“Reclaiming Your Life When It’s Been Stolen From You”

“You do know that when the light changes red, it means something, right?”

“Shut up about my driving.”

“What? I’m not saying anything about your driving. I’m simply stating a fact. You put that through your filters to assume I was talking about your driving.”

“I’ve got something you can put through a filter, right here…”

Thus went an entire week in February 2016 when I hosted my fellow apostate and activist Bo Juel for his first seminar, “Reclaiming Your Life When It’s Been Stolen From You,” in Tampa, Florida. I mean it, that is how the entire week went; “Good that there’s a Mercedes in front of us, because if ever I was going to be thrown through a windshield and into the trunk of another car, I would hope it would be something nice… You know, those little bumps on the side of the lane are not like PacMan, you’re not supposed to see how many you can run over to get a new life… Are you turning a corner or trying to toss something from the trunk while we’re still driving?”

The week was not without its challenges; I picked up Bo at the airport on Monday night and woke up Tuesday with the worst head cold and cough of my life. One computer failed us at the seminar, some materials didn’t get back from the printer in time, and you would think a rented classroom would tell you if the doors automatically lock when they close so you know to let people back in after a break.

All of those minor inconveniences paled when compared to the overall experience, from which I’m still trying to recover.

THE SEMINAR

“Reclaiming Your Life When It’s Been Stolen From You” seemed like a natural title for this type of seminar, geared toward ex-cult members. Getting out of the cult or religion is only half the battle, right? You then need to take back what’s been stolen, or learn to live your life on your terms. The seminar started with Bo going over why people need to understand that religion can cause damage, and how those coming out of the JW religion may face special challenges from shunning, shame, and other complications. He then covered three common mistakes that just about everyone makes when trying to cope and move on; oddly enough, two people had mentioned these very methods when we were chatting with them the night before.

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Photo by Joel Martz.

Bo then discussed how and why grieving is so important when it comes to reclaiming your life, despite the fact that many people don’t associate grief with their past experiences. He went on to talk about cult-created filters that may still be present in your mind long after you leave the organization, and why trust is such a major issue for those on the outside. All in all, the information was very good and very practical, and I think a few people had their eyes opened as to how they can move forward in a healthy way after leaving the JWs or any high-control, abusive religion.

During the seminar, Bo was in his element; he was conversational yet authoritative, approachable, and speaking sincerely from the heart. I thought of how much attention he could get on the subject of Watchtower abuses if we could create presentations about the subject, and of how much he could help open the eyes of counselors and doctors as to why former cult members are at special risk for suicide, addictions, and the like.

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Nestor and Toni Kuilan, getting ready for filming and holding quite some reading material for later.

Nestor Kuilan, a former District Overseer and Bethelite, was in town with his wife Toni and he was so impressed by the first part of the program that he actually asked if he could speak for a few minutes after the lunch break. He said how good it was to see it happening since nothing like this existed when he left the religion so many years ago. Other attendees also said it was just what they needed to hear, and made them feel great and more empowered by the time the session was over.

THE FILM

During the week, I also welcomed into town a small film crew, ex-JW Jean-Leon Groenewald and his lovely production assistant/girlfriend Kat, along with their director of photography, Francis. Neither Kat nor Francis are ex-JWs but both were very interested in the experiences of former cult members, and Kat especially had thrown herself into her research, having read Bo’s story already. I watched them film Bo’s part for the documentary they are making about Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunning and was just blown away by what I saw; these “kids,” as I found myself calling them, are the real deal when it comes to film, storytelling, and knowing how to work with subjects and getting their stories and emotional reactions out of them.

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My little apartment being turned into an actual movie set. That’s Jean-Leon, our director/producer, in the blue in the front, the director of photography Francis on the floor next to him, the production assistant and Jean-Leon’s lovely lady Kat in the back, and of course Bo Juel casually going over some notes before filming begins.

Of course Bo is also very good on camera, as was apparent during the filming of the documentary. He was open and honest and, again, spoke from the heart. I was thrilled that my little apartment got turned into a makeshift set, with Bo filming his part on Thursday and then Nestor and Toni filming the part they will have in the documentary on Friday.

I was so excited to talk to Jean-Leon and his team and, no matter what comes of his film, I definitely want to get involved with other documentaries and get Bo out in front, telling his story on film to as many people as possible. Jean-Leon didn’t have much time to prepare for his trip to Tampa, but when he contacted me back in January of 2016 and I told him about Bo and his story, he was determined to make it a centerpiece of the film. Getting shots of the seminar itself seemed like a natural fit for the film and everything came together so well, even at the last moment.

Many people have asked how they could be part of this film and I need to stress that it’s not my film nor is it Bo’s film; we were just privileged to have some participation in this part of its production. Jean-Leon may have some ideas for how others can participate as well, but that’s in the future and I will definitely keep everyone posted as I can.

THE MEETUP

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From left to right: Joel Martz, Tony Balchen, Bo Juel, Paul “Kirk” Webb. Eat your hearts out, ladies; this was my company for most of the evening.

Before the seminar on Saturday, there was an ex-JW “meetup” the night before at a local tavern. We got to finally meet in person some local ex-JWs including Mary Moore Hernandez, Tony Balchen and Paul “Kirk” Webb, and a few others. Along for the ride was Katie, a former Mormon, and Janette, an ex-Scientologist who now works with Families Against Cult Teachings (F.A.C.T.S.). Two other women had actually flown in from out of state to meet Bo, and Joel Martz, another ex-JW, had coincidentally been planning a vacation in Tampa for the same weekend. It was an amazing, diverse group and I’m pretty sure everyone had fun and made some new friends.

