As the anniversary of my father’s death approaches (Nov. 24th) I am reminded that it has been one year since the death of my childhood faith. The last time I set foot inside a Kingdom Hall was for my father’s funeral–and I knew at the time it would be my last visit. As I greeted familiar faces I had known my whole life I felt sadness at the divergent path I was about to embark on. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to everyone who had ever mattered than as they were sharing the grieving process with me.
That is not why I am writing this blog, however. I am here to do a book review. You see, in the year since I decided I no longer wanted to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I have made a concerted effort to educate myself–my own personal Exit Counseling. I worked through the anger and resentment by sharing my feelings with others who felt the same. I read ex-JW literature, attended ex-JW forums, and studied the development of religion from a sociological perspective. These are the things I needed to undo the indoctrination of a lifetime.
After about six months or so I started to get on with my life–or at least I tried to. A few months is not enough time to deprogram a mind injected with 37 years of programming. In recent months I have been ricocheting from feelings of severe depression to claustrophobia. I feel like my life is floating in limbo and I need to do something diametrically different from what I have been doing. I have lost my zeal for college and even the desire to maintain relationships. I want to cut them all loose and I keep having dreams that I am killing my passion or walking on the edge of disaster, or even trapped inside a Kingdom Hall with no exits. Then something happened a few days ago that made me realize I still had not recovered. After posting someone’s parody of a Watchtower victim awaiting Armageddon, a disfellowshipped ‘friend’ unfriended me–but not before telling me that my “blatant apostasy was pissing [him] off.” My heart started to pound so hard I could hear it reverberating in my ears. I started to shake and felt overwhelming fear. This had happened after awaking that same day from nightmares of being forced to go out in the door-to-door ministry–and only days after having two JW friends try to “talk some sense into me.” My life came crumbling down around me. What was I doing? Had I just made a huge mistake? Was I going to get disfellowshipped? What if I ever wanted to go back?
I panicked. I actually changed my name on Facebook and made my account as impermeable to curious outsiders as I could. Some new ex-JW friends on Facebook were able to calm me down, but I realized something: It didn’t take much for the old programming to begin playing its familiar tune. So today I decided to take the time to finish a book I started months ago–“Combatting Cult Mind Control” by Steve Hassan. This book recounts Steve’s own experience being indoctrinated by the Moonies and his eventual escape. He goes on to become an exit counselor for others in need of escape from cult control. The book contains his observations of why some cults are so successful as well as how to overcome their programming. On page 41 and 42 he says:
“They indoctrinate members to show only the best sides of the organization. Members are taught to suppress any negative feelings they have about the group and always show a continually smiling, ‘happy’ face…(pg 42)It was always amazing to me to realize how many people in this category told us they had just been praying to God to show them what He wanted them to do with their lives. Many believed they were ‘spiritually’ led to meet one of our members…members regard themselves as ‘fishers of men’…They reinvest a great part of their capital back into recruiting new members…The average person doesn’t stand much of a chance. “
Was he talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses here? Nope. He was relating his experiences with the Moonies, but he could have been talking about the JW’s. I don’t remember Mr. Hassan mentioning Jehovah’s Witnesses at all in the book. He didn’t have to. Every description matched their techniques precisely.
Mr. Hassan goes on to relate successful and failed attempts at exit counseling from a plethora of different cults. On page 167 he sums up his own feelings as a recovered cult victim:
“I left when I realized that deception and mind control can never be part of any legitimate spiritual movement: that through their use, the group had created a virtual ‘Hell on Earth,’ a kingdom of slaves. Once I was able to realize that even though I wanted to believe it was true [paradise earth/resurrection] my belief didn’t make it true. I saw that even if I remained in the group for another fifty years, the fantasy I was sacrificing myself for would never come true.” (italics my application)
He goes on to relate how people actually change personality while under the influence of cults. A study was conducted in 1982 in which a respected psychologist used the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator to test cult members. He had them answer questions based upon who they were before the cult influence and again after. A marked difference was noted between their pre-cult personalities and their peri-cult personalities. Whatever they had been before, most shifted to sensor-judger dominant (Hassan, 191). I found this interesting since I had done my own informal poll regarding types of personalities that left the JW’s and when. I had found that intuitive judgers usually left in their late teens-early twenties. Whereas, intuitive perceivers held on longer and didn’t leave until well into adulthood. This isn’t to say that sensors don’t leave cults, but it may be harder for them and might stem from emotional trauma. (These are my observations based upon a limited pool of participants.)
Steve Hassan summarized his book with the observation that:
“If people come to believe that someone else knows better than they what is best to do, they can be in real danger…We have free will and should never abandon our personal responsibility for making good choices.” (Hassan, 195)
I found Hassan’s book to perfectly address my emotional issues. He described my feeling of “floating” as the mind trying to reevaluate the world without the lenses of mind control I had been wearing. In a carefully controlled environment, information and thought are carefully mastered to always be in line with the group-think. Imagine a lifetime of controlling every word, and every thought, that didn’t agree with the prime directive. Once one leaves that tight control, they must learn to think again. I still ask myself when things go wrong if I have displeased God. My emotional issues of late could be attributed to separation from the “truth”–at least that is how believers would interpret it. Thankfully I have done enough personal research that I can dismiss such thoughts immediately, but many don’t do the research. They are either too lazy, or too afraid, or cannot think clearly due to years of reading the same literature. Some of these may actually go back because they never stopped believing.
I realize now that, just as one has good days and bad days while grieving, I will have bad days as I grieve the loss of my faith. The most important thing is that I recognize these unconscious messages and replace them with conscious discernment. As the poet William Blake wrote: “I must Create a system, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” (Hassan, 196)
Hassan, Steve. “Combatting Cult Mind Control.” Park Street Press, Vermont, 1988.