(originally published on October 18, 2017)
Last year, I bought an episode of the show “Secret Lives of Women” on iTunes and this particular one I bought focused on cults. I remember in that episode an ex Jehovah’s Witness Member was interviewed. I admit I was surprised because I had no idea that was the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses. The woman they interviewed did acknowledge that she realizes that a lot of people don’t see it as a cult, but it is very much one. After she told her story, I was shocked and also upset because I felt like the media had kept this from us for many, many years.
I’ve always wanted to talk to real people that have either been through tough times or are currently going through them. Every one has a story to tell and we need to let ex members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have a chance to tell their stories.
I’m very thankful that Maggie Draper was kind enough to share her story with me. I can tell that although she has been through so much, I truly believe she is a strong, kind woman and I hope people not only find her story inspiring, but I also hope they find some encouragement from her bravery to make the right decision in their life that might seem scary.
So, here is my interview with Maggie. Let’s begin:
1. How did you get involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses?
When I was a baby, my mother was baptized. She thought this decision would improve my life. Many people join each year because the organization promises to give them answers about life, a hope for the future, and also offers a community. This seems attractive, especially when you’re at a crossroads or low point in life.
2. Jehovah’s Witnesses are very much against blood transfusions. Even if it is a matter of life or death, they say that it’s still not allowed. Did this bother you at all?
Because I was raised as a Witness, I never thought twice about the blood transfusion policy. You’re under the impression that blood is contaminated and dangerous, and the information you’re provided with is biased. Indoctrination starts young. By the time you’re 7 or 8, you’re already carrying around a card which states that in the event of an emergency, you are not to be given a blood transfusion. As an adult, you are pressured to fill out a DPA, which states that you refuse blood even if you are unconscious. In addition, if an emergency happens, the congregation will dispatch a group of elders to the hospital. While their purpose is supposedly one of support, their presence also serves as a deterrent for any who might be willing to accept blood due to fear of reprisals within the congregation. The treatment you receive should be a private decision between you and your doctor, however JWs are often under considerable pressure to allow congregation elders access to the details of their medical condition.
If your child needs a transfusion, most parents will not give permission, because in their minds, they would be disobeying a direct order from God. When my husband was about 9 years old he was involved in a car accident which resulted in severe internal bleeding. He distinctly remembers lying in the ER and listening to medical staff discuss the seriousness of his condition, including 1 who said, “He will die without blood.” His parents were forced to choose between their beliefs and the medical treatment with the best odds of saving their son’s life. They chose the former. Thankfully, by the time surgery began, the bleeding had mostly stopped on its own, however many JWs in that situation have not been so lucky.
Since leaving, we have been able to read unbiased information regarding blood and have learned the facts. Because research outside of the organization’s literature is discouraged, many will never know the truth about blood.
3. I’ve read that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have to spend many hours doing things such as knocking on doors and trying to warn people about Armageddon. How uncomfortable would you and your family get by doing this and did putting all these hours into trying to “save” people make it hard to do everyday things such as work a regular job?
Most JW’s spend every weekend going door to door. If a man wants a position within the congregation, both him and his family need to preach for about 10 hours every month. You may also decide to sign a contract stating that you will preach for 30, 50, or 70 hours for one month. They receive a special title, “Pioneer,” and are applauded and looked up to within the congregation. Even though there is no set number of hours required for the average Witness, there is constant pressure to increase your hours. If you don’t do this work, you are considered “inactive,” and will receive visits from the elders.
In order for my husband to keep his position, we had to keep our hours up. He already had a full time job, and I was a stay at home mom of 3 small kids, so we found this work very difficult. It became more about maintaining an image, and our heart was not in it.
Walking up to someone’s door to talk about religion is most definitely uncomfortable. At one point or another, you’ll be yelled at, have a door slammed in your face, or have someone release their dogs. As you can imagine, I don’t miss this at all.
4. Did the elders require a lot of money to be given to them such as frequent donations?
Jehovah’s Witnesses take immense pride in the fact that all contributions are technically voluntary. There is no collection plate passed and no set amount individuals must give, however the subject of contributions is frequently brought up at meetings, conventions, in publications, in letters from headquarters, and in online broadcasts. Households are regularly polled as to the amount each can contribute and a resolution is passed at each congregation based on those amounts so that individuals feel pressured to maintain a certain level of contribution. The giving of money is viewed as part of a person’s worship and JWs are therefore under constant pressure to give.
5. What did the elders say about how parents should discipline their children? Did you and your husband ever question it at all?
The scripture at Proverbs 23:13,14 is used as a guideline. These verses mention a “rod.” Parents are told that this word can be both a figurative and literal term. Figuratively speaking, it’s a symbol of authority and discipline. Unfortunately, parents are also told that a literal rod can be used on their children if needed. Corporal punishment is encouraged. I never understood how a child was expected to sit still and be quiet for hours at a time each week. Many churches will include a daycare to help children learn at their own pace. This isn’t the case for JWs who take pride in the fact that children “learn” right along with the adults. Parents (especially those having positions within the congregation) are under constant scrutiny for how well behaved their children are during such meetings and often resort to corporal punishment for offenses such as talking or not staying seated.