These meetups are so important because, even though we sometimes have absolutely nothing else in common outside the activism and ex-cult scene, we need to see how life can be enjoyable once we’re out. How many ex-JWs were told that you would be miserable and without a friend in the world if you left? Yet, there we were, some 20 or so of us, hugging each other, laughing, swapping emails, having a blast.

Meeting Janette, the woman from F.A.C.T.S., was also very interesting, as she has been following Bo on Facebook and wanted to network. It’s intriguing to see how much different cults have in common, even though each one tells their members that they’re unique and special and “the truth.” I’m in touch with her now and am hoping to make more contacts with former Scientologists in the area and help out F.A.C.T.S. with any info I can offer about JWs. Working together is the only way to get things done, so we had fun but accomplished quite a bit at this meetup as well.

THE DISTRACTION

Of course, no week with ex-JWs can be perfect, no matter how many amazing Scandinavians you’re hosting and how many exciting projects you’re getting involved with; we all know that. The head cold, laryngitis, hacking cough, wonkey eye every time Bo said something about my driving, missing workbooks and locked doors aside, there was something else that kept bothering me.

Throughout the entire week and especially while the seminar was being conducted, I kept hearing a little nagging voice in the back of my mind, and this time it wasn’t Bo blathering about my driving. It was one of his detractors, a man for whom I once had respect but who I now know is somewhat duplicitous and just downright mean-spirited. All week I heard his voice telling me all the things wrong with Bo, crowing about how he “wants to play therapist” and how he “plays the victim” and about how “no one ever wants to work with him.” I got angry and even sad every time I heard that man in my head, so frustrated at his lack of faith in Bo and his work, made even worse by how impressive Bo was as he presented the materials and really connected to everyone.

This man should have been encouraging Bo all this time, getting behind him in support of his plan to conduct these types of inspirational seminars and write another book. Instead, it’s just been insult after insult ever since I first started talking to him; the only positive thing I remember him saying over the past few months was that Bo had so much potential. Yet, when Bo tries to live up to that potential by really helping people and trying to make his own experiences count for something, this so-called friend just cut that down too.

While I don’t want to end my little story on a sour note, I do think it’s important to bring this out because we have so many critics and detractors in our “community.” It can be easy to get discouraged and sidetracked by all that white noise, and I certainly resent how distracted I was at thinking about this man’s negative comments all week. However, consider why it’s good to keep things in perspective. This man who has criticized Bo all these months hasn’t actually accomplished much himself; he seems to think he has all these special insights into how the minds of cult victims work, but he’s done very little to actually help those victims. He writes a few things here and there, but a seminar, talking to victims one-on-one? No way. Yet, that’s what Bo is all about; I’m not his spokesperson but I can say for certainty that Bo’s activism is about the victims first and foremost, and about giving them help that wasn’t available to him when he first left.

I also couldn’t help but think of how outright wrong this man’s opinion was; he may have degraded Bo’s plans for a seminar, but Nestor was so appreciative that he actually asked for the chance to speak publicly about it. “No one wants to work with” Bo, but here was a woman from F.A.C.T.S. and a real film crew with us, both of whom contacted us of their own accord.

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Bo with our director/producer Jean-Leon, getting exterior shots at my apartment complex. How mega cool is this?

That’s a good lesson to remember when someone is criticizing you or your style. Yes, consider if there is a grain of truth to it, think about your approach and if you’re being effective or are just distracting from your own message, but at the end of the day, you need to be true to yourself. After all, can you imagine if Bo had listened to this man’s criticisms and not scheduled the seminar? Would we have ever met Jean-Leon and the film crew, or Nestor and Toni? Would I have met with the woman from F.A.C.T.S. and started networking with her? Better still, where would Bo be as an activist right now, today? If he truly wants to help victims, what better way than to get his big beautiful face out there and talk about how he’s somehow managed to survive and how others can do the same? What is this man thinking, criticizing Bo for doing that?

All in all, the message I took away from this past week was to keep doing good, and good things will come your way. Be a critical blowhard or just an ugly person in general, and you’ll get no further than the couch, TV, and an empty life that no one wants to share with you. As angry as I was at this man for his hurtful criticism, I was actually very sad that he wasn’t there; he should have been a part of it, sharing his experience, meeting with the ex-JWs, lending his support. However, when you demean people and put on airs and condescend to people, you just separate yourself from people. He really missed out on something special this past week.

On the other hand, if you try to be positive, positive things will happen to you and positive people will gravitate to you. Work hard to make your life something good, and you never know what good things will come of it. Bo has spent the last two years working hard to pick himself up, dust himself off, and make the best of his life, and was rewarded for it by spending the last week of February in the warm Florida sun, surrounded by friends and family, being part of some amazing new projects, really helping victims in a practical way. I see only good things in his future, mostly because he’s learning himself how to reclaim his own life after so much has been stolen from him.

And if those naysayers still get to you, just do what I did when Bo wouldn’t shut up about my driving; reach over, scratch them under the chin, and say, “Thank god you’re pretty.” Then just keep driving. Keep fucking driving.

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Director of photography Francis, Bo, production assistant Kat, and director/producer Jean-Leon. A beautiful group on a beautiful beach to end a beautiful week. Rock on, apostates. Rock on.

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