“Long ago it began…the life of a child too young to know the torment and torture she would experience in her years to come—the agony of life. Why this agony? Maybe it was her parents, or maybe it was herself, but mostly it was her environment; a world in which she could not cope with life and the people in her life. As she viewed the grotesque, blood-spattered bodies that lay before her, she reflected on her past with anxiety.”
I was age nine years, when two ‘nice’ strangers visited our family farm, ten years old, when I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and age twelve years, when I penned the words above for a school project. In three short years, I went from a happy, carefree child, who played with cousins all day long, to one who wanted to end it all. I titled my assignment, “All Alone in the World.” Fortunately, I never intended to go through with my horrific fantasy. My strong will to survive and common sense kept my young life from spiraling into a suicidal/homicidal abyss.
Thirty years later, these words opened Chapter 1 of my memoirs, Out of the Cocoon: A Young Woman’s Courageous Flight from the Grip of a Religious Cult, published in 2006, by Robert D. Reed Publishers. Out of The Cocoon
As a Jehovah’s Witness, I felt as if I had been rolled in honey and pinned to an ant hill. Our five weekly meetings were torturous enough, but the religious assemblies (conventions) lasted for five days, 10-12 hours a day. To cope with the tedium, I gnawed on my nails until they bled. I dissociated so I could survive the long indoctrination sessions. I witnessed my nephews being physically abused for not sitting still—a common outcome for restless Jehovah’s Witness children. I, too, was physically and/or emotionally abused as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses by my family, bullies and teachers. My mother told me, “Persecution is good for you. It shows we are in the right religion.” I didn’t buy into her reasoning. For nearly a decade, I had NO friends in “The Lie” (what I prefer to call their version of “The Truth”), because there were no children my age attending our rural Kingdom Hall and I had been long since cut off from my “worldly cousins.” I felt utterly alone. Keeping a journal provided some relief until my mother discovered my diary. To protect my identity, I wrapped my journal in plastic bags and hid it in an old log in the forest. Every time I felt the need to express myself, I went into the forest to write. I still have it today. It contains my baby teeth taped inside, a reminder of the childhood I lost.
The best way I can describe what I went through is to imagine someone holding a pillow over your face for nearly a decade, letting in just enough oxygen so that you did not die. TV, books, associations and songs were censored. While my mother seemed to feel rejuvenated by her new friendships and relentless church activities, I suffered in silence, gasping for air. “EIGHTEEN! Just make it to 1980, and you will be legally old enough to leave,” became my mantra. Every year became a countdown for me: 8 years until I’m free; 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!
Being the ever-resourceful Brenda Lee, I cast a lifeline by creating an underground letter-writing network with my non-Jehovah's Witness aunt in Colorado. My mother forbade me to communicate with her sister, but I knew if I could gain a sympathetic ear, my aunt might help me escape. Aunt B sent her letters to my schoolmate, who became our intermediary. Aunt B became my confidant and adult voice of reason, during my incredibly stressful teenage years. Every letter I received from her felt like a few drops of water in the desert.
Meanwhile, I dutifully did everything the Watchtower Society required of me, including proselytizing door-to-door, up to 100 hours per month. Vicious dogs chased me, as did creepy owners with shotguns. Forced to wear a dress, I froze in the winter and, as a redhead, blistered in the summer. In many respects, I felt like the Barbie dolls I had played with—molded, manipulated and fake. I was the perfect “plastic” Jehovah’s Witness teenager. I knew I had to quietly put in my time, while scheming and plotting my escape. Outside, I looked like one person, but inside, I fought for the real me, the one who was eroding away. I understood a butterfly’s metamorphosis and used that to my advantage; thus, the title for my future memoirs, “Out of the Cocoon.” Like a prisoner of war, I quietly studied my opponent and learned how and when to escape.
Finally, that time came. Just weeks prior to high school graduation and a month after my eighteenth birthday, I unleashed ten years of pent-up rage, taking my entire family by surprise. I even threw in a few curse words for good measure, something the obedient little Jehovah's Witness girl had never done. My mother warned me that I would become “a prostitute and thief,” because Satan had taken hold of me. I saw her comment as misguided at best, malicious at worst. I eyed her up, disgusted. Was this really my mother? I was determined to prove her wrong.
Let me be clear about one thing. I was NEVER disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for committing any alleged Biblical “sin.” I simply left. That was my sin. However, shortly after I left, my mother informed me that, per instruction from their new September, 1981 Watchtower magazine, she was to end all association with me. [Prior to this, you had to “sin” and be disfellowshipped in order to be shunned, but the old men in Brooklyn (Governing Body) had an epiphany of ‘new light’ when Governing Body member Ray Franz left and later wrote his book, “Crisis of Conscience.” They realized that even those who walk away quietly can later become a verbal threat to the unity of their cult and therefore, they should be shunned. (Ray and I both left in May of 1980.)] In her letter to me, my mother said that I had a choice to make: (1) return and remain a Jehovah’s Witness for the rest of my life, which meant blindly adhering 100% to all of their beliefs or (2) lose all association with my family. It was a terrible decision for a teenager to have to make: Family or Freedom.