6. Who was the first person in your marriage to bring up that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to be members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and when did you both come to the agreement to leave?
I was. After years of depression and anxiety, I decided it was time to take a step back and look at my life. What was the cause of my unhappiness? The organization will tell you time and time again that if you’re unhappy, it’s because you aren’t doing enough work for them or God. I was afraid to admit that my high control religion was at the root of my problems. You have a group telling you what to think, how to feel, and how to act. I couldn’t be myself, and the organization pushes an “us vs them” mentality, so I couldn’t treat people outside the organization with the respect they deserved.
I started reading about high control groups, and eventually it led me to information on the organization. I was appalled with the way pedophilia was handled. There are thousands upon thousands of cases, and they’re either not investigated or not reported to police. When asked by the government to change their policies, they refused, and to this day many pedophiles roam free.
After months of research and discussion, my husband and I knew we could never go back.
7. What was the process like to disassociate your family once and for all and did you have to stop communicating with people that you care about?
There is, simply put, no graceful way to exit the organization and cease to be recognized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses without a significant impact on your life. First, you can decide to stop going to congregation meetings and in the preaching work, but this will lead to many calls, email, texts, and visits from the Elders trying to convince you to come back. You will be viewed as weak and spiritually “sick.” If you do not respond to correction, a loss of friends often follows because you’re viewed as “bad association” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Second, you can break a rule (celebrating Christmas, for instance) and be disfellowshipped (excommunicated). Third, you can write a letter and formally disassociate. The last 2 options carry the same penalties, namely strict shunning by all Jehovah’s Witnesses. A JW who breaks this rule and continues to associate with someone who’s been excommunicated may also be disfellowshipped, so it is taken very seriously. The first option (ceasing activity and fading away) does not technically result in shunning in the strictest sense, but in practice often produces the same result as a disfellowshipping since adherents are under intense social pressure to limit association with all who are not active within the congregation.
I decided to disassociate. I was so upset by the secrets hidden within the organization. I was angered by the lies I’d been told. I wanted to stand by the side of victims of pedophilia. I wanted to make it clear that I no longer agreed with or supported the seven leaders in New York, known as the Governing Body. I wrote a letter, which led to an announcement informing everyone in the congregation I was no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The same announcement is given regardless of whether a person commits a serious sin and is forced to leave, or leaves for their own reasons. From that point on, all Jehovah’s Witnesses began shunning me, including my parents, family, and old friends. My husband and children have not been officially sanctioned by the organization but now receive the same treatment since it has become obvious they have no intention of returning.
8. Was it hard adjusting back to a normal life?
Yes. As a Jehovah’s Witness your life has a lot of structure. Your weekly schedule as well as your social circle and even choice of marriage partners is heavily influenced by the organization. You’re not allowed to make friends outside of the religion or to get involved in extracurricular activities. You’re conditioned to be extremely untrusting of “worldly” individuals and so you keep them at arm’s length. When you suddenly leave the religion, as I did, you really have no one to turn to except possibly non-JW family members. You’re starting from scratch socially. It takes many months to overcome your fears and start making new friends.
Leaving has totally changed my worldview. I have a much more positive view of the world as a whole and find that I care more about others. I view trying to create positive change as something worthwhile. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the world in its present form will eventually be destroyed and so they view most acts of charity and activism as a waste of time – like rearranging the deck furniture on a sinking ship as it’s often put. I no longer see it that way.
9. What made you decide to speak out and what’s the most important thing(s) that you want people to know about your time as a Jehovah’s Witness?
A new book, Lessons You Can Learn From the Bible, was recently released by Jehovah’s Witnesses at their annual convention. This book’s main audience is primarily young children. I’d just like to share one of the “key lessons” from page 107. It says, “If you leave Jehovah, everything will go wrong; but if you stick with him, he will bless you.” That sentence highlights one of the biggest reasons I wanted to speak out because one of the biggest lies perpetuated by Jehovah’s Witness, one taught from a very young age, is that people who stop being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses are miserable. Just look at how that sentence is worded – everything will go wrong. I’m speaking out because that’s simply not true. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a monopoly on happiness, nor do they have one on morality or any other admirable quality.
As for my time as a JW, I want people to know that I stayed because I didn’t know any better and because I was afraid – afraid of being destroyed by god, afraid of being cut off from friends and family, afraid of disappointing them. I won’t say that I have no good memories from my time as a Jehovah’s Witness, but I was never as happy as I believed I should be, and now I know why.
10. Finally, what advice would you give to someone that wants to get out and do you recommend any books or websites for former members to help deal with the aftermath?
Trust your gut! In retrospect, I can clearly see examples of my instincts speaking to me as far back as early childhood. If something doesn’t seem right or doesn’t make sense, don’t be afraid to pull on that thread.
Also, I want people to know that they aren’t alone. There’s a large community of former members outside the organization dedicated to supporting each other. Leaving is by no means easy, but others have walked the path before you, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Research, research, research. Use outside sources of information. I can’t stress this enough. Jehovah’s Witnesses keep people in line through strict information control. Real truth has nothing to fear from investigation. I highly recommend the following: