My parents were active in the Methodist church and they loved and trusted their minister. The minister once told my dad to never listen to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they were a “cult.” But Mom did not hear his warning.
In fact, Mom actually disagreed with their minister about which books of the Bible were authentic. His opinion was that only two of the gospels were likely to be true.
Shortly after my brother was born, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking at our door. Mom asked them if they were the group who gave “free home bible studies.” She started her indoctrination (studying) to be a Witness in 1974.
Dad was curious about what the JWs had to say, so he soon began talking to them. He was impressed with how quickly they could find scriptures in the Bible. When they challenged Dad to find where in the Bible it talks about people “burning in hell” he searched but could not find anything. After that he started listening to them and what they had to say.
Dad was a Vietnam veteran. After he returned home to the States in the mid-1960s, people would yell insults like “baby killer” at him whenever they saw him wearing his uniform on the street. He was dismayed about their reactions. After all, he’d risked his life in a war zone, and with his skills saved many American lives – actions that were recognized by the U.S. Army.
After studying with the Witnesses he quickly got rid of all of his army clothing. He began to believe that patriotism and all that he had done while in service had been just a waste of two years of his life. He was drawn to the Witnesses idea of an international brotherhood that was like a utopian society where “everyone was equal.” That was how the Jehovah’s Witnesses convinced him to begin their indoctrination.
I remember hearing all of the talks about the end of the world coming in 1975. Mom wanted to make sure we survived Armageddon, so she quickly got baptized after studying for a just a few months. Dad did not want to do it just because everyone else was – so he waited another year. Mom was baptized in 1975 and Dad in 1976.
Ever since I was 5 years old we hosted the local Jehovah’s Witnesses book study meeting in our home. I was about 14 years old when – as I was descending the stairs to join the book study taking place in our the living room – I suddenly began to wonder about my future as a Jehovah’s Witness. If I left the JWs, what would happen to me? Would it even be possible for me to ever leave? I knew that if I did, I would disappoint my parents. I needed my parents. Without them I would have nowhere to go.
When I was growing up I had two girl friends who were JWs and the three of us were close in age. Both of them had been baptized when they were 14. I was the hold out. Fear made me hesitate to take that step.
I had a full spectrum of fears about getting baptized. A major one was if I did it and later ended up giving into peer pressure and committing a sin, then I would be disfellowshipped and shunned by my friends and family. There was also my aqua phobia (a fear of water) to add to my pile of fears.
After you get baptized, the Watchtower allows you to “auxiliary Pioneer.” At that time the monthly requirement was 60 hours spent knocking on doors in the preaching work. On the other hand, when you do volunteer to pioneer your name is announced from the Kingdom Hall stage. That event was an achievement similar to making “honor roll” at school or seeing your name printed in the local newspaper. Thinking about that was the first time I felt pressured to actually join them.
One day while my family was sitting at the dinner table, my 14-year-old brother announced to my parents that he wanted to get baptized. I immediately blurted out the same thing. At the time I was 16. Our next district convention was just a couple of months away.
My brother and I were both baptized in 1989. But mine was an abnormal baptism.
The elder who pushed me under said my feet or legs came up out of the water before he got me all the way below the surface. So I had to do it again. (I should have known then to get out while I could.) The baptisms took place at a college pool.
My parents were sitting high up in the surrounding bleachers with at least 100 other people. Dad came down to the pool and the brothers explained what happened. My dad wanted me to get out of the water to give me a chance to calm down. But I refused and was determined to try again and it was an awful experience. That time it took three elders to push me under – one for each leg and one for my upper body. The crazy part is that I actually allowed them to do it.
Later that afternoon, a representative of the Watchtower Society’s news department wanted to interview me about what happened. My dad went with me which was comforting. I told the man that I had a water phobia. He asked a few more questions, took notes, and later placed them in a metal filing cabinet. I remember him asking if the Society could use my interview in their literature sometime in the future. I said yes.
That whole incident was so weird.
When I was a senior in high school, I was an exchange student to Germany. I was there during the summer. My mom arranged with my host family to take me to Kingdom Hall meetings. When the time came, I was so busy doing fun things that I declined to attend and they dropped it. My only fear at the time was what would happen if Armageddon started while I was alone and thousands of miles from my family? Surprisingly, I discovered that I did not miss the meetings or field service and enjoyed the break from those routines.
When I was 18, I started attending community college. The Watchtower warned that “going to college was dangerous.” They preached that I would lose my faith by “falling into the wrong crowd.” To protect myself, when I attended classes I made sure not to talk to any of the other students – afraid of them because they were “wicked.”
While going to college I also “regular pioneered.” At the time that meant spending 90 hours a month knocking on doors. During that time I lived at home and my parents supported me.
My first college class was Psychology. The class textbook was large and green and I’d leave it in the backseat of my car. One day a JW woman saw it and loudly declared, “Psychology! Witnesses are not supposed to study that!” to me and the rest of the car group. Fearing that she would report it to the elders, I quickly placed it in the trunk of my car. Then I replied that she was mistaken; it was “Philosophy” that we are not allowed to study – not “Psychology.” After that event I made sure to keep all of my text books inside the trunk.
While I was attending Psychology class I learned about “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” – a triangle that shows Self-actualization at the peak.
The theory is that if your physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs are met – then you will be happy, contented and fulfilled as a person. I compared what needs I had that were filled in my 18 years of life as a Jehovah’s Witness against that Hierarchy chart’s standards. I realized that some of my needs had been met – but not all. I was hopeful I would eventually work my way to the top of that triangle.
Later, when I was in my mid 30s, I again came across that familiar Hierarchy and compared it to my life. I realized that I was still lacking so many lower level needs and questioned why. I did not like the answer that I came up with. If I was going to be brutally honest with myself, then I could not continue to be a JW if I wanted to be Self Actualized. The basic problem was that being a JW was holding me back and the religion wasn’t meeting my needs to become a more contented person.
During this time I had a group of JW friends who would meet once or twice a month. Everyone would bring a food dish and we would study the Watchtower magazine together. Later we would play a game or go see a movie. I enjoyed the people I met in that group including a couple of guys who I dated but it never worked out. Then the Watchtower Society announced, “No more studying the Watchtower outside of the meetings or with your family.” I became really depressed because that new rule essentially disbanded our group and I lost something that I looked forward to and enjoyed.
In 2005 I started playing in a local “disc golf” league. I met some nice people and looked forward to playing in our weekly league. I found many people with whom I had things in common. I was making new friends with people I was taught would be “bad associations” only because they were not JWs. And yet my experiences were telling me the opposite was true about these people compared to what the JWs preached. My conclusion was the JWs were lying. That made me wonder what else they were lying about.
I felt trapped because my family members were still Witnesses. By then I’d already stopped attending assemblies out of boredom or giving talks at the Kingdom Hall due to anxiety.
After years of trying to meet my needs within the JW paradigm I had failed miserably. The realization depressed me. I felt it most painfully when I would return to my cold, empty and dark home. It was a lonely place.
I was in counseling to get treatment for my many phobias and panic attacks. I told my psychologist how terrible I was feeling and he suggested that I try Internet dating. His suggestion initially filled me with terror. I remembered hearing at a JW convention about a woman who dated someone online and ended up being bound and raped all night. JWs were taught that the Internet was dangerous and were told that “people lie about who they really are.” I kept thinking about Internet dating and asked how I could do it safely. My psychologist gave me some tips to help me feel more secure. I signed up.
After a month I met someone with whom I had much in common. As our friendship grew I decided to downshift out of the Witnesses. I did not want anyone to become suspicious, so my approach was to attend fewer meetings and do less field service. Meanwhile, I started building closer relationships with friends and family who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses – just in case my JW friends and family decided to shun me.
I slowly backed out of the Witnesses over the span of a year. When I’d drive to the Kingdom Hall and during meetings I’d find myself having panic attacks. By December, 2010 I simply quit everything connected to Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never said a thing about it to my JW family – but they eventually found out what I had done.
I started looking for websites or information about others who had left. I found Steven Hassan’s website and printed out his list of ways to identify a group as being a cult or not.
I printed out Hassan’s BITE model of control methods that cults use. I decided to give my former JW life a test to see if it was a cult. After writing out all the ways the Watchtower’s rules had controlled my life as I was growing up, I finally decided it was definitely a cult. When I saw all of that information and the facts on paper, it made me angry. I decided to make up for the 35 years of deprivations during my time as a Jehovah’s Witness. One of the first things I did was vote.
In 2011 I discovered that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are actually a cult. I also realized that leaving the JWs when I did was one of the best decisions I’d ever made.
During the summer of 2013 I started a Meetup group for the Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington metro area. Our group meets about once or twice a month at various restaurants and in local homes. If you live in that area and are a former Jehovah’s Witness or would like to leave, we invite you to contact us and come to our meetings. We would love to meet you.