Jehovah’s Witnesses: A Cult of Isolation and Fear
A story about the destructive power of false beliefs
Human reproduction is so fascinating to me. We begin our life as a single, solitary cell inside the body of another human being. That cell divides over and over and over again, building an organism comprised of billions and billions of cells whose complexity is simply mind-boggling. Then when it’s time, that cluster of cells leaves its host to start its own journey.
On our birthday, a beautiful new human joins the world with the seed of an entirely unique story inside of it. In ideal situations, capable parents are there to steward that small person through the complex process of education and growth, and to enrich us with the information and skills necessary to fully express ourselves and experience a fulfilling life. These early lessons create a ripple-effect that the life in front of us will be deeply impacted by.
My biological journey began the same way yours did, but the parents who met me when I joined the world believed everything was about to end in global genocide and catastrophe. To them, life wasn’t an exciting opportunity to explore the world, discover who we are, or see what we might create with our lives. Life was a test, and Earth was a battlefield where a war against demonic possessions and a monster called Satan was waging.
They were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To Jehovah’s Witnesses, the world is a very dark and terrifying place carpeted with traps that lead to enslavement to Satan and eventual destruction. My parents taught me that we were part of a righteous and persecuted minority who were fighting to survive in a world filled with the wicked slaves of Satan. Those “worldly” people wanted nothing more than to drag Jehovah’s Witnesses into lives of “sin” so that we would die at Armageddon with them.
These beliefs were called “The Truth” by everyone around me. We had The Truth, and everyone who believed differently were lost, confused, and going to die.
When I remember this part of my past it becomes really clear why I became kind of obsessed in my twenties with understanding the true nature of subjective perceptions and beliefs. I was taught toxic things as a child that no one could substantiate. They’d just point to the ancient book it all came from as the authority for what the book itself said. We were required to just “have faith” that it was all true. It was seen as a virtue to blindly believe things that other people had written and assured us were real, things that couldn’t be proven. Even when those things didn’t make any sense.
When I was still quite small I started asking questions about why Jehovah was testing all of us and making us live in this terrible world I was being taught to see. If he was omniscient and knew everything (including the future), didn’t he already know who was going to live and die at Armageddon? Why was he making humans suffer like this? The only answers they could offer were things like “god works in mysterious ways,” or “Jehovah loves us so much that he sent his son to die for our sins, and now we have to show Jehovah how much we love him.”
I didn’t understand any of this. Why did I have to be born imperfect because two people sinned in a garden when Jehovah first made the world? Why did every one of their descendants have to be born imperfect and live in pain and die of diseases when we didn’t do anything wrong? They didn’t have answers to those questions, but they were certain I was born with sin already inside of me.
I was about eight years old when I first made this confession to my mother. I remember sitting in the passenger seat of her car as she drove, heavy with shame as I tried to find the courage to speak. I finally found the strength, and told her that I didn’t love Jehovah. I didn’t really believe in him, and I didn’t understand why we were all being tested. It all seemed so mean to me.
When I was a kid I enjoyed some of the strange bible stories in the books they gave me. I was delighted by the funny story of the man who was swallowed up by a big whale and lived inside of it for three days; the story about the man who put a bunch of animals inside a giant boat he’d built; the story about the woman who turned into a pilar of salt because she had been bad. I also loved stories like The Wizard of Oz, and The Never Ending Story, and when Winnie the Pooh visited the land of heffalumps and woozles. But I didn’t think that the Wizard of Oz or Winnie the Pooh were real, and I didn’t believe Jehovah was real, either.
I asked her what was wrong with me. I believed I was a bad person because I wasn’t a good Jehovah’s Witness.
I didn’t feel any love or connection when I tried to imagine Jehovah. I couldn’t see him, but I was told he was always watching me. I heard other Jehovah’s Witnesses around me defend their beliefs when challenged by worldly people, saying things like “well, what if I you’re wrong about Jehovah and he really does exist? You’ll die at Armageddon for not believing. The worst that might happen to me is people will laugh at me for believing in him, but at least I won’t die at Armageddon.”
What if I was wrong and that mistake would cost me my life? I didn’t want to die, so I just lived in fear and tried to follow Jehovah’s rules and believe what my parents told me was true.
I remember the sickening grip of terror in my stomach every time the sky darkened abruptly with clouds, or the wind kicked up without warning. The words “it’s happening — this is Armageddon” would ring out in my head. I’d just freeze, and helplessly watch wide-eyed to see how the end was going to start.
To be good Christians we were required to attend three Jehovah’s Witness gatherings every week to review the materials that the organization behind this cult had written and assigned to us. In 2001, The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York was listed among the top forty revenue-generating corporations in New York City, reporting an annual revenue of about $951 million USD. Nothing like that was ever talked about though.
