I recently found the sub-Reddit EXJW and noticed that most people are dealing with a relatively recent change. I haven’t yet seen someone give a perspective from a couple of decades out, so I put together my no-holds-barred 20+ year retrospective as an adult out in the world. Maybe you’ll find something useful here. Maybe I’m just entertaining myself with a walk down memory lane.
- Armageddon did not come.
- I don’t have a pet giraffe.
- I didn’t move into that mansion I saw while out in service.
- I didn’t slide into a life of debauchery and depression.
- I have had a pretty cool life after leaving.In 1979 my mom started studying with JWs. I was eight. Mom studied with me and both of my brothers, but Dad insisted for a few years that we still go to the Lutheran church. As kids, we had nightmares of being caught in Dad’s church when the fireballs came at Armageddon.
This was a real fear. Mom showed us pictures of Lot’s wife and Sodom and Gomorrah in that orange Bible stories book and explained this was going to happen soon. I had incredible anxiety and shame when I had to tell friends and Sunday School teachers that we no longer celebrated holidays and we couldn’t go over to friends’ houses to play because they were worldly and ‘bad associations spoil useful habits’.
Mom taught us that if we didn’t take a stand like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego then we might not survive Armageddon which was going to be “any day now”. She showed that even though we were children, we needed to take a stand so God didn’t kill us like he did the children at Noah’s flood or Sodom and Gomorrah. She was seriously scared “we might not make it”. Nuclear proliferation, homosexuals, abortions, pedophiles, smurfs and old people born before 1914 were obvious signs the end was near in the late 70’s, early 80’s and I wasn’t ready to die yet.
Today, 40 years later, I see not much has changed. JWs still are still certain the end is near. JWs are still certain they have The Truth. JWs still feel persecuted by the world. JWs still feel they have more insight into the real nature of the world than world-class scientists and leaders.
I became a pioneer after high school because the end was so near. Like most of the other JW kids my age, I was soon married.
It was easy to justify because 1) Jehovah wasn’t going to catch me fornicating at Armageddon and 2) no matter who I married, we were going to be in the new system soon and we would all be perfect, so how compatible did we really need to be?
I found out a few weeks after the wedding, at the age of 19 (she was 21), that she had been molested for nearly fifteen years by her step-father, a “brother” who had also molested several other girls, crimes that were covered up by the organization and elders for years. My young wife would wake up at night crying because she thought I was her step-dad sneaking into her room. She started drinking, then having schizophrenic hallucinations. (She wasn’t yet diagnosed and I had no label for what was happening.) She tried to stab me with a knife thinking I was her step dad, asking me why I would do that to her. She would wander around the neighborhood in a fugue in the middle of the night and I would have to follow at a distance to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.
I was a ministerial servant at this point and was embarrassed and traumatized by her behavior and my own helplessness. A year later she ran off with a “worldly” guy.
I was coerced and guilted into a second marriage at 21 by an elder and a mother who … long story, but the guilt worked, I married an 18 y/o only to realize immediately that I did it for multiple wrong reasons.
I came to realize my first wife needed help, not my judgment & criticism. I was disfellowshipped at 24 after sleeping with my first wife while married to my second. I realized at the time there was no possible way of getting out of that nightmare life without hurting or disappointing someone. My poor second wife! It was all pretty dreadful and Stephen King-level surreal.
It took a few years to undo the trauma. I wish I could have found something like this subreddit community. You guys are awesome.
I had nightmares about meeting w the elder committee for about 5 years after I left. That those three elders, a car salesman, a janitor and a retired construction worker would interview young men and women and ask them questions about where they touch each other, kiss each other, whether there was “penetration”, if you took your pants off, whether there was an orgasm, if oral sex occurred, etc is insane.
That these elders – and lots of elders in the org – interact with young girls this way when those girls have been abused as sex toys by brothers who were never imprisoned or even publicly reproved, is criminally insane. My trauma was nothing compared the half dozen girls I found out had been molested in that one congregation or the hundreds (or more) a circuit overseer confided had been victimized across the U.S. twenty-five years back – and now I see is it has been even a bigger, global, persistent stain.
- In the big picture, I’ve found my experience and depth of my pain as a JW is of subjective importance. I’ve learned that JWs are not significant. No one has ever really, in the past 20-25 years talked to me about JWs or brought them up in conversation, with the exception of 3 door-to-door visits.
- As background, I’ve worked with accomplished people, scientists, global business executives, academics, even celebrities, people who will be recorded in history books for their deserved brilliance, people far smarter than me even tho I’ve had my successes: Sold my company to Bell Labs, managed a lab at Apple for a couple years, etc.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not on anyone’s radar, and it took me a while to stop thinking I was somehow important. I think it was partly youthful naivety, but also a learned perspective from constantly being told I was part of a special club that would live forever, people who know better than leading scientists and Nobel laureates about things like human history or whether evolution is a lie. These things are pretty laughable after taking university courses, teaching and working with real scientists. Breakthroughs in geology and paleontology, genetics and biology are brilliant, amazing and benefit all of us, but not compatible with JW beliefs.
