(originally published on October 27, 2017)
I recently had the pleasure of getting to know a man named Mike, who is a former member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Before corresponding with him through email, I started listening to his podcast at thisjwlife.com. With each episode, I got to know about his life inside the cult, his relationship with his family, and where he is today. I encourage all of you to listen to his podcast because it is not only inspirational, but it’s very touching. Even though he’s been through so much, you can tell that there’s no hate in his heart and that he’s a good person. While being in a cult like this could have destroyed many people, it didn’t do that to him or his wife.
Below is my interview with Mike. I hope his story gives you a raw and real look at how dangerous cults such as this one are. Mike demonstrates in this interview how one can overcome a very dark and painful experience and eventually reach a better place. Hope is worth fighting for, and I find Mike’s journey to be beautiful.
So, let’s get to the interview!
I was shocked to hear what you said about Jehovah’s Witnesses being against blood transfusions. Were you ever worried what would happen if you were in need of one?
Honestly, I have to say that I wasn’t really worried. The indoctrination was so substantial that I truly believed that even if I did need one and couldn’t take one it was for the best. They not only presented propaganda to us that essentially made us think that the blood supply was unsafe, they had us brainwashed to think that this life doesn’t really matter anyway. If we were to die because we wouldn’t take a blood transfusion we would essentially die martyrs, and it would be but temporary as this world is to be destroyed any day now so when the new world is ushered in and the earth is transformed to a paradise we would be resurrected as faithful servants of God. So essentially, yeah we might go to sleep in death and leave our loved one behind by not taking blood, but God would reward us, much like any other suicide cult that has it’s members do things that are wholly unfit for human life that is promised a reward for doing so.
I know that in the cult, there are very strict rules about what types of movies, TV shows, and music you all watched/listened to. When you and your wife left, did you find any movies and/or TV shows that you didn’t see while inside the cult that you’re now very happy you’ve discovered them (you mentioned connecting with Linkin Park)? Do you two have any favorites?
The rules were pretty much that we were to avoid things that depicted things that God was said to hate like violence, sexual immorality, bad language, spiritism and magic, etc. Ironically, the Bible itself is full of all of that, but I digress. So it really came down to a matter of conscience as to what one was okay with. Some people took things very strictly, while others were much more lenient. It really depended on what bothered your conscience. For me, I always listened to music that I wasn’t supposed to. Although I never went to concerts and went to a Linkin Park concert as my first once we got out of the cult, others did go to concerts frequently, and I listened to Linkin Park since they originally came out. Actually, a lot of the lyrics were very meaningful to me in my experience with the cult.
One thing we did watch when we got out was Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. We watched both series and loved them. I have friends that are ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses that this question would be better suited for. My wife actually grew up without a television (not typical of the cult but her dad didn’t like the tv), and I grew up pretty much on sports when watching the television because that’s what my dad liked. So I still have my sports, and my wife just isn’t that into television. It honestly hasn’t been that much of a change for us personally because I guess those things don’t hold much interest to us, probably in part because we were kept away from them. Maybe my friends that are really into various entertainment after leaving the cult are so because they were exposed to some of it when in the cult so it’s a continuation for them with just a lot more freedom.
I will say that my wife did recently stumble upon a series that she LOVED called Orphan Black. She watched the entire series and then turned me onto it and I like it too, though I’m way behind.
3. I’ve heard that members of Jehovah’s Witnesses home school their children. What was your education like growing up and did you feel like you missed out on learning a lot of important subjects such as world history?
Home schooling is not required. I went through a “traditional” program at the public school system in my city and went to a high school that was pretty much geared toward college preparation. I excelled in school and graduated at the salutatorian while taking advanced classes. With that said, I did have two younger siblings that were home-schooled, as was my wife and some of her sisters, and I knew a lot of other kids that were too. My personal education was quite normal. Of course, I wasn’t to go to college after high school, as advanced education is discouraged and devoting the days of your youth to the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is encouraged.
I can speak to the home-schooling though. For many it is an excuse to keep their kids home all day as companions. They can also be sure to keep their kids firmly in the cult by including them daily in cult activities like going from door to door. Many would use materials from the cult to teach their children and call that schooling, simply indoctrinating them more. There was a magazine that Jehovah’s Witnesses produced called “Awake”, and Jehovah’s Witnesses would say that reading it was as good as a four year college education if not better. That, of course, is a ridiculous assertion.
Most of the kids that I knew never really finished high school. Those that didn’t would sometimes get their GED, as did my wife. Those that did manage to finish accredited programs had educations that I would question the quality of. I saw some of the senior level books that my sister graduated with and they were very basic. I will say that things like world history and such are included in most home-schooling programs. Witnesses did tend to use actual programs at a point, usually in high school. Before that it seemed to be up to the parent as to what they taught the kids.
