Memoir: A Jehovah's Witness Life

Being cast out from the only organization that you have known since birth is catastrophic. Being faced with shunning by longtime friends and family members is devastating. Discovering that all you were ever allowed to know as truth is actually a grand lie can be bewildering, frustrating and life changing. Keeping a level head during this transition is not easy. I have made many mistakes during my 44 years but I try to learn from them. 

Discovering that there are hundreds of thousands who share this same pain through similar experiences can be cathartic in many ways. Nothing has illustrated this fact more than social media and networking on the Internet. While it is true that everyone has their own opinion or pathway along their recovery journey, the camaraderie is still present. I am very grateful to my many new friends, supporters and others who I have met online and through social media. You saved my life. You also saved my daughter's life.

An Active Childhood
I was born in 1970. My mother and father brought me into the world in Santa Barbara County, California. They attended the Quarantina Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Santa Barbara. Later they moved 15 miles south to the City of Carpinteria and that was the congregation in which I was raised. When I was 13, I dedicated my life to serving Jehovah God. I symbolized that dedication by water baptism in a pool outside the Assembly Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Woodland Hills, California. My mother was very proficient in training me as the perfect little Jehovah's Witness boy. I was constantly rescuing my Jehovah's Witness playmates from various holiday celebrations and political ceremonies at school. I never had a problem explaining why being a Jehovah's Witness excluded me from a plethora of activities, even taking to task school administration all alone about why I would not salute the flag or stand for the playing of the National Anthem. As I matured over my school career, I was often referred to by classmates as "Bible Boy"and rightfully so because I could recite an exhausting list of Holy Scriptures by heart. I used any opportunity I could find to talk about my beliefs and hopes for the future. One of my most compelling moments occurred during an open debate in front of the class with my science teacher on the subject of "Evolution or Creation." I later became a national level orator participant for the subject of "The Danger of Drugs in Your Youth." Of course, all the information I used came from well over a decade of reading and learning from the publications made available to me by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

A Quick Rise Among Jehovah's Witnesses
After graduating from high school, I forfeited my 4.5 GPA (Grade Point Average) and several college scholarships. Instead I opted to spend time pioneering and qualifying for "Bethel service" at Watchtower Society Headquarters and learning a construction trade. Over the years, my experience in the construction trade designated me as a regular invitee for temporary but lengthy Bethel work at three different branch locations in Brooklyn, Walkill, and Patterson, New York. Just after I turned 20 I married a sister in my congregation that I had known since I was 13. We moved from Carpinteria back to Santa Barbara. There we attended the same Quarantina Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses that my parents had attended many years ago. When I was 22, I became a "Ministerial Servant" within the Congregation. At 26, I was appointed as an elder. I had three children by the time I was 32.

Shunning Becomes a Part of My Life
My first experience of dealing with shunning was the result of disfellowshipping Jehovah's Witnesses who came from my family. I have a sister who is six years older than I. We share the same mother. My father married our mother when my sister was just two years old. My sister's biological father was decapitated in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, when she was in my mother's womb. I had a wonderful relationship with my sister and, as a child, I would do anything for her attention and affection. When I was 11, my sister did not come home one night after she sneaked out of the house to attend her high school Senior Prom. A week later, she was disassociated from the Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses even though she had never been baptized. When she was 17 she moved out of our home because of intense pressure placed upon my parents by our congregation's elders. I never saw or had contact with her again for the next eleven years until we our paths crossed at our mother's funeral.

Nineteen years ago I lost my mother to complications resulting from breast cancer after her refusal to accept a blood transfusion. For over a decade, my mother was tormented by the shunning of my sister. That was strictly imposed upon her by the congregation elders and confirmed by lengthy letters responding to hers from the Watchtower Society.

One of the most egregious episodes in my mother's life was when she saw my sister's name in The Newspress. It was in a story about a young woman who was in the hospital as a victim of horrific domestic violence. My parents rushed to the hospital to see my sister as she was clinging to her life. Shortly afterwards they found themselves chastised and reprimanded for doing that by their congregation elders. That was a blow to my parents and they slowly began to alienate from the congregation. My sister made a full recovery and moved on with her life. The first time I heard her voice after she left home was when I called her to tell her our mother was hours away from death in the hospital. She was shocked. It was shocking to me. Despite counsel by the congregation's elders, I made the call to my sister. My sister was unable to get a flight home in time to say goodbye before our mother died. To this day I still feel sadness and tremendous regret that I did not contact my sister sooner.

My Father's Secret
When I was only 8, my father (who was an elder in the congregation) disclosed to my mother that he was gay and that he was in a relationship with another man. I didn't learn about that disclosure until I was 21 and knew my father better. The elders did a remarkable job of suppressing the facts and convincing my mother to remain quiet and forgiving while they compelled my father to change his ways. So my parents remained married and vowed to stay "in the truth" and continue raising my sister and I together, as they tried to fulfill their roles within the congregation.

Mom was very protective as a parent after that. I had a minuscule relationship with my father as I continued to grow up. When I was 26, my father left the Jehovah's Witnesses shortly after my mother died. I maintained our relationship despite my being an elder in my congregation and his being openly gay.

