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Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | June 2019 | 16 minutes (4,301 words)
Religion can offer narratives that help us make sense of the world, answers to difficult questions like: Where do we go when we die? How can we best love others? Why do bad things happen to good people? Within belief systems, people learn to love, to grieve, to serve, and to live, often with the hope of some eternal reward at the end. For many people, there is beauty and comfort to be found within these faith-based communities. But what happens if you are someone who begins to doubt everything you’ve grown up believing, everything you’ve built your life around? What happens if, by expressing this doubt, you are shunned forever by your family, community, partner, and way of life? How do you learn to move through the world and make meaning?
Amber Scorah, in her riveting debut memoir, Leaving the Witness, explores the upheaval of exiting a faith. Raised from birth as a Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah experienced difficulty tempering natural desire and curiosity for the sake of faith. As a teenager, she had sex with her boyfriend and was promptly disfellowshipped, leaving her unmoored from a religion that had served as the blueprint for her life up to that point. Rather than leave, Scorah, afraid of being killed by God at Armageddon and unable to see a sustainable path to an alternate future, returned to the faith. She married a Jehovah’s Witness and they moved to China and began preaching. There, Scorah’s doubts swelled until she could no longer suppress them, and she left, not knowing what grief and beauty lay ahead.
Leaving the Witness, witty and moving in turns, offers a rare look into the workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the various complications that prevent others from leaving despite their own doubts. Scorah, by untangling and exposing the mechanisms that once held her, offers a path for others to imagine new and unexpectedly hopeful futures for themselves, despite the fear and grief that accompany such a transition. I spoke with Scorah via Skype about her writing process, how she’s learned to dismantle harmful dichotomies, and how she has learned to carry and grow from immense loss.
Jacqueline Alnes: I haven’t read very much about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and that could be my own gap in reading, but also perhaps because it’s such a private denomination. How did you negotiate that while writing?
Amber Scorah: When you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, especially if you are born into it, you’re taught from birth that the very worst thing you can ever do is come out against the religion. To lose your faith in the religion is a crime — worse than being a murderer or a child molester. The one sin that there’s no forgiveness for is believing and then not believing.
If you can’t believe something, you can’t believe something, but you do have a couple choices: you can hide it and just pretend, which was never possible for me. Or, you can get to the point where you do what you need to do to fully purge everything you’ve been taught to believe and find out the truth and analyze and reconstruct your identity without that fear as part of it — and that takes a lot of work.
That said, it’s one thing to leave and then not say anything public about it, but it’s another thing to speak out and become not just an apostate but a brazen apostate. It’s a scary thing to do. In the world I was raised in, that makes you a terrible person. So it does feel like a terrible act, if you even have some minor bit of residual belief still left in you. By the time I wrote my book I had done a lot of reading and research and understood a lot of things about the mechanisms that were used to keep me believing, but even so, there were twinges I had where the fear would come back. I thought, I’m an Apostate. What does that mean? There were moments where I was like, but wait, what if they are right? Even though I knew it wasn’t the truth, because I was raised with it, I would still occasionally find myself gripped by these moments of anxiety. And then, of course, I would think I’m fine. The fear was almost instinctual though, and the fear was real.
Another reason you don’t see much writing by Jehovah’s Witnesses is that for the most part they are not allowed to go to college, get an education, and are discouraged from having a career or pursing any kind of creative talent. All of a Jehovah’s Witness’s energy and time is devoted to preaching and saving others by converting them. That’s why you see them in every subway station and street corner. As a result, most Jehovah’s Witnesses who leave experience a real struggle to find themselves to a path like writing a book or getting a reasonable career going. A lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses have only been window cleaners or house cleaners their whole adult lives, supporting themselves in their preaching work. If you leave, you don’t have any connections in the outside world. All of your socialization was taking place within this group, and you were taught that the outside world was bad. Sometimes even when people leave, they have a hard time integrating into the world.
So there’s a lot of fear around being open about the experience of being a Jehovah’s Witness, and also the difficulty of trying to do something with your life after spending a life in something that is essentially a different world. You exist in this parallel world that has nothing to do with the outside world. That outside world was going to end, and you thought you were going to live forever. The only book that mattered was the bible.
