By Scott Douglas Jacobsen (w/ Jeff McBrine)
‘Jacqueline’ is a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here she discusses some facets of life in and out of the community, the faith.
*Due credit to Jeff McBrine for the push and organizational skills here.*
*Interview conducted July 21, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In terms of entering into the Jehovah’s Witnesses at a later period or birth into the Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, what are the early parts of the personal story in the Jehovah’s Witnesses for you?
‘Jacqueline’: I was born into the religion, my mom came into the religion when she was a kid because of her mom, and my dad found it through his sister (who is now disfellowshipped) when he was in his mid/late 20s. My parents were always heavily devoted to it, though we did go through a few years in my childhood when we were “inactive” which basically meant that we weren’t attending the weekly meetings and bible studies, just our multi-day conventions and the memorial of Christ’s death which both happened every year. Even with this though, my family always followed the rules to the letter, no holidays, not too much interaction with my “worldly” family, no birthdays, praying before every meal, etc. and after those few years between the ages of about 4-8 we started to become regular at the meetings again, and I remember always trying to come up with excuses for me not to go; like “falling asleep” before we had to leave, pretending to be sick, and purposefully taking too much time figuring out what to wear. Sometimes these excuses worked, but most of the time I had to go anyway. This continued for several years, I hated going to meetings, I thought they were really boring and I enjoyed hanging out with my dad’s side of the family way more than anyone on my mom’s side or in our congregation, plus I despised wearing dresses so I really gained nothing from going, I just went because my parents did. It wasn’t until I was somewhere around 12 that I started to feel the pressure to listen and participate more, and I slowly became more “involved” with the congregation; giving comments, going out in service, bible reading, participating in talks, and other things. However, I still never really wanted to do that stuff, I did it because I was expected to and I knew I’d make my parents happy and get praise from others for doing it. For the next several years I kept in that pattern, “progressing” in the congregation, although I was suffering from depression and anxiety due in part to the religion, something that I kept quiet about. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I had no choice and couldn’t leave or I’d be doomed to painful death, so I reluctantly decided to get baptized when I was 18 (worst decision of my life). On the surface, nobody was pressuring me to do anything I didn’t want to do, my parents never negatively commented on me not being baptized and participating in meetings wasn’t mandatory or enforced, but there was this unspoken stigma that if you didn’t do those things you should feel guilty that you don’t love Jehovah as much as you should. Along with that, during the years we were inactive I constantly saw my parents berating and beating themselves down for being such “disappointments” to Jehovah, because in their (and everyone else’s) minds simply believing wasn’t enough, you had to “prove” your love by going to meetings, participating in talks, and going out in service.
Jacobsen: Within community, hierarchs or leaders exist who have more authority than others. Members of the community respect them or fear them, or both, and can report grievances or concerns to them. Can you relate any experiences in which personal life was brought to the congregation or members, even hierarchs/leaders, within the Jehovah’s Witnesses in which you felt demeaned or as if personal privacy was violated?
‘Jacqueline’: I personally haven’t experienced anything that was a direct violation of my privacy, however it always felt like as soon as you have an issue in your family the Elders are there, asking to come over and discuss things with you, even if you haven’t asked for help. My personal experience with this is when I first mentioned to my parents that I had doubts and at the very next meeting, only a few days afterward, the Elders had pulled my family into the back room to discuss these (quite frankly, tiny) doubts that I had. It’s hammered into our minds that if there’s any type of issue within your family you should tell the Elders so they could get involved, no matter how personal it is. Something else that isn’t a direct violation of privacy but I remember always thinking was weird was how they always announced when someone got disfellowshipped or left the congregation. I never heard them explicitly state why that person did, just that they had, but it always sparked these rumors in the congregation and gossip would start about what happened. Unrelated, but another strange thing is that whenever they announced that someone had left or been disfellowshipped everyone would start acting as if that person died; somber, morose, talking about them in the past tense, “I’m going to miss them, they were so fun to be around”.
Jacobsen: As a social species, social links matter deeply to us. What were some of the communal or social positives while in the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Those good things that came with the community of faith.
‘Jacqueline’: The major positive I loved and still love about the community is the sense of hospitality members have: if they hear someone lost their job they’ll help them find a new one, if someone is sick in the hospital they constantly have a stream of visitors bringing cards and flowers, and if someone is low on money they can expect multiple deliveries of groceries and meals to their house. Although their sense of “community” is skewed to just those in the religion, you can bet they’ll take care of each other and support one another.
Jacobsen: Many individuals have been expulsed, kicked out, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a variety of reasons. Others have been scared or pressured/coerced into staying in it. Were social ostracism and threat of expulsion real threats for others or yourself when questioned on matters of a highly private nature if refusing to respond to the questioning?
‘Jacqueline’: In general expulsion, shunning, and ostracizing are engrained into this religion as one of its base beliefs, nobody can deny that. However, many of the bad things that happen in this religion are unspoken rules and norms: you aren’t guaranteed to be kicked out if you don’t answer a question, but pressure from the Elders for the full story could make you feel trapped and in danger of being judged and ostracized if you don’t answer it (though depending on the answer you could be shunned anyway). Everyone in this religion is expected to be 100% transparent with the Elders, telling them every detail of every decision you have made, which makes them suspect you of doing something bad if you refuse to disclose personal information.
Jacobsen: In terms of individual and community behaviour towards you, what Jehovah’s Witnesses policies seem fair and humane within ordinary legal and sociocultural contexts? Please provide examples as you feel comfortable.
‘Jacqueline’: In general, nothing this religion asks of you is unlawful or inhumane, however, it does ask a lot of you. You have to dedicate a lot of your time, energy, resources, and money to it, you aren’t expected to pursue higher education or career advancements (and your priorities can sometimes be questioned if you do), and you’re generally supposed to put God above everything in your life, including yourself. However, like I stated, none of these things are cruel or unlawful, in fact some teachings are good morals to follow; such as being kind to people and not being greedy.
