I was raised in a cult. My parents each converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses before meeting each other. My two younger sisters and I were thus born into an unconventional lifestyle.
A lot of people claim to be religious. Jehovah’s Witnesses fully explore the meaning of the word. Witnesses are religious in the same sense that radical Islamists are. Their theology defines every aspect of their lives and dictates the most trivial nuances of their behavior.
Witnesses regard themselves as holy in the root sense of the term: set apart, sanctified, of a purer mold than the rest of humanity. They refer to those outside the faith as “worldly,” and regard the breadth of human society as “the wicked system of things.” Their eschatology anticipates a cataclysmic end to that system wherein Jehovah God will cleanse the world of all non-believers and imbue the Witnesses with physical immortality to be enjoyed on a renewed paradise Earth.
Until then, Witnesses fully submit themselves to the ecclesiastical authority of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. The “organization,” as it is commonly referred to by adherents, is led by its “Governing Body,” men who claim to be the sole conduit for God’s will on Earth.
Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness involved a profound sense of alienation. I did not salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not celebrate or participate in birthdays or holidays. I was not allowed to participate in sports, go to a school dance, or partake in other extracurricular activities. Indeed, I was discouraged from any interest or pursuit which would increase my exposure to those outside the faith.
My friendships were closely monitored. Association with non-Witness children was greatly frowned upon. Even relationships within the fold were scrutinized for their theocratic quality. My mother never truly approved of anyone I called friend. There was always something wrong with them, something remotely worldly, a hint of inadequate devotion to the faith. Such scrutiny emerged naturally from a works-based theology that held adherents to an impossible standard.
Such alienation was meant to continue into adulthood. Witness children were discouraged from attending college. They were expected to abstain from military service and avoid politics. Rather than pursue a lucrative and fulfilling career, Witness children were steered toward full-time “field ministry,” knocking on doors from a young age to place literature with prospective new recruits. Many raised within the faith remained in low-skill jobs, earning just enough to pay the bills while contributing what remained to the organization. Vacations, while not overtly discouraged, were subtly regarded as worldly indulgences.
The Witnesses attract a disproportionate number of adherents with mental disabilities. My mother was manic depressive and prone to nervous breakdowns. My father was likely on the autism spectrum, undiagnosed but recognizable in retrospect. They were each, in their own way, susceptible to the manipulations of the organization.
For my mother, the organization provided both desperately needed structure and an affirmation of her sense of entitlement. The idea that she belonged to a rare group of holier than thou super-believers, that she had the inside track on the way the world worked, and that those whom she disagreed with would someday suffer the wrath of God, all provided an outlet for both her mania and her depression. When manic, she could boast of divine empowerment and holy purpose. When depressed, she could take solace in the promise of eventual salvation.
My father was less devout. For him, the organization bolstered his claim to authority within the household. He tried to dominate my mother, pointing to the doctrines of the faith as justification. She would not be tamed, which frustrated him immensely. That frustration spilled over to his dealings with the congregation and its leadership, manifesting in acts of defiance but never outright rebellion. He continued to believe, even if the application of those beliefs proved inconsistent.
I was less compliant. Somehow, some way, I developed the capacity for critical thought. I tested the doctrines of the faith and judged the organization by their own standards. I realized, once I grew old enough, that the Witnesses were a hive of hypocrites. They maintained this claim to sanctification, portrayed their lifestyle as somehow healthier, regarded themselves as somehow holier. In truth, they were every bit as corrupt and criminal as any random group of human beings.
I saw how my parents treated each other. I saw how others in the congregation behaved. And I knew my own heart. As I cultivated forbidden friendships with non-Witness classmates, I knew that I was no more righteous than any of them, and that they were no more wretched than me.
Above all, I grew hungry for more than the Witnesses could offer. They provided no satisfactory answers to life’s questions. They cited scripture, but their interpretations were hollow. They offered doctrine, but their claim to authority was weak. They spoke in riddles. Their magazine articles and other literature read more like song than prose. Their messages, delivered to congregations by appointed overseers, were performed with a hypnotic cadence that masked their lack of substance.
Everything flowed from the organization, this shadowy group of men presented as the sole dispensers of truth. But the Governing Body’s claim to authority was entirely self-appointed. They claimed that their authority was derived from scripture, but not in a way which could be recognized if read without their direction. Independent study of scripture was all but forbidden.
My break from the Witnesses was not sudden. It was a process. In some ways, that process continues. One may never fully escape their past, especially their childhood.
For a long time, most of my adult life, I harbored hatred for the Witnesses. I blamed them for depriving me of the childhood I could have had. I blamed my parents for being duped by a cult. More recently though, I have come to appreciate my unconventional background for two big reasons.
First, though it may have come at a steep price to my early development, being raised in such a regimented environment did protect me from influences which could have easily steered me the wrong way. I cannot say for sure that I would have become a drug-addled gang member if not raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. But the probability certainly would have been greater.
Second, and I believe much more importantly, my experience fighting through indoctrination and breaking away to become my own person provided me with valuable insights into the human condition. I rejected my entire worldview, defied my most revered authorities, and adopted my own philosophy piece by piece almost from scratch. Few people get to do that. Few are confronted with the need. As a result, I have a well-developed sense of skepticism which continues to serve me well. I know what I believe. More importantly, I know why I believe it.
There may be easier ways to learn such lessons. But at least they were learned. None of us gets to choose how we are raised. I am glad, at the very least, that I grew to learn how to choose.