I chose Freedom. However, like a butterfly with new wings, I was ill-equipped to fly. Sometimes, I would struggle emotionally or financially (at one point, eating garbage to survive) and wonder if their god Jehovah was punishing me. But then, the rational side of my brain would plow through the indoctrination and I would realize I was simply making poor decisions based on little-to-no experience with the real world. Since then, I’ve come to realize that The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society governs “the flock” like an abusive spouse. Their teachings set you up for failure by isolating you and dismantling your natural independence, making you co-dependent on them. Then, when you seek to escape their dysfunction, they tell you that you are “mentally diseased” or deficient in some way (i.e., there is something wrong with you, not them). What is worse is that they train your own family members to abuse you in this way.
In 2009, I learned that my mother had been diagnosed with dementia and would someday lose her memory of me. Desperate to reach her before that happened, I wrote letters to each of the Governing Body (leaders)in New York, asking them to rescind my baptism (on the basis that I was a child). I wanted to make sure that my elderly mother would be allowed to speak to me without retribution; i.e., that she would not be shunned by my brother and sister and her grandchildren for speaking to me. Here is the link to the letter I wrote: Letter To The Governing Body from "Out of the Cocoon"
Not one of the nine “elite” male leaders (Governing Body members) responded to my letter. I do not think I have ever encountered a more ruthless, callous group of individuals in my entire life. My Aunt B used to say, “Where is the love in that religion?” Indeed. Where?
In January, 2014, I decided to break ‘the rules’ and called my mother on her 84th birthday. I figured, at that point, that the Watchtower could not do much to her and since my mother had dementia, perhaps it would cause her to abandon her cultic zealot persona long enough that she could talk to me openly and honestly. I wondered:
Knowing it would be an emotional experience, I recorded our conversation so I could listen to it later with a more objective mind. I never intended to share our conversation with the rest of the world. However, when the 1st annual event “Watchtower Victims Memorial Day” was announced for July 26, 2014, I wanted people to understand that my mother had been as much a victim of the Watchtower as I had been and that many other families like ours were at stake. My most recent You Tube video was dedicated to my mother. I felt it was important to include the conversation in it to provide a valuable warning: A free Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses will cost you your family and possibly your sanity, in ways you cannot even begin to fathom. I have not visited my mother, nor do I intend to see her again before she dies.
The biblical scripture about reaping what you sow comes to mind. After 34 years apart, we have no seeds left to plant. There is nothing to water, and no need to pull up any more weeds. That garden is barren and that is okay. In my book, I write that “Acceptance of anything outside your control is liberating.” It’s a lesson I learned very early on. It is a sad fact though, that the last conversation I will ever have with my mother involves her hanging up on me. This is what a cult does to a family. It twists love into hate, compassion into indifference, acceptance into intolerance, and security into fear.
People sometimes ask me if I could change my personal experience, would I. No, I would not. It has made me into the person I have become today: more loving, giving and compassionate. I am a better parent. Just look at my remarkable son, Derek. He is a testimony to what can happen if you love and nurture your child, unconditionally. Our relationship is such a stark contrast to the one I had with my mother. I am no longer afraid. I can finally speak about my experience without a lump in my throat. It has been an incredible metamorphosis, since anger, fear and resentment once ruled my young life. I remain outspoken, not because I am angry, but because I want to pay it forward to the next family, who knows nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Please share my latest video with others: Should I Study With Jehovah's Witnesses? - They Seem Like Very Nice People. (If the volume is too low, check your computer volume or turn on the subtitles (cc icon) just under the right side of the video so you can read along.)
To the old men (Governing Body members) in Brooklyn, strangers who rule over seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, I would like to say this:
Your mind control and delusions of grandeur may have served you well for many decades and offered you enormous power and prestige within the Jehovah’s Witness community, but the internet, and especially your promotion of JW.ORG, will eventually lead to your demise, because it is exposing your evil cult on a massive scale. You own one website. We “apostates” own HUNDREDS. You may have seven million + foot soldiers, but we dominate the internet. Just Google “Jehovah’s Witness” and see how many Ex-JW (Ex-Jehovah's Witness) websites and videos pop up and continue to pop up every day. We have lived through your oppression and not only survived, but thrived. Our voices are our greatest weapon against your tyranny and we are no longer afraid to speak The Truth about THE LIE.