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society are the ones who write and print all of the Jehovah’s Witness publications, including The Watch Tower and Awake! magazines. They decide what the bible means, and tell their followers which of god’s rules have to be followed (rules which change dramatically over time, like whether or not it’s a sin against god for a man to grow a beard). They’re the ones who issue predictions of when the world will end. They decide what their followers are to read and when, keeping them on a steady drip of terrorizing apocalyptic narratives.
I was always discouraged from reading publications that hadn’t been approved by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and told that if I did I should disbelieve anything that disagrees with what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. They said that evolution was a lie, science was a lie, other religions and philosophies were built up from lies, and that practices like meditation opened up your mind to demonic possession.
At these three weekly meetings with our Jehovah’s Witness brothers and sisters we’d prove to one another that we’d completed the assigned reading. We’d raise our hands hoping that the brother who was leading the meeting would call on us, then we’d read the answers we had carefully underlined in our magazines. The magazines were filled with simple articles about the Jehovah’s Witness’ bastardized version of the bible, and included questions with obvious answers in the text that even children could find. This is how we proved that we were one of the really devoted and good Christians, and found and judged those that weren’t.
I remember sitting in the back seat of my father’s car as he drove us to Dodger Stadium. It was the weekend of a massive assembly where tens of thousands were gathering to worship Jehovah. All along the roads leading to the stadium were rows of people with signs on either side of the street. Their signs had messages telling us that we were being lied to and that what we believed was dangerous. My mom and dad told me not to look at the people or read their signs because they were filled with lies from Satan. Those people were apostates. Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who had fallen.
As I recall these different experiences, many of them seem so outlandish I question my memory of them. But right on the Jehovah’s Witness website is a page discussing apostates, and they site this scripture:
1 Tim. 4:1: “The inspired utterance says definitely that in later periods of time some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to misleading inspired utterances and teachings of demons.”
I didn’t really have friends growing up. I always thought the other Jehovah’s Witness kids were weird, and they tended to be cruel. I went to public schools, but I was told to keep my distance from all the worldly children there.
My parents forbade me to participate in any of the holidays or birthdays with my class. I was always the weird kid sitting off to the side during these times, and my mother told me not to eat any of the treats they brought to class because they might be poisoned or have razorblades in them.
My parents divorced when I was seven. I went with my mom. My big brother and dad went to live with grandma. Grandma Ruth had been disfellowshipped. The elders in her congregation had revoked her baptism because of some wrongdoing, which triggered a series of events where one is expelled from their congregation, disassociated from their friends, and often times their family.
The ceiling and walls in Grandma Ruth’s home were tinted a gross golden yellow from the cigarette smoke that billowed out of the corner where she always sat. She was a mean, ogre-like woman. One story I heard about her that always sticks out is how she would punish her adopted daughter. She’d make her stand in the corner on her tippy-toes, and put thumb tacks on the floor under her heels. Grandma Ruth would just leave her there, and if her legs or ankles gave out from exhaustion thumbtacks were waiting underneath.
I was afraid of her, and I wasn’t supposed to talk to her because she had left Jehovah. So I would make a straight line from her front door to my father’s room whenever it was my weekend to visit. I only remember speaking to her a handful of times before she died.
Both of my parents remarried when I was ten. My mother’s choice to marry Richard began a new era of abuse and terrorizing unlike anything either of us could even imagine was possible. My father’s choice brought a cruel and conniving bully into my life who seemed to hate me. I was her emotional punching bag.
For several years I bounced back and forth between my parents’ homes. As the situation with one escalated to a breaking point, I’d be sent away or would run to the other in hopes of protection. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I was finally able to stop being a Jehovah’s Witness.
I found myself living with my mother again in the hate-filled home she had created with her husband. She had just stopped considering herself a Jehovah’s Witness, but still thought that sending me back into “the flock” was the answer to the problems she was seeing with my behavior. I refused. I told her that I would never go back to being a Jehovah’s Witness.
After some halfhearted protesting, she didn’t bring it up again. I was free. No longer would I be made to participate in the cult I had been born into.
I was far beyond the point of caring what any of the people I’d known my whole life would think of me now, but still, I knew how I’d be seen. I was a traitor. An apostate. I was the worst of the worst, and this was the excuse my father needed to stop speaking to me or feigning interest. I was on the side of evil in all of their eyes now.
But I didn’t feel evil. What felt evil was the way the Jehovah’s Witness called the little girl my father molested a liar when she came forward, saying “Dean is a good christian. He wouldn’t do that.” What felt evil was the way they coerced my troubled mother into marrying a man who turned out to be a cruel and deranged sociopath. What felt evil was the way they encouraged my friend’s parents to disown him when he told them he was gay, sending him on a path of self-destructive recklessness that eventually resulted in him contracting HIV. What felt evil to me was how they discouraged education, exploration, or developing any sort of security, personal fulfillment, or future. What felt evil was the way that the Jehovah’s Witness spiritual rape and isolating led people I knew to take their own lives because they couldn’t see any other options.