Of course, home-schooling only served to isolate these kids more. They weren’t really socialized well. Yes, they may have interacted with other Witness youth, but that is not preparation for the real world, and once they were sent out into the real world many had no clue how to interact or what to expect. They were ill-prepared for reality.
Speaking of education, how did the cult feel about different types of art, such as singing, dance, painting, etc.?
This is an interesting question, one that I’ve never really thought about. I would have to say that it just wasn’t emphasized whatsoever. Dancing was often discouraged because it could be sexually suggestive. Singing was encouraged as long as it was “Kingdom Songs” from our song book and people would actually get together and sing those songs. There were people that were great singers, but everyone in the congregation participated equally in singing songs and if one person stood out too much that was typically frowned upon. People were to sing and not even sway to the music. Stand, sing stiffly, and don’t be noticed. Individuality was never celebrated.
I did know of a sister that painted quite well, but she would just paint pictures that went into the local Kingdom Hall buildings, though it wasn’t really supposed to be known who had painted it.
Again, I think it really just came down to a lack of individuality, and discouragement from showing off one’s skills. Everything was to be for the glory of God’s Kingdom, so you weren’t supposed to detract from that. Attention brought on oneself was taking away from that due to God.
Why are Jehovah’s Witnesses against psychiatry? You talked about your struggles with ADHD, suicidal thoughts, and going through the admirable process of losing 50 pounds. Have your personal views on the subject changed?
Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about appearance. They don’t want people on the outside to know that they have problems like any other people. They believed for a long time that the Bible, prayer, and their publications were all that people needed. After all, if you believe in an all powerful being with an all powerful active force then why are people that are serving him suffering so much mentally? To let outsiders know that you had problems was to potentially bring reproach on Jehovah’s name, and we couldn’t have that.
A narcissist never wants anyone around them to consult anyone else but them. They think they know everything and need to exercise control over other human beings. The cult was very narcissistic. It didn’t want to admit that it ever had failings or that it was out of control and that you might need anything outside of it.
Many that did seek professional help kept it on the down low so that nobody knew. I will say that the official stance has softened over the recent years. Even still the average JW knows not to mention their religion and we all know that if they were to do so in any detail in the face of a competent professional that therapist would see what a huge part of the problem the cult itself is.
I never bought into the view of psychiatry that was espoused. I didn’t seek help for my own issues, but that is more because I moralized them like the cult taught me to. I must be a horrible person, it can’t be that I have some sort of disorder or anything wrong outside of being that horrible person. Everything was always your personal failing as far as the cult was concerned.
How have you and your wife dealt with being shunned from your families over the years since leaving? Have you two been able to find comfort in new friendships?
It has been two years now since we were officially shunned and it was organizationally sanctioned, but our families were shunning us before then. So it is closer to two and a half years for my wife’s family and closer to three years for mine.
It isn’t normal to lose everyone that you ever knew like that. Shunning can be effective because it isolates you even more and severs natural ties that are part of human life. I will say that we miss the good times that we had with our families. My wife struggled with it at first more than I did. I knew what would happen regarding shunning and wasn’t as surprised as my wife. She thought that her family would be more accepting or just in denial that we were choosing a different path and she was giving them far too much credit.
For some time my wife would have dreams about her family and it really bothered her. I got sucked back into the family for a 45 minute period or so when my dad was admitted into hospice care and I was given one last chance to say goodbye. As soon as I left hospice I was shunned again, and I was not invited to the memorial service for him. I went to hospice because I wanted to be the bigger person and show them what real humanity looked like, real love that was unconditional, even though my dad had treated me badly and emotionally abused me throughout my life. I’ll say now that going back in and then being out again wasn’t necessarily a good thing. So we both struggled in ways with our families being gone.
At the same time I have to say that our being shunned is a blessing on a level. Our families are toxic. While we had fun they were very dysfunctional and the cult comprised most of their life so they didn’t really have much else to talk about. If we were around them they probably would have just preached at us trying to get us to come back to the cult, which would have pushed us away anyway. I think both of us miss our siblings more than our parents. Our siblings were all raised in a cult and were unwitting participants in what our parents chose for us and then put upon us, the burden of living in a high control group and the impacts that it had on all of us mentally and emotionally.
We have met amazing people since leaving the cult. We were always taught that people on the outside were awful people, the murderers and rapists and thieves of this world, the people that only cared about themselves and nobody else. So it was scary on a level being cast out into the world at large, but we have met people that are far more giving and caring than anyone we knew inside the cult. In fact, we have more friends now than we ever had with those people that were supposed to be our “brothers and sisters” in the cult.
