The night the world ended, I was at a bowling alley in a strip mall in the suburbs of Montreal, throwing strikes with other Jehovah’s Witness friends. Wholesome activities were the only way we could cool our hot teenage blood. If we weren’t bowling, we were at chaperoned, alcohol-free basement parties or outings to the cinema to watch movies that didn’t contravene God’s laws.
This one summer night at the lanes, I made the mistake of calling another young man handsome. My friends heard me but didn’t say anything. For the Witnesses, to be queer is an abomination. I had hidden my queerness successfully for years, suffocating my desires and my identity so that I could have a chance to live forever on a paradise Earth.
But word travels quickly in a closed religious community. A few weeks later, our congregation’s presiding elder called me on the phone and asked if I was “a homosexual” and planning to live as one, as if the two can be separated. Was I planning to turn my back on Jehovah and disappoint my family, my community, my creator? I didn’t have much of a choice. I composed my letter of disassociation and dropped it into the mailbox. It was filled with grief, uncertainty, and a kind of power, but I don’t remember much of what I wrote and I didn’t keep a copy.
As per the rules, the Witness community quickly shunned me, and did it in the name of love. This included most of my family. They reasoned that the expulsion would encourage me to return to the congregation, but I never magically became straight, and I never put on a meeting suit again. From a Witness standpoint, the terms of my exile were unproductive. From my standpoint, it was simply cruel punishment. For most of the two decades that followed my dissociation, I assumed that the experience was safely in my past, based on a commonly accepted narrative around leaving a high-control group: once you’re out, you’re out. But I would later learn that this view was too simplistic to explain the effects of falling out of Jehovah’s grace.
For years, friends heard bits of my story, and were struck by the surreal aspects of life as a Jehovah’s Witness. What do you mean your Smurf toys were demonic and you had to destroy them? What do you mean you could accept a birthday gift as long as it wasn’t on your actual birthday? Did you really believe that all your classmates would die a fiery death at Armageddon, but because you were no part of the world, you’d survive and have to bury the bodies? These things didn’t sound strange to me when I was growing up.
Those same friends asked when I was going to write about all this. I was too intimidated by the prospect of starting a memoir, so I worked some of the story into novels. Meanwhile, I continued to witness the harms that JW policies did, whether around shunning, education, blood transfusions, the treatment of women (abysmal, in case you’re wondering), or failing to protect children from sexual abuse. It remains impossible to be an out queer or trans Witness.
The aftermath of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a confusing in-between state that can last for years. It can be especially difficult to figure out life on the outside if you don’t have a career, or the education that makes one possible. Most JWs don’t have a degree, since the group discourages pursuing them. Why would you need university when you have Bible study? Why try for a career when the world’s about to end? I’m a writer and teacher whose highest academic accolade is a high school diploma, and I’ve only recently become comfortable admitting that.
My tipping point was in 2018, when two ex-JW friends of mine died because of substance use connected to their shunning. The first funeral was for Stephen, who drank himself to death. He’d been a DJ, so I and his other unbeliever friends gathered in a nightclub to celebrate his life, the one the Witnesses had robbed him of. We poured our grief into speeches on the dancefloor. The Witnesses call all non-members worldly and paint them as uncaring, hateful and selfish, but it’s telling that Stephen’s worldly family held a memorial while his blood family didn’t. Who knew that satanic apostates could be so loving?
A few months later, Jehovah’s Witnesses presided over my friend Ian’s funeral, which meant that no one spoke about who he really was – just platitudes about the coming new system.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, like many millenarian groups, use fear of cataclysm to cow members into submission. They’ve refined these techniques during the pandemic, spinning the virus as a sign that the end is near – pestilence being one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – driving the Witnesses deeper into a bunker mentality. From their homes, they reach out to former members with we-told-you-so messages. Early in the pandemic, I got a letter in the mail coaxing me to get in touch with my local congregation – proof that Jehovah could get me long after I left.
Part of my effort to resist these messages was redefining the vocabulary of Armageddon so that I could decouple it from fake apocalypses and apply it to a real one: the current climate disaster.
Back when I knocked on doors hawking the Watchtower magazine, I would bristle if anyone told me I was in a “cult”, and up until recently, I’d avoided using the word for fear of it lacking nuance. In her book Cultish, Amanda Montell explains why “cult” and “brainwashing” are “thought-terminating cliches” similar to the ones cult leaders deploy as “semantic stop signs to hastily dismiss dissent”. In other words, these words invoke stereotypes that lead to oversimplification. Montell prefers the word “cultish”, because it can be applied to manipulative language used by any number of people or groups. I agree it has more nuance, but now I’m no longer afraid to use the word “cult” when it applies. Ultimately, I think it’s more important to listen to the experiences of former and departing Witnesses than to tick boxes on a cult-or-no-cult checklist.
With the help of my friends, family and editor, I began the work of writing myself further out of the group. I approached each essay I wrote as a breakup letter to Jehovah. I wrote for Stephen and Ian, and for those of us on the dancefloor that night.
By reading the work of fellow ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Joy Castro, Amber Scorah, Joy Notoma and Ali Millar – I began to understand the systemic reasons why so few ex-JW memoirs exist. Because former Witnesses are shunned as dangerous apostates, it’s difficult or impossible for them to conduct the family research that memoirists should normally be able to do. The ex-JW may be afraid of further rupturing tenuous relationships with practicing family members that still talk to them, some of whom break the rules to do so. Ten minutes into my first session with a cult-recovery educator, we discovered our shared JW past. “Don’t you realize how lucky you are that your mother still talks to you?” he told me, clearly telegraphing the pain in his own life.
To further complicate memoir writing, as ex-JW activists including Mark O’Donnell have pointed out, the Watch Tower (the group that controls Witness life) regularly deletes older publications from its online libraries, so former members often cannot access the materials they were indoctrinated with. Part of the difficulty of writing about a group that gaslights people so expertly is that you start to question your memories of what happened, and that’s exactly what they want: for you to think it was your fault. After all, you’re the one who left Jehovah.
So, I did what any memoirist would do: I opened some old boxes in my closet. I unearthed the No Blood card I once carried around, the one instructing first responders to let me die rather than give me a transfusion. I found an old diary in which I parroted Watch Tower gobbledygook almost verbatim – evidence of a time when I wasn’t allowed to think for myself. I dug into what Julietta Singh calls “the ghost archive”, and in so doing found the material I needed to tell the story.
The revelation, for me, was understanding that readers will consider my book mostly through the prism of their own ghost archives. One day, while I was recording my audiobook, Rémy Sealey, the sound engineer and an electronic musician known as Klatu, told me that as a former Falun Gong practitioner he could relate to so much of my experience – the us-versus-them mentality, the group’s belief that it was immune to criticism, and the recruiting techniques. “I once went on a date with a woman who invited me to an ‘activity’, which turned out to be at a Kingdom Hall,” referring to the Witnesses’ local centers of worship. “What I never told her is that I went on the date hoping to convert her.”
There’s much commonality between different evangelical churches and closed religious communities, and ex-members need to create dialogue with one another so they can pick up the pieces. Regardless of affiliation, we all need better tools to spot the red flags of coercive control that can manifest at work, at play, and in our relationships. As always, this requires a vigilance for language.
The work of reversing the effects of my childhood indoctrination is ongoing. Last year, I went back to university to restart undergraduate studies, which I had abandoned long ago. Now that there’s no religious apocalypse to get in my way, I do my homework with an eagerness that would’ve nauseated a 20-year-old me.
Now, when I compliment a man at the bowling alley, I no longer hear Armageddon in the clatter of pins, in the rumors reaching God’s ears.
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