How did you remake yourself, and then on top of that — which already seems like a lot of emotional labor and a lot of searching and research — how did you decide to write a book?
I always loved books growing up. I probably illicitly read way more worldly books than the average Jehovah’s Witness, but most of the books I read were classics because they were cheaper. A lot of contemporary literature would have had things like sex in them or worldly ideas, and we were always warned to stay away from that. But you’re pretty safe if you’re reading about the eighteen-hundreds.
Throughout my life, there were moments where there were glimpses of well, maybe I can write, but when you’re indoctrinated, your true self is secondary to the persona that you have to adopt to exist in the world in which you live. I had always been taught not to pursue any kind of vocation other than preaching or studying the Bible, but I remember in secondary school in Canada, probably in eighth grade, I had this English teacher who told me and my parents to put me in an honors writing program. I talked to my parents and they said, well, what’s the end goal? It’s to go to university and that’s just going to distract you from the truth. Sadly, I didn’t go in that program. It was a university-track program; the people in that program went on to get scholarships.
Later, when I got out of the religion, when I was in New York — I had moved here without knowing anyone — any time I would meet someone, inevitably, they’d ask me where I was from, I’d say, well, I’m from Canada, but… And every time I’d have to tell the story. Honestly, every single time, no matter how abridged a version I gave them, they’d say you have to write a book.
When I actually sat down to write, I wouldn’t say that there was any process for me other than I wrote from the heart. It wasn’t like I developed my craft; I just sat down and wrote. It felt intense.
Something that you said really interested me — you said you were crafting your persona to be part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and then you had your true self underneath. So much of memoir seems to be crafting a self on the page — a public self you reveal through your writing — and then keeping a private self. You’re in an extra unique situation in that it was mandated that your life itself be kept so private. Did that play a role in how you wrote yourself on the page?
I sat and wrote that book for two years in my bedroom alone. I purposely didn’t think about audience — and I had to not think about audience. If I had thought about all of my old friends and family who don’t speak to me reading it, I would have been too anxious to do it. I knew they would feel so much anger and betrayal, even though I don’t think the book is particularly salacious.
No, not at all.
Whoever was part of the story I put in the book, but it’s not written as some kind of exposé. My take on it is this: I’m a pretty open person. If you asked me any question right now about myself — I’d give you an honest answer. I don’t mind exposing myself. But I’m also a very good secret keeper with friends. I’m like a clam. So other people’s stories were harder to balance. There are some very sensitive topics in the book, especially when you’re dealing with an ex-husband, or how friends behaved within this micro-community. They’re all good people, but they’re behaving in ways that might not be ideal or kind, because they’re indoctrinated.
I mean, I didn’t even mention my husband’s name. You have no idea how badly a Jehovah’s Witness does not want the story of their life to be told. I tell the story that needs to be told for the sake of this story, but this book is not about my marriage and it’s not a book about him, so I kept that to the periphery.
I tried to err on the side of taking responsibility and being harder on myself than on others. But of course, does anyone like the way they’re portrayed in a book? It was a balancing act.
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I really admired how you did that, to be honest. There’s such an interesting tension, or, like you said, a balancing act: you want to tell this story, but it’s different when there’s an audience involved in terms of what’s private and what’s not.
It’s weird. And then you think, why am I doing this? I don’t know. Being truthful is very important to me, and I think this is interesting, because that truthfulness is one of the traits that made me leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses. People I knew — even one couple in the book — also had doubts about the religion. There are people who stay in the religion even though they don’t believe in it, because they don’t want to lose their families or their life or their community, and it’s hard to start over. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t live dishonestly.
Part of the reason I think I’m drawn to memoir is because this process requires you to look at yourself honestly, to learn something about yourself. To me, if I was going to weigh what’s better: not writing the book, not exposing these things and having a slightly safer emotional journey, or write the book and be honest about myself and things I did and feel embarrassed to have admitted them, I would choose the path of honesty. Maybe it’s because so much of my life I believed in things that were lies, it feels especially important to me now to be honest.
