I have had an odd life. I often feel like I’ve lived several of them already, in fact. One of them was as a cult member.
My mother started going along to their meetings when I was three-ish. She joined properly a few years later, and I didn’t manage to extract myself until I was in my late teens. I had many negative experiences growing up in a cult (naturally), but I also learned some good lessons from it, and had some positive experiences too. So today I thought I’d focus on the latter and share some of those in a post.
1. That Which Obeys The Rules May Not Be Moral
There were many, many rules in the cult. We were expected to follow them at all times. However, the cult I was in has members in many countries, and some of these rules are against local laws. In these situations, the counsel given to members was that they should obey the laws of the land wherever possible, but where these went “against their conscience” (i.e. against the rules of god/the cult), then the “true law” took precedence.
This caused in me an early realisation that rules are not correct just by their very presence. Some rules are there for good reasons – we’re not allowed to murder people, or rape people, or take stuff that doesn’t belong to us. But other rules might be founded on principles that are immoral in my world view.
Paradoxically, being in a cult in some ways made me question more, rather than less.
2. There Is A Lot To Be Said For Community
One of the most difficult parts of being in – or rather, leaving – a cult is that your entire social community is there. The one I was in didn’t allow members to associate with anyone outside of the religion, citing 1 Corinthians 15:33 – “Bad associations spoil useful habits.”
It is absolutely not OK to require people to subscribe to precisely the same types of beliefs as you in order to be included in your life. However, one thing that this particularly extreme experience taught me was the importance of feeling like you’re a part of something.
When I left, I was incredibly fucked-up for a while. You can’t really expect anything less: for practically my whole life to date, I had associated with the same people, lived by strict rules, and managed my entire day, every day, by the same principles.
Leaving a cult means leaving everything. Your family aren’t meant to talk to you anymore (my mother complied for a couple of years, then started talking to me again. I’m very lucky that was the case; many have been cut off entirely, forever). You don’t have friends outside the cult, and those inside refuse to speak to you when you leave. Often (as was the case with me), you have to move house as well, because otherwise representatives of the cult (i.e. intimidating men in suits) will come to your door and hound you constantly to “come back into the fold”.
However, leaving a cult also means realising how strange it feels to be completely cut adrift. To have no sense of community anymore. You have to work out, entirely from scratch, where you belong. Fit yourself into a world in which you have very little experience.
It feels strange.
3. Always Read The Primary Source
I knew for a long time that I wanted to leave, but it only really reached a tipping point when I was a teenager. Many things contributed to my decision, but one of them was working out that things weren’t entirely what they seemed.
“We are the only religion based entirely on the Bible!” they trumpeted (although we all ate shrimp). “We’re not hypocritical like the others! The Bible is EVERYTHING to us!”
I’d read the Bible already. By the time I left, I’d read it eight and a half times. The last half-time was when I gave up part of the way through, after a confusing conversation with my mother.
It began with me saying something like “…but obviously everyone in the congregation has read the Bible.”
My mother: “Well, probably not cover to cover.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
My mother: “I mean, people trust what the Governing Body* tell us. Some people in the congregation will have read the whole Bible, all the way through, but not everyone will have read all of it. Some of them just rely on the spiritual food** the Governing Body give us to interpret it for them.”
*the men who run everything
** religious literature
This blew my mind.
The whole point of this cult was literally to follow the Bible. That was it. That was all they said. The sole purpose of the religion: follow this one book, to the letter, and you will be saved.
And some people hadn’t read it?!
Forgive my stupidity (I thought), but how the hell can you follow “to the letter” a book you HAVEN’T FUCKING READ?!
(I didn’t think “hell” or “fucking” back then. Well, perhaps I thought them. But I’d never say them. God might smite me, or something.)
In later years, long after I’d left, I took this lesson and applied it in my life. Someone says a study has reported certain findings? Read the study. Want to know what a philosopher thought about something? Read what she wrote. Someone shares something on Facebook that sounds OMG-UNBELIEVABLE!!!1!! ? Check the source.
4. Bad Associations Spoil Useful Habits
I know, I know. A little further up the post I talked about how annoying this was and how much I disagreed with it.
And yeah, only being allowed to be friends with people in the same religious group as you doesn’t make for straightforward relationships.
But there’s something to be said for choosing your associations wisely.
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn spoke about how you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And I’ve noticed in my own life how I’ve changed – sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much – when I’m with different groups of people. Working in advertising, for example, made me into someone I didn’t like. Hanging around with my academic research group makes me think about things more deeply, because I get used to having intellectual discussions.
So I try to choose my friends wisely. To surround myself with people who have a few core qualities I appreciate (respectfulness of others, loyalty, thoughtfulness) and people who challenge me to think about things differently.
5. Analyse Why You’re Doing Things
Again, maybe a confusing thing to say I learned from being in a cult! Allow me to explain.
As a child, there were a lot of things that were forbidden. Christmas, birthday celebrations, singing the national anthem, watching certain movies/reading certain books, yoga… the list goes on.
