Best of Times, Worst of Times: Lisa Magdalena, former Jehovah's Witness

Lisa Magdalena, 38, is a former Jehovah's Witness whose father made legal history by being forced to have a blood transfusion. Now a trained counsellor, she recalls how she broke free of the sect

Times Online, UK/September 14, 2008

I was two years old when my father died, in 1971. He had his wisdom teeth out and he didn't stop bleeding, so he was rushed into hospital in Margate. Later it was diagnosed that he had a blood disorder. We were a highly influential Jehovah's Witness family. My grandfather was a local "presiding overseer", which meant he basically ran the show. And for Witnesses, having a blood transfusion is forbidden. You can be "disfellowshipped" for it, totally cut off from your family and the community. There was a big wrangle, and the hospital won a legal battle to give him blood against his wishes - he'd written "No blood" on a piece of paper. They gave him a transfusion, but by then it was too late and he died.

Throughout my childhood I was angry that he chose the religion over surviving for me and my elder sister, Michelle. He was considered a martyr - "Lisa, your father died for the faith"- but no one seemed to appreciate how horrendous that was for a child. From the age of six

I spent hours knocking on doors, and people would slam the door saying: "I will never listen to a Jehovah's Witness, because of that man who refused blood and left those poor little children."

Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in heaven or hell. They believe that good Witnesses will live for ever in paradise here on Earth, as God's chosen people. But before that comes Armageddon. As a child, I was taught that the world was going to end in 1975. My mother stored all these tins and split peas, preparing for Armageddon. Some Witnesses took out big loans they didn't think they'd have to pay back; many didn't go to university or have children. Most Witnesses prayed for Armageddon, but I prayed it wouldn't come. When 1975 came and went, they said, okay, it didn't happen, but it could still happen at any moment.

As a teenager I had all these questions about the faith, and I was pounced on as if the Devil was getting into me. We weren't allowed to partake of blood, so I asked why we weren't vegetarians, because when you put a steak in the pan, blood runs out. I got into big trouble. There was also abuse in our house. A male Witness abused me and my family from the time I was four till I was 14. The elders disfellowshipped him, but that just meant they couldn't do anything about him. Eventually I knew I couldn't be a Witness any longer. But there's no honourable way to leave this religion: you're told that if you leave, it means eternal death. I couldn't just say: "Look, Mum, I don't want to be a Witness any more." I knew I'd have to leave home.

And there's an extra abusive twist. Witnesses believe that when paradise comes, there'll be an earthly resurrection of good Witnesses. So my father would be resurrected in bodily form. And I was told that if I left, my mother and sister would have to explain to him why I wasn't there: that Lisa hadn't loved him or Jehovah enough. How hurtful is that?

I was 16 when I ran out of the house.

I remember the cold air as I ran and ran, my heart pounding. I didn't know anyone I could go to: I'd been taught never to mix with outsiders - Satan-lovers. For three weeks I was on the streets, and I was heading for London when I was found by my guardian angel. It was a man whose wife was a Witness, but he'd chosen not to be. He was driving along the A299 when he saw this distraught kid and recognised me. He knew about the abuse. He said he could see all I needed was a roof over my head and I'd find work and live my own life. It was the first time I ever felt protected.

He took me to my grandfather and gave him a very strong talking-to, saying I wasn't coming back to the religion. Very temporarily, I lived in my grandfather's house. I borrowed my nan's suit, and I called on every bit of anger and confidence I had and walked into Marks & Spencer's in Margate and asked if they had a job. Well, it so happens I started work in the food department and found a flat. I started going to parties, which I had never been allowed to do. I'd be on the tills at M&S and catch myself humming a "kingdom melody" - a Witness hymn - and think "Aaargh!" and replace it with Like a Virgin, by Madonna. I celebrated Christmas for the first time at 17, and I felt like a one-year-old. Santa never came to me as a child, but he's very generous now! I don't believe in Jehovah, who is a judgmental, punishing God. I believe my God loves me very much and wants me to grow and be happy. And I'm happier than I've ever been. I've written a book based on my life called Tell the Truth.

It's taken me years to respect my father's choice not to take blood, but I do. And I respect people's choice to be Jehovah's Witnesses - if they're happy, good on them. But I know there are many who feel trapped. I'm not on a mission to get people out, but as a counsellor I'm here to help anyone who wants to escape from control and manipulation.

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