be his authentic self had energised him, and the entire room came together to support him both during the panel and afterwards. This is a testimony both to the inhumane cruelty of Watchtower’s shunning policy, and to the kindness and humanity that exists in what Watchtower so dismissively terms “Satan’s World.”
Life after Watchtower: Is it possible?
I’m sure you will agree, the accounts related by the panelists were gripping; stories of awful suffering, but also stories of hope. Each and every one of them has been able to break free of the Watchtower religion and rebuild their lives.
This is essential to understand for any doubting Jehovah’s Witness who wishes to leave the religion but is terrified of what might become of them; Watchtower would have such ones believe that those who leave become miserable failures, addicted to drugs and wishing they were dead.
This is propaganda.
The demonstrable facts are that many, many ex-Witnesses go on to build wonderful lives that are far happier and more fulfilling than the ones they had led whilst under the Orwellian thumb of Watchtower. I know it’s true for me. Since I left, my life has become vastly more fulfilling and enjoyable. I didn’t know how exhilarating freedom from Watchtower’s flawed doctrines and controlling diktat was until I tasted it.
The videos capture the stories, but it’s harder for the videos to convey the atmosphere that was present in the room night. For those of us in the audience who were also ex-JWs it brought back palpable emotions of dread and pain, even for those whose exit from the cult had been a relatively (by JW standards) smooth and painless “fade.” By the end I felt wrung out, drained.
But there were many in the audience who had never been Witnesses, and who had up until now been largely unaware of the way Watchtower ran its ship. The look of astonishment and horror on some of their faces was palpable. At the end of the session, Deborah Frances White asked those audience members to raise their hands if the stories had been much more dramatic and shocking than they had expected.
All their hands went up.
Faith to Faithless co-founder Imtiaz Shams, who had attended the event, later posted this on Facebook:
The illustrated to me two things; firstly that the general public is often still unaware of how harmful an organisation Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is. Secondly, that when informed as to the facts, the public is appalled and want to know what can be done to stop these abuses.
I find this very encouraging as an activist. I feel that the tide is turning when it comes to the public opinion of Watchtower. Not only due to the negative publicly with their child abuse policies and blood transfusion teachings, but also because more and more ex-Witnesses are sharing their stories, both at public events like this one and also in private. I know that since my own fade began I have spoken to many people in casual conversation about the things Watchtower gets up to, and those people are now very much of the opinion that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is a dangerous cult.
Lastly, the wonderful thing about the internet is that powerful stories like the ones contained on those videos, which once might have been confined to the room in which they were told, can now reach across the world and echo in the ears of the entire human race.
Cults fear information.
And this is the Information Age.
Follow me on twitter @covertfade
Follow faithtofaithless on twitter @faith2faithless
Follow Imtiaz Shams on twitter @imtishams
Follow Deborah Frances-White on twitter @deborahFW