The reasoning behind most of these was sketchy at best. But the process of having to reason through each one, work out whether it fit with the beliefs system I followed, and making a conscious decision to either do something or not do it, is something I’ve found really useful in general life too.
It’s an ingrained habit for me to reflect on what I’m doing, ask myself why I’m acting the way I’m acting, and work out whether it fits with what I now believe (and if not, to either change my actions or adapt my beliefs).
It’s an outlook on life that I’m grateful for, and I think all of us could benefit from a little reflection on our own actions and reactions.
6. You Can Find Common Ground With Almost Anyone
Hey look, we’ve gotten all this way down the post without mentioning door-knocking!
That’s right, growing up a Jehovah’s Witness involves a LOT of knocking on doors. All fucking day, every fucking day in the school holidays. Both days at the weekend. Sometimes before or after school.
The idea, of course, is that you convert as many people as possible. You do this not by arguing with them, but by essentially psychologically manipulating them into liking you.
How? By finding common ground. It’s amazing how you can find points of commonality with almost anyone, even people you really wouldn’t expect.
It might be something tiny, like that they’ve planted your favourite flower in their front yard. It might be something big, like that they’ve grown up in a single-parent household. It could be almost anything. But I can honestly say that, having been trained to draw out common ground with other people, I have never met anyone with whom I disagree on absolutely everything.
7. How To Fake Confidence And Be Good At Public Speaking
Speaking of door-knocking… the JWs don’t just send you out there with a bunch of magazines and no training. Ohhh no.
There’s this thing called the Theocratic Ministry School. The idea behind it is that it’s a kind of “practice run” for the real thing.
I’ve been out for ten years or so now, so it may have changed a bit since I was there, but I’m pretty sure they’ll still be doing something similar.
Once a week, during one of the meetings (there were five each week – this is not a low-commitment religion), a portion of time would be devoted to improving people’s public speaking skills and making them better at the ministry.*
* knocking on doors converting people
First, a brother, or male member of the congregation, would get up and address the whole room. Generally a congregation would include something between 80-150 people, depending on where it was located etc. Often, the people doing these talks would be young kids, aged six and up.
So, the guy gets up, addresses a room of ~100 people for five minutes, and then goes and sits down again. You’d get your assignment a few weeks in advance, and you were meant to spend a lot of time preparing for them.
Once he’d sat back down… wait for it… he’d then get graded in front of the whole congregation.
Bear in mind that it was often children doing this. I mean, that shit’d be scary for adults!
So the guy (always a guy, more on that in a minute) who was running that part of the meeting would stand up and tell him, from the stage, in front of all those people, what he did well and what he did badly, and give him a grade. The things he did badly would then become his points to work on for his next sermon, when he’d be re-graded in front of everyone to see if he’d improved.
Oh, but there’s more!
After that, it was the sisters’ turn. Now, women aren’t equal to men in the JW ranks, having to spend their lives “in submission” (actual quote from… well, pretty much any piece of JW literature you can get your hands on). So because of their inferiority, they’re not allowed to address the room as a whole, doing sermons like the men. They might put bad thoughts into the congregation with their inferior female minds, or something.
Instead, they have to take to the stage in pairs and role-play a scenario in which one woman pretends to be the door-knocker and the other pretends to be the person behind the door. They’re given a topic to research beforehand, and a lot of rehearsing happens, and then they act it out in front of the congregation.
Then they go sit down, and they get publicly graded on it as well, the same as the men.
Sounds terrifying, right?
Yeah. It is.
However, it did make me into a good public speaker. These days I do guest lectures and training courses, and I’ve sat on various panels. I have to introduce myself to people at networking events and draw them into conversation.
And I still use the lessons I learned sitting on that huge platform in front of all those staring eyes as a child.
So maybe it was worth the ritual humiliation. 😉
8. Pick Your Battles
There were so many things I disagreed with the whole time I was in that religion. By the time I was eight years old, I’d worked out that large chunks of it didn’t make any sense.
But I also knew that I couldn’t leave until I was at least eighteen, because I’d need to get a job, save up money, find a place to live, hide from the elders when they came round to try to get me back. I knew I’d also need to leave everything behind, and that my friends and family wouldn’t talk to me anymore.
If I’d been obvious about the things I disagreed with, especially during my teenage years, it would have made my life so much harder. Sure, I could have spoken up every time someone said something I thought was bullshit, but then I would have created a reputation as a troublemaker. And trust me, you don’t want one of those.
The one big battle I chose to fight was when I was seventeen. I was an academically bright student (already a black mark against me – the education system is lead by Satan), and I wanted to go to university. You’re not really supposed to do that.
Worse, I wanted to study philosophy.
What could possibly be more damaging to a cult mindset than critical thinking about the big questions in life? Not much. We were constantly told that we weren’t allowed to question anything; that people who questioned things only did so because they had no faith, and that they were dangerous apostates who would draw us onto the devil’s side.