My father committed suicide five years ago. He was feeling isolated from his friends and family  a direct result of his choice to disassociate himself from the Jehovah's Witnesses and the shunning that followed. His own mother, who lived just five minutes away, would not speak to him. He was also having health issues from two recent strokes and medications that were not helping the blindness that was setting in. One evening he went into his garage with his pills and a vodka orange juice. He strung up a thin red and white nylon rope around the highest rafter, climbed on a chair atop a workbench, and fell to his death. I was at work when I received the news. I fell to my knees next to a busy highway and I cried inconsolably for what seemed like forever. My father left me a letter that was found in a tool case nearly a year later. He intended to give it to me as a gift before his death. The letter was brief, but very powerful. He told me of his being abused sexually by his presiding overseer between ages 12 to 16. He told me of being raped in Bethel by five boys and one overseer. He spoke about being gay. He told me that I was "the only thing he had ever done right in his life." He told me that Jehovah's Witnesses do not have any special connection to God, because they are among the cruelest people on earth, in very covert and subversive ways.

My father, to this day, is one of my heroes. I have never known a more sincere or compassionate man. Yes, he had flaws and some secrets. But don't we all? Likewise, my mother was also a remarkable woman. At her funeral, there were nearly 500 in attendance, and a large portion of them were non-Jehovah's Witnesses from the community. I remember her staying up with me until 3:00 or 4:00 A.M., helping me with my adolescent problems and keeping me from making poor choices. Of course, I also remember the severe beatings I received as a toddler at the Kingdom Hall. Sometimes, those beating were so severe I would black out. I learned from a very early age to do exactly as my mother and father said –  and, as I got older, I learned how not to get caught when I chose not to do as they said.

Backtracking a bit from my father's death, I was 29 years old and had been an elder in my congregation for several years. I found myself missing my sister tremendously. As my children were being born I was missing my mother. Although he was still alive, I was also missing my father.

Burnout and Discovery
I was overwhelmed with an endless and exhausting list of congregation, circuit, and district level responsibilities in the Watchtower Society. I was running my construction business and providing for my family and three small children. I was unhappy. I became disillusioned with my religion, primarily because of its internal politics specifically from my experiences in Bethel and while serving on the local Body of Elders. I began to question everything. I became cynical. Then I got on the Internet and began educating myself. Learning the truth about the Truth (which Jehovah';s Witnesses profess to have) is not easy. Sure, it is easy to find once you allow yourself a chance to search, but it is still not easy to take in and accept. In many ways, for me it felt just as traumatic as losing my mother and father in death. It was frustration, anger, the feeling of being lost or orphaned and the grieving. It was all extremely real and heart-wrenching. I stepped down as an elder. Before I even knew what fading was, I began to gradually taper off in my efforts to be an active Jehovah's Witness. By the time I was 33, I attended no meetings. By age 38, I attended no assemblies. The last year I attended the Memorial I was 39. That was the same year my wife of eighteen years left me for an older man, also a Jehovah's Witness. It was during that same year I had to fight through a nasty divorce and custody battle.

Life After Awakening
To this day, fifteen years after my "awakening" I have never been approached by any elders to convene for a judicial committee hearing. I have considered submitting a letter of disassociation from the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, but thought better of it. After all, these men truly have no power over me – and I certainly do not owe them one breath out of my mouth. Somehow I have managed to survive this awakening portion of my personal journey and heavy life changes. I have full custody of my daughter. I see my boys during vacation times. I am in a loving relationship with an incredibly smart and very beautiful woman. I have gained an equally remarkable step-daughter. Yes – my lady is also an ex-Jehovah's Witness. We have known each other for twenty years. Our daughters played together as toddlers. Together we have brought support and healing to each other and to our children. I consider myself extremely lucky to have finally found genuine and unconditional love. Five years ago, after a lengthy fade away from the Jehovah's Witnesses, I had really separated myself from all things Jehovah's Witness. I even moved away from engaging the ex-Jehovah's Witness community and from continuing any research exposing the Watchtower. That's when it happened. . .

A Terrible Discovery
One day, after the hour-long drive home from work, I picked up my then eleven-year-old daughter from school. She broke down in tears and told me that she had been severely sexually abused for many years by a prominent Jehovah's Witness elder. He was also her maternal grandfather. Through a never-ending stream of tears and a struggle to find her voice, she expressed some horrific details. Those details would only prove to be the surface of what she actually had suffered. To compound the issue, my daughter told me that she had told both her grandmother and mother about the abuse ten months previous to that day. They had done nothing. My daughter felt ashamed, frustrated and desperate for closure. After arriving home and comforting my daughter, I picked up the phone and called the police station that was located in the city where the molestation took place. I also called child protection services in the county where my two sons spent the majority of their time with their mother. After year and a half of investigation and the capture of the felony fugitive who abused my daughter, he was sentenced to state prison. We continue to pursue investigation of Watchtower Society's involvement with the cover up of this former elder's abuses. We intend to carrying through on civil litigation to find complete justice for the abuses my daughter had to survive. Many ask how my daughter is doing. Let me tell you, she is my hero. I have never known anyone as courageous and strong. She is a straight-A high school senior. She is the Student Body Vice President and the All-City Deputy Colonel and Battalion Commander for her school in the JROTC program. She continues to display the qualities (for which she was recognized by the United Way) that led to her being selected as Character of the Year in Santa Barbara County. She is a leader. She is wise beyond her years. She aspires to help children in a field relating to therapy or psychology.

A New Direction
There are still a lot of crazy details (and other things that most of you may never believe) that I have left out of my brief story. I think that is okay
– as even a man's heart can be a deep ocean of secrets best kept. Even at 45, I still struggle to assimilate everything that has transpired in my life. Considering my upbringing and long involvement with a high control religion governed by the use of severe undue influence, I am now extremely cautious when it comes to spirituality or belief in God. On most days, I simply don't want to believe in anything anymore. On the other hand, I do believe in those I love and others who have returned that love. I will dedicate my life to taking care of them and protecting them the best I can.

Tylinn Joel