- I have found NO instances in the past 25 years where someone was “knowingly siding against God”, there are no conspiracies around evolution or other ridiculous delusional crap I used to believe. Most people are doing their best with the knowledge they have. Even people like the blue-collar JW elders protecting child molesters believe they are doing the right thing and protecting the congregation. Those elders are the evil I’ve found in the world and it’s largely based in ignorance, frequently mixed with emotional trauma and mental health issues. This is the evil that comes from extremists in remote and uneducated corners of the world as well.
- In the past 25 years, after living in NY, SF, LA, Pacific NW, having a farm in rural CA, living on the road for a year, constantly meeting people from all walks of life, from every corner of the world, in all those travels I found most people are NOT materialistic, violent, hedonistic and all of the other labels the Witnesses place on “worldly” people. Most people in my circles give more than they take, are extremely compassionate, generous, mindful, & considerate. Very few are religious.
I find that education makes people more loving in that they judge less and are better at identifying and proactively addressing real causes of problems. For example, my first wife had serious mental health issues as a result of her abuse. Myself and the elders gave her ultimatums, criticism, thoughts and prayers, but only when she saw a doctor and a therapist did the suicidal tendencies (attempts) go away. I’m proud that I was the one who introduced her and her sister to a therapist.
Two of my mom’s friends, both active JWs killed themselves after years of depression and other problems. In hindsight, they had textbook mental health symptoms, but the congregation saw evil choices and “Satanic influences”.
Evil is often ignorance and powerlessness masquerading as righteousness. Labelling something or someone as “evil” has, in my experience, been aligned with people who lack education. It is like saying a person with Alzheimer’s is possessed by a demon as a substitute for working on a cure. True compassion and humility is seeing something like schizophrenia before it has been labeled or understood and NOT condemning or judging the person. I was not that person as a Jehovah’s Witness.
- The worst people in my life have been those with little education and a LOT of conviction. The worst person I have been was that young pioneer and ministerial servant. The people I’ve personally known who have done the most harm to others have been Jehovah’s Witness elders (and “submissive” wives/mothers) all who covered for a pedophile. My ex-wife, her sister and several other girls have been scarred for life because elders and the Watchtower Society allowed a fat, hairy, white-trash brother to force his naked body on young girls repeatedly, year after year. These Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most unethical and destructive human beings I’ve personally encountered in my life, far worse than any “worldly” people I’ve known, and I’ve had students fresh out of prison.
That they are convinced they are good people makes them even more poisonous. That this is a global, persistent problem for Jehovah’s Witnesses is pretty sick.
- Because the org emphasizes remaining separate from the world, the used car salesmen and janitorial elders don’t get a lot of opportunities to have dinner with people who run non-profits, hospitals, universities, etc. So they judge themselves based upon other janitors, car salesmen, and construction workers and find themselves superior. JWs live in a reality distorted by their self-limiting experiences and interactions. I did too at the time. Jehovah’s Witnesses have constructed a profoundly sound-proof echo chamber that is terrifying to escape. But oh so worth it for me.
- Do I tell colleagues I used to be a JW? No. Many of the guys at my job at Apple had science PhDs from places like Oxford, MIT and Stanford. Their response would be, “Oh, you used to knock on doors to warn people the world was ending… 25 years ago?” “You used to think that many of the most important scientific breakthroughs that we use to successfully do our jobs were lies told by scientists because they hate God and are serving Satan?” Not professionally useful.
- Unlike the warnings from “the organization” about people in the world being unhappy, most people I’ve known are pretty happy, WAY happier than your average Jehovah’s Witness. I see far fewer cases of depression. No one else I’ve known, thankfully, has committed suicide. The only child molesters I’ve known were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The world has its rough edges. Life is really really tough for some people, especially without an education or when you’re from underprivileged corners of the world, but making sweeping generalizations about most people in the world being less happy is intellectually dishonest. I figured out how to be happy, healthy and productive.
Life is amazing! To be alive for one day is an immeasurable gift. But it took me years to unlearn early emotional reflexes. I believe JWs have a taught persecution complex that becomes self-fulfilling and self-destructive. And, our brains are naturally wired to think in relative values. For an ex-JW to suddenly see they are not going to live forever in paradise with a pet giraffe in North America feels like being cheated. You are NOT being cheated! You also will not have 72 virgins nor fly like superman nor are you going to be like Einstein and explore the universe and become a world-class pianist or move into that mansion you’ve been eyeing out in service in the nicer part of town after Armageddon comes. But you have something truly great. You have today and it is so valuable and lovely.