Related to that, in the book, you wrote “I felt like I was still on the outside,” while you were still a part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I thought was an interesting observation. In the memoir, you’re an outsider when you go to China and you explain that you felt like an outsider at your own wedding. Does this feeling of being an outsider — even while you were still part of the religion — help you now to feel further removed or do you still feel like an outsider in other contexts?
When you’re raised with black and white thinking, everything is either good or evil. You’re either going to be killed by God or live forever; there’s a polarization. When you exist in that frame of reference, there’s no gray area. There’s a tipping point. You’re either in or you’re out. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t completely fit in on the one side and you’re tilting to the other side, well you’re instantly going to be on the outside. Because there’s no grey area to inhabit, if you’re not an insider you’re an outsider. For me, maybe deep down there was some latent thing where I thought I was fully in, but there was some seed in me that wasn’t in, and therefore I was vacillating back and forth between being on the inside and on the outside.
But that’s a really interesting question to me, because I had never dwelled on being an outsider until you pointed out that the theme goes all the way through the book. I moved to China as an outsider and to this day, I say I could never move back to Canada, even though life would be easier for me than here in New York. Part of the reason is because I think I’m a person who enjoys living outside my element. I think maybe that’s a writerly quality, having that detachment to see things in different ways.
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When you mention being on the outside, there’s a lot of loss associated with that, and there’s a lot of loss in the book. There’s the loss of your marriage, the loss of all of your friends, your community, your family, your religion, the framework of your life. Your memoir itself is funny in places, and there’s a lot of hope, so how did you navigate writing about all of that loss?
The losses have kind of piled up. Sometimes I look back and think, is it like this for everyone? And I think yes, everyone has loss, but I do feel like I have an extra helping of loss. I do find it difficult. It started quite young. My dad died when I was eighteen. Shortly after, there was more cumulative loss, which culminated in losing my child four years ago; there’s no way to get through that kind of grief. There’s not really any answer to it. It’s not like other negative emotions where you can process them and get to the other side. You have to carry grief around with you.
I think when you’ve had a lot of loss, life becomes extra precious to you because you’re aware of how thin that line is between life and death. Grief can become something that overwhelms you and destroys your own life, but knowing how short life is, I feel compelled to move forward and live. The grief can coexist alongside humor or enjoyment or any other thing that happens to anyone in a life, it’s just that you have a burden to carry around with you.
A lot of people said to me when they knew my story or read my story in The Believer, you’re so brave to do what you did, to leave your religion and start over again. And honestly, it wasn’t bravery or courage that made me do it. It was because I had no choice; I didn’t believe in it any more. The only thing you can do when you don’t believe any more is leave. If you want to survive, you have to find a way to get another life; it was more of what I had to do. After all these years, and finally feeling like my life was back on track, when my son died, I couldn’t believe it — how could one more bad thing happen? I had an idea that there was a sort of quota and I had filled it already but no, life isn’t like that.
I was walking down the street yesterday and thinking about how when you lose a child, nobody that sees you knows. You’re an anonymous person and no one knows what you’re carrying around with you. I was thinking about how many times a day my son comes into my mind and the trauma of what happened or the trauma of not seeing him grow up and what a daily struggle it is for me to try to push through. Though many people have told me “you’re so brave to have left your religion,” I never felt like a courageous person until this. The most courageous act of my life has been waking up and living every day while carrying around that grief. And still trying to enjoy life in some fashion. It can honestly feel like a physical struggle at times. I don’t know how else to describe it. It feels like your heart is broken and you’re physically trying to hold it together and still be the person you were. Living — and living and trying to still find a way to be happy — takes a lot of courage.
In terms of thinking of loss, and thinking of you on the other side of religion, I think people — me included, as I grew up with religion as a framework of my life, too — don’t know the narrative of what exists outside of their belief system. When I was religious, I was only comfortable with what might happen in my life if I stayed; I had a vision of the woman I might grow up to be if I only followed the rules. In some ways, do you hope that your book can offer someone — and maybe not even part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses — an opportunity to see that there is a way out of this or into something that might not look like what you thought, but that also might be beautiful?