Now, with that said, it isn’t always easy. We will likely never have those tier one friends that you have deep roots with. It is hard to have that as our entire history was erased. The cult stole our past from us. Those relationships that you have when you’re young and have the time to hang out all of the time and grow together are things that we just can’t have. Those relationships where you just know everything about one another and have a history together are gone. We also have issues fitting into conversations because our knowledge of pop culture, entertainment, and our life experiences fall so short of what many know. If people are talking about college experiences, drinking (we don’t drink but that’s a personal choice, not a JW thing), impressive trips around the world, etc., we just can’t hang in those conversations. We’ve lived a different life than most so it’s not always easy to fit in. With that said, we’ve met so many nice people that we really enjoy the company of. We have also met a lot of other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that has been nice too. They get parts of our lives that others can’t understand no matter how well intentioned.
We do take comfort in our new life and those in it. We felt so alone when we were in the cult at times, and we don’t feel that way on the outside. Everyone we meet could possibly be a friend, not just those that think, act, and believe exactly like us when we were in the cult.
How is your relationship with your brother today, who had left the cult before you did?
My brother and I have a good relationship now. We can’t be as close as we could simply because we live different lives in different parts of the country, but we text over things that we like (sports) and we check in on each other from time to time. I’ve been able to go up to where he lives on two different vacations now, and that is always cool, to hang out in person. He and I have a lot of similarities and it’s cool to see that when we get together. We can talk about the past, so that helps us both a lot. That’s one thing that my wife has yet to find. She doesn’t have anyone out from her past, so she can’t reminisce. I want that for her. I wish she had a sibling out too. I know what it has meant to me to have my brother out and I want that for her. There’s something about having that anchor to your past, a person that you share things with that are unspoken, that everyone should be able to have.
What is your life like today and what are your plans with your podcast, “Shunned”? What do you and your wife hope to achieve in the future that you haven’t already?
Life today is busy. We work a lot in our cleaning business, but we always have, the difference is that now we have things to do with other people on the weekends. We actually have choice of things to do at times. I have a lot of internet friends that I’ve made through my “This JW Life” podcast that I talk to through email and Facebook Messenger. To be honest, I actually have a hard time keeping up with everybody, and that is an awesome problem to have, one that I never thought possible.
My wife and I get to have fun with the holidays now. We have all of these events to look forward to at the end of the year, even if we are secular now and have things like a very secular Christmas, these holidays get to be what we make them. We don’t have to just fall into the new cult of the culture that already exists.
We did think that once we left the cult certain things would be out of our view. The reality is that many of the behaviors displayed in the cult are very human characteristics, and we see them in the world around us through things like politics, the media, etc. Propaganda doesn’t have to be religious and cultish, it can be about many things. Us versus them exists in humanity on a daily basis, not just inside a cult. When people find out that we are now agnostic atheists they feel the need to preach to us like we used to do as Jehovah’s Witnesses instead of respecting where we are. These are things that can be a little triggering on some level because we hoped that they wouldn’t exist in our new lives, but we see that they are just humans being human.
I don’t know how far I will take the new podcast “shunned”. The first episode was my wife telling her story. Then I had an ex-Mennonite that told his story and I was excited to get another point of view. My goal is to shed light on the religions that use shunning to control and coerce people. However, it is a time consuming endeavor, and it also is emotionally draining on a level. So I plan on doing it as long as it feels right to do. I love that people are helped by being able to tell their stories and that other people give them feedback on their episodes. The support of others can be so healing.
As far as what we would like to achieve goes, I’m not sure on specifics, but we hope to keep growing. We want to figure out more and more who we are and what we like. It is often difficult to really know those things when you’ve grown up in and been so deeply impacted by a cult that didn’t allow self-expression and that taught that it was selfish.
My wife does like to be crafty and likes art, so she looks to take that to higher levels over time. I have always loved marketing and business and although I enjoy cleaning for the amazing families that we get to do so for at some point I can see me starting a marketing business. I’ve cleaned now for decades and don’t want to do it until the day that I retire. I want to try new things and challenge myself.
Self-care is a new word for us. That’s not something that cults tend to emphasize. They want more, more, more of you, your time, and your energy. So learning to take better care of ourselves and to learn to slow down and enjoy life is something that we are trying to do.
In the end our goal for the future is to just be happy. The cult robbed that from us for so long and it’s just not something we want to put off anymore. Our lives were put off today for a fictitious hope for the future and we wasted a lot of our years trying to live up to something that was put upon us as children. So now we want to do what I mention at the end of my podcasts, to love others, do no harm, and go be happy.
Once again, I want to thank Mike for sharing his story with me. I’m very thankful that I got to this opportunity to do this interview with him.