A true story of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses

This article was originally published in the “Cults and Gurus” issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone.

There was nothing amiss. It all felt so normal.

For the first 23 years of my life, a spell had been cast across my entire worldview, and it was working. Raised in a cult by my parents, I had no idea how big the world really was or how small the Jehovah’s Witnesses were until I left.

As I began to deprogram and wake up, I found myself filling with terror.

I discovered the truth behind the cult I had been raised in, and my hopelessness only grew.

This was all so wrong.

How could I have ever believed any of it?

The more I searched for the truth, the more deceit and hypocrisy I found. I was picking at little threads in a tapestry that began unraveling and didn’t stop until the whole thing came apart.

I soon realized that the corruption — the lies and manipulation — found its genesis at the very top. The poison bled down into the entire organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses into each congregation and every member.

I had to leave, and I couldn’t have been more afraid.

A theatrical spectacle

Most everyone associates Jehovah’s Witnesses with their preaching work.

All its members are active in teaching the public about the Bible and their beliefs worldwide. This preaching work is sacred to its members and integral to their belief system.

It’s where the name comes from, too. Members are “witnesses” of their God, his name Jehovah, and his heavenly kingdom. This preaching work is colloquially called “witnessing.”

It can be used as a noun: He’s not a “witness” anymore.

Alternatively, it could be used as a verb: We “witness” to people.

There are different types of “witnessing” (e.g., informal, public, telephone).

As the religion that does God’s will on Earth, this preaching is a serious and life-saving matter. Because of it (and other reasons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses set themselves apart from the world as different, special, and chosen.

This concept can be summed up with the scripture: “We have become a theatrical spectacle to the world.” (1 Corinthians 4:9)

This can apply to the organization and its members (how they’re observed as separate from the world) in their doctrine.

The true follower of Jesus Christ—a Jehovah’s Witness—becomes a theatrical spectacle to the world by adhering to Bible’s law and obeying God.

Jehovah’s Witnesses will say they stand out because they’re doing the right thing. However, it’s challenging to see it from this perspective when looking at the evidence.

It wasn’t long ago when I left the cult. From my perspective, as someone who has lost everything to escape, they’re a spectacle for reasons far more sinister than spirituality.

From my experience and tragedy as a former member, I see toxic men in authority using “divine inspiration” as an excuse to manipulate and control weak people.

I see damaging doctrine condoning and encouraging domestic abuse, violence, and the oppression of women.

I see profitable business plans that are masked as a hollow guise of spirituality and run by a committee of men who will do anything to keep the status quo.

All of it is allegedly done in the name of God, a God with the name Jehovah who I once loved dearly.

Oh, how reality bites

Renowned sociologist Doctor Steven Hassan is the Founding Director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, an invaluable online resource designed to help victims of authoritarian control free themselves from undue influences.

He has created a BITE model of authoritarian control, a highly effective method to categorize and identify any entity that exerts undue influence on a person or people.

This was one of the most important concepts I learned in realizing I needed to leave the Jehovah’s Witness cult.

BITE is an acronym:

  • Behavior control
  • Information control
  • Thought control
  • Emotional control

The Jehovah’s Witness belief system exerts undue control and influence over its members in all four categories.

For example, you are taught what kind of behavior is acceptable as a member of this organization.

Exhibiting “upright Christian conduct” in every aspect of your life is vital to being a good witness. There are rules regarding how to act and speak, what to watch and read, and a long list of “sins” enforceable with strict discipline.

The information you’re allowed to receive is highly controlled as a member of this organization.

If you want to research something, it’s only appropriate to read publications printed by The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (the lucrative non-profit corporation that runs the whole show). Anything else is unreliable.

Further, any information that puts the religion in a negative light or levels any kind of criticism is quickly labeled “apostasy”; you’ll be excommunicated for reading it.

For instance, this article is apostasy. Every single word is a lie and a danger to your spiritual health.

If you share anything resembling apostasy with other members, you’ll quickly be excommunicated, making you the worst possible kind of person imaginable, an apostate.

Your thoughts are controlled by doctrine as a member of this organization.

You’ll regularly study articles that tell you what thoughts are “appropriate” for true Christians and shame you for all the improper ones. There’s only one right way to think about the world. Thinking in any other way is forbidden.

Your emotions will be controlled and manipulated as a member of this organization. Emotional control is extremely residual and perhaps the most insidious and effective technique.

For me, it was one of the hardest things to let go mentally. Many people who leave struggle with emotional damage years or decades later.

The love-bombing is tactical and short-lived. You will quickly feel guilty, indebted to always do more. You will feel unworthy. Congregation elders will likely find it necessary to give you counsel regarding your spirituality.

Fear of the outside world will be instilled in you, along with a fear of leaving, losing out on salvation, losing your loved ones at Armageddon, and letting down your family by leaving.

There is not, and will never be, a legitimate reason to leave.

This is the biggest reason so many people call the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult. The difference between a religion and a cult is what they do when you decide to leave.

When I decided to leave, I realized how much control this organization had over my behavior, thoughts, and emotions and those of my mother.

Let me provide a quick history rundown. My grandmother studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and “came into the truth” when my mother was seven. She’ll tell you she doesn’t remember much before coming in.

“The truth” is all my mom has ever known. She believes in it with all her heart, and it seems to make her happy.

Unfortunately, none of her children — to use Witness dialect — have “made the truth their own” by deciding to stay with the religion.

Before I left, I was a bit of a child star in the congregation.

Baptized at a young age, I was a full-time proselytizer by the eleventh grade and ordained minister before 18. I had made my mother proud; she had raised me right.

From my perspective, these achievements were, well, unbelievably easy. There’s nothing I’d call difficult in following a bunch of rules, especially if you’re reasonably smart and enjoy receiving praise.

Almost without trying, I found myself preaching 70 hours per month, writing outlines for public talks, chairing our bi-weekly Bible meetings, running the sound department, and being interviewed at regional conventions in front of thousands of Witnesses.

I was a child star indeed.

In all honesty, the reason I was so involved didn’t have much to do with being indoctrinated—it was just easy.

What wasn’t easy for my mom, on the other hand, was dealing with the emotional trauma of watching her children reject their upbringing (it wasn’t easy for us either).

When a kid chooses to leave the organization, it’s no small thing.

As a Witness parent, you’re taught that your children are entrusted to you by God. The idea comes from Psalms 127:3 “Children are an inheritance from Jehovah.”

In other words, your child doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to Jehovah. You’re merely on an assignment.

Ultimately, the child has to choose for themselves; the responsibility is theirs. However, if that child chooses to leave, the guilt remains with the parent.

My mother feels she’s failed as a parent. None of her kids have chosen to stay. She still shoulders the guilt, despite our explanations for why we left (it’s a corrupt organization and promotes systematic abuse).

It all ties back to a lifetime of emotional abuse, the systematic enforcement of guilt and fear. She holds hope that one day her kids realize the error of their ways and come back to Jehovah.

If we don’t, she’ll have to watch us suffer an agonizing death at Armageddon.

I don’t know why she’d want to serve such a hateful God.

View of the world 1 A true story of leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses

We need the new system

A lot of people call Jehovah’s Witnesses a doomsday cult.

As a restorationist Christian religion, they believe that God will soon eradicate everything wicked on Earth, and paradise will be restored. God’s faithful servants (mostly the Witnesses) will inherit an Earth transformed into a global Garden of Eden to live for eternity.

As this is God’s purpose for the Earth, most of the Witness doctrine hinges around the cataclysmic event.

However, it never really felt like there was a huge preoccupation with doomsday, at least not on the surface. The focus was always on “the new system,” to use Witness parlance.

For the Jehovah’s Witness, absolutely everything revolves around paradise.

However, there can be no paradise without destroying the wicked. Anyone who’s judged as unworthy (mostly non-Witnesses) will be destroyed. This would include Witness children who leave and non-believing parents and siblings of Witness children.

It’s all shockingly brutal. As a child, the graphic illustrations of Armageddon were distressing. Do a quick image search for “Jehovah’s Witnesses Armageddon,” and you’ll see for yourself.

You’ll find staggeringly violent images of thousands of people being annihilated as entire cities explode and families running away desperately as fireballs fall from heaven to smite them.

One of the reasons this was so traumatizing for me was that my father wasn’t a cult member, meaning he wouldn’t be with me in the promised paradise.

At seven years old, it was easy to imagine a fireball burning my father alive. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society had basically painted his death already.

The Witness syndicate

Shunning is one of this cult’s most harmful practices. It’s called disfellowshipping in Witness lingo.

Here’s where you’ll find the hard dividing line, an impenetrable wall. There really is no way out. Once you’re in, you’re in for life.

As soon as I became baptized, I committed myself to a choice: either a life inside the walls or a life on the outside without hope, family, or support. I’m sure I exhibited keen decision-making skills at 11, an age when I would’ve chosen to eat candy instead of a real meal any day.

So as a Witness, how does one get disfellowshipped? Well, committing a “serious sin” will do the trick if you’re unrepentant. Buying a lottery ticket, voting, or singing Happy Birthday are all eligible sins. Talking to ex-members will do the trick, too.

So, what makes you unrepentant?

A private judicial meeting (locked door, two judges, no jury) will be held to determine your “heart condition.”

According to Shepherd the Flock of God — a confidential handbook you, nothing more than a sheep in the flock, aren’t allowed to read — the congregation elders will make a decision based on their interrogation of you, acting as judges.

There are no checks or balances either. If they decide you aren’t repentant, you’re disfellowshipped whether or not it’s true.

Of course, it’s all based on Bible principles and scripture. How could they call a judicial system this inept viable unless God himself inspired it?

It may all seem like a comedic train-wreck. However, it’s far more tragic in practice.

These appointed men, as brainwashed as the rest, are playing with people’s lives. They’re making decisions that will tear apart families, destroy livelihoods, and alienate the ones who often need the most help.

I don’t think I can count on my fingers the number of people I know who’ve taken their own life as a direct result of being shunned.

Sadly, it’s not difficult to understand why. They were raised in an insular community where everything is contingent upon being a Witness. Friends, communities, and support groups are all tied to the organization.

Pairing an unhealthy, oftentimes abusive family structure with excessive guilt, unreasonable standards, and a lack of identity is a recipe for disaster.

Witnesses are deliberately withheld from the tools needed to make it in the real world.

When we leave, we don’t know how to get jobs, we haven’t been to college, and we don’t know how to interact with people who aren’t Witnesses.

We’re taught that everyone is evil, we’ll never be happy, and we’ll quickly turn to drugs and alcohol without the cult. Satan’s evil world will chew us up and spit us out.

Further, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, many of these predicted events happen.

The hope is that we’ll come crawling back. A Witness who’s never left will tell you that shunning works; it brings people back “into the fold”.

However, it’s just not true.

The vast majority of us never return, left to fend for ourselves, find our own way, and heal from years of abuse and trauma. We’re left without a word from anyone who once loved us and abandoned by the God we loved most.

Here’s the thing, sometimes the world doesn’t spit us back out at all. Sometimes it’s all too much and swallows us whole. With no love, no hope, and no family, suicide often seems like the only way out.

This cult has taken far too many precious lives from this world pitilessly.

It beggars belief what this malevolent organization gets away with, and no less in the name of righteousness.

The good news is that they’re not getting away with it anymore.

People are starting to pay attention. The public is catching on to the systemic abuse.

In 2015, the Australian government launched a Royal Commission to inquire into allegations and policies regarding child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organization.

They found that none of the 1,006 alleged perpetrators in their files were reported to the police.

The Commission concluded that they do “not consider the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to be an organisation that responds adequately to child sexual abuse.”

It’s a similar story across the globe. With outrageously belligerent insistence on using scripture to defend a “two witness rule” when it comes to children being raped, sexual predators find safe haven in a community that protects the perpetrator far more often than the victim.

In America, the Jehovah’s Witness organization has poured countless millions of donated, tax-free dollars to out-of-court settlements regarding child sexual abuse.

Many of these have garnered the attention of large media outlets and created quite the scandal. There are fewer and fewer places to hide.

I find this very comforting. My closest friend and cousin were raped by an elder in our congregation — a man directly appointed by God. This man was my friend’s adoptive father. He started raping her the same night he acquired legal custody.

In this instance, there was corroborative evidence with two witnesses, something extremely rare in cases of child rape. Therefore, he was convicted and disfellowshipped. Like so many, he took his own life after receiving his sentencing.

The whole thing is what you might be tempted to call a best-case scenario.

It’s far more likely in cases like this that the victim will be blamed, perhaps even shunned, and the perpetrator set free to keep preying on young children.

It really confounds me that anyone can stay inside knowing these things happen, no less in an organization that’s supposed to be chosen by a righteous, loving, and just God.

Men appointed to death

The moment I “woke up,” as ex-members call it, was when the Australian Royal Commission put a member of the Governing Body — the self-appointed committee of (old, white) men who lead the organization — on the stand during Case Study 29.

