Why I Remain Hidden as an Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, and It’s Not What You Think
Being an ex-Jehovah’s Witness is very different than being an ex-Catholic or leaving the Buddhist faith or just not going to your family church anymore. Many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses walk a virtual landmine of existence after leaving or being disfellowshipped (excommunicated), and many of them, like me, remain anonymous online and elsewhere. We hide behind fake names and profile pictures and remain vague about our location, age, and other details of our identities. Visit any ex-JW Facebook page or website and chances are you’ll see dozens of obvious aliases and fake profile pics.
For most ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is done because of the risk of being shunned by their family. When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses officially disassociates themselves or is disfellowshipped, they are completely shunned by everyone they know who is an active JW, including parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren. Friends in the congregation also shun them completely, and this means completely, no matter your relationship to the person; no emails, phone calls, text messages, or any other communication. Many report that after being shunned, they are not invited to their children’s or sibling’s weddings, or are invited but not allowed to speak to anyone, and some also hear about major family events such as a death, wedding, or birth of a child through a third party.
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim on their website that only those who repeatedly break the bible’s moral codes are disfellowshipped, but this is a gross inaccuracy. A person can be disfellowshipped for speaking out against the organization and its policies, for asking too many questions, for associating with those who are disfellowshipped or disassociated, and a list of other supposed crimes against the religion itself. Bill Bowen, a former elder in the religion, was disfellowshipped for disagreeing with their policies and practices on pedophilia, not for any moral crime, and he is just one example of how that can happen.
This is one reason why many who go online stay anonymous, as this allows them to ask questions, get support for their concerns, and speak out against the religion without this threat of being found out by their congregation and subsequently disfellowshipped. They can express themselves without the risk of losing their family.
This Isn’t About Me
While the threat of shunning may be the most common reason for remaining anonymous online, my reason actually has little to do with me. No, I don’t want to be shunned by my siblings, although they rarely talk to me anyway so it’s not that much of a motivation. My mother has never, and I mean never spoken a positive word to me in my life and I refuse to be around her anymore, so in effect, I’m actually shunning her. My stepfather is not a JW and like my mother, has always been abusive and cruel to me, so he’s not part of my life either.
The reasons I stay anonymous really have nothing to do with me personally. If it were my choice, I would “come out” in full force, make public appearances, get more involved with ex-JW movements, and let my voice be heard far and wide. However, the reasons I stay anonymous are actually out of concern for my family and because of their mental and emotional health. I stay anonymous for them, not for me, and I don’t mind saying that this is something you’ll never see or hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses doing. Let me explain.
While my mother has been anything but kind to me my entire life, living with my abusive and violent stepfather also drove her to several suicide attempts and time in psychiatric wards. His explosive temper left her with anxiety, depression, and virtually no self-esteem. She has problems making friends and socializing and is constantly anxious about being around other people. She has few social skills and struggles in those types of settings, has a hard time holding a job, and often feels isolated.
My mother’s only strength in her life is that she identifies as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and this makes her feel good about herself. Yes, my mother’s attitude can be called self-righteousness, but the only time she feels comfortable and secure is when she’s at their Kingdom Hall or with a small handful of other JWs. The only thing that gives her any measure of self-esteem is identifying with the religion and being a part of it.
The Witnesses have fully indoctrinated my mother so that she firmly believes that any day now, any minute now, Armageddon will come and everyone on earth who is not a JW will die a terrible, horrible death. The fact that I am not an active Witness is difficult enough for her to think about on a daily basis, but if she knew that I regularly visited ex-JW sites online and maintained this site myself, or read the words I’ve said about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their policies, I’m quite sure it would push her over the edge mentally and emotionally.
It may be easy to think I’m being overly dramatic, but as said, my mother has attempted suicide many times before and has a long history of using antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and is very delicate when it comes to trauma or anything that upsets her small world. Because she so firmly believes that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the only true religion, it’s difficult for her to admit that I’m not part of it in any way; having to admit that I’m actively against it would probably be traumatizing to her, and might upset her long-held beliefs about the religion.
Keeping myself hidden is also done out of regard for my brother and sister, as they too are fully indoctrinated and very involved in the organization. My brother’s wife and her family are active and respected in the religion and my sister’s entire life revolves around her preaching activity, meetings, and friends inside the religion.
If my siblings knew that their sister was an active “apostate” as they like to call ex-JWs, it would no doubt be terribly embarrassing for my entire family. Chances are people ask my brother and sister and my mother about me, and having a family member who has faded from the organization is somewhat shameful, like a turncoat during a time of war. If they realized that I have gone beyond just faded and actively speak out against the Witnesses and their policies, it would probably be mortifying for them.
More Than the Witnesses Have Ever Done
Some don’t have a high opinion of those who hide their real identities online or they may immediately question my real motives, but one thing to think about is that having this consideration for my family is more than I’ve ever seen from Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. My mother’s depression and anxiety and suicide attempts were the result of being stuck in an abusive marriage, yet my stepfather never put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if she left. She was always free to leave as far as he was concerned. However, the Witnesses are the ones who told her that she was required to not only stay, but to be more submissive and more loving to the man abusing her. They told her that if she wasn’t an obedient and submissive wife, even to this violent and abusive man, she would no doubt die at Armageddon.
Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t care at all about how living with this man affected her, even when she was in a psychiatric ward. They didn’t care that their harsh and hateful standards nearly killed my mother, and that she was unable to function on a daily basis without a handful of pills, much less was she healthy and happy. No, they simply decided how she needed to behave and decided what was best for her, and put those demands on her without a second thought. They did the same for me, a child growing up in that household; as I’ve brought out in other posts, they care very little about how domestic violence affects the children in the home. Never, and I mean never, did the elders or anyone in our congregation express any concern for my well-being when I was a child in that terrible situation.
Despite the fact that my family isn’t exactly what you would call loving and close, I just can’t have that same attitude. I can’t thumb my nose at my mother or my siblings and tread all over their feelings and their world without a second thought. This isn’t to say that I won’t one day decide that I need to do what’s best for me and live my life as an ex-JW on my own terms, but for right now, I’m still keeping them in mind when it comes to the decisions I make. Their feelings are still important to me, and taking them into consideration is more than I ever saw from the congregation as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Of course that’s also part of the reason why I’m now an ex-JW, which is oddly ironic, but I’m sure they don’t care about that either.