That is something I think about. When you are in a very controlling religion like this, one of the ways that they keep people inside is by painting the world outside as a very scary place. At the moment I realized I had to leave because I couldn’t believe in it anymore, I wasn’t ready to go outside, either. Even in the book, there are periods where I go back to the meeting all of a sudden. Where else was I supposed to go?
To speak to your question though, in the acknowledgments part of the book, the very last thing I say is: if any of my old friends are reading this, it is okay out here. You can find meaning and beauty and it’s not only in the religion that you can have a good life. When you leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, your friends and family on the inside cannot understand why you would give away this amazing life, why you would give up all the answers, the “truth.” A really good example of this is a friend I had who was also a Pioneer — a missionary — in Taiwan when I was there. Years later, I found out that she got an aggressive form of cancer. I felt sick about it. Even though she was shunning me, I still loved her so I sent her an email. She wrote back to me. She had heard about my son Karl dying, so she wasn’t going to be uncivil. In the email she told me how going through the illness made her realize how much more she needed the truth because the brothers and sisters all came together and helped her and were so supportive, to remind me how obvious it was that God was part of the organization. It was so funny because I had just gone through the loss of my son, and when that tragedy happened, people all around me — even strangers — brought meals or helped us with financial difficulties and offered all other kinds of support. I felt enveloped in love. What we were taught was a benefit of being a Jehovah’s Witness was actually just a benefit of being a human being. Those qualities exist in people whether you are inside a religion or outside. Most human beings have this innate empathy and goodness and care for other people. That was an interesting thing to learn for myself — to go back and realize that the things that we were taught were unique or special to our group were just unique to human beings.
I would also love for this book to get into the hands of a woman or a teenager who is a Jehovah’s Witness — or any highly controlled religion, really — who is having some doubts but doesn’t see any way out for themselves, and to see it as a path. I want to help them know that it’s possible to create a life outside the strictures we are raised with. I hope that can be a byproduct of writing this book. I want people to see it’s possible to have a good life even if you do have to start over again. It’s not easy, and it takes a number of years — and even still I’m trying to catch up to where I think I should be — but it is definitely possible.
What’s next for you?
Because when I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses I felt like there was so much I didn’t have the chance to do, I am always really driven to figure out what I’m going to do next. I am getting to the homestretch of finishing my college degree. When I started writing my book I was writing the story of my life, but I also did a lot of research on how these groups with cult-like, controlling tendencies operate. When I started reading books by psychologists and experts in the field, I started to get more and more outraged. As I wrote the book and revisited events with the perspective that most of what we did was not motivated from within ourselves but by someone telling us what and how to think, I became more of an activist. People need to be informed about these kinds of groups. There needs to be help out there for people trying to recover or get out.
I came up with an idea of getting my Master’s in social work and become an exit counselor, a therapist who helps people deprogram from cults or other controlling relationships or situations. When I left, it was hard to find a therapist who understood. There’s a scene in my book where I tell my therapist I’m scared of the world ending, and she laughed. I thought I was going to be killed at Armageddon and then she laughed and said, oh, I’m so sorry. It helped that someone laughed at me, but obviously there must be more professional ways to counsel someone. Some of the experts that I contacted mentioned that there is a shortage of professionals in this very narrow field of psychology so I’m thinking about aiming for that. I have already counseled a few people who were in the process of leaving to get out, and all of them are doing really well now, and that’s a very rewarding thing.
Since I left, I’ve felt like I’m trying to outrun my past. I’m trying to finish my degree and have a career and kids and a life in this very compressed amount of time because I was already in my early thirties when I left. I’ve always felt like there’s been this rift in my life: the before and the after. I used to believe that what happened in my life before was something that was wasted time and something I needed to get past. When I came up with the idea of becoming a counselor for people who want to leave cults, it felt like it’s also a way to stitch together that past to the present in a way that makes me feel as though what came before wasn’t a waste of time.
For so long I tried to detach myself from my past — to remove it from my psyche — and now ultimately, so many years out, I’ve come full circle and realized that it actually is something I can incorporate into my life story, and it feels better. Now, the before feels like something that can inform the present; it can do something good.
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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and illness, and her essays have been published in The New York Times, Tin House, and elsewhere. She writes reading lists regularly for Longreads.
Editor: Dana Snitzky