I’m still friends with my high school sweetheart. She’s now a mother to a school-aged child. We live in different parts of the US, but we still chat online about animals, vegetarianism, movies, and religion. When we were dating her mother banned our relationship unless I attended church services every Sunday. This, despite my girlfriend and I both being openly anti-religious. I was fifteen and sixteen at the time, so this was no empty threat. If I didn’t attend church services on Sunday, my girlfriend’s mother would stop giving us rides. So I went to church. For two fucking years.
I’ve written about these experiences before, but I can’t remember where. So here’s a recap.
The church in question was a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall. On my first day I wore my best clothing: A polo t-shirt and khaki pants. The elders at the church were upset by this. They told me I needed to respect the church and wear church clothes. I went out and purchased a white button-up dress shirt and a tie (my first tie, mind you). I spent an hour or so with my father, learning how to properly tie a tie, and then next Sunday I showed up with my long hair pulled back, looking like a proper Christian. The elders were upset. They told me I had to wear a suit. I didn’t own a suit and couldn’t afford one, so I politely told them to fuck off (using different words, of course). I continued going to the church for the next two years until the elders and I got into a row over my long hair. They would not ban me from attending, but they started putting pressure on my girlfriend’s mother to interfere with our relationship or suffer the consequences. In the end, knowing that breaking us up was impossible, she chose to hide our relationship from the church by dropping the rule that I had to attend in order to date her daughter.
This whole ordeal was very confusing to me. One of the elders had long hair, neck tattoos, and was an active heavy metal musician. Surely it wasn’t my appearance that caused such friction with the church. No. It was that I was an atheist. And it had nothing to do with my behavior. I never spoke up in church. I never challenged members, even after services. I kept my mouth shut and only mocked the Kingdom Hall while in private conversations with my girlfriend. It was simply because, when questioned about my beliefs, I confessed that I didn’t believe in god. Therefore, the church feared that I would “corrupt” the minds of young Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My girlfriend and I broke up shortly thereafter. She ended up moving to another state because her father was dying.
Her mother remained with the church. Fast forward a decade and a half, and the mother is still with the church, despite almost escaping its clutches.
She’s an old woman now. She’s been alone for a big part of her life. Some months ago, maybe a year, she met a seemingly nice man, and they quickly formed a relationship. Unfortunately, the Kingdom Hall banned her from seeing the man, threatening her with disfellowship (which means certain and literal spiritual death), because he’s not a Jehovah’s Witness. This was the final straw for the woman, and she was finally able to leave the church pending a trial. Meanwhile, she was shunned. JWs were forbidden from associating with her, which was tragic (in multiple ways), considering what happened next.
The trial never happened. According to my ex-girlfriend the man who fell in love with her mother was abusive, and the relationship turned sour very quickly. When the Kingdom Hall got wind of the abusive relationship, they intervened, promising the woman spiritual help. This offer gave her the confidence she needed to end her abusive relationship and go back to the church (in other words, she left one abusive relationship for another abusive relationship). Today she’s back with the church, unable to see the emotional trauma through which the Jehovah’s Witnesses church put her through.
I need to make this clear: They literally threatened this woman with spiritual death. That might not sound that bad, but for someone who actually believes in the church’s teachings, it’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you. Furthermore, the church’s only care was to bring her back to the church. It’s almost like they see her physical abuse as a blessing because they used it as leverage — an emotional bribe, if you will — to compel her back to the church. And this woman had no choice because without the church, her friends were forbidden from supporting her emotionally throughout her abusive relationship. Without emotional support from her friends, she felt trapped in an abusive relationship. Instead of getting her the help she needed despite her position with the church, they created a situation where her only options were either be abused or go back to the church.
This whole thing really irritates me. I’ve known this woman for more than half my life. She’s a rockin’ grandmother. She makes illegal spirits and cusses like a sailor! She listens to Rammstein (sometimes) because they sing in her native language. She’s a really cool woman who has a good head on her shoulders, but she just can’t seem to shake the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. She deserves so much better than a church that will emotionally mind fuck her with literal threats of death.
In the title of this post I call the church a cult. I can’t think of a better word for it. It’s a fucking cult. I’m not the only one who thinks so. There are several organizations that help members escape the JW cult and offer support for them once they’re free. For example, here’s one right here. Here’s another one. And yet another one. And here’s a list of some of the documented psychological abuses carried out by the Watchtower Society. Is there such a thing as “battered believer syndrome”? I can’t think of any other reason why someone would stay in such an abusive religious relationship.