They questioned a man named Geoffrey Jackson, a celebrity to the average Jehovah’s Witness.

The Governing Body is, essentially, the primary way that Jehovah God and Jesus dispense life-giving information to mankind. Without the divine guidance of these (old, white) men, there would be no salvation for anybody.

This makes them pretty special.

According to scripture, when you’re “brought before governors and kings,” you should “not become anxious about how or what you are to speak, for what you are to speak will be given you in that hour” (Matthew 10:18,19).

That’s far from what I saw when Geoffrey Jackson took the stand.

What I saw was an ill-prepared and mostly inept man who had less faith in his organization than even I did.

At one point, he stated that his religion was not, in fact, the religion that carried out God’s will on Earth — something I grew up understanding as irrefutable truth.

This concept is pretty much the reason any of us stay. It’s why the organization gets away with controlling our entire lives because it’s God’s organization, not man’s.

The whole thing’s contingent upon the idea that God has given them the authority to do it.

The entire illusion was shattered.

The way Geoffrey Jackson talked was unfamiliar and strange. It was quite unlike the doctrine I had been fed my whole life. He spoke in a foreign dialect that made me uneasy.

Suddenly, it all felt fake. I began digging, and the tapestry completely unraveled. It didn’t just feel like a lie; it was a lie. All of it was a lie and not just a cover-up to save face.

The Biblical doctrine and historical facts were twisted and fabricated to fit into the Witness narrative.

I was reeling.

All of this ties back to the scripture I mentioned at the outset: The beginning of the scripture mentions being put on “exhibition as men appointed to death” (1 Corinthians 4:9).

A handful of articles published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society use this scripture, not in regards to ministry work, but to reinforce what can be called a persecution complex.

This is what kept me asleep for so long. When faced with something that challenges a cult’s worldview or threatens to expose their teachings as false, it becomes not legitimate criticism but persecution.

According to the scripture, this kind of persecution has been prophesized. This kind of persecution is evidence, not that they’re wrong, but the opposite.

It’s a highly effective tactic to keep followers from waking up.

Indeed, it’s nothing more than proof when the Jehovah’s Witnesses are being sued in court, slandered by the media, brought in front of governments, and criticized in any way. This must be God’s chosen organization. These kinds of things have been foretold.

Instead of these incongruences raising red flags in the mind of a Jehovah’s Witness, they become a green light.

However, I could never quite shake the feeling that something felt off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, not exactly. I think it was only a matter of time before I woke up.

It’s taken me the better part of four years to find solid ground again. After discovering the magnitude of deceit and hypocrisy, the hard work began.

I started to deprogram and rewire my thoughts to re-establish a new worldview and belief system. I began to heal from the emotional trauma and abuse.

It’s taken the longest to stop feeling guilty; it’s something I still struggle with. Having a healthy sense of self-worth is a work in progress. While I was in, my identity and individuality were erased.

I had no idea what freedom really was.

View of the world 2 A true story of leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses

The valiance of freedom

I stayed in the cult for about a year after I realized it was all a lie. This had been my whole life; I didn’t know anything else. How could I leave it behind?

Look at how much there was to lose: my mother, family, way of life, and support system. It was hard to see a life without any of that.

So, I lived in fear. I was trapped and held in place by anxiety.

There came a moment when I had to say “enough.” The organization finally published an article that re-addressed its policies on child sexual abuse. Needless to say, it was a far cry from the reality of the situation and essentially ignored the problem entirely.

Despite the pleadings of the Australian Royal Commission and thousands of victims around the world, their policies stayed the same.

There was no way I could continue being complicit, so I left. I explained to anyone who asked my reasons. I told them the truth and didn’t look back. I knew it would break my mother’s heart. I didn’t think I could do it; I didn’t think I had the courage or strength.

Since I took a stand, I’ve begun to learn what agency feels like—I’ve never had it until now. I’ve learned the valiance of freedom and its importance.

Without it, I am not an individual. Without a choice, I am not a human being.

The Jehovah’s Witness cult took that from me the day I was born. I had to lose everything to get it back, and it was worth it.

Xandar Gordon

Xandar Gordon

Xandar has seen the world through words his whole life. With both parents authors themselves, he was doomed from the start. He can always be found with a journal and ink smudges on his fingers. Xandar writes everything from music to poetry to personal essays. He has been writing professionally for over 6 years, and has written copy on countless subjects. His portfolio can be found at writers.work/xandar.

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