Leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses
When Vicky Simister was excommunicated by the religious sect she lost her family, her friends and her faith
Smoking. Premarital sex. Rejecting the Lord. Having a blood transfusion. These are a few things that can get you excommunicated from the religious sect known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In my case, it was the first three that got me kicked out. I was 17 and for the first few nights I slept in my car.
Here’s what happened. I was born 20-something years ago in a suburban Irish hospital. My parents had come from England while mum was heavily pregnant with me, with no jobs and no contacts – just the hope that they could raise their child happily in the relative peace and tranquillity of the southern Irish countryside.
They were poor and living in a caravan when I was born. Lying alone in hospital, recovering from labour, my mother worried what was to become of me. She’s told me many times that, as she lay there, she decided that her days of being irresponsible were over – her life was about caring for me now, and she wanted to be the best person she possibly could be in order to guide me through life.
Enter Linda, a Jehovah’s Witness lying in the bed next to her. Linda had also just given birth. Day after day, Witnesses from the local congregation visited, bringing gifts, cards and messages of support. Seeing mum frequently alone, Linda and the Witnesses befriended her. Of course, their aim was to convert her. Their message of serving God and being kind to one another must have resonated with my mother, whose own father had been deeply religious before he passed away. As many religious converts do, mum took the timing of this encounter as a “sign”. (Needless to say the other so-called “worldly” mums in that ward, the ones surrounded by family and friends, with supportive husbands and stable incomes, weren’t receptive to the Witnesses’ attempts to convert them.)
By the time I was three, mum had been baptised – the officiating ceremony of a new member. Dad never subscribed to the religion, and they fought over it. He wasn’t a very good example of a “non-believer”. His frequent absences, verbal abuse and lack of support illustrated to me what I thought everyone in “the world” must be like. When he abandoned us, mum was again left in a vulnerable position, and the Witnesses were there to support her once more.
I will never forget those few days after he threw our clothes and religious books out on the front lawn, then locked the doors. My mum, brother Will (aged four) and I (aged six) were taken in by various Witness families, some of which we had never met before. The Murphys, for example, had five children. On the night we arrived in their home, we all sat down in the living room and the Murphy parents explained why my family were here. Being children, I’m not sure they grasped the situation – but when they learned that all of our toys had been left behind, they grew silent. The eldest ushered the other children to her bedroom, to hold a “meeting”. A little while later, the children returned – each had selected their very best toy to give to us. To this day, I’ll always be grateful to the families that took us in. And unsurprisingly, the message reinforced to me at the time was that this religion was the only good way of life.
I developed into a self-righteous little madam. We went to Witness meetings three times a week, and spent Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons in door-to-door preaching work. We weren’t allowed to play with “worldly” children from school, but spent much of our spare time praying, meditating and studying in preparation for the next meeting. TV, toys and reading materials were strictly censored, to protect our minds from corruption. I was bullied in school for not celebrating Christmas, birthdays, Easter or anything else kids consider fun. This only served to strengthen my resolve to be a Witness, not part of “the world”. I felt safe within our small community of 40 congregational members. Not that bullying didn’t happen just as much on the inside – as at school, if you didn’t conform you were teased, humiliated, left out or “told on”.
At 12 I was baptised as an official Witness. I was told I had married Jehovah, and the rest of my life was dedicated to serving him. I would be rewarded with everlasting life on a paradise Earth – after the wicked has been destroyed at the impending Armageddon.
It was around this time that my mum remarried to a Jehovah’s Witness. I was surprised to be informed of their engagement, as they had not been “courting”, and within three months I had a new father. Given that the Witnesses forbid sex before marriage, and unmarried men and women must always be chaperoned, it is unsurprising that most Witnesses get married after relatively brief courtships. Elders have even been known to discipline couples who haven’t set a wedding date within a time period deemed appropriate.
Anyway, my brother and I had a new father and, while I had mixed feelings about this sudden turn of events, I was a good girl so I embraced the new situation. In retrospect, he has my sympathy – my stepfather had a pretty tough upbringing. The youngest of nine, he’d suffered physical abuse at the hands of his own father, and he’d left school at 13 to become a labourer. He’d had to look out for himself from a young age, and had spent time in both the army and in prison. Converting to the Witness religion was his way of turning over a new leaf.
My mother, a teacher, had raised us to be pretty intellectual kids (all that Bible study probably helped too). As a single parent for the past six years, she’d ruled our family democratically. Our stepfather didn’t know how to deal with kids who “answered back” and I remember constant shouting and endless arguments about how to raise us. He always got the final say – “I’m the head of this household!”
This might have been the end of it, if it weren’t for how he treated my little brother. I would not allow him to be belittled, bullied and, as happened occasionally, struck by our stepfather. I would jump to my brother’s defence, full of the righteous indignation instilled in me by the faith. It only added to the tension. Of course, the elders intervened, offering prayers, Bible study and “counselling” (disciplining to you and me). For me, this was the turning point. I had always believed the Witness religion to be fair. Yet it wasn’t my stepdad bearing the brunt of the disciplining – it was me. As a girl, it wasn’t my place to challenge my stepfather. The elders would help him, I was told, but in the meantime they were concerned about my lack of “submissiveness”. Earlier I had been selected to be interviewed on stage at a national Witness convention – an example of a faithful young Witness who preached to her peers at school – but as a punishment for my lack of submissiveness I was removed from the line-up.
