Memoirs of a Jehovah's Witness Life by Tylin Joel
Being cast out from an organization that you have only known since birth is catastrophic. Being faced with shunning by long time friends and family members is devastating. Discovering that all you were ever allowed to know as “truth” is indeed 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 in my 44 years but I try to learn from them. Discovering that there are hundreds of thousands who share this same pain through experiences is cathartic in many ways. Nothing has illustrated this or accomplished this fact more than social media and networking on the Internet. While it is very true that everyone has an opinion or pathway of their own along their recovery journey, the joint camaraderie is still present and some of the people I have met online and through social media have saved my life. You have saved my daughter’s life. I thank you for that.
I was born in 1970. My mother and father brought me into the world in Santa Barbara County and attended the Quarantina Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Santa Barbara, California. They moved 15 miles south to the City of Carpinteria and that is the congregation in which I was raised. When I was thirteen years old, I dedicated my life to serving Jehovah God and 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 as to why I would not solute 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, as I could recite an exhausting list of Holy Scriptures by heart and used any opportunity I could to talk about my beliefs and hopes for the future. Some 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” and becoming a National level orator participant for the subject of “The Danger of Drugs in Your Youth.” Of course, all of the information I drew from was from well over a decade of learning from publications made available to me by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
After graduating from high school, I forfeited my 4.5 GPA (Grade Point Average) and several college scholarships and opted to spend time pioneering and qualifying for Bethel (Watchtower Society Headquarters) service 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. I was married, just after I turned age twenty, to a sister I had known since the age of thirteen in my congregation. We moved from Carpinteria back to Santa Barbara and there we attended the same Quarantina Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses that my parents had attended many years ago. At age twenty-two, I became a Ministerial Servant within the Congregation. At age twenty-six, I was appointed as an Elder. By age thirty-two, I also had three children.
My first experience of dealing with shunning as a result of disfellowshipping amongst Jehovah’s Witnesses came from my own 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 eleven years old, 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. She moved out of our home at age seventeen years, because of intense pressure placed upon my parents by congregation elders and I never saw or had contact with her again for the next eleven years, until we crossed paths again at our mother’s funeral.
I lost my mother to complications resulting from breast cancer and her refusal to accept a blood transfusion nineteen years ago. My mother was tormented by the shunning of my sister for over a decade, which was strictly imposed upon her by the congregation elders and confirmed by lengthy letters in response to hers from the Watchtower Society. One of the most egregious episodes in my mother’s life is when she saw my sister’s name in the Newspress story of 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 clung to her life, only shortly thereafter to be chastised and reprimanded for doing so by congregation elders. That was a blow to my parents and they slowly began to be alienated from the congregation. My sister made a full recovery and moved on with her life. The first time I heard her voice since she left home was when I called her to tell her our mother was hours away from death in the hospital. It was shocking to her. It was shocking to me. I made the call to my sister, despite being counseled not to by congregation elders. My sister was unable to get a flight home in time to say goodbye to our mother before she died. It is a sadness and tremendous regret that I carry to this day that I did not contact her sooner than when I did.
When I was only eight years old 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. Of course, I didn’t learn of that disclosure until I was age twenty-one and got to know my father better. The elders did a remarkable job of suppressing the facts and convincing my mother to remain quiet and forgiving, as they compelled my father to change his ways. So my parents remained married. They vowed to stay "in the truth" and continue raising my sister and I together, as they tried to fulfill their roles in 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. My father left the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization shortly after my mother died, when I was twenty-six years old. I maintained a relationship with him despite my being an elder in my own congregation and despite 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 would not speak to him though she only lived five minutes away. He was having health issues from two recent strokes and his medications 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 onto 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 a letter for me that was found in a tool case nearly a year later that he intended to give to me as a gift before his death. It was a brief letter but very powerful. He told me of his being abused sexually by his presiding overseer between ages twelve through sixteen years. He told me of being raped in Bethel by five boys and one overseer. He spoke about being gay. He told me 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 amongst 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 in the morning, 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, they 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 twenty-nine years of age and an elder in my congregation for several years. I found myself missing my sister tremendously. I was missing my mother, as my children were being born, and I was missing my father, even though he was still alive. I was overwhelmed with an endless and exhausting list of congregation, circuit, and district level responsibilities in the Watchtower Society, running my own construction business and providing for my family with three small children. I was unhappy. I was disillusioned with my religion, primarily because of its internal politics specifically from my experiences in Bethel and serving on the Body of Elders. I began to question everything. I became cynical. 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 to search, but it is not easy to take in and accept. In many ways, it felt just as traumatic as losing my mother and father in death. The frustration, the anger, the feeling of being lost or orphaned, the grieving. It is all extremely real and heart-wrenching. I stepped down from being an elder and, before I even knew what fading was, I had begun to gradually taper off in my efforts to be an active Jehovah's Witness. By age thirty-three, I attended no meetings. By age thirty-eight, I attended no assemblies. Age thirty-nine was the last year I attended the memorial and it was the same year my wife of eighteen years left me for an older man, a Jehovah's Witness. It was the same year, in which I fought a nasty divorce and custody battle.
To this day, fifteen years since 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, because these men truly have no power over me and I certainly do not owe them one breath out of my mouth.
I have somehow 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 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 had even moved away from engaging the Ex-Jehovah's Witness community and from continuing any research exposing the Watchtower. That’s when it happened.
One day on the hour long drive home from work and picking my, then eleven-year-old daughter up 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, who was also her maternal grandfather. Through a never-ending stream of tears and a struggle to find her voice, she expressed some horrific details that 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 her grandmother and mother about the abuse ten months previous to that day. They had done nothing and my daughter was feeling ashamed, frustrated and desperate for closure.
Upon arriving home and comforting my daughter, I picked up the phone and called the police station 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 nearly a 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 involvement with the cover up of this former Elder’s abuses, with full intentions of carrying through on civil litigation to find complete justice for the abuses my daughter has survived.
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 junior. She is the S-5 Public Affairs Officer and Staff Sergeant in the JROTC program. She continues to display the qualities, for which she was recognized by the United Way, when they selected her as Character of the Year in Santa Barbara County. She is a leader. She is so wise despite her years. Her aspirations are to help children in a field relating to therapy or psychology.
There are still a lot of crazy details and things 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 age forty-four years, I am struggling to assimilate everything that has transpired in my life. Considering my upbringing and long involvement with a high control religion governed by 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.
However, I do believe in the ones that I love and in those who have shown me that love in return. I am dedicating my life to taking care of them and protecting them the best I can.