Being shunned from the Jehovah’s Witnesses led me to reporting
(REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK) I walked into a church in a suburb of Boston with Karen Wilson, a counselor from Montana who was holding a workshop on healing from spiritual abuse. Soon the 15 participants, curious and nervous, began to file in. All of them looked as if they were carrying an invisible burden— with shoulders hunched up to their ears and eyes puffy as if they had recently cried.
This was my first foray into the world of spiritual abuse recovery.
I was an actor in New York, interested in creating a theater piece about people who were shunned by religious groups. I had interviewed several former members of high-control groups who had been cut off from their families, but after starting interviews, I realized that a theater piece wasn’t the right medium for the stories. I didn’t know where my research would take me.
I contacted Karen after reading an article about her work. After a series of correspondences, she invited me to join her at the workshop in Boston. I wasn’t a reporter and I didn’t know then that these were the first steps towards creating what would become The Shunned Project, an interactive website about the stories of shunned former Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When I went to graduate school for journalism a few years later, I decided to revisit the topic of religious shunning, but this time focusing solely on Jehovah’s Witnesses. I partnered with my classmate, Nour Saudi, who spearheaded the creation of the website, while I focused on reporting—finding people, conducting interviews and writing. The journey led us to interview nearly 100 former members from the U.S, Canada, the U.K, Chile and Australia.
I interviewed Dan Adams from Washington, who tearfully recalled the last time he saw his daughters. The occasion was his mother’s funeral. They contacted him by email before the funeral to tell him not to try to speak to them. No one spoke to him at the funeral.
There was Amneris Cruz from Puerto Rico, who was sexually abused by her Jehovah’s Witness father for years during her childhood. Though it came out that he had also abused several other girls during the same period, the congregation hid the allegations and never took measures to protect the children.
There was Matthew Fudge from New Jersey, an active member of his church who sings in the choir, who believes that God called him out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and who grapples with the fact that his mother shunned him until the day she died.
My interest in this topic has never been ambiguous. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. I never expected, however, to learn things about the religion that I didn’t know for the 19 years that I was a member.
When I left the religion, I never wanted to look back. I didn’t join online communities of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I made new friends, it would take years before I ever told them about my family, or that I celebrated my first birthday when I was 21, and my first Christmas the following year. I mostly didn’t want to talk about it because I wasn’t sure there was much to tell. I knew about sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses because of big news stories about legal actions against the group, but I hadn’t been abused.
My life growing up in South Carolina had seemed quaint. I wasn’t disfellowshipped; I left the group of my own volition because I no longer agreed with the teachings. That resulted in my parents and siblings gradually shunning me, but there was no big moment of being cast out.
But as a storyteller and journalist, I realized how rich the stories of people who had been shunned were. In many ways, telling these stories opened up wounds that I didn’t know were there.
I interviewed a man who I had known my whole life, who grew up in a neighboring town, and learned that three of his sisters had been sexually abused by an elder in the congregation. I learned about the two-witness rule, which states that any accusations of abuse must have been witnessed by two members for any judicial action. There was Beth Sarim, the home that the second president of the organization built in San Diego for dead prophets to live when they are resurrected after Armageddon. There were the news stories of suicides and murders by former members.
This is what I learned from dozens of interviews with former Jehovah’s Witnesses. My colleague and I selected 12 stories to include in the launch of the website in the fall of 2018. On it, you can read the stories of each individual and hear audio of their recorded interviews. These are the voices that changed my life, and which ultimately made me a reporter.
Joy Notoma is a writer and multimedia journalist based in Benin Republic. Her work has appeared in Longreads, CNN, and Al Jazeera, among other publications. Find her online at www.joynotoma.com.