So, y’know, they weren’t thrilled when I said I was moving to London (leaving the family home!), on my own (a female! independent!), to go to university (higher education!) to study philosophy (the devil’s subject!).
That fight drained a huge amount of energy, physically and mentally. My mother was immensely upset. She genuinely believes I’m now literally being controlled by Satan, and that god will have to kill me. That’s an awful thing for a mother to have to deal with.
The leaders of the congregation came round several times. They came into my bedroom to talk to me – three men in suits, sitting on chairs while I sat cross-legged on the floor, Bible open in front of me. They showed me scriptures about “the philosophy and empty deception of man”. They talked about how Satan had been “the first philosopher” because he’d used the words “is it really so?” in the garden of Eden, when Eve was about to cause the downfall of humankind by eating a piece of fruit.
I fought. Quietly, tenaciously, and desperately. I was respectful, I listened to what they were saying, I told them I was praying about it, I said all the right words in all the right places, except that I also said I was still leaving to study with Satan.
I stuck to my guns, and then I got out.
But I got out partly because I didn’t bother fighting the smaller battles earlier on.
I’m only allowed to wear skirts, not trousers? OK. I’m not allowed to read Harry Potter? OK. I’m not allowed to make friends with people at school? OK. I’m not allowed to go to the end of term barbecue? OK. I have to cover my head if I’m praying in front of a man? OK.
It’s a good lesson that I still use in my day-to-day life now: looking at something I disagree with, and working out whether it’s worth fighting about.
This is particularly useful in internet comment sections.
9. How To Subtly Entertain Yourself In Boring Situations
We’ve all been there, right? The interminable meeting? The conference that doesn’t seem to end? The dinner table conversation that’s making you want to poke your own eyes out with the dessert spoon?
Trust me, there’s always something to be interested in.
Five times a week – once on Tuesdays, twice on Thursdays, twice on Sundays – JWs have to sit through an hour of men in suits indocrinating them from the platform. A few times a year, there are also conventions, which are basically JW conferences. Thousands of them go along, and you have to sit for three days in silence, listening to hour after hour of intensely boring, intellectually void rhetoric.
As a child, if you scream or fidget or generally… you know, act like a kid… you get taken into the back room and hit. So you quickly learn not to do that (except some kids, who carried on regardless. They were badasses.)
But that leaves you with one of two options: you either take notes, or you stare at the stage and look like you’re listening.
The days were long, so I alternated these.
For a while, I took notes in English based on what the speakers were saying, because at least it gave me something to do. But then I realised that, if I was sitting next to my English friends, they wouldn’t understand what I was writing if I wrote in French. So I did that instead, drafting essays for school, writing stories, creating huge diary entries.
After a while we started going to the French versions of these conferences, so I had to come up with a new plan. So I devised a code in which each letter of the alphabet was replaced by a symbol. Because I was ultra-paranoid, I would alternate between writing in French, English and Romani throughout each sentence, substituting my code characters for the letters in each language.
It kept me amused, and it meant I could write long diatribes about how much I hated everything that was happening, right under the noses of the people around me.
And, when my hand got tired and I didn’t want to write anymore, I became excellent at staring into the middle distance, looking like I was concentrating whilst actually thinking about something else. At subtly casting my eyes around the auditorium and playing little games with myself: how many people can you see who are wearing yellow? Make up a story about the lady who’s just stood up to go to the toilet. How many of these people are secretly sitting here thinking “this is bollocks”?
And yes, I still use these tactics sometimes. The code writing one is particularly useful in interview situations, so the interviewee can’t tell what you’re writing about them. It’s also useful when you’re writing notes at a conference that you don’t want other people to read.
When I left, I lost everything. My mother disowned me and refused to speak to me (to her credit, she started again some time later). My entire social network was within the religion, and when I left, I left it behind.
I moved to a city I’d never really been to, started a job I had no experience in, and had to juggle trying to deal with the effects of leaving with all the other responsibilities that come with living alone for the first time.
It was hard, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. But it taught me a level of independence that few people reach. I know that I can pull myself up, by myself, from almost anything.
Nowadays I have a great network of fantastic friends, and I love them and rely on them and am ecstatic to have them in my life.
But I also know that if I lost everything, I could build it all up again from scratch if I had to. I know exactly how exhausting it would be, but I know I could do it.
And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson of all. That no matter what happens, I have a choice: to survive and work through it, or to not fight through it and not survive.
So far, I’ve chosen the former. And I intend to continue to do so.
If you’ve read through this thinking “I wonder if I’m in a cult, though?” then I’d recommend taking a look at the Freedom of Mind website and seeing how much of the BITE model applies to your life.
If you’re thinking of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically, but you’re not sure if it’s the right decision, maybe head over to the JW Recovery forum. It’s a great resource for people who need a bit of support and are trying to work out where their head’s at.
And, if you have any questions or anything I can help with, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.
Good luck on the journey!