A woman in West Cornwall is using her traumatic experience of leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses, after being raised as one, to offer a new counselling service for former members of religious cults.
Laetitia Latham Jones, from St Buryan near Penzance, recently qualified as a crisis and trauma counsellor and set up Taking The Helm, which provides counselling for everyone from victims of abuse, to survivors of natural disasters.
But it is those who have left religious cults that Laetitia wishes to specialise in helping, drawing on her own childhood experience and being disfellowshipped from Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion which she describes as having the traits of a cult.
In recent years, many former Jehovah’s Witnesses have described the religion as being cult-like, but fearing repercussions, most have done so anonymously.
Now, hoping to help others who have been shunned and left isolated after leaving religious groups, Laetitia has spoken out about what happens when you say you want to leave.
“I was born into a religious cult myself. Other people join them, but I had no choice.”
Originally from Kent, Laetitia says her parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses about four years before she was born. “They knocked on our door and caught my mum at a vulnerable time of crisis.” She explains.
“One of my older brothers had severe autism and had to live in a residential hospital at six years of age. After he left the home, my mum was obviously distraught and a Jehovah’s Witness called at her door.”
Laetitia’s mother started attending meetings, and her father could see it seemed to help her, so he accompanied her.
By the time Laetitia was born, the family were well-established Jehovah’s Witnesses, attending meetings at their local Kingdom Hall three times a week, and door knocking in the local area to try and recruit new members.
As a child, Laetitia was involved from the start. She recalls being taken out to preach every Christmas Day, something she hated because they received a lot of negative responses. She remembers a man shouting at her father, saying that his children should be at home opening presents rather than knocking on doors.
“By the time I was eight years old, I was out preaching on my own, with my parents calling on other homes in the same street. I was trained with good arguments for each subject that could be raised. I had a really good argument for evolution, and for not having or giving blood transfusions – even if it is for a family member.”
But preaching on Christmas Day was not the only thing that made Laetitia’s childhood different than most. “At school, I was kept out of religious assemblies and religious studies. We didn't celebrate Christmas, birthdays, or Easter because we were taught they had Pagan origins.
“They feel that celebrating birthdays places you upon a pedestal and the only person you should honour is God.”
But for someone born into the religion, not having a birthday party did not seem all that strange:
“We were also encouraged not to associate with anyone outside of the religion and my friends didn't celebrate their birthdays either.”
Although Laetitia would get in trouble for small acts of rebellion or asking too many questions, (like, ‘why have Adam and Eve got belly buttons in our pamphlet?’) she decided that she still wanted to be baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I was baptised at the age of 14 - full immersion in a pool at one of their conventions. At the time, I thought it was what I wanted. A friend of mine was baptised at 12 years of age, and I was quite close to her, so I asked my parents for the next two years until they agreed.
“The elders take you through a set of questions, to ensure you know what you’re getting into, but obviously at 14, you are still too young.”
If the elders thought being baptised would make Laetitia a more committed Jehovah’s Witness, they were wrong, because two years later, she had had enough and wanted out.
“At 16, I asked the elders to disfellowship me, because I wanted my own life, and I wanted my freedom. I was dating a young man who wasn't in the religion, and he had all of his freedom and I wanted mine too.”
Laetitia continues: “I knew what would happen, I knew I had to choose between my family and my own life, because you are shunned once you leave. As I was young, I didn't really appreciate the consequences, and the effect leaving would have on me way down the line.
“I was a rebellious child, and not looked upon favourably by my parents, so I thought it wouldn't matter anyway. However, years on you realise it has a bigger effect on you than you thought it would.”
Laetitia says she was brought before three elders known as a judicial committee, who tried to convince her not to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses before the disfellowshipping. “I had been in front of them twice previously for various things, as I was not an obedient child. They tried to talk me out of it, but I insisted. I had my boyfriend, so I knew there was someone to support me. Maybe if I’d been on my own, I would never have asked.”
As soon as she left, Laetitia’s life changed: “Everyone you've known and grown up with shuns you. They don’t speak to you anymore. If they see you on the street, they will cross to the other side rather than speak to you, so you have to get used to that.
“With my parents, I was still living in the family home, so they had to interact with me as they usually would, but there was a definite atmosphere. They told me I couldn't leave home unless I married, so I discussed this with my boyfriend and about five weeks later, at the age of 17, we were married and I was able to move out.”
Speaking about the adjustment that followed, Laetitia says: “When you are raised in a cult you do not realise how isolated you are from the outside world, so when you come out it is extremely difficult to learn how to mix with a community, to make friends and trust others – because you are taught to trust no-one in the world.
“Many people who leave cults are isolated and some have committed suicide, because they cannot handle the shunning and the outside world.”
Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently dispute they are in any way a cult, and have a section on their website dedicated to explaining why they are not a cult, saying: “No, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult. Rather, we are Christians who do our best to follow the example set by Jesus Christ and to live by his teachings.” The website continues to argue that they are not a cult because they ‘have not invented a new religion’, and ‘do not look to any human as their leader.’
Laetitia disagrees: “The religions viewed as cults interfere with your personal life. They control what you wear, what you read and what you watch on TV. We weren't even allowed to watch Scooby Doo!
“In my research, I have discovered there is actually a checklist for cults known as the B.I.T.E. model.”
Having left her parents and the religion that she was raised in, Laetitia says there was domestic violence in her marriage when she was pregnant with her daughter, so feeling vulnerable she returned to the Jehovah’s Witnesses so that she could have contact and support from her family again.
She went through a process of being reinstated, where she had to attend church for six months without talking to anyone to prove that she was committed to being a member again.
After leaving her first husband, Laetitia eventually married again, but although her second husband was happy at first to attend the Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings, he soon realised after talking to an elder, that for them to accept him, he would have to quit his job as a policeman.
This prompted Laetitia to disassociate herself from Jehovah’s Witnesses for a second time, and disassociation results in the same treatment as disfellowshipping.
When Laetitia’s second husband retired from the police force, they moved to Cornwall with their son. She recalls visiting the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle in 1996 where she was shocked by the ways that women who were branded as witches had been tortured by people who were supposedly Christian. “So I thought, if they teach that witchcraft is evil, but can perform horrific tortures, then maybe the other side isn't as bad as they say it is. That’s when I began looking into witchcraft.”
With a love of morris dancing as well as developing an interest in Paganism, Laetitia was invited to train as a ‘teaser’ for Penglaz, the Obby Oss at Golowan Festival in Penzance. Her tutor turned out to be Cassandra Latham, who she had previously met at the Pagan Conference in 2003.
In 1996, Cassandra became the first person in the UK to have her occupation registered with the Inland Revenue as ‘village witch’. As a much respected wisewoman in West Cornwall, Cassandra was looking to not only train up a new teaser, but a wisewoman who could work alongside her.
Laetitia and her second husband eventually divorced due to their lives going in different directions.
As a village wisewoman living with Cassandra in St Buryan, it would seem that Laetitia could not be further away from her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. However, when her father died of cancer five years ago, she attended her local Kingdom Hall following the funeral, to be somewhere he would want to be. She promised her father that she would return before he died and her grief at this time led her to become reinstated.
“Of course, when the elders discovered I was with Cassandra, all Hell broke loose, as you can imagine.” Laetitia remembers.
“They sent me a text to say they wanted to see me, and I visited the hall that evening, where two elders were waiting for me and brought up websites on their iPad with my pictures with the ‘Obby ‘Oss and Cassandra.
“They were angry and instructed me to leave Cassandra immediately, and called her an evil woman, and began questioning me about my personal life. I replied that she had been extremely kind to me as she gave me a home rather than see me become homeless after my divorce.
“I reacted angrily and shortly after that they instructed me to attend a hearing with the judicial committee of elders and I refused. The following day they called at Cassandra’s cottage and announced they were disfellowshipping me once again.”
Despite her reaction to the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to tell her how to live her life, Laetitia says that she doesn’t hold any resentment towards her parents, who have both now passed away, following her mother’s death earlier this year.
“I don’t hold a grudge. They caught my parents at a vulnerable time, and I feel so sorry for them as they were taken advantage of. My parents lived and breathed that religion for 60 years, and now that I have more knowledge of cults, I can see they wasted their lives believing they would never become old or die, waiting each day for Armageddon and the paradise earth where they would live forever.”
Laetitia is clearly happy with where she is now, and proud of her achievements – with good reason: “As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we weren’t allowed to go on to further education after leaving school. We were told that college would have wild parties, drug taking, bad associations etc. They didn’t want us to have a career as we were pressured to be 'pioneers' where you preach for 90 hours a month and have a small part time job to earn money.
“I wanted to be a professional dancer and my sister wanted to be a P.E. teacher, but we didn’t pursue those careers as it would be difficult without parental support.
“I attended college in my early 30s and did NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3 in Beauty Therapy, went on to attain Diplomas in Holistic therapies, I teach Reiki courses and now have my Counselling Diploma.”
Looking towards the future and hoping that her Counselling Diploma and her experience can help others, Laetitia says:
“I had a friend from childhood who was a Jehovah’s Witness and committed suicide at the age of 21. He was depressed, and he told the elders he considered ending his life, but received no help.
“My research and study of religious cults show that many people end their lives because they are shunned and isolated after leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults.
“I want to be there for people who reach out for someone who understands their problems.
“I could save lives in this way, just by being there, and I feel this is the reason for my life experience.”
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