Jacobsen: In terms of individual and community behaviour towards you, what Jehovah’s Witnesses policies seem unfair and inhumane within ordinary legal and sociocultural contexts? Please provide examples as you feel comfortable.
‘Jacqueline’: However, the pressure of adhering to some of the more “serious” rules can sometimes seem inhumane. If you celebrate your birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any other holiday you can expect to be reprimanded and even disfellowshipped (shunned and kicked out). You can have no tattoos, no revealing clothing, no swearing, no anything that is deemed “bad” by the religion otherwise you will, once again, face reprimanding and possibly shunning. This control over the member’s identities might be considered cruel and a violation of self-expression to some.
Jacobsen: If any examples, have you ever been coerced by the community or the leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to relinquish individual civil rights and human rights for the sake of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
‘Jacqueline’: My entire life has been relinquishing my human rights. From the time I was born I was taught to dress, act, and think a certain way otherwise I risked tearing apart my family, breaking their hearts, and ending up alone. This religion controls every aspect of your identity, turning its members into copies of each other, more or less. We have the same pattern of speaking, the same morals, the same fashion sense, and the same goals with only small differences; and if you fall somewhere outside this category you will definitely be judged and questioned and even shunned if you stray too far. You aren’t allowed to be involved in politics or develop your own opinions on matters, you aren’t allowed to express yourself in a bold way, and you aren’t allowed to even associate with those outside the religion. The leaders of this organization and the members of it constantly boast how “diverse” it is, but it really isn’t. You’re allowed to express yourself, sure, but only within the small confines the religion has established. There are certain things you absolutely do not and should not want to do otherwise you “bring reproach to Jehovah’s name”.
Jacobsen: Many people, as per the “social species” example before, can suffer from mental anguish or even mental illness (if prolonged stressors) as a result of coercion from the community, expulsion from the community, even banishment from family, friends, and community all-at-once. Sometimes, this can lead to the extremes of suicidal ideation, even suicide attempts (often as a cry for help). If I may ask, what were some mental health issues and unhealthy, towards the self, behaviours as a result of the process of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, i.e., as a result of the loss of community, threats of shunning, removal of friends and family, and other forms of coercive attempts at control?
‘Jacqueline’: At around age 14-15 I became severely depressed and anxious. I self-harmed, had multiple anxiety and panic attacks every week, and thought that killing myself would be the only way out of my situation. I lied and told my parents this was due to my schooling and that I couldn’t keep up with the workload anymore, which was true, but the reason I couldn’t keep up with it was due to mental issues connected to the religion. Around that time I had a realization that this wasn’t what I wanted with my life, and consequently had to deal with the realization that I would be “turning my back to God” which meant I would die an awful death and never be resurrected (like we believed). This fear paralyzed me, I knew I wasn’t happy in this religion and never would be, but I thought it would be even worse if I left and went to “Satan’s side”. So my options were basically to spend my entire life miserable, lying to myself and pretending to be happy, or I could live out my life with Satan in the “world”, happy and satisfied, but never be resurrected and never see my dead family again. My mind had been so twisted and distorted by listening to years and years of propaganda that I honestly thought that being miserable my whole life or killing myself were better options than leaving the religion. Since killing yourself also meant you wouldn’t be resurrected, at 18 I had been so beaten down and was so tired of this battle in my mind that I settled with the former option and ended up getting baptized, knowingly condemning myself to a life of lies and mental torture (I was actually sobbing in my room the night before I was going to do it). Now at 20, I realize that was the worst decision I’ve made in my life. Now that I’m more mature and have figured out that this religion actually isn’t “the truth” I’ve subsequently condemned myself to never speaking to my family again, losing all my friends, and being left all alone when I decide to officially leave. I’m still attending meetings with my parents (over Zoom) and outwardly appear to be faithful, however mentally I’ve already distanced myself from this life. Even with that, the constant preaching that this is the “end of times” that I hear twice a week is slowly trying to pull me back in by using fear and emotional manipulation which has caused a milder relapse of what I went through a few years ago. And I know that even after I leave I will forever be plagued by those thoughts, the fear and manipulation I had drilled into me for 20 years will always make me question my choices and opinions.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the time and opportunity to tell your story here today.
Jeff McBrine:Do you feel Jehovah’s Witnesses that stop believing are forced to suffer a way of life that they find unacceptable or can’t find any true enjoyment in because they fear leaving the religion and then having all of their social structure taken away? Basically, do you feel any are trapped in the religion and are suffering psychological damage or violations of their personal freedom and rights? Do you know anyone that fits this description? Explain if you want.
‘Jacqueline’: In reference to my previous answer: yes, absolutely. From my own personal experience and also the experiences of others that I’ve seen, this religion makes leaving it so difficult. Like I said, once I leave I’m going to lose all of my social structure, all my family and friends, as well as be forever haunted by the “what if” question. This religion thrives and survives by scaring people into staying and making members feel guilty for leaving. I highly recommend listening to “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled because that song fully encapsulates what it’s like to be in this religion (honestly Gothel and Rapunzel’s whole relationship does). Gothel relies on fearmongering, isolating Rapunzel from the outside world and feeding her stories about how awful and scary it is out there so Rapunzel never wants to leave. And after she does leave, Gothel still tries to convince her that life in the tower is so much better than life outside and that she has so much more in her tower than she could ever have “out there”. This is exactly what it’s like. A toxic, manipulative relationship where the authority makes it seem as though they’re only trying to help the victim “be safe” and that if the victim leaves they’re the bad person for not accepting the help and staying.