The Witnesses have strong ideas about male “headship” and female “submissiveness”. Men aspired to become elders; women, elders’ wives. Men led their families and congregations in prayer; women only did so when no baptised men were available, and only with a head-covering as a “mark of respect”. Men gave sermons at congregation meetings; women could not. Women could not challenge men in public about their interpretation of the Bible. Wives had to obey their husbands as head of the household, even if they disagreed. Men could contribute to the religious texts and publications; women could contribute to the cleaning of the publishing houses. Women had to dress modestly to avoid inciting “impure thoughts” in men. The list went on.
Over a period of years my previously resolute faith took a battering. A known child abuser became a Witness, and was allowed to be alone with children – because the Bible teaches us to forgive and forget. Conversely, a friend was excommunicated for having premarital sex with another consenting adult. Everyone was instructed to shun him – “bad associations spoil useful habits”, we were told. Meanwhile, a woman in another congregation was excommunicated for allowing her child to have a life-saving blood transfusion. We always heard how they had become “even worldlier than worldly people” – apparently addled by drug addictions, having prolific casual sex or suffering abusive relationships with “worldly” partners.
Sadly, these weren’t always vicious rumours. If you’ve been brought up as a Witness, then you’re pretty sheltered and naïve when it comes to surviving in the real world. Often, you’re bitter, and many young people who leave the Witnesses want to make up for lost time – all the birthdays they never had, relationships they never formed and freedom they never experienced. Almost inevitably, this leads to some hard partying and often some desperate lows.
This was certainly true for me. At 17 I was working as a receptionist (Witnesses are discouraged from pursuing higher education) and there I met people who didn’t bully me for being different, but who challenged my views. I was well rehearsed in arguing my point with my peers, but among adults of varying ages, backgrounds and education, I was suddenly lost. Their points made sense. What’s more, they didn’t seem “worldly” in the way I had anticipated. Among them were people who did charity work, who were carers, who were active members of their local communities.
They were good people, and they didn’t carry guilt around, like a heavy burden, as I did. And they were happy. That was it for me. The veil slipped from my eyes and I saw the Witnesses for what they were – a protective cocoon for those who had failed in the real world. They were (mostly) good people, but they weren’t the only good people in the world. Their doctrines were not the Only True Word of God – some of their beliefs didn’t even make sense. I had been conned – and I was angry.
It took me a while to pluck up the courage to leave. Despite my anger, I still carried guilt. I knew the consequence of rejecting the faith was excommunication, and I didn’t want to leave my brothers. So I started leading a double life – a teenage rebellion, with a lot more angst. I moved out of the family home and rented a bedsit from a Witness family. On a Saturday night I’d go clubbing with colleagues – on a Sunday morning, I’d try to stay awake at the congregational meeting. I never did anything that wild, but I got myself into some dangerous situations. I trusted the new friend who said I could stay at his place after a party, and later that night fought him off tooth and nail.
Thankfully, I met my first ever boyfriend, John, soon after. He and his family showed me love, support and acceptance on a scale I’d never experienced. This wasn’t the conditional love of a religious sect – his parents offered me the same all-embracing, all-forgiving love that they offered their own children. Steeled by their support, I called a meeting with the congregation elders.
As you can imagine, it didn’t go well. They wanted to know everything – had I smoked? Drunk? Committed fornication? I told them yes, yes and yes – and, finally, that it was no longer any of their business. They called it a confession – I said I hadn’t done anything wrong. They gave me the “chance to repent” – I said I had nothing to repent. As predicted, I was to be excommunicated. Although it didn’t change the end result, I decided to write a letter to my congregation, explaining why I rejected their beliefs. If anything, this made it worse – I wasn’t just an individual too “weak” to live up to their “high standards”, I was now an apostate, actively encouraging others away from “the Truth”.
I was told to leave my bedsit, so I packed my things. For the first few nights I slept in my car, until John found out and his parents insisted I stay with them. Before that happened, I paid one last visit to my family home. My mother, with whom I’d already spoken about my choice to leave, couldn’t look at me. She let me say goodbye to my brothers. Mark, aged three, waved cheerfully – “See you tomorrow!” he chirped. I swallowed a lump in my throat and hugged him hard. Next, my 15-year-old brother Will. I hugged him and whispered “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe anymore”. “I understand” was all he could say.
My stepdad walked me to the front door. It seemed that, finally, the red-headed stepchild was getting what had been coming to her. “You’re going to end up pregnant on the street, and no one will want you!” he thundered, finger wagging, face reddening, spittle flying. “Until you change your ways, you are not welcome in this house!” He slammed the door. I stood outside in the drizzle, staring at the closed door, with the last of my childhood possessions in my arms. I turned on my heel, got into my car, and drove off into the rain, the dark and the rest of my life.