- Finding this subreddit a few weeks back has been a mixed bag of satisfaction about making the right choices, to feeling deeply disturbed that JWs – with such truly good and kind intentions for the most part – haven’t changed much in 40 years. They maintain strong convictions about the world with so little objective knowledge. Not as bad as the convictions of a suicide bomber, but disconcerting, especially in this post-fact, alternative facts political climate.
- I honestly do not know if “The Truth” is the best, happiest life some JWs can have. Maybe it is the best some people can get in life. I do know it is the worst possible life for others, like molestation victims or Jehovah’s Witnesses who realize they’re gay or people like me. Being a JW was a terrible, surreal nightmare compared to the real world.
- I’ve found that JWs are not unique in their dysfunction. Many of the same tendencies exist in every type of community. I’ve seen cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, group think, obedience to authority, and other deleterious tendencies in academia, business and in political party affiliations. I’ve also started following r/exmormon, r/exmuslim, r/exjew and others. Same stories, different details. We’re all human, but I think I’m less susceptible to these tendencies because of my experiences.
- I kick myself mentally for not seeing some of the logical problems of the JW beliefs even as a youngster: If there are wars, well, that is a sign the end is near. Peace and security too is a sign the end is near. If you are happy, that is proof you are following the lord. If you are not happy, well, slaves are not greater than their master, they persecuted JC, so that too proves you are following the lord. No matter what you experience, you can find it faith strengthening. Jesus and Paul using slavery as a metaphor at a time when men could sell their daughters. Really? God is love. God also kills babies with floods and fireballs. This type of reasoning is unsophisticated and not rational. It justifies atrocities in every culture and destroys lives.
- Television and social media feeds the view of an evil world because people tune-in to bad things. Apocalyptic prognostications are not limited to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Bad news gets attention – and advertising revenue – and so an observational bias emerges. The apocalyptic views are often not statistically valid. The poorest nation today is better off than the wealthiest nation 200 years ago in terms of longevity, wealth and health. The world is getting better even tho we are still animals with the ability to destroy ourselves. I feel I see the fake news and bullshit better because of my experiences.
- I’ve found that most explanations about the world that the Watchtower provided were exceedingly simplistic with unnecessary appeals to supernatural causes. They tend to throw so many scriptures at an argument that it feels substantial, but I can’t read the literature anymore. After one paragraph, I feel like I’m reading something from a creepy, drunk eighth grader with a delusional mindset..
There are pretty solid, rational explanations for a lot of what we see in the world today… unfortunately like every scientific insight such as a cure for a disease or how to drop a robot on Mars or why climate change is scary, real proofs require observational data, math, often expensive equipment and a great deal of time. The majority of people do not have the skills or resources to digest a real proof regardless of which side of an argument they sit, so the masses have to choose to believe based on their experiences and community. This is a problem for which no one yet has a solution. If you want to unravel quantum mechanics or organic chemistry or any other modern magic for yourself, it’s gonna take a few years if ever.
- I don’t think so much about JWs these days because they don’t vote, they don’t hold political office and they don’t run global companies, and with the exception of the suicides of abused and mentally ill members, their convictions rarely get people killed. Irrational convictions are a much bigger problem when lots of people die: healthcare, environment, geopolitics, wars, etc. Because JWs discourage higher education and their beliefs are pretty silly with a science education, JWs really don’t play a role in eradicating diseases, brokering peace or lifting the poor out of poverty. The world still has a lot of challenges, but progress like that of the last 200 years continues. It just still won’t have much to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My advice to anyone thinking about leaving: I’m not so naive to not see I’ve been lucky in my adult life. One of the things that made my departure easier is that my mom passed away while I was still in school, my father never converted and my brothers ran like hell. I didn’t have kids so I only lost my second child-bride, my in-laws and every friend I had when I left the org. It would be even worse if, at the time, I had been shunned by immediate and extended family. I understand the Physically-In-Mentally-Out (PIMO) thing. If that is you, my advice is to educate yourself fearlessly. The eighth-grade reading level of the Watchtower and Awake does not count.
Watch TED talks, browse Wikipedia, be intellectually honest, then use facts and statistics to sow reality within the JW community. Make it easier for people like younger me who can leave. Alleviate their trauma. Don’t judge. If you have not read about Leon Festinger’s research on cognitive dissonance, do it. It can relieve you of the burden of believing you can change everyone’s mind. It will show you the cognitive blind spots that make us human. Half of the population will never allow the little death that comes from finding their view of reality is deeply flawed.
My advice to those who figured out The Truth About The Truth (TTATT) and finally got out: don’t be too angry and use the emotion as motivation to learn and grow. Don’t be hard on yourself. It takes years to stop feeling guilty or ashamed or questioning whether you are a good person, even when you know that logic is on your side. Don’t hate yourself for being human. One of the truly wonderful things I’ve seen on this subreddit are all of the people recommending that you should find a professional therapist. YES! Seeing a therapist and having a smart, educated, neutral party listen and provide insights is so important.
Be awesome. Be a good person. Be honest. Be compassionate. Life can be wonderful.