When I went to the library to pick up my reserved copy of Leaving the Witness, I had to pass two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing near the building with a literature cart. There’s a Kingdom Hall just a couple blocks away from my house, and it’s common to see JWs out and about with their Watchtower magazines in hand. They used to come to my home fairly regularly, until one day I said I didn’t approve of their practice of disfellowshipping, and one of the Witnesses got rather indignant about it. Ever since, they’ve left me alone.
I love reading about religious cults, though, so I’ve continued to follow news about the JWs online, particularly through the work of a former member named Lloyd Evans. It’s gotten to the point where I know so much about the Witnesses now that if one of them did come to my door, I’d probably challenge them to see if they can name more members of the Governing Body than I can, or start singing a few bars of “We’re Your Family.”
However, the JWs have never gotten as much attention as Scientology, despite the fact that it also has big celebrity adherents (Venus & Serena Williams! Prince!). I hope Amber Scorah’s fascinating new memoir helps draw attention to this destructive cult masquerading as a religion.
Scorah, who grew up in Vancouver, was such a devoted Witness that she learned to speak Chinese in order to be able to move to Shanghai and preach. China was a particularly dangerous place to do this because the religion had been banned since the 1950s. Witnesses in China had to meet in secret and be extremely cautious about proselytizing. Literature had to be disguised in brown paper wrapping. It was risky, but important: “Most Witnesses were certain that the only reason Armageddon hadn’t come yet was because the entire Earth had not yet been preached to—and China was one of the last frontiers.”
Paradoxically, living in repressive China wound up giving Scorah a surprising amount of freedom, since she had to live her life in such a way that she wouldn’t give the authorities any reason to suspect her of being a Jehovah’s Witness. She wound up hosting a popular podcast about life in China, which led her into an online friendship with a screenwriter named Jonathan, who spent months trying to open her mind. But she knew all too well that if she left her religion, she’d lose all her friends and family, who would be forced to shun her. And if the Witnesses were right, she’d die in Armageddon as well instead of living forever in paradise.
Along with providing an inside look at what it’s really like to live as a faithful member and then leave the JWs, Scorah also offers plenty of anecdotes about adapting to Chinese culture, where “seemingly mundane tasks turned into perplexing challenges.” (One Witness causes a stir by giving a clock as a gift to a Chinese person, not realizing that it is considered very unlucky—the phrase “give a clock” sounds just like the one for “attend a funeral.”)
Because I hadn’t read anything about Scorah or her life before I started the book, I was unprepared for the emotional gut-punch of the last few chapters, in which she confronts a situation that might have been easier to face had she still had her old faith. However, by then she had come too far to turn back. “This alchemy of life, this magical planet, they bewilder me, they awe me… I have called a truce with the unknown, and I am learning to live with the disquiet. I do not attempt to pray to a God who will not answer.”