Life as an Outcast
Book trailer for Brenda Thornlow's latest novel Life, As Is!
A few days ago I was walking my dog around my neighborhood when, walking toward me, was a group of familiar looking faces dressed in suits and modest length skirts, carrying what looked like book bags. As the pup and I began passing them, one of the men made a point of glaring at me while one of the women whispered to the other next to her, furtively glancing at me. Wow! I thought to myself. The group looked somewhat familiar to me (then again, I live in a small neighborhood so that’s not unusual) but these people definitely knew who I was and were none too happy to see me! As walked up the steps to my building it finally occurred to me who these people were and I did know them at one time.
I was raised a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness. It was almost eighteen years ago, this year, that I was disfellowshipped; their term for excommunicated. This means that anyone that was also a Witness who was friendly with me or related to me was no longer allowed to associate or even speak to me. Anyone who associates with a disfellowshipped person runs the risk of being disfellowshipped, as well. It took several years for me to adjust to this since, as I mentioned, I was raised in this religion and Jehovah’s Witness children are not raised the same way other children are raised. Anyone who has spent most of their life in this religion is faced with some enormous challenges when leaving. When I was disfellowshipped, this fact was hard to understand for friends I made who had no experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Growing Up a Jehovah's Witness
Most people know that Witnesses do not celebrate holidays including Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day and even New Years. Many may not realize that they are also banned from celebrating birthdays as the celebration of birthdays, along with holidays, are believed to have pagan origins. Whether or not this is the case, Witnesses believe it is wrong to celebrate any of these occasions. They are also not allowed to salute the flag as they are taught that it is showing allegiance to a country and your total and complete allegiance should be to God. This also means that they are not to get involved in politics by voting or running for public office or joining the military.
The holiday and birthday rule is difficult for a child being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Children are not comfortable around those who are seen as “different.” As this religion is not a very large one in comparison to others the Witness child will, most of the time, be the only member in his or her class, grade, or even school if they are attending a small school. The schools I attended while growing up were fairly large but I was definitely in the minority. Elementary school was not difficult for me, although it did have its moments, for instance in fifth grade when I was bullied by a boy in class for not saluting the flag. The difficulties started in junior high school when I started to become interested in after school activities.
Aside from what has been listed above as to what is banned, Witnesses are also discouraged from having friends outside the faith. Witnesses are taught that God (Jehovah) has plans to destroy the earth as it is and create a paradise or utopia and only people of their faith will survive. God will destroy everyone else. Therefore, it is fine to associate with a non-believer in an attempt to convert them, however if this person has no interest in joining the faith, you must not befriend them. It does not matter how good a heart that person may have, if they are not a Witness or have no interest in becoming one you should not befriend them. Also, they believe that there is always a chance a non-Witness may influence you to commit a sin. A popular Bible verse they use to support this belief that you should not make friends of different faiths is the well-known verse in Corinthians, “bad association spoils useful habits.”
This rule applies to children as well. Any after school activities, school dances, pep rallies; these involve associating with all types of people, most of them non-believers therefore it is not allowed. Even if a classmate invites you to their home or to a party, if they are a non-believer, same rule applies. Needless to say, dating a non-Witness is completely out of the question. This is what made things difficult for me as I approached my teen years. I had no interest in getting involved with things that would get me in trouble at school or with the authorities, and at school I made a few friends that weren’t Witnesses that were of the same mindset as me. If one of my friends invited me to her house or to an after school activity I was not allowed to go. It didn’t matter how nice my friend was, because she was not a Witness she may try to influence me to drink, smoke a cigarette, experiment with drugs; none of which I had any interest in doing, anyway. I simply wanted to be a "normal" kid and do "normal" kid things with people at school who were not trouble, but because they did not believe the same way, they were "bad association." So for my childhood, and the childhood of most Witness children, life consists of going to school, going home, going to church (or Kingdom Hall as they refer to it) three times a week and serving in the door-to-door ministry on weekends, something for which this group is most known. Although they are allowed to associate and make friends with other children in their church, what if a child does not have as much in common with others in the same church?
Social media has made it easier to make friends with those whom you have similar interests, but this was not the case in the 1980’s. Each church or Kingdom Hall has more than one congregation which the members are assigned to according to where they live. All members are required to attend the congregation services or “meetings” to which they are assigned. If you do not follow this, you will be reprimanded by the elders, although special circumstances may allow you to attend a different one from time to time. Through mutual friends and family members, I made friends with kids from different congregations from mine, however, if I wanted to spend time with them, this was looked down upon since they were not part ours. Meanwhile, I didn't dislike the kids that attended the same congregation as me, I just didn't have much in common with them and I felt awkward.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Children
Starting a New Life After the Witnesses
Needless to say, since Witness children are so sheltered by their families and this group, it is very difficult to assimilate to the outside world. It is especially difficult when you are disfellowshipped and ostracized by those around you who have known you for years or are even related to you. A person can be disfellowshipped for many reasons; it primarily happens when you commit a sin and the elders find out about it. The elders will meet with you, you are required to give them the details of your sin, tell them whether or not you are repentant and they then decide whether or not you are sincere in your repentance. I personally cannot tell you how they come to this decision, all I know is they claim the Holy Spirit guides them. My sin was that I wanted to leave an abusive husband. According to the Witnesses divorce is only allowed if adultery has taken place and the adulterer is unrepentant.
So, when I was disfellowshipped and split from my husband, I also was laid off from my job; obviously a bit of a stressful time for me! Keep in mind I had no college degree (going to college is strongly discouraged by the Witnesses) so it took a couple of months to find a permanent job along with an apartment of my own. Prior to finding a permanent job I kept busy with temp work and even though it was tight, I was able to make ends meet. It was difficult for me to find a roommate because I lost all of my Witness friends and of course did not have any non-Witness friends, so I moved into a small studio apartment by myself. This also my first time living on my own, without my parents or a husband.
Slowly, I began to make new friends, people who are still in my life almost eighteen years later. It was not an easy transition, though. When a former Witness losses all that was familiar to them, especially one who has grown up in that sheltered environment being taught that the outside world is no place for them, they are almost a stranger in a strange land. When trying to make new friends, your “picker” may be off because you are not sure who to trust and who not to trust. Add to this, everyone you are meeting and attempting to get to know has an extremely different background and don’t understand that you are embarking, almost literally, on a whole new world.
I do have the option of going back to the Witnesses, provided I repent for divorcing my abusive ex-husband. But not only is that not going to happen; after much research and soul searching, I have since come to the conclusion that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is not for me. I have my own beliefs which work for me and make me very happy. I have since remarried and although I do speak to my parents from time-to-time, (parents have the option of continuing the relationship with their disfellowshipped children if they wish) I have many other relatives that live in my same neighborhood who refuse to speak to me and I have come to terms with that.
For me, all of this took place prior to social media taking over the world. Today, someone experiencing these same challenges have online tools to help them cope and meet others in the same boat. There are many groups online such as Jehovahswitnessrecovery.com, Freeminds.org and ex-jw.com to name just a few and many groups on sites such as Facebook such as Watchtower Uncensored. There are many books written by others with similar experiences such as Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, I Was Raised a Jehovah's Witness by Joe Hewitt and many more. So if you are reading this and in the same situation as I once was, I encourage you to search for groups and books such as these as they can be a tremendous help. If you know someone in this same predicament, please be patient with them as they are trying to find their way in this world.
(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow
Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; The Revolving Door; A Godless Love and her memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect. Available at Amazon. (Link below)
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© 2014 Brenda Thornlow