I watched this cult tear family after family apart, and lead their naively trusting followers into profound states of desolation and hopelessness. And I watched a lifetime of isolation and being told that there was no future for me in this world express itself in my destructive and reckless choices when I finally escaped.
Largely estranged from my father at this point, I only had my mother to rely on. Living with her and her husband meant I was surrounded by their constant screaming, hate, and abuse. I would live there for a few weeks or months before she’d get me in her sights, seething with rage from the life she’d played a starring role in creating, and I’d be thrown out with nowhere to go. This began a period of instability and nomadic homelessness that lasted for several years.
A question answered on the Jehovah’s Witness website sheds a lot of light into the inner workings of the situation I found myself in:
Would faithful Christians welcome apostates into their presence…?
2 John 9, 10: “Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him.”
The community I had been raised in wouldn’t help me or take me in because they saw me as their religious enemy. Rejecting me was a righteous act. I stayed for short periods with anyone I could find who would let me stay with them. I felt like a perpetual burden on everyone I knew. I didn’t belong anywhere, and never had, really.
I was twenty-three before I completely got away from my parents and their insanity. I had carefully disappeared in a way that they couldn’t find me, and was living alone in a rural part of Washington. I felt my first breath of freedom from my parents, but everything in me was coated with the thick resin of their insanity. I think my first year there was spent hitting the bottom of the nervous breakdown I had started in California, and experiencing the full extent of the trauma I had accumulated.
I isolated myself from everyone, tried to get my head above the surface of the pool of darkness I was drowning in, tried to figure out which direction was up, and tried to find reasons to continue living. After a year of hiding and trying to intoxicate myself into senselessness I moved out of my lonely rural burrow and started laying roots in Seattle. I was surrounded by people and activity again. I was still frightened, wounded, and tortured inside, but I began feeling strong enough to start the all-consuming process of burning down the library of lies I carried in me. If I could destroy what was inside of me I might be able to start over and rebuild myself with things I chose.
I remember sitting on the sidewalk in front of Bauhaus Cafe in Seattle, reading a book about science and physics. I was wrestling with the voice in my head as I read every line. It wouldn’t allow anything I was reading to be considered without attack. Everything triggered the deeply instilled distrust I’d been taught about anything that suggested a broader view than what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach.
Evolution was a lie. The estimated age of the universe was a lie. Chemistry was a lie. The Big Bang was a lie. And it wasn’t just science. Spirituality was a lie. Meditation opened your mind to demonic possession. The Buddha was a false prophet. Being present and still in the moment was an invitation for Satan to take up residence inside of me.
This was the period when I first encountered David R. Hawkins work, which fundamentally changed my life. I began realizing that the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be objectively measured and identified as falsehoods. The narrative I’d been fed about how Jehovah’s Witnesses were the chosen ones and the world hated them because they had The Truth began to unravel. I started seeing progress and realized I could change myself and my life if I had courage and worked really hard at it. I started to feel strong and capable. I began to have hope.
The majority of my life has been about my parents’ profound failings to accept responsibility for themselves and grow. In reality, life is not a simple, binary, black and white thing that can be summed up as “good” or “evil.” Life is huge, and it’s complex, and it’s confusing when you really open space for witnessing and trying to make sense of it. Life is constantly changing and moving. There are beginnings and endings, which are really just two ways to describe the same events. There are broken hearts and triumphs. There are unknown factors that we do not and can not control. There are mysteries that we do not have the answers to, but we frequently convince ourselves we’ve solved them because it makes us feel safer.
I spent my time in Seattle rejecting who my parents had turned me into and trying to discover who I might become. Then a window opened for me and I saw the possibility of a life without constant fear of where my basic needs like housing, food and companionship were going to come from. A job in California beckoned me, and it was worth diving back into the environment where everything bad in my life had been staged.
I packed up everything I owned into a moving truck, loaded up my beautiful cat who had been my savior many times over, and started down the long expanse of highway that led to Los Angeles. Things felt like they were finally looking up. I imagined this next chapter of my life being the time when all of my struggles and hard work would pay off. I’d find financial stability. I’d find creative fulfillment. I’d find a woman to fall madly in love with and we’d create a beautiful life together. The clouds had parted, and I could feel the bright warmth of the future I’d dreamed of and worked so hard to achieve beaming down on me.
But within a few days of being back California, my body began to reveal how much damage had actually been done. The harm hadn’t just been emotional, or psychological, or spiritual. I wouldn’t find out for nearly a decade that the crippling illness I started experiencing at twenty-six was Parkinson’s disease.